Q&A: Summer in Merida, Mexico

Name: Amy Baldwin
Major: Speech Language Pathology/Audiology
Grad year: 2017
Hometown: Columbia, MD
Destination: Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico
Term: Summer 2015
Program: Language and Cultural Studies in the Yucatán – IFSA Butler

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Why Mexico? I wanted to study in a Spanish-speaking country in Latin America. Mexico was perfect because it is relatively close to home (cheaper plane tickets!) and has a great climate, culture, and history. The Yucatán peninsula is unique from the rest of Mexico because of influences from the Caribbean and the indigenous Maya population, which can be seen in food, dress, architecture, music and dance, and language of the area. Not to mention, there are a ton of Mayan ruins, beaches, and cenotes nearby! Mérida is the capital of the Yucatán state and is an incredible colonial city with outstanding cultural centers and medical facilities, which interested me because of my major (I took a class on medical Spanish that included observations at clinics in the area). The program also included a 5-day trip to Havana, Cuba, which was a great experience, especially since tourism from the USA to Cuba is not very popular.

Was Mexico what you expected? I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this study abroad trip. Since the program was not run by Towson, I didn’t know anybody until meeting them in Mexico. This summer the program was unusually small- only three participants! Once I got there, I was pleasantly surprised as to how nice the IFSA staff and host moms were, and how easily I got along with the other girls in the program. The program was very individualized and we got to know each other really well, and the staff/host moms really went out of their way to help us out, answer any questions, and make sure we had a great time! We went on a lot of excursions both within and outside of Mérida that helped us get to know the area. We befriended some students studying tourism at the university, and they took us around town to see the nightlife in addition to day trips to cenotes and caves! All in all, my experiences exceeded my expectations, even though I wish I had longer than 6 weeks to stay in Mérida so I could have even more experiences.

What was your favorite place? It is so hard to choose a favorite spot, because I went so many places that I loved. My favorite excursion that we went on was to the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. Even though it is not as well-known as other ruins like Chichen-Itza, I liked it the most because it is really big and we were able to climb some of the structures. Another fun trip was when we went to a pueblo and visited 5 cenotes, which were all very unique. One of them was in a cave and we had to crawl through some really small spaces to get to it! My favorite place in Mérida itself was “La Parque de las Américas,” a huge park with fountains, statues, playgrounds, theaters, and lots of food stands selling things like marquesitas (hard crepes with Nutella and cheese) and elotes/esquites (corn with mayo and chile). I also loved spending time in the Starbucks on the main street in Mérida, called Paseo de Montejo, because it was a lot more elegant and fancy than any other Starbucks I had been to. Basically every place I visited, I loved!

What surprised you? The conditions of the pueblos surrounding Mérida were very shocking because there was a lot of poverty. The people living in these villages are mostly from indigenous Maya heritage, and their main job is farming. They still live in small huts, sleep in hammocks, and cook over an open fire. There are also a lot of really skinny stray dogs that run around and beg for food. It is sad and shocking for someone like me to see these towns because it is so different from what I am used to. But in general, these people are pretty self-sufficient and accept their simpler, more traditional way of life.

What was challenging for you? The first few days in Mérida were tough for me because of the transition into speaking and listening to Spanish all day. We had orientation all day, at night we went downtown, and the next morning we went to classes for six hours. I was overwhelmed and scared of having any interactions with locals if I was alone, so taking public transportation to and from school was really stressful for me at first. After classes the first week, I didn’t want to go out and I just stayed in the house with my host mom. Even though I had class with the other girls in the program, we didn’t know each other too well yet and were still adjusting so we didn’t organize any outings together. I told her about my concerns, and the host moms decided to get us all together and take us to a shopping mall. After this, the other girls and I went places together in the afternoons which helped me become more accustomed to the local life. Making friends with the tourism students helped even more because I got to interact with Spanish-speaking people my age in normal social settings.

What is your advice for students considering study abroad? My number one advice is to just do it! Yes, it can be very scary, especially if you haven’t travelled much before. Studying abroad will help you adapt to new and different situations, become less inhibited and more outgoing, and have a broader understanding of the world. If you are like me and can’t study abroad for a whole semester because of your major, or just aren’t sure if you want to spend a whole semester away from home, I definitely recommend a summer program of at least 6 weeks, because it takes time to adjust and to really start living/feeling like a local. The experiences you will have abroad will be memorable for a lifetime, and the city that you study in will always have a special place in your heart. This trip has changed and inspired me in so many ways, and I already want to go back to Mérida!

Mil gracias to Amy for her awesome feedback on a lesser known destination!