I got the idea: I have countless traveler friends, but not all of them like to write or have a blog! It’s a shame their stories go untold besides among their loved ones, so I thought I’d share them with you. It’s a way to connect travel bloggers, wanderlust crazies, as well as an avenue to quench my need for being a ‘journalist’ and interviewing. My first guinea pig, er, friend is Evanie. She and I met *cough* years ago when we studied abroad together in Spain, and now she currently lives in Mexico City. All of the words and photos following are hers. I’ll let her take the floor from here on, enjoy!
Tell us a little about your background, where you grew up, went to school and your home base now.
Well I grew up in a really small town in Montana. I lived half the week at my dad’s in a town called Hamilton (it has exactly 6 stoplights) and half the week at my mom’s in another town called Victor (1 stoplight). The towns are exactly 20 minutes apart, and I went to school in a town called Corvallis which was halfway between the two. Why Montana has small towns spread about every 5 minutes apart, each with its own school is a mystery. I think they’re afraid of having too many people in one place, it would be too much like a city and Montanans HATE cites.
Um, my school was really small, about 400 students and I played a lot of sports because there wasn’t really anything else to do. Everyone knew everyone since kindergarten so there weren’t a lot of surprises. I couldn’t wait to move when I graduated. I ended up going to the University of Hawaii which was the farthest I could possibly get and also the complete opposite in every way of Montana. I went from a place that had zero ethnic diversity to a place where I was a minority. It was a really interesting and terrifying experience to move somewhere I had never been where I didn’t know a single person.
Do you remember your first trip away from home?
I don’t really remember I was in a lot of sports so we often traveled out of town so I got pretty used to roadtrips. My first trip out of the country though was when I was a Junior in high school and I went on a church Mission trip to Chihuahua, Mexico. We did the whole shebang to get there, fundraising dinners, carwashes, support letters, etc. I was fairly sure with my 3rd year high school Spanish I was really going to reach a lot of people, ha.
We mostly did all the stereotypical mission-y things like painting a church, VBS (vacation bible school), outreaches in orphanages and old peoples homes, passing out balloons to kids in parks that said things like “Jesus Lives!” The most memorable thing that we did though was visit a men’s penitentiary to play soccer. The “field” was a concrete slab with a really high chain link fence all the way around it and a wall of people 10 people deep against the fence watching us play. The field was also surrounded by 4 huge buildings and in each window was a face staring out. I sorta felt like we were on the movie The Gladiator and at the end the convicts were going to vote on whether or not we had to stay there forever. I was the only girl who played so naturally once they found out my name there was a lot of shouting Evanie, Evanie, Evanie!!! It was exciting and also really surreal to hear your name being shouted by lots and lots of Mexican-Man-Convicts.
At the end of the game my youth group leader made me give my testimony because I was the “star” and I remember thinking, “What is my testimony again?” I grew up going to church because my parents do, didn’t seem like a very good or inspiring story. I had not had a particularly hard childhood or any born again experiences. It was the singularly most intimidating moment of my life as I improvised my own story of how I came to believe in God. And I can just imagine the hundreds of Mexican inmates listening to a white, privileged, 16-year-old stuttering and sputtering like she had something important to say, something to bring to those poor criminals – it’s the audacity that gets me. The total belief I had in coming to Mexico (further ingrained in me by the church) that I had something to bring the impoverished people of Mexico! The message! I was going to somehow make there lives better by being there for two weeks.
The overall lessons I learned from the trip was that 3rd level high school Spanish is basically equivalent to nothing, eating street food contrary to public opinion does not always give you MONTEZUMA’S REVENGE, and that Mexico is not some poor community just starving for some tiny youth group in Montana to save them with their suitcases full of toys bought at the dollar store and their testimonies about growing up middle class, that they in fact were lacking in nothing.
What made you realize you liked traveling and living abroad?
Moving to Hawaii was the experience that most made me realize that I liked travel and adventure and newness. Living there is essentially living abroad because it’s so different from the culture on the mainland U.S. They have their own language, their own food, their own holidays and customs. I had to adapt a lot to live there as I later had to do when I lived abroad. I think the skills for survival I developed there have helped me in every travel experience or move to a new place that I have had since.
Tell us your craziest traveling story.
I think my craziest travel story is probably when four friends and I were backpacking through South America. We took an overnight bus from Ecuador to the border of Peru, roughly like 11 hours of travel which seemed like a great idea because then we wouldn’t waste a day on travel. However, when we reached the border the bus driver promptly dumped us off without explanation and then drove away with all of our luggage inside. I was the designated translator of the group since I was the only one who spoke Spanish (I had just graduated with a bona-fide BA in Spanish, meaning I could now understand about 50 percent of what was said). I finally figured out that the bus had dropped us off at the immigration office and that we had to get our passports stamped.
So we waited in line and then a nice gentleman offered to help us get to the bus station to retrieve our bags. He rode with us in the taxi to the bus station but it was closed for lunchtime. He then offered while we were waiting to take us to a place to exchange our money which seemed like an equally nice offer. He traded us off to his friend who knew of an exchange place asking before he left for a tip. We thought oh yeah that guys nice here’s a tip. We then exchanged all our money at the friend of a friend’s place where he frequently told us how dangerous the border is and how important it is to have someone help you. We finally got our bags and the new guy started explaining the complicated process of how we needed to go to two more government offices to get our passports stamped again and that we needed to go to a specific bus station to get where we were going and he had a friend with a car who could take us to each place. So he traded us off to his friend also asking for a tip for his help. I remember thinking, this is getting kind of weird but ok. After we had been in the car about 20 minutes the friend of the friend of the friend notified us that the bus station was an hour outside of town and that it would cost us 50 American dollars each and when I said What?! He pulled over to the side of the road and told me to tell my friends right now that that was the cost and that if we didn’t pay he would leave us on the side of the road.
This is when we finally realized that maybe the friendly friend chain wasn’t really all that friendly. I started to worry that maybe he was taking us to some abandoned warehouse to kidnap us or steal all our organs. Being the only Spanish speaker I nervously assured him yes we would pay 50 dollars each if he would please just take us to the bus station as planned. He then happily chatted all the way there playing us all the ringtones on his phone. When we arrived at the station we realized that all the money we had exchanged was counterfeit and that we were so far out of town that there were no banks or ATMs. Luckily one friend had an emergency stash of cash and the station agent took pity on us and accepted American money. So that is my craziest traveling story of being slightly kidnapped by a chain of super helpful Peruvians.
How is Mexico? How long have you been there?
It’s hard to explain Mexico. The culture really changes depending on where in the country you live just like in the U.S. Each region has it’s own traditions, foods, accents.
So I’ve only lived in two cities one in the north (Torreon) for about a year and in the center (Mexico City) for about 7 months where I currently live. My experience last year in Torreon was terrible. It’s the third most dangerous city in Mexico and the seventh most dangerous city in the world. When you hear about the drug wars and beheadings and shootings and violence you usually think of Ciudad Juarez but actually Ciudad Juarez has become a lot more safe than Torreon. There aren’t any bars or clubs to go to because they’ve all been shut down due to shootings. People don’t go out at night or walk around. And people go to the city center at their own risk. I was working in a bilingual school teaching 5th grade English and basically hated every single second of it. The only thing good I can say about my experience there is that the food is ridiculously delicious, they’re known for their meat. I also lived right across the street from a sushi restaurant where we would always go on hungover Sundays to gorge ourselves on rolls for a couple of dollars.
So needless to say when I moved to Mexico City I felt so happy I just wanted to smile all the time. It’s one of the biggest cities in the world but each neighborhood you visit has it’s own little culture with the same people who have been living there for generations. I’ve only been here for 7 months but the few people I do know I run into all the time in my neighborhood which makes me feel a lot more at home. There’s a million things to do here and a million people to do it with. If you like cities and history and art, this is the place to be.
What is the rhythm of Mexico City? What’s your favorite place in the capital? Do you feel safe? Do you speak Spanish most of the time?
The rhythm of Mexico City is surprisingly slow for a city I think. People here often get 2 hour lunch breaks so at “la hora de comer” the sidewalks are filled with people in business suits taking a lunchtime walk with their co-workers gossiping and eating ice cream bars. If you’re ever in a hurry you have to do a lot of weaving and muttering to get around all the people sauntering along.
I think my favorite place in the capital is Xochimilco which is south of the city and it’s a patchwork of the old canals that used to make up Mexico City back when it was a huge lake. The canals are filled with colorful wooden boats called trajineras and are each manned by one guy with a really long pole. You can rent the boats by the hour and go with a big group of friends, you can bring a picnic and beers to drink on board or you can hail a passing food or drink boat that have any kind of food you could want. Many of the boats are mariachi boats and for a few pesos they’ll hitch up to your boat and serenade you. This is by far my favorite way to spend a Sunday afternoon, bumping and crashing into other boats while drinking a michelada with a tamarind straw and listening to the mariachi montage as they pass by.
I feel really safe here, they have patrol cars that pass by on all the residential streets on the hour. And basically on every street corner is policeman hanging out to help you if you need it. I walk around all the time at night and haven’t had any bad experiences. Everyone says that Mexico City is the safest place to be in Mexico.
I do speak Spanish most of the time. I feel like in my seven months here I’ve improved a LOT. Almost all of my friends are Mexican and my roommates are Mexican so socializing always happens in Spanish. Joining a women’s soccer team here has really helped me meet a lot of people too. Surprisingly there is a large ex-pat community here of foreigners who work in international companies or at the American school. Many of which have been here for years and still don’t speak Spanish because all their friends are foreigners who speak English. For me though, I find that very strange. I think it’s important to adapt and integrate into the country that your living otherwise it’s like you never left your home country or like you’re living outside of it in this alternate community and you never get to experience what the country is really like.
For someone only in Mexico City for a day, what must they not miss?
For someone who is only in the city for a day – that is a really difficult question. I think it would depend on what you like. If you’re really into history then you should definitely go to the historic center of town where the cathedral and main plaza are. The streets are really narrow and made of cobblestone there similar to Europe. Also in the summer they set up an artificial beach with imported sand and waves and it’s free to the public. At Christmas they set up ice-skating and sledding with artificial snow.
If you like markets you should go to La Lagunilla which is the biggest outdoor market in the city and is adjacent to one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. Everyone says that you can buy anything you could ever want in La Lagunilla including exotic animals.
For more traditional Mexico you could visit Coyoacan which is full of huge trees and old colorful stucco mansions and has a huge plaza filled with fountains and mimes. It’s also where Frida Kahlo was born so you can visit her birthplace which was converted into a museum and houses a lot of her work. The courtyard is also full of cats which is strange.
Which destinations are on your dream list you haven’t been to yet?
I would really like to go to Alaska, Northern Brazil for a jungle boat tour, New Orleans, Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Egypt, Santorini, the Bahamas, and any kind of cruise.
Evanie is the best, thanks girl! Want to be next? Feel free to drop me a line about your story, or nominate a friend. Coming up I have a couple with tips on traveling together (they met in Romania!) as well as an interview with a Millennial still traveling on a broke girl’s dime.