The Mezcal, Mountains and Magic of Mexico

One of the most fascinating things about language is that it is not only a means of communication but also a reflection of a country’s culture. In the first part of my year abroad, the Parisians were shocked that the English used ‘bon appetit’ to wish everyone an enjoyable meal. The recurring question was ‘but what’s your expression?’ Maybe the fact that we don’t have a neat phrase reflects the terrible English cuisine, a Parisian suggested. Maybe he was correct. Having spent two months in San Cristóbal de las Casas nestled in Mexico’s most southern state, it is impossible not to pick up specifically Mexican vocabulary. I have grown fond of the idea that my language is being shaped by the place I’m living in. Amongst the slang, the word ‘ahorita’ has crept into my everyday vocabulary. ‘Ahorita’ is the evolution of the Spanish word ‘ahora’ which means ‘now’. Ahorita is a vague time frame that takes away all responsibility of arriving on time. If someone says they are going to meet you ahorita it could mean in two minutes, two hours or two days time. Don’t hang around; it’s Mexican time.

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After my love affair with Mexico last summer, I swapped the bright lights of Paris and returned to the lively streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas, one of Mexico’s cities with ‘pueblo mágico’ status. Working in ‘La Terraza Hostel’ I had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, all corners of the world, all ages, yet all with a common interest in Mexican culture. Beyond the transcient traveller friends I made in the hostel, the people who shaped my two months in San Cristóbal were our local friends, ‘la banda’ with whom we shared many a mezcal. It was a tug to leave what became our home away from home.

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From our travels in Mexico so far, something that continues to strike me is the fusion of modern Mexico and prehispanic culture. Mexico has a rich history that stretches way back before the Spanish conquest. Beautiful Mayan and Aztec pyramids of huge archaeological importance loom like beautiful shrines to the past all over southern Mexico.  Mayan tradition was brought alive during my trip to San Juan Chamula, a unique church just outside of San Cristóbal that demonstrates a fusion of Catholicism and Mayan religion. The experience is an assault on the senses, the smell of pine needles and incense, the light and heat of thousands of candles, the sounds of Mayan prayer and chickens squawking ready for sacrifice.

The synthesis of religions in San Juan Chamula particularly interested me because I found it a difficult and slightly uncomfortable concept to understand that the same place of worship could incorporate the Catholic worship of one God, and the prehispanic worship of multiple gods.  In prehispanic society there was a spiritual focus on the elements; earth, wind, fire and water. We experienced this during our ‘temazcal’ in San José del Pacífico. A temazcal is a prehispanic spiritual ceremony that takes place in a sauna that resembles a clay igloo. It was used in Mesoamerica to purify the mind, body and spirit. Our three-hour ceremony was extremely intense, made more powerful by the breath-taking views of the Sierra Sur and the mystical full moon overhead.

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It was very difficult for me to put into a six hundred word newspaper article everything that I have enjoyed, seen, experienced and learnt in this beautiful country with out sounding like an extract from lonely planet. The magic of Mexico is not only in it’s spectacular landscapes but also in it’s rich culture and beautiful people. Mexico has been my gateway to Latin American culture, and I hope to return to this part of the world after university. All I can say is that I will return home in August with much more than a tragic traveller’s nose ring and a generic South American jumper.

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