by Maggie Gleason

I had been in San Cristobal de las Casas before. It’s a town with rectangular channels of short, rainbow colored buildings and cobble stone streets located in the shallow valley of a mountain range in southern Mexico. Almost six years to the current date, I was there. I had visited this place with a close friend, who had lived and traveled extensively throughout Mexico after college, picking her way across the country’s vast natural diversities and rich history. I had felt so lucky to have had the opportunity to journey with her to this land. I thought of her as the ultimate travel expert, as she was fluent in Spanish and knowledgeable of locals only transportation options, like riding a small, rickety bus to a near by town, filled with chickens, children and amused locals, that thoroughly enjoyed placing the live chickens on the white girls’ laps. She traveled with trust and an energetic connection to her surroundings. She led me to small, delicious food vendors, life enhancing live music and colorful, intricate markets filled with bright, hand stitched textiles, beaded jewelry and kind, talented artisans. Always present, encouraging and directing your attention to the next sensory experience. And knowing the additional touches that were needed to propel you into a more well rounded experience was a speciality. Knowing that a guided boat tour along the Sumidero Canyon could be slightly enhanced with a cold beer bought off a floating snack bar, knowing that climbing to the very top of a hidden waterfall in the jungle, even though you were scared of slipping, falling, breaking an ankle or your head, could change your perspective of the surrounding nature, of where you were. And knowing that the purchasing of a pair of earrings from a local artist would be remembered more vividly paired with a conversation you have with them about the procedure of their work. These were some examples. Small nuances of life magnified and integrated to increase your pleasure. It seemed that rich life experiences were always right at her finger tips, magically appearing with a quick notice, turn of the corner and a smile. I longed to travel with this same type of peace and oneness with a place. That energy. I had even given up a job opportunity to go on that trip to Mexico with my friend, as my soul ever so subtly told me that someday, this trip would have more significant meaning in my life than my brand new  career, as the ink on my Master’s degree was still wet with newness. And now, I was back there with my partner, who I loved, trying to fulfill my dream of being the new age Indiana Jones, the ultimate world explorer, with my hat and whip positioned just so. Calm, steady, observant, inquisitive, present. Ready to conquer and to prove myself to myself. Can I be the unique, travel shifting person that I envisioned in my mind’s eye?

Even though I strived in my unconscious dreams to be a world explorer, to see it all, there was a mystic about Mexico that made me want to explore this country first. As a young child, I had an innate fascination with the country, that encompassed the food, music, textiles and the language. Something in my soul was drawn to it, felt immediately connected to it. And so my interest began with a restaurant. My parents used to take me to a place called “Marita’s Cantina”, a small, Mexican themed restaurant in the suburb of Philadelphia. The exterior of the building was white, plain, with dark, stormy windows that inhibited your ability to see inside. I think my parents avoided trying it for many years, for fear it was some basement like dive bar filled with clouds of smoke. But upon entering, I felt transported. The swirled, plaster walls were painted colors of warm rose and saffron, which fell upon the large squares of terra-cotta tiles on the floors. I used to pretend the tiles were a hopscotch board, drawn out of chalk. And as I jumped and skipped across the cold floor, I made sure to not touch any part of the cracks as we waited for our table.  My eyes were always drawn to the colorful paper flags that criss crossed along the ceiling, with detailed cut outs representing all the colors of the rainbow. I wished for my room to be covered in those flags, giving me to keep a small piece of this atmosphere. Salsa and chips were exciting. My heavily chili spiced french fries an amazement of culinary expertise. Sometimes a Mariachi band would play in the restaurant. Five men with large guitars and trumpets, studded suits and booming voices would wander around to the different tables, and serenade the patrons, as they sipped their frozen margaritas with salt. Due to my fear of being noticed that had already taken hold of me at the young age of 4, I never wanted them to come over to our table. I would hide my face, and immediately start to feel overwhelmed, like, “Ugh, people are looking at me”. However, I found the sound of the music so intriguing, the high pitched, quick, yet soothing notes. I enjoyed it, but felt strange in front of my parents doing so, never really knowing if it was ok to enjoy something so much that was so foreign.

Another childhood fascination with Mexico came in the form of a dress. My favorite dress. I had been gifted a short, white, hand crocheted dress from a family friend, a hippie hand me down from the 70s. I was told it was a Mexican wedding dress, and it was my most prized possession. I wore it every chance I could, begging my mom to let me wear it everyday, sometimes to bed. And even in situations where wearing white could be problematic, I would strongly insist. “I have to wear it!” This stubborn stance would always then result in a freak out about any tiny drop of dirt that settled into the fabric, which then needed to be hand scrubbed just right. My ultimate goal was to keep it pristine forever. One time at the creek, I was wearing my Mexican wedding dress, and as I was climbing up the slippery rocks back onto the gravel path, I fell and skinned my knee, a large, wide scrape that was dripping bright red blood down my leg. I remember crying not because I was dramatic, or because of the pain. I cried because if I got one drop of blood on my white, crocheted dress, it would be a tragedy. I hiked my dress up to my neck, and ran to the car, demanding that we immediately go home and for my dad to drive fast, so I could save my irreplaceable garment. I remember the day when I discovered I had out grown it. I was no longer a 4 year old girl, but a 9 year old, and my mom tried to explain to me that it was inappropriate to wear a dress where the hem line was at the same level as your underwear. And, as I was not yet as fashion savvy as I am now, knowing that all that dress needed to morph into a top was a perfectly good pair of legging, I had to let it go. Giving up that dress, knowing that it could no longer be mine, was a sad day. There was something in my soul that wanted to cling to that dress forever. I wanted to wear it until the crochet split and frayed off of my body. In fact, it had already started to by the time I painfully placed it in the good will pile. This tiny imprint of a desire from a piece of clothing. Instead of wanting to wear jeans and a Minnie Mouse t-shirt, I wanted more. More crochet, more texture, more evidence that I was more than a sheltered suburbanite.

And the different language, something that was both loved and feared simultaneously, was my next exploration many adult years later. I had started taking Spanish lessons 3 months prior to leaving for my self guided tour to Mexico, and I was finding that communication was a struggle. The vocabulary, the grammar, the word order, that I understood. As long as I was completing a structured lesson, where everything was predictable, I felt OK, semi-confident. I mean, in reality, I felt like a 4 year old learning to read their first book by themselves, but still, I was trying. I was doing it. However, toss a spontaneous question into the barrage of wordplay, and I became frozen with the lose of all words and functioning. It also did not help watching my teacher’s facial expressions, staring at me with concern and disbelief that I person’s brain could melt out their ear so fast. Surely, this would all go away when I actually entered the country, right? It had to.

Especially because it had been a life long dream of mine to speak another language, to be bilingual, even trilingual. As a child, I became so perplexed when I heard other languages spoken. Like, how could people know what each other were saying? I used to try and make up my own languages, creating nonsense words, and assigning them different meanings in my head. I would then try to use these words in conversation, but obviously the adults around me wouldn’t know what I was talking about, and would quickly try to divert my attention to something else, as they surely worried that I was insane and hearing voices. Oh how I wish my parents would have put me in a child based language class, since it was not offered at my elementary school. And when I got to high school, the first opportunity where a foreign language was offered, I was encouraged to take Italian. I planned to continue learning it through college, fulfilling my soul dream of becoming a rich, cultured person, who could speak another language. However, that dream swiftly died during college, when I attended my first higher level Italian class, only to realize that I could not understand a single word. My teacher spoke, and my heart stopped. I was unable to form one single sentence or understand one short, simple question. I quickly dropped that class, as the whole hour was filled with body numbing panic. And so, 12 years later, I began my slow pilgrimage towards a skill that had been an intense obstacle for me.

Now, Paul and I had been in Mexico for almost two weeks. To prepare for the language barrier and my inability to think, I had tried to anticipate every situation, sentence or question that I would need to utter. I brought with me my Spanish dictionary, all of my notes and worksheets. I studied on the plane. I studied in the cab. On the bus. On the beach. But I was finding the hope of my super natural ability to easily communicate with the local people quickly disintegrating. During all verbal interactions thus far on the trip, instead of genuinely listening to the person I was talking to, I would immediately panic, struggling to pick up a word or two. All learned information would leave me, my brain paralyzed, unable to locate a single Spanish word to respond. And also, everyone seemed to talk so fast! I could not separate one word from another. Each Spanish response formed one long, compounded word. I was not prepared for that. Good thing that Paul is a lot calmer than me. He, of course, easily adapted and could decipher meaning through the context clues of the situation, and translate the general message to me, even though he was not the one who devoted loads of time and effort to learning this language. “The man said they are cleaning the room, and we should come back in two hours.” Oh….OK. Why didn’t I assume that? During social interactions, my head was usually in my hands, leaning on whatever table or counter was in front of me in total overwhelm. My eyes always wide and glazed over. Plus, it didn’t help that even in English, in my everyday reality, when someone spoke very fast or mumbled, and I couldn’t understand them, I would panic as well. Or my mind would immediately go to self-consciousness, as in they must be talking about me, or trying to deceive me in some way. This was never the reality, but being able to communicate and having knowledge of exactly what was going on in a situation gave me control and steadiness, in a world that I always considered out to get me. Unpredictability was never appreciated.

We arrived at the bus station in San Cristobal in the morning, after spending the night in transit. After we retrieved our backpacks, we walked toward the line of waiting cabs. It was still early, but the edges of the city were already bustling with activity. Cars, trucks and bicycles filled the streets. Vendors were selling hot coffee and tamales for breakfast, surrounded by a cloud of gasoline fumes and spices. We got into a cab, and I told the driver the name of our hotel. As we began driving, he started to point out various city monuments and relay the history about each one; a church here, a statue there, the mountains in the near distance. And as much as I longed to ingest all of the information about where we were, to learn facts about the culture, to really help my spirit to absorb into this place, my mind could not process the Spanish language. Nor was there room in my brain for anything but the constant grasp towards a second of comprehension. I could not relax. I kept cycling through a series of negative statements, based in the depths of my total overwhelm. “What did he say? That sounded like one giant word. This is hopeless. What am I doing here?” I slumped back in my seat, needing to zone out. I’m not a traveler. I’m not one with the world. I am a wanna-be. A wanna-be adventurer, who has no business being anywhere but the same small dot on the map where she has always existed… Then, the cab driver spoke again. He told me that the hotel was not located on a street that he could drive on. And without any extended processing time, panic or grasping for words that were quickly evaporating, I responded, “Está bien. Podemos caminar.” “It’s ok. We can walk”, I said. Such a simple sentence. Such a simple message, yet it meant everything. A warm wave of pride flooded within me. Wow, I just did it. I just communicated with someone in Spanish, in real time, in a real way, and it felt normal. Had my brain just played a trick on me, or had a portal in my brain just pushed itself into finally opening? In that moment, I felt powerful, like I had muscles that moved a large boulder out of my path. I had experienced many other moments of joy on that trip, but this one, surrounding my brief integration into a foreign language was incredibly satisfying. A step on the confidence ladder was climbed during that 30 second encounter.

Now, this does not mean that I was suddenly tapped by a magical being, and became a fluent Spanish speaker in that moment. During the rest of the trip, I continued to struggle to communicate quite frequently. In fact, during our last day in Mexico City, we were approached by two people, who asked us for directions in Spanish. My first thought was, “Why are they asking me?’ My second thought was that I couldn’t believe I looked like I knew where things were in one of the largest cities in the world. Did I look like I belonged? However, my internal emotion was total panic, and I uttered, “I didn’t understand”, using only English. The couple looked at me blankly, then caught each other’s eye and snickered. “You should try to learn Spanish”, one of them remarked as they quickly walked away. I was stunned at the insult, and as the words quickly pierced through my body,  I started bawling. Walking and crying, like I had been split in two, because I was trying! The whole trip, I had not once allowed my frustrated internal dialogue out into the open. I had kept all of my feelings of mild embarrassment to myself, and tried to only celebrate the small communication victories out loud. I had realized that this was a totally normal learning curve, but I still needed an emotional release, as I was exhausted.

Even English, my native language, can overwhelm me, as there are many instances, while speaking english, where I have no idea what a person means. Maybe they mumbled or used a word that I didn’t know. Maybe I didn’t hear them correctly or misunderstood them. These kinds of communication breakdowns fill me with such anxiety, for the ability to communicate is such a necessary comfort for me. In order to feel safe, you must always be able to read a situation accurately, right? Otherwise, you might never know what someone could be plotting in your moments of confusion, right? To say I have unwarranted trust issues would be an understatement. However, this is really how much language means to me. This is about the magic of understanding words that, as a young child, seemed to be the dialogue in a make-believe story. This is how much exploring new countries and cultures means to me, as my fascinations as a child most definitely have been giving me hints as an adult. It is important to me to no longer let the weight of my adult life stand in my way, like a boulder that is sinking into the mud on my path. Because in reality, currently, I am still that little girl in the white crocheted dress, exploring the creek while eating tacos on a terra cotta floor, dreaming of how to explore new lands to finally become understood.

About the Author:

Maggie Gleason is a Speech-Language Pathologist with over 10 years of experience, and I live and work in Philadelphia, PA.