You know when I said I was going to expand the scope of My Spanish Adventure to incorporate all other great Spanish speaking countries around the world? Yeah? Well, I wasn’t lying.
A new week and woop, we herald the return of My Spanish Lovers, the self-proclaimed best interview series to spotlight lovers of the Spanish language and Hispanic culture you’ll find anywhere on the net. Wow, it’s been a long time waiting but, like that old English saying goes, “good things come to those who wait” (bloody hell, I hate that saying).
Anyway this week I’ve roped in the lovely Sarah from the Mexico-centered travel blog Loose Gringa. Sarah’s got an interesting story – and an infectious personality to boot. What can you expect from a poet? I’m glad to field her answers!
Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for speaking with me, you’ve got a really cool story and your interest in Mexico is pretty inspirational. For people who don’t know about you or your blog could you give us a brief introduction?
I had the idea for my blog, Loose Gringa, in November 2011, when I returned from my second trip to Mexico. I felt this profound pain returning to Boston, to my normal life, and that’s when I knew I wanted to make a big life change. I’m a writer for the Harvard Gazette, and also a published poet and nonfiction writer, and I’d found ultimate inspiration in Mexico—I knew there was a book there, waiting to be written; I knew that I had to return in a more substantial way (longer than a week!), and that I had to figure out a plan, immediately.
It was a very painful time in my life, actually—in February I broke up with my boyfriend, I moved out of my house, I gave away 75% of my belongings, and the rest I have housed in a friend’s grandfather’s garage in the suburbs of Massachusetts. Not very glamorous at all. But making these hard choices was also invigorating and exciting—I was pursuing my dream and an adventure in Mexico! I started saving up money and I asked Harvard for a leave of absence.
So I booked a two-month hiatus to Mexico. My plan getting here was simple: I wanted to have as many adventures as possible, learn to scuba dive, better my Spanish, write all day, chronicle my trials and tribulations on Loose Gringa, and figure out a plan for living here on a more permanent basis.
Cool stuff and a hiatus well needed I’ll say! Now you first traveled to Mexico from the US back in 2011, why did you initially decide to make such a big leap? What was it about Mexico that called to you?
I don’t think of Mexico as being a big leap. I think that going to Alaska is probably a lot more dramatic than travelling to Mexico, but I know a lot of people who don’t share that same opinion!
I’d always wanted to travel to Latin America, namely Mexico, ever since I was young. I was first introduced to Mexican culture in my home state of North Carolina, where there’s a booming immigrant population. As a teenager, I was the pride and joy of my high school Spanish class. My instructor, a displaced Brooklynite named Senora Freiberg, was fashioning me to become an interpreter, but once I got to college I faltered a bit in typical college style—I wanted to drink, stay out late, the whole shebang, and I let Spanish fall by the wayside. But I never forgot the grammar, many conjugations, and some other crucial aspects of the language. During this time I also saw “Y Tu Mama Tambien” for the first time, and I fell in love with the whole idea of that film, but mainly the idea of traveling the Mexican countryside with two hot guys (ED: it gets me going too). Haha!
Also, there is a bit of a political bent to my story. In the South, there’s obviously quite a bit of racism and resistance to immigration. I believe and I hope that it’s improving now, but 15 years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school, this was not the case—everyone was abuzz with illegal immigrants taking American jobs, stealing government money, etcetera. And I remember my family members’ ridiculous warnings about me cavorting with Mexican men. I laughed it off at the time, but in truth, I’ve always been fascinated by the underdog, the sideline hero, so I actually sought out Spanish-speaking people, many of whom were housepainters and carpenters working in my friend’s neighborhood, which was undergoing expansion and therefore a lot of construction. I’d practice my Spanish with these men and obviously there was never anything to be fearful of.
That’s what I love about Mexico—its persistence, its ability to keep on keepin’ on. Mexico is actually a great deal like the Southern U.S.—there’s huge attention to family, food, oral tradition, music. They’re convivial cultures, and I’ve always felt right at home.
Sounds similar to most Hispanic countries in that regard. Which is why I love them!
Ok, so what were some of the initial trials and tribulations that you faced when you first arrived in Mexico? How did you overcome them? Are there any ongoing challenges that come with this particular lifestyle of immersion in Mexican culture?
Well, I am still overcoming them! Language is obviously number one. I started formally taking Spanish again five months before coming to Mexico, and I was up on my high horse with my A+ exams in hand, thinking I was going to chat up a storm upon landing. But this was just not the case. Realized I lacked confidence in conversational skills. I’d practiced more writing than talking. I can write you a love letter in Spanish, let me tell you!
But I find it really difficult to follow a conversation because many people talk so fast, and mumble, too! So I’ll lose the thread of the story midway and have to be debriefed in English, or tell everyone to slow it down. There’s also so much slang and wordplay—it’s endless, really—that I feel light years behind. I do feel like an outsider almost all of the time, but I’m weirdly masochistic and I find it a touch enjoyable, because it pushes me to make myself better. I do enjoy warm, amazing daily conversations in Spanish with taxi drivers. Tequila helps immensely. It’s a miracle drug.
The other adjustment I’ve accustomed to—and this is so minor—is that I want movies released on the same date. I am desperately missing the new Wes Anderson film, and I’m anticipating its arrival in Mexico (hopefully soon!). Things are very different here than in the U.S., but I wasn’t naïve going into this. It’s all about your perspective. If you want sprawling Target stores, New York-style pizza, and Cracker Barrel country comforts, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re the kind of person who’ll eat street cart empanadas for breakfast and knows that a little bit of wait never hurt nobody, then you’re likely good to go.
How much of the Spanish language did you know before coming out to Mexico? What things did you do to improve and where do you see your level now?
Off and on I’ve taken about 4.5 years of Spanish, spread out over 15 years. I think I’ve retained a remarkable amount but there’s so much to improve on. Right now I’d say I’m at a C level. I’m definitely not rocketing off the charts and cannot stress how much I don’t know. Like I said, I can write Spanish better than I can speak it, which is an oddity, many people tell me, but I think it’s because I’m a writer and words just make so much more sense. In general I’m really nervous about getting the tenses right, and understanding the Spanish verbs that have meanings I’m not accustomed to, such as volver, which means to return, but also can mean to turn into, or to become.
Some things in English can’t be directly translated, and vice versa, which is continually a learning process. I thought ‘you make me nervous’ in English would be me haces nerviosa in Spanish, but they don’t use hacer. They use poner, which means ‘to put’—me pones nerviosa. You put me nervous. All these very little things can become overwhelming and can cause me some anxiety, and obviously I want to shake off that fear and just speak without inhibition. I want to be freed from myself!
To improve, I read the subtitles on TV and see how things are translated from English into Spanish. I find the person in the room who doesn’t speak English and talk to them.
Before coming here I’d watch telenovelas and Sabado Gigante, just to hear Spanish words and the accent. I read news stories in Spanish. I still get tripped up on my own dependency to the English language—I haven’t yet found the most enthusiastic, accurate way to portray myself in Spanish. It’s the very same complaint native Spanish speakers tell me about English. We’re all struggling to find the right fit of words that jibes with our personalities, struggling to make the language our own.
What are your favourite things about the Spanish language? Any favourite words? Do you see yourself using it in the future?
The sounds of Spanish are so sexual; even angry Spanish—people arguing, bickering—enthralls me. It’s emphatic. When speaking it, I find myself using my hands wildly for more emphasis. It’s just fun. When I return to English, I feel so plain.
My hands-down favorite Spanish word is salchicha—sausage. Like I said I’m a poet, so I love wordplay. There’s a sexual connotation, and it just rolls off the tongue. Salchicha! I love all words involving food: mariscos, camarones, pulpo, cebolla. Even something as boring as lettuce gets punched up in Spanish—LECHUGA!
There’s something sinister about the sound of hombre, and redeeming about mujer. There’s a lot to mine in this language, and I’m enjoying every minute. I also like la barba—beard.
I definitely will continue to use my Spanish. I’ve been using a lot of Spanish in the poetry I’ve been writing as of late, which is a good thing. I have an entire poem devoted to Mexican slang about sex and body parts. I love it.
What have been some of the biggest, major highlights of the past year living and traveling to and from Mexico? What places would you recommend people seeing?
I’m still in the beginner phase of my Mexican journey. I feel like a baby. There’s so much of Mexico I’ve yet to see—Oaxaca, Mexico City, Merida. But I would tell people to leave the beaten path. Even in touristic zones there’s gems to be had—sidewalk vendors, exotic foods, interesting handicrafts, locals with exciting stories who want to know you and see you have a good time. That’s number one—talking to the locals. You’ll meet the most amazing people traveling if you’re open to it, people that will help you grow in every way possible. Strangers are my favorite people in the whole world. My first week in Mexico, I met an ex-Olympic sailor named Nilo in a restaurant. It turns out he lives across the street from me, too. He’s definitely a charmer and he let me wear his medals.
I live in Cozumel, which is a mecca for snorkeling or scuba diving. I just completed my scuba certification! So I’m really excited about that.
Cozumel is a jovial island—there’s little crime, everyone says hello, it’s relaxed. There’s not a ton of exciting nightlife, compared to Playa Del Carmen or Cancun, but there are good bars, live music, dancing. Also on the island there’s decent ruins to take in, amazing beaches (definitely drive to the east side for a day!), and amazing taco stands. My favorite taco joints are Arandas on 30 av.—try the suadero tacos and the tortas!—and everything at Los Otates on 15 av. is delicious, especially after a night of drinking. But do try the maciza. I’m pretty sure it’s pork, and it’s really good.
Do the Mayan ritual of temazcal at Mayan Steam Lodge, and find a boatman to take you to El Cielo to see the starfish. Head to Isla Mujeres and swim with the whale sharks, when it’s the season, and snorkel the cenotes in Playa Del Carmen and Tulum.
What things should people who want to move out to Mexico, to have a similar experience know about doing this based on your experiences? What advice would you give them?
It’s incredibly cheap to live in Mexico, but save your money, as much as you can. You can get a decent, inexpensive apartment here. But you can’t work here legally unless you have a certain type of visa or you get sponsored by a Mexican company who will take care of the visa for you. I’m not sure of the tourist visa limitations for other countries, but Americans can be in Mexico legally for 6 months, and then we have to leave the country—many in Riviera Maya just head to Belize for the day—and you can come back again that easily, 6 months more.
Another important thing to do is to ensure you take out comprehensive insurance as Mexico, just as anywhere else, has certain risks. Endsleigh travel insurance does pretty good deals and were one of the companies I looked into.
Also, learn Spanish! Even a little. And then just GO.
How do you sustain your travels around Mexico? Do you have any money saving tips whether it’s with travel, food, living or anything else that can help people out who are preparing for a trip or relocation?
I saved up money for months to prepare for my hiatus from work. I saved my tax refund. I did more freelance work. I cut back on buying crap and focused on purchasing only what was really necessary. If you really want to make a trip or relocation work, you’ll find a way. Just save and work hard. It’s not easy, but it pays off in the end.
Go where the locals go to eat. Three tacos and an agua fresca are like $3. You can’t beat that. Take a bus, also cheap. Or walk!
What are some your favourite things about the culture? What is it about Mexico that you enjoy living here most?
Well, the food is obviously number one. It’s amazing. Everything I’ve eaten here has been out of this world. The chili. I love to put chili on everything, and here that’s obviously very easy to do! No one thinks a white girl can take the heat, but I ate an entire habanero in a restaurant here, just to prove otherwise.
I love the music, obviously the dancing… and I love that almost everyone has a nickname based on a physical attribute, or something funny they did…. the humor here is endless.
But obviously Mexico is a complicated country! They just had their election and I’m struggling to understand the politics here. Corruption is evident in many facets of Mexican life—from labor laws, to the police, to drugs, to the presidential elections. Obviously if you have money you can get away with almost anything. I think the corruption definitely detracts from Mexico’s charm, though, and off-puts a lot of tourists. But I have to underscore that Mexico is great and has a bad reputation. Every country has its problems.
Finally, any last words for people out there interested in immersing themselves in a foreign culture, learning a language and travelling the world?
Just go. Pick a place that inspires you. Especially if you’re a writer, it’s crucial to know the world. Being uncomfortable is difficult and a part of the experience of traveling. It’s also intoxicating and addictive. I think these experiences I’ve had in Mexico will fuel me and inspire my writing for years to come. And who knows, I may end up living here! Stay tuned to Loose Gringa!
And now I want to go to Mexico more than ever. I wonder if “Loose Gringa” will live up to her name and help show me a good time? 😉 Joking my love! Make sure you catch up with Sarah both over on Loose Gringa and on Twitter.
Don’t forget to get in contact if you’d like to be my next Spanish lover!