Under the Radar: Mexico

As my step-mum is from Mexico, I’ve been lucky enough to spend many summer and winter holidays there. Mexico is one of the most eclectic places I’ve ever visited. While most people travel there for its beaches (and for good reason), it has a far more diverse landscape than most people realize. It is also home to jungles, volcanoes, deserts, mountains, lagoons, colonial towns and ancient ruins. Here are three places in Mexico that I think are vastly underrated…

For Beach Vibes:

PUERTO ESCONDIDO

While most flock to Cancun to sample the nightlife that Mexico has to offer, if you prefer less tourists and more chilled out vibes, then Puerto Escondido is the place for you. Literally translating to ‘hidden port’, it is definitely something of an underrated, hidden gem. Long appreciated by backpackers, and dubbed a ‘surfers paradise’, it’s time that it received the universal recognition it deserves.

We visited here last December and could not have come at a better time. Spending NYE here was charming. It wasn’t too party oriented, but there were definitely places to have a good time. Among my favourites was the cute bar and live music venue located along Zicatela: Casa Babylon. It’s an ideal spot to recover during the day – it even has an array of books available for free via an exchange system. Alternatively, you can head down there when it comes alive at night with live music, dancing and cheap cocktails.

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For a City Escape:

PUEBLA CITY

The city of Puebla is the capital of the state of the same name and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of the five most important Spanish colonial cities in Mexico and boasts a myriad of baroque, renaissance and classical architecture. One of the most notable examples of its architecture is The Cathedral of Puebla, which is one of the largest in Mexico.

While you’re here, be sure to check out the Amparo museum. It’s easy to see everything in a couple of hours, and it seamlessly incorporates technology to keep you engaged. Not only does it have an impressive collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts, but it also has wonderful contemporary exhibitions. Bonus points for the roof top terrace with views over the city.

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For History Buffs:

CHOLULA

A quaint, colourful town only a short taxi ride from Puebla (so, it’s very convenient to combine the two in one trip). This Mesoamerican site is home to the Great Pyramid of Cholula: Tlachihualtepetl. While little of the structure remains, and it resembles more of a hill (due to the mud bricks which have resulted in an entirely buried structure), it is in fact the largest pyramid in the world. Yep, although it doesn’t look like it, it is in fact bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt (in terms of volume, not height). Not just that, it’s also the largest monument built on Earth so far. Ever. Which is interesting considering that archaeologists weren’t aware of its existence until the early 1900s.

Climb the ascent to find the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedies sanctuary which was built by the Spaniards atop of the complex and is perfect for enjoying a panoramic view of the town. Then, wander around the colourful, bustling markets for traditional food and handmade garments.

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Study Abroad in Shanghai: Intercultural Communications at STA

So, much to my disbelief, I’ve been in Shanghai for almost three months now. I was planning to do a series on my experiences studying at Shanghai Theatre Academy sooner, but for the past month I have been left laptop-less after a liquid damage mishap (shout out to Exeter Uni’s insurance policy Aviva for granting me a replacement). When I was preparing for my year abroad, there was a shocking lack of information provided concerning details such as course content, the academic calendar, accommodation, etc which was very frustrating. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was the first student from Exeter to undertake a year abroad at STA and therefore had no-one to share their experiences with me. So, this series will aim to cover these aspects along with other things that you’ll want to take into account when deciding on taking a year abroad such as culture shock and the social life in the city. This first post is dedicated to the details of the course itself.

I am on the Intercultural Communications MA programme. It is usually a two-year programme, with the first year consisting of classes and the second year dedicated to writing the thesis. There are 12 people on my course, but it seems to be expanding yearly as it’s relatively new (last year’s intake was six students). We’re made up of eight different nationalities, but the language of instruction for the course is English. As it is the only course at STA that is taught in English, there’s not really a range of modules to choose from. I remember browsing the modules on STA’s website and thinking I’d be able to take classes in subjects such as TV-hosting and directing. Nope. They’re all taught in Chinese. So unless you’re bilingual, you’ll be restricted to the modules specific to the ICS course. As a student on a year abroad, I am only here for one year before returning to Exeter to complete my fourth year. There is one other undergraduate (who is a student on a year abroad from the University of Leeds) and the rest of the participants are graduate students. If you are also an undergraduate, don’t be intimidated by the fact that it is an MA, the classes aren’t too challenging. They are pretty relaxed, and aside from weekly reading there isn’t much of a workload.

This term my schedule has consisted of the following modules:
Chinese Language: Three compulsory (and two optional) classes a week 8:30am-11:40am. Assessment is through a mid-term exam and a final exam. I sat the mid-term exam last week and we went through it in class beforehand, and then spent about thirty minutes working on it. It was all directly from what we’d been learning, so nothing to stress about.
Modern Chinese Performing Arts in Global Perspectives: We have eight classes in total, held weekly on Thursdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of three thought-pieces reflecting on readings that have been set, a group oral presentation and a final paper of around 2500 words (or creative project) with a presentation to discuss your findings.
Intercultural Theatre: Eight classes held fortnightly on Tuesdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of one final paper around 2500 words in length (or a creative project) and an informal presentation/discussion about your research.
Chinese History and Culture: Eight classes held fortnightly Tuesdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of a museum report, a critical commentary on one piece of reading and a final paper to be a minimum of 800 words.
Optional Chinese Opera Acting: Three classes held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 1:30pm-3pm.

Here, we have two academic terms as opposed to the usual three that we have back in the UK. This semester started in the first week of September and will finish in the week before Christmas. Usually, semesters in China run into mid-January, but they make an exception for our course as all participants are foreign students, and many will want to spend Christmas with their families. The second semester begins in the last week of February and runs until the first week of July. We are yet to be informed of our classes next term, but last year’s students took the mandatory Chinese language classes, Cultural Creative IndustriesFilms and Contemporary Chinese Society and Politics, and had the option to take traditional Chinese Culture & Taiqiquan, Chinese Opera Acting and Chinese Culture.

The teaching style is different. Three hour classes were definitely something I needed to adjust to. We do have a 5-10 minute break halfway through, but as someone with a short attention span, it took a while to get used to concentrating for longer than an hour at a time. All of my classes are essentially in a seminar format which I prefer infinitely to lecture-style teaching. The only issue with this format is that the quality of the class discussion is dependent on how many students do the reading, and as some of the teachers are so relaxed, it’s easy to become complacent. The flexibility of the course can be a merit though, as you can mould the course to your needs. The final paper (or creative project in some classes) has very large parameters and you’re given freedom and encouragement to seek out a topic that interests you, as long as it’s somewhat related to the class.

There is also the opportunity to gain academic credits in other projects. For example, I was among a group of STA students that decided to creatively collaborate and submit a film to the 48 hour film festival which was held in Shanghai a few weeks ago. Provided we contributed equally to the project and wrote a short reflective report on the experience, we were awarded academic credit. To complete the year, you need to have a certain amount of credits. However, the study abroad team advised me that I needed to take a minimum of seven modules, and not to worry about credits. So, perhaps the film project won’t contribute to my overall mark, but it was still an exciting experience to have.

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ICS students who took part in the 48 Hour Film Festival