I’m not a stranger to travel. I’ve been to different parts of the world, seen many different things and experienced more than I have the patience or paper to document. It’s a defining part of who I am, but coming to Mérida was different than all those times I stepped off an airplane. I have never entered a country without having a return flight home two weeks later, perhaps even less. While driving from Cancún down a dirt highway through the Yucatecan forests, I realized that I would not be returning in this direction for two and a half more months. This was my new home.
I’ve never been so frustrated and amazed at the same time. I’m an intermediate Spanish speaker, but the language barrier here is incredible. There are just so many things that I don’t know how to do and, while that in itself is an adventure, it equally pushes me towards fluency because in short, it is absolutely necessary. Without the ability to speak Spanish here, I wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with my mamá about the weather—something that Americans talk about when in an awkward silence. The only awkward silences here are knowing what to say, but not knowing how to say it. I’m trapped in this little English bubble and I’m working to find a way out.
To begin, I know where nothing is. I can’t tell up or down, east or west, in or out. I’m so disoriented by this city of 800,000 people that the only thing I can do is figure it out. So I went old school, put my GPS-enabled iPhone 4 away and looked at a giant map. I studied this thing and approximated bus routes in order to get around the city – to school, to grocery stores, to shopping centers and to absolutely gorgeous sites. I need to know where a laundromat is, where I can buy basic necessities and where I can find some culture. The only word for what I have experienced in this last week is culture shock.
This is mainly because, not only is Mérida very different to me, but I am very different to it. I am a fair-skinned, blonde-haired young woman who quite obviously does not know her way around; this is not a city when foreigners are a dime a dozen. When American girls walk down the streets to school, the air is filled with whistles and exclamations of “Mamacita!” and “Ayiyiyi!” Even in jeans and a v-neck tshirt, I have not had a quiet stroll yet. In the clubs, or the discotecas, I have had Mexican girls come up to me and ask to touch my blonde hair, as they have never seen it before; in only a week, it has been braided three times by both men and women.
So far, we’ve traveled to the beach twice (it’s about 30 minutes away). After getting lost for an hour and a half in the back streets of Progreso, we finally found the rest of our friends, sat back and enjoyed the sand (sorry, friends in the snow). It was hot, we walked a lot and had no idea where we were, while getting hollered at on every corner. But the truth is, getting lost was my favorite part of the day. I got to photograph beautifully dilapidated houses, which were basically four cement walls with tin tied down over the top. Laundry was hanging outside from frayed rope, stray dogs were running through the streets and children in dirty clothing were riding their bikes with bent spokes and tattered tassels from the handlebars. I saw more in that hour than I have all year in the United States.
I am slowly but surely discovering how to fit into this new world, this new society, in order to make a niche for myself here in Mérida, México. Within only a week, I find myself forgetting certain English words and my spelling proficiency is rapidly decreasing. I’ll read something in English and in my head, I hear it in Spanish. I’m having dreams about the Mexican culture. I rode the city buses for the first time, proficiently communicated over the telephone and directed our taxi driver around the city to get to our house (of which I have now memorized the address). I’m beginning to understand the Spanish Channel and I am slowly comprehending my Mayan Prose and Legends class.
The best way to integrate oneself into a culture is to speak the language. Ask questions, make comments, read everything out loud. For the most part, that’s the hardest part of fluency. That’s my project for the next ten weeks: speak. It’s why I’m here and it’s something I want to be able to do for the rest of my life. The culture shock is immense but it is the most exhilarating feeling I’ve had in a long time. ¡Bienvenido a México!