Cholula, Mexico

I didn’t really see the nearby city, except on top of this “mountain” really the remains of an old pyramid.

Cholula is a city and district located in the center west of the state of Puebla, next to the city of Puebla de Zaragoza, in central Mexico. Cholula is best known for its Great Pyramid, with the Nuestra Señora de los Remedios sanctuary on top. It was simply pouring rain when we arrived. The last time I was that wet, was certainly a backpacking trip. No photos were allowed inside the church, but the vista on top was lovely, even soaking wet.

Climbing the hill you begin to see the vast number of churches. It’s also a great excuse to rest.

The city is unified by a complicated system of shared religious responsibilities, called cargas, which function mostly to support a very busy calendar of saints’ days and other festivals which occur in one part or another almost all year round. The most important of these festivals is that dedicated to the Virgin of the Remedies, the patron of the city in its entirety, which occurs at the beginning of September.

It is said that the city of Cholula has 365 churches, either one for each day of the year or one for each pre-Hispanic temple that used to be there.
In reality, there are only thirty seven churches; 159, if all the small chapels including those on local haciendas and ranches are counted.
The church atop the great pyramid. Our Lady of Remedies.

Touring Mexico City

Touring Mexico City! This week I’ve already been on four day tours–an economical way to see the area. In front is the tour guide, who ended up leading three of the four tours. I’m the gray haired lady in the third row with her mouth open.

These are just a few random photos that didn’t fit in with other posts. I’m enjoying my tour of Mexico City.

The agave is very important to Mexico. Not only is it popular for making alcohol, but it also is a source for paper, clothing and thread.
This is xoconostle — pronounced cho co nos le — a low type of liquor I’ve only seen in Mexico City. It is mildly sweet and has a low alcohol content. Another of the many products from the agave plant.
This is one of the major universities in Mexico City, National Autonomous University of Mexico. It is a public research university in Mexico, one of top universities in the world. This is the central library building, constructed of a mosaic of different colored stones, is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This stadium was built for the 1968 Olympics. These were the first Olympic Games to be staged in Latin America and the first to be staged in a Spanish-speaking country. They were also the first Games to use an all-weather (smooth) track for track and field events instead of the traditional cinder track. The 1968 torch relay recreated the route taken by Christopher Columbus to the New World, journeying from Greece through Italy and Spain to San Salvador Island, Bahamas, and then on to Mexico.
This is Aztec Stadium, or The Estadio Azteca. It is a football stadium located in the suburb of Santa Úrsula in Mexico City, Mexico. Since its opening in 1966, the stadium has been the official home stadium of the professional Mexican football team Club América and the official national stadium of the Mexico national football team. With an official capacity of 87,000, it is the largest stadium in Mexico, though my guide said it was the largest in the world. It is regarded as one of the most famous and iconic football stadiums in the world. The stadium was also the principal venue for the football tournament of the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Hard to see, but a small lizard is making it’s home in this huge cactus.
Here we try some of the beverages made from the agave plant. Tequila is well known, as is its more artisan version, mescal. These two are distilled, but there’s also pulque, made from the fermented liquid. Pulque was once the alcoholic drink of the area, before distillation. It’s similar to hard cider, but not as sweet. After tasting it, I can see why it’s not a popular beverage now.
So many handicrafts to buy–but where would I put them?
This is a native dog, almost completely hairless except for a spiky mop on it’s head, but it’s not a chihuahua.
A serpent garden.
For lunch we were treated to a native dance, but they moved so fast, I couldn’t get a good photo.
Lovely gardens everywhere. The weather is mild and it’s easy to grow flowers year round.
Silver is handcrafted here. It was one of the major exports after the conquest.
Jewelry stores are abundant in Mexico.

Mexico City–Teotihuacan

In the background is the Pyramid of the Sun. You can see all the other temples surrounding the two great pyramids, mostly located along the Avenue of the Dead.

I’m spending the week saying goodbye to a year of teaching English in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. While the school was a big disappointment, and I had some very bad luck, I still truly like the country and it’s people. If you’re paying with US dollars, it’s a true bargain. It’s a potential retirement spot for me (mostly since I can’t figure how I’d afford to retire in the US). My Spanish is still very rough, but I’m improving. While I may never be fluent, I do hope to be better than functional.

This week I visited the impressive pyramids of Teotihuacán. This is a must-see if you are in the area. Teotihuacan is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in  the Valley of Mexico, 40 km (25 mi) northeast of modern-day Mexico City. It’s known today as the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas.

The city is thought to have been established around 100 BC, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 AD. The city may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, but its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around 550 AD. At its height, perhaps 450 AD, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more. The ethnicity of the inhabitants of Teotihuacan is a subject of debate. Possible candidates are the Nahua, Otomi or Totonac ethnic groups. Scholars have also suggested that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic state.

The city and the archaeological site covers a total surface area of 83 square kms (32 sq mi) and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.

The Avenue of the Dead, the broad walkway flanked by temples. We are facing the Pyramid of the Moon. There’s renovation on the top of this pyramid, so visitors can only go about halfway up.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest building in Teotihuacan, believed to have been constructed about 200 AD, and one of the largest in Mesoamerica. Found along the Avenue of the Dead, in between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Ciudadela, and in the shadow of the massive mountain Cerro Gordo.

It is thought that the pyramid venerated a deity within Teotihuacan society, however, little evidence exists to support this hypothesis. The destruction of the temple on top of the pyramid, by both deliberate and natural forces prior to the archaeological study of the site, has so far prevented identification of the pyramid with any particular deity.

The archaeological park of Teotihuacan is under threat from development pressures. In 2004, the governor of Mexico state, Arturo Montiel, gave permission for Wal-Mart to build a large store in the third archaeological zone of the park. According to Counterpunch.org, “[P]riceless artifacts uncovered during store construction were reportedly trucked off to a local dump and workers fired when they revealed the carnage to the press.

Mexico City–Plaza of the three cultures

The view from the highway.

I’m spending the week touring Mexico City.

The Plaza de las Tres Culturas (“Square of the Three Cultures”) is the main square within a neighborhood of Mexico City. The name “Three Cultures” is in recognition of the three periods of Mexican history reflected by buildings in the plaza: pre-Columbian (here, Aztec), Spanish colonial, and the independent “mestizo” nation. The plaza, designed by Mexican architect Mario Pani, was completed in 1966.

Monument to the Tlatelolco massacre (above) in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. On October 2, 1968, ten days before the start of the 1968 Summer Olympics, the plaza was the scene of the Tlatelolco massacre. Between 30 and 300 student protesters were killed by the Mexican army and police who were trying to suppress the protests.
The square contains the remains of Aztec temples and is flanked by the Catholic church of Santiago de Tlatelolco (built between 1604 and 1610 by fray Juan de Torquemada) and by a massive housing complex built in 1964. Tlatilōlco, literally translates “In the little hill of land.” This is an area now within the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City. These archeological remains are from the 15th and 16th centuries, plus there are more recent colonial structures.
The square is bounded by an excavated Aztec archaeological site, the 17th-century church designed by Fray Juan de Torquemada and dedicated to St James the Great (known as Santiago de Tlatelolco), the remains of a former Franciscan convent to which was formerly attached the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, and an office complex that was used by the Ministry of Foreign Relations and is now the property of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Review: Teaching at English Unlimited, San Luis Potosi, Mexico

I worked at this school for just a few days short of one year, from July 2016-July 2017. This is my detailed take away from my time there.

Short version: The city is great, the school isn’t.

Pros

  • San Luis Potosi is the perfect size. It’s not too large (less than 1 million people), but large enough to have public services and events. It has a lovely old downtown (El Centro) with colonial Spanish buildings from the 16th century that are in surprisingly good shape. While there is a LOT of street construction at this moment, they are improving the plumbing and sewage system, so it’s money well spent.
  • The buses are cheap (8.5 pesos per ride, about 47 cents US), though it takes a while to figure out where they go. There’s no bus map and many areas don’t have bus stops, you simply wave the bus down.
  • Taxis are everywhere, but I depended on Uber, since taxi drivers usually got lost if you were going to a residential address. Uber drivers always have a mapping service and are far more likely to speak some English.
  • San Luis Potosi should organize more tourism, especially to US Americans. It’s a lovely city with all the amenities, plus a great exchange rate. Americans like a bargain. However, it’s difficult to see nearby sites without renting a car, so organized bus/van tours would sell here. SLP has great hotels and lots of places to show off. There’s a nice trolley tour, but it’s only in Spanish.
  • The food is great, especially the tacos and fresh fruit on the street. Prepare to get fat.
  • Food, housing and clothing are relatively cheap, if you’re paying in US dollars. Unfortunately, you’re paid by the school in pesos.
  • Mexicans are very friendly and helpful. The more Spanish you know, the better, since there’s little English here.
  • Wonderful weather. SLP is on a mountain, so it doesn’t get as hot as you’d think in the summer, rarely over 85F. There’s often a breeze, but you’ll still want a fan. But the humidity is low. Conversely, winters are mild and most of my students had never seen snow or freezing temperatures. Low temperatures at night are rarely below 50F.
  • Notice how I haven’t said anything about the school yet? Well, here is one pro about the school. You do get paid for the hours you work. (Though not all the holidays promised and sometimes you get stiffed on private students. See details below.) The information you get from the school will say you’re paid “fortnightly,” which isn’t quite correct. You’re paid on the 15th and the last day or the month, as well as the last day of a 4-week session. It’s not unusual to be paid 3 times a month, in cash.
  • If you are a teacher who prefers to be completely left alone, you might like it here. No one will observe your classes, give you feedback or even comment on how many students you passed or failed. There are student feedback forms, handed out every 3-4 sessions, but you’ll only hear about the results if you rated badly or if you ask.

Cons

  • Manager Michael Tan is not a people person. He rarely interacts with teachers or students. He is seldom at the main branch during class hours and when he’s there, his office door is closed. He doesn’t welcome people knocking on his door, either. Lately he has been “out of town” a lot. He will usually leave for a week, but then extend his stay, sometimes for 3-4 weeks, leaving no one in charge. He ignores texts and emails that he isn’t interested in dealing with. If you do manage to talk to him in person, he’ll tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear just to get rid of you. He’s the only manager, there is no other authority. The Teacher Administrator positions have been eliminated, so you must deal with him. Except you can’t. Basically, when you have an issue, you’re on your own.
  • He offers the minimum assistance possible to new teachers. He’s big with promises during your interview (BTW, he doesn’t seem to like Skype. Most teachers get a phone interview. I tried to Skype with him, but he said his camera didn’t work.) If you were promised a pick up at the airport, for example, forget it. You’ll be lucky if he’s even in town. He’ll probably wait until a day or less before your flight and tell you to take a taxi from the airport. You won’t even get a map.
  • The only time Michael will help you is your first trip to immigration. You’ll probably need three trips total, if all goes well. And he will make sure you understand that he is “doing you a favor” by taking you there. Michael canceled four appointments with me (always less than 24 hours) to go to immigration. He showed for the fifth appointment, but was late, then made me sit outside his office and wait while he did other things. We left 35 minutes later than agreed, which meant we had to wait longer at immigration since the place had filled up. It wasted a day.
  • All written information from the school says you’re “guaranteed” a minimum of 15 hours. Verbally, Michael promises 20-25 hours and has even told teachers that the average teaching hours are 25/week. But you’re lucky to get the minimum hours most 4-week sessions. I usually was assigned 14-19 hours per week. On the sessions when I only got 14 teaching hours a week, I was not paid the “guaranteed” minimum. Hence, there is no guarantee. Most teachers had trouble getting enough teaching hours to pay their rent.
  • Contracts of one year are promised, but teachers rarely have any contract. I was given an initial contract of 2 months, then nothing. Most teachers didn’t even get that.
  • Private students are extremely unreliable. While this is a problem in every school, at English Unlimited, if they didn’t show up, you probably wouldn’t be paid. Most schools require private classes to be canceled 24 (or at least 12) hours in advance.
  • You are promised reimbursement of your work visa if you stay a year. If you try to collect, Michael will change his wording from “one year” to “12 sessions.” And if you do the math, you’ll find you can’t do 12 sessions without over-staying your work visa. A session is 4 weeks (48 total weeks in a year). Add in a 3-week break for Christmas, a week at Easter , and he asks you to come 1 week before you start classes to observe (all unpaid, of course). That totals 53 weeks–and your work visa is only 365 days, or 52 weeks. It’s not possible to work 53 weeks without breaking the law. Most teachers quit long before a year, though.
  • The teaching materials are mediocre. I’ve certainly seen worse and there is, at least, enough information to cover the class time, so it’s not all bad. However, there are many mistakes, especially on the exams, that are never corrected. I wasted hours correcting the exams, but my corrects were just thrown away. Many of the readings, especially in the upper levels, are so bad I was too embarrassed to use them.
  • Michael promises to help you find a place to live. In practice, he gives you the address of only one boarding house, take it or leave it. The average room there rents for 2,900 pesos a month, but he won’t tell you that in advance so that you can budget ahead. He also doesn’t mention that you’ll have to pay first and last month’s rent in advance, in pesos. Nor does he tell you you’ll need all your own bedding (sheets, blankets, pillows), hangers and towels. You’ll also need a fan for the summer (there’s no A/C) and a space heater in the winter (there’s no heat), so you’ll have to buy these. The boarding house is not near any store that sells these items, most of which you’ll need on day one. And you don’t know anyone, don’t know the area, or where these stores might be located. It’s a recipe for a very bad first few days. The shared bath was OK and the housekeeper comes often, though she only cleans floors and bathrooms. The kitchen is shared by way too many people and I found it too dirty to cook in, even if I had been given space in the refrigerator, which I wasn’t. Only recently have screens been put on the windows. The internet is pretty good, however.
  • Michael’s information sheet that he sends to new teachers gives a recommended amount of money to bring with you to get started before your first pay. It’s too low by half and he neglects to mention that you need to exchange all your dollars at the airport, since you won’t be able to do it in San Luis Potosi. Local businesses don’t accept US dollars and banks won’t change them unless you have an account with them. Getting a bank account as a foreigner is nearly impossible. And the only time Michael offered to exchange money for me, the rate he offered was basically stealing.
  • Sessions are 4 weeks. You won’t find out your new teaching schedule until about 2pm of the last Saturday of the old session. There’s basically no discussion. He gives it to you last minute, so it’s take it or leave it. If you complain and he promises you he’ll work to improve the situation, don’t hold your breath. He never once lived up to any such promise with me. I just kept my locker packed up so I could walk out if the schedule was bad enough.
  • The lack of information and the misinformation (or should we just say “lies?”) pretty much guarantees that you’re going to have a bad start at English Unlimited. And when you don’t get enough work to pay your rent, it just gets worse. In most cases, telling the truth and giving accurate information would actually be easier than what’s being done now. I don’t know why teachers are treated so badly.
  • If you’re looking for professional development, you won’t get it at this school. There are no information meetings. There’s no training. There’s not even a teacher’s guide to the texts. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a one-hour orientation meeting with the one and only bilingual staff member. After that, you’re on your own. We didn’t even get reminders of holidays or time changes. No communication.
  • Michael pays in cash with pesos. While that does make it easy to spend, cash businesses are notorious for not paying taxes. The school holds out 10% of your wages for taxes. Current pay is 90 pesos and hour, so you get 81 pesos and hour net. Since I couldn’t get a record of the taxes paid, I have no way to know if those were ever paid. And for at least three months, we had a teacher at the school with an expired work visa. It’s hard to believe taxes were paid on him. In fact, Michael tries very hard to avoid putting your employment in writing in any form. For example, I asked for a school ID since teachers get a discount at museums and when buying bus passes. Couldn’t get one from him.

My personal observation is that the school has dwindling enrollment and nothing is being done to stop it. I’d estimate that enrollment is less than half of what it was when I began teaching there. It’s particularly noticeable that many businesses are no longer sending their employees to the school. It is difficult for me to believe the downtown branch is profitable and the last session I worked, it didn’t look like the main branch was doing any better. A business must make money or it fails. And the signs of failure are there—not enough hours for existing teachers, few supplies available (at least one class didn’t even have textbooks last session), high turnover of staff, and staff positions are not always replaced. One-day holidays that fall on a Monday are often not paid (though they are promised). At least once during my year there, the staff was paid late, though so far, teachers were always paid. The last weekday of the final session I worked, we had to close the downtown branch early because there wasn’t enough staff to keep it open.

I was placed at this school through Oxford Seminars. Though the school has gotten worse in my time there, many of the red flags were in place before Oxford suggested I look at the school. When I told them some of my concerns, they refused to help me find another placement, even though I wasn’t under contract to English Unlimited. For me, and for other teachers who have complained, Oxford Seminars repeatedly sided with the school, even about pay issues. I can’t recommend them, either.