Yikes, Yerkes!

This is the second in a series of posts about studying Spanish in Mexico that starts here.

My life had gone off the rails shortly after my 40th birthday and it seemed like the obvious thing to do was to run away to Mexico and learn Spanish. I had never been to Mexico. I had studied Spanish in high school, but Spanish class followed my free hour, which I spent smoking pot, so while I probably appeared to be enjoying the class immensely, the only words I had retained were cerveza and fiesta. Those weren’t going to get me a bus ticket.

But somehow I managed to fly to Mexico City, then take a bus to Cuernavaca. I was well prepared by Amerispan, the company I used to find a language school.

It just occurred to me that I am actually a sort of expert on travel, study, and volunteering abroad programs due to all the things sparked by this first trip to Mexico.

First, I wrote my master’s thesis on international immersion programs (meaning that you live with a host family in order to learn about culture and/or language). I researched a dozen of them and read up on the psychology of immersion learning. Did you know there’s a psychological theory called the Yerkes-Dodson law which says that the ideal learning experience requires you to be pushed out of your comfort zone—but if you are pushed too far your mind will shut down?

Second, I have participated in half a dozen immersion programs. There was the Volunteers for Peace trip, where I babysat Pakistani kids and studied racism with a group of other volunteers in the East End of London. There were my four trips with Amerispan. I did an internship for Global Volunteers, which offers “volunteer vacations.” There was my trip to Cuba to deliver medical supplies with the Marin Interfaith Taskforce on the Americas. I went back to England to volunteer for Oxfam, then got a full-time job there. I spent two months interviewing human rights activists in Nairobi, Kenya under the auspices of American Jewish World Service.

There was one close call. A few years ago, I had a plane ticket to go to Kolkata, India to volunteer for two years with CUSO International. This is a Canadian organization similar to the Peace Corps but without the political agenda. They flew me to Vancouver for a three-day interview and to Ottawa for five days of training. I had received all my shots, had my letter of resignation ready, and was packing my belongings to put them in storage.

Then I read the blog of the volunteer I would be replacing. She described coming home to find a giant rat standing on its hind legs on her bed and hissing at her. “I’m not afraid of rats,” I told myself. She painted a picture of her lodgings, a windowless room with no air con or even a fan, in a city where the average daily temperature was 104F (40C). “Well I wanted to get away from winters!” was my rationale for why I could hack it. But then there was her description of the pitch dark shower that had soft muck on the floor from which giant winged insects arose when she started the water—which was only a dribble—I immediately wrote to CUSO and backed out.

I felt a little guilty, but I would have felt worse if they had had to pay to wack-evac me later.

Third, I am co-teaching a class about this whole subject, for the second year. Last night we talked about the spectrum of providers. This blog doesn’t have any advertising, so I’ll give Amerispan a shout out here, again. I think it’s great because it really helps you think through what your priorities are and what you can tolerate. They specialize in language studies, study abroad, and international volunteer opportunities. They gave me enough guidance to find my way to Cuernavaca on my own, but it was loose enough that I got my fill of adventure. And that’s what gives you a feeling of accomplishment and scratches the itch for the next trip.

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