One of my topics here during my TEFL teaching has been ‘The body’. Introduced with a classic rendition of ‘The hokey pokey’ (in England we say cokey - not pokey - but they insisted on this crazy version instead) followed by three lessons for different levels of English-learners on body parts, how the body works and the senses. The senses lesson for the older group really stuck with me for some reason and it made me realise just how much my own senses had been on alert since arriving here in early January.
Sometimes Mexico can feel like a bit of an attack on the senses and before you take it as a criticism remember I live in a quiet village in West Dorset, and most things for me feel like an attack on the senses, like an angry bumble bee or a particularly high pollen count!
The vibrancy of colour is everywhere - as if they don’t even sell grey or beige paint in DIY stores here, or if they do it’s definitely NOT in fashion. I have seen houses and shops in every colour imaginable and this continues into the flora and fauna too. Bright mauve and purple Jacaranda trees line the streets here in Tehuacan and countless other streets in Mexico. Their glowing purple flower heads, falling softly as you walk along the dislodged pavement. The sunlight here plays a huge part on bringing everything to life; the outlines of colourful houses, the silhouettes of trees, even a pile of dust and rubbish look more magical with the Mexican sun looming over them. In fact when there is a rare day with heavy cloud or rain - like the downpour we had yesterday - did feel really odd in this landscape, even if it did leave a nice resonance of home.
On every corner and I mean EVERY corner there is a taco stand or a group of young women, laughing and joking, selling elotes. The smells are fragrant, earthy and spicy! Chorizo sizzles away in huge black metal pan over gas canisters whilst street vendors call out orders and ask whether people want Queso de Oaxaca with their Cemita - and of course, the answer is and should always be YES! There is also an abundance of dogs and naturally with dogs come dog poop and ripped open bags of rubbish. So walking under a fragrant flowering tree before leap over a pile of dog shit and dusty taco boxes is an thrilling combination, which can get tiresome sometimes as can the dust! There are times when my nose craves the smell of a lush green Dorset cliff top by the Sea, but I know there will be other times to enjoy this!
Walking through the market is like hovering a bouquet of Tehuacan under your perched nostrils. Quesadillas with courgette flowers and cheese are flipped quickly by nimble fingers on top of thick black metal pans over gas and huge fish are slapped onto trays of ice that melt and pool at your feet. Vegetables are plentiful and are stacked high and look almost hand-painted and polished, strings of Mexican Chorizo are draped over steel bars with men yielding large knifes behind them, spying you through the hanging meat.
Where to begin here. I have tried an abundance of Mexican goods - some weird, most wonderful and some insanely spicy. Outside impressions of Mexico would be of chilli salsa and maize tortillas which aren’t entirely false. The smell of warm maize dough sat in large mounds that is pulled at and shaped to make tortillas is immensely satisfying and one I will miss! They also taste amazing and are best served just warm with a local soup around 2pm! The Tacos on street corners vary in taste massively, the one that sets up at 6pm and shuts at 11pm outside our front door, is fortunately for us one of the best. With fried chorizo, large sweet charred spring onions and nopales (Cactus Leaf) - the taste resembles green beans and the texture is a little slimy like Okra. All of these flavours mixed together in a warm maize tortilla, topped with a finely chopped mix of tomatoes, white onion and coriander is amazing and even better when drizzles with a salsa verde and a squeezed of lime. There has only been one - far too spicy incident, when the same taco stand vendor insisted I try an odd looking yellow chili - which nearly blew my head off and I had to walk quickly to the corner shop opposite and pick out a cool bottle of Penafiel to douse my entire tongue. Other intriguing flavours have been Chayote, pear like in appearance with the taste of a harder courgette or squash. Delicious when mixed with grilled steak and Tajin.
Touch is an unusual sense and although I am affected by it perhaps more than any other it’s not something I consciously spend time thinking about. When we started our TEFL experience hear we were told that in general Mexican children are very tactile and will want to hug us a lot. I was a bit worried about this as it’s not what I have been use to in the UK and if you are a professional workshop leader it’s a factor you are generally very cautious of, usually children in the UK don’t do this. However when you are working with little kids, as young as 4 - no matter what nationality they are they will naturally want to perceive you as a parental figure. Whilst at times this has been difficult to navigate around, I have never felt uncomfortable or worried about it. Which is interesting because I think a slightly more relaxed attitude to it by our supervisors has led to this feeling.
The textiles here are beautiful and alluring;although I obviously haven’t been around touching every lovely top or scarf I have spotted, despite being tempted to. The colourful threads are normally hand stitched in a various degree of patterns, using floral motifs, birds and symbols. Each region of Mexico has its own design or methods. There are also more hand-machined options than I initially expected too.
There is an abundance of handmade or hand-painted items that are sold in most artisan shops and in the streets of Oaxaca especially. Alebrijes are typical examples of this and when we were in Cholula visiting the regional museum we were lucky enough to see an exhibition of these wonderful creations by Jacobo and Maria Angeles. There is a fabulous image of one above. Here is a statement taken from the wall text featured in the museum;
They (alebrijes) are made with zompantle, copal or copalillo that the artisans directly extract or buy from the ‘Copaleros’. Before it dries, the wood is carved to give the finished shape the alebrije will have. Once the wood has dried, it is sanded and prepared to be decorated. Artisans paint the wood and draw on it with different techniques to give the colour and the final design to these figures. The artisans’ imagination recreate mythical creatures, such as dragons or mermaids, but they also create fantastic beings, like a jaguar with a crocodile’s head, a porcupine with wings or armadillos with bright colours, lines and dots. No two pieces are alike, they are unique, the artisan discovers the shape that the wood keeps and transmits on each piece his personal seal.'
You may be wondering why I didn’t put the textiles and alebrijes or similar artisan handmade under sight? It’s true that the colours and designs for both are a feast for the eyes, but to me these handmade items are more about the process than the end result. Mexico especially the central and south is known for its artisan crafts, that have been passed down for generations. Imbedded in each one is knowledge and wisdom and hours or work done by the memory the hands hold, by the ‘touch’ of a skilled artisan.
I have left this sense until last. Before arriving one naively images Mexico to be a medley of Cumbia bars, Mariachi bands in town squares and impromptu street performers. It has been these things, which I have loved, but on top of this and turned up to maximum volume it has been so many other sounds too.
Cars honk for the following reasons; impatiently at every traffic light the mini- second it turns green, dogs in the road. The Combi driver honks at you when you are walking down the street as a way of saying; ‘hey would you like a ride’ or there is of course honking of lone male drivers who honk as a sign of approval - my least favourite of the bunch.
Various gas vendors pay a medley of tunes, from club tunes, recordings of children singing, to the Pink Panther - which still makes me laugh because that tune was intended to be used as a way of introducing a secret detective to the screen and there is absolutely nothing secret about the way gas is sold.
People sell all sorts of street food and snacks from bicycles, Tamales, Juice, Ice cream, the level at which they can shout is impressive and I think there should be an initiative (British Council if you’re reading this) where Mexican street vendors lead workshops to youth theatres on how to project their voices - it would work amazing!
Additional and alarming noises also include, the bell at school to let people in, dogs barking at you behind gates and the general echo of a small classroom filled with up to ten very excitable children.
I would like to say I have gotten use to all these sounds, but I can’t lie sometimes I really crave peace and quiet - something I would never have expected to find out about myself. I fantasize about making a strong cheddar cheese sandwich and a flask of hot builders tea and walking to the middle of a field in Dorset.
Senses are something we do take for granted and losing just one would take a lot of getting use to. I want to exploit all of my senses whilst I am here - to try and learn and experience as much as I can.