Still in a daze and still with a swollen face, I could hardly enjoy being switched to first class for my flight. The complimentary nuts and crackers felt like bricks to the raw side of my mouth, but sleeping came all too easy.
When I woke up… I was in Mexico.
Walking off the plane, I was a little apprehensive about finding the group. I had never traveled alone to a country that doesn’t speak English before, and my Spanish was very rusty. It had been 2 years since I had taken my last Spanish Class, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough with speaking to even ask where to find the bathroom. When I finally did conjugate the verbs in my head and conjure up the courage to ask, all that came out was Portuguese. Oh lord…. This was going to be harder than I thought.
I must have been doing a good job of looking lost and confused, because an airport worker came up to me and asked me where I was going (in Spanish of course). I managed to get out the flight number of my group, and that I needed to meet up with them at the end of the terminal. He then proceeded to lead me outside; apparently I was on the complete opposite side of the airport.
When I finally arrived to the right terminal, they wouldn’t let me go back inside. So I called my program director and met up with her while we waited for the rest of the group. When we found the group, we all piled into a van and made our way on a weekend adventure that would eventually led to Merida, Mexcio – our new home city for the semester!
I was very excited and felt like I could take a deep breath and enjoy the company of my fellow American students, who were going through the same language shock as I was. But wait. The first words that came out of a student’s mouth, were in Spanish. And… huh, interesting… the response was in Spanish as well. The entire conversation among the students during our hour drive to our hotel was in Spanish, and with every word spoken… I wondered how difficult it would be to run home, brush up on a few more years of Spanish, then come back when I was good and ready. I didn’t have this choice, however, as we pulled into our hotel in the sleepy town of Puerto Morellos.
The next day, I was still fairly intimidated with how amazing the other student’s Spanish were. My roommate helped me go over some simple conjugations, and some new vocabulary words in the morning, but I still felt like I had a few years review to catch up on. At breakfast I learned all of the students learned Spanish on their own will. Sure, Spanish classes help – but it takes a truly determined person to discipline themselves enough to become comfortable speaking a new language. I felt disappointed in myself. Here I was, 22 years old, with all the resources in the world – yet I never took advantage of them. My grandmother was born in Mexico, my mother a native speaker, my father and sister learned it in college… and I never cared, until now, to truly learn. I was amazed how these students just up and decided one day to learn Spanish. Most of them continued learning even outside of classes, with jobs in translating or tutoring Spanish speaking children. I was so impressed. And even more than that, I was motivated. No matter what happens in these next 3 months, learning Spanish was going to be on the top of my priority list.
The next day we were surprised with a free snorkeling excursion! Although the town of Puerto Morellos was relaxing and very much a tranquil “sleepy town”, I was pumped for some excitement and adventure! We strapped on our goggles, waddled out in our flippers to the boat, and headed towards the 2nd biggest reef in the world. As we speed through the ocean, the instructor went over the safety instructions in Spanish. The only words I picked up were “dangerous”, “lost”, and “follow the instructor”… so I felt pretty confident!
After jumping into the water, I plopped my head into the ocean and let my eyes focus as a beautiful word of colorful fish and coral reef came into view. As I swam over the reefs, I was amazed at the beauty. As many times as I had swam in the ocean, I could never phantom what just below me under the water. All the underwater plants were swaying in unison to the ocean current, and every now and then little critters would pop their heads out of the reef. At one point I looked right below me and saw a little Nemo fish stop mid swim and stare up at me utterly confused. We also saw some not as innocent creatures. Our guide motioned for us to come closer and peer into a dark area of the reef. I thought I saw a triangular shaped fin poking out of the area, but surely he wasn’t showing us a shark. He then proceeded to poke at the fin with his snorkel… and sure enough out swims this 3 or 4 foot cat shark. I suddenly wish I had understood more than 3 phrases in the safety instruction lecture as the cat shark slowly glided right past me.
(photo from google)
After it disappeared into the blue distance, I smiled at the thought of being within reach of my first shark. But the smiling only caused my googles to fill up with water – so I had to retreat back above the water. As I dumped out my goggles, I looked back down and tried to focus on the reef through the water, but all I could see was a brown blob that looked like mud below the surface.
How could something so beautiful be so unclear to see just above the water? It boggled my mind!
I realized this is similar to my situation with Spanish. I jumped into Mexico, but was currently treading water above the surface – trying to focus on the words and try to makes sense out of them. I could either give up and sink… or put my fears aside and work hard at it, make mistakes, get frustrated, and recognize the little accomplishments until I could finally dip my head below the water to see a new world of being able to understand Spanish, and thus opening my eyes to learning about a whole new culture.
Let the Spanish Snorkeling begin!