Oaxaca, Mexico in 40 seconds

View from the plane window

The view from the airplane landing in Chicago. Photo cred: Ami Relf (seeing as I am too scared to look out of plane windows).

I have safely returned to the Windy City, but I can’t stop daydreaming about my time in Mexico.  It was beautiful and filled with cup-runneth-over joy.  I wrote several blogs while there, but because of spotty internet and the fact that I always wanted to be out tasting moles and dancing at festivals, I will post them over the next several days.

But until then, check out this little film that I think best represents my month in Oaxaca.  To create it, I used the app “1 Second Everyday“–an easy-to-use app that creates souvenirs more meaningful than t-shirts.


Going With The Flow at Hierve El Agua


Hierve El Auga, on the top of the world!

Before I moved to New Zealand for a semester, I received two guidebooks for the country as gifts. I studied them both, inside and out, carefully marking the adventures I wanted to turn over in my brain during dull moments, like waiting for buses and late friends.  Both books were heavy to carry with me across the planet, but I wanted to have my post it notes and bookmarks.  On my first full day in New Zealand, I found my way to the tourism office, and I took so many brightly colored pamphlets that one of the women working at the tourism bureau asked if I wanted a shopping bag to take them all home with me.

But I’ve done quite the opposite while in Oaxaca.  Instead of meticulously planning out each and every second of my days, I’ve tried the “go with the flow” method.  I decided I wouldn’t research, wouldn’t highlight and star, I would just accept as many invitations to see and do and feel as possible.  One reason—the pragmatic one at least–for my change in mindset is that I know that there is such a plethora of things to do and see  that I realistically cannot see all of that I would want to see in Oaxaca in just thirty days.  This is further exacerbated by the fact that my primary reason to be here is to study and collaborate and not to play.

Picture of all of us at the top.

Our band photo

So, I knew before coming here that if I just “let things happen,” that I can better stay in the moment, saving me some of the uncomfortable and scratchy “shoulda/coulda/woulda” feelings that can follow me home in the night.  The second is that I’ve just simply been tired—tired of working, tired of planning, and most importantly, tired of worrying.   So, in Mexico, I am just going to jump into things, arms outstretched, and see what returns my hug of the universe.


The “frozen” waterfalls

And the first real experience was my day trip to Hierve El Agua, beautiful mineral springs in the valley of Oaxaca.   My other NEH colleagues started murmuring about this natural wonder from the first day I arrived, stating that they wanted to see the beautiful waterfalls.  At one point, I got confused because someone asked me if I wanted to see the “frozen waterfalls,” and as I was sweltering in 88 degree heat, it felt incredulous that water could be frozen anywhere in the state of Oaxaca outside of a freezer.  In addition, the name “Hierve El Agua” translates as “boiling water,” so I thought that for sure the name must be incorrect.

Picture of waterfalls.

One angle of the “frozen” waterfalls.
Photo cred: Aisling Roche

But as someone finally explained to me:  Hierve El Agua isn’t waterfalls at all, but streams that have created hard, rock-like mineral deposits that give the appearance of enormous frozen waterfalls.  They are amazing to see, and the community has also damned some of dripping water to create beautiful, natural mineral water for people to swim in.  It’s a wonder (and gift) from nature.

I said yes without thinking twice.  We had a meeting point of 12 p.m. outside my friend Benita’s hotel.  In all, eight of us showed up: Benita, Steve, Vanessa, Shidah, Geoff, Aisling, Katherine, and Jesse (a male Jesse, whom everyone calls “el Jesse” and me “la Jessie”).  After everyone congregated (Ashling and I were late as we had spent the morning running all over the city to photograph street art), we had to figure out how to get there.

And boy am I glad I said yes before I knew exactly what I was getting into. Let’s just say that unless you go with a tour, the ride there is half the adventure.

Pictures of colectivos.

Pictures of colectivos.

First, we walked north a mile to a colectivo stand.  There are three main forms of transportation in Oaxaca—bus, taxi, and colectivo.  The bus is pretty self-explanatory, but it is entertaining to see men hanging outside of the passenger entrance yelling the bus’s particular destination.  Second, there are taxis, which you can hail off of the street, call, or jump into at taxi stands.  There are no meters inside the taxis—you negotiate your price before you get in the vehicle.  It seems the going rate, no matter how many people are with you or where you are going in central Oaxaca—is 40 pesos (roughly less than $3).  The other day, my friends and I took a taxi to a restaurant that was almost twenty minutes away, and there were four of us the car—and the price was still 40 pesos.  Amazing!

So last, we have the colectivo, or collective cabs.  This is definitely the cheapest option if you want to travel out of central Oaxaca and see the neighboring cities.  A colectivo has a specific designation (made clear with a sign in the car’s front window) and makes its rounds at each of the designated stops.  Anyone desiring to go to that destination can get hop in, and the driver will notify how many spots are open by sticking the corresponding number of fingers out of his window while he slowly drives by.  Colectivos are a far cheaper way to get out of town, and be a quarter of the cost of a regular taxi.

We split into two groups of four to try to make hailing a colectivo easier.  We finally negotiated the ride for 25 pesos each (less than $2), which I realized quickly was a large victory as the drive to the city of Mitla was about 35 minutes away.  Once we arrived and got out of the comfort of the taxi, I stretched and smiled, thinking we were almost there.  But soon, I saw one of my Spanish-speaking friends negotiating fares in front of what essentially was a pickup truck with a top over it.  I gulped and imagined someone holding my frizzy hair back as I puked up the three amazing al pastor tacos I had enjoyed from lunch.  Remembering to bring medicine for car sickness is not something I had put on my daytrip packing list.  Swimsuit, yes!  Motion sickness pills, a big ole nope.

Here’s a video clip of our journey before we start climbing the mountain thanks to Aisling Roche!

But I made it.  We piled into the camioneta and settled in for 40 minutes of going up a mountain over potholes and dirt terrain.  We had to hold on to whatever we could—the metal poles on the edges, the seats, each other.  I was my total chameleon self—because the group was happy, positive, and bubbly, I stayed comfortably in the same mood.  As we reached almost the top, I thought we had finally made it.  Nope.  We had to change hands and pickup trucks, and the “new” truck made the old truck look like a hot rod.  It was smaller with torn up seats and a roof that leaked.   In addition, the new pickup truck already had passengers inside, so we squished even more next to a kind and very curious Oaxacan man.

Photo cred: Aisling Roche

Photo cred: Aisling Roche

So by the time we made it to the top of the mountain, it was 2 hours and 45 minutes after we had initially left.  Our eyes welcomed the snack and taco stands at the top of the hill, but we weren’t swayed by the owners’ beckoning calls.  We could impale our stomachs with food later.  For now, we just wanted to see it.

A picture of Hierve El Agua

The beautiful natural swimming pool.

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The Milford Track: Thriving on Dehydrated Food and Water from Waterfalls

I start this blog post as I cruise down the Doubtful Sound on a beautiful sunny day. It is one day after I have finished the Milford Track, something I booked way back in July, and it’s hard to believe that I have completed it after many months of thinking/dreading/dreaming about it.

I was really nervous about my ability to complete it. Since I’ve been in New Zealand, my skin hugging skinny jeans now require a belt, yet I’m not in any better shape than pre-New Zealand. In fact, I’ve just lost most of my muscle weight from stopping the strength training I’d been doing in Chicago. The only workout I’ve really had is stuffing my cheeks with beautiful New Zealand pies. Just two weeks prior, I was unable to keep any food down after coming down with a horrible stomach flu. And this would also be my first real hike. Well, ever. And it was 33.5 miles that included an avalanche trail and an alpine trail. Things just weren’t looking too good for me.

It certainly was a physical feat–today I’ve been groaning each and every step I have to climb or descend, and my right ankle is purple and bulbous–but I have just seen and experienced something profoundly remarkable. Please note that the pictures and notes will in no way be able to do it justice.

Prior to the Milford Track:
I booked in July. The popular Great Walks of New Zealand sell out within a couple of hours of going on sale when they open on the New Zealand Department of Conservation website. Luckily, Amy, another Fulbrighter, was on to this fact and let the whole Fulbright New Zealand teaching crew that we had to book now!

I’ve never ever properly hiked, or tramped, as they say here. So, I had to rent all of the gear. Luckily, Bev’s Tramping Hire was there to the rescue. Bev got me outfitted with the right pack, sleeping bag, cooking ware, and clothing. I even got to try walking with a walking stick, which I’d later use as a cane to hobble around like an old woman when my legs got sore.

I packed a lot of food. Amy took one look at it and told me to put some of it away. “Too heavy,” she explained. She also looked at my freeze dried meals and said I wouldn’t like them. Luckily, if there is one thing I know about myself is that this girl can eat. And I mean, eat. As in, I ran out of all of this food on day three.

Picture of all the camping food.

This is all the food I brought/ate.

Day 1
Objective: take a bus from our hotel in Te Anau to Te Anau Downs. Then, take a boat to Glade Wharf, start of the track. From the track, walk an easy 3 miles to the first hut, Clinton hut.


Jess in front of beginning sign.

Heading to the start of the track with my borrowed back!

1) I successfully carried my first pack! It was a little heavy with all of the food that I brought (although Amy told me not to).

2) I walked over the second swing bridge of my life. It was quite scary, and I bobbled all over from side to side like a staggering zombie. I would eventually get better, which is good because I would cross about 17 more during the next three days.

3) The weather! I mean, this is a temperate rainforest and Fiordland is known for its rain. It rains 200 days out of the year and parts of the Milford Track floods. Just two and a half weeks ago it snowed here. Just under two weeks ago, it flooded so badly that the trampers had to be helicoptered out. And yet, for the next four days, it was to be sunny and beautiful, a rarity here. In fact, as I type this in on my cruise, it is day 6 of no rain. (Nine days here is considered a drought to put things in perspective).

Some people would say that this is bad because the “real” Milford happens when it rains, as there are hundreds and hundreds of waterfalls down the mountains (the mountains are granite, so there is nothing to soak up the water). But I’ll swap slippery slopes and being soaked to the bone for sunshine and seeing everything clearly anyday.

4) Next to our huts were several little glow worm caves. It was fun to wait until the sky started to raven to see the blue-green lights glowing along the trail path.

5) In an effort to stay hydrated, I drank a lot of water before bed. That meant that in the wee hours of the night, I had to sneak out of my hut in search of the toilet. When I got outside, I threw my hands up in stark fright. This gesture was so rigid I almost flung up my flashlight like confetti at a surprise party. It wasn’t because I had come face to face with an animal–the best thing about camping in New Zealand is that there isn’t anything deadly lurking in the woods–but because I was so shocked to see how blazing and bright the stars were.

I. have. never. seen. anything. like. it.

I could see everything: the galaxies, the Southern Cross, the twinkling planets: the stars seemed as close as the glow worms I had seen a few hours before. Spilled down the middle was the Milky Way. Never have I ever felt so happy to have nature call as on this night.

Picture of people playing cards and knitting

The first night as everyone starts to get to know each other.

6) It was really lovely to see the immediate community build up. From the first night, people shared food and stories. I became friends with a couple from Boston, Kendra and Neal, a couple from Poland, Gregory and Dorota, and a family of three: Robin, Michael, and their ten year old son Ethan. I met the Polish couple as we were searching for eels in the nearby stream. Look as we tried, we had no luck. Amy and I gave up, headed back to camp, and tried out the huge hula hoops (we had a lot of time to kill).

Soon, Gregory came running up the path, exclaiming that he had found eels. However, by the time we ran back down the trail, they were already gone. But the sweetness of the couple’s gesture stayed with me for the rest of the journey. Later that night, we would all play cards until we couldn’t see anymore.

Low points:

1) Because the hike was so short, there really wasn’t anything to do when we got back. I couldn’t sit outside and enjoy the late afternoon sun because I was too delicious of a snack for sandflies. Sandflies are very similar to mosquitoes in that they suck your blood; however, unlike mosquitoes, if you kill one, it will send out a toxin that will send more its way (unless that is a total myth told to me by my Doubtful Sound tour guide just now). So we were pretty limited on what we could do.

2) In this first hut, there are two bunkrooms. We got into a room with the door slammers. Meaning, it seemed as if every person leaving the hut, no matter what time of night, had gotten into a serious argument with their mom and dad. I jolted awake too many times from these door slamming nincompoops, and I made a mental note to avoid them at all costs at the next hut.

Pictures from Day 1:

Picture of opening Milford sign

Amy and I at the start of the track!

Picture of boat.

The boat that would take us to the beginning of the trek.

Picture of mountains

The view from the boat

Picture of trail

The first section of the walk was all New Zealand beech trees.

Picture of the landscape

The walk is just magical. I knew I was in for a treat.

Picture of the fern

I had to take a picture of the fern, the New Zealand symbol for new beginnings and personal growth. Perfect for me.

Picture of Amy on a swing bridge

My second ever swing bridge (I would go over many, many more!)

Picture of the stream

These are the streams we drank our water out of!

Picture of Jessie by the river

Taking a break to enjoy the scenery.

Picture of the hut

A picture of the hut!

Video clip from day one:

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Thanksgiving on Cuba Street

A Gratitude Journal

My carpool picks me up at 7:10 a.m. each morning at the top of Cuba Street.  If I can convince myself to crawl out of my warm bed and into the frigid air of my apartment before six a.m., I can make the 6:30 a.m. bus that will take me to the bottom of Cuba Street, and then it’s just a quick 10-minute jaunt to the top.  If I wake up after 6 a.m., I will miss the bus, and then I must run/jog/shuffle/skip the two miles to my meeting point. (School starts at 9 a.m. here, but I have a hike to get to my placement).

Even though I get exercise if I don’t catch the bus, I love making it because I get to stop for coffee.  Now 98% of coffee shops open after 7 a.m., which means I’m mostly out of luck because there is a coffee shop desert around my carpool pick up point.  However, Roberto at Palomino coffee on Cuba Street opens up just a little bit early so that I can get my coffee and still make it to my pick up point on time.  He’s pretty much the greatest man alive, and I look forward to stopping there on the mornings that I can.

Jessie with free cookie

My day is so much better because I got a free cookie. Thanks Roberto!

Today, I missed the bus by 47 seconds.  I had a loooong day yesterday that didn’t get me home until 10:45 p.m., and I knew I would be just as late tonight.  Even though it was 7:08 and I was huffing and sweating, I still decided to stop in to get a cup of coffee from Roberto. He inquired after my tardiness, and I gave him a brief synopsis of my past and future 24 hours, stressing that I really needed a cup of his coffee.  As he handed me my dreamboat-in-a-cup Flat White, he added a decadent chocolate cookie to the top of my coffee cup before handing it to me.  “For you,” he said in his Cuban accent, “to help with your day.”

It’s a few hours later, and I feel like I wish I could unplug after my iPad got completely wiped, and I lost– thankfully not all–of my research over the last month (I know, cue lecture about backing up files).  As I was about to sob into the D, O, and H keys on my keyboard, I noticed the cookie sticking out of my backpack.  It made me stop and remember that even though this is a tough loss, I am able to reflect, rethink, and rewrite.  Roberto’s gesture was a reminder to me that there is heartbreakingly beautiful kindness in the world. And for that I am grateful.

Note of gratitude

Someone at school put my name in the gratitude/commandments drawing, and I won! Thank you random stranger, now I get to draw an awesome prize on Monday!


It is super cool being “from the future,” as I am 18 hours ahead of Chicago, but it makes communication difficult.  There is a small window of time right before I go to bed or right when I wake up that I can catch people in the States to talk to them.  I can’t talk during my day because I have to have wifi to Skype or Facetime, and I don’t get home from school in time to talk to people before they tuck in for the night.  So during the weekdays, I feel pretty isolated from my friends and family in the U.S., and I suck every last bit of comfort from the imessages and Whatsapp texts I get during the day.  It’s weird to think that most of my communication with home is through short conversations sprinkled throughout my cupcakes of days.

You can imagine, therefore, how meaningful mail has been to me.  I haven’t given out my mailing address to anyone but my parents, and they sent me a wonderful welcome care package the first week I arrived.  I realized quickly that one has to sell one’s car just to be able to pay to ship a package in New Zealand, so I didn’t send on my mailing address to anyone else.

Package from Joy

The AMAZING package from Joy.

But somehow, mail has found a way.  Our close (and oldest) family friends Kate and Michael sent me a lovely card.  And the biggest hug to a soul is that my lovely friend and fellow book club member Joy sent THE most incredible care package ever.   I had written a blog post about how miserably cold I’d been in Wellington, and she secretly Facebook messaged my mom asking for my address.  She sent me a giant package that has kept me literally and figuratively warm for two weeks now: a blanket, gloves, hand warmers, Nutella, fancy chocolate, and stuff for Halloween and Thanksgiving–the two holidays I will miss while I’m here.  I would win a Pulitzer if I was able to able to adequately express how grateful I feel.  I guess it makes sense that Joy would bring me so much joy.  (PS: Joy, check your mailbox in 6-8 days!)

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Video: A Spring Day in Wellington

I’ve been lucky enough that one of my favorite forever family friends–try that for alliteration–came to visit me in New Zealand during my two week school holiday.  I’ve known Regina since she was born, and she has inspired me to be the woman I am today. And one of her many talents is that she is a filmmaker.

The saying goes here that “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day,” and we had an absolutely glorious spring day in Wellington when Regina first arrived.  I was honored that she captured the day on her iphone and made this video for me–an incredibly meaningful souvenir of my amazing adventure. I will treasure this memento always.  I hope you enjoy the beautiful Wellington sights and sunshine with me!

Picture of Regina and Jess

Regina and I just after Regina’s plane touched down in Wellington.