As I stepped on the plane to begin my study abroad this summer, Mexico was not my dream destination. Upset that the value of the Euro vs. the value of the Peso had decided my location for me, I buckled my seatbelt with mixed feelings, thinking about my four friends jetting off to Spain and not knowing what Mexico had to offer.
Now, back in the United States, I pine for Mexico. The scent of a mango brings tears to my eyes. When I hear Spanish being spoken, my ears perk up and I cling to every word. The sound of salsa music sends my feet into convulsions. I plan on returning to Oaxaca as soon as I possibly can, but until then, all I can do is recall and treasure my experience.
On my first day at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, during conversation hour, my teacher Efraín asked everyone to say why he or she had chosen to study Spanish in Oaxaca. I thought about why many girlsmy age want to study abroad (it’s a plus on college applications, easy access to alcohol, cute foreign boys) and how none of them applied to me. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express what I wanted to say: “To grow as a person, to experience new ways of life, soak in different cultures, and, yes, dance salsa until three in the morning, but mostly broaden my horizons and …” So I settled for: “I would like to prepare myself for AP Spanish.” The truth, but nowhere near the whole truth. From the moment I stepped off the plane and saw my host brother Saulo holding a sign reading “Alis Olstin,” I knew I had won the host family lottery. He drove me back to the house, a beautiful complex that functioned almost like a hostel for young foreign exchange girls (my host mother Teresa told me she only took in girls so they could all share a bathroom). Built around a tiled courtyard that held the living room and dining room under the overhang, the house consisted of three stories of several mini-apartments painted an array of bright colors.
Saulo, 19, was the only child living in the house at the time. His 18-year-old sister Eleni was doing her own study abroad in Seattle, Washington, and his 21-year-old brother Eloi was studying at his university in Veracruz. I met my host father Augustín when he came home from work (job placement for the handicapped) and proceeded to show me every spot in the house where I could curl up with a book (I had mentioned that I like to read). He concluded his tour by telling me to act like this house was my house, to eat, read, and nap at my leisure, and to feel welcome.
Another important presence at the house was the family’s pet chicken. “It’s a fighting rooster,” announced Augustín, scooping it up, squawking, into his arms. As he snuggled it and planted kisses on its squirming head, murmuring “Good little rooster, brave little rooster,” Teresa leaned over to me. “It’s a hen,” she whispered. “But we don’t talk about it.”
My typical day in Oaxaca began when my host brother Saulo, who taught salsa dancing at the Instituto, pounded on my door at 8:15 a.m.
We would meet at the breakfast table and dive into the pancakes, quesadillas, or French toast that my host mother Teresa had waiting for us. If we could tear ourselves away from the food in time, we would walk to the Instituto. If not, we piled into the family’s rickety powder blue Volkswagon, which Saulo affectionately called his “slug-bug.”
Ringed by flaking, graffiti-covered walls, the Instituto Cultural was a gorgeous set of honey-colored rooms connected by tiled hallways — all surrounding a garden. I had my intermediate Spanish class (we were placed in classes based on an entrance exam) in a small room flooded with light and decorated with native weavings.
We had three hours of grammar and vocabulary, which mostly stayed on track, but sometimes included important tips for foreigners, such as how the same verb means “to take” in Spain and “to fornicate” in Mexico, and how the word for “excited” usually connotes sexual excitement. A conversation hour, which was usually held in the Instituto’s beautiful garden, followed and, over the course of my stay, touched on every topic from George Bush’s incompetence to how to say a slew of curses in Spanish (later, when I watched Y Tu Mamá También, I was proud to be able to understand every bit of foul language).
Many exchange students then chose to go to restaurants together for lunch, where they would buy mediocre food and speak English amongst themselves. Needless to say, I opted to walk home for lunch and spend a few hours talking and laughing with my family over another humongous, amazing meal.
A few hours later, I walked back to the Instituto for my afternoon taller, or cultural workshop. The Instituto offered everything from the history of Mexico to regional cooking, and the students got to choose a new workshop every week. During my stay I did weaving, salsa dancing, and ceramics. I signed up for salsa dancing twice, not only because the teacher was my host brother, but because I needed extra practice to keep up with the locals at the night clubs.
At the clubs, men often chided me for trying to lead, because, as far more girls signed up for Saulo’s class than boys, I had to learn to dance both the male and female parts. I soon discovered that many American girls signed up, not to dance, but to watch Saulo dance.
After taller, we had the option of having an intercambio, a hour-long meeting, half in Spanish, half in English, with a local who wanted to practice his or her English. I did this with a 15 year old named Victor for my first two weeks, and, though we didn’t have much in common, we had fun discussing the differences in our schools, friends, and family–and I also learned a few choice words and phrases that my teacher had left out of our lesson on curses.
After intercambio, the afternoon and evening was ours to spend as we would. I usually walked home for a snack and a siesta, then explored the city for a few hours or, if tired, hung around the house reading or chatting with the family.
Dinner, if anything, was a light snack before going out dancing, which usually happened at 10:30 p.m. and continued until about 3 a.m. When we came home from the club, we snacked and whispered in the kitchen, laughing over the night’s events, then crashed into bed and waited for it to all begin again.
Next week: I explore Oaxaca and my preconceptions are erased.Ed. Note: the writer began her senior year at Samohi last week.