Learning about more than language

By Helena Rodriguez

Hola amigos, from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. I’m coming to you from a half continent away, ironically, to learn something I probably could have learned while growing up as a child there in P-Ville.
Myself and a group of students from Eastern New Mexico University have said hasta la vista to Nuevo Mexico for awhile and are now spending the month of July in Old Mexico to sharpen our Spanish-speaking skills. Here at the southern tip of the country, Merida, we are not only being immersed in the dominant language of Mexico, we are being introduced to a whole new world. It’s an exotic world that includes a whole new money system of pesos, ancient pyramids, beaches and fruits unique to this part of the world, including piteya, which like a chocolate chip-looking kiwi and platanos manzanos, which are small apple bananas.
We are also sleeping on hammocks, which are surprisingly comfortable, and we are learning to withstand the almost unbearable heat here as we go on to our scheduled excursions, which have so far included a trip to the indigenous Mayan villages of Yucatan. Some of us are even learning to speak a little Mayan.
We’ve toured the spectacular caves of Loltun, drove along the famous Ruta Puuc and visited the pyramids in Uxmal. In Uxmal, we enjoyed a light and sound show about the ancient rain gods. Ironically, it started to rain as we were climbing down from the stadium-style seating situated on one of the pyramid platforms.
The highlight for us so far has been going to swim in the salty beach waters of Progreso and in Celestun. But perhaps it’s the small day-to-day things that are opening our eyes to this whole other Mexico, which is not typical of border towns such as Juarez and Nuevo Laredo.
In some ways, Mexico is just like the United States. They have KFC, Dominos and Burger King here and a lot of businesses cater to us English-speaking tourists. However, I can’t say that the pace of life in Merida is any slower, just different. There are Internet cafes around every corner and people drive crazy here, just like in many American cities, but you can’t really call it road rage. They just like to keep things moving.
The funniest thing I find about public transportation here is that although the bus drivers drive around like maniacs and don’t even come to complete stops when you get off the bus, they all have some form of religious altar at the front of the bus — and I mean every single bus I’ve been on so far. Just above the windshields are religious portraits of Our Lady of Guadalupe, rosaries, crucifixes, pictures of Jesus and saints. And if you watch the natives here, they all make the sign of the cross as they get on and off the buses. It’s a ritual here, praying for a safe trip to and from as the buses go screeching around town. Even more interesting here, the natives say there are not many car wrecks.
Merida is a highly cultural city with free nightly fine arts activities around the plaza and a very low crime rate for this city of more than one million people. As far as the speaking Spanish part, which is the main reason for this immersion program, Mary Ayala is encouraging us to take advantage of all of the resources here, striking up conversations with our hosts families and people on the streets and having nightly readings in Spanish as well as weekly essays due on Spanish newspaper articles or small interviews with natives.
We are also having to create a lot of these opportunities ourselves. It’s tempting to stick with people we know and swing back and forth to English. It can be frustrating to grasp the language, but we’re in the learning process here and Ayala says we’ll see most of the progress we’ve made when we get back home in early August.

Helena Rodriguez is a staff writer for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. Her e-mail address:
helena_rodriguez@link.freedom.com