Deciding to participate in the Public Health in Mexico program was on pure impulse. It’s now been a week since I arrived in Mexico City, and every day has been a whirlwind of new experiences. After fumbling through airport customs with an abysmal grasp of Spanish, I met up with some fellow students and together we were taken to our homestays by shuttle bus (we didn’t know it at the time but our bus driver, Arnoldo, would make repeat appearances not only as our guide but as our Mexican history lecturer!).

As night fell, Arnoldo navigated us safely through the heart-quickening antics of peak traffic and into Condesa, a charming suburb around twenty minutes from downtown Mexico City. The loveliest parts are all long, straight roads lined with mature trees, townhouses painted in cheerful colours and lively cantinas (Mexican pubs) glowing with fairy lights. Arnoldo told me that Condesa was named after the wealthy countess who long ago owned the area; the mansion in which she lived now houses the Russian embassy.

I was one of three girls who got to stay with Ruchy. Unfortunately I was also the first, which meant more awful attempts at communication on my part and patience on hers but Ruchy was so warm-hearted and generous that I felt at ease as soon as we met. Ruchy is a painter by trade, and the walls of her spotless apartment are covered in her depictions of still life, flowers, and landscapes. I was out like a light as soon as my head touched the pillow, so the next thing I knew I was meeting my fellow roommates Evelyn and Jess, two other girls also participating in the program. We quickly bonded and soon were fast friends.

The next day, however, it was down to business. The Public Health in Mexico program is a mix of lectures held at La Salle University, healthcare facility visits, and cultural site visits. The campus is gorgeous, comprising of both high school and university students and is an easy fifteen minute walk -we quickly learned to dodge traffic and avoid the gaping, cube-shaped manholes dug into various footpaths. Due to the prevalent Catholic presence in Mexico, shorts and skirts are banned at La Salle but as if to make up for it the level of PDA is off the charts. Our classes are held in a gorgeous conference-esque room and have been more interactive tutorials in style than lectures, with the professors often asking us to share our experiences and being genuinely interested in our responses.

So far we’ve covered Mexican history, an introduction to the Mexican public healthcare system, the effect of socio-cultural factors and sexuality, and the effects of an ageing population. We also had two urgently- needed Spanish survival classes, which helped tremendously with our confidence!

Facility visits enabled us to get hands-on and interact with healthcare workers, the people they help, and their carers. Our first visit was to Medico en su Casa, a government initiative aimed at bringing health services to the homes of those who would otherwise be unable to access the aid they require, one of only two aged care facilities in Mexico City (we sang a medley of Give Me A Home Among The Gumtrees, Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gumtree and We Are One, complete with actions, and were serenaded with traditional Mexican ballads in return), and a tour of La Salle’s (very Greek-inspired) sister campus.

Our scheduled cultural visits were on the weekend, but Arnoldo and the intern assigned to us, Fernando, had even more suggestions for us to round out the weekdays. And so, despite already having such a packed schedule, we also found time to hit up the insanely colourful Ciudadela market, a seriously impressive display of talent from CONCACAF football teams América and Santos in a live match (spoiler: America won 3-2), and an international student welcome party, where us Aussies dominated the dance floor and where I definitely scarred some locals with my tequila-influenced “dance” moves.

The week was rounded out with a Saturday of cultural adventures. First was the Plaza of the Three Cultures, where we were introduced to the many merits of agave, Mexico’s all-rounder equivalent of the coconut palm. The fibre of the young leaves can be peeled off like a post-it note for instant writing paper, or pulled for surprisingly strong thread to sew or weave with. The tips of the agave’s leaves are slim, hardened barbs. When pulled, the points come away from the leaf with the fibres attached for an arrowhead or already threaded needle. Of course, everyone was the most interested in the samples of cactus juice, mescal (a strong alcoholic drink), tequila, and aguamiel (an alcoholic spirit that tastes like honey), all made from different varieties of agave.

Then it was on to Teotihuacan, the City of the Gods. The dominating structures are two pyramids called the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. Arnoldo made a repeat appearance as our guide, and told us so many stories about how the Aztecs used the temples that I am fully convinced they are the most metal people to have ever existed. Just one story he shared was that to please the water god, Tlaloc, a baby was sacrificed on each of the Temple of the Sun’s four corners because “killing a baby will make it cry more” and thus produce more water for the god. I left with a distinct sense of gratitude to not have been born into the Aztec empire.

We then had lunch at a lovely Mexican restaurant that included live mariachi music and a traditional Aztec dance, before finishing up by visiting the Basilica of Guadalupe. It’s the second most visited place by Christians, beaten only by the Vatican City. With a huge square flanked by seven churches, it was genuinely awe-inspiring.

And with that, I’m going to bed - with a day of downtown Mexico City exploring and night of watching traditional dances tomorrow, next week’s shaping up to be just as full as this one. Bring it.