MPW Travel Scholarships - Mexico

After finishing my science A-levels at MPW, I travelled to Mexico for four weeks on an adventure that took in an urban metropolis, a steamy jungle and beautiful beaches. I flew into Mexico City, where I spent my first week shadowing Dr Franco, an obstetrician at the Centro Medico ABC. Fascinated by studying infection in Biology, Dr Franco’s special interest in HIV and her resultant work with ‘Integral Women’s Health’ illuminated the need to educate women in Mexico about HIV, in particular with regard to family planning. Her work mainly involved ensuring that an expectant mother’s viral load was very low (after a strong course of anti-retroviral therapy), that she had a caesarean section, and that she was strongly advised against breastfeeding her baby (to greatly reduce the risk of vertical transmission). My experience at ABC meant I could practise the Spanish I’d learnt from the Rosetta Stone programme (and hopefully means I might be able to work in south and central America for Médecins Sans Frontières when qualified).

On the weekend, I visited the borough of Coyoacán to visit the craft markets and both the Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky museums. I then ventured into the historical centre, wandering into many a cathedral and the amazing colonial government buildings which have a beautiful botanical garden of rare cacti and a collection of Diego Rivera murals lining the courtyards, depicting indigenous life before the arrival of the Spanish. These paintings inspired me to visit the Mayan ruins in the jungle at Palenque. On my final night in Mexico City, the unwelcome result of the rigged election was declared as the PRI candidate Pena won, from the party that ruled Mexico under dictatorship for most of the 20th century. I joined the huge crowds who swarmed the streets in political protest, chanting for revolution in the city’s main square.

I then headed, via the rocky coastline of the Pacific, to the colourful colonial cities of Oaxaca and San Cristobal in the South. I made a day trip up into the mountains to swim in the petrified waterfalls at Hierve el Agua (Spanish for ‘the water boils’) which have formed natural ‘infinity pools’ with panoramic views. I also visited Cañón del Sumidero, a breathtaking canyon filled with crocodiles, pelicans and huge butterflies. Surrounding San Cristobal are many indigenous villages, one of which has its own currency and law. In this village I learnt how in the past religious rituals involved shamans brewing sugar cane for three weeks to create a sweet drink that made you burp (as burping was believed to be the way that your spirit communicated with the gods). With the introduction of Coca-Cola to Mexico in the 1920s, the shamans rejoiced that this kind of ceremony could take place whenever you wished, thus coca-cola for them has become sacred and can be used as currency in trading goods today! There I visited the Ancient Museum of Mayan Medicine, and discovered that even today during childbirth the woman eats raw eggs to bring on labour and gives birth on her knees facing her husband (he then buries her placenta in their house, determining the next child’s gender by its position). Traditional medicine still plays a huge role in Mexican society and it was fascinating to have seen this as a contrast to my work at ABC. I popped into the local village church: the floor was covered in dried grass, flowers and candles and was packed with local families, all dressed in purple and sitting to eat their picnic lunches. There was an overwhelming sense of community and the shaman, dressed in animal skin, went around with a huge chalice of steaming herbs blessing the people and the shrines.

I then headed to Palenque in the jungle to visit the spectacular Mayan ruins. The temples are deep within a national park where it is forbidden by federal law to cut down a tree, and so there are many hills with 1,400 identified but untouched pyramids beneath that can’t be excavated! Amusingly, the ruins are now inhabited by vast numbers of iguanas and screaming howler monkeys. I spent the next day swimming in waterfall pools, both deserted ones we found in the national park (and in the caves of Misol-Ha, beneath sleeping bats) and the huge turquoise pools of Agua Azul.

I ended my trip in Tulum on the sparkling white sand and crystal clear beaches of the Carribean coast before catching a flight from Cancun. The Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is stunning, and dotted all over the mainland are these natural freshwater pools called cenotes (Google them!) which are full of underwater cave formations and freshwater fish and turtles.

I am so grateful that I received the travel scholarship and was able to make this amazing trip to explore the fertile and untamed landscape of southern Mexico.