Trips & Visits

In November 2012 KES was represented by it's Arkwright Scholar, Tom Thwaites at the ExpoCiencias 2012. Tom was representing the UK’s engineering youth at the Expo for a week and displaying the amazing properties of Aerogel; one of the least dense solids known to man...

Tom's report and video of this amazing experience is below...

Mexico ExpoCiencias 2012

21st of November

Our journey began at nine o’clock on Wednesday morning, after five minutes on the road we returned home as we decided it would probably be a sensible idea for me to bring my passport. We arrived at Heathrow terminal five in good time and were impressed by the speed of the service, we swiftly found ourselves through passport control and after a short search for Mr Blow’s much desired Von Zipper sunglasses we boarded our eleven hour direct flight to Mexico City. The plane took off at 12:40 and the journey was rather uneventful. I was convinced however, that my eyes would have bled, had I had time to watch a sixth film. Soon after Mr Blow spilt water all down his front, we flew over Mexico City. We were greeted by the most incredible sunset over the mountains on the west side of the city. We were taken back by the vastness of the megalopolis. All we could see in every direction was urban life. After a comparatively short queue for customs we arrived at the baggage claim in perfect time, just as our bags came round on the baggage carousel. We were greeted by some friendly Mexicans, mostly students reading at the University of Puebla, who would be looking after us during our short stay in Mexico. They told us we needed to wait for various other teams from around the world, who would be traveling with us for the final part of the journey. Mr Blow and I took this opportunity to explore Mexico City airport. We ate dinner at “Wings,” a restaurant chain comparable to “TGI Friday” in the U.K, which sold local and world foods. We decided to be adventurous and try mole, thinking we would be eating the small cylindrical mammals. We discovered that “Mole” is actually a traditional sauce from Puebla, the state which we would be staying in. The wait in the airport turned out to be several hours. We resulted in playing “The Ten Peso Game,” which consisted of who could buy the most interesting item for 10 pesos (≈50p), I won with a ridiculously large can of kiwi juice which I couldn’t finish. We then embarked on our two hour bus journey to Puebla which was mostly spent sleeping. We arrived at our hotel “La Quinta” in Puebla and found our room. It was roughly 7 o’clock for our body clocks, so going to bed was warmly greeted and we swiftly fell asleep, curious as to what the next day had in store for us.

22nd of November

We awoke early to the site of the Popocatépetl Volcano from our tenth floor room. A phenomenal natural landmark, which towers over Puebla and clearly is still active. We had not been able to see Popocatépetl the night before as it was dark when we arrived. After eating nachos amongst other things for breakfast, we took the bus to the cultural center of Puebla. The cultural center was incredibly modern and beautiful in contrast to the city center which appeared to be fairly old and historical. The cultural center was filled with interesting sculptures and luscious public woods and greenery.
The Expedition center was a large and impressive establishment, a real tribute to modern science and architecture. We began to set up our show stand but we were quickly ushered next door into the planetarium for the opening ceremony. After waiting for some time, the ceremony got underway. It was very hard to follow even though it was being translated into English. Several large sums of money were being awarded to Mexican scientists who had excelled in the world of science.
After the ceremony, we finished erecting our show stand. We were pleased to discover everything was still in one piece. We then spent until six o’clock exhibiting our show stand, with a break for a buffet lunch in the middle, which also left us time to explore the cultural center a little. It was hard yet very rewarding teaching the visitors and fellow science enthusiasts about the properties of Aerogel. Lots of them spoke very little or no English which made it particularly challenging. However on occasion, we were fortunate enough to have a translator. I enjoyed being able to allow the visitors to handle some of the samples of Aerogel, they were all very amazed by this fascinating material most of them had never heard of. Those who had heard of it, where grateful to be given the opportunity to handle it, as it is quite uncommon. Many of the Mexican females were very interested in taking pictures with Mr Blow and I and we must have had several hundred people ask us to take photos with us over the course of the trip. We were taken back by the magnitude of interest in us, we were led to believe it is because I am quite tall in comparison to them, however we both know it was actually because we are very attractive individuals!
In the second exhibition slot of the day Mr Blow was called upon to help judge the exhibitions of the international students. An experience which he found exciting yet challenging, as his basic Spanish was nowhere near good enough to fully understand most of the exhibitions. However, he appeared to be very impressed by the standard of the show stands. Rather disappointingly, due to poor organization no one judged our show stand, which left us no chance of winning anything.

We headed back to the hotel after a long day of exhibiting, however the day was far from over. After a very quick swim in the coldest seventh floor swimming pool I have ever been in we got changed into chinos and shirts ready for the Milset 25th anniversary dinner. Milset is a non-governmental, non-profit and politically independent youth organization, which aims at developing scientific culture among young people through the organization of science-and-technology programs.
As we stepped out of the lift and saw two very formally dressed women, we realized the formality of the event and swiftly stepped back into the same lift to “suit up.”
The Milset dinner took place on the twelfth floor of the hotel. It was very formal and pleasant. It was followed by an award ceremony for important figures in the last 25 years of Milset, of which there appeared to be many, as it went on for over two hours. It was all in Spanish, which made it particularly hard to follow, however it was a pleasant experience nonetheless. The last award was presented well past midnight and what followed was incredibly bizarre, the founder of Milset, an aging French man, with an eccentric sense of humor dunked his face in the anniversary cake. This was closely followed by the president of Milset getting up and starting what appeared to be a spontaneous flash mob to the popular South Korean tune “Gangnam Style.” This was followed by a large party with strange elongated balloons and very poor dancing. The party went on well into the night, however Mr Blow and I decided to leave early as we were still suffering from jetlag and we wanted to be on top form for the expo the next day.

23rd of November

After being told I was not allowed milk in my coffee by the waiter at breakfast, I was left pondering about how different culture is in Mexico. Everyone seemed a lot more relaxed. We were quickly educated about “Mexican Time,” which meant anything scheduled to happen at a certain time would happen half an hour to an hour later.
We spent from nine till two exhibiting our show stand, in which Mr Blow gave me the opportunity to wonder round and visit some of the other exhibitions while he “manned the stand.” They were all very impressive and the standard had been set very high, however I felt our stand was amongst the top exhibitions there, which pleased me. Unfortunately, I only was able to enjoy a fraction of the five hundred exhibitions there. I was gone for no more than half an hour to come back and find that one of the Aerogel samples had been broken. Admittedly, it wasn’t Mr Blows fault, someone had crushed it, however I couldn’t miss the opportunity to blame him for this misfortunate event. Shortly after, I was asked to present my show stand to a camera crew. Who recorded me for 15 minutes while I talked about Aerogel, I’m unsure what the footage was for, however I assume it will be for making some sort of montage for Milset.
Before lunch at the expo center, we had to pack our show stand together. We were quick and efficient and at 1:30 (Mexican time), we stepped outside to have our photos taken with all the other foreign guests.
After lunch we were taken down town to the Centre of Puebla were more photos were taken of us. Then we embarked on a bus tour of the city. Due to an insufficient amount of seats on the tour bus, Mr Blow and I had to sit on what was effectively the dashboard of the bus. After this experience, we decided that health and safety in Mexico was not quite as strict as in England. The tour was very interesting; we saw and learnt lots about the city. We were given some free time to wonder around the market in Puebla. As we were navigating our way back to the bus, which would take us back to the hotel, we got distracted by a show in the Zocalo (the old town center) and became separated from the group. It was amazing to see how the locals put shows on for each other. In the Zocalo there is even an outdoor theatre that has been set up, just for this purpose! Fortunately, the grid system in the center of Puebla was very simple and we managed to navigate our way back to the bus, which took us back to the hotel where we wrapped up warm for the “Mexican Party.”

The “Mexican Party” was downtown in the courtyard of an art gallery. Thousands of people attended. It consisted of traditional Mexican dancing and lasso shows accompanied by local musicians, playing traditional Mexican music. This was followed by a Mexican band, who had visited us at our show stand the previous day. They played covers of songs including Adele. While all this was going on venders where serving traditional local dishes. Unfortunately, I have little idea as to what most of them consisted of other than chili. They did still taste very nice and I was very thankful that we were given the opportunity to take part in such an amazing cultural experience.

24th of November

Once again, we went to bed late and woke up early. After a hearty breakfast, we decided to travel to Cholula by bus, as we had been given some free time.
Cholula is home to Tlachihualtepetl, which is the largest pyramid in the western hemisphere. Tlachihualtepetl was built over a period of a thousand years prior to the Spanish Conquest. However, by the time the Spanish arrived, the pyramid was overgrown, and by the 19th century, it was still undisturbed, with only the church built on top in the 16th century visible.

While queuing to enter the pyramid tunnel system, we bought some “Chapulines” off a street vender, which we decided to save and enjoy as a pleasant morning snack as we wondered around the site. We entered the pyramids eight kilometer network of tunnels and wondered through to the other side of the pyramid. The system appeared to have tunnels going off in all dimensions, which I found particularly impressive. Despite being incredibly impressed by the interior design of the pyramid I was quite pleased to find our way out. Not because of fears or claustrophobia, simply because it was very uncomfortable to walk through a tunnel system clearly not designed for someone who is 6”3. It appeared more likely to have been designed for someone 5”5 at best. As we returned to the hot November sun we decided it was a good time for me to try my first “Chapuline” which is simply a deep fried cricket. It is a fabulous snack, sold in bags of multiples of a hundred. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants an upset stomach for a the next few days. As we walked to the top of the pyramid we passed some interesting sites including a precession coming down from the church and a man practicing yoga. Somebody was letting off fireworks, at first we thought we were being shot as they were so close by. The church at the top was elaborately decorated and was definitely one of the most beautiful churches I have visited. We spent some time enjoying the views of the surrounding area, then we headed back down to Cholula to stroll through the town and visit the market. We left Cholula very glad we came as it was a very impressive and attractive site. We returned to the hotel to get ready for the closing ceremony of the ExpoCiencias.
On arrival, it appeared that the expo center had transformed inot one of the largest dining halls I had ever seen. After many more photos with local girls, we ate a formal lunch, which was followed by a lengthy award ceremony in Spanish. It was rather disappointing because of the language barrier I felt I could not fully engage in the ceremony. It was however, still a grand occasion. I was forced by Mr Blow to go up to the front with the rest of the Europeans and sing a song in front of the two to three thousand people present, his excuse was, “someone has to take photos.” We sang a song about uniting the nations through science. However, I wasn’t given the words making it a rather awkward situation.
After the ceremony, we headed down town, stopping at a café along the way, to enjoy a frappe in the sun. We explored the amazing architecture of the cultural park and watched the sunset as we walked into town past shows being put on by locals. We explored the Zocolo, as we hadn’t had sufficient time the previous day and we sat in the square for some time to enjoy the environment. We headed back to the market we visited the previous day as I felt it was important to buy a poncho. Then we were lured into a small dark restaurant as we heard a local man playing guitar and singing and we were intrigued. As our Spanish was very limited and we were feeling particularly adventurous, we decided to randomly select dishes on the menu, with absolutely no idea what they were. I ended up with a chicken Panini type meal and Mr Blow still has no idea what he ate although it was so hot it may as well have been raw chilies.
We took a taxi back to the hotel where we shared our “Chapulines” with some Brazilians, who, to our disappointment, seemed completely unscathed by the concept of eating insects.
We headed back to our room where we packed our belongings ready for an early start for our long journey home.

25th of November

We woke in time to enjoy the sunrise on the top floor of our hotel. After checking out of the hotel, we headed to the lobby to catch our 7 o’clock bus to Mexico City, the bus left swiftly at 7:30 Mexican time. The bus took us right past the foot of the volcano we had been admiring for the past few days and then deep into the heart of Mexico City. After a little confusion at the airport, we got through customs and were able to enjoy sometime shopping in duty free. I decided it would be a great idea to buy a sombrero. We then boarded our flight to Madrid and took off at 12:40. Thankfully, the plane was quite empty so Mr Blow and I were fortunate to have several seats to ourselves. We particularly enjoyed the “PlaneCam,” a camera attached to the rudder of the plane, allowing you to watch the plane during takeoff and landing. I spent the first part of this flight trying to write down the events of the past few days, while Mr Blow utilized the time to write reports. We landed in Madrid airport at 6:20 on Monday. Madrid airport is by far the most impressive airport I have visited. We spent some time here before boarding our flight to London at 8:50. I spent most of this leg asleep as I had definitely had a lack of it over the past few days. We landed in London at 10:20 and whizzed through customs. Then we were picked up and taken home. By the time we arrived we were tired and ill but pleased we were able to enjoy such an amazing opportunity.

Our trip to Mexico was an amazing learning experience for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. As well as learning many new things, in the short time we spent in Mexico, I was also able to experience so much new and amazing culture. I would like to thank everyone who made this trip possible, especially “The Arkwright Trust,” who organized our place in the expo, “King Edward VI School” for supporting us financially and “Buyaerogel.com” who made it possible for us to obtain Aerogel.