GTO: Learning Spanish and Working Online in Guanajuato, Mexico
When one decides to travel by bus in the United States, it’s often as a last resort when all other options for travel have been exhausted. This is for good reason; the bus system in America is, at the best of times, merely functional. At its worst there are delays, smells, and the general uncomfortableness of being packed together with bunch of strangers like sardines. There is a general connotation that the bus is used mostly by the proletariat and if you have the money you should avoid such an experience and instead take a car or plane. But the American bus system is on the rise in terms of usage (up 22% since 2015), which either speaks to a reduction of this stigma or the widening income gap between the classes, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. At least in my experience of taking the bus on the East Coast of the United States, however, improvement is not the reason for this increase of popularity.
Thus, you can imagine my dread as my buddy and I planned to take a five-hour bus ride from Mexico City to the northern mountain town of Guanajuato. Since I knew bus travel to be a less than pleasant experience in the US, my expectations were that in Mexico things would probably be even worse. To my surprise, bus travel in Mexico (and for most of Latin America) is a far more comfortable venture than my American bias could have realized. According to Sebastian Gomez, founder of a Mexican travel booking site, “buses are to Latin America what airlines are to the U.S. In the U.S., for example, you don’t have the differentiation of sophistication for bus travel as you do in Mexico…[in Mexico] airlines are still behind in the amenities and convenience factors [of bus travel].” The seats were spacious, cozy, and reclinable. There was working WiFi (a rarity on U.S. buses) and TV screens where incomprehensible Mexican soaps were played. They even gave you a snack before boarding of an apple and fruit bar, as well as water. I was enthralled — -it was like traveling on a luxury airline at one-tenth the cost and when we arrived at Guanajuato I felt very much at ease and fully rested.
An UNESCO World Heritage Site (places listed by the United Nations that has special cultural or physical significance), Guanajuato itself is a stunningly beautiful, old Spanish colonial town, full of winding stone pathways and colorful architecture, nestled amidst a valley between towering dusty mountain ranges. Previously we were in Mexico City and while that city has its own type of beauty, in the end it’s just a big city; the most notable aesthetic differences between there and say, Chicago, is that the plants are more cactus-heavy and there are many more brown people. I tend to find when I travel to big cities I find them somewhat all similar. I appreciated Guanajuato’s modest size even more after being in one of the world’s largest metropolises. There aren’t many cities I’ve been to that I can easily compare it to — maybe a smaller, more elevated version of Prague — but for the most part it’s singularly unique, exquisite, and historical.
That history is both fascinating and dark. With the opening of the La Valenciana silver mine in 1774, Guanajuato became one of Mexico’s richest cities and an extremely important resource for the empire of New Spain. The amount of silver that poured out of the mine is staggering; at one point the mine was producing more than half of the world’s silver. In total, it is estimated that for the 250 years of its existence the La Valenciana mine produced 30% of the silver mined throughout the world.
That wealth was unfortunately not shared. Most of the workers and citizens of the town were oppressed and taxed mercilessly and most of the income derived from the mine went to the upper-class and the Spanish empire. Revolts soon broke out — -foreshadowing the War of Independence in 1810, an attack was carried out on the building that stored the Crown’s cut of silver production. The actual war for independence soon started after, beginning in the state of Guanajuato when an army was raised and took the nearby town of San Miguel de Allende (another World Heritage Site). The army marched on to Guanajuato and laid siege to the Spanish garrison holed up in the city’s imposing granary, the first time the rebel army had engaged Spanish troops. As there was only one entrance to the building, however, they were repelled easily by the small force there.
Then there was a breakthrough. In a moment of apparent insanity, a poor miner known by the name “El Pipila” grabbed some tar and a torch, found an enormous flat rock and tied it to his back for protection against the gunfire (!), and promptly crawled and wiggled his way to the wooden door and set it ablaze in fiery glory. The rebels took the granary and the rest of the town quickly afterwards. The event is commemorated today by a gigantic statue that serenely looks out across the rest of the city from one of the many high vantage points surrounding the valley.
It was at the footsteps of this monument where our Airbnb was located. We felt incredibly lucky for the size of our home (two stories, two bedroom, two bathroom) considering the price we paid (900 dollars a month for both of us) and the view outlooking the city we got to see every day (splendid). Eager to explore, we headed out to the town square, the Jardin de la Union, for dinner. One of the first things we noticed out there and between the streets were several performers dressed in colonial garb. The streets themselves were also very clean and tidy. The place we chose for dinner seemed vaguely European and touristy. There was an abundance of well-dressed families out and we subtly got the impression we were experiencing the Disney World of Mexico. After further research, we realized because of the history and significance of Guanajuato it is actually a very popular tourist destination for Mexicans. Perhaps we wouldn’t be seeing the real, wild Mexico here — -instead we would mostly be seeing authentic Mexican tourists visit a place of cultural and historical importance for them. At least it was a clean and safe city, and with little English being spoken and a wide variety of bars to choose from (Guanajuato also is famous for its university, and if there is a university in a city it follows there will be bars), still a worthy adventure for two clueless and thirsty gringos such as ourselves.
View from Airbnb. As a side note, the internet was incredibly fast at this place. Better than Florida!
My classes started the next day. Before I left, I had decided to take three language courses as well as a cooking class at the school, Escuela Falcon. In the little preparation I did before leaving for Mexico, I had subjected myself to an intense and grueling 20 minutes per day of study via DuoLingo on my iPad for about a month. This, apparently, was enough “studying” for me to be slightly more competent than the other two students — a nurse from Japan and a young American — in my first class (grammar). I suppose I have to give some kudos to the developers of that app, as I did not have too much difficulty understanding or answering the questions asked of us by our teacher. Her name was Giovanna and at 26 years old, dark and lithe, I kept getting distracted by her elegance. What a strange environment, I thought, where the students can be older than their teachers but the teacher has to talk to the students essentially like they are infants — -yet regardless of this, the sophomoric student/teacher fantasy is still alive and well.
My next class was vocabulary and communication, again with the same two students. I felt I did well in this class as well. This was unfamiliar territory for me. My only other experience learning a language was two years studying Italian in college and then a summer abroad in Southern Italy, in Calabria. I remembered struggling mightily with that language and really did not enjoy learning it. To this day I barely know any Italian words, despite my time spent studying the language — -although to my chagrin when speaking Spanish I would occasionally add an embarrassing Italian twang and accent to some of the words. That was almost eight years ago, though. Maybe time and some maturation on my part was all I needed to appreciate and absorb a new language. I guess I was too young and stupid at the time to really take in Italian; I resolved I wouldn’t make the same mistake with Spanish.
The last class of the day I had before lunch and cooking class was pronunciation and comprehension. Here I was really challenged and for the first time that day I felt like the culturally undereducated gringo that I am/was. The Spanish alphabet sounds way different than the English one and also includes extra consonants like “rr”, which can be incredibly difficult to articulate as a foreigner. Even the shared letters were sometimes confusing. For example “g” is pronounced “geh” with a hard “g” — kind of like the sound a cat makes when coughing up a hairball — instead of the English “gee.” It was so hard to make sense of a letter or sound you’ve pronounced one way your entire life, only to be told for this language it’s actually entirely different. Making your brain let go of this distinction takes tons of practice; it took about a month for me to really change my pronunciation and have the words come out somewhat naturally without having to consciously think about them, and even then I still fucked it up a good percentage of the time.
Sadly for my sake, this is one of the most important parts of speaking Spanish: there are many words that are written the same but have totally different meanings based on how you say them. For example, in Mexican Spanish at least, mama with an accent means mother but if you said mama without that hard accent over the last “a” it would mean “he/she/it sucks” — -and graphically enough, usually in a sexual way, not like the American slang of meaning to be bad at something. I can only imagine the confusion and tension that might have been caused in this potential scenario of trying to say “mother” but actually saying something way more offensive. Households must have been destroyed for centuries over the matter.
I ended the day with cooking class. The cook, Isadora, didn’t really instruct us much in terms of how to construct meals, teach us Mexican recipes, or use cooking instruments. She did, however, cook insanely delicious and authentic Mexican meals that we were able to enjoy after about an hour of cooking. By “cooking” on our part, though, I mean the other students and I were sometimes allowed to help cut an onion or flip a tortilla here and there. Apparently we were not to be trusted to prepare items that required more proficiency than that. Regardless, the food was so amazing and Isa was such a fun cook I ended up taking this class almost every week, as my stomach was completely healed from Mexico City at this point.
Food from class
After classes I would go home and study and then play online poker for several hours with Buddy before and after dinner, usually tacos or some other Mexican favorite for actual pennies on the dollar. Thus, the first week and following ones went on in a similar fashion: do well in grammar and vocabulary classes, get befuddled by pronunciation, eat tacos, and play poker. Over the weekend we decided to check out the bar scene. Speaking of pennies on the dollar, check out the size of these beers:
More street views
That liquid monstrosity cost a paltry two dollars — about a fourth of what a Pabst Blue Ribbon would cost in Brooklyn — and this was good beer as well, not fermented urine like PBR. Needless to say, I got very drunk this night. We were at a cool 3-story hangout called “Golem” when I recognized some students from the school I was studying at come in, including the Japanese girl in my class. She brought over two or three more Japanese students (there were always at least three or more different Japanese students at my school at any given time and never any from China or Korea; it still is an unexplained mystery to me as to why) and we all started playing some drinking games, which continued to add to my growing inebriation.
Eventually our table kept filling up with more and more people from my school — students, staff, teachers: there was no discrimination — and more and more drinks were being thrown around. Evidently we stumbled upon a going away party for one of the managerial front office members and everyone was heading to a club afterwards. In general I find my tolerance for clubs limited. I can go and have fun occasionally, but for the most part keep myself from going to only a few times each year. In other words, I was glad I was already drunk and because of that fact followed the group to the club enthusiastically.
The club was eerily devoid of life for the first hour or so after we arrived, since 11pm is, of course, much too early for Mexicans to come out and really party. We continued to mingle and socialize amongst the same group over the relentlessly loud and obnoxious techno dance music that was inanely being blared. After a bit of this I saw my grammar teacher, Giovanna, sitting by herself off in a corner. In act of uncharacteristic bravery aided by the absorption of several massive Central American beers, I decided to go talk to her despite the dual problems of differing languages and the overwhelming din of electronic bass. I honestly don’t recall much of what was said, either because we couldn’t understand each other, because of the music, or because I just drank too much and can’t remember, but by the end of the night I was dancing (people were there by now) and making out with her lustfully. It was in this unrefined and sloppy manner we began seeing each other for my entire time there. I was smitten at that moment how very ridiculous my life had become.
The next couple of weeks were a happy blur of learning Spanish, playing poker, messing around with Gio, parties with new and interesting friends, and cheap tacos and beer. Additionally, there is some great hiking near Guanajuato that lead to some marvelous views of the city and surrounding areas. At one point we traveled to the adjacent city of Leon because they had a casino there and we got to play some poker against some real-life companeros. People actually dressed like cowboys there. The stakes were low but the gamble was real and I won a good amount of pesos. Upon looking back I realized those first three weeks or so of being in Central Mexico were some of the most fun I’ve had in my life. We had originally only planned to be there for a month, but decided to extend our stay for an extra two weeks.
Mexican buddies, aka “companeros”
See if you can spot the rock climbers
In retrospect, this probably turned out to be a mistake, as poker started to become a thorn in my side. It would be an understatement to say things went poorly; the next week was some of worst luck I’ve ever encountered during my poker career. When this happens I do admittedly sometimes get depressed and frustrated. It shouldn’t be this way because it’s obviously inevitable, but this was especially the case in Guanajuato because I was working very hard on my game and studying almost every day, and it seemed so unfair to me that I should lose lots of money to less motivated players when I was putting in so much effort to improve. The problem was I was too attached and fantasized too much about becoming one of the best online players in the world and my identity was too wrapped up in poker. Even if I am capable of such a goal, it doesn’t matter: variance and luck is still a huge part of the game and no matter how good you are, you’re bound to lose at some point. It’s how you come back is what’s important, not about how much money you make. It’s how you manage the upsetting parts of life that define your character and this time I realized I failed.
Initially, I did not deal with this reality well. Amidst his own hellish downswing (poker term for when you lose for an extended time), Buddy and I took to going out and drowning away our miseries in alcohol at an increasingly higher frequency and our drinking became more binge-like. I actually fell asleep in some random dance club one night I was so drunk. The hangovers and the poker-related depression affected my motivation for school and I missed classes. When I finally became aware of how much poker was destroying my psyche, I decided to quit playing for my remaining time there and things improved for me emotionally after that.
Throughout all of this, a constant source of happiness was Gio. As it became easier and easier to understand what we were saying to each other (her English was better than my Spanish, but we went back and forth between both languages) we slowly but eventually got to know each other better. I found the whole process of seeing someone who speaks a different primary language than me sort of difficult but constantly engaging, in a good way. In order to have substantial conversations, you always had to be focused and attuned to the other person because you simply needed to be. I felt that kind of detailed attention to someone else rewarding. In online dating, for example, you can basically get a sense of a person and their worldview in 5 minutes of reading their profile and don’t have to think beyond what they’ve written. Here, the progress of understanding what we were both about was positively glacial but in the end more gratifying. It was a joy and welcome surprise for me whenever we discovered we shared similarities in our personalities and philosophical views on life.
The language and cultural differences also led to many hilarious moments, often unintentionally. One time she was trying to describe how short she is in relation to my height (at six foot four, I’m basically a goliath amongst innumerable little Davids in Mexico) and told me she was a “darf.” I got even more confused as she then tried to define the word by saying “it’s a mythical bean.” It took me forever to understand, but eventually I got she was trying to say “mythical being” and the word was “dwarf.” This made me chuckle endlessly and after this incident I kept calling her “darf” as a pet name with — probably for her — a very annoying regularity.
Near the end of my trip, I took her out to the movies on Valentine’s Day, sneaking a bottle of wine in my backpack to celebrate. This was yet another preposterous experience. First of all, almost every Mexican there had overflowing bags of popcorn covered not only in butter and salt, but with about a gallon of hot sauce as well. As you can imagine, this led to a breathtakingly pungent smell in the theatres. I thought I had chosen a movie that was in English with Spanish subtitles, but it turned out I was mistaken and it was actually dubbed in Spanish. Gio had to translate what was going on for me in the movie, but instead of whispering this to me she barely lowered her voice at all and merely talked to me at a normal volume whenever she felt I needed to know something important. Conscious of the rules American movie theatres enforced about unwanted clamor during the movies, I became worried and flustered at the beginning and urged her to be a bit quieter. Then I realized almost everyone in the theatre was talking over the movie. Apparently this is a longstanding Mexican tradition and more endearing evidence that showed me yet again with how little seriousness Mexicans take the judgments of other people.
When it was time to leave Mexico and head to my next destination, Guatemala, I realized I didn’t totally want to go. I was ready to reset my brain for poker and travel and traverse the globe like I had planned, sure, but I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the connections and friendships I made there, especially with Gio. My affection for her snuck up on me during the last week or so of being there and I wasn’t prepared for or expected an emotion like that to arise. I felt a sense of confliction: what was I really travelling for, anyway? Was I just trying to escape Trump and the embarrassing greed and ignorance of my home country and find something else, some culture more suited to me other than America? I liked the people and community of Guanajuato and I felt some genuine happiness there; isn’t the whole point of life to find a place where you can find that kind of contentment?
I had prepared myself to see as much of the world as possible for the next four years to learn and explore and enjoy life, but it had only been two months and I was already faltering and falling for Mexico. With these lingering thoughts flickering in the forefront of my mind, it was with a heavy heart I turned my back on Guanajuato and boarded my flight to Guatemala City. The persistent questions of community, love, and meaning would have to wait until I had some firmer answers to solve that riddle; for now, I still felt the itch to see what the rest of the world had to offer.