And the winner is…

About 4-5 months ago I submitted three photos from my study abroad to Mérida, México to the BYU Kennedy Center Photo Contest.  After several months I began to wonder if they were even going to select a winner.  Two weeks ago I received an email saying that one of my photos had won.  I was very excited to find out which photo won.  Today I attended the awards reception on campus and was pleasantly surprised to find out that two of my photos were selected!  My photo of the boat on the beach at Progreso, Yucatán, México was selected as Honorable Mention.  After giving those in attendance the background to the photo I sat back down and was anxious to see the top three photos.  I was extremely surprised when my photo of the chairs came up on the screen for second place!  I didn’t think I could win more than once!  To be honest, I actually forgot that I had submitted the photo with the two chairs.  That photo was taken at the Convent de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid, Yucatán.  

Ever since taking a photography class in high school I have continually tried to get better and improve my skills.  I don’t have any fancy equipment or an expensive camera.  I feel that half of making a good photograph is having the eye for it.  You have to compose the photo.  I will often take several photos of the same thing but from several different angles or by composing the photo differently.  One day I will have a good camera but for now my iPhone will do the job.  

Merida, I will miss you!

Friday was definitely a sad day!  I spent the morning trying to figure out how to get all my stuff home without going over the weight limit.  It was a tough task but I did it!  I arrived at Dallas Fort Worth around 6 and my sister and her husband were there waiting for me.  They had to wait over one hour for me because the line at immigrations was super long!  They only had a couple of workers there and I think it was making a lot of people mad!  I finally made it through that line but then I had to go through customs.  Luckily the line was not as long but, unfortunately they took my dragon fruit away from me!  I am now at my sister’s house in Gilmer, Texas visiting her and her husband.  It has been a blast so far!  More details to come…  

Things I will miss about Mérida:

  • Trips to the beach
  • Never cooking
  • Never doing my laundry
  • Ice cream and champolas at Colon
  • Dessert at Postrecito
  • Tacos at Mixé
  • Pizza al Pastor at Los Trompos
  • My friends
  • Bus rides on Copo
  • Sleeping in a hammock
  • the list could go on and on…

Things I won’t miss about Mérida:

  • Women from Chiapas trying to sell me things constantly
  • High humidity, constantly feeling sticky and sweaty.
  • Bus rides on Cholula
  • Always trying to find somewhere to change my huge peso bills into smaller bills and coins.
  • Mamey fruit
  • Cold showers

Final Day in Merida

I got back to Merida on Tuesday afternoon and then went back to the Cetina’s house.  Later that afternoon I went to the temple with their ward and then later that night we went out for tacos arabes and dessert.  The tacos were the best tacos arabes I have ever had!  They were delicious!  

The next day I spent the morning buying a few last things and then I went to the airport to meet up with my first converts in the mission because their son was returning home that afternoon.  I was really excited to see him again.  His family was also really excited!  I hardly have enough words to express how awesome it was to see him walk through the doors as a missionary and hug his family members.  He hugged me last and continued to say “Gracias” for several moments.   It has been incredibly awesome to see the gospel really change this family.  I have been able to see everything come full circle for them and I know they have been blessed because of their faith and service.  

After seeing him come home I went back to Cetina’s and got my things and then took the bus and went over to Cancun.  I stayed at a hotel right behind the bus station that was pretty nice.  It was clean and in pretty nice condition and the location was perfect.

Mexico City on Monday

Sunday after church I took the bus over to Mexico City to visit my second mission companion, Jorge Rodriguez.  Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world.  I was planning on staying with my companion at his house but once I got there I decided to stay in a hotel just a few blocks away from the main square.  We got to the hotel and dropped my things off and then we went to Jorge’s house to get his things so he could stay at the hotel with me.  We rode the metro to his house.  I was really surprised how nice things were in Mexico City.  The transportation systems are amazing and apparently have been ranked either second or third in the world.  We got back and went to bed so we would be ready for our all day tour of Mexico City on Monday.

We got up and had breakfast at the hotel and then we were out the door.  First stop of the day was at what is considered the birthplace of Catholicism in Mexico and possibly all of Latin America, La Basiclica de Guadalupe.  The area consists of the original old cathedral as well as the big new building that now houses the cloak of Juan Diego where the picture of the Virgin Mary appeared after she appeared to him.  The cloak is displayed at the very front of the building, behind the altar area.  In order to see it up close you can walk towards the front and then go down some stairs and ride a conveyor belt that slowly moves along the front of the building beneath the front stage area in order to look up and catch a glimpse of the famous cloak.  There is a somewhat long path that leads to the two buildings where lots of shops are set up each day that sell food and tons of catholic religious items such as statues, key chains, necklaces, bracelets, etc.  It is fairly common to see people who will basically crawl on their knees only all the way along this path until they reach a seat in the building.  I am guessing they do this to either show respect or to make some type of a sacrifice. 

After visiting this we went over to a large park called Chapultepec.  This park is probably what would be considered the “Central Park of Mexico”  It looked really big and it looked like a forest.  Apparently there is lots to see and do there but unfortunately the whole park was closed because it was Monday.  We walked over to the Museum of Anthropology that was close by but it was also closed.  At this point I called my mission president to see if it would be possible to see him for a few minutes later that night.  Rather than having us come to his house he said we could come anytime during the day to his work and visit.  He works at the Benemerito.  Benemerito is the church’s private high school located in Mexico City.  There are nearly 3000 students that attend with almost half of them who live right in the dorms on campus.  I was very surprised when we got close and there was a large “B” painted on the hill side near the school.  It is the only letter painted on a hill side in Mexico.  The “B” even looked bigger than the “B” on the mountain in Bountiful.  We spoke with President Cárdenas for about 40 minutes and then we ate lunch in the cafeteria at the school.  I felt like I was in the old Cannon Center at BYU because the food tasted almost exactly the same! 

After lunch we took the bus to Tlatelolco – Plaza de las tres culturas (plaza of three cultures).  This plaza is pretty cool because it has a lot of history and it is very unique.  The plaza houses the ruins of an ancient Aztec pyramid, a cathedral built by the Spanish from the rocks and stones of the pyramids as well as a modern day high-rise building.  Back in 1968 there was a large group of students who gathered here in order to protest the government of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.  The protest took place only ten days before the Olympic Games of 1968 that took place in Mexico City.  At a given time during the protests there were snipers and other military men who were ordered to open fire on the crowd.  It is unknown exactly how many people were assassinated that day but it was definitely a really sad event that the Mexican government is just barely recognizing as something that was terribly wrong on their part. 

After seeing Tlatelolco we took the bus over toward the main square and we went inside the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Beautiful Arts).  This building is used for events and performances and is also home to several beautiful mural paintings by Siquieros as well as a curtain by Tiffanys.  Unfortunately I was unable to see these things because it was Monday and everything was closed.  We went over to the zócalo (main square) and tried getting inside the federal government palace to see the mural paintings by Diego Rivera (Frida Kahlo’s husband) but you guessed it….it was Monday, and it was closed to the public!

Luckily we were able to go inside the main cathedral and we took a tour that only cost 15 pesos (about $1.25 USD).  The tour was actually pretty cool.  We got to go on top of the roof of the cathedral and see the bell towers.  There are some pretty cool things that the guide told us about the bells.  I never realized how heavy those things are.  The crazy thing about the cathedral is that you can completely see that the entire building is slowly sinking into the ground because of the unstable earth beneath it due to all of the Spanish buildings being built on top of the ancient Aztec pyramids. 

We looked around at some of the popular market areas and found some cheap knock-off items such as Ray Ban Sunglasses.  After that we went to the famous Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) and had dinner.  The food was pretty good but the server who was in our area was a real jerk!  All in all it was a great day even though I was unable to see everything because it was Monday.  Now I know that if I go back to Mexico City I will make sure I am there between Tuesday and Sunday….not Monday!

The trip back to Merida was fine, but it consisted of tons of waiting.  When I got to the airport the next morning the line at the Vivaaerobus counter was super long and I had to wait forever.  I finally was able to check in and then I had to race to the terminal and then I waited only about 5 minutes to board the plane.  The temperature in Mexico City and Puebla was really nice because their elevation is pretty high.  It felt super hot when I got back to Merida!

Last Day of Study Abroad

Yesterday was our last official day of the program.  My friends and I went downtown and did some final shopping and made sure we had all the things we wanted to take home.  (I spent more money that I should have…..but I did find a nativity scene for mom!)  We finished the morning with ice cream and champolas from Colon for the last time.  We went home and had lunch with Margarita for the last time.  She made my favorite, mole!  After lunch we went to the beach for the last time.  We relaxed and had a lot of fun.  One of my friends team won The Amazing Race that we did and they won $600 pesos (About $60 dollars).  They were nice and said we could just use it and split the difference between all of us to go out to eat.  We were going to eat on the boardwalk but we decided not to because it was all seafood such as octopus, squid, shark, fish and shrimp.  We weren’t in the mood for seafood so we filled a combi up and went back to Merida and had our last dinner at Los Trompos (if you haven’t been able to tell yet, Los Trompos is really good!)  We ordered some huge orders of nachos and some big family size plates of meat for tacos.  It was delicious and we all ate more than we should have.  We took the bus home and then said our good byes as we each dropped each other of at our houses.  It was kind of sad to say good-bye to everyone.  We have only known each other for about 7 weeks but we became really good friends.  Of course we are all going to see each other again in the fall when school starts again but we were sad the whole thing was coming to an end.

This morning I had breakfast and then had to say good-bye to Jorge and Margarita.  I gave them a few gifts and a thank you card.  Margarita has seriously been the most kind person I have ever met.  She always made sure we were happy and that we weren’t hungry.  We had several really good talks with her about religion.  She is a very religious and devote Catholic but as we talked she always seemed to comment and praise our church.  As we said good-bye she gave me a big hug and cried and just kept on repeating, “God bless you Nate, God bless you Nate.”  Their son Gabriel, who was hardly ever here at the house rushed out and said he had a gift for me.  I was really surprised because I have hardly talked with him and don’t really know anything about him, but he bought me a really nice Mexican cookbook!  I was so surprised! 

This study abroad experience has been life changing!  I don’t have enough words to express how grateful I am that I was able to come down and study here in Merida among the people I love so much!

The Amazing Race

A few days ago Margarita told me that she had never eaten a real homemade chocolate chip cookie!  I was shocked!  I mentioned this to Laurel and Jessica and they were also shocked.  They love Margarita just as much as I do so we all decided to buy the stuff to make chocolate chip cookies!  It was a bit tricky to fit it all in that day because we all had our final essays due on Tuesday but we made the cookies and they were delicious!  Margarita loved them!  While we were at the store we bought a half gallon of real milk to go with the cookies.  The reason I say “real” milk is because the rest of the milk you buy here is usually not real or it is super pasteurized and it just does not taste very good compared to the real stuff. 

 Tuesday was a super hot day!  (perfect day for a race!)  We finished our classes and then we raced home and ate and finished preparing everything for the Amazing Race that Ally and I had planned.  The race was so much fun!  Even though I didn’t participate other than making the race and being a judge it was way fun!  The teams that participated dressed up in matching colors and they also had a lot of fun!  When we got to the finish line and saw the other teams they were all soaked in sweat! They had been running for nearly 2.5 hours straight!  After the race we had our final get together with Profe. Laraway and his family.  We gave out awards and had pizza al pastor from Los Trompos!  It was a really fun day!

Where is a pressure washer when I need it?

On Saturday we went to a place called an albergue.  An Albergue is kind of like a small motel or bed and breakfast for people who need a place to stay and eat while their family members are in the hospital.  It is right next to one of the hospitals in Merida.  We went to do some service and help others.  We were asked to do several tasks such as; moving seats and chairs, cleaning, sweeping, mopping and transplanting plants.  The biggest project was scrubbing and cleaning the whole driveway/patio area.  They moved all the cars and gave us a hose, brooms and laundry detergent.  We used the brooms to scrub the concrete and get it clean.  It was really hot and we were all working hard.  By the time we finished we were all pretty much soaked in sweat.  It was fun and it always feels good to help others.  On this trip I have seen a completely different side of Mexico that I didn’t know before.  As a missionary I was in small villages and poor parts of the city.  On this study abroad I have been living in one of the wealthiest areas of the city (most of the money probably comes from drug trafficking).  I have seen more Porsches, Audis, BMWs and Mercedes-Benz here than I see in wealthy areas of Utah! 

 After the service project Todd, Lars and I went to the Merida Auto Show.  I was actually really surprised to see a full auto show here.  It was pretty popular.  We went because there are different car companies here in Mexico that we don’t have in the US such as Peugot, Seat and Renault.  The sales people at the show were really direct and I was asked several times which car I was going to buy today.  I had to explain that I don’t have money for a car and that I am from the US.  They still didn’t see those two things as issues.

 On Sunday most of the group sang a special musical number in church.  We sang “Abide with Me.”  We found a really pretty arrangement and then a couple of our musically inclined people in the group transposed the arrangement into a different key.  We practiced several times and in the end it turned out really nice.  While I sang the spirit was really strong.  In my opinion, music is the fastest way to invite the spirit into a meeting.  

Attention to Detail

I have enjoyed being able to have the freedom to eat out and do things with friends on this study abroad program.  We have found several places that have really good food and desserts.  Just about one block from my house there is a place called Frappé.  They have really good fruit smoothies, chocolate shakes and of course all sorts of coffee type drinks.  We decided to try it out a few weeks ago and it was delicious!  The fruit smoothies were so refreshing when it was so hot outside.  We went back a few days ago to try it out again.  They have more than 35 different flavors for their fruit smoothies.  Their flavors are really unique and they taste delicious.  I wondered how they made their shakes and I think I discovered what they do.  Here in Mexico they have a juice company called Jumex.  The juices they sell are really good and they have lots of different flavors.  I discovered that the fruit smoothies are just ice with different mixtures of juices!  I can make these at home now!  Also, there is a really good dessert place called Postrecito that is about 10 minutes walking from our house.  It is super expensive compared to most places I have seen in Mexico.  Their desserts are $55 Mexican pesos (about 5 US dollars).  The first time I went I got a brownie sundae that was delicious and the second time we went I got a bread pudding type dessert.  I had heard from some of the other students that the bread pudding was their favorite.  I was really impressed with the first few bites but then my taste buds started working really hard to figure out what this stuff actually was.  I drank some water and then focused real hard and took another bite and I knew what it was!  They had completely faked the bread pudding…it was about as fake as it comes!  I realized the whole “bread” part was made from pancake mix!  Once I discovered this I was really disappointed.  I took a couple more bites and then I was disgusted with what I was eating, so I didn’t finish it (of course the vanilla ice cream and cajeta – Mexican caramel type sauce – on top were good!).  I usually order the same things at restaurants once I know what I like.  I broke my rule this time and I didn’t like what I got….next time I will order the brownie sundae again!  I have figured a few things out down here as far as secrets to cooking and secrets at restaurants and stuff just by paying attention to the actual taste and texture and examining the little details….(hmmm…maybe I should become a food and restaurant critic!)

Mule pulled train cart at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Mule pulled train cart at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Henequen plant, Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatán, México

Henequen plant, Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatán, México

Henequen Production at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatán, México

Henequen Production at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatán, México

Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatán, México

Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatán, México

Sisal - Green Gold

Years ago the Yucatan peninsula experienced a substantial economic boom when Spanish conquistadors realized that they could use the fibers from the henequen plant to make strong, long-lasting products such as strings, ropes and other products.  The henequen plant grows mostly in the northern part of the peninsula.  The rich colonizers organized the production of the important green plant by building haciendas (plantations).  These haciendas are what drove the economy of the area to a high point as henequen quickly became a huge export.  The main port of entry in the peninsula at the time was Sisal.  All henequen bundles that were shipped to the US and to Europe were sent via this port and was stamped with the name Sisal.  Quickly the “green gold” became known world wide as Sisal.  Today we visited Hacienda Sotuta de Peon which is one of the very few haciendas that is still producing henequen in the peninsula.

We were able to take a tour of the restored plantation house and we were able to see the entire process of how they manufactured the henequen plant and turned it into strings and ropes.  The hacienda was purchased by a wealthy Yucatecan man back in 1985 and during 20 years he worked to restore the hacienda and its machinery.  The hacienda didn’t open until recently in 2005.  It was very interesting to see the whole process.  Half way through the tour they gave us a cold drink that was tamarindo and jamaica.  It was delicious!

Later we hopped onto large train carts that had room for about 15-20 people each and mules pulled us through the henequen fields.  We made a stop in the middle of the fields to see how the maya people built their homes.  At the house we were greeted by an old maya guy who spoke mostly maya.  He was the funniest guy.  He spoke in maya while the tour guide translated for us.  The man explained the story of the hacienda and he told us that he worked here years ago.  The carts continued and they took us to yet another cenote!  I am amazed at how many cenotes are here in the peninsula!  We got to swim for about 40 minutes and then we returned to eat lunch with our host families.  The buffet food was delicious and I ate more than I should have!

This marks the end of our excursions on the trip!  We still have lots of fun things planned for the next week.  Tomorrow will are doing a service project, FHE on Monday, Amazing Race on Tuesday, etc.  

Yesterday we went and did a session at the temple.  When we got on the bus it started to rain.  The temple is about 10-15 blocks away from the bus stop down town.  When we got off the bus I suggested we take a taxi so that we were not completely soaked when we got to the temple.  All the taxis were full so we ended up walking anyway.  We were not completely soaked but we were pretty wet when we arrived.  We had a hard time finding white pants to use at the temple because they were all so short for the people here.  It was hilarious!  Luckily I found the pair of pants that I donated to the temple when I finished my mission!  We finished the night with a marquesita at Santa Lucia park and then a coconut milkshake at Colon!

The Amazing Race

About one week ago I was talking with Ally and we came up with a brilliant idea!  We thought it would be fun to do an Amazing Race type activity with the study abroad group.  We presented the idea to the director and he also thought it was a good idea.  We have spent about 8 hours already in planning and preparation for this race.  We are excited because we think it is going to be really fun.  The students will be in teams of 3 for the competition and will have to find several places around Mérida and perform a couple of different challenges.  We are excited because the first place team will get $50 USA to go eat dinner at Los Trompos.  Yesterday Ally and I went around to all the places and took pictures and finished writing the clues.  It should be a pretty exciting race.  Tuesday is race day and it is also the last day of classes!  I can hardly believe things are coming to a close now.  

Monday was a super fun day!  In the morning Alena took pictures of all the people in our FHE group as well as one of the other groups that we combined with.  The pictures were really close pictures.  One picture was of the top part of the face and the other was of the bottom half of the face.  We went to Costco to develop all the pictures.  While we waited for them to get printed we noticed that Costco is pretty much the same in Mexico as it is in the USA but there are definitely a few products in Mexico that would never sell well in the US.  We bought vanilla ice cream, brownie bites, bananas and chocolate sauce.  At FHE we had banana splits!  We used all the pictures and mixed and matched the tops and bottoms of our faces with each other.  It was so funny!  I had the idea to do this because we had done this at home once.  It makes me laugh so hard every time I have done this activity.  After all that we swam in the pool for a bit.  Best FHE activity ever!

Pastel Loco!

For years my family has had a chocolate cake recipe that we call Carolyn’s Crazy Cake.  This cake has always been a family favorite.  It is a chocolate cake with an orange cream cheese frosting.  In the past every time I have eaten it, it was prepared by either my mom, my grandma or one of my aunts.  About one year ago I was asked to make a cake for some type of event.  I asked my mom for the recipe and I embarked on my first cake baking journey.  I had to buy a cake pan, a mixer, and all of the ingredients.  My first attempt was a success and ever since my chocolate cake has only gotten better!  I have even been asked to bake this cake for anniversaries!  My friends, the Cetina family here in Mérida loves the desserts and sweets from the USA so I thought it would be awesome if I could make them a Crazy Cake.  I searched high and low for all the ingredients.  The hardest ingredient to find out of all of them was the baking soda.  Who would have thought that it would be hard to find a small box of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda?!  Luckily, one of the other girls in the group found some because she is also going to be baking a cake with her host family soon.  She was unable to find cocoa powder so we made a little trade.

We had a really fun time baking the cake.  I was worried it was not going to turn out well.  I crossed my fingers and said a little prayer and it turned out almost as good as the anniversary edition I made for my boss!  I brought a small piece back for Margarita and Jorge to try and they also loved it!  Margarita couldn’t believe how moist and dense the chocolate cake was.  

To be completely honest, I don’t think we really know where this chocolate cake recipe came from but it is definitely a keeper! (photo coming soon!)