Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Moment of Joy

It's Sunday. This morning, as I often do on Sundays, I went down to Mérida centro to enjoy a delicious traditional Yucatecan breakfast with a friend, followed by leisurely conversation in a cafe on the Plaza Grande.

On my way home I walked through the plaza, crowded with vendors, food stalls and hordes of tourists and families on a Sunday outing. Suddenly I became aware of loud, rhythmic drumming coming from the vicinity of the cathedral, located on the east side of the square.

A more staid event in front of the Cathedral, on a different day.

Curious, I walked over to see what the ruckus was about. The area in front of La Catedral de San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, was jammed with families and youths carrying colorful balloons and cheering. A large, varnished wooden cross, supported by a handful of young men, rose in front of the main door of the building. Next to it a priest, sprinkling holy water, was blessing the crowd. There was lots of laughing and cheering amidst the smoke of incense.

The atmosphere was infused with a sense of fun, happiness and joy.

Having been raised in the much more somber atmosphere of Protestant churches up north, and never having seen anything like this before, I was curious and decided to hang around to see what would happen.

The blessing over, the drum corps began to beat a fierce rhythm and the cross was lowered onto the shoulders of a group of bearers. The happy roar increased. Amidst the noise of the drumming, laughter, chanting and the bobbing of hundreds of balloons, the cross was slowly borne into the church. I joined the throng.

This is an immense stone building full of echos. It magnifies sound and resonates like a monstrous speaker. The tattoo of the drums inside was deafening. Beneath blessed statues of the Saints, whistles blew. Passing in front of sacred, serene images of The Virgin, people cheered. Everyone was smiling. The church was full of young people and families all watching as the procession slowly worked up the aisle to the altar. The priest began to speak, but instead of calm, scripted responses or "amens" on the part of the congregation, they erupted in cheers and whistles. The priest smiled broadly at the noise. This began to sound more like the crowd at a hotly-contested football game than a group of faithful at the beginning of a church service:

"Viva Cristo Rey!" [Long live Christ the King!]

"Viva Cristo Rey!"

Despite the cacophony, the atmosphere somehow remained respectful and reverent.

Now, I am not Catholic and not the most devout Christian, but I can appreciate the enthusiasm demonstrated by this group. The overall feeling was one of intense joy and happiness. It was a very Mexican obsevance of faith, and quite different from a regular mass or the serious and quiet forms of worhsip I remember from my childhood days attending churches in the north.

The event seemed to exemplify for me some key aspects of Mexican culture, like the importance of family and children, the true heart of Mexican society. And in a country where several hundred years of oppressive and authoritarian government has not always been kind to the average person, emphasis on celebrating life and enjoying the moment whenever an opportunity presents itself. It was an interlude of intense joy. A moment purely Mexican.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Language Learning: Live the Language

In my last post, I wrote about how memorable experiences in a new language help us learn and retain the language. I suggested for those learning a new language, such as Spanish for foreigners in Mexico, that they find a teacher whose methods create those kinds of learning experiences.

Of course I am writing from Mexico and talking about Spanish, but all of the following ideas are applicable to learning any language, in just about any environment.

Finding the right kind of teacher is a good first step. Unfortunately, many American and Canadian expats here in Mexico comment that while they dutifully go to classes and study, it's hard to learn Spanish. Some conclude that they are too old or that their memory is no good. There are those who seem to find it difficult to make a satisfying amount progress, eventually give up studying, and limp along with a rudimentary vocabulary and basic phrases.

I think one reason for this is that many treat Spanish as a course, and not as an integral part of their lives. After Spanish class most students return home, where they proceed to watch English-language TV, read English newspapers, books and internet pages, watch English movies, and socialize primarily among other English-speaking people. Many expats in Mexico even go to English-speaking dentists and doctors, and hire English-speaking plumbers, electricians, handymen and household help. [They also often pay a stiff premium for needing these services in English, but that's a topic for another day.]

The best way to learn a new language is to make it part of the daily routine and incorporate it into life in as many ways as possible. Formally studying a language you would like to learn is important. But really learning the language requires that you use it, and use it a lot.

Here are a few suggestions for creating a richer Spanish-learning environment for yourself, no matter where you live and no matter what your learning goals may be.

Set the language preferences for your computer system and most-used applications to Spanish. Since you already understand how these work and probably utilize them almost instinctively, you already have built-in vocabulary support. As you use your computer, you will begin to notice and understand the terminology. The next time you go to an Internet cafe, computer store, or try to explain a problem to a technician in Spanish, you will be surprised how much easier it is to describe what you need or ask questions.

While you are at it, change the operating language of your cell phone and other devices that you regularly use. It's the same idea as with the computer. You can still send messages and communicate in English. Only the prompts and labels will be in Spanish.

Then, find a Spanish-language radio station that plays music you like (there are many streaming online if there are no broadcasts in your area). Listen to it, DJ's and other talk as well as music, every day. You don't have to listen attentively all of the time; just leave it on while you go about your day. Try to sing along. Watch Spanish television, a
telenovela (soap opera) or something with action, even if you don't understand much of what the characters are saying. Rent or go to movies that are in Spanish.

Learning to hear a new language and distinguish phrases, words and chunks of words is a critical part of beginning to understand. As you learn to hear the spoken language, it will cease to sound so "fast," and individual words and phrases will begin to pop out of the blur of sound.

These are just a few proven ideas that speed up the language-learning process and make it easier and more fun. There is a lot more you can do. I'll publish more ideas in future post

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Language Learning: Making it Memorable

An important part of living in Mexico as a foreigner is being immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment. Many newly-arrived expats I meet in Mérida ask me about how or where they should study Spanish. I decided to write about it, and soon realized that the topic is worth several installments. This is the first of several planned posts about language learning.

fecunidad -- feminine noun (a) (fertilidad) fertility (b) (productividad) productiveness

(from Webster's New World Concise Spanish Dictionary, Second Edition)

I will never, ever forget the Spanish word, fecunidad, which is an equivalent of the word fertility in English. The word is unforgettable because it was tattooed on my brain at the age of sixteen when my prim and proper high school Spanish teacher said the F-word in class.

The teacher, Miss Reitsma, was about forty years old and still lived with her parents. Knowing everything, we teenagers were all pretty sure that Miss Reitsma had very little experience in certain aspects of life, if you know what I mean.

One afternoon in Intermediate Spanish dear Miss R tried to point out the latin root of the vocabulary word
fecunidad by comparing it to the very similar fecundity, a synonyn of fertility in English. But poor, innocent Miss Reitsma, pronouncing the syllables separately as she did in English, "Fuh-K-UN-di-ty," didn't seem to understand why the roomful of dirty-minded adolescents broke up laughing before she had finished uttering the second syllable. Miss Reitsma had a brave heart. She tried a couple of times to pronounce fecundity, but only succeeded in provoking louder waves of snorts and giggles.

She failed that day to demonstrate how to decode word meanings by comparing the roots with similar known words. So, Miss Reitsma did as she sometimes did when things were not going well in the classroom. She loudly sighed. She then, as she often did at these junctures, gazed blankly and a bit sadly into the distance outside the classroom window. As the level of animated chatter in the classroom rose, Miss Reitsma, seemingly oblivious, began a little monologue in French (she was a double language major), "Je ne comprends pas..."

The point of the story is that memorable experiences make learning a language easier by helping to form connections that imprint new concepts in the memory. When you're having fun, are surprised or laughing, for instance, it's easy to enjoy the diversion. When an activity is meaningful and engaging, the learning becomes natural and pleasurable. In these situations, the task can seem almost effortless. Anyone who has been involved in a romance in a foreign language will attest to how rapidly they learned to communicate with their lover. In fact, they will tell you that, even decades later, many important words and phrases from that learning are still easy to recall.

When we were small our parents didn't "teach" us language. We soaked it up by observing and participating in life, nursing, eating, having our clothes or diapers changed and playing with family and caregivers. Although as adult language learners it helps us to have a knowlegeable person explain and clarify grammar, structural elements and provide context for vocabulary and cultural knowlege, we still learn more effectively and better retain the knowledge if it is gained while involved in engaging activity.

How can you have these sorts of language-learning experiences?

Well, Miss Reitsma didn't set about to create a memorable situation that day when she brought the house down. It was just an accident. However these days there are many language teachers who try to make language learning interesting and memorable.

If you are shopping for a language class, it's important to find one of these teachers. Find someone who tries to create interesting situations. Look for a teacher who creates ways for you to actively participate in your learning as opposed to the traditional, didactic approach that consists of lots of time with an instructor standing in front of a room explaining, drilling, then having students memorize quantities of rules and words as homework. The didactic approach is still widely used in Mexican schools, so you will find teachers who use traditional methods. Look for a course or instructor who takes a balanced approach, with an emphasis on active student involvement. You'll need structure and will want explanations, but you also want the material to be of interest, readily applicable in your life and presented in an engaging manner.

It is possible to become proficient in another language, and although you have to invest some effort, it doesn't have to be a grind. I'll share more experiences in my next post.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nature: Fertility

It's a cold and snowy winter up north. That makes it the dry season in Yucatán, and although the countryside can be brown and dusty, commonly we see flowers, particularly flowering trees, in bloom right now. Many of these trees have lost their leaves, making the colors really stand out. It's a pleasure in this parched season to come upon such an unexpected burst of color.

Of course there is a reason. In a few months, following the dry and hot spring, suddenly Yucatán will be blessed with abundant daily rains. The riot of flowering now means there will be lots of seeds, ripe and ready to sprout, when moister weather conditions give them a better chance to mature. 

In places like the home gardens around Mérida, where many of us water and care for our plants through the winter drought, this can be a season of particular richness.

The bloom at right is a good example. A couple of years ago my neighbor Gilda gave me a couple of sprigs from her "copa de oro," cup of gold plant. On her direction I stuck them in the ground and after that did little but water them occasionally. Last summer, after growing very slowly and apparently investing energy in putting down roots, the copa de oro poured on a burst of speed. The stems are now about four meters, at least twelve feet high, and have begun to flower. This blossom fell to the ground the other day.

The nopal cactus is flowering like crazy, attracting hummingbirds and leaving hundreds of knobby fruits to redden as they mature. If not picked and eaten, the tunas will drop, leaving thousands of seeds in the soil to sprout later in the year. Nopal also regenerates from cuttings. Any piece of nopal that falls to the ground will quickly put down roots and grow.

I am still eating bananas from bunches that matured in January. Even though the birds and zorros, or opossums, got their share, I have eaten my fill of bananas and given lots away. This is the last of the second bunch, stored on the cool floor of the interior patio where they are safe from the animals. These are the best bananas I have ever tasted. I suppose that's because I'm still accustomed to the flavor of store-bought bananas that were picked green. These ripened on the plant. There is an amazing difference.

Way at the back of the patio, the bugambilia and thumbergia have intertwined and rioted so far out of control that I suspect a major intervention will be necessary to re-establish my possession of the corner. I haven't had the heart yet, since they look so great with their lavender and hot pink flowers mixed. I'll cut them back before the rains start in June. Meanwhile I'll cede temporary title to the back corner to these rowdy plants in exchange for the beautiful vista.

Also in back, not far from the occupied corner, the naranja agria, sour orange, tree is in bloom, dropping its white petals to float on the surface of the pool. This used to annoy me a bit because the petals are tiny and cost me some work to clean up, but I have come now to appreciate their snowy froth on the water in the morning. The aroma of orange blossoms gives the pool area a wonderful atmosphere. Next fall the oranges will go into a variety of Yucatecan recipes and make refreshing drinks.

There are many, many other native and introduced plants that blossom at this time. One of the locals, a
hennequen plant in my patio, pushed up its baseball-bat-thick spike and commenced to produce about thirty large bunches of pale flowers a couple of months ago. After flowering the plant produces hundreds of tiny, fully-formed plantlets, which fall to the ground to find soil in which they can grow. The mother plant will now die, hopefully leaving many progeny to replace it. I will gather some and root them in containers, for later planting when I have room.

Meanwhile we continue to enjoy cool, flower-scented nights in Yucatán. But not for long. Before the rainy season comes we must endure the worst of the year's heat. The temperatures are rising, and will peak out in May. At some point in late May or June regular rains will cool things a little and saturate the soils. That is when a lot of the seeds that right now are being produced will begin to germinate and plant growth will accelerate dramatically.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wanderings: Beyond Chichén Itzá -- Ek Balam

Take a good look at that set of steps. The pyramid above is larger than the famous pile at Chichén Itzá, named last year in a marketing-inspired competition as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. This amazing structure is much less popular than the one at Chichén. In fact unless you live in Yucatán or have made a point when visiting to seek out less-famous archaeological sites, it's likely you've never heard of it.

This is Ek Balam, which means Black Jaguar in the Mayan language, located about twenty minutes' drive from Valladolid, Yucatán, or a couple of hours from either Cancún or Mérida. It's as accessible as Chichén Itzá.

A number of years ago, when I first visited Yucatán, I made my obligatory pilgrimage to Chichén, the signature Pre-hispanic site of Yucatán. It was impressive. My friend and I meandered among the hundreds of columns, strolled through the ballcourt and wondered at the cenote. We wandered in and out of buildings, climbed the pyramid, and admired the far-reaching view. We arrived early, just as the site was opening, and by the time we had explored for a couple of hours the tour buses from Cancún were roaring in at an increasing pace. The June heat was rising quickly and the place began to get crowded, so figuring we'd seen enough for a first visit and wanting to avoid the crush, we left.

I have yet to make a return visit. Why?

Well, as my friend Paul recently wrote, Chichén Itzá has become a victim of its own success. It has become so popular that, in order to protect the site from the hordes of tourists who daily descend upon the ancient city, officials have had to prohibit many of the activities that once enhanced the experience. You may no longer climb the pyramid, enter buildings or walk among the columns. Due to the crowds, it is no longer easy to quietly contemplate the genius of the ancient Mayan planners and architects who built this city. And running the guantlet of souvenir vendors does not add to the experience.

The other reason I haven't gotten back to Chichén Itzá is that there is a great number of other sites to visit. Ek Balam is one of many fascinating alternative archaeological sites in Yucatán. Not only does it boast structures larger than the pyramid at Chichén Itzá (according to one guide I read), you can climb right up, hang around on top and appreciate the expansive views. You can walk through ancient doorways and imagine what life here may have been like before the arrival of the Spaniards. You can bird-watch and appreciate orchids growing in the trees. And you can relax, because since the tour-bus crowds have never trampled the place the guards are mellow, few areas are roped off, and it's quiet. It's like Chichén Itzá was years ago.

I don't mean to mislead you...
Ek Balam has not been rebuilt to the extent of Chichén. It contains at least 45 structures, roads, is surrounded by stone walls, and covers 12 square kilometers, but is mostly in ruins and covered by undergrowth. Only one facade of the large pyramid is restored, but there are heiroglyphs, beautiful sculptures and other monuments. Several buildings have been rebuilt, but much of the site is still covered in trees and vegetation. You have to look more carefully. You have to walk on dusty trails. To me, this is part of the attraction.

There is also a beautiful cenote on the grounds, suitable for swimming and snorkeling. The cenote is owned by the local ejido, and you've got to pay additional fees to enter. I didn't go this time, but I am told it's worthwhile.

It is certain that under-visited treasures like Ek Balam will become more popular as time passes. As if to make the point, when I was coming down from the pyramid or "Acropolis" of Ek Balam, several van-loads of day trippers from Cancún approached with their guide, and some began to climb. One of the young women stopped short and stared up at the height of the structure. Fashionably turned out in heels, revealing tropical mini-skirt, bikini top and jewelry, she was dressed more appropriately for being "seen" at a resort poolside lunch than climbing ruins. I do believe her jaw dropped for a second as she took in the massive stairway in front of her. But she quickly returned her attention to the Blackberry in hand and while eyeing text messages, commented, "There's no elevator?"

This is the sort of package-tourist that has made Chichen Itza what it is today.

So I suppose that with tourism growing and the Yucatán state government's frequent promises of new projects to "detonate" tourism growth in the area (for reasons I can't fathom, they always say "detonate"), it is inevitable that sites like Ek Balam will receive more visitors in the future. Let's hope that as visits in the region increase, these wonderful places can be developed in sensitive ways that permit them to retain some of their innocent, underdeveloped qualities.

I guess it's a good idea to spread the visitors around, rather than have a small number of famous sites, places like Chichén Itzá, suffer most of the impact. This also would more evenly distribute the economic benefits of new jobs. 

The good news is that there are many fantastic places like Ek Balam in the Yucatán. I plan to write about more of these in future posts.

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