The Best Kind of Headache
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!
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).
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.
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.
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!