I was afraid of returning to Progreso for fear that we would merely have a repeat experience of last year, God forbid. Not to say that last year was bad. It wasn’t. On the contrary, I really loved Progreso, but I just don’t want to be bored or puss out when grander travel experiences beckon. Needless to say, on our trip this year to this little city in the Yucatan, I’ve been surprised by many things.
We haven’t done anything exciting yet. We haven’t visited ruins, or gotten on the bus to go to Merida. We have seen no “sights” per se. We haven’t concocted any far flung plans to get in a car and drive to Mexico City although this could still happen. Rather, we’ve walked around. Taken a few Spanish classes and crossed paths with some people we met last year and some new people who have seamlessly become a part of our daily lives.
I didn’t expect to be recognized when we showed up here this year. Last year, we integrated into a little dance school and a Spanish school called the Centro de Idiomas. Our plan was to get ourselves situated in a vacation rental and then go see the people we’d gotten to know last year and remind them who we are. But the vacation rentals went awry. We had two places lined up and went to see both of them on the Monday of our arrival. One property manager insisted on cash for the rental and we smelled something fishy in the whole deal. The other property owner quoted us a rate that was 1 ½ times higher than what was advertised online and then failed to show up to show us the propery. So as night fell, we decided to go see Iracema and Marta and ask them if they knew of someone with a rental property available.
Almost immediately, Marta recognized Lydian and me when we walked into the Centro de Idiomas school. She was even overwhelmed with students and I was wearing glasses and sporting a different hair color. She went and got Iracema who also recognized me. John was in the car still trying to find a vacation rental. In the end, Marta rented us a house that she was trying to sell.
What’s striking though is that even the cleaning lady from the apartment we rented last year remembered us. And she was friendly to us. The lavanderia (laundry) lady remembered us and several other people that we interacted with only briefly a few times (like “Felix”, the fellow who sold us some hamacas at a little shop on the malecon). It’s almost as though we never left. At home, there are people who see us several times a week at the grocery store who glaze over when we say hello. And people who see us jogging on the street everyday who don’t wave and wouldn’t recognize us if we saw them face to face at a public function. I don’t think I’m imagining things. I know we aren’t that memorable. Something about the way people think about each other is different here in Mexico and at least right now, I’ve enjoyed that.
Last year we helped out with a little Christmas party thrown by “Jim”, an expatriate. The party last year included just a meal for some of the poor families in the city. This year however, there was also a play with the turkey dinner. Lydian was called upon to act out a leading role in the play because the girl who was supposed to play the part was going out of town. Lydian had to be the devil and wear a really dorky hat with horns. John almost played Joseph and briefly donned a gown, sash, and head-covering similar to what Vince Vahn wore in Four Christmases. Then, the young pre-pubescent Joseph finally showed up. Instead, John ended up taking plates of food from the buffet to the table for little Yucatecan kids, a role that fit him perfectly.
I washed about ten dishes. The English-speaking expat supernumeraries in attendance made it difficult to find work. There was much competition over things like setting up chairs and handing out rolls. Tasks that kept a healthy separation between the rich white expats and the poor Yucatecans were highly prized. I tried to stay away from that buzz. One shriveld up old guy in a cut-off t-shirt brought a twelve pack of beer into the kitchen and then proceeded to flirt with another man’s wife. Another guy stood too close when he talked to me. The whole time he was speaking, I just kept thinking, what’s wrong with him? One old fart told me that setting up chairs was “man’s work”. I told him I could hold my own.
I finally gave up on charitable efforts and worked on my Spanish-speaking skills with David (pronounced Dah-veed) and Reuben instead. My Spanish climaxed tonight. I hit a new high. I spoke with Reuben about paganism and by concentrating very carefully, I caught little whiffs of a conversation about terrorism in Spain between Reuben and David. I struggle to hear what people are saying to me more than anything, but once I got going, I started to understand without thinking about each word so much. I went to sleep speaking Spanish and woke up the next morning nearly bereft of either English or Spanish-speaking skills. The progress of learning this language is slow and irregular. It waxes and wanes and I have little control over it. I’ll speak without hesistating in Spanish one day and the next I won’t remember how to say “good morning”.
Jim, the leader and organizer of the dinner, seems to fade into the background. He’s more of a do-er and less of a talker and he doesn’t speak Spanish at all. As a result, he doesn’t ever take center stage because most of the other expatriates here are competing for the attention. But Jim puts together things that benefit both the English and the Spanish-speakers here.
David is an excellent communicator. He works for the school as an English-teacher and he has the kind of personality that makes one comfortable with trying new things and making mistakes. Reuben, in contrast is from Spain. His accent makes him more difficult for me to understand and he uses different words than Mexicans do to designate basic things. But Reuben is friendly and he’s become a friend since we’ve arrived.
Most of the evening’s conversations were conducted in Spanish. Lydian became friends with a girl named “Sophia” who was patient and attentive. John and I conversed with a variety of Spanish-speaking folks…in Spanish. Last year, we weren’t really able to have conversations. Still, our efforts are still really rough, but with the right person and enough patience, we’re able to get our thoughts across and understand what they’re saying too.
To me, this is a magical breakthrough.
Many times throughout the night I thought to myself, “I can’t do this much longer.” My concentration would lapse momentarily as Reuben or David were throwing words back and forth speaking and I wouldn’t be able to understand the entire paragraph they had spoken to me. I had to admit that I missed many of the details of what they were saying, but the basic message made sense and they both accepted that. Sometimes, I would understand what they were saying and a little voice in my head would say, Wow…you’re doing it! And in that moment, the whole meaning of what they were saying would be lost under the sound of my own inner dialogue in English. I was at least able to tell them that I understood what they were saying, “mas o menos” rather than just laughing and smiling when everyone else did.
We didn’t arrive home until 10:00 PM, full of stories about our experiences. When I told Lydian in the morning that I dreamed about speaking Spanish all night she said she even caught herself sitting upright in bed, half-awake, half-asleep, conversing with invisible Spanish-speakers.
So instead of tourist activities, this year, the trip has been more community-oriented, which is more fun, in my opinion. Our social circle at home is what drives my interest in the mundane landscape of Nebraska as well. I couldn’t live there without the people that we have around us. Iracema and Marta have created an interesting hub of community relationships through the Centro de Idiomas in Progreso that makes me willing to consider coming back here again and again.