Wednesday, May 11, 2011

#28: Return Voyage

It's been a week and a half since I left Merida and returned home to the States.  I haven't updated in a long time due to finals, projects and presentations, making my graduation arrangements while abroad and a weeklong trip to the Mexican state of Chiapas with my classmates.  Now that I'm back, I figured I had to admit the truth (that I'm no longer in Mexico!) and give a final entry.

I really wish I could have had time to give a day-by-day update of every single thing I saw while living abroad.  I want everyone to see the streets I walked to class, taste the different flavors of the foods I tried, breathe in the humid smell of the Mayan jungle that I slept in.  But traveling to another country is really just an experience that you have to get for yourself.

I know this sounds far-fetched, but taking such a big leap really stretches your personal limits.  You learn about yourself and your own culture because of the direct comparison to another.  One of the best things I've gained is a more open approach to life.  Sometimes the most rewarding experiences come disguised as mundane activities if you give them a chance.  While you'll find the same sorts of people you knew before wherever you go, don't make assumptions about anyone.  Above all, make every day fun.  I'm very glad to say that I spent every moment of my time in Mexico to the fullest.  My only regret is not having more time to see the things I missed--but there are repeat visits for that.

So what's next? Good question.  I'll be graduating on the 22nd and then I'll be spending a few months at home before I take the next step.  I've already promised my host family that I'll return next year to visit, but I haven't picked a date as of yet.  Of course, I have my eyes peeled for another opportunity to travel again.  When that happens, maybe I'll reopen the blog and jot a few notes about the journey.

The good news is that with all my newfound spare time, I've uploaded all of my pictures from Mexico (8 albums!) onto facebook and they're available for public viewing.

Album 1 starts in early February:  my first glimpses of Merida and the Hotel Caribe; the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum; and a little of Puerto Morelos (from our weeklong trip around the peninsula).

Album 2 finishes the peninsula trip with the ruins at Ek Balam, our visit to a Mayan school in Sisbixen, and an introduction to my homestay, neighborhood and family (like my host nephew's birthday party).  There's also pictures from our first time out at clubs, a walking tour of the Paseo de Montejo, and my "cultural comparison" visit to McDonald's.

Album 3 has a field trip to some cenotes, Mexican Carnaval, and the ruins at Dzibilchaltun.

Album 4 has pictures of my English students, another trip to ruins, a visit to a wildlife reserve in the jungle, and my other host nephew's first communion.

Album 5 has a bunch of great pictures of Progreso, the beach town next door--both my homestay's beach house and when i went to a taping of the Mexican Today show (Programa Hoy).  I went on a field trip to the zoo with my English students, the Mayan students came to visit us in Merida, and I have some pictures from the research project I did on the city's historical archives (including some of the oldest books in the Yucatan!).

Album 6 starts our journey towards the state of Chiapas--camping and hiking in the jungle, the ruins at Palenque and visiting a museum.

Album 7 continues photos of the jungle, along with the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, horseback riding to San Juan Chamula and a boat ride through Cañon del Sumidero to the Amikuu ecopark.

Finally, Album 8 finishes up the pictures in Amikuu, spending the night and a day in Campeche City and highlights our final dinner together in Merida with our professors the night before we returned stateside.

If you like the idea of reading blogs and want some fresh new voices, let me give a few recommendations:

--Martha, aka Centre Chic, has a fabulous makeup blog where she gives tips, discusses products and tries out the hottest new looks.  I've learned a lot and I don't even wear makeup that often.

--Becca has an inspirational blog up and running that is all about eating disorder recovery and awareness. Not only is it very touching because of its openness about a very personal issue, but the take-home messages are uplifting in any situation.

--Marc has two blogs:  first, an academic and personal approach to his home region of Appalachia and current issues in that area.  (He'll be studying the region this fall in his graduate studies.)  There's also his movie blog, where he reviews and discusses the finer points of American cinema.

--Stephanie has her Life After Centre blog, chronicling her time abroad in London and her plans after graduation.  (She also makes mention about her beloved corgis as well.)

--Soc professor Beau Weston has a very interesting blog about life, family, religion and modern society.  Out of all of the mentioned bloggers, he is definitely the most prolific, with entries dating back to 2005.

--Rounding out the "Centre spotlight" is Mindy's cooking blog.  Her selections come from around the country and around the world so there are tons to choose from!

--My namesake Ashley also has a cooking blog, but she also includes musings on life in grad school.  You can find her at the aptly named A Recipe for Sanity.

--Last but not least, Leah's studying in Germany this semester and has some awesome pictures and posts here at her Tumblr blog.

Those 9 blogs also have lists of recommendations, so even though I'm not posting anymore, there's tons of other great topics to read and comment on.  I'd like to thank all of you that kept up with my travels and hope to hear of your own!

Friday, March 25, 2011

#27: Behind the Scenes--Culture Notes in Mexico

One topic I enjoy exploring in this blog is the idea of culture.  Culture can be defined three ways: 1) "the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc."; 2) "the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group", or 3) "the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another".  (Thanks!)

But really, culture is about a group of people's way of life.  It's in how we dress, talk, act, think, eat, and live.  Regions have different culture from nations from countries from continents.  Obviously, American culture has pervaded the globe.  As people in general, we tend to be most comfortable in situations that mimic our own culture and ideals, so Americans in particular enjoy traveling to other destinations for something "new" and "interesting" while maintaining a little piece of something comfortable and safe.  This is something that I've been working on a lot while living abroad.  My goal isn't to merge 100% into another culture, but to become a part of it and let it become a part of me as well.  Living in Mexico has been a good place to start.

I. Language
Obviously, people in Mexico speak Spanish.  But did you realize that there are dozens of indigenous languages (the ones spoken by the native people, or "Indians" if that's easier for you, before the Europeans knew the world was round) in this country alone?  And of those dozens, there are HUNDREDS of dialects--phrases and sounds and ideas that vary in a language from place to place.  To relate:  Someone from Texas speaks differently than someone from New York.  Not only in accent (the sound of the voice), but also in the words and phrases the person uses.  Like how some people call it a "buggy", or a "basket", or a "shopping cart"--that's dialect.  Same thing, different terms.

Mexican dialect is different from, say, Argentinian dialect.  There are vocab words that I learned in Spanish classes that are not very popular here, or mean different things.  So along with learning the language, I've picked up a dialect of people from this region.  I say "Que padre!" when I find something cool...  but other Spanish speakers may not.  And back to the indigenous languages:  In our area, many people speak or understand Maya.  I've learned a few words as well, which make for helpful slang in this region.  There are also lots of Americanized words in Spanish, like "befe", which comes from BFF=best friend forever.  

II. Race, Ethnicity, & Cultural "Preferences"
Living in another country for a while gives you a COMPLETELY different understanding of race and ethnicity.  Although I can't exactly say that America is a post-racial society--race is still a VERY divisive and sometimes controversial topic--we have it a lot better than a lot of other cultures.  It's not even about direct discrimination, in fact.  I have never been treated unfairly or disrespectfully for being black in a Latinamerican culture... but it is about preference.  If you look at an ad on Mexican TV, the actors look like they come out of Central Casting in Hollywood.  The woman will be fair with light eyes and light, preferably blonde hair, size 6 clothes at the most, and about 5'6.  The man will be nearly 6ft tall, slightly darker hair and maybe eyes, with a muscular, "masculine" physique.  They don't look Mexican AT ALL.  

...However, please be aware that not all Mexicans have brown or olive skin, dark hair and eyes, and answer to Juan or Maria.  My host mom, for instance, has brown hair and fair skin, and one of my host sisters is blonde (mostly bottle but some natural highlights).  I've seen Mexican kids with blue or green eyes, blonde, brown or auburn hair, and very fair skin to very dark skin.  Ethnicity here is more complex because of centuries of intermarriage between people of European and indigenous descent.  Most people will tell you their heritage is "mestizo", or mixed, because of these factors.  Of course, there are some people who are almost 100% of European heritage, and others who are almost or definitely 100% indigenous.  

What I'm trying to get at is that in American culture, we feel that the people on TV look like us.  There are fat people, skinny people, blacks, whites, latinos, asians, gays, straights, women, and men (some groups in higher proportions than others).  In Mexican culture, most of the people on TV look like white Americans.  Why?  Because American culture sells.  The same way overweight people are subconsciously attracted to slender people selling diet supplements on TV, Mexicans are subconsciously attracted to more "American" looking people selling an "American" lifestyle on TV.  In fact, most of the world is.  Right now, there are kids all over the world clamoring for toys and clothes that they saw Chris Miller from Ohio wearing in an ad.  

Flip the script:  Let's say a culture that we are exposed to a lot, but are inherently different from, dominated the globe.  Let's pick eastern Asia--China, Japan, Korea.  We use a lot of their electronics, clothes, furniture, whatever in everyday life.  Let's pretend China was the dominant world culture, and when you flipped to channel 6, there was a little Asian princess with almond eyes, straight dark hair, and golden skin telling your kids to buy Froot Loops.  Most of the mannequins in the stores you shopped at were of different body shapes and proportions than you actually saw around you.  The values you grew up with and wanted to instill in your children was being labeled "old school" and more Chinese values and ideas were seen as "progressive".  You go to Thanksgiving dinner, and next to the turkey and mashed potatoes, someone brought a pan of shrimp lo mein and everybody's digging in (with only a few pecks at your casserole, of course).  

It feels odd to be on the other side of the coin, right?  The privilege we have as Americans to be able to find a McDonalds and a cold Coca-Cola no matter where we go (whether you like them or not!) is not available to most, if any, cultures we share this world with (replacing McD's and Coke with two familiar items of their own culture).  

Alright, back to the outline:

III. Social Status
Americans believe in a more fluid idea of social status--that anyone from any background can live the American Dream *cue sparkling lights* with some hard work, moral fiber and dedication.  A perfect example of this was John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Company (now known as Exxon), and considered to be the richest man in human history (with adjustments for inflation and contemporary cost of living).   He grew up poor and worked odd jobs until he eventually owned one of the largest empires this country's ever seen.  

But in Mexico, it's not that easy.  This goes back to race & ethnicity.  You are pretty much born into your place on the social ladder and it's really, REALLY hard to go up from there.  Part of it came from the European idea that your social status was a birthright, part of it was from the destruction of indigenous culture, making the native people economically dependent on people of European heritage to survive, and part of it is because it's really freaking hard to "be your own man" in Mexico.

Example:  In America, people start businesses every day.  Even little kids run a lemonade stand in the summer.  If you do your homework, there are grants and tax breaks to businesses to help them get started on the way to the American Dream.  If you don't like your job, leave it!  With time, patience and sometimes supplemental training, you can leave an old career path and start a new one.  

In Mexico, that does not happen.  Period.  The end.  Why?  Oh geez.  First, monopolies:  America has laws preventing one company from owning everything in that sector.  If not, Microsoft PCs would be the only computers anyone could buy, and they could declare any price they wanted because there was no competition to drive down costs for the consumer.  In Mexico, most of the monopolies are owned by the government.  Rent a car in Mexico and go buy some gas.  The ONLY gas station in this town is Pemex. Know who owns Pemex?  The feds.  Let's say you found some oil on your property and want to start a gas station in Mexico.  How do you do it?  Trick question, you can't!  The Mexican government will claim eminent domain (because you own the rights to the property but it's in Mexico's borders, therefore it's Mexican property!), use the oil in a Pemex refinery, and if you're lucky, give you a job as a gas station manager.  There are some small businesses here--bakeries, corner stores, boutiques, whatever--but they don't survive for long because either they get squeezed out by corporations, or they have to sell to the same corporations to feed their families--pretty much the same thing.  Oh, and those giant corporations are usually American- or European-owned, which goes right back into Point II from earlier.

Let's say you're a fortunate middle-class Mexican from a hardworking family.  You hate your job and want to start over.  Oh wait, you can't.  In Mexico, you pick a major in high school and knock the pre-req's and "general education requirements" out of the way early.  When you start college/technical school at 16-17, you're ready to start your career at 18-20... and you keep that career for the rest of your life.  Just like in our American economy, jobs are really hard to come by... and if you're lucky enough to have gone to a "preparatorio" (high school) that got you ready for college or vocational training, you don't forfeit that over something silly like job dissatisfaction.  If you want your kid to be a doctor or lawyer, good luck, because there are aptitude tests to determine if your little snowflake is smart enough to make it through those professions--if not, they help them fast track into a different career.  And of course, that's assuming that you even have the money to help your kids get into the dream school that will get them into the pre-med program at college.  The idea of student loan debt is absurd to Mexicans because parents help finance most of the student's education (although most young people work as well).  

But what if your parents weren't able to get you into a nice school with job opportunities?  Some kids have to drop out as early as the third grade (nine years old, y'all...  nine).  They help their families with farmwork, raising animals, or selling goods, services and handcrafts in big cities.  Young men with strong abilities take on backbreaking work in unskilled labor, while others secure a factory job if possible.  Young women try to find jobs as nannies or live-in housekeepers for wealthier families.  And if neither of those pan out, you just try to sell things.  In the centro, there are hundreds of people on the sidewalks selling fruits, flowers, newspapers, candy and gum, cigarettes... anything to turn a buck.  Many of these people are illiterate, and others don't speak that much Spanish because they come from indigenous families that speak Maya or another Indian language--they would have learned Spanish in school, if they were able to attend.  They spend their entire lives struggling, not to get out of poverty, but just to stay alive in it.  I found out from my host mom that the average Mexican factory worker makes about 50 pesos for a 10-hour workday.  $5 USD a day to do labor for 10 hours (don't even think about a union, workman's comp, sick or maternity leave, overtime, or vacation pay)... seven days a week.  That adds up to $35 a week, $140 a month, and $1680 A YEAR.... and I'm assuming a low conversion rate of 10 pesos to $1 (some days it's more like 12 to a dollar).  They actually make less than that.  What your neighbor spends on a specialty latte at Starbucks every day is what a grown man brings home to his family--with pride, because that little bit of change is the difference between living in a shack and living at all.

IV. Family
Congrats, you just made it through the longest, and some of the most depressing, things you will ever read in this blog.  Despite the huge financial and educational gaps between poor- and middle-class people in Mexico, they all have one big thing in common:  family values.

I mentioned in my Barcelona entries that the idea of family is essential to Latino and Hispanic life.  Middle- and upper-class families tend to have less children than poorer families (ironic because the people who can afford to raise a bunch of kids can also afford contraceptive methods).  In a traditional Latin family, much like ours, the mom stays home while the dad works... but much like our families, it's increasingly popular for both parents to work outside the home.  (As of yet, I have never heard of a Latin dad opting to stay home with the kids while the wife works--it's possible, but not very probable.)  

My host family has a "secretaria", or housekeeper, to do a lot of the chores, and her son (who is our houseboy, but we don't really have a title for him) also does odd jobs here.  My host mom is a homemaker, and one of her daughters is too, but her other daughter works full time.  Every day, we all have lunch and usually dinner together.  (Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Latin countries.)  In the evenings, both of the married daughters and grandkids (and sometimes the husbands) come over for at least an hour to socialize with everyone, before going home to dinner at their own homes.  My host mom's mother, Abuelita, also lives with us.  My host brother is 33 and lives at home too, because traditionally you don't move out of your parents' house unless you have a steady job and/or are married.  In Carlos's case, he works lots of long hours, so it's not financially feasible for him to have a house or apartment of his own if he's hardly ever there.  Mama and Papa each have a personal vehicle, which Carlos uses at will--he hasn't had to buy a car because his job usually picks him up with a work shuttle most days.  My oldest host sister Karla has a car that she often leaves here because she has a company truck (and on days when she uses her car, she parks the truck here).  In a sense, the vehicles are more of a family investment--if you have somewhere to be and a set of keys, you're free to leave as long as the proper owner of the car doesn't have a previous obligation.

My house here is pretty much the center of activity for the family, if you can't tell.  My host dad's twin sister lives 5 blocks away on the same street, and as the matriarch of her family unit, her kids and grandkids congregate there.  Karla and Gabi (my youngest host sister) dont live more than a half hour away (due to traffic, mostly), still here in town.  All of Mama and Papa's relatives live in Merida, and are pretty much a phone call or an invite away.  In traditional Latin culture, there is more emphasis placed on the oldest adults rather than the youngest kids, but more progressive families are already changing that.  

While our kids get huge family turnouts for dance recitals and soccer games, cultural milestones get the most attention here.  My host nephew Tavi had his first communion last weekend, and 200 extended relatives and friends showed up for the private mass and fiesta afterwards.  His little sister Ana Gabriela was also baptized at the same time.  Along with religious rites of passage, most Latina girls have a quinceanera, or quince for short.  Think of the same way we put emphasis on the idea of "sweet sixteen" parties in the states, but at age 15... and merge it with a debutante ball.  A good quince will be announced in a couple local papers, have 100-300 people in attendance (and yes, there are some with attendance of 500 and up), and is pretty much the most important event in a young girl's life before her wedding.  My first week living here, I was looking at a portrait of Karla in a giant white gown with a radiant smile and an elegant hairstyle.  "Is that Karla's wedding portrait?" I asked.  "Nope, that's from her quince," my host dad beamed with pride.  If you have the honor of going to a Mexican quince, take notes--you can use the ideas for your nuptials someday.

And speaking of family--the front door's been opening and closing a lot, so it looks like everyone's over for evening chat time.  It's not expected of me to be in attendance, but I prefer it because it's really nice to be part of something so dynamic!  This entry should be long enough to satisfy you until my next web appearance... it's spring break for me, but I've been busy writing papers, doing research for my 35pg term paper and my independent seminar project and taking care of graduation stuff while abroad.  Sad to think that I'm over halfway through with my time here in Merida!!  But on the bright side, I'll be leaving before the hot weather comes.  Who would have ever thought I'd step outside into 92* weather and think "Geez, glad it's not summer yet"?  But that's life in Mexico for you!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

#26: Reasons NOT to Visit Mexico

It has been a while, hasn't it readership?  As much as I love to blog, I simply do not have enough hours in the day--2, 2-hr classes every day for 4 days a week, homework and research after class, bus rides back and forth... and that's just Monday-Thursday!  I've gone to Carnaval (Mexican Mardi Gras), toured some more ruins, explored the city in my spare time, tried a bunch of trendy restaurants and clubs, and now I've committed myself to teaching English every Saturday morning.  And yes mom, I'm getting no less than 7 hours of sleep a night =]

But my mind is always two steps ahead...  what ideas can i share for the blog? What pictures would my readership enjoy seeing? I decided to listen to my friends and family to see what they wanted to know... and the common idea is safety.  What's the crime rate? Are there police and other civil services? Do I feel safe here?

Yes, yes, and yes.  Just like any other major--or even minor--city in the world, Merida has its good and not-so-good neighborhoods.  As long as you're aware of your surroundings and don't engage in risky behaviors, I am 100% confident in saying that Merida is just as safe as my suburb in the States.  I have no qualms about walking in my neighborhood at midnight to meet a taxi with a friend or head out to a club.  But, as my dad always says... "If something doesn't feel right, don't do it."  If I don't like the situation, I don't second-guess myself.  That alone keeps me safe and street-smart.

I know a lot of people wanted to know more about the "real" Mexico, so I have compiled a list of things you should know before you come.

Reasons NOT to Visit Mexico

Don't come to Mexico if: don't like sunshine.  Mexico pretty much invented sunshine.  If you're looking for dreary weather, giant snowdrifts, and freezing temperatures, you need to head in the opposite direction.  Yesterday (March 10th) we had a random thunderstorm which brought temperatures down to a brisk 60* or so, but it's usually in the 80s all day and maybe in the 70s with nice breezes at night. No jackets needed!'re a homebody.  There is ALWAYS something to do in Merida.  If you're looking for touristy, there's tons, and if you're looking for local, there's tons more.  Great shopping--both cheap and pricey/American, movies, theaters, clubs, bars, karaoke, restaurants, beaches, museums, art galleries, cultural festivals, concerts, ruins, bus tours, volunteering, fishing, snorkeling, sports games (including ice hockey!), dance lessons, fitness seminars...  I have been here a month and while I have attended every available opportunity I've known about, there are at least 5 more that I missed or was interested in at the same time.'re not very sociable.  Latin people are famous for their outgoing group dynamics.  No matter where you go, someone's always laughing or talking or even singing!  I think the quietest place in Merida, after the library, is the bus... and only because people are drained after a hard day's work.  The people here aren't afraid of a little snuggle time, either.  It's very common to see couples of all ages holding hands, kissing in public, or getting close on a park bench.  Couples are very physically affectionate in public and nobody notices.  Coincidentally, their culture is not very sexualized.  Not many racy magazine covers or nude scenes in movies, and everyday wear is casual and covers properly. (Going out is a different story...)'re a TV/internet junkie.  From my first day with my host family, I noticed that our house is always humming with activity.  The grown, married daughters come over daily with the kids and even the dog.  Neighbors and friends stop by to say hello and have lunch.  And if nobody's at our house, we're all meeting other people somewhere else.  Even my 83-yr old Abuelita goes out to meet with her elderly friends (with some assistance from Mama Mili, of course).  My family has TVs but they're hardly ever on.  I can't tell you what a single program lineup is here.  Aside from the news, we're busy interacting with each other so there's no time to watch movies or Skype for hours.'re not willing to explore.  On Sunday, MT, Anna and I had a ridiculous and frustrating adventure around Merida, trying to find the mall.  While we went home pretty sour at first, I can now say that I know the major bus routes around the city and saw plenty of interesting places I wouldn't mind going to again.  We spent an entire day seeing various sites and we never even left the city--or saw the other half! If you're expecting adventure to find you, sometimes it will... but you also have to be willing to look a little yourself.'re a couch potato.  In Merida, you walk A LOT.  Even though there are buses and taxis, your two feet learn to be pretty good at getting around.  For instance:  I walk 3 blocks from my house to my bus stop.  I take the bus for 20-30 mins to school (depending on traffic and number of stops made), but I have to walk another 10 to get to the actual building. My friends and I see no problem with walking 7 blocks from my house to go to a club. One night, we tried to meet the rest of the class at a restaurant, anticipating a 30 min walk.  We walked about 3 miles, from the beginning of one of the longest streets in town all the way to my district. Oh, and at the ruins? Hiking and climbing galore. I broke in a pair of shoes my 2nd day exploring the ruins of Chichen Itza. don't want to feel attractive.  People in Mexico find staring to be acceptable (to an extent).  If you are looking good--and sometimes, if you aren't--you will notice people checking you out.  Ladies, men will look at you on a daily basis.  I constantly get honked at, waved to, people stopping to say "Hi, you look great! I love your hair..."  Men especially are very forward, but NEVER disrespectful.  It's part of their culture of machismo--where men show their manliness through virility.  I'm no longer surprised when I go to the beach and a guy says "Wow! Gorgeous, chica!".  A smile and "Gracias" does the trick. In clubs, when guys approach me and I'm not interested, they politely move on.  As uncomfortable as it may sound, after about an hour you get used to it.  However, men know their boundaries--they don't make leering or suggestive remarks, they take no for an answer the first time, and there's no physical contact. don't like doing more for less.  My favorite thing about living in Mexico is that even on a student budget, it's so affordable!  You can find great places to eat, things to do, and stuff to buy without being a #1 bargain hunter (but it sure helps!).  Haggling for lower prices at most outdoor markets is acceptable and encouraged.  If you really want to feel fancy, try some of your favorite American delights while across the border.  I recently went to the nail salon (more on that in my upcoming Culture post) with my host mom.  I had a full pedicure and polish, as well as custom-designed acrylic fingernails.  Total cost? 400 pesos, or on a bad day, the equivalent of $40 USD.  (At the local exchange a week ago, I was making 12.45 pesos per dollar, so it was probably more like $32-$35.)  I know places in the States where you can't even get acrylic nails done alone for $40!!!  If you're into spending with nothing to show for it, then Mexico's not for you.

So, to recap:  If you are generally not a fun-loving person, you should stay far away from Mexico.  But if you want to try something different, grab your passport and come visit!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

#25: So What's There to Do in the Yucatan?

Buenas, y'all!

So, as you know, I've been in Mexico for 11 days.  From Sunday the 13th to Wednesday the 16th of February, my classmates and I packed only one backpack each and loaded into a 15 passenger van with our professor, her husband and our tour guide David (who was also the van driver!).

The very first day, we went to the ruins at Chitzen Itza.  It was very fascinating to see the giant pyramids and learn how they aligned with the stars and various astronomical events...  the steps where people were sacrificed to their gods...  the game courts where teams played for honor and sport.  After the exploration, we went to a cenote, which is basically a lagoon fed by a natural underground river.  Gorgeous!!  We got to swim in the cenote, which was quite refreshing after a long day of walking around ancient sites.  That night, we retired at a hotel in Valladolid.

The unrestored side of Chitzen Itza.  Under the grass you can see the ruins of more of the temple underground.

The top of the sacrificial monument.  Despite what you may have seen in the movie Apocalypto, the bodies weren't thrown down the stairs after sacrifice.  In fact, they were honored by having a likeness of each sacrifice carved into a pillar below.

The Royal Observatory.  It was found perfectly intact, but the excavators must have left a piece of metal inside, because it's been hit by lightning--twice--which destroyed half the dome.

Looking down into the cenote... you can see people climbing the stairs to jump in from the highest step.  (There was also a ladder to climb into the water for those of us with less bravery.)

Looking up from the cenote, back to the surface

That was Sunday.  Monday we went to Tulum, which is another set of ancient ruins on a cliff overlooking the ocean--so beautiful!  Tulum was an actual town, so we could see the outlines of houses and temples instead of just giant monuments.  After exploring there, we descended down the cliff (with stairs of course) to the beach and had a great time splashing in the waves and relaxing on the sand.  We had lunch in a gift shop/restaurant/strip mall (what a mashup!), then went to Playa del Carmen.  I was really excited for Playa del Carmen at first, but when I got there I was kind of disappointed.  It's pretty much a tourist trap...  tons of shops with souvenirs and jewelry at exorbitant (tourist) prices... hotels and resorts...  even the beach was crowded and not as pretty as the one at Tulum.  If you're looking for a little piece of America in Mexico, I'd say hit up Playa del Carmen.  But if you want a more authentic experience, go elsewhere.

Tulum:  I believe this was the royal palace?

The beach at Tulum was amazing! (No photoshop needed.)

For the next two nights we stayed in a small town called Puerto Morelos.  Tuesday morning we had a great time snorkeling on the coral reef (Mexico has the 2nd largest coral reef in the world, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef).  I'd never been snorkeling before, mostly because I hate having my face submerged in water (the only reason I don't swim!).  But once I got the hang of using the snorkel tube to breathe, I loved it!  It was like a beautiful underwater garden...  we saw different types of coral, barracudas, tons of fish, a stingray, a little lobster and someone even spotted a sea turtle!

One of our snorkeling guides holding a stingray!

(All snorkeling pics courtesy of Ben B. and his underwater camera.)

After snorkeling, we were all pretty laid back for the rest of the day... some of us hung out on the beach behind the hotel, but once it got cloudy we all returned to our rooms and took siesta time.  That night we had dinner together in town.

Wednesday morning we packed up and went to Ek' Balam, the last set of ruins we would see on the trip.  At Ek' Balam, we were able to actually climb the monuments and take pictures.  One of the coolest things there was a giant pyramid with original Mayan stucco sculptures.  For some reason the Mayans built a wall in front of the sculptures that made the original facade of the building, and during restoration the construction crew cracked it open on accident and found the treasured art within.  We climbed to the top of that structure (which was VERY steep--you had to ascend the stairs on a diagonal angle), and the view was amazing!  You could see the jungle canopy for miles around.  Climbing down was hard, so I actually crabwalked down on my butt.

The original Mayan stucco architecture--how cool is that?!

View from the top of the largest monument in Ek' Balam

The next stop on Wednesday was to a small Mayan village, where we visited a Mayan school.  The kids there were all dressed up in their finest traditional clothes, and were very happy to show us their (complicated) alphabet system made of ancient Mayan glyphs, their counting system (using the base-20 method), and some of their local dances.  We had a delicious lunch there of homemade chicken soup (that chicken probably lost its life about 20 mins before we came, it was THAT homemade) with fresh tortillas and our choice of sodas.  (Fun fact:  Pepsi is not very popular in Mexico, which makes me sad.)

Our class with the young Mayan students

A demonstration of the Mayan counting system. Black bean dots are 1 and green rods are 5. Each square represents a placeholder (1, 10, 100, 1000).

Finally, we drove back to Merida and to the Hotel Caribe, where we first stayed when we arrived in Mexico.  We all waited for our host moms to meet us there, and that's how I met Mama Mili!  She was just as excited to meet me, because the other students met their host moms before I arrived.

As for this week:  on Friday, the 18th, we went to the beach at Progreso, which is a 20 min (air-conditioned!) bus ride away.  It's the beach where all the locals go, so it's very peaceful without many tourists.  There's a giant flea market there and great shopping, not to mention a yummy restaurant on the water that is famous for its appetizers.  I tried octopus cooked in its own ink (not bad!) three types of calamari (squid, but not fried here), ceviche (which is sort of like a cold mexican sushi salad), and pollo (chicken) pibil, which is a method of cooking the meat...  it's marinated in sauces, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted.  Very yummy!

Look at all those appetizers! Octopus in its own ink, a lime potato dish (middle), black beans (in the bowl), ceviche (back right), and two of the 3 types of calamari

My lunch: the pollo pibil with black beans and pico de gallo.  The orange was bitter and was only to sprinkle juice on the chicken.

Friday evening, the class and I went to a popular nightclub down the street from my homestay.  Dancehalls and clubs are very popular with the young people in Mexico.  At the one we went to (Club Tequila), ladies pay 80 pesos ($8) and guys pay 100 pesos ($10) to enter, but there are free unlimited drinks and a giant dance floor.  At the door, you receive two tickets--you take one and the bouncer takes the other.  When you're ready to leave, you show your ticket and give a tip to the waitstaff and exit.  For a group of our size (10 people), they asked for a tip of about 500 pesos, or $50--we easily chipped in $5 each.  So, $13-$15 for unlimited drinks and music?  Could be worse.

Saturday morning some of us met on the Paseo de Montejo, which is one of the main scenic avenues in town.  It has sprawling, Spanish Victorian houses and many businesses, as well as a very cool monument showing the history of Mexico.  We also went to the Anthropology Museum (Museo de Antropología) and looked at some of the exhibits there.

Part of the monument showing the history of Mexico. Took 30 years to complete!

The twin houses of Paseo de Montejo. The two wealthiest families in Merida own these.

On Sunday, most of us met again downtown, at the cathedral, to see Domingos en Merida, which is a weekly street fair in the main square.  Dozens of local artisans and vendors have little booths where they sell amazing souvenirs, clothes, jewelry... everything, for great prices!  Bargaining is acceptable there.  There was also some live music playing, and a bounce house for little kids.  Street vendors had food carts with lunch and snacks available for purchase.  It was nice to see what seemed like the whole city shopping, having ice cream and churros and enjoying the beautiful day.  I plan to go back at least one more time while I'm here.

It's crazy to think that I've been here almost two weeks and yet I've done so much!  There's still much more of the city left to explore in my spare time.  I'm now a pro at taking the bus, but navigating the city is hard--let me tell you why.

Each neighborhood (grand scale), or district, in Merida has its own name and its own numbering system for the streets.  Generally, streets going north to south have even numbers, while streets going east to west have odd numbers.  Only major streets have names--the street that my homestay is on, for instance, is Avenida Campestre, in the district of Campestre.  When you're looking for an address, you get the number of street it's on, the building number, and what two streets it's between.  Example:  the house where we have class is on Calle 49 (calle means street), between Calle 52 and Calle 54, in el Centro (the downtown district).  If I told a taxi driver "Calle 49, between 52 and 54" but didn't tell him what district, I could end up in a COMPLETELY different part of town than I wanted.  Not to mention that some of the streets have subnumbers--56a, 17b, etc--if the street splits into a smaller drive.  This happens a lot in residential neighborhoods, where let's say Calle 3 is the main street in a subdivision-type group of houses.  Calle 3a would be a drive with a few houses for say, 2 blocks, before Calle 5 (because Calle 4 would intersect with them, don't forget!).  In my district, Calle 3 actually has like 8 sub-streets--all the way to Calle 3h--that all run no more than 4 blocks in length through residental zones.  Having my classmates come visit is VERY tricky, because of the confusing street names and numbers... Usually I have them meet me at Costco, which is 3 blocks away, and walk them back to my house.

On the bus!  All the buses are standard shift, which is scary when the bus driver is talking on the phone or is speeding through a yellow light while traffic is slowing down ahead.  The red box, which is not on all models of buses, allows people with discount cards to swipe electronically.  Each bus has some of its major destinations on the front windshield.  In order to ride the bus, you stand on the sidewalk and hail it like you would a taxi, but if the bus is full (or the bus driver doesn't want to switch lanes), sometimes the bus will pass you by.  There's usually another one within 5-10 minutes.

My bus at the changing point downtown.  Everyone on the bus gets off, and other people who want to head north to my neighborhood and beyond get on.  Buses here are red, yellow, green, and white... the green and yellow, and occasionally red, pass by Costco (my bus stop).  There are also 15-passenger vans that act as minibuses around town too.

Have I pumped up Merida enough yet?  I hope so!  I think it's a great city to visit or take your family on vacation.  It's not too congested or too touristy, yet there are tons of attractions in and around the city to make your time here worthwhile.

PS:  As usual, I have open albums on Facebook with all of my pictures--nearly 400 so far!  Here's Album 1 and Album 2.

Monday, February 21, 2011

#24: Who's Who(m) in Merida

Happy Monday, everyone!

Today begins my first day of classes.  Mondays and Wednesdays i have class from 4-6pm (how lucky am i?!), Tuesdays from 9-11am and then 6-8pm (I'll probably go home for lunch), and Thursdays, same as Tuesday but with an extra class from 11-1pm (will probably pack a lunch those days).  Fridays, no class at all!  That means time to go to the beach, study, sleep in and hang out with the host family.

Speaking of my host family, I've finally figured out the dynamics here.  It's a lot like Meet the Robinsons:

Mama Mili--she's my host mom and the one I interact with the most. she's very sweet and a great cook!

Papa Carlos--Mama Mili's husband. I just call him Papa for short (you'll see why). He loves watching the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and Animal Planet. He's also a licenced pilot! He's very funny and we have great intellectual conversations about things like climate change and shark attacks. Oh, and Papa Carlos has a twin sister.  Turns out Papa isn't retired, but he works at a photography studio downtown.

Then there are the grownup kids:

Carla--the oldest daughter.  She's married and has a son named Roberto, whom we call Ricky. Ricky's having a birthday party this Friday at Burger King (he's making 8) and I'm invited!! I bought him a book on dinosaurs, a 3-D T-Rex puzzle and a pinwheel. I think he'll love it.

Carlos--He's the only son, and in this family all the sons are named after their fathers (Carlos y Carlos, Roberto y Roberto... etc.) Everyone calls Carlos, Carlos. He works for the Federal Office of Tourism and does a lot of liason work with National Geographic and the Travel Channel when they go to the ruins here. He's invited me to meet some of the people from Travel Planet in March. In the words of Mama Mili: "Carlos is cute, single and a hard worker. He's very friendly! You will like him."

Gabi--Gabi's the youngest sibling. She's married, with two kids: Octavio, age 10 and Ana Gabriela, 7 months (and omg so presh!!). Gabi comes over every morning to work out... she has a nanny who stays at home with Ana Gabriela. Octavio goes to a very nice bilingual english/spanish school. He loves Katy Perry and american pop music. Oh, and he's having a big 1st communion celebration next month, and I'm going to that too. Fun fact: Octavio plays on a kids' hockey league. Hockey in Mexico?! Who knew!!

As for the extended family:

Abuela--Mama Mili's mom. Abuela's like 86, almost totally deaf and lives downstairs.  (Mama Mili's father passed away a few years ago.  Mama Mili is an only child.)

Linda--Linda is our Mayan housekeeper. She's been with the family for 23 years. In Mexican spanish, your housekeeper is called the "secretario" even though she doesn't do any office duties.

??--we have a houseboy, whose name I don't know. He's very shy, and I think he may be Linda's grandson.

To make things more confusing, I've also met Papa's twin sister, Ana Gabriela's nanny, one of Mama Mili's friends from a civic group, and we used to also have 2 American high school students who lived here for a week on winter break. Oh, and 2 Canadian junior high students will be moving in for about 2 weeks... sometime next week?

So, who lives at the house? Me, Mama and Papa, Carlos, Abuela, the 16-yr old cat Cindy, a flock of pigeons (right outside my bathroom window, in fact), and a fluffy little dog named Mili (after my host mom). But everyone else is over pretty regularly.

 Mama Mili and I downtown at the Cathedral

Carlos and me at home in the kitchen

Alright, when I get home this evening, after dinner and homework I'm going to FINALLY talk about (and show pictures!) of all the cool things I've done so far... like climbing ancient pyramids and snorkeling (when traveling around the region), to trying octopus cooked in its own ink (at a restaurant at the beach in Progreso this weekend).  Hasta tarde!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

#23: La Vida Mexicana

Welcome back dear readership!

My hiatus ended up being longer than expected... it's been almost a month since my last update.  I was at home for 3 weeks, and was supposed to fly to Mérida, Mexico on February 10th... but there were complications, and I arrived a day later to meet the class.  We stayed in a lovely hotel for two nights before departing on a van tour of the region on Sunday, February 13th.

But I guess I should start with a more thorough explanation of what I'm doing in Mexico:  study abroad.  My college was recently ranked #2 in the nation for the number of undergraduates studying abroad, with most of us going more than once.  (The school that beat us has mandatory study abroad in order to fulfill graduation requirements.)   So after my 3-week stint in Barcelona, I'm now spending about 80 days in southern Mexico in the Yucatan, that little finger peninsula that sticks out into the Gulf of Mexico.

There are 10 students from my school who are part of my group, myself included.  Our college bought a house in the center of town (El Centro), where our program director/professor, Núria, and her husband John (whom we affectionately call Don Juan) live and we have classes.  Our school has also hired several local professors to teach classes and act as local guides around town.

 Part of the backyard at the school/house: pool


 patio and garden #2

again, patio and garden #2 (forgot pic of garden #1)

All 10 of us have homestays here in Merida.  We will live with a Mexican host family so that we can better learn the language and the culture, as well as have people to explore the city with.  The classes offered are Humanities (learning about the culture of the region and the Mayan people), Art History, Anthropology, and varying levels of Spanish.  I'm taking the Humanities, Art History, and two Spanish classes--one on Mexican literature and another on Latin American culture in general.  I also have an independent study for my French senior seminar, to ensure that I graduate on time.

Because of growing concerns over the safety of Mexico in general and for American students in particular, my school placed us only with upper-middle class families to ensure that we live in safe neighborhoods with full amenities.  My host family falls into this category.  Our house is two stories, with at least 5 bedrooms, a kitchen, formal dining room, breakfast nook, formal living room, and family room.  Each bedroom has its own en suite bathroom and there's a half-bath downstairs for guests.  The entire house has marble tile floors, and the upper level has a wraparound balcony with access to the bedrooms.

I have my own room here, and it's very nice.  It was formerly the daughters' room (more on the family dynamics later).  I have two twin beds, a desk and chair, a vanity, two more chairs for company, three nightstands, and a built in armoire all for me to use! (There's also another armoire and a closet in here.)  My bathroom has a toilet and bidet, and a shower/tub with a seat.  I have a key to a little drawer that locks (to hold my important stuff), my bedroom itself, and a house key to let myself in and out.  All of the furniture in my room are antiques.  My room is very well lit and with good ventilation, which is great because the house doesn't have air conditioning!

My host family has been very welcoming.  My host mom, Mama Mili, and her husband are retired.  (Yesterday was my host dad's birthday, so I'm trying to see if we will throw him some sort of fiesta.)  They have 3 grown kids, two daughters and a son.  The son is single and lives here at least part time, in a bedroom off the kitchen.  I think I've met both daughters, who are married with kids of their own.  The oldest daughter has two sons, ages 8 and 11.  The youngest daughter just had a little girl 7 months ago.

There's also an older lady who lives here, who (I think) is my host dad's twin sister, but I also think that Mama Mili's aunt may live here as well.  (Will attempt to confirm this eventually.)  There's a Mayan housekeeper, Linda, who is also Mama Mili's secretary/personal assistant.  She's worked for the family for 23 years.  Finally, there's a teenaged boy who works around the house doing laundry, setting the table, and other tasks.  (He may be Linda's grandson--again, will try to confirm.)  As far as I know, Linda and the young man don't live here.

Oh, and if that isn't confusing enough, there are also 2 other students here!  They're high school students from California, and their class took a trip to Mérida for 10 days and they all have homestays in pairs or triples.  They'll be here until Sunday.  They leave for class activities before I'm awake and come home to sleep late in the evening, so I've only met them once so far (last night at dinner).  They share the bedroom across the hall.

So, I think that's a good place to leave off for now.  I'm going to get ready for an outing with the class and our host moms... we leave at about 4 to meet for 5.  Hasta luego!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

#22: Reflections before Hiatus

Today, Sunday is my last full day in Europe.  Everyone in class is hunkered down in our hotel rooms, working hard on our final term paper due on Tuesday night by email.  I've had an amazing time during my month's stay, and I can't even begin to say how grateful I am that I've had this opportunity.

Now that all of the entries are again up to date, feel free to look over my last photo album here (updated with 80 new pictures over the past 4 days).  Also, here are the first four albums: four three two one.

I'm going to be signing off for about a week so that I can unpack, relax with my family, and repack to move to Mexico--what a short week!  It will be nice to sleep in my own bed again, even if just for a little while.  Until my next departure flight--keep well readership and see you soon!

#21: FC Barcelona

Saturday morning we were supposed to have a cava tour (cava is a champagne-like drink made here in Catalonia) but unfortunately, only 4 people showed up at the appointed time--not enough for the tour.  Instead I worked on my paper for class and had an early dinner with Ellen before the FC Barcelona game.  Our college purchased the tickets for us and will bill them to our student accounts in the spring, but unfortunately the tickets weren't all together--they were in twos and threes around the stadium.  Most people were at least in the same section but a few rows apart, if they weren't sitting directly next to each other.
On the Jumbotron:  FC Barcelona versus Real Racing

I'm not much of a soccer person, but you can't say you've been to Barcelona and didn't see a Barça game.  Soccer is practically a religion, and a game at Camp Nou (the name of the stadium) is like a fellowship.  On the metro to get to the match, there were a large number of Germans in town for the game.  At the stadium, I also ran into Brits, French, Americans, Portuguese...  everybody loves Barça.

Here are the rules to be a successful FC Barcelona spectator:

1)  There is no team better than Barça.
2)  There is NO TEAM better than Barça.
3)  Wear your team spirit in the form of a jersey, scarf, hat, flag, lap blanket, or facepaint. Don't be ashamed.
4)  When someone makes a goal, you stand up to cheer, shout and clap.  Lack of participation is only acceptable if you are elderly, pregnant, or looking for a good beatdown after the match.
5)  When anyone on the team makes a goal, you chant their name a few times to show your pleasure.
6)  When someone on the pitch makes a good play but is unsuccessful, clap anyway.
7)   Learn the chants and songs before you attend.  You will hear them A LOT.
8)   Be prepared to do the wave.  For no apparent reason, we did the wave 4 times before it died out.
9)  If you don't know anything about soccer, pay attention to the reactions of the people around you during plays.  A good play will be capped by a "Mol ve!" (Very good!).  A bad call by a ref will be followed by a string of swear words, booing and sulking.  Take note of the swear words--they are very florid and may come in handy during later matches.  
10)  Notice I didn't say a bad play by Barcelona.  THERE ARE NO BAD PLAYS BY BARCELONA.

Rule #3 in full effect! Go Barça!!

Barça wins 3-0! Underneath the crest are the names of the 3 players that made goals.

Travel tips:  To be polite, ask your questions in Spanish but don't be surprised when most people say "I don't speak Spanish."  A large population at each game are tourists just like you.  Ladies, go to the bathroom whenever you like--even halftime.  The best part about being at a male-dominated activity is that there are no long lines for the restroom.  Before you enter the stadium, buy souvenirs you're interested in from the street vendors.  They may be pricey, but it's very hard to cross through a stream of 100,000 people to find what you want after the match.  Same goes for food--buy snacks before the game while the lines aren't long.  In fact, we arrived about an hour before the match and there was still a sizeable crowd (although nobody tailgates, from what i've seen).  It was perfect because I had time to find the seats, get a snack, and figure out where the restrooms were before the bulk of the spectators arrived.

Above all: BE EXTRA VIGILANT.  With thousands of people getting on and off the metro at various stops and huge, thick crowds, pickpocketing is at an all time high after Barça games.  It's so simple for someone to bump you while trying to squeeze into the train car or for a stray hand to steal your ticket or cash from your purse walking through the crowds.  Although I did take my satchel with me, my hand was directly covering the zipper at all times and I didn't put anything in my coat or pants pockets.  But sometimes even that isn't enough--one girl's wristlet was stolen off her arm as she tried to get onto a crowded metro train.  With so many people everywhere, it's impossible to see who did what or where they went, so just be careful.

#20: Sitges and the Castellers

Friday morning a small group met for breakfast and joined Julie and Patrice for some mini-vacation time in Sitges, a beach resort town not far from Barcelona.  Paige, Becca, Laura, Ellen, Bethany, myself and the professors took the metro to one of the main hubs and transferred to the train that took us out of town.

Sitges is a very, very beautiful area.  In the off season, it was a quiet and idyllic little area with beautful beaches (nine, to be exact), nice landscape, and lots of friendly people walking their dogs.  Even though it's January, the weather was sunny and cooperative, so it felt fairly warm (close to 60*F).  We walked through town and down the beach for a mile or so, then found lunch at a sandwich shop and sat on the beach to enjoy it.  We all shed our winter coats and shoes to roll up our jeans and soak our feet in the (brisk!) water, or just snuggle our toes in the sand while we worked on journal entries and presentations.  Of course, we took lots of pictures!  On our way back to the train station, we met an American couple from Oklahoma.  They visit Spain every year, but Catalonia is their favorite region.
 reclining on the beach wall--i had to be careful not to fall in!

 View back down the beach.  That wall was where the previous picture was taken.

Isn't the water just gorgeous? I bet that's the inspiration for the crayon color cerulean.

It was almost a bit of a shock to be back in the city after just 35 minutes by rail, into the hustle and bustle of crowds after a slow afternoon next to the sea.  I've heard that Sitges is really popping during the summer months, when all the giant tourist crowds come in and the clubs open.  According to Wikipedia, the area is very expensive to live in, which explains why we didn't see many people in our age range--most residents were retirees.  I wouldn't mind returning to Sitges again--same time of year--as another adventure.

That evening, the class went to watch the Castellers (cas-tell-yays) practice.  The art of making the castell (tower) comes from a traditional dance in Catalunya that eventually evolved into a modern feat of acrobatics.  The first castellers were all men, but now the practice is opened to women as well.

Basically, the tower starts from the bottom up.  You need a group of people en masse to be the base, or the pinya.  Typically they form a roundish shape highlighted by access rows of very strong people.  The access rows form most of the support and structure for the tower, and is 10 or so people deep.  Each person pushes on the back of the person in front of him/ her with his/her head down (to prevent neck strain).  The combined strength of the group helps keep the tower upright.

There's the pinya, with a coach looking on

The people in the access rows also are like human stairs.  The first layer of castellers will climb up this human staircase to the middle, where the heart of the pinya holds them upright.  The people in the heart of the pinya tend to be strong, stout men.  The subsequent layers of people climb up the first person on their part of the tower and stands barefoot on the sides of his neck, directly on the muscle--too far out onto the shoulder can cause injury.  This is why the heart of the pinya must be strong--they hold the weight of the tower--and why the pinya itself provides support, to make sure that they hold the inner men upright.  On the ground is a coach who assesses each layer before the next can ascend (but very quickly!) to make sure that the structure of bodies remains safe.  In order to be a member of the team, the coach and criers (the people who direct each formation) must know your exact height, weight and strength tolerance to ensure that you are in the best place to support the tower.
The man at the end of his access row is the first "stair", as two upper-level girls practice their grip.

The top person on the tower is usually a small child, between the ages of 3 and 8, I believe.  They are usually the best at climbing up and adjusting quickly.  The tower is "complete" when the child stands up and puts a hand in the air.  The children wear helmets in case of falls, because at that point the tower is about three stories in the air.  Once the child has given the signal of completion, he or she climbs back down the opposite side just as quickly, and the tower disassembles from the top down.  This is usually the hardest part of the event, where the most injuries can occur.  In recorded history there have only been 3 deaths, thank goodness, and usually at competitions where the towers can be 8 or 9 layers [5-6 stories] high.
A completed 5-layer tower (the heart of the pinya can't be seen) reaching up 3 stories tall!

The best part of this event was that after we watched a few demonstrations, the castellers let any of us who were interested take part.  Most of us were part of the pinya on the outside, providing structural support, but a few lucky people got to practice being a base or climbing up each other to form second and third layers.  (From what they said, it was hard work!)
Bethany as the third level of a practice tower

Even though I only participated a few times as part of the pinya, I really must say that you feel like you're part of something the instant you walk towards the group.  Part of the tradition in tower-building is the sense of community--everyone plays a role in making the tower a success.  People take turns being criers (giving setup directions for each formation), outer pinya, inner pinya, access rows, first layer, second layer... everything.  Even the little kids take turns being at the top of the tower.  It's not so much about competition as it is about unity.  If you join a casteller club with your family, the younger children are trained to climb and be the top of the tower (some of the best kids had only been in the program  two weeks!).  As they get older, they descend a level, supporting someone else on their shoulders until eventually, they become part of the pinya.  There were four year olds at the top of the tower, and there were 70-year old grandparents in the pinya, with every age represented in between.  Inside the facility, there was also a small bar where families could buy a speedy dinner and watch their relatives practice from the 2nd floor.  One of the women who was giving us tips had seen her daughter go from being at the top of the tower to part of the pinya, and her grandchildren were now training to be at the top.

I don't know if such a sport would go over well in the States.  We're far too individualistic to work on something so complex, where so much trust is needed between parties to succeed.  There's also too much  competition involved in our sports as well--there wasn't a pushy parent insisting that their child was the best, or trying to "encourage" their child to be the one on top all the time.  There was no "star member" of the team who was involved in every tower or had the same position.  It was all about teamwork, rotation, and mutual collaboration so that everyone could be involved.  It was a wonderful atmosphere and a great example of the Catalan spirit.