They call me “Gringa Yucateca”

First it was the heat.

I knew there were some adjustments to be made. I was packed like I was very poorly packed for a backpacking trip, one pack with my computer, lenses and other survival gear that I wouldn’t end up needing, another with too much clothing.

I shuffled laboriously through the lax customs in Cancún airport and bought my bus ticket. $62 pesos. The dollar sign threw me off, but I gladly shelled out the equivalent to five bucks and headed towards the bus stop.

I stepped outside the airport and felt like I was walking into a steam room.

Made my way over the the bus stop and let my bags down to rest my back. Time to switch into Spanish mode.

For those who have studied Spanish but have never tried to communicate in a Spanish-speaking country, get ready to start from scratch. There are a few reasons why your spanish class doesn’t prepare you for practical application:

  1. Like most languages, spanish is extremely regional. You’ll learn words from Castilian Spanish that will have no meaning, or a completely different meaning, in other countries.
  2. Conjugation is a whole other monster. Trying to ask a question or converse casually with a local will be stopped short when the preterite imperfect, or the dreaded subjunctive, tense rears its ugly head.
  3. No matter how good your vocabulary or conjugation may be, everyone will know you’re not a native speaker, and they’ll giggle at your accent.
  4. . People are not going to speak to you like your Spanish professor or that nice lady on the recording, and there will not be subtitles scrolling under the person’s mouth.Think of how you speak to your friends. Words are blended together, you mumble, and of course slang gets the point across more quickly. It’s the same in other languages.
My host brother, Josué, bears the Mexican summer heat so I can sit inside the truck. My host family took me on frequent drives through the Yucatán countryside and to neighboring towns.

Nevertheless, I’ve found that people get pretty excited when they find you’re attempting to speak their own language. In Cancun, there was an interesting mix between travelers and vacationers. Some had a single pack and all-purpose shoes, heading to a hostel as one of the many stops on their journey through central america. The vacationers, contrarily, with their designer rolling suitcases and fedora hats, stroll proudly through the terminal and ask their questions unabashedly in English. They are heading to Cancun’s hotel zone that looks like another ritzy beach resort in the U.S., only more expensive and a five-hour flight south.

I got off the bus after a dreamlike ride through downtown Cancún and set off to find my hostel. To my relief, it was a block away from the terminal, the light of the flourescent sign reassuringly illuminating the broken sidewalk. The lobby was air conditioned, and the man at the front desk spoke spanglish. Travelers from all over the world passed through while I was checking in for my bed.

The hostel accommodated the young crowd of international travelers, offering free shots of tequila on Wednesday nights and clubbing events throughout. There was a rooftop bar and jacuzzi overlooking the Uxmal street, from where my Australian companion and I watched the young prostitutes mingle with drivers of dingy cars.

Early morning we boarded the bus to Chichén Itzá, the mayan ruins of Yucatán. From there, we were to take a short trip into Pisté, the small town neighboring the major tourist attraction.

My traveling companion at Chichén Itzá.

Upon arriving in the town, I was struck by the simplicity and cordiality of life there.

Everyone greets everyone on the street. Business is fair and the townspeople support one another, from bread stores to children selling Huaya fruits on the street, everyone seemed able to get by.

While at lunch at a restaurant with no door or windows, a boy and girl walked by with a bag of small green fruits. I asked how much, gave ten pesos, and she fished out the best bunch for me.

If I had to conceptualize it, Huaya fruit is an interesting consistency between starchy and pulpy, with the taste like a mixture of mango, kiwi and grape.

Also on the trees for the picking were chinas, the sour version of naranjas dulces, or oranges as we know them. Limes grew on the trees as well, and as bars in the U.S. have cut back on their lime purchases, they’re a readily available staple in Mexico that are used with nearly every meal.

Chinas, or sour oranges, and the local cats guarding them.

Later my host walked me through the small town to my host family’s house, stopping every five minutes to have conversations.

We arrived at a yellowish home with a window like a store front, with a construction paper sign that read “Se vende pollo fresco todos los dias” in scrawled handwriting.

My host mother came out and invited us inside. I sat on the couch, dripping sweat, and remained there as my family members flowed in, awe-struck by the white, red-faced girl sitting on their couch, speaking mediocre spanish.

The most difficult part was telling them that I’m vegetarian. It wasn’t so much a surprised reaction followed by questions about what I eat for sustenance, but more like a concerned response; my mother had no idea what to prepare for me.

To make it simple, I told her that I eat everything besides meat. She still seemed troubled.

In Piste, away from the city, many of the citizens are responsible for preparing their own food. But wait … don’t we all prepare our own food?

What I mean to say is, most people raise their own food. My homestay mother, for example, raised chickens. Naturally, she and everyone else in the city didn’t see anything wrong with eating meat, as it’s “natural, without chemicals.” And it’s true. The meat is killed the day of— at the earliest the day before— it’s eaten.

My mother prepares chickens to be sold. In this photo, she is boiling their feet so the scaly skin can be easily removed.

The people in Piste live on a schedule; Monday and Wednesdays are pork and beans days, Tuesday and Thursday are chicken days, Friday is fish, Saturday is beef, and Sunday is the day of rest or the day of Mondongo, which (from what I heard) is a jelly-like stew made from cow intestine.

Over time my family became accustomed to my vegetarianism, and I became accustomed to being the butt of their jokes. My mom vowed that I would learn to kill a chicken and one day, eat one.

While living in another country, it’s best to blend in as much as possible. While I tried to socialize like one, I definitely didn’t look the part. I’m at least five inches above the average female height, vegetarian, and I don’t brush my hair. The people in Yucatan were tan and glowing, short, with glossy black hair that the women pulled back into tight buns to avoid the heat. When I put mine up, my mother insisted that this was the best way.

We’re taught not to talk to strangers. However, becoming apart of the community was entirely about talking to strangers, accepting rides from mere acquaintances on motorcycles (or the 13-year old cousin) or invitations into houses for meals.

My greatest experiences came from being open and willing. I hopped into a truck with my older host brother and my younger male family members piled in the back, to head to a cenote, or well. Cenotes are scattered throughout Yucatan and are believed to be connected underground. Some are accessed by descending into caves and others are dreamy swimming holes embedded in big earthen cavities.

The Maya traditionally believe that swimming in a cenote is a purifying experience. I’m not sure if it was because of the unbearable heat or if cenotes are spiritually powerful. Either way, after accumulating a film of filth on my sweat-covered body from about ten minutes of walking around the town, the swim in the well definitely felt religious.

Josué looks down into cenote Yaxuna before descending the tall ladder.

Like the cenotes, the simple lifestyle in Piste is also quite refreshing. Despite the heat the townspeople always sit outside their businesses or in the plaza, greeting everyone that walked past. One would be foolish to leave the house without expecting to have a few more-than cordial conversations with a local, and even if you didn’t feel like chatting, it would be rude to not at least salute the fruteria man leaning against the doorway, or say “Bix a bel (how are you)” the leathery women dressed in traditional Yucatecan dresses and gossiping in Maya.

After my first week there I wondered how people would be content with living so simply. Many people in North America would attest to the fact that we in the U.S. are accustomed to living fast, constantly searching for the next adrenaline rush. Here, a day without leaving the house is a waste, and a life with accomplishments that have gone unnoticed is a failure.

However, in a small rural town off the radar, there is no need to be on the radar. The joys are found in little things that are sought between work.

My cousin Gibran plays guitar in front of the family truck as the sun goes down, and my nephew Ronaldo dances.

When not lounging in hammocks and sleeping until late afternoon, my host brothers never tired of joining what seemed to be a group larger than the community itself at the cancha, or football field, every day and night. Just a stroll away from most houses in Pisté, the cancha was almost always surrounded by motorcycles, the main mode of transportation in the city. During their mini world cup, bleachers filled with people jostling the players in slang that skewed any understanding I thought I gleaned of Yucatecan Spanish.

My host mother is a woman of faith, and it brings joy to her life. She wakes before the sun to tend to her chickens, cook and clean; she doesn’t sleep until after the family members retire to their hammocks. When she is at church or surrounded by family, joy materializes in the woman’s eyes and across the creases in her face. It’s a beautiful sight.

My host mother and father were chosen to be the godparents for a friend’s child’s baptism. My mother was elated at the news, and spent a week preparing for the big day.

My host father, who has three jobs, is a musician who, despite playing music as his career, never tires of picking up the guitar or teaching. After a night of making less than he deserves in tips at the nearby hotel, he comes home, his squinted eyes peering through the bags under his lower lids, and tells stories. When he talks about the power of corn, his arms grow like stalks. He speaks slowly and deliberately as he tells stories about the creator of the Maya universe, Yum Hunab ‘Ku, his deep black eyes gleaming as his hands paint across a figurative sky.

My host father poses for a photo shoot after teaching me about the milpa, a small farm where locals grow their corn, beans, squash and chiles.

Every night, as the family sat around the table in red plastic Coca Cola chairs and talked, I listened and tried to follow the faster version of the Spanish. Their Spanish was sometimes mixed with Maya, and they usually slowed down a bit if directly addressing me. This time, instead of looking at me and cracking a joke— to which I had become accustomed as the gringa in the household— my host brother Jaime said,

“This is it, Daniela— none of us drink, none of us smoke— we don’t need any of those things. This is what we do every night.”

Jaime (left) Don Viviano (center) and a family friend play a seronade for Jaime’s wife’s birthday after a late night at work.

After he said this my host mother looked at me lovingly, and I didn’t know what to say. From that moment on, I felt so fortunate to be surrounded by an extended group of family and friends that find their joy nowhere else but right there in that simple kitchen, a palapa with no door, a firepit and a thatch roof.

For the rest of my life I will keep a piece of the Yucatán in my heart— whether it’s using tortillas for spoons, constantly searching for the perfect dimensions of a room in which to hang my hammock or using Spanish slang in lieu of English curse words. Most of all, I will continue to see the importance in fostering human relationships, whether it be an intimate conversation with family or warm acknowledgment of passersby.

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