Students Embark on Mexican Tour
A Whalesong newspaper article puplished Feb. 6, 1998

Vol. 19 Issue 6
Juneau Campus Newspaper

Students embark on Mexican tour

Vacation trek immerses students in another culture, language

By Anita Patterson
Whalesong Reporter

While most families were making their final preparations for a traditional Alaskan Christmas, a group of 14 adventure-seeking students, led by two instructors and a student assistant were preparing to explore the wonders of ancient Mexico. With an enthusiasm born out of curiosity and excitement, they eagerly traded their winter coats and boots for sun creams, shorts and sandals.

Armed with the latest copy of the Lonely Planet's Guide to Mexico, which was shortly to become their bible, they gathered all their courage, energy and whatever Spanish skills they possessed and ventured into the mystical world of Mexico. Little had they known then what a culturally enriching adventure it was to be.

The group set off on Dec 22 and returned to Juneau on Jan 8. In 18 days of intensive traveling, they visited nine different places, each with its unique charm and enchanting history to tell. The trip was co-ordinated by Rick Bellagh, UAS Assistant Professor of Spanish, alongside Ernesto Appella and student assistant Dylan Quigley. However, this was no ordinary organized trip, for this "Interterm Spanish Field Experience" was offered as a three-credit course, where students were required to complete daily tasks and assignments. Although there was a general itinerary outlined, it was very much subject to change. Therefore they were presented with a tremendous challenge for it was the first time that a trip of its kind had been organized at UAS. Bellagh admits being "very nervous" as well as very excited the day before the trip departed. Working together as a team, they structured the daily classes and assignments.

Bellagh chose the places visited mainly on the recommendation of a friend who had traveled through Mexico. Bellagh himself had previously visited Mexico City and Puebla, the rest were to be a new experience for him as well as his students. Therefore there was certainly an element of the unknown involved, which only contributed to the trip's sense of adventure. All the students who participated in the trip were Spanish students, with the exception of two who were eager to share in the experience. The trip had been open to everyone, although it was only advertised through Bellagh's Spanish classes giving his students first preference.

In organizing the trip, Bellagh had a number of aims in mind. He wanted to show his students that they could do a trip like this independently, on a low budget and without fear.

"There is so much fear involved in students going into unknown situations, which they needn't have."

Obviously with regards to the language, he wanted to give his students, many of who he had been teaching for three semesters, the opportunity to use what they had learned in a context. This is something Bellagh felt was important.

"It makes so much more sense why I am learning this, it's real," Bellagh said. He also endeavored to make the trip enjoyable at the same time, as it was semester break and Christmas.

Mexico City

Their voyage of discovery commenced in Mexico City, where they came into contact with Mexico's incredibly diverse population and cultures. Bellagh commented on the great western influence on the city and described it as a "first world community, a western city" and how they used ATM machines to withdraw money.

Jim Danner, a 202 Spanish student was struck by "the old worldness of it. It was a modern city, but at the same time the streets weren't paved; they were all cobblestones. It was a real collage."

Scott Finley, an Audiology major, one of the students not currently taking a Spanish class, was struck by the distinct zones between the rich and the poor stating "it was like night and day."

While there, they had the opportunity to delve into Mexico's fascinating and impressive history and learn about the remarkable civilizations that existed at the many local museums. At Teotihuacán, which at one time was Mexico's largest city, dating back to approximately the time of Christ they visited the ruins of the Aztec city. They saw the Pyramid of the Sun which is the second largest pyramid in Mexico and the third largest in the world. Bellagh described the sight as "mind boggling."

Teri Engebretson, Leeann Beardslee, and Nina Jahnke pose in front of the third largest pyramid in the world- The Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan

Photo by Jim Danner  

Their next stop was Puebla, situated in the southeast of Mexico, and which has the largest concentration of Indians than any other state in Mexico, with 400,000 Indian people known as the Nahua. What was so interesting about these people is that they spoke the same language as the Aztecs who existed approximately 400 years earlier. Here, the students were introduced to a new cultural experience. They also visited the cathedral, celebrated for its combination of severe Herreresque Renaissance style architecture and early baroque style architecture, which dated back several hundreds of years. They would meet at the zócalo, Puebla's central plaza, which was once a thriving market place, where public hangings, bullfights and theater all took place and which today remains as a garden square.

Their travels then took them on to Catemaco and Montepío. They had originally planned to stay at Veracruz, but on arriving there they were not particularly impressed and so decided to move on to Catemaco. Catemaco was a small town situated on the western shore by a beautiful lake and surrounded by volcanic hills. The town made its living mostly from fishing and Mexican tourists during the summer, and it offered the group a break from the bustling cities and to breathe the fresh air. At Montepío, which was another of Bellagh's highlights, they were briefly able to relax and soak up the sun.

With so much to see and experience within such a short space of time, there wasn't much time to laze on beaches as you can imagine! Their next stop was Villahermosa, a beautiful city. Once again, they had the chance to explore the Olmec ruins (the first of the ancient civilizations that existed in Mexico). From the artifacts and fragments which are all that remain from what was at one time a flourishing city, the students were once again left to piece together in their mind what kind of people the Olmec's were and what kind of society they lived in.


Bellagh described Palenque, the next point of exploration, as "absolutely breath-taking." Being surrounded by an emerald jungle it is easy to see why. Visiting the ruins of the Mayan City (yet another ancient civilization) was Bellagh's highlight of the trip.

"Just going through the ruins and trying to imagine what was there before really blows your mind. It was a very advanced civilization, which all vanished before the Spanish explorers came."

Robin Fiscus, a Speech Pathology major who was also not one of Bellagh's Spanish students, said that Palenque as "such a beautiful place; an entire city in ruins."

"It's just incredible. You could spend days there and not see everything. There was something very mystical about it," she said.

On to Agua Azul, which was approximately 60 kilometers from Palenque, the group was greeted by scores of dazzling white waterfalls surrounded by jungle. Fiscus also regarded Agua Azul as another of her highlights of the trip, awe struck by its natural beauty. Here the group had the opportunity to relax and swim in the turquoise pools, letting the sheer beauty of their natural environment set in. Finley recalled one night at Agua Azul when half the group decided to sleep outside in hammocks, which cost only 15 pesos (not even $2 !). However, they were unprepared for the night's fall in temperature, as Finley tells us "we didn't realize that it would be so cold, most of us didn't have blankets. I had to put on all my extra clothes to try and keep warm." This clearly wasn't one of his highlights of the trip.

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas was next on the itinerary. Here they had the chance to experience present day highland cultures and traditions as well as those of the Maya people as they roamed through the Indian markets.

The last port of call was Oaxaca, with its population of three million, one million of which were Indians of at least 14 different peoples, each having their own language. It was described as being a Spanish built place, with a relaxed atmosphere, energetic, cosmopolitan and remote. Monte Albán, the ancient Zapotec capital, which stands on a flattened hill top 400 meters above the valley floor, nine kilometers west of Oaxaca, provided spectacular views of the surrounding area. It was the perfect way for the group to wind down and try to absorb all the magnificent sights and adventures they had experienced, after their three weeks of action-packed traveling.

With excitement running high and with so much to do and see, fortunately Bellagh had already anticipated that the usual classroom style teaching would be out of the question.

"I aimed to keep it as loose as possible and to let the students determine their trip as much as possible," said Bellagh. In traveling as a group they made decisions by group consensus, which got everybody involved. He gave the students a certain control over the trip by giving them choices and allowing them to choose. Bellagh also expressed the difficulty in keeping to a class schedule. Although the group usually met in the mornings, there were mornings when they didn't meet as there was so much to experience and -- therefore -- left the classroom lessons for when they returned to Juneau.

"Obviously at times the students needed some expressions and guidance, other times there was too much to be experienced," said Bellagh, "that I left it to the students to go out and experience it for themselves and deal with real life situations."

He encouraged the students to take the initiative and make the hotel reservations for the group when they would arrive in new places.

"I could do it but I don't need the practice," he said. The group would generally split up into twos or threes and go off in search of accommodation, returning about an hour later to discuss what they had found. Bellagh also remarked that "the hardest part of the trip was the follow up, because even though I had so many ideas how to get the students involved, we had already moved on to the next place."

Fiscus described an average day where the group would stay in a cheap hotel (average of $3-4 a night) sharing a room with four people, wake up at about 8 am. Then at the zócalo, which was a large square situated in every place, they would meet at 9 am. There they would be split into two groups according to their level of Spanish.

"After an hour of class we would all be given assignments to do, such as go and find someone to tell you the history of a building or church in Spanish. At the end of the day we would all come back and relate what we had found out to the class," she said. Fiscus also described the tasks as being "real easy, hands on tasks, which were a lot of fun to do. Although, they did take a lot of effort at first to go up to someone you didn't know."

Community of Friends

After speaking with Bellagh and a number of students, what became evident was just how successful the group had been and how close they became.

"The community really came together, not just as a class, but as a community of friends," said Bellagh. He also commented that on many occasions the group would prefer to stay in the hotel together and play guitar instead of going out as "everybody just enjoyed being together."

Fiscus emphasized this point by commenting that "the best thing about the trip, the very best thing was the group dynamics, everyone was thrown together and got along" and further still that "I made better friends on this trip than I have in all my years at college."

Bellagh admits that he was apprehensive about the group before the trip and feared how they would react to each other and to the trip in general. Many students had never traveled outside Alaska before and were getting passports for the trip. Also many of the students had only met each other briefly before the trip. "Three days into the trip everyone was so amazingly enthusiastic about what they were seeing, about who they were with and were dividing themselves into groups," Bellagh said. He praised Appella who he described as "fantastic and lively" and who "really livened up the group."

Fiscus attributes the group's success to Bellagh's relaxed and open character. "As a teacher and a leader he put out really good vibes and I think that everybody followed that first feeling. He was so relaxed and put everyone at ease."

Fiscus also applauded their positive attitude and approach even in difficult situations. He recalled one journey where four people didn't have a seat throughout the journey from 1 am to 3 am and were forced to remain standing.

"We arrived at our destination at three in the morning, but there were no complaints from the students, they took it all as part of adventure traveling, they really took it as it came."

He also related how the group entertained themselves on one particularly long train journey. "Half-way through the trip we decided that we wanted to make guacamole. We had 15 avocados, some onions and tomatoes. So we found a big shoebox and lined it with a big plastic bag. Everyone took a vegetable and cut it up and then about five minutes later we had about two gallons of guacamole, as everyone was chopping at the same time. We poured it into a box and mixed it up and we ate it through the whole trip!"

A number of times Bellagh declared in clearly in disbelief "not a single thing went wrong," explaining that his biggest fear was "what if someone ends up in hospital? what will the rest of the group do?" Despite a few bouts of diarrhea, a common travel devil, there were no illnesses. Bellagh also feared what would happen if any of the students got too sick to travel on the buses and trains, which was their mode of transportation.

The only incident that did occur was that two students, Fiscus and Finley, became separated from the group after four days. However, there was no alarm and the two students eventually met with the rest of the group in the next town. In fact, Fiscus said of the occasion that "it was one of the most fun things we did." There were a few horror stories to be told about close encounters with gigantic spiders and a rhinoceros beetle that set a few hairs on edge, even of the most courageous souls!

Several students expressed their appreciation of Mexico cuisine. Finley fondly recalled the tacos, which he said were "incredible" and expressed disappointment that the tacos that you find in Juneau are not quite as authentic as the Mexican version. However, Leanne Beardslee, a Spanish student whom was pregnant during the trip was forced to admit many occasions "her baby didn't like tacos."

Rich and Poor

With regards to culture and traditions, Fiscus explains how she was most surprised by Mexican hospitality. "People were so nice, they really say to you, this is your house. You're only there for 20 minutes but they really make such an effort to make you feel at home," she said.

Finley was struck by the discrepancy between the rich and the poor, stating that "there is no middle ground". Recalling an occasion when they had stayed in a house owned by a lawyer. He describes the house as having "three bedrooms, two stories and a swimming pool and all around it there were concrete huts with chickens outside." He even remarked on the rich people tending to have physiological differences.

The standard of living varied greatly and was very much a question of money. "If you had the money you could find a standard of living above that you generally find in the States. Although, the standard of living that the poor experienced, you would never find in the States," said Fiscus.

Finley also observed that they tend to kiss a lot, which is clearly a Mexican custom but which they were not familiar with. He recalled being surprised when the girl of a friend came up and kissed him, although he soon realized this was just a Mexican tradition and that he wasn't being harassed!

Danner, remarked that the local people often regarded the group with curiosity. "I think we were the only men with beards, shorts and sandals in the whole of Mexico," he said.

The students got plenty of opportunity to interact with locals and to practice their Spanish by completing their daily assignments. "We didn't speak a lot of Spanish with the group, but when we split up and went places we were forced to use it. We used a lot of practical Spanish like getting a taxi to go somewhere, finding a hotel etc," said Danner.

Christmas Frisbee

Bellagh recounts how Christmas day was spent playing frisbee at the zócalo, which is in downtown Mexico City. He describes the event as being "fantastic for two reasons."

"First of all, it was like playing in front of the capital building in a huge open space," he said.

"And secondly, so many Mexicans whom were sitting watching, curious, and not familiar with the frisbee, joined in the game right away."

Spanish Professor Rick Bellagh plays frisbee on a sunny Christmas morning in Mexico City's z`ocalo (central plaza)

Photo by Arlo Midgett  

Bellagh goes on to tell how before long they were playing half-Mexican against half the class. With the students teaching the Mexican's to play frisbee. Bellagh believes that this taught the students a valuable point "that words are not all that important, it showed them that there are a lot of ways to connect with people, not just talking."

He also praised his student's positive reaction to the cultural differences they encountered. Which he states at times "were very blatant, such as people begging in the streets, seeing the amount of poverty around them, but also seeing the willingness of people to interact with them and the intrigued look they received from local people. Mexican people were very pleased by how students made an effort to speak Spanish."

On speaking to a number of students, it was clear to see that everybody had gained something from the trip and that it had been a valuable and rewarding experience. Danner felt that he had improved greatly as a result of the trip, "not just with the vocabulary that I learned but especially in the confidence that it has given me."

"I think that I have more questions now than before, but I don't think that I know anything really about the people," Fiscus said, "I asked a lot of questions and I go a lot of impressions but I don't think that I was there long enough to really know." She concluded by describing the trip as "a killing, growing experience."

Finley learned that "it showed you how good life could really be, for anyone who had never had an experience like that before or such good friends."

Bellagh remarked that he "felt that the 201 students got far more out of the trip Spanish wise that the 101 students. Except if you count that burst of energy that 101 students now have, as well as a reason for learning Spanish."

At the end of the trip many of the students decided to stay on longer for some recovery time. Danner admitted to finding the traveling tiring at times. "It seemed as though everyday we were on the move."

"It was so exhausting speaking Spanish all day," said Fiscus.

Bellagh was delighted with the trip's success describing it as being a "100 percent success " and which "is a great boost for the Spanish program." He is already hoping to organize another trip for next year, this time to Ecuador, if there is funding and approval from the dean, John Pugh. There has already been a lot of interest from students. Bellagh anticipates that he may have to limit numbers, which he says will be the hard part. Although he has suggested that if there is a great demand, he would entertain the idea of running two trips simultaneously to Ecuador, which would have to be lead by enough faculty members to make that possible.

So, if you missed out on the last trip, make sure you're on the next trip! Although Bellagh admitted it was hard to give up the family time and organize the trip instead of recuperating from the previous semester, he still enjoyed the trip.

Bellagh also said that they are now putting together a project about their vacation, which will be displayed shortly in the library. Danner also informs us that he is hoping at some point to set up a web page from the trip, so be on the look out!

The Whalesong: Auke Lake Campus
Mailing address: 11120 Glacier Highway; Juneau, AK 99801.
Telephone: 465-6434, Fax 465-6358
E-Mail Address: [email protected]

This story was originally published in The Whalesong, a bi-weekly, student newspaper published by the University of Alaska, Southeast (Juneau Campus).