Ma’alob K’iin!

03 Sep 2011 11:14 pm

Hello all,

After a long silence, I am back to find that most of the links on my front page are down and there have been a whole lot of spammers leaving junk mail in the comments of my older posts. It didn’t occur to me that spammers would be interested in blogs until I saw (and deleted) the multitude of ads about everything from free movie downloads to penis pumps. Feeling like it’s 1997 when spamming was still cool, I apologize to all my G-Rated readers who averted their eyes in my absence. And for all my readers, I’ll see what I can do about getting my photo albums and guestbook back in working order.

Now for an update… Since I have a lot to catch up on, I’ll start from the beginning of what will be a year long anthropology journey into the world of Yucatan. Over the coming week, I’ll do my best to continue catching you up to current day, though I’ll be juggling fieldwork, transcription and fieldnotes in the meantime. My goal is to get all the retrospection out there so I can get back to what I like best: writing about curiosities and delights of everyday life in my current surroundings. But for now, I begin with an update of the Mayan program. Hold on tight, because it’s a bumpy ride.

I officially moved out of our house in Florida on June 12th, when I flew to North Carolina to start the Maya Summer Language Program at the University of North Carolina.  I received a Foreign Language and Area Studies grant to cover the costs of the program and most of my travel expenses (Thank you UF Latin American Studies Program!). The program ran for a total of six weeks. The first three weeks we spent at UNC-Chapel Hill, then relocated to Valladolid, which is a lovely little cultural town in the southwest of Yucatan state. In North Carolina, I was lucky enough to lodge with my good friend Gypsy’s parents and their amazing neighbor Richard, who just happen to live about five minutes’ walk from the building where we had our classes. Gypsy had left her car with her mom while she was in Greece doing some summer fieldwork, so I even had a car most of the time I was there! Unfortunately, Gypsy and I didn’t realize I could borrow the car until the course really got underway.  Let me explain.

They don’t call it a six week “intensive” summer course for nothing. We six beginner Maya students were in class from 9am to 4pm everyday with a one hour lunch break. Each day, we had two professors who had very different teaching styles and often didn’t know how much homework the other was giving. The first week of the course, I didn’t have Gypsy’s car. Even though I had to take the bus to do my grocery shopping (a three hour ordeal), I still found time to relax and catch up with Joost on the phone. That was the first week.  By the second week, the work had really started to pile up at the same time that the work load itself had increased.

To give you an idea of how quickly time went by, we had a mid-term exam on the 7th day of class, or in the middle of week two. Of course, this wasn’t the actual “mid-term,”  but the middle of the first half of the class.  So it was the middle of our time in North Carolina and thus the mid-term exam of the two professors that would be teaching us in North Carolina, since they wouldn’t be joining us in Yucatan. It all went downhill from there. That Saturday we had a workshop, which nixed one of our free days. Then the next week, which was our last week in North Carolina, we had two tests and two projects. Originally I think they had four projects planned, but then realized how ludicrous that was and decided to “put off” two projects for the teachers in Mexico to do. They never did…

There were many times during the first half of the class that I was overtaken by a very strange and distantly familiar feeling. Around 2 or 3pm everyday, my brain would begin to scramble the messages that were coming in. At first it was just confusing, but when the messages didn’t stop, it started to ache. It wasn’t a painful ache, it was just uncomfortable. The feeling that accompanies utter brain exhaustion is hard to describe, so I came up with an analogy that I think most parents and anyone who remembers being a kid can appreciate. Think of a three-year-old that is hungry. Because she is still so young, she hasn’t yet learned that the pain associated with hunger is not life threatening or scary. In fact, it’s a very normal type of pain to which the remedy is easy, accessible, quick and often enjoyable. But to a three-year-old that is just learning the messages of the human body, the discomfort is indefinite, which IS scary. So what does she do? She complains. And what does she do if no one listens? She internalizes the discomfort. And then what? Well, mom and dad, she throws herself on the floor and cries, the tears streaming, face reddened and pride hurt because she’s uncomfortable and there is absolutely nothing she can do about it because she doesn’t know how. THAT’s what I felt like at 2 or 3pm everyday. I had to resist the temptation to throw myself on the classroom floor and cry at the fact that my brain couldn’t take in any more and I was helpless in doing anything about this unfamiliar discomfort. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I was the only one trying to cope with this discomfort and, for a group of advanced students like ourselves, the fact that this discomfort was associated with brain saturation was just too surprising and much to handle most days.

We made it through… physically.  It makes sense that when you spend that much time with people under so much stress and confusion, you get sick of them. So while we made it through physically, I can’t say the same about the social life of the group. And, if the reactions were intense in North Carolina, you can imagine what happened when we went to Mexico and were immersed in a different culture, a different language and a new setting. While the work load relaxed and there was a pool where the hottest tempered individuals could cool themselves, the social relations continued to deteriorate and everyone, from the professors to the teaching assistants to the students felt the effects. It was quite a difficult environment to learn in.

Two strokes of luck kept my feet on the ground. The first was that the Intermediate Mayan class was already in Valladolid when we arrived. I roomed with a lovely Mississippi gal named Maggie who brought light to an otherwise dark time. She introduced me to her classmates and we all got along swimmingly. We spent many a night at a little restaurant/bar down the street that had delicious tacos and fantastical drinks that tickled your five senses. How so, you ask? Memo, the bartender, worked in Cancun for a few months while one of his cousins was out sick. This man is a natural born bartender who quickly soaked up the thrill of Cancun and transported it back to his hometown of Valladolid. There were only a few drinks on his menu that could just be drunk normally. The other 90% required you to use a sense other than taste. The submarine, a true party drink, required you to listen, as the click of the tequila glass inside the beer glass signalled for you to pass the glass to the person on your left. The moped (they called it the muppet because, well, they sound the same to a Spanish speaker) is a concoction of beverages in a shot glass that, when banged on the table, erupts like a magical volcano. Memo handles the glass and makes sure it makes it to your mouth as you’re simultaneously preoccupied with being the center of attention AND trying to calm that big-eyed look of surprise at the overflowing glass. I don’t know about everyone else but, given how silly and cartoonish the whole situation felt, I thought Muppet was a much more appropriate name than Moped. Then there was the Ticket to Ride. This involved a very strong mixture of liquors, one of which was set aflame, and the shaking of your head as you try to swallow it all.  You really must see it to believe how ridiculous the whole thing is, but when someone bought me a Ticket to Fly, I firmly told Memo not to shake my head, thanks. I’ll leave the habanero martini, and its dreaded after effects, to your (wildest) imagination…

So that group and that place was lucky stroke number one. The second lucky stroke was that my advisor’s summer abroad course was in Yucatan the same time as the Mayan program.  It’s a six week anthropology course, mostly for undergrads, that is based in Merida during the week and travels all around Yucatan during the weekends. If you’ve been keeping track of me recently, you’ll remember that I was the graduate assistant to this program in the summers of 2008 and 2010. This year, my friend Carmen was the graduate coordinator and our other friend, June, was conducting preliminary fieldwork in Merida at the same time.

During my second weekend in Yucatan, we had a Friday off from the Mayan course. I’m still not sure what the occasion was, but I grabbed the bus by the horns and bought my ticket out of Valladolid for the weekend. I arrived to the bust station at about 8pm and, to my disappointment, the bus didn’t leave until 830 or so. I found myself sitting there, watching the red numbers on the digital clock above the bathroom tick by so slowly. Since Carmen was living in the place I had lived in Summer 2010 and was hanging out with Carlos and Alberto and all the other friends I had grown to love that summer, I felt like I was going home. The feeling of sickness at the inert numbers on the clock was made all the worse by the combined feeling of escape. I needed a break from the Mayan course. I needed someone to prick the pressure bubble I had been living in for the last five weeks so I could deflate. Finally the minute arrived and they called my bus. A military looking guy that was waiting for a bust to Tulum sternly insisted that he load my bag into the bus. I said thank you and the bus left.

I spent an absolutely wonderful weekend catching up with Carmen, June, Carlos Alberto and everyone that works on the summer program. It was like seeing my long lost friends… and just in time. We went to dance at the cumbia club, where I have the nicest memories of spending time with Carlos, Alberto and Joost. We drank the milk from giant coconuts as we walked down the beach and chatted about our summers. We summited two Mayan pyramids and saw flamingos, then I fell asleep in a hammock. It was fabulous. It was relaxing. It was exactly what I needed and everything I loved about Yucatan all rolled into one weekend. I went back to Valladolid refreshed and ready to fight the last week of the battle with calm and poise. The last week was far worse than I could have ever expected thanks to the greatest display of immaturity I have seen in my adult life, but that’s a story for another time and place.

So how is my Mayan? It sucks, to be quite honest. I did the best I could and am thankful for what I learned. At the end of the Mayan program, I got on a bus to Merida and only said good bye to one person. I said it in English, if that’s any indication…

To end and otherwise sad story with a happy note, there is another developing episode to my Mayan language study. You’ll read about my mom’s visit to Yucatan in another post, but while she was here, we went shopping with Carlos at the weekly art fair in downtown Merida. We dropped by the Casa de Artesanias (Artesan House? That sounds less glamorous in English) and Carlos saw a sign advertising Mayan language classes. After my mom left the following week, I went to check it out. Just like when finding my PhD topic last summer, I was sent round and round to different offices chasing down what turned out to be an outdated advertisement. BUT, in my quest, I walked into INDEMAYA, which is a state government funded office dedicated to the preservation and education of Mayan culture. The uncharacteristically stand-offish security guard at the front gate sent me to a professor named Felipe who informed me that classes wouldn’t start up again until the end of September. Because the classes are government subsidized, they cost around 5 dollars for about 10 weeks of classes, which covers the costs of materials. There is a beginner class on Tuesday evenings and an intermediate class on Wednesdays. Felipe said I could come to both, since one focuses on vocabulary and the other on grammar.

Felipe perked up when I mentioned that I was interested in his courses because I had attended the Univ of North Carolina Maya program.  I assured him it wasn’t worth getting excited over, but he told me that he was planning to apply for the UNC Master’s program in linguistics to formalize his knowledge of Maya and other indigenous languages.  He was interested in finding an English language partner to help him study for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), which is required as part of his application.

What luck! All week I had been thinking how great it would be to have a Maya-English language exchange. I doubted I’d ever find someone who would be patient enough and have the language training to be able to exchange with such a difficult language as Mayan. Through my experience in the UNC program, I found that there are a lot of people who speak the language but, because it isn’t taught in schools here, native speakers usually don’t know how to explain how it works. They’re very good at correcting errors, but for a beginner that is still learning the mechanics of the language, I can’t even really talk yet. So, despite my doubts about finding such a person, he was sitting right in front of me.  This isn’t the first time that dedication and serendipity have worked in my favor in Yucatan.

To update this update, Felipe and I met up last week to discuss our plan of action. We decided that, until Mayan classes start up in a few weeks, we’ll meet twice a week. I’ll be studying a sort of textbook that I bought from one of the UNC teachers (which Felipe happens to know backward and forward) and Felipe will be studying a TOEFL book that I downloaded from the Univ of Florida library. We’ll study at home as much as time permits, then we’ll discuss our difficulties and practice speaking during our meetings. It will be challenging to find the time to study at home, but I am motivated to overcome the insecurities I learned from the UNC program.  Keep your fingers crossed for me.

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