The Best Kind of Headache

Exploring the ruins in Tulum at the beach...

Exploring the ruins in Tulum at the beach. This cool dude was about 3′ long!

My brain hurts. Plus, I can’t stop dreaming in Spanish. I couldn’t be happier about it.

I’m in Tulum, Mexico for two weeks of immersion classes en Espanol. Some days, I feel like I’m drowning in words; they rain down from a tropical storm of sentences and grammar. It’s similar to returning to running after a long break. The first few times hurt like hell and you wonder, “Why in the world am I doing this?” The fifth time out, you catch a fun trail in a forest and can’t stop grinning. Then you turn a corner and there’s a hill that make your lungs fall out. Not quite fit yet!

Practicing my Spanish and picking up fruit for a dessert salad.

Practicing my Spanish and picking up food for dinner.

Anyone who has visited a foreign country knows the feeling: you practice the language until you feel fairly capable. Ten minutes later, you go into a store/bus station/restaurant and a local says, “blah-wordIknow-blahblah” faster than a passing jet. All you can do is stare back blankly and mutter “hola” under your breathe before 1. fleeing in horror or 2. resorting to the old point-and-smile technique to convey your desire. Smoke pours from your ears, cheeks blush. I just try to remember, as someone wise once pointed out to me, words aren’t dangerous, so don’t be scared to speak. (Pretty sure they were fluent in Spanish…)

An interesting aspect of my time in Tulum is that Chelsea isn’t with me (she flies in next week). For the first time in a long time, I’m rolling solo. My bachelor’s pad is a thatched-roof cabana at a hostel called Rancho Tranquilo, a quiet place with hammocks swinging in a palm-shaded garden. The vibe is one where drinking margaritas all day is entirely acceptable. The town of Tulum, an equally laid-back place near old Mayan ruins, is a quick bike ride or run to sparkling crystal water and clean beaches. Initially, it was a tiny fishing village a few hours south of Cancun; until 15 years ago, it lacked electricity or a paved road. Leave the main street and there isn’t a word in English. My kind of place, and I’m roaming all over on foot and bike discovering random things like pineapple and chile popsicles (don’t knock it until you try one).

Colorful murals decorate the city all over back streets. Most stores have artistic decorations on their concrete walls as well.

Colorful murals decorate the city all over back streets. Most stores have artistic decorations on their concrete walls as well.

Still, the last time I took a Spanish class was in 2000, which means my first few days in Mexico involved me trying to spear words like a drunk fisherman in the dark. So far, my best slipup left three people (my teacher included) thinking I ditched my six month old baby at my parents’ house so Chelsea and I could travel. A couple hours later, severe judgment was reversed when they realized my brother is the one with a baby. At least I haven’t accidentally cussed out anyone’s grandmother. Yet – there’s still time.

My focus here is entirely on Spanish. Yesterday, I probably said 100 words in English in 12 hours. (No wonder my brain feels stretched.) Not that I’m speaking good Spanish; Gabriel Marcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize doesn’t have competition yet. And as part of some when-in-Rome extra-curriculars in the class, I’ve also taken a salsa dance class, learned how to cook chile rellenos, and made a ‘pinata pequena’ to decorate a Christmas tree. Lots of laughing, frequent mistakes and plenty of improvement in my Spanish in just a week are the result so far.

Salsa y chile rellenos cooked over an open fire.

Salsa y chile rellenos cooked over an open fire.

Why bother learning, a few people at my hostel have asked. Better to just veg on the beach! (Just my style, right?) I have many reasons, including future travel and wanting to be less gringo when I’m exploring new places. Being fluent in Spanish is also a long-time goal of mine, and this was a great time to get back on track.

To me, just as a translated book loses some meaning, traveling in a foreign country without the ability to speak the local language changes the context and experience. While I will always be a tourist outside of the U.S., it’s a rewarding challenge to hang out with Honorio, a Mayan fellow in town with whom I’ve sat and chatted (in Spanish) over food and drink for hours, have a long conversation with the owner of a tortilla-making shop, or simply order food without feeling blood rushing to my face.

So for the next week, I’m hopeful that my dreams are speckled with accurate verb conjugations and rolling r’s the way I only hope for during the day. If I’m lucky, my sharp gringo pronunciation will melt away with any remaining stress. After all, I’m on Mexico time now, and there isn’t any hurrying things down here.

Hasta luego,


P.S. If you want a great Spanish school in Tulum, search no further than the Instituto de Chac-Mool. Fun, knowledgeable instructors in a beautiful setting – score!

Piles of chiles in the market.

Piles of chiles in the market.

Margaritas with fellow Spanish students.

Margaritas with fellow Spanish students.

11 replies
  1. Johnny B
    Johnny B says:

    Seeing this reminds me how I’ve loved visiting Mexico. Good on you for going full on in learning Spanish! Feel free to practice with V when you get back up here.

  2. Stevie
    Stevie says:

    Aside from having a baby, learning to speak Spanish was the best gift I gave myself in the past few years. And now I speak only Spanish to my baby! Ta-da! And she is bilingual. Double ta-da ta-da! So keep it up. I”m stoked for you.

  3. Jeffrey Fritts
    Jeffrey Fritts says:

    What a great idea…as I dream of touring outside the US, Spanish is a language I think I need to learn, at least a little. I am already multi-lingual. I speak Air Forceze, computerize, and bicycleze. These language skills will only be of value if I am riding my bike to a computer lab on an Air Force base, however.
    Alastair Humphreys had his ‘magic letter’ which as he rode around the world he would have translated into the local language of wherever he was at. It told the reader who he was, where he came from, what he was doing and so on. He said it was a great conversation starter. Now if I could only speak dog…I could explain to Abby when I would be back from a ride to give her dinner.
    AKJeff Riding his Roubaix

    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      “The length of the interaction doesn’t determine the intensity.” Well said! I like that a lot, and it’s so true of travel. It’s like you brought vacationing and fresh living into your life every single day via the school. We can’t wait to get back to our 2nd home in Mexico. Ciao for now!

      • Barby Escaler
        Barby Escaler says:

        =) Have great news for Chelsea =) tell her I’m getting her through facebook information and pictures. You’re always welcome.


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