Where I Have Been Map

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Merida - More than a check mark

I believe there are two types of traveling. One type is purely for tourism and adventure. Most people use this type of traveling to go to places just to satisfy your own wants and needs and check off a new place/county/city on their list. Don't get me wrong sometimes this type of traveling is exactly what I need after a hard semester - some time in the sun just soaking it all in. But you don't really get to know the place, just the comfortable amenities at your disposal.

Then there is the other form of traveling - traveling to truly get to know a place, the people, and the culture within it. This type of traveling can, at times, be the most frustrating and internally challenging experience of your life. It is far from a vacation, yet at the same time absolutely inspiring. This is the type of traveling where you come back home a different person. This traveling, I believe, my entire group is experiencing here in Merida. And after three months, will all come home being able to honestly say we know this place.

What have I learned so far? Well, first off - I was shocked to see how similar Merida is to any normal city back in the United States. I was expecting to come to a little village, live in pueblos, and listen to Marachi bands in the plaza. Driving into a big city complete with Wal-Mart and McDonald's just down the road is not at all what I expected.

However, the shock of similarities began to diminish the more I began to learn about the uniqueness of this city. For such a large city, everything is so close. I can walk to every one of my friends in my study abroad group's houses (although some are a bit more of a hike than others). I can walk to get groceries, walk to classes, and there is even a mall and a starbucks a few streets down. The fact that everything is so close makes this huge city seem cozy and comfortable.

Also, I can walk without feeling endangered of being robbed or bothered. Sure you hear the "cat calls" every once and awhile, but I have yet to feel truly scared in Merida. In fact, more times than not, I feel more creeped out from the tranquility and quietness walking through the calm streets at night - almost wanting a car to honk or a dog to bark to break the silence.

But instead the only thing that breaks the silence is the beautiful sunrise breaking over the horizon and spreading light on the elegant city. What makes it elegant, you ask? Well picture this - you could be walking on the road of Paseo Montejo, passing Wal-mart and some pretty typical commercial buildings on your left and right... when out of nowhere pops up this huge, colorful, elegant house with the most intricate architecture perfectly preserved for years and years. As you keep walking you begin to realize there are not just one, but many, many buildings with every brick and detailed column filled to the brim with culture and elegance.  

 Elegant, cozy, tranquil big city. So far those are the adjectives I have used to describe this one of a kind place in the world - however there is one more quality that truly sets it over the edge... friendly beyond belief.

Not too long ago, our adventures on the bus were no more successful than a chickens running around with their heads cut off. Trying to balance learning the basics public transportation while learning the geography of the city was not a good combination. However, it seemed like every time we would get lost or confused - a random stranger would go out of their way to help us out. One time a lady led our entire group all the way (it had to be at least 5 blocks out of her way) to the bus station in the Centro. Leading our group, holding her child's hand all the way... we all knew she had really gone out of her way to help out a group of random, lost Americans.

But why? Why have so many people here been patient with our lack of Spanish. Why have it been so easy to make friends. Why do I already feel as if my home stay family has become my own family.

A part of me feels as if it is sad to have to ask "why". I have seen too many times people lack the patients of foreigners visiting our country. But here it is so different. And instead of feeling out of place and an outsider everyday... I feel so welcomed.

At some point in our lives, we all feel like outsiders. Consider what it is like to have that feeling, be thousands of miles away from your home without friends or family, and not speak the language. Next time you see a confused Chinese family walking the streets of Tampa, or a Mexican family trying hard to translate an order at McDonalds.... give them a hand. Get to know them! You would be surprised what you can learn from them by seeing your own country through their eyes.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Mayan "kiss" from me to you

My whole life, I have felt as if the Mexican half of me has always taken a back seat. My mom’s side of the family is Mexican, my grandma was born in San Luis Potosi and my mother and Tia were born in a Hispanic-influenced town of East Chicago, Indiana.  I always recognized my Hispanic heritage, but growing up in the South, away from my mom’s family, I never felt the need to make the effort to truly get to know the culture or the language. In fact, when I was little and my mom would speak to me in Spanish, I would say, “Speak right, Mommy!”

At this point in my life, I really regret the attitude I had when I was younger. Now, graduating college and having the opportunity and freedom to head down any path I choose, I decided to go on this trip before venturing on any career path. I wanted to be able to go to family reunions and be able to understand my Tios’ jokes in Spanish.  I wanted to have an in depth conversation with my Grandma that didn’t involve broken Spanglish. But most of all, I wanted to have a deeper understanding of who I am - and I am a big believer that cannot happen unless you know where you come from.

In just the first week of being here, I felt just that - a familiarity of where I come from. My host mother and all of her friends reminded me so much of my family back at home. Little phrases would pop up that I would remember my mother saying to me, “Que te pasa, Callabasa?” Songs that my mother would sing me to sleep would start playing at local restaurants. The Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgin Mary) statues and pictures would appear in every local business, marketplace, on tops of cars… reminding me of all the Virgin of Guadalupe pictures and statues in our own house.

I had absolutely no culture shock coming to this place, because a part of me felt like I was home.
What I did not expect, however, was how much Mayan culture I would be learning as well.  Yucatan is deeply influenced by their Mayan heritage; this came as a bit of a shock because in the United States, our Native American heritage is not used as a daily part of our lives.  But in the Yucatan, a number of people even speak Mayan.
I have enjoyed learning a few words here and there.

Cancun – Liar of snakes
Chi Chi – grandma
Ko-oosh – Let’s go

But my absolute favorite Mayan words learned thus far, were taught to me by our tourguide Luis. The words are prounounced “Kiss” and “Wish”. “Kiss” in Mayan translates into “releasing bodily gas” … or tooting.  And “Wish” translates to, simply,  going pee. He said this brings a whole new meaning to the song, “We wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Xumal are the Mayan ruin sites we have visited on this trip. Each site had very distinct qualities about them. For example, Chichen Itza is one of the largest ruins site in Yucatan. It is so vast, that it is even one of the 7 new wonders of the world.

Tulum is a beautiful beach side Mayan ruin. Its contrasting stone temples with the deep blue ocean and various exotic plants is just breathtaking. 

And Xumal is smaller than Chichen Itza, but they allow you to climb on top of the pyramids and feel like Mayan rulers.

Some of the more disturbing, but still equally interesting facts about Mayan life were the stories of sacrifices during that time. Human sacrifices were a part of the Mayan culture, and built in the civilizations were various stages to perform these sacrifices. Some platforms were to display the decapitated heads of enemies in war. 

Others were set up for an audience to watch, in the middle of the civilizations. We passed by one statue that our tour guide told us was where they would put the heart of the person sacrificed in order to offer it to the Gods.

Another common place for sacrifices were Cenotes, or underground waterholes. They don’t exist in many places in the world, but are prevalent all over Yucatan. The Mayans use to believe the Cenotes were the gateway to the underworld, which is why they assumed sacrifices into the Cenotes were holy and a direct way to the Gods.  The Mayans did not associate the “underworld” with evil, only just the heavens below the ground.

I had this in the back of my mind only a few weeks later as I was climbing down a ladder into a narrow, dark hole to a Cenote. As I climbed down, darkness followed every footstep and the sunlight above gradually became more and more distant until finally my foot touched a rocky surface.

After jumping down from the ladder, it took a minute or so for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. When they finally did, my eyes gazed upon an underground lake of crystal clear, true blue water.

The water almost didn’t look real surrounded by the stalactites of the underground cave, like a turquoise gem in the midst of grey rocks. But we knew it was no mirage after cannon-balling off the edge of a protruding rock submersing ourselves in the refreshing, clean water. As we swam around, eyes wide open trying to take in all the beauty and make a forever mental picture; we could not help but feel as if we had discovered the fountain of youth or some equally hidden treasure.

We rode back in style from the Cenote adventure, on horse pulled carts rolling on railroad tracks. It was as confusing to me as it sounds; But surprisingly fun with every bump and swift turn along the way, shifting us harshly to our left and our right – at times coming dangerously close to flipping off the tracks and into the brush around us.  I feel like this mode of transportation was designed for the experience more so than the efficiency however, because every time we would come up on a cart on the same track heading the opposite way, the other people would have to hoist up their cart off the tracks, let us pass, then line it back up again.

However some things here that may seem not as efficient, are well worth the extra effort. On our last excursion, we got to watch a traditional Mayan restaurant cook meat. As we walked to the backyard of the restaurant to see the ovens, we were confused to only see a pile of dirt on the ground.

The waiters took a shovel and started digging into dirt until hitting a metal plate. They proceeded to lift the plate, which we realized was a actually a deep dish pan, and place it on the table.  He opened it up to reveal delicious chicken cooked to perfection. Apparently cooking the meat underground with coals, savors the flavor on a whole new level… literally.

There are so many cultural aspects about Mexico that I am familiar with, and yet even more that are brand new and exciting. Everyday has been an adventure. No matter if we are touring the ancient civilization of Chichen Itza, or trying to catch a bus to Wal-Mart (which has proved to be a whole different type of adventure).   But no matter what adventure is to come for the next couple months, I welcome it with an open mind and an eager hope for growth.
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins