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.