Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Glimpses of San Cristóbal

It's starting to look like Los Dias de la Muerte around here:

Apparently the path for the
spirits must be clearly marked.

Here's what we do here in San Cristóbal after a solid week of rain:

Another day at the market ...

Always the colors!
I don't know why these guys amuse me so.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Learning a New Language ... the Joyful Way!

What and how we learn
are choices we make for ourselves.
"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, 
it’s time to pause and reflect.” — Mark Twain

Why would someone who still has probably only a few hundred “fast memory” Spanish words in place even contemplate writing about the process of learning a new language? Could be hubris or it could be history or it could be just because it’s on my mind. 

I have been on the “learning Spanish" path for at least three decades. Well, it is probably more accurate to say that I could see the path and every time I went to Mexico or wrote my annual goals, I tiptoed onto the path but always quickly got pulled back into “real life.”

About ten years ago I started signing up for adult ed classes in Spanish but seldom lasted beyond class 2 before getting terminally bored. I also started buying CD sets and sometimes made it to CD #2. However, last year, I launched the Pimsleur CD process since it touted a different approach to memory development. It comes in 4 levels and I actually made it to Level 3. (Some research shows that it may be the best of the electronic learning systems … I found it effective but very slow.)

Through all these years, I kept hearing that “immersion” was the only way to go and I dreamed of doing a language intensive in Mexico. After selling my house and gaining some freedom (and finding a life partner fluent in Spanish thus giving me added incentive), I was ready to take the plunge. I signed up for 4 weeks in San Miguel de Allende, 3 weeks in Playa del Carmen and 1 week in Mérida. That should get me well started, I thought.

Then the Universe stepped in and my 4 weeks in San Miguel became 2 and my 3 weeks in Playa turned into 2 days before I fled the heat and humidity for a place I had barely heard of … San Cristóbal de las Casas, where I am now and have extended my stay by another 2-3 months. My experience with immersion has led me to believe it’s a myth. Immersion per se does not create fluency … I’ve met a lot of expats who definitely have not mastered Spanish. 

There’s a lot to be said about immersion … it’s fun and it does surround you with the language and offer opportunities for interactions that would not happen in primarily English-speaking countries.

As I have struggled with learning Spanish, I began to doubt the" immersion is the answer” standard and wondered if it were simply a myth (and the basis for a lot of commercial operations.) Are there other myths in play and just what is the best way to learn a foreign language? (And, just in case you've wondered, I do not believe there is any way to "speak Spanish in minutes," unless you count ordering a burrito as fulfilling that promise.
Sidebar: I’ve had a life-long passion for learning processes and spent a great deal of my career in adult education. I also love making “thinking models,” so it didn’t surprise me to find myself gradually developing a model for learning a new language … in my own way.
It isn’t surprising that the hardest part about learning a new language is the speaking of it. Lots of new sounds tangle our tongues and confound our ears and, when we begin, the perfectly accented words that play through our heads come out sounding like schoolyard Martian. The common wisdom is to start speaking as soon as possible, to be childlike and to not worry about mistakes or competency. 

I started down this accepted path with the best of intentions. Three days into the class in San Miguel, I realized there was either something wrong with the process … or there was something wrong with me. So, I started studying harder but by day 3, I asked to switch to tutoring one-on-one. That was somewhat better. I liked my instructor but our conversations and the godawfulboring workbook exercises were frustrating and didn’t seem to be making much difference in my competence. 

Menu with lots of new words.
What made the learning process joyful was what I learned in the streets with my camera. Signs, menus, graffiti, brochures, information in museums … all of the real-world words that surrounded me. I took hundreds of pictures and then translated the words when I was back in my room … with the help of Google Translate. When I went to San Cristóbal, I didn’t sign up for a class … I just continued to walk the streets, gradually piecing together a learning process that made sense for me.

One of the many signs I've found on the streets.
In part says that we're all part of the problem
and part part of the solution.
However, that nagging thought that I *should* be speaking more still haunted me, so this week, I asked a native speaker/instructor to practice with me and, once again, had a completely frustrating, disheartening experience that sucked the joy out of learning this language. 

This made me really question myself … am I just a wimp (the inference of the instructor who was trying to force me to speak)? Is speaking without regard to mistakes really the best way to gain fluency? (What almost all of the "experts" say.) Could the majority of instructors who recommend this speak-first approach be wrong? So I turned to Google, where I found a lot of reinforcement for the “immersion-speak first and disregard mistakes” approach … but also a trickle of academics and other writers debunking that common wisdom. 

Learning a new language is a complex stew of intent, motivation, natural inclination, memory and learning tools and processes. I am currently in my 7th week of this experiment of one. I have been trying stuff, keeping what is working and discarding what isn’t. Because I have the luxury of time, I can afford to experiment and I truly want to achieve a high level of mastery of this language. I believe that when I find the learning process that best fits my own learnings style, I will achieve that goal … while also staying joyful in the process.

Beauty & Learning ...
what a combination!
Here are the basics of my new learning model:
     - Build my vocabulary
     - Improve my ability to hear the language
     - Elevate my speaking
     - Enliven my writing.
     - Get feedback ... as instantly as possible
Perhaps the most important element of this model is feedback (in Spanish, it’s a tongue tangling ... retroalimentación). Years ago I had a personal epiphany about the importance of feedback … instant feedback. I have been a photographer since I was 18 but until late 2001 my skills never improved much. Then, I bought my first digital camera and, since money for film wasn’t an issue, I embarked on a weekly photographic documentation of an ever-changing, nearby park. Within a few months, my pictures showed amazing improvements in composition, contrast and color.
When I started looking for ways to get feedback … instant feedback … I found Google Translate (GT). Now, even though it’s Google, GT is far from perfect and sometimes it’s almost laughable. However, it’s still better than I am. I can write a sentence and then drop it into GT and know instantly some of the mistakes I am making. I can tweak within GT and gradually see my words coming closer to my intent. Gradually, I’m getting better. There are some amazingly good resources online and in a future post, I will share some of the best of what I’ve found.

So, for me, my present focus is on building vocabulary and understanding the basics of grammar, as well as the cultural forces that underly the language. Memory is also a fascinating part of the process and can be divided into “fast memory” and “slow memory” with the “fast memory” being the words and phrases that are so embedded that they surface quickly without conscious thought and the “slow memory” being the words and phrases that, while known, come slowly and haltingly to the surface.

This led me to think of this process as the “iceberg theory" of learning a new language. It is a pretty common metaphor and I think every student of language experiences it. Under the surface lies a vast body of words and grammar concepts that are partially “owned.” Some can be retrieved gradually with thought and some are still in the murky depths and inaccessible without further reinforcement and memory work. I have just started using a flashcard app that I think is going to make a huge difference in bringing all that murky, partially owned stuff to the light of day.

And, the speaking thing? It’s coming. Right now I’m reading out loud a lot and thinking out loud as I continue to walk the streets … constructing sentences, hitting verbal road blocks that send me into wifi-friendly coffee shops to look up new words, try something out in Google Translate, or consult one of my new flashcard series. And, because few people here speak English, when I interact with a person in a store, I’m forced to speak Spanish. Gradually, that’s getting less frustrating and less scary. 

Coffee and art ... mmmmm!
If you want to learn a new language, it’s important to understand your own learning style before you begin. Not many learners will continue with an optional learning process if it doesn’t give them two things: a sense of progress and success … and joy in the process. Here are some resources that could save you some time and money … and help you do it YOUR ... a joyful way.

Top Ten Tips: - is one of my favorite free resources and offers bite-sized lessons on grammar that can be read and re-read as needed. Their tips reflect my experience and I wish I had them when I began this journey.

Twelve Tips from Tim Ferris the guy who only wants to work four hours a week and he is passing along the work of Benny Lewis. There is a world of resources in this article -

If you’re starting from scratch, here’s a good beginning:

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Sign at the demonstration
Last night, near the house of God here in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, México, people gathered, somber and sad. Absent from the gathering were forty-three students and teachers, young people simply gone.

Slowly, a woman began to call out the name of each missing student and the crowd responded to each name by calling back, "Present!"

But, they were not present, there were no smiling faces, no jokes, no dancing, no singing, only silence from the seeds of the future.

Last night. winter darkened the hearts of each one of us who could still respond, "Present!" And, so the question is "what?" and "when? will each of us say, "Present!" for those students and teachers.

This story haunts me. It happened while I was in a foreign country, a country I have been fascinated with for decades, a country that touches me with its joy and deep vein of sadness. Could this have happened in my country? No country, no government, is perfect but could 43 students and teachers have just "disappeared" in the US ... without an uproar ... without it playing across the news channels for days, weeks ... or until an investigation was launched and those responsible held accountable?

Perhaps the bigger question is how much does it matter that this happened in a country that is not "mine?" Last night, as I walked through the crowds, it didn't feel like a foreign country. The words were unfamiliar but the sadness and anger throbbing through the crowd were familiar and we were one group of people feeling that sadness. Borders didn't matter, nationality, race, age, gender ... nothing mattered except that something terribly wrong had happened to a group of young people who were working to make the future better.
This young boy was in the crowd last night and he caught my eye as he clasped three stuffed lions to his chest and in his backpack were 5 or 6 brightly colored, stuffed giraffes. His somber eyes made me wonder about his future and what he must have been thinking and feeling as he wandered about the candlelit tribute. Was he related to one of the 43? Did he understand what was going on or was he just feeling the sadness? 

I wondered what world he will grow up in ... and if he will be allowed to grow up at all?

The word "vivos" ... living ... was spelled out in candles and flowers. Some of the speakers and signs indicated that people still have hopes that the 43 will be found alive. After almost a month since they "disappeared," that seems unlikely but it is absolutely true that they are still living in the hearts and minds of people who want to know why they're gone and who is responsible for this outrage.

I know they are definitely living seeds of thought in my own mind and heart.

When I began to write about the events of last night, the words came ... haltingly ... in Spanish. I doubt that they are "right" but here they are:

Anoche, cerca de la edificio de Dios, un multitud juntaba, sombrío y triste.
Ausente del acopio eran cuarenta y tres estudiantes y maestros, jóvenes simplemente idos.
Despacio, una mujer comienza a gritar el nombre de cada estudiante y la gente respondido: “¡Presente!"
Pero, ellos no eran presente, hay no caras sonreir, no bromas, no bailando, no cantando, solamente silencio de las semillas del futuro.

Anoche, invierno oscurecía el corazón de todo, cada uno de nosotros alguien que todavía pudiera responder “¡presente!” Así que, las preguntas son “¿cómo? y “¿cuándo? nosotros dijéremos, “¡Presente!" para esos estudiantes y maestros.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Don't You Get Lonely? ¡Por Supuesto!

Don't you get lonely? It's a common question people ask when they find out I'm traveling alone. Of course I get lonely. I miss having someone to share stories with, to help make decisions with, to touch and be touched by, physically, emotionally, spiritually.

Being lonely is part of the human condition and regardless of our state of togetherness with a partner, family or friends, there is always a layer of loneliness. We can't run away from it or self-medicate it away. The very addictiveness of television is an indicator of the pervasiveness of loneliness.

Travel takes us out of our comfort zone and emphasizes our aloneness.  And, traveling alone seems to open us up to new sights, new sounds, new experiences, and new people. That openness creates a vacuum that seems to suck in all that new stuff, allowing magic and synchronicities to happen, in a way that seldom happen while traveling with a partner or group.

A couple is a closed unit that leaves fewer openings for other connections; it also leaves less time for contemplation and reflection unless the couple makes explicit plans and time for solitude. 

I miss mi pareja and often yearn for his presence, sometimes almost painfully so. However, when I think about the strange and wonderful things that have happened on this trip, I realize that most of them would not have happened if we had been together.  

Of course, a different set of wonderful things probably would have happened, but they exist in a parallel world that I have no insight into. I do know that I would not have met Blanca on my first night in San Cristóbal; Eric never gets lost and speaks fluent Spanish so the problem would have never required her assistance. I wouldn't have met Alison or Janet or Carol or Enrique or Skip. I would not have crawled through a cave on my way to a cenote or taken over three thousand pictures in the last six weeks or collected 70-plus words ending in -ería.

We would have done wonderful things together and I'm sure we would have laughed more, but here's the rub ... traveling alone is different from traveling together. As much as I want to do both ... and I fully intend to ... they have to be asynchronous, which means there is just no point in whining about being lonely. Solitude is the price of a set of adventures and a condition of openness that does not function within the warm, loving embrace of togetherness.

Who designed this system? Sigh!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Skeletons in Fancy Dress

A Calavera in San Miguel
I've never been a fan of Halloween or El Día de los Muertos ... perhaps it's all those skulls and skeletons. However, I am a sucker for a good story, especially those unsung-hero ones, so imagine my surprise when these two things came together.

I know I've been bucking the trend on Halloween for years as it continues to grow in popularity.  Perhaps I can blame my antipathy on my childhood. My mother's family came from Van Buren, Arkansas, and one of their biggest days of the year was Memorial Day, what we called Decoration Day back then because everyone went to the cemeteries and decorated the graves and had a thoroughly miserable time. 

As a young kid who didn't know any the people who were prompting that weeping and wailing, I put it on the list of things I didn't like. That dislike of being around death transferred to Halloween and what I knew about the Day of the Dead which is coming up in two weeks and is one of the biggest times of the year here in Mexico.

I'm not quite sure why I decided to go to a lecture by Marina Aguirre on the symbolism of this day when I saw it posted at the English Library in Mérida. But, I did, and as often happens when I go to something not knowing why I'm going, surprise and fascination appear ... grinning ... and hand me a little gift bag tied up with a bow.

I was fairly familiar with the concept of the celebration (actually three days) as being one to honor the ancestors but some of the nuances make it much richer than I thought. The belief is that the ancestors actually show up ... if you have attracted them with candles or luminaries and added their photos or favorite things to the altar ... and then they need to be cared for ... fed with sweets and treats (and these offerings are not for the living), cheered with bright marigolds (again, never given to the living) and music. And, when the ancestors are happy, they can bring blessings to your life.
What I didn't know was the story behind all those skulls and skeletons, especially the ones in fancy costumes. It’s a tradition that started, and grew, through artists ... and politics ...  a particularly potent combination, especially in places where speech is not exactly free.

The first hero of the story is Jose Guadalupe Posada, a poor boy with a talent for drawing and a keen eye for the trends of the times. Under the controversial leader Porfirio Díaz, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. It was a time when all things white and European were good and all things brown and indigenous were to be avoided if you had the money to do so.

Posada became a printmaker and, noticing what was going on his country, he began making a series of prints called calaveras which show skeletons and skulls with painted white faces dressed in fancy costumes. The one that would become famous was called Calavera de la Catrina (Skull of the Female Dandy) and shows a skull wearing a huge, European-style hat. However, it was not destined to bring Posada fame or fortune. He died poor and unknown in 1913.

Several years later while visiting Diego Rivera, the French artist Jean Charlot was introduced to Posada’s prints and brought them to a larger audience. However, it was Rivera himself that brought Catrina and Posada into the popular imagination and launched the familiar symbology of the Day of the Dead when he brought Catrina front and center in his mural, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central or Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central which is in Museo Mural Diego Rivera in Mexico City. In the mural, Rivera is standing beside Catrina and she is holding the hand of a representation of Rivera as a young boy. Behind them stands Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife.

So, now that I understand a bit more about the symbology behind all of this, it doesn't seem as much like a focus on death but more of a celebration of the duality of life and death. 

If I live long enough, perhaps wisdom will arrive. Anyway, I will look at the celebrations this year with completely different eyes, especially since I will be right in the midst of them.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Synchronicity ... Again!

"I love you more than
my own skin."
I had two primary reasons for coming to Mérida:
  • swim in a cenote once again … check!
  • do some further research on Felipe Carrillo Puerto … oops! The week slipped away without this happening.
However, this morning, synchronicity tapped me on the shoulder and made me wonder if I need to come back to tie up this loose end.

First, the backstory. About 25 years ago, my husband and I vacationed in the Yucatán and when we got home, he happened on a book on a sale table and, on a whim, bought it for me. The book was the story of Alma Reed, one of the country’s first women reporters in the early 1920s in San Francisco. She reported on the story of a young Mexican boy who was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hung even though he was only 17 and had been pressured by an older man to commit the killing.

Reed took on the challenge of convincing the state to declare him too young to be hung … and won. She was invited to Mexico by the government and treated as a heroine. Because of all this publicity, she was hired by the New York Times and sent back to Mexico to write about a new archeological discovery called Chichen Itza.  There she became friends with the man who was the head of the archeology team and he told her how he was secreting artifacts out of Mexico to the Peabody Museum in Boston.

I loved this guy's hat ...
and he seemed to love having his picture taken.
Reed broke that story and became even more beloved by Mexico. During those days, she met Felipe Carrillo Puerto and they fell in love. There is some discrepancy about whether or not Carrillo was married or a widower, but they had a passionate affair and were going to be married in California. Reed went back to California to make plans and while she was gone, he was executed by firing squad with three of his brothers and eight other friends.

Alma Reed (“alma” means soul in Spanish) spent most of the rest of her life in Mexico where, they say, a song that was commissioned for her by Carrillo is sometimes still played. I loved this story and, living at the time in Santa Barbara where writing a screen play is a rite of citizenship, I wrote one, which went no where. I always wanted to find more information about Carrillo but, at the time, there was no Internet or Google Translate so I always dreamed of coming to Mérida and finding out more. But, I never did … even when I was actually here for a week.

Wall art.
Now the synchronicity: This morning I went to hear a lecture at the English Library here in Mérida and struck up a conversation with the woman sitting beside me who moved here in April. We were exchanging the standard questions of where and why for when she asked me why I was here and I started telling her the Alma Reed/Felipe Carrillo story. About half-way through her eyes got wide and she said, “His grandson is my neighbor!"

It turns out that his grandson Orlando has been active in the museum scene here in Mérida but had a stroke some time ago so his health isn’t great but he had told my new acquaintance about his grandfather. I had a question I wanted to have clarified so she is going to try to talk to him. However, there are apparently a bunch of descendants here so there might be some value in coming back and talking to them.

Most homes have these
tile signs on the wall by their doors.
I wish when the Universe decided to play these games, it would be a little more directive about what I’m supposed to do with the information.

Color, wrought iron and a "frame."

And a question ... why is there a box with
"tomatoes" on it on the street here in Mérida?
I wonder if there's a story here?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Leaving Mérida

Long exhibit of then-and-now
photos on Paseo Montejo.
Today is my last full day in Mérida and there are many things I will miss, one of the most mundane … but brilliant in my opinion … is the street numbering system. My directional skills are at best lacking and if there are two ways to turn, bet against me and watch your fortune grow.

It’s different in Mérida … I always know where I am. I may turn the wrong way but I know it almost immediately. Give me an address and I can find it … unheard of! Here’s how it works: All the streets in the central district are one way and one set of streets is even numbers and the cross streets are odd numbers.  I’ve been staying at an address on 52nd street between 53rd and 55th. Even if I forget the number, I can find the block!

Why doesn’t every city work on this system?

Current day Mayan palapa
This morning I saw two great exhibits and found my very favorite -éria word.  One of the exhibits was a long outdoor exhibit of photos comparing architectural images of photos from about a hundred years ago to the same place today. Fascinating to see the changes … sometimes almost nil and sometimes dramatic.

One comparison was of a typical Mayan village home today and it looks almost exactly like the one of a hundred years ago.

The second exhibit was of pottery from the Tonalá area near Guadalajara. That may require a special trip … the pottery was incredible. Often the colors are not actually paint but different colors of clay.

Part of the exhibit was samples of the clay before it becomes clay ... it looks like rock so it's a pretty intense process of breaking it up, adding water, kneading it, and so it's not much like my idea of going to the art supply store and buying a block of clay.

I also had a chance to experience the extreme generosity of the Mexican people this morning. A couple of things I wanted to see were closed ... even though their "official" hours said they would be open. I stumbled into a book store thinking it was an art gallery that I wanted to see (turns out both were actually closed) and a typical conversation occurred where few words were communicated but both of us were trying.

Finally, for lack of anything else to do, the woman started pulling out information for me and then handed me a DVD of Yanni performing last year at a cultural festival.  I love Yanni so this is a treasure!

And, as some of you know, I am collecting words that end in -ería and now have 68, some standard … tortillería, panadería … some obvious … cremería, florería … some I still haven’t figured out  … tlapalería, chupería (think it’s a restaurant) … but now my favorite and it’s going to be hard to top this one since it also comes with a great image …piñatería.

It’s been a great week in Mérida but I am looking forward to getting back to San Cristóbal, which is beginning to feel like "home."

Here are some last glimpses from this charming capital of the state of Yucatán:

Beautiful wrought iron work.

Always the doors!

How I love this turquoise.

Simply color.

Cozy, little nooks


Are you having lunch with me?