By Sarah Phillips

29 September 2014 - 11:49

Keeping a blog or even just captioning your photos is a good way to document your experience. Photo of the Teotihuacan pyramids by MCAD library on Flickr/CC.
'Keeping a blog or even just captioning your photos is a good way to document your experience.' Photo ©

MCAD library, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Sarah Phillips, who worked as an English language assistant in Mexico, imagines what advice she would give herself if she went back and did it all again.

Although the British Council provides training before departure and in-country through teaching materials and for safety, it's impossible to prepare for every eventuality. Here are a few tips I would have given myself before starting out as an English language assistant in Mexico.

Living abroad is not as scary as you think it's going to be

As you can imagine, I was somewhat anxious at the prospect of moving to Mexico City for ten months, and wanted to have a realistic idea of what I was letting myself in for. Looking back now, I realise that Googling 'crime Mexico City' was only going to exacerbate what was already a scary, albeit exciting, prospect. The thing is, for every ten articles or websites about kidnapping in Mexico City, pollution in China and drugs in Colombia, you will find the same number or more claiming the opposite -- that it's not that bad, and that on a day-to-day level, citizens aren't generally aware of these issues. Danger exists all over the world, and being afraid of what may happen is only going to stop you making the most of the moment.

Do what you love doing and you will always find friends

Although there were seven assistants in Mexico City, finding Mexican friends to spend time with was a priority, not only for the language aspect but for integrating into life with the locals. But whether you're living in a metropolis or heading to a remote village, one thing that I learnt is that all people -- despite cultural, linguistic and political differences -- look for contact with others. It's what we crave as human beings, and if you're friendly and open to other cultures and ways of life, people will respond to that.

At the same time, don't be afraid of doing things on your own to begin with. If you're into football, join the local team. The same goes for dance, yoga, music, and so on. If you're a fan of art galleries and museums, there's no shame in checking these things out by yourself -- it’s where you’ll find people with similar interests. Or strike up a conversation with a fellow yoga enthusiast; before you know it, you'll have made a new friend.

You can never be fully prepared for life in a new country, but that's okay

Before arriving in Mexico, I felt I was aware of the issues and problems I might come up against: mugging, kidnapping, altitude sickness, crime. Imagine then how thrilled we were in induction week at the announcement of an imminent earthquake threat for Mexico City -- fabulous! My discreet money belt, fake purse and state of constant alertness on the metro were not going to help if a terremoto (earthquake) decided to hit. What's more, instead of an earthquake, I got a tropical storm and hurricane -- and on what I expected to be a chilled, long weekend in Acapulco.

The point is, no matter how prepared you think you may be, there are always unknowns that you will never be prepared for, but that's part of life. For every situation, be it small or potentially life-threatening, there will be scaremongers and there will be the more laissez-faire among us. But it’s about getting the right balance and accepting things that we can’t change, and being aware and mindful of the things we can.

Live each day as if you'll be leaving soon

One thing I regret about my time as an English language assistant is being complacent about how much time was left. During an unforgettable month travelling during the Christmas holidays, I definitely didn't carpe as much diem as I perhaps should have. If you're deliberating over whether to buy an artisanal necklace in a remote part of Chiapas, my advice to you is simple: buy it. When we travel, we quickly become accustomed to local currencies and bartering, and this can be great for getting brilliant deals and practising your language. But when you get home and you realise you didn't buy some handcrafted mugs at 50 pesos because you couldn’t get three for two, you'll kick yourself.

It's okay not to be busy all the time

One thing that I feel we are increasingly victims of these days is an immense fear of missing out. People are heading to a tequila bar? I have to go; I don't want to miss the concert; I’ve not visited this part of town yet...

But the thing to remember is that we're doing the assistantship to integrate with a new community and a new way of life, and over the period of almost a year. So it's okay if you want to spend the weekend relaxing at home with your room mates or just staying in the neighbourhood rather than travelling. It just means that, when you do go on fantastic trips, you really make the most of them.

Document the experience to preserve the memories

The one final overriding consejo (piece of advice) I would give to anyone about to embark on an assistantship, or in the midst of one, is to document your experience. Whether it's through a blog, a diary, journal or even just captioning your photos, it will ensure you never forget the view of the Sierra Mágica emerging through clouds, or the barefooted woman with the long plait wandering off into the Mayan jungle, or the sheer immensity of the Teotihuacan pyramids. Despite all the amazing things you will buy and bring back for yourself and for others, the best gift you can give yourself are your memories, and they are worth all the silver in Taxco.

Apply to become an English language assisant.

You might also be interested in: