I can still remember telling all my friends and family, full of anticipation, that I was going to spend my semester abroad in Mexico. “In Mexico? What are you doing there? What does this country have to offer and isn’t it way too dangerous,” was the most common response. Other reactions were rare, and I have to admit that my insecurity increased with every fearful face that looked at me as I told my story.
When I think back to these conversations, I have to smile. None of these people had ever traveled much in their lives and certainly not near Mexico. So they could only repeat the things they had “heard”.
So what is it “really” like in Mexico? Does the country have more to offer than the famous drug war? Is this country the right choice for a semester abroad? Before I start with my impressions, however, I have to add something that I was allowed to learn myself:
You only learn what a country is really like when you have been there yourself- only when you have tasted the food, gotten to know the people and the culture and perceived the nature with your own eyes. It will be a different experience for everyone, so make your own!
I do not want to concentrate on this negative image, which hovers around Mexico like a thundercloud, and I don’t want to create the illusion that you can move freely and safely in any area of Mexico and at any time of the day or night. Of course, there are areas that are better avoided and times when it is best to be accompanied, but where is it any different these days?
It’s about finding the balance. Don’t be too naive, but don’t be too cautious. Listen to your gut feeling and if you still get into dangerous situations; don’t play the hero.
I wasn’t sure about how afraid I would have to be during my time abroad, and there was a point when I realized that fear can be very helpful in some situations (after all, it contributed to the survival of humanity), but we should limit it to only some situations. Being in constant fear brings nothing but unnecessary anxiety, stress and restlessness.
When I’m asked what I liked most about Mexico, I honestly can’t name a single point. This country is so multifaceted that it is impossible to make comparisons and to rank the highlights. The experiences of 5 months unfortunately do not fit into a telephone call, a conversation or just this article. So I’ll just start with my passion: Food!
The character of Mexican food is: spicy, contains tortilla and … oh yes it is spicy. Really spicy.
For me that didn’t pose a big problem because I love spicy food and was used to it, but with this preference I found myself relatively alone among the foreigners living there.
Fortunately, there is usually the possibility to mention that you don’t like to eat spicy food or to choose between sauces, which are also served with a reference to the different degrees of hotness.
But if you now think that Mexico only has the culinary diversity of its chilies to shine with, you are fundamentally wrong. The dishes in Mexico are totally regional. Almost every state I visited has its own specialties. In Puebla (my university town) “Chile en nogada” is a typical dish. A cooked chili (so, not too hot anymore) filled with potatoes, minced meat, apples and many other incredibly well combined contents, covered with a sweet walnut sauce and sprinkled with fruity pomegranate seeds and coriander. Maybe you’ve already noticed – Yes, I love this dish!!! And not only this one!
For those who like to try something new and appreciate the variety of regional cuisine, Mexico is a paradise. For everyone else; there are tacos everywhere.
Anyone who now thinks that I was only busy enjoying the food during my semester abroad is only almost right.
When my first lecture at the Tecnológico de Monterrey was due to start, I had already attended a welcome event on the huge campus. That, however, didn’t stop my fellow student Hanna and I from honoring our hair color – we managed to choose the wrong auditorium amongst four, to barge into a still running lecture and to sneak quietly out of the class under the gaze of 30 students. And, to top it off, once in the right lecture hall we noticed that our lesson took place a half an hour later. So much to say to our first day.
In our defense I can only point out that the campus of the TEC is about 10 times bigger than that of the EMS. With three different cafeterias, a supermarket, a Starbucks, our own merchandise store, a football field and many other sports facilities as well as the already mentioned four auditoriums with lecture and research halls, you definitely can get lost on the first day.
The size of the university was also not the only difference to the EMS. In examinations, which are based almost exclusively on group work and projects, the German students in particular had to practice patience and stay calm. Mexicans love and celebrate their lives, they are helpful and friendly, but live the moment and set their priorities according to this very principle. This is exactly what can put the intercultural skills of Germans to the test.
However, if you manage to come to terms with the way people work, you can ultimately benefit from the diversity of cultures. The subjects I chose were primarily innovation, product development and entrepreneurship, and one thing has always become clear in every subject: there is no way around sustainable business.
I was extremely surprised and impressed that innovations in the sustainability area for Mexico or other countries were really discussed on an almost a daily basis.
In Mexico there are some problems concerning waste disposal or water supply, for example. The TEC has recognized this and is trying to push for change.
The only change I would have wished for on the part of the TEC would have been more shuttle busses from the university to the surrounding residential areas. I lived in Cholula, a neighborhood just outside Puebla, so I had to take the bus to the university for 30 to 40 minutes. However, we either had the opportunity to take advantage of the shuttle bus service at 8 a.m. or the next one at 2 p.m. (subject to a charge).
As many courses only took place around 11/12 o’clock, some of the international students came to the university together with Uber. If I could decide again today where I would like to live, I would actually choose Cholula again, but not the dormitory where I spent my time. With a gym, rooftops, a cafeteria, a soccer field and a sensational view of the active volcano Popocatéptl, the dorm has a lot to offer, but for about half the money you can live in shared flats with a similar room size.
I already took care of where I would live before I even landed in Mexico (quite German).You can also have a look at the apartments and see what’s right for you once you arrive. So you don’t get into the situation of being bound to a comparatively expensive contract for a complete semester.
Those who still wonder why they should voluntarily live 30 to 40 minutes away from the university probably never heard of Cholula or the Pueblos Mágicos. In Mexico, a Pueblo Mágico describes the places that are considered to be particularly worth seeing from a cultural point of view or because of their beauty. With a huge offer of bars, cafés, restaurants, clubs and the highlight – a church built on a pyramid ruin- one can definitely count Cholula as one of these places.
Pueblos Mágicos are spread all over Mexico and are a really good guide for making decisions when it comes to travel.
During the semester there were offers from Mexican tour operators that focus on students. Most of the time, the tour operators were former students and also the owners of the shared flats. At the house parties you got to know most of them relatively quickly and therefore you always had different possibilities to visit places worth seeing in Mexico without even lifting a finger. This is a very convenient option and of course a little more expensive than taking care of the organization yourself, but it is worth it. Usually the tour operators visited the same attractions with up to two large vehicles, which allowed you to get to know many people quite quickly.. Bus journeys of partly up to 15 hours in order to get to, for example, the beautiful beaches of Puerto Escondido, are only half as painful then.
Mexico also has an excellent bus system with buses that offer more legroom than a premium seat in the economy class of an airplane.
If you’re not sure whether I meant the right thing when I wrote “alone”: Yes. I travelled alone through Mexico. After my last exam was written, I set off from central Mexico to the east coast of Cancún. The journey began with a very good friend from home and led us first through the breathtaking Canyon Sumidero and several waterfalls near the beautiful city of San Cristobal in Chiapas, over the jungle and ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque to the white sandy beaches of Tulum. From there on I was on my own for the first time and I have to say that this was more relaxed than I had imagined. Especially in the states Yucatan and Quintana Roo there were many young travelers who had similar routes and so it was almost certain that your next destination would be a meeting point.
Many of the people I talked to had previously raved about Tulum, but for me personally it was not one of my top destinations. It’s already very touristy there and doesn’t really resemble the Mexico I got to know before.
Therefore, after a detour to the border of Belize, I traveled into the country again and finally to a beautiful artist island near Cancún. There I used my last days to review the months that had passed and to enjoy the sun and the sea one last time before I had to go back to cold Germany shortly before Christmas.
In 5 months there are enough moments where you have time to think and miss your loved ones. I, however,experienced that Mexico embraces you with such warm cordiality that it is really hard to think about the things that are missing because you are given so much to be grateful for.
So today, when someone asks me if I made the right decision a half a year ago, I can only answer this, accompanied by a huge smile:
As I have already mentioned, 5 months doesn’t fit into this article at all. So if you want to ask any questions or share any experiences, you are welcome to write me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit one of the EMS info events to talk to me in person. The next EMS Info Day is on Saturday, February 9th.
I look forward to sharing more with you!