Travel as cultural immersion


Guanajuato on the street where Diego Rivera once lived (sketch by ann oxrieder)

When my roommate and I graduated from college, we worked for a year to save for a four-month European tour. We planned to hitchhike to every capital, sleep in youth hostels, and have adventures along the way. We ran out of money and came home early.

These days, my husband and I travel differently, as in, planning ahead, knowing where we’re going to stay, and being assured that we can always access cash machines. And, unlike college days, we never have to skip a meal.

Somewhere between these two travel styles is one we focused on in the 1990’s, where we traveled to Central Mexico four years in a row, stayed for a month, studied Spanish in schools dedicated to language study, and lived with Mexican families. We took side trips on weekends with classmates and the school’s director and met in teachers’ homes for social activities.

This week, my husband found my sketchbook/diary from one of the summers we spent in Mexico, and memories came flooding back.

Our first school was in the mountain city of San Miguel de Allende (6,284 ft.), which has since become an American and Canadian retirement haven. (Good luck getting any chance to practice Spanish there now.) Before we went, I read a memoir by an American woman who lived for a time in San Miguel. She stayed in what she said was a particularly rough part of town called San Antonio, characterized by raw sewage in the streets, sick children everywhere, and other dangers. Imagine our horror when we received a letter from the language school telling us we would be living with two sisters — Blanca and Alicia — in San Antonio.  We found out later that San Antonio was a charming middle class neighborhood, and that the sisters were equally anxious about our arrival. They had never hosted students before and their fears ranged from getting an American teenager who would smoke marijuana in their upstairs guest room, to hosting retirees who would be unable to manage the stairs, and injure themselves in a fall, requiring the sisters to nurse them back to health.

As things turned out we had nothing to fear and we all had a great time. Within a week or so they were piling tiny chiles in the middle of the table to accessorize the main meal of the day, sharing their tequila shots before we ate, and spilling the town gossip.

For at least two years after that, we went to school in Guanajuato, another mountain city (6,585 ft.) as yet undiscovered by retirees, home to a university and a place where few shopkeepers spoke English. Our first day there we got lost and a Good Samaritan drove us straight to the police station, where the officer sent us on a long walk up a steep hill to nowhere.

In Guanajuato, we lived with Marilu and her two sons.  She had never planned to host students, but agreed to as a favor to the school’s director.  Even during the years when we stopped going to school we stayed with her.  We call each other “hermana” — sister — and are now Facebook friends. We had many adventures in Guanajuato, including an interview with a reporter for the town paper, followed by a slight misalignment of our photo above the headline, “Drug Dealers Captured,” when the article was published.

When it comes to travel, spending time in one place, studying the language, sharing a home of one of the local residents, and immersing yourself in the culture, is ideal. We were in our late forties the last time we visited Mexico. Would we return for the same kind of experience at our age? Yes.

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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5 Responses to Travel as cultural immersion

  1. Nancy Clark says:

    You are very creative and accomplished; way more than I would have ever known until I started reading your blogs. Keep up the great work. I have also visited these places and loved them all, especially Guanajoto and Oaxaca. Your sketches are stunning too!!! Nancy Clark

  2. Martha says:

    You should publish more of your sketches. Lovely.

  3. Lovely account of a wonderful holiday! I once spent several weeks in a charming village called Barra di Navidad and had a memorable time. Since that was during the 1980s, I often wonder how much it has changed.

  4. Kathy Pendras says:

    What beautiful memories and sketches.

  5. Darlene says:

    Your immersion trips sounded so ideal–so many of my loves . . . Mexican people, Mexican food, Spanish language, Diego Rivera, and sketching and painting. Fabulous–well written as always, Ann, and now we get to enjoy your watercolor talent!! Bravo!

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