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Home at last

Time May 27th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I’m officially home! The last week in Mexico was a horrible whirlwind of emotions. On Wednesday my host sister’s baby Sylvanna was born (5.5 lbs). I got to be there for the birth which was very exciting considering I have never seen anything like that before. It was interesting because she had a natural birth while most women in Mérida have cesareans. I think they are afraid of the pain during childbirth but the pain of the cesarean afterward is way worse. Evermore, a cesarean is 2.5 times more expensive than a normal birth so really I don’t understand why so many chose the surgical route.
Another adventure. My friends decided they wanted to celebrate the end of classes by going to a cantina. I told them “DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE. I’ll take you and you call me when your done and I’ll pick you up.” I got a phone call early evening and went outside only to see a tormenta like nothing I have EVER seen before. It was pouring, not buckets, but bathtubs. Ni modos. I got in the car and started slowly making my way to the centro where the cantina was located. There were at least two feet of water in the streets that sprayed up on either side of the car, even though I was only going about 5 mph. Big black bags filled with trash floated down the streets that had quickly become fast moving rivers. By the time we were pulling out of the cantina to make our way home there was at least three inches of water sitting on the floor of the car that sloshed around like one of those wave pools every time I hit the breaks. Needless to say, it was definitely an experience.
Saying goodbye to the grandkids and my friends was the hardest part. Christian, one of the nietos told me, “Leah. When you come back from the United States to visit, can you bring me something? Something cheap. Like $7.” It was so funny that he already had his price limit picked out and everything. I told him we’d see but that he’d need to update me in November to tell me what had become the coolest new toy.
My friends gave me a sweet goodbye. Some of their moms got me little goodbye gifts (example: a bag shaped like a hammock) and many of my friends wrote me beautiful letters that still bring tears to my eyes when I read them. However, by the time Saturday rolled around I was more than ready to be gone. I hate drawing out goodbyes and drawing them out for a week is just TOO long and painful.
Being home has been nice, but it helps to know that I will be going back to Mérida in December (flights from Chicago only cost $100 bucks round trip). I have gone back to working at the restaurant before I figure out exactly what I’ll be doing for the rest of the summer. I was originally going to have an internship in New Mexico, but I decided I really just needed to digest everything at home. I’m hoping to find some kind of health based job/volunteer project that works within the Latino community. So far I have talked with someone from Mexico every single day I have been home. However, it really isn’t the same as talking in person. I miss being able to watch their facial expressions, hit them when they say something that deserves hitting, laughing along side them…
So what have I noticed about the United States? Well, sitting in church on Sunday I realized how cold Americans are in comparison to Mexicans. In our culture there is a space boundary that rarely gets crossed. I do not believe such a boundary exists in Mexico. It’s nice not to have a million topes that ruin your car when you don’t see the bump in the road. And I can cross the street without being overly scared that a car will 100% not be willing to stop and let me cross.
And what will I miss about Mexico? Obviously my friends and host family there, but also just random normality’s of life. I will miss the viene viene men who wave their orange rag at me to help me back out in a completely empty parking lot to earn a few pesos. I will miss my botana lunches at Eladio’s—buy a drink and get plates and plates of food free (I really do think it would be a hit in the U.S. if we used that concept for dinner instead of lunch). I will miss walking past the late night food stands with their bacon wrapped hotdogs. I will miss my hammock. And yes, I will even miss waking up at six AM only to find myself already drenched in sweat.


A Year Gone By

Time May 13th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Recap: favorite activities since my trip during Semana Santa: the beach and baseball! One of the many beach trips finally consisted in catching (or trying to catch) fish off of the dock in Progreso. No fishing pole necessary. And the process you ask?
1. Cut up a bate fish into three even pieces.
2. Put a piece on your hook. The tail or the head work best as they have shiny scales that attract the bigger fish.
3. Throw your line into the sea and work it back towards the dock- wrapping it around an old water bottle or any other circular object.
4. Have the fish eat your bate but not get hooked.
5. Repeat.
Baseball is also an awesome experience that is universal. Baseball in San Francisco is the same as in Yucatán except that the beer is cheaper and random cheerleaders dance on the field between innings. But the laid back atmosphere is igual. A nice bag of cotton candy and sunflower seeds and your all set to enjoy America´s pastime.
On a sadder note, t-minus 10 days until I am back in the motherland. It is hard to believe that almost nine months have flown by. While it seems like yesterday that I was staring out of the airplane window, looking down on the green shrubbery of the Yucatán peninsula thinking to myself “so this is where I am going to live for the next year”, I have grown so much since my arrival. I still remember my anticipation, my fear, my uncertainty… But as time passed, those doubts slowly dissipated, or rather evolved into an independence, self-confidence, and longing to delve deeper into my experience.
I don’t want to go home. I have developed a home here, a routine. Yet while the trip to the airport is inevitable I leave knowing that I have lived my experience to the best of my ability and have no regrets. I accomplished everything I set out to do. I truly believe I became another member of my host family. I love our Sunday gatherings and the grandchildren’s newest obsession of playing baseball with a stick and inflatable ball- running from flowerpot to corner as they round their imaginary bases. Some of my closest relationships are no longer solely lie north of the U.S. -Mexican border but in the Yucatán peninsula as well. The thought of leaving these people I care so much about is heartbreaking. The thought creates a hard knot in the pit of my stomach. Although small, this knot is charged with emotion that requires me to stop breathing in order to suppress the vast array of feelings that resonate throughout my core. When I try to explain the overwhelming emotion, my friends tell me “But you’ll come back and visit”. And I will. I have already pinky promised to return in December during winter break. But it will never be the same. I will no longer be living with these people. I will no longer see them daily. These next ten days are going to be stocked full of activities. I need to make sure I have the time to close the many circles I have opened in my time here in Mérida.
The other day all of my compañeros within the IFSA-Butler program and I debriefed our experience- what we liked and what we found difficult during our study abroad experience. Most people answered that they liked the architecture and the safeness that the city holds, while they disliked the honking and “springbreak” stereotypes that is quickly applied to anyone who could pass for gringo. As I reflected on my experience, I decided what I grew to love the most about the culture here is that it is laidback. But this tranquility and slower pace does not pertain to flojera or laziness. The people here establish relationships and cultivate them. Each person is important and to spend time with each other is valued. The work always gets done, but it is never more important than a human being. In my university, people are overloaded with work, overcommitted to activities to get into the top grad schools, and bombarded with messages saying that if you don’t have your whole life already planned out you are going to fail. Life needs a plan. End of story. And for the majority of us have lived in this hyper-bubble of stress since elementary school. We look so far ahead to the future that we forget about the present. The next project, the next opportunity to get ahead is much more important than the friendship I might form with my classmate if I took the time not only to ask her how she is but the time to listen to the response. I hope that I can keep this perspective when I return to the United States and not get wrapped up in the unnecessary worry and hustle-bustle that resonates throughout our culture. What is meant to be will happen. I hope that the year abroad has solidified my ability to live in the moment and not try to control my future.



Time April 19th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It’s amazing how much you can change and grow in only two weeks. I have just arrived back home from vacaciones and tomorrow will fall back into my daily routine. However, the two-week break from school exposed me to things I have never before had the opportunity to witness. Because so much has happened, I have decided to split this entry into three separate sections – one for each of my travels.

Part 1 Yuxunah
On Thursday morning of vacaciones I grudgingly rolled out of bed, grabbed my hammock and arrived at the central bus station to head off to spend the next four days with the 600 Mayans who inhabit the small town of Yuxunah.
After a three hour bus ride, my friend Rachel and I were dropped off in front of a one room concrete house. Our señor kindly let us in and removed himself from site (the downside of the four days was that we were not able to interact with the Mayan families that had lent us the one room cinder-block homes placed next to their traditional huts). We strung our hammocks and walked into the bathroom where two buckets of water awaited us. For a second I was stunned. I had anticipated a cold dribble of a shower but a bucket bath? Needless to say, four days without running water opened my eyes to how much water I use in a day (and I don’t consider myself to be a water waster). Using an empty bottle, I managed to shower the first night with 4 bottle scoops of water. The two of us only used ¾ of a bucket that first day, an amount equivalent to about three toilet flushes. While living without running water was shocking, I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted and how much I paid attention to the amount of water I did use.
Another wonderful aspect of our stay in Yuxunah was the day we cooked Cochinita Pibil, a Yucatecan dish consisting of spiced pork, in the traditional manner of burying it underground. To do so, a huge fire is built in a hole and rocks are placed above the wood for about an hour. As the wood turns to ash, the rocks grow scalding hot. At this point, the cochinita, now covered with adobado, onions, and tomatoes is placed in the hole and the hole is covered with layers of sticks, leaves, and dirt. Three hours later, after carefully undiging the hole (la tierra can give you tremendous burns) your delicious meal is ready.
Lastly, the small town life of Yuxunah grabbed my attention. Every day after lunch we took a siesta. I hadn’t slept that much in a long time, and now finally rested, I felt healthy and alive and ready to greet the day. We spent our time swimming, running, chatting, and forming friendships as we participated in various volunteer projects such as cenote cleaning and building window screens to keep out the mosquitoes. Despite its different feel and vibe, it amazed me how easy it is to form friendships with people and find commonalities that we all share as human beings.

Part 2 Mexico City, Pachuca, and Puebla
Monday morning I arrived in Mexico City and was greeted by the husband of my coworker Letty and Letty’s friend and daughter. I was staying with a family in a small house with two bedrooms, a bathroom, a small kitchen and a living room. Each room was probably half the size of my bedroom, yet six people inhabited the home. Walking into the house I felt as though I was living on top of others. Used to my own personal space, I quickly realized privacy did not exist. The family was kind and hospitable, but one quickly noted their lack of education. All three children dropped out of middle school, two of which (now 21 and 19) have babies of their own. Yet they lacked not just scholarly education, but a general knowledge of the world that I have always taken for granted. For example, Christian, a ten month old, eats fried chicken nuggets and drinks coca cola out of his bottle daily. Never having been exposed to other healthier options, Christian refuses to drink water and rarely drinks milk (milk is always available to the family due to a stipend program).
Not only does the baby lack nutrition but lacks engagement as well. Christian is often placed to the side as the mom socializes with friends in la calle and the grandmother takes care of the necessary household chores. He hasn’t muttered anything close to a first word and still does not stand up well – even with support and guidance. Dana, the ten month old who lives with my host family in Mérida already walks up a storm, waves goodbye, and has mastered a handful of words. Although Dana is an early walker, I was shocked by the differences in development. If Christian is already so far behind, how will he ever be able to keep up with children like Dana? At such a tender age, Christian already has a giant mountain he must climb to overcome the disadvantages his environment has presented to him. Unfortunately, he will most likely tire of climbing his mountain before reaching its peak, will drop out of school, and will lead the same life of poverty his family currently lives.
In contrast to this family’s lack of education, Claudia, another friend of Letty, and her 16-year-old daughter Mónica were quite a different story. Equally crammed in a small house, the family treated each other with a respect that made me smile. Claudia and Mónica, despite being mother and daughter, are best friends and spend the majority of their time together. But despite the close friendship, Mónica knows her limits – when a ‘no’ is a ‘no’. Claudia places an emphasis on the importance of homework and Mónica has flourished. While she still hates math, she studies hard and knows she will one day attend a university.
Another eye opening development I came away with was the difference between city poverty and poverty in a pueblo. Once outside of the manicured Mexican politicians’ lawns, you become engulfed by a horrendous filth and stench. People throw their trash por todos lados. Families live on top of families. There is never a moment of tranquility. However, in the pueblos, although the level of poverty is the same and ten people may inhabit a one-room home, there is a peacefulness… perhaps better described as a naturalness…Land separates homes. The pattern of life is natural. One wakes up with the sun and begins one’s day early. Food is homemade – tortillas patted out and cooked over a small fire. There is not nearly the level of processed foods available as there is in the big city.
While all these experiences were new and eye opening, my favorite part of this portion of the journey were the three days Don Cucho (Letty’s husband), Claudia, Mónica, and I traveled through Pachuca and Puebla. Born in Pachuca, Don Cucho showed me the places important to him as a small child. I felt as if I could see him 40 years younger, climbing the hills in la orilla of the city. In the same way I feel as though I finally understand the complete life story of Letty. A sad childhood to say the least, Letty’s childhood came to life as we drove past various casitas in Puebla. This was the most important aspect of the trip for me – to have the opportunity to see and visit the history of someone so close to me.

Part 3- Tijuana
After the eye opening experience in Mexico City, I few to Tijuana to meet up with my church group. Twice a year members drive to Tijuana to work with an organization called Esperanza that helps to build decent housing for the poor. However, rather than just building homes and leaving, Esperanza emphasizes community building – something hard to accomplish in a city that is the last stop for immigrants hoping to mejorar sus vidas in the United States.
My first trip to Tijuana (being also my first trip to México) was during my senior year in high school. Eye opening to say the least, it was incomprehensible to me how a wall could separate opportunity and wealth. I was embarrassed by my country’s harsh “keep out” message. On the last night of the trip, Eduardo, the volunteer coordinator, took us to the border to discuss México’s perception of immigration. Naïve to think that everyone in México wanted to come to the United States, I was surprised to learn that the majority of Mexicans take great pride in their work and want to play an integral part in the betterment and development of their own country.
I came to Tijuana this time hoping for a similarly shocking revelation, yet left without any luck. In part, it must because I have seen so much in the past seven months living in México and no longer posses quite the same level of naivety. Additionally, due to rain, I was only able to help build homes one day and thus did not have much of an opportunity to discuss issues with the families. I left Tijuana slightly disappointed, no fault of anyone’s but my own. As my Dad always says, “make your own experience”. I should have opened up a dialogue with at least Eduardo, if not the families about my experiences in Yuxunah and México City.
Lastly, adding to my frustration, I realized no matter how many people ask me about my experiences, they will never fully understand what I have seen and felt. I long to have someone understand the confusion, the solitude, the joy, the growth, and the friendships that come through these trips. But the experience is mine and mine alone and no matter how much I want to share it, their understanding will always fall short. I guess it isn’t about someone getting the whole picture, instead maybe they will catch a glimmer of something they have never been exposed to before. Maybe a sentence I say will spark a thought, or that something will resonate within them and maybe open their eyes to a new idea, just like Eduardo did for me on my first Esperanza trip.


Back in Mérida

Time March 9th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Things have been a whirlwind since Tabasco. I haven’t had a chance to sit down and breathe. There’s always been something to do: soccer games, beach, time with the grandkids, leading class, birthday parties, and on top of it all, trying to squeeze in homework. Out of all the activity during the last two weeks, two anecdotes stand out in my mind.
The first one starts with my friend asking me who the kid with curly hair and white teeth was, as he had asked her to go with him to eat ice cream. I told her who he was and warned her that he was “creepy” in the sense that he did not understand the meaning of friendship and just jumped straight to showing up in random places where you were going to be. Needless to say, she went to eat ice cream. A few days later when we were on the bus, bumping our way back from school, she tells me that her ice cream friend keeps annoying her and it was all I could do not to say “I told you so”. As we are crossing the park a few blocks from our homes, I see a familiar silver beetle parked on the side of the road and see our “friend” standing next to it holding a gorgeous sunflower. An awkward exchange occurred between the two of them before I was able to create a not-so-obvious excuse of how we needed to be home to eat lunch with our host families.
I tell this anecdote because this is exactly what my host father did to woo my host Mom, Rebeca. After telling her this story, she sat down and began to reminisce about her courtship. Licho, she said, would just show up in random places or at random events where she happened to be. He was always quiet she said, but always there. It’s really something only I can appreciate, but knowing the two of them, I could just see Licho standing there quietly while Rebeca laughed, gossiped, and joked with her girlfriends.
Anecdote two: A few days ago my friends invited me to a cantina for lunch. While I am not a huge beer drinker, buying one beer is accompanied by a bunch of botanas (snacks) and I figured an afternoon with friends outweighed the snack food I was about to eat. On our way there we ran into one of their old teachers who quickly told us she would love to accompany us. “A teacher in a cantina with her students?!” I thought. “This would never happen in the U.S.!” But needless to say we are not in the U.S. And honestly, things like this should happen more often. Through events like this, the teacher can relate to her students with a level of friendship that allows her to provide guidance and advice. In the classroom, she is tough, and expects a lot of her students. But outside of class, she just enjoys meeting her students where ever they are in life – many times meaning cantina. I would love to have such a close relationship with my professors in my university, but there is always a very defined student-teacher relationship. The next day, this same maestra drove us to Progreso, a pueblo on the beach, to speak to high school kids about majoring in literature. Afterwards we ate wonderful servings of ceviche before passing the rest of the afternoon playing soccer on the beach. The best part was, she played too. It was one of my favorite days so far in Mexico. I hope that I can share this concept – demand for excellence in the classroom while still being able to maintain a normal friendship with one’s students – with my teachers in the U.S. I truly believe that this form of relationship allows for much more growth and development and really gets the student comfortable, and more importantly, excited to learn.



Time February 17th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

In a whirlwind decision, I stuffed clothes in my bag and headed to Tabasco. It all started late one night when my friend Maggie (from New Hampshire) and Hyramzu (a tabasqueño studying here in Mérida) were sitting in a park eating our favorite galleta ice cream. This past weekend was Carnaval, aka no school until Tuesday. While Mérida is very well known for its weeklong celebration, I was antsy to leave the city and see something different. Out of the blue I asked Maggie if she wanted to fly with me to Monterrey  for the weekend. I had already researched this possibility, and knew a round trip plane ticket would only cost 700 pesos (In other words, it would be like traveling from San Francisco to Chicago for $70 roundtrip.). However, Hyramsu quickly invited both of us to his home in Colmalcalco, Tabasco. Since touring with someone who knows the region is always more fun and informative, the decision was easy. Tabasco here we come!

We arrived early Saturday morning after a nine-hour bus ride sprawled out in an almost empty second-class bus (While most people would rather travel in first class, my codo ways would rather save money. The only downside I see is that the bus has no bathroom, but that is canceled out because that means the back row actually has seats perfect for laying down and getting a decent night’s sleep.). From then on, the weekend was a blur moving from one activity to the next. As Comalcalco is known for its chocolate, we went on a chocolate tour, ate an alligator-fish called pejelargato, visited the zoo in Villa Hermosa, saw the Olmecan ruins, and had a fabulous Valentine’s day dinner complete with an entertaining show of Karaoke.

We also spent a lot of time with Hyramzu’s family who was very excited to get to know us. Hyramzu’s father works for Pemex, the petroleum monopoly run by the government in México, and his mother sells anything and everything. Both are kind and inviting. His mom is your stereotypical Mexican mother- always offering too much food and making sure our every need has been attended to. Hyramzu has three other siblings, two of whom still live at home. The whole brigade was very accommodating and excited to talk with us about everything from food to whistling to religion. Being a caballero, Hyramzu (and his family) did not let us pay one penny throughout our whole time in México (This is something I still struggle with. In the U.S., going out to eat with friends almost always implies that everyone pays for their own part. In México, going out to eat almost always implies the gentleman pays, even if it is not an actual date.). The day we left, the family eagerly asked us when we would be coming back. From the moment we arrived, Maggie and I instantly felt integrated into their home and family and cannot thank them enough for their hospitality and kindness.

Despite all the fun activities, the trip definitely reinforced my discovery of how quickly cultures change. While Mérida is one of the most tranquil cities on the planet, Comalcalco is bustling and Villa Hermosa is a congested mess. People in Tabasco drive offensively, or in other words, if a car is coming and I want to make a right turn into their lane, I’m going to step on it and go and assume they are going to stop. Traffic laws, while already are more chaotic in México than in the U.S. appeared to be nonexistent. Another huge difference is the way the people speak to each other. Unlike yucatecans, in Tabasco people tend to drop the s’s in their words and put a lot of emotion into each phrase, giving them a Donald-Duck Italian mobster like accent. Everything is much more passionate and much less formal.

All in all it was a wonderful eye opening experience. The poverty is much more apparent in Tabasco than in Mérida and much harder to avoid. For example while children do sell gum in the streets in Mérida it is not a common sight. In Tabasco, every street corner seems to have a child working to try to make ends meet. However, I do not regret even a little bit missing out on Carnaval in Mérida. Yes, five days of fiesta would have been fun, but the experience I had in Tabasco was unforgettable and irreplaceable.


Ahhh Mexico

Time January 20th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It is officially week two in Mérida. The first week was blessedly cold – I kept a sweater on all day, had to turn on the heater to warm the shower water, and didn’t think once about turning on my fan before I crawled into bed. Unfortunately, the cool air has passed and the heat has once again settled over the city.
Studying abroad for a year was by far the best decision I have ever made. While I know I will still have days full of frustration and confusion, they will come with much less frequency. Each day I enter the facultad, I get excited knowing I am going to get to spend the day studying, chatting, and laughing with friends I already know well. Rather than walking around feeling slightly lost and out of place, I now feel as if I can attack AND conquer anything. Any timidness that remained from the past semester has disappeared.
My favorite night so far was last Thursday. Rebeca, my host Mom and I, went to eat taco arabes, small, handmade, pita-like tortillas covered with pork, onion, cilantro, tomato, and smothered in the most delicious, mouth-watering garlic sauce I have ever tasted. Yum!! Afterwards we went to see Avatar. I wasn’t planning on seeing the film, but who can say no to a free ticket? It ended up being one of my favorite movies of all time. For three hours I sat glued to the huge screen and didn’t once look at my watch. Not only was the landscape beautiful but the film also brought up very provocative questions about colonization, the environment, and where we want to go as a “modern” society.
Lastly, let me give you all a quick run down on my classes. I’m taking Spanish, Latin-American Culture and Thought, Caribbean Literature, Philosophy of History, and Latin-American Essays. All are interesting and I love all my teachers and the way they teach. (I made sure to chose teachers that appeared very organized this semester.) I am most excited about the philosophy class. Not only does my favorite teacher lecture, most of my friends from last semester are in it. Not all of my classes will be as fun however. I am scared my essay class will be very difficult and I hope all the extra effort I know I will have to put in to it will pay off in the end.


Returning to Mérida

Time January 12th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Its 10:30 at night and here I am again sitting in yet another airport. Sometimes I feel that I pass more time in airports than I do anywhere else. I feel restless – always hopping from one place to another. In fact, while this summer I have the opportunity to go to both India and Africa, I almost long for a relaxing summer doing the typical college internship 9-5 day. Yet who can pass up such wonderful opportunities? At the age of 20, I have already had the chance to see so much more of the world than most people see in a lifetime. My great uncle, for example, has not traveled more than 30 miles from his Wisconsin farm in his whole life. My understanding and perception of the world are much more complex through my opportunity to see and interact and live in such different cultures from my own. On the other hand, these explorative opportunities do not permit me to spend time with my friends and loved ones at home. The more time I spend away from home, the more I realize how blessed I am to have such an intricate and extensive web of support. My parents put up with my lack of certainty about what the future holds and my constant change of plans and my “brilliant” new ideas. My friends comfort me when I feel homesick or confused and encourage me to continue my journeys. But I rarely get the chance to just sit back and enjoy home.

Anyway, that will all sort itself out in the future. Right now, I am heading back to Mérida. I am horribly sad to be leaving home yet again. This time I am certain that when I return after this semester, many of my friends will have decided to stay at their respective schools for the summer. Despite this, I am excited to head back to Mexico. Talking to my friends in Mérida through Skype or Facebook chat leaves me feeling energized and excited to embark on yet another semester in Yucatán. I’m excited to see familiar faces and meet the new students in the program. I want to see if Dana has begun to walk and introduce the S’more to the grandkids in the household (who can resist toasting marshmallows in 80 degree weather over a hot stove?). I’m excited for sitting around my friends’ living rooms laughing at cheesy jokes and eating Japanese peanuts. It will be so interesting to see how this semester compares to the last, I can’t wait to arrive and start yet another adventure.


The Return Home

Time January 6th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I have officially been back in the United States for 1.5 weeks and it’s strange how fast I have adjusted to being home. Yes, there are some things that have been hard to get used to. Often times I look around frantically in an effort to try to find a place to throw away my toilet paper or I forget to grab a jacket on my way out of the door. But home is home, and I instantly readjusted to my salad eating, mountain running, friend visiting ways as if I had never packed up my things and lived in a foreign country.
Despite the easy adjustment, I realize it is only that way because I know in a week I will be returning to Mérida. I didn’t have to say goodbye to the friends, family, and country I have grown very close to over the past four months. Instead I get a nice vacation at home before returning to Yucatán to continue where I left off.
And I already have plans for when I return. One of my friends from the restaurant I work at every time I return home to California, offered me the opportunity to stay with her friend in Mexico City. She tells me the family, although poor, is very excited to have me and yesterday I was able to see that for myself. I told them I could stay for four days and they repeatedly asked me, “Why four? Why not eight!?” The hospitality they have shown towards someone they have never met and have no real connection to is overwhelming. I can’t wait to get a real tour of Mexico City from people who actually live there. Additionally, if time and money hold out, I would love to see another part of Mexico, whether it be Monterrey or Nayarit. Lastly, I really want to start volunteering with elderly people within the Mérida community. However, many of the nursing homes do not want any help at all, so hopefully I will be able to convince them that my efforts and assistance will be worthwhile. All in all, I’m very excited for all the things I will be able to do next semester—especially since I already know the area and will not have to make such a drastic adjustment.



Time December 14th, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I can’t believe this semester has flown by so quickly and that I’ll find myself in what, to me, will feel like a very chilly Bay Area in one week. With seven days still remaining between me and my comfortable bed, I leave Mérida tomorrow to travel to Belize. For the first time in my life I will be visiting another English speaking country. While I know simple things like finding a hotel will be much easier, I will miss speaking Spanish everyday. Still, I am excited to relax on the beach, especially after the nonstop busyness of the last week.
These past few days have been a complete whirlwind. I had four final papers to finish while trying to make sure I got to spend sufficient time with everyone before I leave for the United States. (Advice for next semester: start final papers ASAP.) Luckily for me, I only had to really say goodbye to the people in the IFSA-Butler program rather than all the friends I have made here. Regardless, it has been difficult. My best friend here is Paige, and knowing she will not be apart of all my adventures next semester is hard to imagine. While I am anxious to meet the thirteen new students coming next semester, I am going to miss the long walks, movies, and dinners with the people who I have grown to love and admire within the program now.
In spite of all of that, this last week has been by far my favorite of the semester. On Monday I traveled with my friend Ezer to his pueblo where we took his motorcycle over to Itzamal, a small pueblo about an hour southeast of Mérida. Every 6th of December, Itzamal serenades la Virgen. We were only able to hear the last song, but hundreds of people had turned out to sing. Many of them had participated in peligrinos or privileges, often times running or biking for miles, to honor the Virgin.
It was also in Itzamal that I saw my first Corrida de torros (or bullfight), which is nothing like they are on TV. While I was not anticipating enjoying the fight, I firmly believe that one needs to witness one for themselves before judging it completely. I was expecting a single matador to spear a charging bull—blood dripping down its flank and the smell of sweat filling the stadium. Instead, six matadors stood in the ring none with spears. They would wave their dull pink capes and as soon as the bull got within 30 feet, they would drop their cape and run for cover. Most of the time the bull just stood there with an irritated look on his face. When the crowd grew tired of the bull, a group of ten cowboys would sprint out of the gate to try to lasso it. The bull would be dragged out of the stadium, put in a truck, and returned to its owner. Only the first bull is killed (behind closed doors) and its meat is sold to those in the town.
Motorcycling back to Mérida was beautiful. Thousands of stars lit up the sky and the Milky Way spilled overhead. It’s very surprising how fast the stars appear as soon as you leave the city limits. With few lights outside the cities, darkness takes over almost instantly. That night I slept in a hammock, and while I slept soundly, beds are much more comfortable for everyday sleep.
Yesterday Paige and I went to the beach at Progresso to meet up with two of our friends. Bullfight There we went swimming in some Cenotes (waterholes) before we returned to eat fried Mera, a fish that comes bones, eyes, and skin still included. Delicious. Later that day, while we sat around, Manuel took out his guitar. We passed the evening singing a mixture of 70’s and 80’s rock songs in English and Spanish. Some of the favorites were Journey, Queen, and Pink Floyd. Yesterday was so special because it was so relaxing. There was no hurry nor any last minute Christmas stress. In fact, most people don’t even give gifts on Christmas. Through days like those, I have learned to just relax and roll with the punches. I never realized how stressed out day-to-day living in the United States can be until I came here, to such a relaxed environment. Although sometimes the slow nature of the city still boggles my mind, I sincerely hope I will be able to bring some of the relaxed culture back with me to America.



Time November 25th, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Its strange the things you take comfort in when you find yourself living in a culture and country different than your own. This Tuesday, one of my favorite Mexican bands, Reik, will perform here in Mérida. Today, my friend Ruthie and I decided we could no longer procrastinate and needed to finally go and purchase tickets. After waiting over 30 minutes for the bus to come, we arrived at the coffee shop where one can buy tickets (yes, here there is no such thing as Ticketmaster. Instead, tickets are purchased at random stores or restaurant such as Italian Coffee Shop or Burger King.). We asked for two general tickets and were told that the people who actually sell the tickets weren’t there. The employee had no idea when they would decide to come back. Frustrated we left the coffee shop only to hop on yet another bus to go to another ticket selling place. Everything that would normally take 20 minutes in the United States (or in this case two minutes) takes three hours here in Mexico. Anyway, to make a long story short, we arrived home with Reik tickets finally in our hands. However, the fact that people sold tickets without any form of schedule made me realize that while so much of Mexico is so familiar and comfortable, there are some things that are impossible to get used to.
Additionally, I have noticed that I take comfort in things that I never before realized where so important to me. While in the U.S., I am either blasting reggaeton or musica ranchera , here I find a strange comfort in country music. When I am upset I find myself turning to Brad Paisley or the Zac Brown Band instead of my typical Spanish music. The irony lies in the fact that while I did listen to country in the U.S., I never CHOSE to listen to it. Another weird comfort: mashed potatoes. I have never really been a potato person, and while at Thanksgiving my brother would always build giant dams with his mashed potatoes and gravy, I never really enjoyed the food. However, this week my host mom, Rebecca, made instant mashed potatoes and I was in heaven, not so much for the taste but because it reminded me of the comfort of home. It will be very interesting to see what other strange things I crave over the next six months that I am here in Mexico. My neighborhood


El Día de los Muertos

Time November 11th, 2009 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

This past week my parents flew out to visit me during La semana de Antropología, which is the week that the foreign exchange students don’t have school. We decided to go to Oaxaca for El Día de los Muertos as there are still many traditional events that take place in the cemeteries throughout the city and the nearby towns.
I grew up on road trips and enjoyed the fact that I would get to go on another one. I really feel that road trips teaches and exposes you to much more of the country than flying ever can. When you drive, you get to see how the geography of the country changes, and in turn how it affects the way of life of the people. It’s beautiful.
Our trip was amazing. We ended up driving almost 2000 miles over six days. Somehow we survived without any hiccups stuffed together in a tiny Dodge Atos.
Leaving Mérida, we passed through the open, sprawling savannah of Yucatán and Campeche and into the jungly mountains of Chiapas. The weather shifted drastically from overbearing humidity to a fresh, crisp fall night.
While everything drawls on in Yucatán, there is a lively, upbeat pace to San Cristóbal, Chiapas. The vibrant colonial town is home to an enchanting mixture of Ladinos (people of Spanish decent), Mestizos (a mixture of Spanish and indigenous decent), and Mayans. There is an obvious separation between the groups, yet despite the division, there is a charm and comfort that envelops the region.
Before heading off to Oaxaca, we stopped in Chumula, a traditional pueblo where the Mayan culture is very much alive. While there, we entered their church – a captivating mix of Catholicism and their traditional religions. The church is open 24 hours and at any moment you may find Chamulans inside the church praying over candles to the saints of their choosing.
In Oaxaca, we discovered a dry region full of red rock, scrubby brush, and the occasional cactus. Huge mountain ranges surrounded all sides of the Oaxaca valley. For the first time since I arrived in Mexico, I saw people dressed in jeans, button-down plaid shirts, boots, and sombreros – my stereotype of everyday clothing. In the centro of Oaxaca, people were friendly, yet unlike Mérida, did not haggle tourists. However, because we only stayed downtown, I did not get a chance to get a very comprehensive understanding of the city.
Coming home we drove through Veracruz and Tabasco, both of which were being hit hard by a huge storm. Rivers overflowed in Tabasaco, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Cars crawled through the flooded streets spraying dirty water onto the sidewalks. Pemex is the main employer in the region, and in the mornings busloads of people wearing bright orange jumpsuits hurry off to the petroleum plants. Closer to the coast, the people in the little pueblitos weigh out the day’s catch of fish, shrimp, and octopus.
All in all, it was a wonderful trip that provided me with a wonderful opportunity to see the striking beauty of the Mexican countryside as well as the many cultures that make up this intricate country. The more I travel and see, the more I realize that Mexico has many faces and is impossible to stereotype. Each region has its own unique culture and it is useless to try to simplify its complexity into one national culture.

Church in Chamula

Church in Chamula



Two months and counting

Time October 22nd, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Today marks two months of living in México. With the last two months having flown by, I feel much older than I did two months ago. I felt like I entered this study abroad experience very hopeful and with high expectations, but very naïve. I had Mexican friends back home, and expected the Mexico of Yucatán to be the same Mexico that they shared with me. I have to admit it has been hard to get past my preconceptions of what Mexico is and what it should be, but I feel I am finally understanding more of how Mérida works and operates and enjoying it for what it is.
After being here two months, I still have days where I feel hopeless, lost, and alone. And then of course I have wonderful days where I feel fully incorporated into the family and the society around me. Last week though was probably the most difficult week I have had since I arrived. I had a group project in my Mayan culture class in which my best friend Paige and I had to do all the work and the rest of the group put in zero effort. It was frustrating putting in so much effort without receiving any help from the other group members. However, my Dad reminded me that I can’t stay upset and that it is up to me to better my situation. That means that even if I am tired, it is up to me to look for new things to do and to make my own experience rather than thinking that the experience I want will just be there.
Despite a semi-rough week, I had a great time over the weekend and am really looking forward to the next few days. Friday we celebrated yet another birthday (one of five in October). Last Saturday, my friend Paige and I visited Izamal, a town about 40 minutes outside of the city. It is called La ciudad amarilla, or the yellow city as all the buildings are painted a golden yellow. Right smack in the middle of the city is a hill with a Mayan ruin. Clambering to the very top reveals a magnificent view of the Yucatan countryside. Gorgeous. Tonight I am going to my host sister’s bridal shower. Actually, to be honest I’m not sure exactly what it is because it’s technically for Rebecca (her Mom). Tomorrow my host Mom and I are having a pumpkin carving party with some of my friends and we are going to bake the seeds to celebrate Halloween. It should be a great time, as Rebecca has never carved a pumpkin. She really wants pumpkin pie, but I have yet to see canned pumpkin on the grocery store shelves. Friday we are teaching one of our friends, Lalo, how to bake cookies. No one bakes here. It’s too hot, but as the past few days have been cooler we are going to give it a shot. Should be a great time!

Celebrating Rebecca's birthday

Celebrating Rebecca's birthday


Hoy en tu communidad

Time October 7th, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Group of nutritionists and other students from the IFSA program

Group of nutritionists and other students from the IFSA program

Last Saturday I participated in the program “Hoy en tu comunidad” (Today in Your Community). A medical student in the UADY University system (the university through which I am studying here in Mexico) created the program five years ago. Since that point it has grown from ten people participating to over 200 students from all different majors taking part weekly.
But what exactly is “Hoy en tu comunidad” you ask? Well, if I may be blunt, it’s one of the coolest programs on the planet. In Mexico, rather than getting a general education in undergraduate school like in the U.S., you chose your major going into college and it is almost impossible to switch. For example, if I want to be a doctor, I apply to the Falcultad de Médicina. I would then spend the next five years taking very specific classes on the path to become a doctor. In “Hoy en tu comunidad” students participate from each facultad. The week I volunteered, 200 students with 24 different majors participated. The goal of the program is for each student to use his or her specific knowledge to assist a town’s population in Yucatan. Not only do the townspeople receive care free of charge, but the program also provides the opportunity for hands-on learning. Groups generally leave early Saturday morning and return late Saturday night. Absolutely no scholastic credit is given to these students for their help.
The day I volunteered we went to a small pueblo about an hour and a half outside Mérida called Tekit. When we arrived, all the various facultades began to set up their stations. The doctors began to set up their machines and tests, the psychologists arranged a private area for consultations, the artists found an area to teach kids about recycling and the environment and so on. A formal introduction was given on how the day was going to be run, and the program’s founder reminded the town that their tax money was funding the university student’s education and that this was the very least they could give back. As foreign exchange students, our skills were not as applicable to the various programs, so we wandered from place to place, unsure where we would best be able to help. Eventually I meandered over to the nutrition area where I was able to weigh and measure the various patients. After a day of assisting in the town, I was once again amazed by the kindness and generosity of not only the townspeople, but of the volunteer students as well. The students were just as eager to get to know us as we were to know them. They invited us to various dinners, to go bowling, grab a coffee, or go for a stroll in their favorite park. It didn’t matter if we were fluent or not in Spanish – we could connect over being young adults trying to figure out what to do with our lives. A smile always goes a long way to establishing a friendship.
All in all, I hope to be able to participate again in the “Hoy en tu comunidad” program, see another pueblo with a distinct culture from that of Mérida, and meet many more kind, enthusiastic, and driven students. Maybe one day we could even have a similar hands-on program in the United States.


El sandwichon

Time October 7th, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Today is the birthday of one of my friends in the IFSA-BUTLER program.  I thought I’d surprise her with your typical Yucatecan birthday feast:  el sandwichon.  This monster of a sandwich is made in the following manner.

1.  Take a can of cream and blend with cream cheese.  Put in fridge.

2. Blend another can of cream with slices of American cheese.  Add slices of canned red pepper and continue blending.  Put in fridge.

3.  Blend your third and final can of cream with slices of ham.  (Normally you add peas with mustard to the mixture, but my host mom Rebecca didn’t have canned peas and didn’t like the taste of the frozen green peas.  Gotta get your vegetables right?) Put in fridge.

4.  Take your loaf of sandwichon bread (long, thing sliced white bread) remove the top piece (too hard) and set aside. Remove cream mixtures from fridge.

5.  Grab the next slice, and soak with milk.  Cover with the cheese mixture.

6. Place the next slice of bread on top, soak with milk, cover with jam mixture.

7.  Slice of bread, milk, pineapple jam.

8.  Repeat steps 5 and 6.

9. Cover all edges with the cream cheese cream mixture.

10.  Add crushed pecans on top with thin slices of red pepper and a few peas for color and decoration.

11.  ENJOY! (How could you not?)


A Day in Mérida

Time September 25th, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Exercising at the ParkI have now been here for over a month and feel like for the most part I have adjusted to my life here in Mérida. However, there are still many things I just don’t understand. For example, no one here uses street names except for Prolongación de Paseo Montejo. A few days ago, I tried to go get more pictures taken for my visa. I took off on foot instead of waiting for the bus knowing the store was somewhere near the Office Depot on Pronlongación Montejo- about a 25 minute walk. I walked up and down the Paseo and could not find any place that takes photos. I called my host mom, Rebecca, and she tells me “Find the grocery store on the corner. Turn right and walk a few blocks. When you see the curtain store, turn left and you’ll eventually come across it.” Well, after a good hour of sweating, walking up and down various streets and asking everyone if they know where this photo shop is, I find one- two stores down from where I started. I was exhausted and frustrated, but at least all my walking gave me the opportunity to get a good sense of where other things are located that I can’t see from the bus (aka I found a sushi place that has dirt cheap sushi Wednesdays and Thursdays and is suppose to be one of the best sushi places in Mérida).
Another perk about living here is that no day is the same. For example, Mondays and Wednesdays I wake up at 6, eat breakfast, grab the bus and am in class from 8-2, no breaks. By the time I eventually make my way back to my house, I am exhausted and STARVING. Tuesdays and Thursdays are my favorite days. I only have my Spanish class at three in the afternoon and thus have the morning to do whatever I need to get done. Often times I go to the launder mat these days. Its run by an old man who went to live in México (if you here someone say I lived in México, it always refers to the D.F.) and returned because he missed the friendliness of laid back Mérida. He greets everyone with a smile and loves to share stories about his life and listen to our opinions about our study abroad experience. The rest of the morning I normally spend with Rebecca and normally get a little cooking lesson. But if you think I’m going to come back an enchilada or taco expert your mistaken. My favorite dish I have learned so far is how to make Kiwi’s- a baked mixture of ground meat and tabouleh that was brought over by the Arabs. Yesterday we ran errands and went to three grocery stores trying to find out favorite yogurt (if Alpura exists in the United States BUY IT. Its delicious!). During our travels we stopped by Parque Aleman because Rebecca wants to start walking there. This park has free exercise machines, and when we got out of the car we decided to investigate how they worked. A 65- year old and 20- year old began to run from machine to machine bursting out laughing during their “attempts” to exercise. Everyone else in the park must have thought we were absolutely crazy, but we enjoyed ourselves.
There is one thing that bothers me about this study abroad experience and it is how easy it is to speak in English. If I talk with my parents- English. My friends- English. If I don’t talk to anyone any specific day, I have to write an email to someone in English. Although my Spanish has improved, I have realized it is much better if I don’t use any English during the day and am forced to speak in Spanish the whole time. I feel like my speaking skills would improve much faster if I never had to speak in English.
But all in all I am content in Mérida. It is no longer deathly hot which makes a huge difference. I can sleep in my room now without sweating and find the city much more enjoyable overall. I love my host family and spending time with them and can’t wait to see what the next eight months will bring.


The Flood

Time September 3rd, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The afficionados have arrived

When people from back home ask me to describe Mérida, the first thing I always say is hot. I feel bad simplifying such a beautiful, multifaceted city to solely its climate, but its scorching here and I can’t help it. It’s a heat I have never felt before. A heat I cannot escape. Entering my room is like entering a sauna. Even sitting at my computer with two fans blowing on me I sweat. Always one for activity, I am content to lounge around in the afternoon and just let the heat wash over me, hoping that once the sun goes down the hot, heavy weight bearing over me will be lifted (So far, it has yet to happen).

But despite the oppressive calor, this city is filled with museums, art exhibits, and dance exhibitions. Every Sunday an event called Mérida en domingo takes place in the Plaza Principal downtown. There people go and enjoy typical Yucatecan night food: panuchos and salbutes. Both contain a fried tortilla, the former filled with beans, covered with chicken, tomato, lettuce, and onion. Additionally you can roam the streets and buy traditional clothing or dance traditional dances with your date on the closed off cobbled stone streets. There is some form of music or dance show every evening in el Centro throughout the week as well.

If art, dance, and music aren’t your cup of tea you don’t have to worry. Mérida is home to both baseball and soccer teams. The Mérida Leones (a wonderfully talented baseball team) are the pride of the city but the Venados are not far behind in the number of followers. A second division soccer team, the rumor has circulated throughout our group that if they had won their final game last season they would have been placed into the top soccer league in México. After hearing this news, a group of nine of us gringos decided we had to attend a game to see what all the fuss was about.

Saturday we arrived to the game via taxi- a very cheap and efficient way to travel throughout the city (the taxi including tip only cost 50 pesos for three people or less than $1.50 a person). Although we arrived an hour before the game everyone, people were already clustered about the stadium entrances, all representing their team with the baby blue Venado jersey. A group of nine Americans in a foreign country are sure to stand out and we were approached by the local news network, interviewed, and are set to be shown on local TV Wednesday night.

Raking the Field

Then the fun began. In the distance loomed an ominous cloud, unnoticed by most who were jumping and screaming various cheers. Twenty minutes into the game, a few light sprinkles began and just as I finished putting on my raincoat, the skies opened up and a flood poured out. I have never seen it rain so hard. Families ran for cover while the hardcore fans (including us) were determined to stick it out. But after postponing the game, it was apparent that shelter was a necessity. Soaked to the bone, we all huddled underneath the edges of the stadium as the wind and rain howled by us. An hour or so later the game resumed, the unbearable heat gone for the first time since I have arrived. Four poor souls had to rake puddles of water to other less-wet areas of the field in a hopeless attempt to restore the field to a playable condition. Despite being wet, everyone was in high spirits and even though the Venados played horribly, a sense of unity filled the stadium after bearing the brunt of the storm. The energy throughout the stadium is something not often seen at American sporting events unless you attend the Superbowl, World Series, or Stanley Cup. We have all decided we will return the next game to once again cheer on the wonderful Venados- this time to victory.


Into the Unknown

Time August 17th, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Market Scene

Here I am- sitting in the Guatemala airport 11 days before I am supposed to pack up my life and ship off to Mérida, Mexico. Having just traveled throughout the breathtaking Guatemala countryside for the past ten days with one of my good friends from Northwestern University and with nothing more than a backpack holding a few clothes and $200, the thought of living in a foreign country no longer seems as daunting. I am anxious, yes, but no longer scared. In some odd way, even though it has prevented me from being able to fully acknowledge that I will be living the next nine months in the sweltering Yucatan with a family I know nothing about, my Guatemalan adventure has prepared me for this study abroad experience in more ways than I can imagine.
I anticipate my study abroad experience will start off rocky, as I learn the ins and outs of Mexican living through my mistakes, as did my recent trip. In fact, our first experience in Guatemala City, or Guate as the locals call it, was of a taxi driver ripping us off less than twenty minutes after leaving the airport. But we learned and adjusted fast, and six bus trips, two ferry rides, and three taxi trips later, we had yet to be categorized again as naïve American tourists. This ability to observe and adjust accordingly is comforting me and reminds me that it is one’s ability to learn from one’s inevitable mistakes that will make for a successful study abroad experience.
Although our first day in Guatemala was rough, as we grew accustomed to being in the unknown each day was better than the last, and I imagine Mexico will unfold in much the same manner. I know that the first weeks will be a whirlwind of excitement and confusion, but as the city grows in familiarity I am certain I will settle into a routine and thrive. I cannot wait to dive into all Mexico has to offer!


Border Crossing

Time August 17th, 2009 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It’s Sunday afternoon and I am nerdily sitting in the Cupertino library. For those of you who grew up in Cupertino, you know this is a pretty typical weekend activity. For those of you who didn’t, gaggles of teenagers pass time together studying for the SATs gathered around library tables or strew about couches rather than visiting the beach or seeing movies. Maybe it is because of its familiarity, but the library has always been a place of comfort and I often find myself there in times when I find my brain muddled or confused.
But now it’s not really confusion I feel, but almost a sense of guilt. Working in restaurants since high school, many of the cooks of I have befriended lack the legal immigration status necessary for them to be able to go home and revisit Mexico. And yet, with little difficulty, I can visit their native country. In fact, in order to obtain my year-long visa, all I needed to do was supply the consulate with a bank statement, passport, and photos. I didn’t even need to pay a fee to be processed (I will have to pay one in Mexico however.).
Every time I bring up my study abroad trip at work, a cook will tell me of their home and that if I get a chance I must visit. “My niece is still in Mexico City. If you go there call me and I’ll have her show you around,” or “Do you have a place to stay? You are more than welcome to stay with my family,” are comments they have repeated again and again. While their excitement and hospitality is overwhelming, I feel as though they are depending on me to bring back news from their hometowns. If they cannot visit firsthand, I am the next best way for them to see what has changed and what has remained the same. After all they have taught me over the years and have shared with me about their struggles, they have become my second family and I want to do them justice. I want to take advantage of how easily I can cross the borders that separate them from their loved ones and hopefully be able to bring them a little closer to the good of what they left behind in their search for a better life. Personally my most important goal while I am abroad—understanding the complicated aspects of Mexico and trying to better understand what makes so many people feel they need to leave behind their children to head al norte.