Tulum, Mexico. Hola, me llamo Vicente. ¿Cómo estás? My host family, a Mexican couple around 60 years old, Laura and Eduardo, smile at me as they welcome me in Spanish, little of which I actually pick up. Mild panic sets in as I realise the scale of the challenge I’ve signed up to for the next few weeks. I have just left my friend and the plush first world comforts of his place in California; what was I thinking, I wonder?
After exhausting my best Spanish phrases, with much use of the word “Si” when the family extended the conversation, I retired to my room, basic but comfortable. Alone, I penned a few thoughts on my arrival. “No choice now but to immerse myself in Spanish. Mañana, school begins!”
The following morning breakfast conversation with my non-English speaking host was made more interesting by the fact I had to explain that their electric shower was giving me electric shocks. After receiving the response “No me gusta electrica” from Laura a number of times, I could see Google translate would have to get me out of this bind. Eventually, she got the message and someone was called to come fix it. No more electric shocks!
The lure of the sun and a break from the dreary Irish weather was a big reason for going to Mexico but it was primarily to immerse myself in Spanish, with the added benefit of being somewhere new and exciting. Tulum is a lovely beach town in the Yucatan Peninsula, an area blessed with beautiful Caribbean coastline and a rich Mayan history, much of which I got to experience. Not the worst place in the world to learn Spanish!
As for my starting point, I dabbled a little with Spanish over the summer but it was really just the months leading up to Christmas where I put in a little bit of effort into learning the basics, some lessons in tandem with a useful language app. However, I was starting from scratch – I studied French in school – so by the time I got to Mexico I was jumping in the deep end of the learning curve.
I signed up to the Meztli Language School in Tulum, based on some good reviews online. Arriving there, after getting lost of course, I was immediately taken by the place, an outdoor school among the trees with four or five Mayan style work stations for small groups of students.
The analysis of my level in order to determine the class I would join was done by a teacher by the name of Mauricio, exactly what I picture in my head of what a Mexican would look like. Long black hair and a quintessential Mexican style moustache curled at the edges, that not even Tom Selleck could compete with. Great guy, played second division Mexican football for a year. Football became a regular topic of conversation!
Starting Friday December 30th, I took 3 hours of classes every day, excluding the weekends, with my last day on Jan 13th. There were typically 3-4 people per group with 2 hours grammar with one teacher followed by a conversational class with another teacher from 11am-12pm. For the last three days after making good progress I changed to individual classes to learn a bit quicker before I came home. These classes were more intensive, helping to build on the work from the earlier lessons.
In addition, I did an hour to two on my own or with a friend from class every day. I met a few like-minded people also looking to learn in a fun way. One of the great benefits of travelling is the people you meet, a natural form of networking where you gravitate to like-minded people, a far cry from the often forced networking in the corporate world.
As well, I participated in the school’s cooking classes and the salsa class which were all in Spanish and I even played football one night. Todo espanol! Even on the three hour bus journey to Chetzen Itza I made use of the time to listen to Spanish audiobooks.
I would say by the fifth day there I was starting to use Spanish much more comfortably with my Mexican family and the locals. By mid-way through my second week, coupled with a deeper knowledge of the area and some new amigos, I was starting to feel at home in Mexico. If I didn’t know how to say something directly in Spanish, I was at the point where I could find another way to try and explain what I was looking to say.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still at a relatively basic level but I’ve reached a level where I can at least converse. But more importantly, I have reached that level where it is enjoyable and I want to continue learning the language. After my experience in Mexico it is clear that to learn the language quickly you have to live in the country where it is spoken. Immersion is the quickest way to fluency. Hardly a revelation, but it has peaked my interest in pursuing further adventures in South America.
Half way through January and for many those aspirational resolutions made at the turn of the year are now a distant memory. If travel reminds me of anything, it is that the value of freedom is grossly undervalued. There is a craving for certainty in our society but it is in the unknown where life gets interesting, albeit more challenging as uncertainty provokes anxiety.
Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher wrote: “When I behold my possibilities, I experience that dread which is the dizziness of freedom, and my choice is made in fear and trembling.”
Life is about embracing those possibilities, however scary they may seem! I jumped in the deep end in Mexico and floated in style…