Tag Archives: Mexico

My Name is Anne, and I’m a Travelholic

I’m house sitting again, this time for a friend who has a huge apartment and two cats who need minding.  My friend is Peruvian and collects art and artifacts every time she goes home.  Here are some of my favorites:

Maria y MuertoMariaTrabajo

My last post about the road trip, and my anxieties around it, brought to mind the only other Big Road Trip of my life.  I’ve driven to Chicago a half dozen times but that’s nothing compared to the trip where I never once got behind the wheel.

My friend Rebecca and I met at an Alanon meeting in Oxford.  AA and Alanon meetings vary greatly from one culture and location to another.  In St. Paul meetings, people go around at the beginning, say their names, and the crowd responds, “Hi Anne!”  The meetings are pretty squirrely.  There’s lots of laughter and disorder.

Not so in Oxford.  The meeting was in an 18th Century church.  The ceilings were low and building was cold, cramped, and crooked.  The chairs were hardwood with no cushions and the backs were a 90 degree angle from the seat, making for maximum discomfort, especially since the tilted floors meant your chair teetered to one side.  I regret I never brought a marble to set in the middle of the table so I could see which direction it would roll off.

At my first meeting, the introductions started and the first person said slowly and with perfect enunciation, “Hello, my name is Roger”—or “rwah-jah” as he pronounced it.  I exclaimed, “Hi Roger!”  Just me.  No one else.  Everyone stared at their hands, neatly folded in their laps.  I’m sure they were thinking, “Bloody Americans, they’re so enthusiastic about everything!”

I heard a barely-stifled guffaw and a snort on the other end of the table just as a woman introduced herself, “Hello, my name is Rebecca.”  She looked straight at me and laughed.  The rest of the group carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.  It took a while, but Rebecca and I would become good friends.

A year later my work visa had expired and I was back in St. Paul.  I job hunted for seven months, taking the bus everywhere because I had sold my car when I moved to England.  It was a painful stretch.  As soon as I landed a job I bought a Mini Cooper.  Maybe it was a foolish thing to do, since I hadn’t even started the job yet, but I thought of my Mini as sort of like the greatest souvenir / consolation prize I could have from my time in England.

And did you know?  There are Mini events going on all the time all over the world.  I learned that there would be a “Mini Festival” in England the following spring.  It was as good an excuse as any to go back and visit.  So I Skyped with Rebecca and she was in.

“Let’s go to Wales though, too, okay?” she proposed.  “We can visit my brother the sheep farmer and camp on the cliffs overlooking the sea.”

Was that okay with me?  Was it!  Oh boy!  I bought my ticket and started looking at maps.    

We would drive from Oxford to Wales, then slingshot back to Silverstone racetrack for the festival.  It doesn’t look that far on a map but … I’ll get to that.

Map

If you’ve read this blog from the beginning, you know I started my adult life on welfare, in subsidized housing, with no car.

Here’s how I afford trips—my two indulgences—on a nonprofit salary: I live below my means.  I make do with small living spaces.  I have a dozen pairs of shoes—which is nothing for an American female.  I shop at thrift stores and get my haircuts at Cost Cutters with coupons.  I make my own coffee and cook from scratch instead of going to coffee shops and restaurants.

I hope I don’t sound smug.  My intention is to encourage you—if you love travel but don’t have a lot of money—to consider offbeat adventures like the volunteering, language immersion, and medical missions I’ve described in the last few months.  Or even just every day adventures like house sitting for a friend.

The Awakening

This is the seventh post in a series that started here.

I wrote in the first post in this series, “Wrestling with Restless,” that I would eventually make a point about my question: “Why would I want to leave Minnesota, one of the cleanest, healthiest, most progressive states in the U.S.—a state with great microbreweries—to go study/work/volunteer in a developing country?”

I’m finally at the point of making the point.

I was on a bus in central Mexico with 50 other mostly American Spanish-immersion students, and we had just been directed to gaze upon a garbage dump a big as a mountain.  It was beautiful—from afar.  Trash is colorful.  Flocks of seagulls soared and reeled above it and the sun glinted off the metal and glass it contained.  Our guide had called it a garbage dump city.  Why would anyone live in a garbage dump?  The stench would be overpowering!  Think of the filth and the disgusting things you would see!

To my relief, we didn’t stop but kept going until we arrived at Nuetros Pequeños Hermanos, or Our Little Brothers and Sisters.  As I mentioned previously, the Spanish school we attended specialized in Spanish for social workers, health care professionals, and teachers.  I wasn’t any of those; I just had just liked the school so much the first time that I wanted to return for more.   Now here I was, about to tour an orphanage.

We piled out of the bus and someone walked us around.  This is how I know I was having a Yerkes-Dodson moment, because I cannot remember whether it was a man or a woman or a priest or one of the older kids or a volunteer.

“We have 550 children here, from toddlers to teenagers,” the guide informed us.  “Most of them aren’t orphans; their parents are just too poor to feed them.  Or they’re alcoholics, or unwed mothers, or mentally ill, or in prison.”  The guide talked as we walked.  We passed a half dozen teenage boys shaving the heads of little boys.  We stood and listened in a dorm with rows of bunk beds and cartoon murals on the walls.

“Then there are the children from the garbage dump city,” the guide said.  I was transfixed.  “Hundreds of families make their living by picking through the rubbish and salvaging anything that can be sold.  Mostly it’s metals like copper but also appliances, furniture, shoes ….  We send buses every morning to pick up about 250 children.  We bring them here, give them showers, delouse them and put them in clean clothes, and they spend the day in school here.  Then we bring them home at the end of the day.”

Home.  To the garbage dump city.

We kept walking; we saw the dark little volunteer quarters and the kitchen garden tended by the older children.  A teenage girl and boy were flirting over a fence.  Since it was a Catholic home, I assumed there was no sex education or birth control.  How many babies were born here, to children like them?

The census of children is lower now than when I was there, but at that time, as I did the math, they were in charge of feeding, educating, housing, clothing, and providing health care to about 800 children.

“We have a dozen homes in nine countries,” the guide stated.  This is the moment when I had my “international awakening,” for lack of a better term.  I don’t know if there are homes like this any more in the U.S.  There are thousands of children are in the foster care system.

But the scale of this … for every adorable, doe-eyed two year old there were a dozen or a hundred more who needed someone to care for them.

I felt like I was in one of those videos where the camera pulls back from the earth so you feel lifted off the ground. You look down on the tree tops, then you can see rivers and highways, then shorelines of countries.  You zoom out farther until you are looking down on the blue marble we called Earth, and then out, out, out until you can see the Milky Way.

The Mountain

This is the sixth post in a series on studying Spanish in Mexico that starts here.

I returned from my inaugural week of Spanish immersion and started graduate school. A few months later, I returned for three more weeks.

It was on this was the trip that I had my “international awakening”—the experience that committed me to working in international development. Years before, I had worked for the American Refugee Committee for two years on contract, writing their newsletters and annual reports. I read a lot of background materials and interviewed employees to get material. I already knew that terrible things were happening in Sudan; this work required me to know the gory details. However, nothing compares to being there.

I returned to the same school and requested a home stay with Mirta. I couldn’t wait to see her again and bask in the warmth of her household. Since I was in grad school, I could take all the classes I wanted in addition to those in my program, so I already had a semester of Spanish under my belt and I was excited to be able to talk to her more. Things had been falling into place: The maid’s name wasn’t Ella. “Ella,” meant “she” in Spanish. If you know Spanish you may be shaking your head that I didn’t know this sooner, but it was one of many light-bulb moments in learning a language I found thrilling.

Since I was staying for three weeks, I would be more involved in the life of the school. Cemanahuac specializes in Spanish for teachers, social workers, and heath care professionals. They asked me to bring donations of vitamins if I could, so I took up a collection and filled a suitcase.

Lisa n Alex

This is my former housemate and her son. I financed this trip, and many to come, with funds from my part-time student job, student loans, and rent from people who shared my space or rented the whole place when I went for extended periods.

Mirta had no recollection of me. I felt wounded. That first week in Cuernavaca had been so vivid to me. I attempted to jog her memory, “I’m from Minn-eh-sota, near Can-a-da, where it’s very cold, remember?” I said in Spanish.

She gave me a kindly but blank look. She nodded and smiled but it was obvious I was a blank slate to her. I knew Mirta was married to an elderly, retired doctor she had to care for and support. She had this big compound too, and she worked as hard as the maid to keep it up. Mirta needed students to pay the bills. She was saintly, listening to our stammering, canned Spanish 101 attempts at conversation. She was genuinely warm. We weren’t all white 22 year olds. But as soon as one student left another arrived, and we probably all blurred together.

There’s a phenomenon where people go on tours of slums in the developing world and snap photos of the residents like they’re zoo animals. I hope I wasn’t like that, but my mouth may have gaped open a few times.

I was really into my Spanish studies and hadn’t paid much attention to where we were going for a “field trip” on Saturday. About 50 of us traipsed onto a bus and we drove for an hour. My head was swiveling back and forth from whatever conversation I was having with the student in the seat next to me—she was an African American woman who worked for the U.S. State Department as some kind of administrator and lived in Washington, D.C.—and the scenery out the window.

I was looking at her when I saw her eyes lock on to something in the distance over my shoulder. “What is that?” she wondered.

I turned to look and my first thought was, “A mountain?”

“But look how colorful it is. And why are there so many seagulls?”

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

Then one of our teachers stood up, pointed to the mountain, and announced, “Welcome to Miacatlán garbage dump city.”

Garbage City GullsG Dump City

Zizzybalooba

This is the fifth post in a series on studying Spanish in Mexico that starts here.

Zoe managed to get her footing over the course of the week but she couldn’t wait to get home. She was from Salinas, California. Her mother was from Spain, her father was Portuguese, and they had chosen to not expose her to either of their native tongues. They wanted her to be American.

“It’s funny what people think an ‘American’ is”, I said.

“And I’m a social worker, in California!” She laughed at the absurdity. “All my clients speak Spanish. They start speaking Spanish to me because they assume I speak it. Then when they realize I don’t, they have their kids interpret. All they have to do, if they want to hide anything from me, is to speak Spanish—right in front of my face.” It was clearly humiliating for her.

The next morning Zoe put her hair in a ponytail and after a breakfast of tortillas and beans with white crumbly cheese and pastries we ventured out to the street, caught the combi, and found our way to the school.

Mine was the Spanish for Dummies class. It wasn’t called that, of course. The school’s philosophy was pure immersion. The instructor spoke in Spanish and had us repeat after her. There were lots of written handouts with kindergartenish illustrations which helped. If she explained any rules of grammar or defined any words, that was lost on me.

This was a great learning method for me because I over think things. If there had been any opportunity to discuss things in English, I would have spent half the class asking questions about sentence construction and verb conjugation. That would have been fascinating and I would have gained a lot on an intellectual level but I wouldn’t have learned how to ask for a bottle of milk in a store.

Immersion is amazing—it works, and it works fast. I attended classes five hours a day and spent hours on my homework in the evening. Zoe and I spoke English together occasionally but we were on different schedules so it didn’t interfere with our learning.

The only other time I heard English was as I left the school each evening. Cemanahuac has English classes for Mexican business professionals in the evenings, taught by a young English woman. I could hear them chanting, “My name is Richard. I am a solicitor. I go to the cinema at the week-end.” Funny that they were learning British English, I thought. But maybe having an English accent would give them a leg up if they wanted to work in the U.S. We’re so dazzled by English accents.

On Day Four I passed an important milestone. I was able to walk into a store after school and ask for a six-pack of beer. I had read that women in Mexico don’t drink, but that American women weren’t really considered women, so it was okay for us. Yay! I bought a six-pack of Negra Modelo, sat in the garden by the pool, and had a couple brewskis while I did my homework.

On my last day I was able to ask my teacher what English sounded like to her. I could now understand about 70 percent of what she and Mirta said. Of course they talked very slowly and clearly and didn’t use big words. But when I arrived, Spanish had only sounded like a babbling brook, lifting, and dropping, and splashing like watery music.

“Zshuh zshah zshuh sha sha,” was her musical interpretation of English. It wasn’t nearly as bouncy as Spanish and sounded suspiciously like Russian. I did my version of how Spanish sounded to me and we laughed.

I was in love—with Mexico, sunshine and warmth, my teacher, the birds of paradise, Spanish, Negra Modelo, Mirta, and most of all, feeling good about myself for beginning to master a new language at 40.

I had been fired from my job and was about to start graduate school. I would have a part time grad assistantship with totally flexible hours. Before I left Cuernavaca I signed up to return for three more weeks.

Two Birds in Paradise

This is the fourth post in a series on studying Spanish in Mexico that starts here.

My host mother and I had been tossed around in the back of the mini bus for 20 minutes when she jumped up and exclaimed what I could only guess meant, “We’re here!”

The combi slowed to a roll but didn’t actually stop as we stepped off in front of an office.

Patologia

Mirta led me to the locked gate to the right—the one with graffiti scrawled on it, handed me a key, and showed me how to use it.

Now that we were here—now that I had made it from the airport to the hotel, taken a bus to Cuernavaca, seen the school, and successfully managed to keep up with Mirta, my tension drained away and I suddenly “got” a word: llave—key.

I felt joy.  I could do this!  I could get around in a foreign country, meet exciting new people, and learn a foreign language!  I only had to memorize about 10,000 more words and learn how to conjugate 500 verbs.

If you live in Los Angeles or Miami, Mirta’s house would be unremarkable.  It was a walled compound with a main house, another smaller house, and a garden with a pool.

Cuerna Home

Mirta walked me into the kitchen of the main house, wagging her finger to indicate that the rest of the place was off limits.  Darn, I wouldn’t be able to relax on that plastic-covered couch under the oil painting of The Last Supper I caught a glimpse of from the kitchen.

She also made clear that the fridge was off limits.  She demonstrated how to use the five-gallon water bottle which was to be my only source of water.  She laid down the times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  It was amazing how much she could communicate with charades-like gestures.

A young woman entered with a toddler.  I assumed this was Mirta’s daughter and grandson until she picked up a mop and started swabbing the floor.  From what I could gather, her name was Ella.

I followed Mirta like a duckling to the smaller house where I would spend the week.  Everything was covered in green tile except the ceiling.  It would have felt like an asylum except that the window looked out on the garden full of Birds of Paradise.  Those are run-of-the-mill in Mexico—like daisies in Minnesota—but to me they were spectacular and I would later amuse Mirta by taking endless photos of them.

Bird of Paradise

Mirta pointed to the bare bulb in the middle of the sitting room ceiling and made clear that I was not to waste electricity.  She oriented me to the bathroom, showing me eight fingers to indicate how many minutes of hot water were available to shower each day.  There was a drain in the floor with a plate over it and a brick on top of the plate.  Do not remove, I was warned, with some scary faces.  In Minnesota, we get rats coming up from the river through the sewers into people’s basement toilets.  I wondered if that was the foe here, or something else?

Mirta opened the bedroom door to reveal two twin beds.  A young woman was hunched over on one of them, holding a blow dryer and looking dejected.

“Hi, I’m Zoe,” she said, in a North American accent.  I had known I would share my quarters with another student, and this was her.  Mirta showcased the one-drawer night stand next to my bed, then exited with a reminder about meal times.

“My blow dryer won’t work!”  Zoe exclaimed.  She started to whimper quietly.  “I forgot to bring an adapter.  Do you have one?”

When I said no she wondered out loud, “I wonder if Mirta has a blow dryer she would let me use?”  I thought that was highly unlikely, given we weren’t allowed beyond the kitchen or even to open the refrigerator.   Zoe really started to cry.  “And I can’t call my parents!  My cell doesn’t work and Mirta won’t let me make a long-distance call on her phone!”

I was afraid Zoe was destined to be an example of a Yerkes-Dodson Law fail.

Losing My Words

This is the third post in a series about studying Spanish in Mexico that starts here.

And so I arrived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, to drench myself in Spanish language and culture for a week.

Through this company, Amerispan, I had bought a cheap package that included my classes and a homestay. I had splurged and spent an extra $40 or something for someone to meet me at the bus station and take me to the school. I made that call after seeing that the school was called Cemanahuac. What?! That didn’t sound Spanish, and I had no idea how to pronounce it. Now I see that they’ve added a helpful transliteration to their website: sem-ah-NOW-ock, and I can tell you that was the name used by the Aztecs to refer to their world.

For the umpteenth time I apologize for my lousy photos:

Cemanahuac PoolCemanahuac Hut

If you live in Indonesia or El Salvador or anywhere else that is tropical, you won’t think anything of this place. But to me, coming from a cold, drab grey Minnesota winter, it was paradise. I could hardly believe that I was going to spend a week studying here. I would have been happy to skip the studying and spend the week lying by the pool with a book.

Amerispan no longer lists Cemanahuac as a language school choice on its website. That’s sad, and I wonder if it’s due to all the drug gang violence, or something else?

I wandered around the school, probably with a dazed smile on my face, until someone called my name: “Anna Mah-eeeertz?” I don’t know how long they had been calling it before I realized it was me.

I knew from studying up on the Amerispan website that someone from my host family would come to take me to the home, but now I had left English behind—completely. That was their philosophy, total immersion.

But it wasn’t too hard to figure out that the secretary of the school was introducing me to a woman whose name was apparently Mierda. I could see the other office employees behind her, laughing up their sleeves. I would learn eventually that Mirta was Cuban, and that Mirta was a Cuban name. But she pronounced it Mierda and in Mexico and elsewhere Mierda means shit.

Mirta seemed oblivious to this, and as I got to know her better over the course of the week I found she was one of those happy, smiling people who just ignore bad things. Mirta was about 60. She was plump in a matronly way, with dark red hair, and she was dressed like my grandma used to dress in the 70s—in polyester elastic waist pants and a button up shirt—both in pastel colors, and sturdy black shoes.

She pointed toward the exit and said what sounded like, “Yabba da dabba da blabba de doo.”

All I could do was smile and nod; I didn’t even know to ask, “Que?” and even if I had I couldn’t have understood the answer. I followed her out into the street.

She walked so fast I had to hop skip to keep up with her. We reached a corner and she pointed to a bread store and said something. Then we turned, turned again at the next corner, walked about three more blocks, and while she talked and pointed to things along the way. We came to a crazily busy intersection where she stood for a while talking and gesticulating some more, until a mini bus arrived. She pointed to above the windshield, and I could make out a number and what I assumed was the month of Noviembre. Why would a bus route be named a date? I followed her on to the combi and she showed me the coins I had to pay, which meant nothing to me.

This was my introduction to the wonders of combi décor. There were several small statues of the Virgin Mary glued to the dashboard, the rest of the surface was covered in orange fake fur, and there were holy cards suspended above the driver’s head. We needed all the good-luck juju, for sure, as the bus lurched out into the stream of traffic.

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.