Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wanderings: Magic Places

Shrine at los manantiales of San Pablo

As time passes, I travel far less and yet gain more from each experience. I log fewer miles, and do them more slowly. I often explore closer to home. I take fewer pictures as I go, preferring to use all my senses to gather impressions and memories of a place.

In addition, now when I visit a place I spend more time there. What I find as a result of this simplification is that I see, feel, hear and sense more about the places I do visit, and take much more home with me from the experience than I used to.

Anyone sensitive enough to the surrounding environment occasionally stumbles across special places where there is an atmosphere, a presence, a spirit, perhaps an aura, that lends them a magic quality.

Conseulo and son Marco
During my July visit to Querétaro, I took an afternoon hike in the hills above the tiny pueblo of San Pablo, Amealco, located near where I teach summer school.

I went with a small group of other teachers, led by San Pablo resident Consuelo, who is an indigenous Otomí woman, a local teacher and our co-worker. Also walking with us and helping us gather firewood along the way were her young sons Carlos and Marco Antonio.

Our goal was los manantiales, or the springs, which supply water to the pueblo. The flow is divided. Part of the water runs in its natural course. The rest is confined by pipe and in a narrow, old rock and concrete channel from the source, at the top of a valley, down past fields where small sluice gates allow its diversion for irrigation, and then into the pueblo itself.

We climbed above San Pablo on a rocky, sometimes muddy path, which follows the channel up through tall old trees that cast a deep shade on this cloudy afternoon. Along the trail and in clearings, large spiky maguey plants and clumps of yellow, pink and blue wildflowers occasionally relieved the gloom. Under the dense forest canopy the ground is covered by a thick matte of brown leaves which makes the place seem soft despite the presence of rocky outcroppings.

As we climbed, a sudden chill and dark clouds threatened an imminent downpour, but beyond a few errant drops, the enveloping walls of the small valley held the storm just far enough away to keep us dry. The shelter of our valley notwithstanding, the deep bass rumble of distant thunder was powerful enough to vibrate our insides from time to time.

As we approached the spring, there was no mistaking that we had arrived. In the clearing around the water source, the people have constructed a tiny shrine, painted sky blue and adorned with crosses and strings of starlike decorations which extend into the surrounding trees that arch overhead. It is a protected, intimate and refuge-like place.

It is wonderful after the climb to kneel down next to the shrine where clear, cool water burbles from the ground, and drink from this ancient water source. Countless beings have done this before me. Ruins of earlier civilizations in the vicinity date back close to 2000 years. From the presence of the small, fertile cornfields and pueblo of San Pablo directly below los manantiales, I suspect that this spring has been a special place and a source of life since ancient times, perhaps for thousands of years.

When I travel, I still enjoy the occasional experience of a city, a show, or a noisy night on the town. However now I mostly concentrate on quieter, more contemplative visits to places like los manantiales. These places don't shout out at you, don't demand your attention, and are not always easy to find. Some people do not notice them at all. But those who do sense the meaning of these places definitely experience something that surpasses human-made attractions.

Above all, places like los manantiales possess a strong sense of self. They resonate with life, the passing of time, the seasons, the spirits of people, animals, plants and venerable trees long ago dissolved and reincarnated in the cycles of life. The reverberations of past events still linger in these locations because it is so evident in them that although everything over time changes in form, it all is still here.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Living Here: Successful Expatriates Do This

I passed a small milestone pretty much unnoticed this week. In early July I completed six years of living full time in Mexico. I have never been one to make a big deal out of anniversaries, so I didn't even mark the day. However I recently visited Alaska, my birthplace and the lifelong home I departed from to begin a new life in Mérida, and that has prompted me to reflect on the transition.

Mine's been a successful venture, in all categories. I am happy I moved, feel invigorated in late middle age by a new way of life, and do not seriously think about moving permanently back up north.

However I have seen others move to Mexico, full of excitement and hope, only to experience disillusion and disappointment. Some try it for a year or two before deciding to move back to where they came from. Others stay, but adapt by cocooning themselves within a small crowd of other expats, their air conditioning and their cable TV and live isolated from much of the beauty of life here. Some also mix in booze, drugs, and obsessive sexual behavior.

Although living as an expatriate in Mexico proves difficult for some, in many of the others who remain, it brings out their best.

There is something particular, or maybe peculiar, about the foreigners who move here, find community, stay and are truly happy. There are those who find themselves happier than they have ever been, their lives blossoming as they meet the challenge of exploring new relationships, places, ideas and interests.

I've thought a lot about why my move was successful, and taken a look at other happy and successful foreigners living in Mexico. Obviously, for each of these their move goes well for individual reasons. But there are more common threads than differences.

Happy expats who stay on for the long haul usually started out by doing their homework. Although no quantity of research and trial visits can fully prepare one for what it's like to live here all the time, these things certainly can assist with identifying obstacles and help with the decision-making process.

Successful transplants usually are flexible, open minded and have a sense of adventure. They don't expect things to be the same as they were where they came from, and accept, or better yet enjoy, the differences. They adjust to a slower rhythm of life. They appreciate new experiences and thrive on the challenge of figuring out an unfamiliar culture and living in a place where most people don't speak their language. Through it all they generally manage to remain positive. These are not the kind of people you hear talking excessively about how great things are "back home."

Patience is very important. It takes time to adjust to different ways of doing things, different food, weather, and really just about everything else. Most people go through an initial euphoric period, a time when everything is delightful, exciting and exotic. This often is followed by a period of reevaluation, when they find themselves confronting unanticipated difficulties, realize that a new country didn't make old problems go away, and feel homesick. At this point they may wonder if they made the right choice. Some manage to use this time as an opportunity for growth, but it usually takes a couple of years, and patience, to work it all out.

Finally, many successful expats break out of old patterns and reinvent themselves to some extent. I am not talking about people who are running from their past and try to create a fictitious self. The fractures in these fairy tales usually start to show pretty quickly. What I'm talking about are those who find themselves with time to do what they really want to do, things like volunteering to teach, support environmental causes or care for abandoned animals, pursuing new careers in art, writing or other fields, or opening a new business. Foreigners here usually feel a lot more freedom to experiment and try out new roles than they did where they came from. Moving to another country is a chance to forge a new identity by taking risks and accomplishing things they never had time to do before.

I think Babs, in the "about me" section of her blog, sums up perfectly the key attitude of many successful expats with a quote from Helen Keller: "Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all." Expatriates with this attitude have the time of their lives.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Language Learning: Why Bother?

I don't know many foreigners living in Mexico who speak really good Spanish. Because I started studying the language as a kid, continued in college, and used it from time to time as an adult, I had a good basis in Spanish when I moved to live in Mexico full time a few years ago. As a result, becoming proficient enough to comfortably socialize with Mexicans and handle all of my own business affairs has not been the huge step for me that it is for many.

Of course there are plenty of foreigners who move here, work on their Spanish, and do very well. But it is amazing the number of people who come to live in Mexico and never, even after many years, learn Spanish. Many of these folks are perfectly happy this way and see no need to make the effort to do so. Others would like to learn, but think that it's too hard or they are "too old," so don't put forth much effort.

From what I've seen, these people live isolated within a limited social group of people who speak English. Many live happily enough within this circle, but in some ways remain perpetual tourists in the society where they have chosen to live, and forever dependent upon others to interpret and assist in day-to-day living.

Expats who live in Mexico and don't learn the language often count upon bilingual go-betweens to get things done and keep up with what is going on. Many make purchases and use services based upon whether the provider speaks English rather than the quality of the service or products. When it comes to goods and services, non-Spanish speakers often pay a stiff premium for the need to do all transactions in English. These types of services are necessary for short-term visitors and people in transition, but dependence upon them can be limiting for those who live here for the long term.

Why bother with Spanish? Here are a few good reasons I can think of:

Social and cultural: For most people, the biggest benefit of being able to speak the language is access to a vastly larger and more diverse social circle and a greater appreciation of the culture. A Spanish-speaking expat will meet many more possible friends among the locals and among foreigners from other parts of the world who although they may not speak English, likely will speak Spanish. In my case I know French and Italian residents here who don't speak English; we communicate in Spanish. Speaking the language also increases depth of understanding and appreciation of the arts such as music, theater, poetry readings, and all manner of public and cultural events.

There is a lot of cultural information that is transmitted by language, and it's very difficult to understand the real meaning of much that goes on around you without it. This background is not something one absorbs through beginner- or mid-level language classes or by learning a lot of vocabulary. It takes time and immersion in Spanish to get to this stage, but it is well worthwhile for those who choose to live here permanently. When you get to the point that you understand the background cultural context of certain words and expressions, and begin to understand and make jokes, puns and wordplays, you finally are approaching a level of language knowledge in which you can begin to understand the nuances of culture.

I find that among expats there is a fairly dependable correlation between being critical of Mexico and Mexicans and not understanding much Spanish. I think the basis for this attitude is the lack of understanding of the culture they are living in and not knowing any Mexicans beyond a superficial level.

Efficiency: If you speak the language, it is much easier to get things accomplished efficiently and effectively, whether that's shopping, explaining a problem to a police officer, banker, computer tech, plumber or mechanic, or dealing with functionaries in businesses and government offices. If you need medical attention, you can go to the best specialist or doctor of your choice regardless of language issues, and communicate your needs clearly without needing a translator.

Independence: If you speak Spanish, you can go out driving or take buses with much less concern about getting lost because you can always ask directions. You confidently can go exploring in the countryside or look for an address in an unknown area. Most importantly, you are able do these and many more things by yourself and on your own schedule.

Involvement: If you can talk with the locals, it's easier to keep up with happenings in the neighborhood. If you love to chat, you'll find neighbors who will enjoy helping you practice your language skills, and at the same time fill you in on what's going on on your street. You'll also get invited to more neighborhood events, and probably find neighbors willing to help out when you have a problem. In addition, you can keep up with what's going on in the region and country without relying upon someone else's version: you will be able to read the paper and watch or listen to local news.

Intellectual: Studies have shown that language learning, at any age, is good for the brain and memory. Research also shows that it is possible to learn a new language even at an advanced age, so being "too old" is a weak excuse.

Speaking Spanish has enriched my life in Yucatán in so many ways it would be hard to include them all in a blog post. At this point I go for days at a stretch without speaking English at all. I can't imagine living here without being able to participate as fully as possible in the life and culture around me.

Read earlier posts on language learning:
Making it Memorable
Live the Language