I was writing this post from the sky, on my way back to the United States after an incredible trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico! One privilege I believe we have as Oberlin students are the many breaks that the school offers us: fall break, winter break, and spring break. Most schools, if they have a fall break – or even a spring break – only get a day or two off. At Oberlin, both the fall and spring breaks last an entire week. I believe this break is essential to our productivity as students. I’ve done something different and memorable during each break. During my first fall break, I went home to visit family and friends. During my first spring break, I actually stayed in Oberlin to practice for my upcoming organ audition.
The one nice thing about staying in Oberlin for break is that many churches in the area offer free lunches and dinners for the students on campus. Breaks in Oberlin are generally pretty empty so if you decide to stay, you get some time and space to yourself. During my sophomore fall break, I went on a trip with the outings club which was particularly memorable and an incredible experience for me. That spring break, I went home to visit family and see a concert in Chicago, which was also very memorable. During my junior fall break, I took a road trip and had an incredible time visiting a graduate friend in Baltimore. As I’ve grown up, I’ve become braver about travelling, being independent, taking risks and putting myself in a position of responsibility and autonomy. This spring break, my best friend and I decided to take a solo trip to Mexico. It is one of the best decisions I’ve made.
I was a little anxious at first: I have a recital at the end of April, a benefit concert I’m organizing, and so much more to do. I was very stressed a couple of weeks ago, preparing for LaunchU and for everything else I needed to accomplish. Leaving the country seemed like the worst idea possible, as I was only being handed even more responsibilities. Maybe I will be stressed when I get off the plane. Maybe this next week will be insane… but I am not going to regret this trip!
My friend and I managed to get amazingly affordable flights; about a month ago, we booked a hotel, but within the last month we had no time to plan, no time to learn Spanish, and didn’t have anything mapped out. On Friday we arrived at the airport in Puerto Vallarta and found out that despite calling my friend’s bank earlier that day, her debit card was shut down and we weren’t able to get any pesos. After 4 hours of trying to find someone who spoke English, making international calls to the bank, being put on hold for 30 minutes at a time, and many eye-roll worthy conversations, we finally escaped the airport with enough pesos to get us up and running.
It was a little frightening at first to be arriving in a city without plans or the ability to effectively communicate. But we planned it as we went, day by day, and we basically hit everything on the “Top 25 things to do in Puerto Vallarta” list. We spent the first day walking down the beautiful Malecon Street next to the ocean, relaxing on the beach, and exploring the city. During the second day, we visited some small beach towns: Mismaloya, Boca de Tamatlan, and Las Animas, which was only accessible by water taxi. We also visited the zoo and explored the mountainside.
During our third day, we went up the La Cruz Lookout to get a full view of the city, explored the Zona Romantica and some markets, spent some more time on the beach, and went parasailing! On our fourth day, we visited Marina Vallarta, got a massage, and did some much needed shopping. During the fifth day, we took a bus to Punta de Mita and visited the area’s #1 attraction: Los Marietas Islands.
Some things I loved about this trip:
- Puerto Vallarta’s bus system: Everywhere we went, there was a bus. It was unlike anything I had experienced in America. Wave down a bus, hop on it, pay about 50 cents and go anywhere. Even our hour-long trip to Punta Mita only cost us ONE US dollar. The bus rides were quite an experience too. Of course they weren’t luxury seating, but every time we got on a bus, there was either a man playing his accordion, a bunch of people singing, or a girl bringing her 3-month-old puppy to school.
- The people and the culture: The friendly people were maybe my favorite part of visiting Puerto Vallarta. Can you believe that taxi drivers actually stopped to let us cross? On our first bus ride from the airport to our hotel, someone immediately gave up their seat for me when they saw my luggage. My suitcase kept falling and rolling everywhere, and I looked like another ridiculous tourist. A stranger reached over and helped me hold onto it. That was just the first of many positive interactions I had in this country. People gave us help without us even asking for it. The moment that people noticed we were tourists, they asked us if we knew where we were going. When we whispered questions to each other like, “Is this where we get off?” someone would chime in and answer for us.
- One of our most interesting interactions was in Punta Mita. We paid for a boat to take us to the Las Marietas Islands. The man then told us he needed to go get the other couple and some other people on the boat before he could take it out. We sat on the beach for a while and waited and then realized… did he take our money and run off? We started asking people around if they had seen him. “Don’t worry, he didn’t run off with your money. That’s just how the boats work here.” We were very anxious, but it turns out they were right. The trusting environment in Puerto Vallarta amazed me… There were many different panga drivers in Punta Mita who didn’t work for any organization. Once they sold a tour, they waited for enough people to get on the boat and eventually one of the drivers would go out, even if he wasn’t the one who sold the tour. They didn’t compete with each other. They had some sort of agreement with one another.
- Everyone was just trying to make a living. It felt good whenever I made a local purchase in Puerto Vallarta, whether it was to ride the water taxi, go parasailing, or get a massage. It wasn’t so much like corporate America where everyone is paid a salary. There were so many small businesses, and every time I made an investment in one, I knew I was investing in food on a table.
- The disorganization, lack of information online, and the generally slow pace of business in Mexico might irritate some people to an extreme degree. However, I found that all of the interactions I had with waiters, store clerks, and other workers were extremely genuine and unscripted. Usually when I walk into an American store, it’s obvious that the employee has been trained in repeating a certain set of phrases. In Puerto Vallarta, it felt like everyone wanted to know me and have a conversation with me. Conversations felt organic. It was unlike anything I was used to in America where transactions are swift and efficient.
- The food: okay, so I used to be a pescetarian but soon discovered that good seafood does not usually exist in the Midwest. This led me to vegetarianism. After finding nothing to eat but deep fried tortillas and salads for the first couple of days of the vacation, I decided I had to try out the fish. So I got to re-experience pescetarianism for a few days but am likely back to leafy greens for now. I also tried Chilaquiles for the first time in Mexico – fried tortillas with cheese and spicy green or red sauce – and I had to stop myself from ordering them multiple times. Even the bread there is fried, and normally every meal comes with either tortilla chips, bread or oftentimes… both. As someone who has no self-control, it’s time to hit the gym.
- The houses, the streets, and the alleys: one of my favorite excursions was the little trip we took down from the La Cruz lookout. We didn’t know where we were going but ended up in an alleyway where the walls were painted with pictures of the ocean, Las Marietas, the Baha'i Temple, and Malecon Street. It wasn’t uncommon to find beautiful works of art in the most unexpected places. Dogs roamed the streets freely, clotheslines hung on every rooftop, and people lived in close quarters with one another. A certain lack of worry was etched into the crooked rooftops, a vibrancy in spirit painted onto blue doors.
- The beaches: duh.
- The activity: Walk down Malecon at night and you will find street performers who have been entertaining there for hours. Every night, there are new activities happening on Malecon. Movies in the park was a huge thing when we went. We walked down that street every night, and every night there was a new movie playing and hundreds of people watching. There were also public comedy shows, salsa dancing in the square, and a huge square full of food vendors and socializing on the weekends.
Take advantage of your spring break! Save your money, and do something you don't normally do – you won’t regret it. I sure didn’t. Not every school gets a full week off every semester. It was truly the best spring break I've ever had.