We follow Darshita Thurairajah on her couch-surfing travels through Latin America in a three-part series, as she picks up important life lessons. She is currently a student in Singapore Management University reading a Juris Doctor programme in law. Words & Images by Darshita Thurairajah. Edited by Nur Safiah Alias.
Holding myself to a promise I made to two friends, I started my five-week trip to Mexico, Ecuador and Peru in June 2013. I only began planning two weeks before my actual departure date. First up was Mexico with my friend Maria, then down to Ecuador with friends Tefita, Carol and Karen and finally, couchsurfing in Cusco, Peru with Mario.
First Stop, Mexico!
I was hosted by my friend Maria from AISEC (or the Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et Commerciales). I met her while doing my internship in Germany which explains this flag filled with all the messages from our other AISEC-ers. She graciously brought me around Mexico while I was there.
What I learnt while travelling in Latin America, was worth the initial worries shared by me and my family even as they were bidding farewell to me at the airport. “What is the purpose of this trip?” they asked. Honestly, all these questions and warnings terrified me about what lay ahead.
In retrospect, boy was I glad I trudged along with the plan. How would I have known all this about the world had I not stepped out?
1. You can get cloth dye made from parasite’s blood, yes, parasite’s blood.
I took a bus ride from Mexico City to meet Maria, who lives in Oaxaca. She works at an NGO called “Fundación Communitaria Oaxaca” which carries out humbling social work. They help indigenous groups kick start their own artisan businesses. It was because of these good connections that we were able to take a road trip deep into Teotitlan.
We met various indigenous groups who were able to teach us how to use the weaving machines and make dyes by bursting cochitlans – parasites on plants that give nice, maroon blood for a red dye.
I learnt more about how these people came up with new designs and techniques to expand their market, I was glad that Maria was assisting them with their business ideas.
Lesson #1: Latin Americans are fine artists, bustling with rich ideas and innovations.
It is mind-blowing to see the rich heritage they have, which is highlighted through art exhibitions. In my humble opinion, the Mestizo people come from a culture so deep in native traditions, which contributes, to a unique style of Latin-American art. This made me more conscious of the little known cultures that Singapore has.
2. Nature has its own infinity pool in the mountains.
A long and windy drive took us to a picturesque place known as Hierve El Agua (a.k.a Boil Water). There is a natural “infinity pool” with water streaming straight down to the mountains. The photos speak for themselves.
As a Singaporean, I was contented to be able to witness nature’s bliss – something we often forget with the “infinity pool” at the Marina Bay Sands.
“Singapore? What is that?”
At the Hierve El Agua, I partook in conversations in Spanglish (Spanish words mixed with English) with a group of Northern Mexicans. Melissa, a hippie and a yoga teacher, was utterly surprised to hear about Singapore.
She had not heard of our country before! They were thoroughly intrigued by my skin colour and ability to speak English well. Travel really brings out the truth of the phrase, “extraordinary conversations with ordinary people”.
3. There are pyramids in Mexican mountains in the form of ancient Zapotec ruins.
Maria and I took a trip to Monte Albán. This is different from the Teotihuacan ruins in Mexico city and it is a MUST DO for any visit to Oaxaca city. Monte Albán (translated: Mountain Albino) was far more intriguing because they were the ruins of the Zapotec people.
These pyramids were built amongst the mountains (6,400 feet above sea level) due to strategic reasons – the city centre of Oaxaca was once a “swamp” – this meant that the Zapotecs had to trek down the mountains to fetch water almost everyday. The main two interesting aspects of Monte Albán was (1) an ancient, built-in sound amplifier for one to make an announcement at one end of the pyramids and hear the echoes at the other end and (2) there are carved stones known as “Danzantes” of leaders and sacrificial victims.”
That evening, Maria and I shopped for ingredients and cooked dinner. Well, mainly it was Maria cooking. We made Tortillas with salsa and cheese and I have to confess that Mexican food is one of my sinful favourites.
If you have read my earlier tips on 5 Things You Need To Do For A Better Experience in Latin America, you would know that this learning to cook and eat like a local is a definite must-do because it’s cheaper and tastes so much more delicious! La comida Mexicana es deliciosa!
4. You can learn surfing without speaking English.
Maria and I travelled overnight to Puerto Escondido for two days where she worked at another office and I enjoyed the beach.
Puerto Escondido is the world’s best surfing beach and is host to international surf competitions. At 6am, I made my way to Puerto Carrizallilo, a beginner’s beach, to learn how to surf. My instructor was named Jesus and so, I introduced myself to him – in English. Then he replied… in Spanish. Right.
This is how our lessons continued for the next few hours.
Surprisingly, between my limited vocabulary of Spanish and much animated gesturing, I was up and riding the Mexican waves! Jesus was very patient with me and his lesson was enjoyable because he was just so funny.
We bonded over the fact that I was morena, dark-skinned, like him. The only difference was, his was a tan, while mine was…not.
For those interested in surfing- Jesus Surf Lessons: +52 954 121 1495.
Lesson #2: When there are language barriers, instead of getting frustrated at the inability to interact, it is sometimes more enlightening to listen patiently.
I realised that our other senses begin to fire up and pick up important hints that allow us to form meanings naturally from conversations. Language barriers are not formidable but rather a challenge that can be easily overcome.
UPDATE (4th September): ‘Life Lessons from Latin America: Part 2- Ecuador’ has been published. Click here to read.
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