Tag Archives: .SARA

Happy Birthday, Castro

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Warning: After five years of saratreetravels, be prepared for some sentimentality in the post ahead…

In our other travels, we have always arrived home at the beginning of August in order to allow us ample time to prepare for the beginning of university classes. This inevitably meant that we have spent August 13, our wedding anniversary, not only jet-lagged and rather grouchy at being back home instead of in Argentina/Morocco/Mexico, but for whatever cosmic reason has also always resulted in Josh suffering from some kind of illness. Hypothermia, infected leg wounds, travelers’ diarrhea… August 13 has become invariably linked with quality time in the Emergency Department.

This year, with my classes not starting until the end of August and Josh not having to go back to work until September, we realized that August 13 could actually be celebrated while still in the midst of our travels. And not only that, but only after our trip was already booked and we were beginning to research our first few topics for political analysis did we realize that August 13, 2016 was not merely our 5th wedding anniversary, but was also one Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday**… and we would all be celebrating together in Cuba.

August 13 found us in the beautiful clutches of Baracoa. Having rung in our anniversary by dancing until midnight with some new Baracoeses amigos, the perfect anniversary gift was to spend the next day soaking up the unparalleled lazy majesty of Cuban beaches with (you were warned… excuse me for a moment as emotion takes over!) the unparalleled magic that is the company of my travelling partner, fellow passionate scholar and pragmatic idealist, and most importantly, my very best friend.

Anniversary breakfast
(¡Gracias a la querida Ykira por el desayuno perfecto!)
 
Street party that night for Fidel’s 90th… Or was all of Cuba celebrating with us for our anniversary?? 😉
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Joshua, traveling and marriage bring out both the best and worst in someone. And even after 5 years of both (both traveling and marriage, as well as both the best and the worst!), there is no one else I’d rather have by my side as I continue the adventure of building a meaningful, sustainable, community-centered life.

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Epilogue: After a perfect day at the beach, I was swimming towards shore when a clear-green frond suddenly wrapped beneath my ribs and a million razor blades attacked my stomach. As I un-gracefully hurled myself out of the sea and began panicking onshore from the pain, a couple of helpful Cubanos lounging on the beach nodded knowingly in my direction. “Ah, hay aguas malas,” they stated matter-of-factly. “Medusas.” Jellyfish. I suppose after five years, it was my turn for some anniversary trauma!

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**There couldn’t be a more fitting present than this: This also happens to be the 90th post by saratreetravels!! 😀

East: Me ripie como un yare*

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*Baracoesa phrase, literally: “I shredded myself like a leaf.” Hard to explain to a non-Cuban, but this is a very colloquial phrase meaning that one enjoyed oneself a lot at a party.

As we groggily stumbled off our night bus, we were slapped by a sensation we hadn’t felt since arriving in Cuba a week earlier: The hint of a breeze. Make no mistake, it was probably still +30°C at 6:30AM, but there was a freshness in the air, the sweetness of ocean salt that soothed our parched lungs. We clambered into the bicitaxi our host had reserved for us and creakily made our way through the sleepy streets of Baracoa.

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Cuba’s capital of cocoa, Baracoa is a misty, beguiling city that meanders along the coast and invites one to slow down, dig your toes into the silky black sand beaches, squint against the sun melting into El Yunque. In other words, the perfect place to calm one’s soul after the exhausting marble brightness of the inexhaustible Santiago.

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El Yunque, “The Anvil,” Baracoa’s ominous landmark mountain, softly looms over the town
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Morning breakfasts included not only smoky Cuban coffee, but also cups of pure, rich, silky chocolate. ¡Que paraíso!
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Side note: This was Christopher Columbus’ landing point after sailing for months into the inky unknown, and I found it interesting that even at the very cradle of Columbus’ entry to the Americas, it was marked by only one small statue and zero fanfare. And yet it seems an unavoidable topic in the States, cropping up continuously in textbooks, monuments, and even a national holiday. Perhaps more Northern Americans should take their cue from the people living where history actually took place, and realize that this topic does not deserve the relevance it currently enjoys. And now moving on…

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Our days in Baracoa took on a lovely languid quality. Only a ten minute walk from our casa was a delicious black sand beach sprawling the entire length of town. If you followed the beach to the tip of accessible land, you reached a turquoise lagoon, on the other side of which we were promised was hiding a tiny white sand beach.
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At this point, you had a choice. You could wind your way through the palm woods and eventually come to a bridge of shaky single planks stretching to connect to the outstretched fingertip of the fishing village across the bay. Or, you could strike up a conversation with a fisherman who then offers to row you across the lagoon in his tiny boat.

We opted for the latter.
Friendly rowing fisherman

Playa Blanquita
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Since our mysterious fisherman was nowhere to be found on our return trip, we meandered through the village and crossed via the bridge, which was in itself an adventure:
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That evening at dinner, our friendly waiter not only delivered excellent service, but also a proposal: “You can’t get to know Baracoa if you stay in town,” he insisted. “I can get a car and take you into the mountains to see beautiful natural lakes… And La Reina de Cacao.” Now he had our attention. We couldn’t visit Cuba’s cocoa capital without meeting the Queen of Cocoa, could we?

So, bright and early the next morning, we met back at the restaurant and piled into a cab with Félix and Yolis, our newfound Baracoeses tour guides. The day was spent rowing through canyons to discover freshwater pools hidden deep in the mountains, feasting on fresh seafood caught that afternoon by Félix’s buddy, and, yes – visiting La Reina de Cacao in her kingdom.

La Boca de Yumurí: According to historical tradition, the Guamá people jumped off the canyon shouting, “Yo moriré!” (I will die!) rather than succumb to Spanish colonial rule. Centuries later, the canyon and river are still known as “Yumuri” in their honour.
Canyon Yumuri

Swimming at Yumuri

Walking through La Boca

Josh making friends with our lunch
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Young cocoa plants (looking NOTHING like we had imagined!)
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Dissimilar to our familiar brown powdered “cocoa” in every way, cocoa plants contain a white lychee-like jelly surrounding the raw beans
Tasting cocoa

La Reina de Cacao en su reino
Reina de Cacao

When Félix and Yolis realized our fifth wedding anniversary was the next day, they insisted that we ring in the occasion by dancing until midnight. 12:00 found us at La Terraza, Baracoa’s one and only night club, salsa-ing to “Ah-ah-ah-ah… Hasta que se seque el Malecón” (one of Cuba’s five essential songs) and toasting the beginning of five years of marital adventures with Cuba Libres and our newfound Baracoeses amigos.

And as per usual, the adventures would just keep on coming… 🙂

Silhouettes on beach

The Town That Rum Built

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Before coming to Cuba, it was my goal to somehow find a singular book that would finally make sense of Cuba’s long history. Our entire trip was irrevocably changed for the better when I stumbled upon Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: A Biography of a Cause. It’s a hefty piece of text (360-some pages), but I cannot more highly recommend this book for anyone travelling to, or even considering starting a conversation about, Cuba.

Every other book I tried to read picked up somewhere in the middle of the last Revolution, assuming that you were either already well aware of or simply didn’t care about the decades of revolution, culture, policy, and coups that had set the stage for La Revolución in which Cubans are currently living. Gjelten’s Bacardi, however, begins in the 1400s with a vivid description of Hatuey, the Tainó chief who refused to convert to Christianity and so was burned at the stake by colonial missionaries (and much later had the Bacardí beer named in his honour).

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Cerveceria

The book then traces the political history of Cuba to present day by following a single family, the Bacardís, who were intimately involved in every sphere of Cuban politics. It’s a work of history that reads like a novel, bringing revolutionary characters to life in a way that illuminates the heroic, the ugly, and the impossible choices at either extreme of the political spectrum. Above all, it illuminates the need for a third political space, for a blending of capitalistic competition and socialist community in order to bring the most success to all economic spheres of a country.

After both reading this book (and un gran aplauso for my notoriously slow reader of a husband who actually got it done before we left!), there was no doubt in our minds that our trip needed to begin in Santiago de Cuba, the original capital city of Cuba and the originating site of nearly every catalytical event in the Cuba we see today.

We arrived in Santiago after a 15-hour night bus, the first of many ridiculous travel days in and out of Santiago. We properly initiated ourselves to the city by spending our first afternoon at the Bacardi Museum, which, contrary to what its name suggests, is not a museum about rum (though don’t worry, there IS one of those just down the street!). Instead, it was the pet project of Emilio Bacardí in his role as mayor of Santiago, designed to bring a sense of civic pride and culture to his beloved city. The museum houses a lovely — if somewhat eclectic — collection of Spanish and Cuban art (including numerous sculptures by Mimin Bacardí), indigenous archeological artifacts, and our personal favourite: the Egyptian mummy that Emilio and his wife had specifically gone to Egypt to fetch (the book describes him as “having always wanted an Egyptian mummy…” because, well, don’t we all?), declaring it at customs as “dried meat.”

p1150252Upon arriving back in Santiago from Santo Domingo (read about that here & here), with quads screaming and a heel missing, we were out the door the next day by 10AM and didn’t stop walking until 6PM. Our first stop was the Cementario Santa Ifigenia, final resting place of illustrious figures such as the fallen of the 26 of July movement, los Bacardís, Compay Segundo, and José Martí, one of Cuba’s most inspired revolutionary voices.

Monument to José Martí, the Cuban national hero whose poetry united the Cuban people towards revolution and independence.

 

Crypt of Cespedes, the revolutionary land owner who freed his slaves in a move that ignited the Cuban war for independence against Spain
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Some very familiar names at this point in our travels
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We stopped for a moment of precious shade beneath a tree, where a friendly guard struck up a conversation with us, showing us around the graves, explaining the differences between “colectivo” graves of the poor and the “particular” crypts of rich families. He was a military veteran, having fought in Angola, and showed us his future spot in the colectivo wall of the Panteon de los Soldados.

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He then beckoned us over and showed us a tiny square in a vast concrete wall, one of thousands of colectivo cremated remains, but this one with a name and date hand-scrawled in black paint across the front. It was his brother’s grave, who had died suddenly only a year ago. His brother was one of the lucky ones with someone left who remembered to write his name. For all the famous graves contained in that beautiful place, that small grey square sitting on a weedy patch of parched grass at the back of the cemetery became the most sacred spot.

Burnt and thoughtful, we left el Cimentario and soon realized we were very close to another memorial of sorts: the former Bacardí distillery, nationalized in the sixties. From all my reading, I knew to keep looking past the giant red building now used as a national distillery, and across the railway tracks I suddenly glimpsed the familiar name on a concrete arch nearly worn away by years of scorching sun.

It was astounding to stand on the very spot where the former mayor of Santiago had built an empire in order to bring prosperity and stability to his beloved Cuba. Unfortunately, like most family empires (and like most revolutions!), there were some moments and characters that were more respectable than others in the Bacardí story. But as a whole, the Bacardís during the revolution era brought not only innovative business reform to Cuba on an international level, but also sweeping social reforms to their city and to business principles as a whole.

Frustratingly, the Bacardí-Castro story is one of so many “what ifs.” What if Castro had recognized that private business owners could also hold revolutionary socialists ideals, and allowed them more freedom in the day to day operations of their companies while still holding them to the cooperative ownership and accountability of the new revolution? What if the Bacardi empire had continued to focus on their passion for both an independant Cuba and a successful rum company, rather than allowing their energies to be completely consumed by taking down Castro at any cost? Driven by petty personal loss (because let’s be clear: the financial “losses” garnered by the Bacardi empire after the Revolucion still allowed the family members villas in Spain as well as mansions in Flordia – not exactly a crushing financial collapse), the Bacardí family chose to support a Republican party whose policy included bringing Cuba back under American control: the very thing that both the Bacardí family and the Revolución spent their lives fighting against.

Rum barrel

Santiago de Cuba is a hot and crowded city, crowded with generations of individual memories bristling against the collective shape of the city’s place in national history. It is an important and fascinating city, but also an exhausting one. There seems to be no place to rest, no tranquilo corner where one can be refreshed and filled with a new sense of impudence to face another day. It was in search of this rest that Josh and I packed our bags, apologized to our defeated feet, and sleepily went to station to wait out our bus to Baracoa.

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First Impressions 

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We arrived in Cuba after a seemingly impossibly short flight… well, an impossibly short flight preceded by a classic Josh and Sara route involving a 16 hour road trip with our roommates to the Traverse City Film Festival, a Real Madrid vs. Chelsea football match in Ann Arbor, Michigan, some intense archery and cake auctions and Gravitron shenanigans with Josh’s siblings at the Alma County Fair, and a quick road trip to Toronto with my wonderful mother in law.

Pasties in the Yoopee
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Josh and his mom… alias the Pres-B-Rapperz (please, please ask Josh for a repeat performance!)
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¡Hola Cuba!
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With our only direct flight option being to fly into Varadero, our plan was to arrive there at 1:30PM and get out of there as fast as possible. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of opinions surrounding Cuba, and we were no exception. We had placed Varadero firmly into the category of tourist kitsch, brimming with resorts, overpriced key chains, and restaurants proudly advertising English-speaking servers. However, the vagaries of buying Cuban bus tickets online meant that the only bus that would bring us directly to Santiago de Cuba had us spending the next nine hours in Kitschityville Horror.

Resigned to our fate, we found a friendly Swiss guy to share a cab to the bus station from the airport (he was actually on his way to visit a friend in Vancouver, but as a flight with a 12 hour layover in Cuba was the same price, he had decided to hang out in Cuba for the day), found a guarda-equipaje for our bags (in other words, for $2CUC, we stood them behind the chair of friendly cleaning lady in the bus station), and then we ventured onto the streets of Varadero…

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…And two blocks behind the bus station, found the most glorious white sand beach, sprinkled with only a few sunbathing bodies and a generous serving of reggaeton. Up the street from the water was a neighbourhood dotted with restaurants, where we received our inauguration to Cuba’s frustratingly charming habit of handing you a hefty menu while rapidly reciting the few choices that are actually available. (Side note: My favourite game while dining is now witnessing Josh’s unfailing optimism/denial* as he asks about a different dish that the waiter didn’t mention but perhaps may still be available, and then watching both the waiter’s and Josh’s faces fall into bemusement as the available menu options are repeated.)

Our unexpected welcome to Varadero
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Our resolve to consume only bottled water products lasted exactly how long it took us to realize that all cocktails contained ice cubes. So far, so good! 😉
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Ron de 3 años y Añejo de 7 años. 0.70 cents and $1.20 respectively
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While “No hay!” (We don’t have it!) is indeed ubiquitous in Cuban restaurants, the promises of apathetic service and bland food simply do not deliver. Avocados, spiced tomatoes, tender beef, fresh seafood, tropical fruit, and of course, the classic (and classically named) rice-and-bean dish “Cristianos y Moros” — literally Christians and Muslims — are served in huge quantities by generally smiling waitstaff

So what have we gathered so far? That some sections of Varadero are undeniably kitschy and removed from Cuban reality, while others are definitely not. That some food and certain sabores are lacking in Cuban restaurants, while others are most definitely not. And that some Cubans work in jobs they are not suited for and could care less about, while others (…following me yet?) definitely do not.

When there is a single and controversial political ideal that unites a country, it can be tempting to assign all responsibility for the small faults and annoyances in a country to that ideal. But with excruciating honesty, we admit that in our own country there is merchandise that is occasionally unavailable (I worked at Blockbuster on Friday nights, I saw the madness that ensued when we were out of Little Man!) and service that is occasionally the absolute worst (anyone else remember the terrifying Sub Zero lady?)

Yes, la Revolución has caused some difficulties, as further days of travel and future blog posts will uncover. But in our first few hours in Cuba, we happily discovered that first impressions can make a big impression on unfounded opinions.

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*Editor’s note: While Sara has indeed derived much entertainment from my interaction with waitstaff, optimism/denial are not entirely accurate. Example 1: when you order pizza on the side of the road and the guy asks “cheese?”, it is not unreasonable to ask “oh, what else is there?” If he had simply said “cheese” — full stop — I would have accepted that that was the singular option and that, for some reason, he felt the need to state that. Example 2: when the waitress takes your order for pork, then asks if you want rice with a side of pork, I can not be alone in thinking that clarification is needed, amiright??**

**(Turns out no clarification was needed. I was, in fact, being offered pork with a side of rice and pork.)

Collision 

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After finishing my official month at the hospital, I stayed on in Tuxtla for another ten days with my family, enjoying the freedom to sleep in, help out around the house, and await Josh’s arrival in Chiapas. After nearly five weeks of living on my own, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the thought of living as a couple once again. My time alone in Tuxtla had taught me an incredible amount about myself that I simply would not have learned in the same way if I was traveling with someone else. From the seemingly mundane (but for me, actually quite revolutionary!) lesson of learning to appreciate and even enjoy technology, to the possibly life-altering opportunity of being forced to work in both the ER and Pediatrics, to the maddeningly frustrating yet impossibly proud moments of having to depend solely on my own Spanish skills for communication, to the terrifying yet indescribably rewarding moments of having to depend solely on my own social skills for friendship… Because of experiences like these, I’ve always found it incredibly valuable to spend some time apart from each other, continuing to build our individual lives, and then also adding all the new lessons and challenges learned as individuals to our shared married life.

But as amazing as travelling alone can be, and as amazing as married life can be, the truth is that the transition between the two can be tricky. However, the Tuxtlayork crew were incredible (as they tend to be) at immediately welcoming Josh into our group and planning a week full of activities to show off our beloved Chiapas. As the experienced Chiapeneca, I got to play hostess to Josh, instructing him in the art of combi-riding, introducing him to the wonders of the Cañón del Sumidero, and ensuring that he was well-versed in the flavours of Tuxtla, including my favourites of michelada and tascalate. With Tuxtlayork, we returned to Sancris for a final weekend, and from Sancris, left on a twelve-hour round trip to seek out some of Chiapas’ maravillas:

Sancris 4.0: Columbian arepas, Mercado de dulces, & Maya Vinic fairtrade coffee!
Arepas!!
Dulces
Yes, that’s a chingón of souvenirs!
Maya Vinic

Las cascadas de Agua Azul
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Agua Azul

Misol-Ha (where Josh beat us back to the bus by swimming across, rather than walking):
Misol-Ha

Palenque: site of Mayan King Pakal’s legendary reign
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Site of torture and subsequent decapitation of criminals (yep, the torture seems gratuitous)
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With all our exchanges coming to an end around the same time, our final few days in Tuxtla were a blur of goodbye dinners and tearful hugs. We kept each other positive by talking about next summer – Sandra was going into her final year of medicine, so we decided a combination celebration/reunion was absolutely essential. The only question remaining is in which country it will be held!

Jammin’ … classic setlist of Radiohead, Romeo Santos, Fall Out Boy, and Heathen Eve originals
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Despedida 1.0 😦
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Marimba lessons from the experts
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Beautiful farewell dinner (complete with Mexican sushi!) with our host families
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Far sooner than I was ready for, it was our turn to be dropped off at the Tuxtla airport to catch our flight to Cancún and continue the next leg of our Mexican adventure. Thankfully, the airport was tiny enough that we could disregard all the PASSENGERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT warnings, and Valeria and Valeria escorted us with besos and a running photo-documentary all the way to the security checkpoint… at which point our final hugs were supervised by armed guards and the Valerias were then escorted back to the waiting area.

Despedida 2.0 😦 😦
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No es un adiós, es solamente un ¡Hasta pronto! a mi querida Chiapas.
And for the moment, es un ¡Hola! a Quintana Roo

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Tuxtlayork

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After a week settling into my new Mexican home, I was informed that another exchange student from Columbia would be arriving the next day, hosted by my host’s best friend (conveniently also named Valeria). As I tend to be, I was leery about introducing someone new into my comfortable Mexican life… but (as is so often the case), I should never have worried. Sandra “La Columbiana” arrived in full force the next morning, flooding Mexico with “usted” (the respectful form of address is used almost exclusively in Columbia, even between dating couples) and exclamations of “chiquitico” and “poquitico” (the Columbian diminutive form manages to be even more adorable than the standard Spanish diminutive).

Warm, generous, wildly affectionate and wickedly hilarious, Sandra was a welcome addition to my exchange experience. From our first day spent together exploring the many parks of Tuxtla, it was evident that the four of us fit comfortably together, and rarely a day or night passed without us going out for micheladas, going out dancing, or sleeping over at one of the Valeria’s houses.

La Marimba, Chiapas’ signature sound, de la Parque Chiapasonate   

Getting pulled into a sexy catwalk/dance contest hosted by a clown in the park. After some Ukrainian Baptist dance moves that I believe only thoroughly bewildered the crowd, La Canada won second place! My prize? A light-up hippo keychain and a heart balloon.    

The next week, we found out that one more exchange student would be joining Tuxtla for the summer – a chico from Venezuela who was studying medicine in España. We went to his SCOPE welcome dinner more out of curiosity than anything: he was a research student while the rest of us were clinical students, and he would be living on his own by the university campus instead of with a host family, so the expectation of seeing him regularly was low.

However, Andrés had the definition of buena onda, the Latino description for that indescribable quality possessed by truly genuine people that irresistibly attracts you to them. Impulsively, we invited him out with us the next night for more micheladas… which turned into a uninterrupted string of beautiful days and impossibly fun nights together.

In all the roads I have travelled, las cascadas de Aguacero is the most breathtakingly beautiful place I have ever seen   

Enjoying pollo asado for lunch after miraculously keeping it dry walking through the falls  

Reina de la cascada! 😛 (gracias a Valeria para encontrar mi corona jajaja)            

It wasn’t only the insane weekends spent dancing until 6AM in Sancris that made our time together unforgettable (although those certainly helped 😉 ). It was also the mornings after dancing, when we’d go out for breakfast empanadas at noon in the Mercado de los Dulces and argue about body image and health education in our respective countries. It was the long afternoons in Andrés’ apartment, watching Amityville Horror (not my choice, I assure you!!), eating Rockoleta chili suckers, and discussing our countries’ views on homosexuality, our own views on sexuality in general, and all the social/political/religious/personal elements that affect our relationships whether we want them to or not. It was sharing stories about taking night shift at the hospital, our agreements and disagreements regarding doctors’ bedside manner, our arguments about antibiotic use. It was the twelve hours round-trip to Palenque that we spent crammed in a combi together, careening through the jungle and tipping precariously over mountain cliffs, trying to sleep wrapped around each other like the canned tunafish we shared for supper on the road. It was the long afternoons spent lying on Valeria’s bed, sharing pictures from our incredible day and stupid memes on Whatsapp.

While out dancing at a club in Tuxtla, we got our photo taken for a local pop culture magazine. Apparently I’m a bigger deal in Mexico than in Winnipeg!

Sancris 2.0
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Afternoon sliding fun at Rancho Nuevo with new Sancris friends
  

Sancris 3.0: Midnight birthday celebrations with more wonderful new friends  

“Hay figuras…” Informative and hilarious guided tours through Las Grutas by local kids    

This is the golden reward of an exchange. Unlike, say, a conference, where you have the opportunity to talk to people of different backgrounds and cultures, but only for an isolated moment in time; an exchange gives you the gift of actually living and breathing and eating together in a real snapshot of your life. Having the gift of time allows you to spend time doing absolutely nothing together, thus cultivating a level of comfort that paves the ground for even more genuine conversations. And surprisingly, it is the in-between times, the times between ridiculous adventures and intense conversations, where you learn the unexpected things about yourself and others that you can both laugh at and challenge each other on.

We were five individuals of different ages, skin colours, faith backgrounds, language backgrounds, travel histories, sexuality, and definitions of family. One of us can’t handle spicy food. One of us doesn’t drink. One overuses antibiotics. One didn’t know what cystic fibrosis was. One of us was terrible with changes of plan. One was terrible with punctuality. We were all medical students, all determined to improve the health of our world around us in some way, with different resources at our fingertips, different supports at our back, different goals in front of us. And wherever we went next, we would all be immutably changed by our time spent together in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico.

Valeria, Valeria, Sandra, y Andrés, como podría describir la importancia de su amistad en mi vida? De nuestros conversaciones, de las historias de sus vidas, del tiempo que pasamos juntos, he aprendido un chingón de cosas de ustedes que van a cambiar mi vida por siempre! Muchísimas gracias para desafiar mis pensamientos y me daban apoyo y amor cuando lo necesitaba. Tienen siempre una casa y una amiga loca en Canadá! Los quiero muchísimos, mis bebés, y los extraño. #Cancún2016!!

“UPED” is also a 4-letter word…

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I have a confession to make: I have no desire whatsoever to blog.

I feel so at home here in Tuxtla that it’s easy to forget I’m supposed to be a traveller. The truth is, I’m not travelling anymore – I have my home here, a job to go to every day, friends I can make plans with, public transit I’m comfortable taking, new cellphone chargers to buy when mine dies. It’s only when I consider blogging that I remember my time here is temporary, and as a result, I have been avoiding this blog like the plague.

However, with the month drawing to a close, it is becoming difficult to ignore the fact that I have another life in Canada, and when I return to that life, I know I’ll want these blog posts to remind me of my home in Mexico!

Centro medico

Let’s backtrack a minute to A Day in the Life of el Estudiante Sarita, and to that fateful comment posted by a faithful reader: “Your new position doesn’t make for as harrowing a blog post but it sounds much better for you – way to go on suggesting a switch.”

Now, let’s fast-forward to a week after I had comfortably settled into my routine in Pediatria. On Friday afternoon, after my regular debriefing with la Doctora, I kissed her good-bye and told her I’d see her on Monday, to which she responded, “Oh, I won’t be here on Monday – I’m leaving for holidays for the next 2 weeks!”

… say what?

I bemusedly contacted Lizeth, my exchange coordinator, informing her that my placement would need to change yet again, and somehow she worked rapid magic and found me a placement for the next week.

Remember my comment from my first week, about how I had little interest in Emergency and even less in Pediatrics? Well, the fates decided that I was giving up on both too soon, and I was to report the next work day to …
*drumroll please*

Las Urgencias Pediatricas Emergency Department (UPED).

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Note the makeshifts tent set up along the gates, where people sleep while waiting for news about their family members
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Upon arrival, I was introduced to Miguel, an incredibly kind if incredibly fast-talking interno (Year 5 of 6 in Mexican medical education). Our introductions were suddenly interrupted by shouting behind us, as the doctor doing rounds engaged in a heated debate with a nurse and a resident regarding a discrepancy in patient care. I have never heard so many creative variations of groserías as I heard coming from that doctor’s mouth. As his tirade was winding down, Miguel nudged me. “Go introduce yourself to that loco,” he whispered. “That’s your supervising doctor.”

Hesitantly, I approached the doctor, who was, self-admittedly, completely loco and not one to mince words when he felt his staff was slacking off. But he was also an amazing doctor, devoted to his patients and passionate about improving their level of care and his staff’s skill level. He warmly greeted me, and instructed Miguel to provide me with every possible opportunity to learn during my time in UPED.

UPED

Miguel took this to heart and took me under his wing, immediately walking me through the process of how to take a patient history for new entries, how to fill out a lab req, and where to drop off blood samples (Quick reminder: This is all in Spanish. Oy vey, my ears were bleeding from trying so hard to listen and absorb everything!) However, as Miguel and I were taking down the patient history of a 6-year old with a ruptured appendix, there was another flurry of activity as the surgeon came striding into the ER – there was a 3-year old with a perforated intestine requiring even more emergent surgery, and I was informed that I was to accompany them into surgery.

I do not know how much more clearly I could have stated, “I HAVE NO CLINICAL EXPERIENCE IN SURGERY. I HAVE NEVER SEEN A SURGERY BEFORE.” Before I knew it, I was on the surgical ward, changing into Miguel’s borrowed surgical scrubs and frantically trying to listen to how I was to scrub my hands and what to do with the surgical booties and where to stand so I wouldn’t contaminate everything. The surgical resident was extremely personable if extremely brusque, and as he was unpacking the sterile trays, he showed me each instrument and told me its name. I tried to absorb as much as possible, but since he was only showing me everything once and since I was very clear that it was the first time in my life I had ever seen these things – in English OR Spanish – I was assuming this experience was more of a bonus teaching session.

Assume nothing. Behind us was the operating table with the tiny patient already anesthethized, and within minutes, the surgeon was on one side of the table, the resident on the other, and I, the first-year exchange student, was beside the resident as the instrumentist for the surgery.

Pardon my Spanish, but ¡¿QC?!

Long story short: They quickly realised I meant it when I said I had no surgical experience, and another resident was called in to act as instrumentist. Once the resident took over as instrumentist and I was able to simply observe the surgery (which was all I wanted to do in the first place!), I was in awe. This was (as I have mentioned many times!), the first surgery I have ever seen, and it was beautiful. Watching the surgeon delicately slice through each layer of tissue, cauterizing the edges of the cut to control the bleeding, that distinctive smell in the air, the metres of intestines that literally came ballooning out of the body once they were freed from their confined space… The human body is incredible, amazing, miraculous, and powerful, and to see it exposed so carefully was a true gift.

(Speaking of gifts, the surgery occurred on my sister’s birthday, and I kept wondering what her reaction would be if she were in the room :P)

Once the perforation was corrected by resectioning 20 cm of intestine (which were handed to me with the instructions, “Guardalo.”) and a stoma made in the side of the patient, the pinch-hitter resident and the surgeon left me and the original resident alone to sew up the incisions. And I kid you not – completely scrubbed up with only our eyes visible, standing on opposite sides of a draped patient with a gaping open abdomen, with my finger acting as an anchor for the stitches holding the abdominal wall together – the resident casually started to flirt with me. Oh, los Mexicanos!!

Once the incision was closed and cleaned, the resident left to chart and the nurse handed me a plastic bottle containing the 20 cm of intestine, and asked me to go prepare it in formaldehyde. I wandered into the hall, clutching my intestine bottle, and eventually found some very nice healthcare aides who took me to a jug of formaldehye sitting in the hallway and helped me syringe in enough to cover the sample. At this point, the resident had me fill out a Pathology report, then instructed me to go change. In the change room, juggling my borrowed scrubs, the Path report, the intestine, and a can of Coke the resident insisted on buying for me, I had a brief out-of-body experience and wanted to break into uncontrollable laughter.

Instead, I changed and met the resident in the ICU, where he proceeded to hand the intestine bottle to the patient’s mother, informed her that here was what had caused the problem, and pointed her to her daughter’s bed. He then turned to me and said, “Well, quieres una otra Coka?”

El tor de Chiapas

That was my first day in las Urgencias Pediatrias. And though I frantically reviewed and quizzed myself on all surgical instruments that night, I did not go back into the OR. Instead, the rest of my time in the hospital was spent finally being useful. I was comfortable enough with the layout of the hospital and in my lanugage skills to actually be able to type up patient charts, collect lab results, fill out reqs, and drop off samples at the lab, even understanding when there was an issue with one of the reqs and being able to correct it myself without having to bother an intern. The UPED staff were incredible to work with – so patient with my language skills and constantly finding things they could teach me how to do so I could do them myself. Los internos invited me to stay on for la guardia (night shift) one night, and it was very satisfying to be further included as a part of their team.

Friday was my last day in the hospital, and when one of the doctors found out, he started giving the interns a hard time, “Where’s her cake? It’s la canadiense’s last day, of course we need a cake!” I laughed it off as a joke, but sure enough, later in the day, Miguel came running in with a bakery box, and soon the entire UPED staff was gathered in the break room, toasting me as I cut the cake.

Gracias por el pastel, Dr. Keeven!

Los estimados doctores del UPED
UPED doctores

La buena gente del UPED 🙂
Internos de UPED

To make it a truly authentic Urgencias fiesta, after about 10 minutes of relaxing together, another doctor came running in, shouting, “There’s a head injury outside, the patient is seizuring!” With this, everyone shoved the last bite of cake in their mouth and bolted outside.

My time in Mexico has taught me too many things to count. But possibly the most surprising, and the most potentially life-changing, is that as much as I cannot believe I am about to admit this…

I love Peds. and I love Emerg.

And I have no idea where I will end up next!

Outside the hospital