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University of Copenhagen art history student Stephanie unravels the different strands of Mexico
They say Mexico has four stories: One the government wants you to believe, one the universities wants to teach you, one the foreigners wants to explain you – and one you have to discover for yourself.
When I first came to Mexico in January to study Mexican art at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla, I had no idea what to expect. Shortly before my departure from Denmark,42 protesting students had been abducted by the police in a neighbouring state, Guerrero,only to disappear from the surface of the earth.
It would be understatement to say that I was a little nervous. However, I arrived to the beautiful campus of UDLAP on a warm, sunny day. The historic buildings surrounded by blooming flowerbeds felt like a warm welcome. I was surprised to find the university very well organised: Teachers and international offices are always at your service and the university offers a variety of restaurants, a huge library and a free fitness centre.
The campus feels like a safe haven should the outside world become too overwhelming. The university is placed in Cholula, almost a suburb to the big city Puebla, capital in the state of Puebla. Cholula is an old beautiful city with roots in the indigenous culture. Here you will find the second biggest pyramid in the world, disguised as a hill, upon which the Spanish conquerors built the baroque church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, overlooking the astonishing active volcano of Popocatépetl that each day sends white clouds to the sky.
Life at the university has the pleasant danger of seeming like one long vacation: The food served at the many of restaurants in Cholula is cheaper than cooking yourself and absolutely delicious, so you will probably go out dining very often. Every weekend local travel agencies arrange trips to all parts of the land, so you can get your inner explorer satisfied, and every weekend the street next to the university lit up in lights and music so you can dance till theearly morning.
Fortunately, I had the luck of having some very stimulating classes on Mexican culture and artto keep me from drifting away into the eternal summer of the Cholula nightlife.
My most essential experience of Mexican culture is that it is self-contradictory to the bone and and you can’t expect all situations to be approached the same way as in European (but then again, why travel if you expect tings to be the same?). Where systems here in Denmark tend to be structured by reason and people in general tend to mind their own business, things in Mexico seems to rely on chaos-theory and the people are as bad tempered as they are incredibly kind and welcoming.
Also most people here have no sense of personal space, which can be quite a challenge for a Dane. Moreover they are incredibly proud – of their culture but also of themselves. You will probably feel a little frustrated when the fruit seller on the corner ends up giving you wrong directions, simply because it would be rude to admit that he has absolutely no idea.
And the contradictions are just as present in the macro-level. For example: On one hand the government promotes the folk and indigenous culture as the grand pride of Mexican cultural inheritance, as many old cities and archaeological sites have been elected world heritage by the UNESCO (like the beautiful historic centre of Puebla only 20 min. away). The Mexicans culturally identify more with the Aztecs than with the Spanish conquistadors, from whom they mostly descend.
On the other hand, the actual living indigenous people live in extreme poverty as social outcasts, almost unable to enter the modern society of Mexico. As a student from Denmark, it can be difficult to be confronted with such extreme social injustice.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t trade my exchange for anything in the world. I feel so enriched in experience and new knowledge and would recommend it to anyone looking for a wider perspective.
I have danced at salsa clubs with live music till 3 in the morning on a school night, I have eaten fried grasshoppers and fruits I had never heard about, I have sit on a back of a truck driving though mountain sceneries and snorkelled with majestic sea turtles. I have been to an unbelievably rainy wedding in beautiful San Miguel de Allende, shopped colourful artesanias (artware) in Oaxaca and tried to experience the infinite number of museums in Mexico City.
I have also been sick from the fast changing weather of Cholula and as a girl been confronted with the ever so thriving macho-culture – and still, I am in love with this country and its richness of culture.
Here you make friends by just saying ‘hi’ on the street and you get a tan just from walking to school. You wake up at 2 in the morning because a mariachi band is playing serenades down the street in the moonlight and you buy tamales (baked corn bread) for breakfast on your way home on a warm spring morning.
So be warned: You will fall in love too.
Should you choose to study in Mexico, this is my advice to you:
– Expect a culture-clash and embrace it with a smile.
– Eat as much food out as you possibly can – it’s beyond this world! Moletes, tacos and flautas
are always a safe bet.
– Accept that the Mexicans run on MMT: Mexican-Maybe-Time. It will spare you a lot of
– Enjoy the sunshine.
– Travel as much as you can – it will show you that every corner of every place has its own
secret treasures. But be safe.
– Treasure every moment. Whether good or bad it will teach you something about a culture so
very different from you own.
– Remember: Nothing will be as you expect, and that when you go home, you will not be the same.
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