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Back to Chicago winter

Time December 22nd, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The most traumatic moment of my reentry from my time studying in Mexico into the United States (thus far) hit me during my first step off of the plane in Chicago. FRIO! And then, after realizing I was now in an English speaking country, COLD!
The next day there was a hail storm.
I think Chicago winter is my penance for studying abroad in Mexico, a tropical paradise, the last four months. But I’ve piled on the layers of sweaters, a heavy down winter coat and mittens, and it’s starting to look like I’ll survive. Now I expect the real adjustment to begin.
I expect to miss Merida. I made wonderful friends with whom I shared great and frequent adventures: weekend excursions to cenotes, dancing salsa in city streets as well as family restaurants, ordering the thing on the menu we couldn’t translate, getting on wrong buses, snorkeling, hitchhiking and sleeping in hammocks. I also had a host family I love. From the typical extended-family Sunday gatherings to my one-time appearance singing the Titanic Song at a garage karaoke party, I enjoyed being a part of it. I think living by myself again might be something that takes me a while to get used to.
I also expect to have trouble keeping up with American pace. Something about my life in Merida that was hard for me to adapt to at first was that nobody in it seemed too concerned with getting things done. In a way, this lifestyle makes sense. What does it matter if you get there now or in ten minutes? Why stress out about finishing a paper when ultimately it won’t change your life if you turn it in now or a week late? And, if lunch is the time of day when you see your family, why shouldn’t it take three hours? In fact, you should follow it with a nap! Unfortunately, this is most definitely not the attitude of my university in the United States, and it could be difficult to get back up to speed.
I’ve picked up a few other habits that might die hard. “Besitos,” for instance. I love the custom of kissing everybody in the room when entering or exiting. It makes everybody feel included, or at the very least, acknowledged. I have already, however, found several people in the United States who, when I habitually tried to kiss their cheeks upon first meeting, found it more awkward than wonderful. I must unfortunately also say goodbye to my cone-a-day ice cream habit. While it’s justifiable as a “cultural experience” in a place where you can’t read the scales because they’re in kilos, it’s hard to justify in a place where ice falls from the sky and ice cream is three times more expensive.
Not every day I spent in Merida was amazing. Not every aspect of the culture was lovable or even tolerable. But living in Merida changed the way I will now live in the United States. And whether the changes will be large, such as valuing my family more, or as simple as eating more ice cream cones, I think the majority will be positive.


My debut as a foriegn decoration and introduction to “smart food”

Time December 8th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Last night, mamá called and asked me if I would be available at 10:00 a.m.  Unfortunately, the phone somehow makes speaking in Spanish immeasurably harder, and this was the only part of the conversation I actually understood.  But I agreed to the date anyway.  I even jumped in the car this morning without a full understanding of where I was going, though by then I had figured out that it had something to do with an advertisement her friend was somehow involved with.

On the way to the mystery destination, we stopped for breakfast at a taco stand.  Yes, tacos. For breakfast .  (I love Mexico.)  Mamá asked me if I wanted to try some of what she had ordered, which, it being food and me being me, of course I did.  It was a brown, not-quite meat that kind of tasted like ancient cheese mixed with dirt and old meat.  After I asked what it was, I learned I had just tried…PIG BRAINS!   

Feeling a little smarter with the extra brains rolling around in my stomach, I eventually arrived at said mystery destination.  It turned out to be a casting call for a casino commercial, complete with an American production staff that, by the looks of it, had sold out the local Starbucks.  My mom’s friend apparently has a friend who works with a friend who works for a modeling agency, and he had heard that this commercial was in need of “foreign-looking people.”  So there I was, just as foreign as ever, standing in my jeans and sweater amongst models in high heels and hairspray.  I pretended to win at a slot machine a few times, affirmed to the director’s pleasant surprise that I understood English and tried really hard not to laugh.


Thanksgiving, Mexican Style

Time December 1st, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Stuffing doesn’t really make sense. At the weekly family gathering this Sunday, my aunts asked me about Thanksgiving food. Turkey: acceptable. Mashed potatoes: they have them, too. Cranberries: heard of them. But when I got to stuffing, the only explanation I could really come up with was that Americans cook turkey with bread inside of it. Nobody seemed to think this was a good idea.

In addition to the realization that stuffing is actually really weird, being abroad during Thanksgiving has given me an opportunity to think about my life and my blessings in way I haven’t before. Although I personally live in a comfortable middle-class Mexican home with a family that vacations in Disney World, I’ve seen more poverty in the last three months than I ever have in the United States. When I went to San Cristobal, I rode a bus for 13 hours that passed nothing but little pueblos of subsistence farmers. I’ve always known I live in one of the richest nations in the world, but that idea never meant anything real to me in the same way the word “snow” doesn’t mean anything real to someone who has never felt it. This Thanksgiving, I feel a deeper gratitude for the luck that has allowed my life to be comfortable and without want.

I also, for the first time, have had to live without any of the people who I love most. Although this has made me stronger and more independent, it’s also made me realize how necessary and important these relationships are. While making one friend at a time, it’s easy to ignore how complicated and long the process of creating a relationship is. When trying to make all new friends at once, it becomes clear how valuable and rare a developed friendship is. Not being able to attend my family’s Thanksgiving has a similar effect. I’m surprised at how much I miss it and how much I want to be there.

I’m also grateful for this opportunity. I’ve now been participating in the IFSA-Butler study abroad Mexico program for a little more than three months, but I hardly recognize the photo on my student ID that was taken my first week. I’m more independent, more resourceful, less ignorant and a (slightly) better dancer. While I was fighting my way through the first difficult month, I couldn’t have imagined all of the positives I would take away from this experience.

Yesterday a friend invited me and a few others to eat at his family restaurant. His whole family came out from the kitchen to kiss us, assure us that “my house is your house” and urge us to order anything we wanted (all of which, of course, was delicious). We ended up spending about three hours eating lunch, at the end of which three old men with guitars serenaded us. When my friend asked for a particular traditional Yucatacan song, his grandma, mom and aunt came running from the kitchen and started clapping and dancing. I’ve never been so grateful to be in studying abroad in Mexico.

Tonight I’m having Thanksgiving dinner with other program students, many who have become my best friends. True, we’ll probably end up eating tacos instead of turkey, but celebrating Thanksgiving feels more appropriate than ever.


A few of my favorite things (why? because I like them!)

Time November 11th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Chinese buffets in Mexico: Mexican Chinese food has potatoes. And comes with arroz con leche?

The almuerzo/siesta combo: On days when I get out of school early, I come home to a lunch that is too delicious not to enjoy to the point where all I can do afterward is sleep. Viva Mexico.

Cafes that aren’t Starbucks: Nobody is in a hurry here. Ever. My favorite example of this fact in action is when I order a Nutella Frapachino at the mall coffee stand. I’m used to ordering coffee from an American Starbucks, which has an assembly line/ military system of delivering my drink in less than 3.45 seconds. According to the Starbucks’ online calorie counter, my skim sugar-free vanilla latte typically contains about 130 calories.

Here, my server lovingly scoops an entire cup and a half of Nutella into iced whole milk. Excitement builds as I watch her add…Real whip cream via pastry bag! Artistically placed sprinkles! Cinnamon! A cookie! And, after a last critical look-over, possibly a few more sprinkles.

There is no online calorie counter.

Bus shrines: Any bus driver that’s worth his little paper tickets has taken the time to pimp out his bus with the latest in religious trinket fashion. My favorite is definitely the portrait of our lady the Virgin Mary closely bordered by two giant playboy bunny stickers. Our virgin in flashing colored lights makes a close second.

Chiapas hot chocolate (and the rest of Chiapas, too): I’ve already gushed enough about dessert beverages, but the hot chocolate in Chiapas is on par with the Nutella Frapachino. It doesn’t taste like hot chocolate, it tastes like heaven. Not to mention you drink it in San Cristobal, a tiny colonial city nestled into a mountain forest. We drove 14 hours to get there and didn’t bring enough warm clothes for the weather change, but the trip, one of the excursion choices for the program, couldn’t have been sweeter had I drank more than the 12 cups of hot chocolate that I did.

Beautiful ocean beaches:

“What do you want to this weekend?”

“ Well, I guess we could go to Tulum again…if I don’t have too much homework.”

The salsa ladies: I’ve come a long way in my salsa classes since I’ve come to study abroad in Mexico , but my agility still hasn’t reached even a comparable level to that of my classmates—most of whom have literally been dancing about three times as long as I have lived. Sometimes the teacher halts the basic salsa step and encourages everyone to shake “sexy, sexy.” I am humbled every time by the grey-haired, big-hipped (and know how to use’m), spandex-wearing divas.

Mexican time: Once again, nobody is in a hurry. 8:25 is the new 8:00. Sleeping in is a valid excuse to be late to class.


Wait, you mean I LIVE here?

Time October 28th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

It’s starting to occur to me that if you live somewhere for four months, there has to be a point where your extended vacation turns into…life. And that point occured during my Mexico study abroad trip somewhere around two weeks ago. I still hang out on ocean beaches on the weekends and climb things whenever I find them, but there are also 12-page midterm papers. I’m still meeting new people, but I also have a family that I come home to everyday. And while the ice cream still insistently calls to me from every street corner, it’s probably best that I cut down on my cone-a-day habit.

Not to say that life-life can’t be an adventure. For instance, the 12 page paper I had to write for the study abroad Mexico program was a whirlwind, considering the longest paper I had ever written in Spanish before it was two pages long…almost.

The 12-page monstrosity was for my “The role of Caves and Cenotes in Indigenous Religion” class. I had signed up for this class for essentially three reasons: #1 Why not? Northwestern University most definitely does not offer this class in the United States. #2 Caves just can’t be that hard. And, #3 there are FIELDTRIPS!

#1 and #3 had been panning out nicely. Two months ago I think the prospect of using a headlamp during class might have shocked me a little more than it did by the time we took our first fieldtrip. We drove to what seemed like a random field, found what seemed like a random little hole, and called the local police to bring a ladder. Then we climbed down said ladder into said little hole, and found ourselves inside a gigantic cave. Inside the cave were ruins of a mini-pyramid and pathways to two cenotes. My professor explained that ancient human remains had been found in the water. Naturally, we all jumped in with our clothes on. I think the paper was revenge for having too much fun on the fieldtrip.

Research was hard, not because of the Spanish, but because of a library system that was, well, foreign. One day I spent four consecutive hours in the library searching for a book, any book, that might vaguely relate to my topic. I had zero success. I was on the brink of ripping all of the books from their shelves and rearranging them in a computer-cataloged Dewy Decimal system when a Mexican friend from class found me and asked if I need help—a question that didn’t require an answer, considering my distressed appearance and the handfuls of hair I had already metaphorically ripped from my head. He led me to the other end of the library and pulled out three years’ issues of Archeology Today (or something like that) magazines from a shelf. He flipped through each one, and after five minutes he had provided all of the sources for my paper. What? You mean we have these magazines? And they aren’t in the electronic catalog? And the articles aren’t all listed on the computer by topic and author’s last name? Oh.

Then came the Spanish. After I had sharpened every pencil in the house and made four cups of tea, I somehow just made myself write it. And, although I may have been intentionally excessive on the footnotes and counted the bibliography as a page, I somehow produced 12 pages of what I hope is literate Spanish. And I’ve never been so proud of a mediocre paper in my life.


Now come finals…


Climbing is Fun! Yes!

Time October 17th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

So far I’ve written a lot about my everyday life participating in the IFSA-Butler study in Mexico program, but it’s also worth mentioning that I’m having a lot of crazy, pack-extra-water adventures. In other words, I’ve been climbing a lot of things.

Last weekend, for instance, I climbed both 17th century pirate walls and third century Mayan ruins.

The former took place in Campeche. Campeche was once the major port town of the Yucatan, and, consequently, was attacked by pirates quite often. That is, until the king of Spain installed pirate-proof baluartes (walls) complete with cannons. This is important to us today because a) you can climb them and b) at night, there’s a reenactment of a pirate attack that includes both a light show and paper boats. Yes!

From Campeche we hired a “tourguide” to drive us four hours into the jungle to visit Calakmul, which is near Guatemala. At one point we had to stop the car for a herd of cows to pass.

We arrived at an empty parking lot, where our “guide” showed us to the corner of the jungle that featured a dark winding path. After about 15 minutes of walking, we realized that the cows, the potholes and 5 a.m. wakeup call had all been worth it.

It’s one experience to visit Chichén Itzá, where tour buses from Cancun unload hundreds of bikini-clad tourists every hour and merchants heckle you from the sidelines of every path. But it’s a completely different experience to wander through the jungle and come across giant, ripe-for-climbing pyramids that are completely yours to explore. According to my guidebook there are 7,200 Mayan “remnants” in the Colakmul jungle. I have to admit I only counted 7,190.

From Campeche we also visited Edzná, the second ancient climbing complex of the weekend. Instead of the tour-guide transportation we hired for Colakmul, we traveled to Edzná by little blue van. To find said little blue van, we asked 10 different people in the market where the little blue vans left from. We received 10 different answers that, when averaged, eventually did lead us to a little blue van. Unfortunately, it was full. Fortunately, they let us in anyway. As well as five more people and a cake.

Once safely at Edzná, we climbed. Yes!

You might think I’d had my fill of pyramids during my time studying in Mexico, but this weekend I found myself atop yet another. This one was also reached via little van, but, unlike Colakmul and Edzná, it was located in a city and not the main attraction. I’m not sure I could make up a city like Izamal if I tried. All of the buildings are painted yellow to match the huge, imposing, bright-yellow convent at its center. The convent was built with stones from the Mayan pyramids that preceded it, and, considering the size of the convent, it’s a wonder that 3 of the 12 original pyramids still exist. In addition to the quirky quaintness of the entire city being yellow and three forgotten pyramids being scattered around town, horse and buggy taxis provide the major transportation.

Let’s recap this picture: city, surrounded by pyramids, painted entirely yellow, horse and buggies trotting everywhere.



My Mexican Family “Rocks”

Time October 2nd, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

I have two brothers here in my time studying in Mexico who both enjoy blasting the hard rock favorites of my tween years. All the time that I thought ACDC was dead they were actually just moving their fan base to Mexico. There’s even a radio station named “station ACDC,” which I’ve been lucky enough to catch at the gym a couple of times.

My host mother also loves music, but prefers songs she can sing along to. And she does, unashamedly and often. One night I returned to my house to find a karaoke party going on in my garage—apparently a voice lesson that was too good to wrap up early.

I find my host family, head-banging/singing or not, to be endearing. Although my host brothers go to a school that according to my host mother is famous for being hard “like Harvard” and are therefore often busy doing homework, we still find time to fake-fight karate style at least once a day. It’s an interesting way to cross the language barrier, but also strangely appropriate given all of the hard rock pulsating from my house.

My host mother loves to teach me almost as much as she loves to sing. The chosen subjects are Spanish and cooking. Spanish lessons are constant. Cooking lessons are every Friday. She is Yucatacan, I am gringa, and therefore she calls anything we create in the kitchen Yuca-gringa cuisine. The first cooking lesson was pollo pibil: chicken marinated in a Yucatacan red spice and cooked in a banana leaf. The latest lesson was lasagna.

On Sundays, the whole WHOLE family gets together. Usually these Sunday reunions go something like this:

We arrive. There’s a table in the center of the gathering that is overflowing with potato chips and coca cola. Around this table are about 20 chatting happy Mexicans (and one uncle from Italy). Around these chatting happy Mexicans are about 10 happy Mexican children running in circles. My host family and I add to the happy chaos by orbiting the entire table to deliver besitos (little kisses of greeting) to every relative, whether we (I) remember their names or not. It’s kind of like a solar system.

But I have to love a solar system that kisses extranjeras that it hardly knows (that’s right, I’m now completely fluent in Spanglish). I’m amazed at how I’ve been embraced, both literally and in a larger sense, by my Mexican family. They suffer through my bad Spanish (but perfect Spanglish) and I suffer through their hard rock, and all is well in the galaxy.


Ice cream deserves its own post

Time September 19th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 2 Comments by

The best ice cream in the world comes from a little metal cart in one of the main squares of Merida, the kind of cart you stay away from at first because you’re not sure if the food will make you sick.  It doesn’t.  What it does do is make you addicted.  Favorite flavors thus far, though I plan on further investigation, are mamey and cookies.  Mamey is a fruit I’ve never had before that’s very sweet and rosy and tastes like heaven.  And the cookie ice cream, well, you know what that is, but imagine actual entire crushed Oreos instead of puny flecs.  You get two giant scoops in a giant cone for two dollars.  But when I say cone, I’m not talking about the cardboard ice cream is served in at home.  These cones taste like cookies.

Last night I went downtown with a friend and purchased one of these wonders, took a seat at a free concert, and wondered if life could get any better.


Mexican Muscles

Time September 19th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

For the most part, my life participating in the IFSA Butler study in Mexico program is a lot like life in the United States. I go to school, I come home to a family and I go out with friends. It’s not like those pictures of Latin America where everyone has babies tied to them with bright-colored fabrics and the dust in the street doesn’t settle for ten minutes after the village Jeep passes through. I’m in a city. There are Burger Kings and Wal Marts and Movie theatres.

But, though my life here has a skeleton similar to that of my life in the United States, I am reminded frequently that the muscle is all Mexico. For instance, on the way home from school today, the bus driver stopped the bus and left it, still running, in the middle of the road. All other passengers seemed to accept this as normal, so I chose not to panic. About five minutes later, he returned with a hot dog and a soda.

The houses, the fruit and the people all seem more colorful here. And there’s a hammock in every room of my house.

There are other signs that I am studying abroad in Mexico. For instance, this past weekend I found myself sitting in a hammock on a tropical island making plans for celebrating Mexican Independence day. This has never happened to me in the United States. Isla Mujeres, said island, is the paradise I have so often conjured in my mind during long walks to class during Chicago winters. My three friends and I stayed in a bungalow with a thatched roof that had only a few hammocks hanging from palm trees to separate it from the ocean. And we got an even closer look at the rolling turquoise waves when we paid a boat to take us snorkeling near a reef. I tried to imagine which of the colorful fish I saw was what was served to me—tail, head, bones and all—for lunch on the shore that day.

As far as the Mexican Independence day plans, we went to Playa del Carmen and found the park where the “Grito” would be read. Every city reads the “Grito,” a famous speech that declared independence, at midnight on Independence Day. You might be familiar with it: “Viva la Mexico!” We were really excited about being there, in the packed square under the red, white and green lights. We waited for about a half an hour before asking someone when it was going to start. The answer, sadly, “it just finished [but imagine that answer in Spanish].” Big crowd, no speakers.

Yep, Mexico this is. And I’m loving it.


The adjustment phase…and hope!

Time September 9th, 2008 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments by

Assimilating to a different culture is one of those concepts that you really can’t understand until you’ve experienced it. It’s like an earthquake: you can think about buildings shaking and the ground breaking, but you have no idea what the word “earthquake” actually means until you feel the jolt yourself (side note: no, I’ve never been in an earthquake, but I have experienced an impressively realistic—but, I guess I really can’t say that–simulation at the tech museum in San Jose).

I had thought about “adjustment” before I left Chicago, but in every picture I had concocted of the process, I was sauntering through it. Somehow it didn’t really occur to me that changing my sleeping, eating and exercise habits while at the same time completely exchanging friends, families and languages would be a difficult process. Not surprisingly, I now report that: it is.

It’s so hot I haven’t yet touched the warm-water knob on the shower, I don’t understand half of what my teachers say in class, I’m not sure which classes I’m actually enrolling in, there aren’t any vegetables, I can’t remember my address, it takes me an hour to do ten pages of reading, and I talk like a three year old.

I’m am absolutely sure that I will look back on these past two weeks and consider them some of the most worthwhile of my life. But right now, I’m just glad they’re over.

Now I’m on to the good stuff!

For instance, today I went to Progresso. My classes somehow got conveniently scheduled so that I don’t’ have class on Fridays (now who did that?), so my friends and I found a bus that made the twenty-minute trip to the beach for $1.30 per person. The ocean water was impossibly warm and the sun not so harsh with the pleasant sea breeze. Most people have to pay for a cruise in order to have the pleasure of spending an afternoon in Progresso. For us, it was a day trip. We can go after classes if we want.

We also ventured into one of the more economical restaurants in Progresso. It wasn’t tailored to tourists, the menu was in Spanish and it looked like the sort of place that our stomachs might have to pay for hours later. But, deciding we had to eat like locals sooner or later, we sat down and ordered some pollo mole and empanadas. It was absolutely delicious. It cost $18 for five meals with drinks. And my stomach is happily digesting without protest.

In other good news, I found a salsa studio a few blocks away from my house that I’ve been taking classes at. They’re pretty intense for beginner classes, but they’re taught in a very low-pressure follow-the-leader style, so nobody notices when I literally trip myself. I really enjoy going because it’s a different type of incompetence than my language disability. Oddly enough, it’s kind of refreshing to struggle in a different way for an hour.

Despite the struggles of both, I think there’s hope for both the Spanish and the dancing. Today my “uncle” told me my Spanish has gotten better since he spoke to me on Sunday. And today in salsa class…ok, so I’m still waiting on the compliment for that. But I’m sure it’s coming…



So you’re going…where?

Time August 21st, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by


It’s the capital city of the Yucatan state and has a population of about 800,000 people. This is where I will be living while I study abroad in Mexico.  Although it shares a peninsula with Cancun, it’s about 200 miles away and not built on a beach. It does, however, share the heat. The temperature will be about 95 degrees Fahrenheit while I’m there–which should make for an interesting adjustment when I return to Chicago in January.

In browsing the internet for information before I leave, I’ve found one favorite piece of information about Merida:

“Over recent years, Mérida has been a popular place to stage events, particularly of the mathematical kind. First, the International Mathematical Olympiad was held here in 2005, then the International Olympiad in Informatics in 2006. The same year, Mérida hosted the FITA Archery World Cup Final – just for something different.”

Can there be anything more exciting for a math-incompetent journalism major (been a while since I’ve picked up a bow, too)?
But I’ve also found plenty of reasons to be truly excited about my trip:

“Much of Mérida’s architecture from the Colonial period through the 18th century and 19th century is still standing in the centro historico of the city. From colonial times through the mid 19th century, Mérida was a walled city intended to protect the Peninsulare and Criollo residents from periodic revolts by the indigenous Maya. Several of the old Spanish city gates survive, but modern Mérida has expanded well beyond the old city walls.”,_Yucat%C3%A1n

I’m going to be about 75 miles from Chichen Itza:

“Mole Poblano
The sauce in this savory dish is made from 17 different ingredients that are ground up and blended. Ingredients include: mulato chiles, pasilla chiles, ancho chiles,, Mexican chocolate, peanuts, garlic, black pepper, cinnamon, raisins, cloves, peppercorns, almonds, anise seeds, coriander seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. The sauce is served over either chicken or pork and is wonderful. While not a spicy hot dish, spicy-ness depends on the chilis.”

Just looking at the city makes me want to go there. Here are some good photo sites:

And a map of the peninsula (should I decide to drive to a beach):


Mission Prepare to Leave the Country

Time August 6th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 4 Comments by

My latest letter from IFSA-Butler Mexico study aboad program included a pink piece of paper scrawled with the loopy cursive of my host mother.  From what I can decipher, between my limited Spanish vocabulary and the difficulty of reading her handwriting, she likes to embroider, but most of all to sing.  I have two host brothers who are 15 and 21. They like boxing and, depending on how you read the cursive, either baseball (beisbol) or basketball (basquetbol) or drumsticks (basquetas). I am to either hug my family here or maybe to send a hug from them to my family here (whichever it is, I think the sentiments were well-wishing).

This information at first unleashed the excitement that had been building up since I applied to study abroad.  I imagined myself embroidering with my host mother, setting the table for my family, and tossing a baseball–basketball?… drumstick?–with my brothers.

Then, wait–oh my god!  I’m actually leaving the country in a couple of weeks!  I don’t know how to embroider, should I learn?  I can’t believe I haven’t started packing yet!  What happened to those Spanish textbooks I was going to read over the summer?  All my classes…in Spanish.  Uh-oh. And is it too late to make a dentist appointment before I leave?

Although getting the letter was exciting, it also made my future study abroad adventure a reality and sent me into frenzy of preparation.

A couple of weeks later, I’m happy to report that I’ve recovered from the initial shock and reduced my rate of preparation from frenzy to rational. Having decided that actually beginning to pack more than a week before I leave for the program isn’t productive, I’ve started mentally sorting my belongings into “going to Mexico” and “staying here” piles. I’ve decided on T-shirts from my home university as gifts for my host brothers, but I’m still stuck on what to bring the woman who will be my Mexican mother (any ideas are welcome, by the way). And I look ridiculous during my train commute every morning as I scrunch my eyebrows in concentration over a lime-green, third-grade-level book that has dragons flying all over the cover. It’s in Spanish. But that’s hard for the people giving me funny looks to notice.

What I’ve found most helpful in preparing to leave is to e-mail people who have participated in the Mexico study abroad program previously when I have questions. My university’s study abroad office provides a list of such people, and their help has been invaluable.

Maybe I’m preparing too much, but it’s just what I do when I’m looking forward to something. And I’m learning a lot by it. For instance, without my preparation strategy, I would have no idea that the land of dragons can only be entered through a bonfire. See, totally worth the weird looks on the train.