On our first day at UTEQ, Julio, our coordinator greeted us with “Welcome to Flexico”. We were way ahead of him. We had already demonstrated our ability to ‘go with the flow’ on the day before. You see, although the National Holiday (February 5) fell on a Sunday, Mexico, like the USA, celebrated it on Monday. We were all ready, willing and eager to work on Monday morning, but we had to cool our jets and practice patience, because school was closed.
Some were under the impression that we were commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 2-15-1917 signing of Mexico’s constitution, but WE knew the holiday was REALLY to rejoice in the Patriot’s unprecedented overtime win on Super Bowl Sunday.
Either way, we ALL were celebrating an historic event!
Pam arranged for a Super Bowl party in La Llave, the hotel’s restaurant. We gathered there to watch TV, stuff ourselves with Mexican AND American snacks and hoist more than a few beers and margaritas.
My sisters and cousins would have definitely approved of Susan’s attire!
What to do with our unexpected free day? Pam and the University very thoughtfully arranged transportation for us to visit San Miguel de Allende, which is about an hour and a half from Queretaro. We spent a very pleasant day in this lovely colonial town, wandering through the narrow streets, poking into little shops and galleries. Check out the staircase in this pottery shop.
Kristy was fascinated by the exquisite carved doors, so Monday’s quest was to find a photo book either of the doors of San Miguel or of all of Mexico. Despite chalking up some pretty impressive numbers on Fitbits, we ultimately had to resort to Amazon.com to get what Kristy wanted.
Something tells me that she might be making her OWN book. She sure took a lot of door photos.
Here is proof of Kristy’s door obsession. She took this photo of me, sitting outside, trying to unobtrusively polish off a granola bar. Doesn’t look like I succeeded with the unobtrusive part.
Although San Miguel was lovely, I don’t understand why anyone would prefer it over either Queretaro or Guanajuato. We had originally planned to spend the weekend in San Miguel, but after Monday, decided that one day was sufficient, so we cancelled our hotel reservations for the following weekend. Still, to do the city justice, here are a few more photos.
Sally was determined that we all experience the heavenly delight of jicama tacos, so we embarked on yet another quest to find the one restaurant that makes this exotic dish. A very kind young Mexican man overheard us struggling to find the restaurant, stopped what he was doing, then in perfect English gave us directions. Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo of the restaurant’s name, but did get a shot of the beautiful mural on the back wall. So, if you happen to be in San Miguel, and you spot this mural, be sure to order those tacos!
Art is everywhere, so although the uneven sidewalks make it prudent to watch where you are going, it is important to occasionally stop and look up at the top of buildings.
I’ve decided that this violinist is none other than St Michael the Archangel. After all, we ARE in San Miguel. I especially liked it because it reminded me of my very own violin maker. I’m not commenting on the angel part, but his name IS Michael.
As with most colonial towns in Mexico, churches and religious art are everywhere.
Look at the indigent person, so very grateful that the Spanish padre arrived to take his gold and save his soul.
I’ll end with a little contemporary humor from our lunch spot, a panoramic view of the city and a group shot, just in case the featured photo doesn’t post.
With so many fantastic places to visit, it is highly unusual for me to return somewhere, but that is exactly what I am doing next week.
I visited Querétaro in February, 2015 as a member of a Global Volunteers’ team. Was it the work, the city, the food, the students, or our wonderful leader, Pam, that is drawing me back? Short answer–all of the above. What will make THIS trip even more special is that my cousin Kristy and two friends that I met on other Global Volunteer projects (Jeanne and Sally) will be joining me.
At first, I was going to just write an email to my travel buddies, sharing what I remembered from my prior experience, but then I thought why not blog so that the information is available to anyone contemplating volunteering?
In getting ready for the trip, I also realized just how much I had forgotten–and how helpful it was for ME to go back and look at my old posts to see what I was wearing, which luggage I took etc. When the space between my ears fails me, which happens quite frequently these days, I am glad to have an electronic memory to supplement the “organic” one.
The Hotel Hidalgo was once the finest lodging in Queretaro. It was so grand that in 1848, Santa Anna stayed there prior to signing the Treaty of Guadalupe with the USA. As one might expect of a hotel built in 1825, there is no elevator. There is also no staff to carry your luggage up the 31 stone steps to your room. (Yes, I DID count them the last time I was there).
I actually LIKE having a built in stair master. It’s a great way to work off all the excellent Mexican food I’m looking forward to eating.
It is always wise to travel light, and this trip is no exception. The good news is there is a laundry right around the corner from the hotel. You drop off your clothes one day and pick them up the next evening. The bad news is you may experience all three seasons in ONE day. So, the tried and true travel advice works here: Dress in layers. One clear advantage of being older–your days of making a fashion statement are a VERY distant memory. Clothing is chosen for comfort and utility.
In case you’re wondering what I am bringing, here’s a visual:
I will wear the heavy tan sweater and blue fleece on the plane, but everything else goes in my bag: Hair dryer (they are not supplied by the hotel), toiletries, long underwear (can double as pajamas when the one pair I’m bringing is at the laundry), 5 pants, 4 long sleeved cotton shirts, 1 long sleeved knit top, 3 short sleeved shirts, 1 long skirt, 1 windbreaker with hood, enough underwear for 8 days, hat, small purse, and travel meds (Airborne, Neosporin, motrin), 1 pair of sandals. I will wear sneakers on the plane.
My routine (as you can see) is to lay everything out on the bed, then determine whether I can get it all into my carry on. Total weight: a manageable 24 pounds
My backpack will hold my iPhone, iPad, chargers, money, credit card, passport, index cards, tissues, hand sanitizer, erasable markers for white boards (Pam tells me she has a good supply from volunteers leaving them behind, so no need to bring more), pens, notebook, facecloths (used to erase the white board), tea bags (water coolers on each floor of the Hidalgo dispense both hot and cold water) water bottle, and snacks for the flight.
There is no heat, so the rooms get a bit cool at night and in the morning. You can request an extra blanket for sleeping, but you need something warm for when you get out of the shower. A bathrobe is too bulky to pack, so I buy an inexpensive one in Queretaro, and leave it behind when I head home. That’s one of the advantages of being in a city. You can buy just about anything you need at either Del Sol or Woolworth’s (Yes, Woolworth DOES still exist. Just not in the USA). For me, the problem is I am WAY bigger than the average Mexican. This time around, I’m going to try shopping in the men’s department!
The high altitude dries your skin, but lotion is available everywhere, so I didn’t bother packing it in my toiletries bag. There is no need for insect repellant. I never saw a bug the two weeks I was there. A hat is important, because the sun is strong.
The hotel uses the same kind of plug and the same current as the USA, so no need for an adapter and converter. Even so, I’m bringing my trusty little gadget that I bought at Staples, because most rooms only have one electrical outlet. Notice the two USB ports, plus one regular plug? This little treasure allows me to charge iPhone, iPad and camera all from one socket!
If you are arriving at the start of the program, Pam will arrange for your transportation. I like to go in a day or two early, so I handle my own transportation to the hotel. It was 350 pesos to get to the historical center, (about $17 US). There is a booth in Queretaro airport, just outside immigrations and customs that helps with getting a taxi. I recently learned that Queretaro now has Uber service, but I think I’ll stick with the taxi to get to the hotel.
You don’t need to bring much money with you. There are ATMs at the airport and in town, so it is easy to use your debit card to get pesos. For those that want to exchange dollars, there is an office around the corner from our hotel, but ATMs are so abundant, I find it more convenient to just tap into my checking account.
Because the program fee covers room, board and transportation, you only need cash for shopping or if you plan on traveling on the weekend. Even then, credit cards are widely accepted.
Pam, our terrific leader, contacts all volunteers in advance of the trip. She explains that we will not be working with the same group of students every day. Instead, when we arrived at the school, we go off with whatever teacher we are assigned to. The students could be beginners, intermediate or advanced. Some teachers will tell you what they want you to work on–others will tell you to do whatever you want. This is where an iPad comes in handy. Last time, I took photos of common household objects so we could practice “what is this”, “this is a —“. For the more advanced students, we were able to talk about what was important to them: dating, family, work, food, entertainment, travel.
Because there are also evening classes, our hours vary. Some days we start early and end early, with a nice break before we get back together for dinner. Other days we have our mornings off, but pack food for dinner and arrive back at the hotel around 9 PM. I thoroughly enjoyed the varied schedule. It gave us a chance to experience the city of Queretaro, although I have to tell you — not much is going on before 10 AM!
I bring my backpack to school every day. It holds my meal (lunch or dinner), extra layers of clothing, teaching aids, hand sanitizer and toilet paper (there are no paper products in the ladies’ room) and water bottle. It also serves as my luggage for my weekend excursion.
Global Volunteers have their weekends free. You can book trips on the Primera Plus bus at the travel agency around the corner from the hotel (in 2015, it was open from 10-2 and 4-7). Last time, we took the 8 AM bus on Saturday to Guanajuato, returning on Sunday’s 3:30 bus.
This time, Jeanne, Sally and I plan to visit San Miguel de Allende on the weekend between our two work weeks. Pam, the GV team leader, warned us that we needed advance reservations in San Miguel if we wanted to stay in the town center at a reasonably priced hotel. Good thing she did! There weren’t a lot of choices left when we made our reservations a few weeks ago. Once again, we will head out early Saturday morning and be back in time for dancing in the town square on Sunday night. Maybe Uber will be a good choice for getting between the bus station and hotel.
That’s all I can think of. I hope it is helpful, especially for my travel buddies Sally, Jeanne and Kristy.
That’s it. There was no “worst of times”. Lucky me. But good times do not make good novelists, so fortunately I’m content to be a sometimes blogger.
My other posts have all been about Querétaro, a delightful historic city–and I am far from done talking about it. But this post is about a SECOND undiscovered gem. Undiscovered by most USA tourists, that is.
Global Volunteers are free on the weekend, so several of us took a bus to Guanajuato, a two and a half hour ride from Querétaro.
And what a bus it was! I only wish airplane seats were so comfortable. Imagine being able to recline your seat without incurring the wrath of the person behind you. How about having a foot rest so you can stretch your legs out, just like you are in your favorite Lazy boy. Throw in free movies on your individual TV. Of course, you have to watch Renee Zellweger speaking Spanish, with her very full lips out of synch with her words. That’s the Premiera Plus ( the name of the bus company) experience. I preferred watching the countryside flash by, but that’s generally how I roll.
The bus stations In both cities had snack bars, clean bathrooms (the 5 peso entry fee gets you the best seat in the house, toilet paper, soap and paper towels), and comfortable waiting rooms, for those of you that care about such things. (I’m definitely in that category.)
Taxis to the historic center were plentiful and inexpensive — 50 pesos, or a little more than $3.00 –got us delivered to our hotel off La Plaza de La Paz.
Like Querétaro, Guanajuato is safe, clean, inexpensive, beautiful, friendly, musical, historic—AND it has a miradora–a panoramic view, something I can’t resist.
I rode the funicular to the top of the hill, the site of the statue of el Pipila, who is clearly visible from just about everywhere in the city.
Those so inclined can climb inside, sorta like the Statue of Liberty. I decided to take one for the team, so I climbed to the top, and I’m going to tell you–the view’s not worth it.
See how narrow the stairs are? The ladder to the top is even narrower, and just a tad scary.
So, how did el Pipila get his very own statue at summit of Guanajuato? Are you getting tired of the history trivia? I hope not, because I’m going to tell you.
The Mexicans decided they had had quite enough of Spanish rule, so they started a rebellion (actually this is more of a Querétaro story, which will be a future post, but I’m drinking wine while I’m writing this, so let’s just go with it. Okay?)
El Pipila put a flat stone on his back to protect him from the Spaniards, who were holed up in a granary and tossing dreadful, dangerous things at him. He set fire to the door of the granary, which allowed the Mexicans to enter, slay with Spaniards and win the battle. Oh my God. Am I REALLY talking about battles and wars? Has it come to that?
Time to change the subject.
Guanajuato has an abundance of museums, and I was able to visit several of them. The things hanging on the walls were all very lovely, but what floats my boat are the buildings that house the exhibits. The Diego Riviera Museum is his childhood home.
I don’t know whether he and Frieda actually slept there, but who cares? The architecture is fantastic, and the cutouts weren’t half bad.
Guanajuato has its fair share of churches, and if there is a wedding happening, I never miss an opportunity to crash it. This lovely bride’s veil was pinned to her groom’s shoulder. After the ceremony was completed, they were unpinned. Don’t know the background, but I thought it was an interesting custom.
What else can I tell you about Guanajuato? The food was excellent. The Mexican wine was delicious, and of course I felt compelled to take photos of everything, so you can see for yourself.
I could keep posting photos till your eyes roll back into your heads. But I won’t. I’d encourage you to enjoy visiting this amazing city and will leave you with just two more photos.
I’m almost out of power, so I’ll post. Please forgive the typos…drink a little wine, and this will all make sense to you. Visit this wonderful city and fall in love with it!
Yes, THAT Santa Anna. The one who inspired the classic phrase, “Remember the Alamo”. The one who, when he lost a foot and part of his leg in battle, gave it an elaborate military funeral.
Fun fact for those of you planning a trip to Springfield, Illinois. After his foot’s funeral, Santa Anna had a cork prosthetic leg made. That very leg was captured during the Mexican-American War and is currently on display in the Illinois military museum. If you are anything like me, you are probably wondering just HOW Santa Anna’s leg happened to be separated from his body. Well, thanks to wikipedia, I can tell you, and the truth isn’t anyway NEAR as interesting as what my mind conjured up. From the military museum’s website:
In 1847, Illinois soldiers “came upon General Santa Anna’s abandoned carriage and found gold worth $18,000, a roast chicken lunch, and his artificial leg. They turned in the gold, ate the chicken and kept the artificial leg as a souvenir.
So, why am I telling you all this? Well, it just so happens that Santa Anna and I have something in common. No, I do not have an artificial leg on display in a museum. At least not yet. We BOTH have slept at the Hotel Hidalgo. But just to be clear, not at the same time.
Built in 1825, the Hidalgo Hotel was the first, and by definition, the best, hotel in Querétaro. During the war, “the refinement of the hotel made it a favorite choice” for Santa Anna. His stay ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe, “which gave more than half of Mexico’s territory to the USA.” (Actually, they didn’t GIVE it to us; we paid $15 million for it. More expensive than Manhattan or Seward’s ice box? I’ll let you be the judge.)
How do I know all this? I’d like to be able to claim that my attentiveness in history class and my truly amazing memory are responsible, but anyone that knows me would never swallow THAT tall tale. Nope, the source of my hotel knowledge came from this mural in its entry.
As one might expect of a hotel almost 200 years old, it has its quirks. For example, the size of the showers would lead you to believe that they were not a common feature back then.
As with people, each room has its strengths and drawbacks. But with the right attitude, these quirks can become rather endearing. Plus, the staff is wonderful, the rooms are very clean, it costs less than $40 per night, and the location is absolutely ideal.
If, however, you prefer to sleep in a convent, or in the house of a dead Marquesa, those options are also available. Those of you who have been reading along may recall the snarky comment I made a while back about La Casa de la Marquesa probably paying Google to show up on its maps. Little did I know that the Casa, like the Hotel Hidalgo, is a historical site with its very own legend. And you, dear reader, will soon read all about it.
It seems that Don Juan Antonio, the Marques, although a married man, had a yen for a nun, Sister Marcella Nasturtium. The good sister, despite remaining true to her vow of chastity, was still able to persuade the Marques to build an aqueduct to bring fresh water into the city, and to build the most beautiful house in Querétaro, which he then gave to his wife.
One more hotel story then I’ll end this post. It seems that being a nun in the days of old was not a bad gig, if you managed to be born to the right family. One rich man built a convent for his daughter that was the grandest in a city filled with grand convents. The Convent of Santa Clara had its own orchards and gardens, and the rents it collected allowed the nuns to live in private houses with their own servants. Wow.
And to think that YOU could sleep in ANY of these buildings! Is this not a cool city?!!
So, what EXACTLY do Global Volunteers do in Querétaro, Mexico? As with all other GV projects, the volunteers do whatever our host asks us to do. And boy oh boy, are we well utilized here!
At the Universidad Tecnológica de Querétaro (UTEQ), we spend four to five hours a day talking with highly motivated, enthusiastic students. Our schedule varies from day to day, to ensure that the early morning and late afternoon students also get an opportunity to interact with us. For example, on Tuesdays, we catch our cab for UTEQ at 7:20 AM for an 8 AM class and are finished teaching at noon. On Wednesday, we start teaching at 5:00 PM and are done at 9:00 PM. On the remaining days, our start times range from 9 AM to 12 PM. I’m here to tell Ya–I have even more respect for teachers. It is NOT easy being 100% focused for several hours straight.
Because the demand is so great, we never work with a student more than once. Initially, I wasn’t sure I’d like getting a new group every hour, but the students are wonderful, and the time absolutely flies by. You don’t even notice how tired you are until the cab ride home.
Group size varies. Sometimes we might each have 2 to 4 students. Other times we might have 10 to 12.
It is difficult to do much preparation, because you don’t know what you will be getting until you arrive in the classroom and start talking with the students. Some have prepared questions to ask us; others are shy, needing encouragement and gentle coaxing to get them to talk.
Pam, our leader explained that the goal was not necessarily to teach specific words or grammatical points, but to build students’ confidence. What a relief–I can do that! Once again, I discovered that patience, a sense of humor and enthusiasm were my most important tools. Oh yeah, that, plus a small white board, index cards and my iPad have been getting me through the day.
Before I left home, I raced around my house, camera in hand, taking photos of various objects that I could show on my iPad, as my back up plan. Good thing. For beginning students, it came in handy. For example, I used visuals like this, to have them practice asking each other, “what is this?”, then take turns answering.
In the midst of my pointing out objects on my iPad, I heard a chorus of “awwwwwww”. Mystified that cutlery could inspire such a reaction, I flipped my iPad around to find I had inadvertently switched the photo from my kitchen table to my sister’s granddaughter.
The students wanted to know all about “the baby”, so we talked about Bonnie–what was her name, where was she when the photo was taken, what was she wearing, what was she holding? Little Bonnie is now quite famous here in Querétaro. One student (bless his heart) wanted to know if she was MY baby. That led to a discussion about grandchildren, my sister, her daughter, all the other members of my family tree and my age!
Occasionally some of us have a break between classes. That’s the perfect time to head for the cafeteria for informal discussions. Today, I met an older student who is employed by the Swedish company Ericcson and attending school. He confessed to being a bit reluctant to approach me until he saw me smile at him and nod my head. His English was excellent–he just needed a little confidence. I felt like the Wizard of Oz!
Ericsson isn’t the only major employer in the areas. Other companies include Samsung and Daewoo from South Korea, Bombardier(Canada), Nestle(Switzerland) Siemens(Germany), Santander (Spain) and Kellogs, P&G, Bose from the good Ol USA. Querétaro is definitely an international city.
Ericsson has invested heavily in UTEC. Volunteers that had been here before mentioned that the campus had been spiffed up, buildings had been repainted, thanks to the generosity of Ericsson. They also donated the language lab, which is the building behind this sign.
What I really like, however, is the banner BEHIND the building, and not only because it is in English.
“An Everyone Everywhere World”, in which everyone gets the chance to fulfill their potential. What a beautiful sentiment. What a wonderful world that would be!
And what an amazing way to spend two weeks! Who knew work could be so much fun?