- McDermott Scholars
- The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
A summer in Mexico
Inside the university on the first day of classes
When I went to Guanajuato with my fellow ’05 McDermott Scholars in December, I had to depend on the Spanish-speaking scholars to get around in the city. Being able to say “I play volleyball” in Spanish may have gotten me through high school, but was of little help when I needed to order food, give directions to a taxi driver, or barter the price of something on the street.
As my plane descended upon Guanajuato on June 3rd, 2006, my excitement about studying in Mexico began to turn into apprehension. How was I supposed to survive in a country when I don’t know the language? Yes, I would be taking Spanish classes, but didn’t I do that from 7th to 10th grade without learning much more than “hola”?
The first week in Guanajuato was overwhelming. Even without my cd player to relax me at night, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow that first week because the immersion wore me out. Every class was taught entirely in Spanish, which demanded intense concentration. Something as straightforward as eating at a café or taking a taxi was no longer simple because it required communication in Spanish.
At the top of Guanajuato - Pipila statue
Sometime during the second week, something changed. I realized the difference when my roommates, Juliann and Molly, and I were taking a taxi back to our house. Juliann told the driver that we were students at the University of Guanajuato, and thus began a conversation. Soon the three of us were talking with him about Texas, the weather, and how nice it is to be in Guanajuato. Being able to converse with a complete stranger in Spanish was exhilarating.
Ever since that taxi ride, everything seemed a little easier. I began to understand the professors and to be able to translate what they were saying without concentrating so hard. I was able to barter when we were shopping in San Miguel and talk to store owners when we were in Barra de Navidad. During a bus ride, I spoke with a teenage boy for twenty minutes about sudoku puzzles, Texas, the University, and other things. The conversation may not have been entirely smooth and while I did need him to repeat himself several times, it was uplifting to know that there did not have to be a language barrier dividing us.
We experienced so much in Mexico from amazing food to interesting cultural differences. We saw beautiful sunsets and exciting football—err, soccer games—that were replayed on every television whenever a live game wasn’t being aired. Being completely absorbed in an atmosphere that forced us to change our lifestyle and our way of thinking made those four weeks more valuable than years spent studying in a classroom.
To be completely absorbed in Mexican culture and to be forced to change my lifestyle and way of thinking made those four weeks far more valuable than years spent studying in a classroom.
In the Plazuela de San Fernando
After arriving at my señora’s house in Guanajuato, Mexico, late on Saturday evening, I was awoken at 6:30 Sunday morning to the tolling of the church bells calling people to mass. Like any good Catholic, I rolled over and went back to sleep until the bells rang once again at 7:00, then 7:30, then 8:00. By this time, there was no returning to sleep, so my roommates and I stumbled out of bed, got dressed, and were sent down to the tortilla stand. Thirty minutes later, we were sitting in the garden eating an authentic Mexican breakfast of beans, tortillas, eggs, and salsa. Yum!
Thus began our first day in Guanajuato, Mexico. We hit the ground running with a quick tour of the city, and then were left to fend for ourselves on the first day before classes started on Monday. We voyaged up to the Pipila statue overlooking the valley of Guanajuato, where the fusion of the multicolored buildings presents an awesome sight. From this view, I could see the entire city, and I knew that my month in Guanajuato would be full of adventure and fun.
At Barra de Navidad - Beach in Mexico!
Alas, I was not destined for a purely frivolous month in Guanajuato. The classes at the Escuela de Idiomas at the Universidad de Guanajuato were challenging! After only two semesters of Spanish grammar at UTD and very little speaking experience, I was apprehensive about the classes but confidently enrolled in the Intermediate level. When I walked out at the end of the first day, after an hour each of Spanish Grammar, Spanish Conversation, Mexican Literature and Early Mexican History (entirely in Spanish, not a word in good old English), my head was swimming. Not only was it overwhelming, I wasn’t quite sure that I’d understood even half of what the literature teacher had said. Luckily, though, this phase didn’t last long. By the end of June, not only did I understand almost all of what the teachers said, I also successfully wrote a four page paper on the importance and legacy of colonial art in Mexican history.
I used the weekends in Guanajuato to my advantage. For our first full weekend, the entire UTD group when to the hot springs (called balnearios), then spent the afternoon shopping in San Miguel de Allende, where we spent the night. The next day, we took the bus to Dolores Hidalgo, the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, where we experienced the odd ice cream flavors (guacamole, tequila, mole, shrimp). While these exotic flavors were certainly exciting to sample, I finally settled on traditional montecado: a delicious butter pecan and raisin ice cream. My second weekend was spent exploring Guanajuato beginning with a French-Mexican meal with the visiting UTD representatives (Dean Coleman and Dr. Jenkins), a trip to the Guanajuato Symphony in the newly renovated Teatro Juarez (temporarily interrupted when the lights went out), an American teenybopper movie dubbed over in Spanish at the movie theater (hilarious!), and mass in the Basilica (quite different than American masses but very beautiful). On the final weekend, the rest of the UTD group went to Mexico City and Teotihuacan. Since we McDermott Scholars had been there in December, we decided to explore another classic part of Mexico: the beach! I admit, the nine hour bus ride was a bit grueling, but the smell of the ocean and the sight of the beach when we arrived at 1 a.m. made it worth it. Barra de Navidad, a small beach on the Pacific Coast with very few foreign tourists, was quiet and peaceful. My hotel room looked directly out on the beach, and I got up and went swimming in the ocean in the mornings. The afternoons were spent reading, walking along the beach looking at washed up puffer fish and scuttling crabs, or watching the World Cup in restaurants along the beach. It was sad to return to Guanajuato for my final week of classes.
Ready for the World Cup!
My last week in Guanajuato passed too fast. Before I knew it, it was 4:45 in the morning on Saturday, July 1, and I was on my way to the airport to return to Dallas. In retrospect, I learned more than I ever expected, not only about the Spanish language, but also about Guanajuato, the Mexican culture, traveling in a foreign country, and even about myself. While I am hardly fluent in Spanish, this month gave me a sound foundation in the language, which will help me communicate here in Texas and upon which I can continue to build. I can only hope that my adventures during my next three years as a McDermott Scholar will be so exciting!
In preparation for our journey to this lovely city, a few experienced people had instructed us to “allow ourselves to get lost in Guanajuato.” I must admit the peace I enjoyed from simply following my feet, wandering around the crooked, anything-but-systematically-designed streets. You may try to guess which roads will take you back to where you started, but this city’s old, brick streets skillfully trick the non-native into taking a longer stroll and becoming immersed, if not completely lost in the richness of Guanajuato.
It’s rewarding to accidentally come across a group of small kids playing soccer in a narrow, deserted street, a quaint as of yet undiscovered plaza with accompanying fountain, or the beautiful park you had previously only seen on the bus ride coming back from a delicious cooking class held in the home of a kind, Guanajuatense Señora. In fact, in terms of favorite Guanajuato activities, street-wandering comes second only to studying in a café in the Plazuela de San Fernando while listening to the sounds of birds, distant Spanish conversations, and water from the fountain and sipping a cold fruit drink, as we had the pleasure to do during many an afternoon.
In addition to fun exploration of the city, there was also much navigation to be done in order to get to classes and other meetings on time. The morning after our arrival, my roommates, Molly and Jessie, and I already felt overwhelmed with the challenge of finding our way from the suburb of Marfil by bus to the Plazuela downtown. From there we had a walking orientation of the city and only became more confused, darting from bank to bank, plaza to plaza, and asking ourselves, “Have we seen that statue before?”
Thankfully there is truth behind the running joke about Mexican punctuality (or the lack thereof). We had the opportunity to experience this first-hand on several occasions, so needless to say we never worried excessively about being late to a class. By the second week we had figured out which buses from Marfil would drop us off in which parts of Guanajuato, when it would be beneficial to take the next bus, despite the wait, and which route from each bus stop in Guanajuato would get us to the Universidad the fastest with the least hills. We even dared a couple of weekend bus trips outside the city, including a 12-hour bus ride to Barra de Navidad, a quaint beach on the Mexican Pacific.
During our four weeks in Mexico, we stayed with an American woman who had lived in Guanajuato for the last fourteen or so years and spoke fluent Spanish (and Chinese!). Though at times we listened to schoolmate’s stories of their Mexican host families with envy, it was truly interesting to hear opinions on both Mexico and the United States from an outsider. She was able to explain to us elements of Mexican culture and politics in American terms, and she also gave us unique insight on American politics and problems because of her removed situation.
Upon arriving back in the United States (after experiencing the refreshing surprise of being greeted by the customs officer in English and suppressing the urge to say “Buenas tardes” and “Gracias”), what I noticed most, that is, besides the sensation that many more English-Spanish signs had appeared since I left, was a feeling that I knew a special secret that the people I interacted with from day to day did not. In becoming familiar with such a different, friendly culture I had gained access to a valuable secret, and though it didn’t elicit obvious life changes, I could tell that I was somehow different than these people who had not shared my experiences. I can only imagine all the secrets in the world that I have yet to learn!