Oberlin Blogs

Mi Viaje Maravilloso en Guadalajara - Part 1

February 3, 2024

Evan Hamilton ’26

Mi Viaje Maravilloso en Guadalajara - Part 1

My Winter Term this year was a sensational, life-changing experience. Since my freshman year of high school, I’ve studied Spanish with the hope of becoming fluent in the language. Although I still wouldn’t say I’ve reached that point, my past month spent in Guadalajara, Mexico, certainly brought me a great deal closer to my aspiration. 

Alongside being an excursion filled with exquisite cuisine, blossoming friendships, and wondrous sightseeing, this trip allowed me to soak up new skills en español like I never had before. I stayed with a local host family and, alongside fourteen other Oberlin students, took intensive Spanish language classes at IMAC (usually pronounced “ee-mahk”), the Instituto Mexico-Americano de Cultura (the Mexican-American Cultural Institute). On the weekends, the students and institute staff, alongside our lovely accompanying Oberlin Spanish professors Sebastiaan and Kim Faber, went on excursions to the beautiful surrounding areas of Guadalajara. The trip was so rich with learning and excitement that it’s hard to know how to describe it best (but I’ll be attempting to do so, starting below).

My Flight and Arrival

I flew into Guadalajara on January 2nd. My practice with Spanish began even before I’d made it to Mexico. As I boarded my connecting flight, the announcements were given in both Spanish and English, and I ended up having a conversation in Spanish with a man sitting next to me. 

I had to work up my courage to talk to him, but I generally speak to those sitting next to me in airplanes and figured I should start practicing my Spanish then. Luckily, the man I spoke to ended up being very kind about my still developing skills in the language. It turned out he worked in the US and sent money back to his family in a rural part of Mexico, but still hadn’t mastered his English. I figure his ongoing language-learning process had to help him be understanding of mine. 

This wouldn’t be my first experience with a native speaker being patient as I practiced. I would soon find that the city of Guadalajara was filled with kind people who were more than accepting of my grammatical mistakes. In fact, by the end of my trip, I felt that the kindness of a stranger on the Guadalajaran streets rather exceeded what I’d expect back in the US.

I arrived at the Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport around 1 pm (local time). I steeled myself as I exited the plane to “be an adult,” as I sometimes say. Sure it’s one thing for me to converse with my professors (something I enjoy and do plenty), but it’s another to be on your own in a crowded airport. And, of course, I had to prepare myself for everything to be in Spanish. Needless to say, I had butterflies in my stomach. But I was on a determined mission to succeed. 

I struggled briefly filling out the customs form in Spanish (before being directed to an English version just to my right-- what can I say? I was DEFINITELY just trying to practice). Once I made it through customs, however, I was efficient in finding the right taxi company and showing them the proper voucher to be taken to my host family’s residence. I followed the taxi driver out of the airport at a brisk pace. And later found out I’d walked past the waving Spanish professor from Oberlin there to meet me. I felt bad about that, but at least I didn’t run into any further problems. 

Once in the taxi, I spoke briefly with my driver (practicing just a bit more Spanish). I then turned my eyes out the window and watched a foreign city unfold before me as would a child fascinated by a picture book. Granted, I was a child who’d seen a picture book before. This wasn’t my first time away from the US.

The summer after my senior year of high school, I traveled throughout Europe with a choral group from across my home state of Oregon. I was enthralled by the foreign cities we saw there, even when we were viewing them from the tour bus window. And I felt much the same sort of excitement as I observed Guadalajara for the first time.

Every detail was a marker of the culture of the city. Even down to the graffiti on the freeway walls. This, in fact, was one of the first things I noticed that made me smile. Besides the fact that the billboards were in Spanish, I noticed, as we drove into the city, that the graffiti I saw wasn’t just curse words. Much of it was bright, cheerful art of cartoon characters I recognized. I can’t say for certain if this mostly had to do with the route my taxi took, but seeing graffiti that was primarily positive and friendly gave me a good feeling as I entered an unknown place, like everything would be all right.

My Host Family and Living Situation

I think I should preface this section by saying that I’m not the best with directions and intuitively getting around a city. That doesn’t mean I’m not capable of being assertive and resourceful, and fixing a problem if I’ve caused it by being in the wrong spot. But you’ll probably notice that in the coming section, I stray from where I need to be a few times despite my good intentions.

I was dropped off at the right address for my host family’s apartment, but I still ended up on the wrong side of the complex courtyard. I was at the #8 that stood opposite of where I needed to be. I texted my host mom that I was outside her door. She opened her door and didn’t see me, and I was still waiting. Eventually, she called my name across the courtyard, saying (in English), “Evan? This is my house,” and gesturing to where she was so I figured it out. It was then a bit awkward as I descended the stairs to the balcony on one side of the courtyard, and climbed them on the other, all while carrying my bags.

My host mom welcomed me once I made it over and showed me inside. The interior space was one of those where you feel you might break something if you move too fast. But it was beautiful too. It was filled with antiques. The walls were lined with ornate cabinets, and the cabinets were filled with fine dishware. Paintings and other artistic draperies hung where cabinets weren’t. It was a marvelous way the entry room was, as I felt immersed in Mexican culture just by being in the space. 

I got my own little room in the back of the apartment with a bed, dresser, and small desk. I also had an attached bathroom all to myself. The tiling in the bathroom was light blue, and the blanket I first saw on my bed was blue and gold. And blue, as anyone who knows me can attest, is unequivocally my favorite color. I immediately smiled, seeing my accommodations, and thought, “This is perfect.”

I gave my host mom a gift from my home after I’d set my things down: Chocolate-covered hazelnuts (which Oregon is known for) and a “rain globe” depicting the city of Portland, since there it almost always rains and almost never snows. She seemed delighted to have both. 

A picture of a plastic container of chocolate-covered hazelnuts with milk, cherry, marionberry, and dark, flavored compartments, and a label in the center reading "Pacific Hazelnut Farms Premium Hazelnuts," and featuring an image of Oregon's beautiful and famous Multnomah falls.

A picture of a handheld plastic dome with a model of the prominent buildings from Portland, Oregon inside with the words written on the base: Surprise! It's Raining In Portland

As I had explained what the gifts were to her, I spoke to her directly in Spanish and stumbled as I attempted to use the formal version of direct address that Spanish speakers employ. As my host mom was an older woman, I figured it would be most respectful to speak that way. She was quick, however, to correct me. She’d introduced herself with her full name in our Whatsapp chat before but now instructed me to use a nickname and to refer to her with the informal “tú” form of direct address instead of the formal “usted” one. For me, this gesture alone made our relationship more comfortable and friendly from the start.

Besides her being a welcoming hostess and kind lady, I would discover about my host mom that night that she was an excellent cook. Below is a picture of that first night's dinner I enjoyed.

A plate on a table with a fork beside it, covered in appetizing noodles, meat, and avocado slices.

I would be grateful all trip long to continue having the excellent, home-cooked, authentic Mexican food my host mom would make me. I mean, how much better can the eating away experience get than that?

That first night, my host mom and I discussed lots of things about her family there and mine back in the States. I also ended up telling her about what I studied at university and my future dream of being a fantasy author.

She took a look at me after we’d been conversing for a while and seemed to decide she’d tell me about myself. That is, she told me I spoke Spanish well for my amount of practice, and I was well-educated, kind, gentle-mannered, and academic in nature. I felt complimented and said thank you (all of that being in Spanish). She responded by telling me she used her eyes and that she could always tell things about a person by being observant. I still can’t say for certain if her pride in this skill was a cultural thing, but my understanding was that it was just who she was. Several other times during my trip, she told me the things she had noticed about someone in a situation. Once, she guessed what region of Latin America a boy sitting across from us was from. Upon him revealing his country of origin, she spoke to me in a satisfied tone, saying she’d been right. It was a charming part of her personality, those observations. They weren’t judgmental as far as I could tell, but rather just were. She simply took pride in her constant observation and intuition. And as a writer, I especially was able to understand some of her affinity for that.

As I kept talking to my host mom that first night, we stumbled upon a crazy coincidence: I had gotten the same host family as my roommate from last year. He, too, had gone on the Guadalajara trip, in fact being part of my inspiration to do so. That we were placed with the exact same family would seem, at first glance, an unthinkable coincidence. But on the other hand, when were placed together as first-year roommates, we were matched based on our living preferences (and we ended up getting along well). For the Guadalajara trip, students were matched with families based on their preferences too. Both of us seemed to want a quiet, studious living space, and my host family provided just that. So perhaps my former roommate and I getting the same family was a product of thoughtful placement rather than just coincidence. But it still made for a funny discussion between us back in Oberlin.

The morning after my arrival, I was introduced to the second member of my host family, my host mom’s son Jonathan (pronounced “yon-uh-tin”), who lived with us in the apartment as well. He guided us from our apartment to the bus stop that first morning. I was nervous about using the bus system, as I seldom take public transport, even in English. Jonathan gave me clear instructions about what to do relating to the bus and how to count the streets as I drew closer to where I’d need to get off. The part where my poor skills with directions came in was when I started counting streets too early on my first bus ride to school alone. I became convinced I’d passed the school (IMAC) and got off when I was still about a thirty-minute walk away. I had to call an Uber as a result to get to school on time, but at least I practiced calling one and found out just how cheap an Uber ride in Mexico is relative to one in the States.

It would take me a few tries with my bus route and a tip from a fellow student I sometimes ended up on the bus with to figure out where to get off. In the end, though, I got it down to a science just when I needed to pay attention before reaching my destination (at a big blue sign reading “mundo de jueguetes” =”world of toys”), when I needed to get up from my seat, and when I needed to press the button to be let off. I went through a similar learning process to get down my bus route home, before mastering that too. I gradually became accustomed to all the parts of getting from the school to my host family’s apartment and living with them in Guadalajara. Another thing I struggled with at first was finding my way to the laundromat off the directions my host gave me in Spanish, but in a way that made it all the more satisfying when I could make it home with my laundry cleaned.

All in all, I came to really enjoy staying with my host family during my trip. Both my host mom and older host brother were kind and even deigned to slow down their pace of speech so we could converse. And I should say again how much I loved and will always remember their delicious food.

The day before I left Mexico, I gave my host mom yet another gift as we parted ways. This time I gave her a box of macaroons from the delectable bakery next to our school. She thanked me and, before I left, let me know that in Guadalajara, her house would always be my house (mi casa). I was overjoyed to have been there and to be welcome to come back.

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