It just didn’t seem honest. How was I supposed to choose a country for my thesis in my international relations master’s program if I hadn’t been to this country or seen how the people live first-hand?

 This dilemma continued to puzzle me as I thought long and hard about what country and issue to focus on.  The Brazilian Amazon perhaps?  Patagonia? Indigenous people in the Andes?  How could I devote two years of study to one of these topics if I only read about it in a book.  This just didn’t jive with me.

Graduating from Sacramento State

Toward the end of first semester of my grad program it became clear that I didn’t want to march forward with my studies unless I had a clear sense of direction. My decision to put the masters program on hold came as a shock to my family.  I don’t make abrupt decisions, but this was one I had contemplated for some time.

Exploring the local markets in Guadalajara

By the time December came it was clear.  School would wait. I bought a one-way ticket to Guadalajara, Mexico, where a buddy of mine would be going for New Year’s to visit his family.  Little did I know that this decision would be catalyst for the next several years of my life.

Local women conversando

The plan was to start in Guadalajara and head south. I would travel until I found a city or town that I enjoyed, and then would set up shop there and look for work. I had dreams of making it down to South America and seeing every country along the way.  Maybe I could even make it all the way down to Patagonia at the end of the world.

Guadalajara’s catedral

I arrived in Guadalajara with my life in a backpack and a very basic level of Spanish.  My welcoming downtown hostel, the warm weather, beautiful plazas, delicious food, and kind locals made me feel comfortable.

On my second day in the hostel I sat down to breakfast next to an energetic German named Frank.  Frank was raving to me about the Spanish classes that he was taking for four hours a day.  I told him about my plans to travel south through the Americas.  Frank said, “If you get real good in Spanish your trip, job and entire experience in Latin America will be so much better!”

Visiting Guanajuato with my dad

The next day at 8:30 I met Frank to walk across downtown Guadalajara to the Instituto Cultural.  I checked in at the front desk and asked if I could check out one of the Spanish classes for foreigners that they were offering.  The receptionist gave me a pass and told me I was welcomed to join Frank all morning in his class to see how I liked the language school.

There were only four of us in the class.  The teacher Isabel spoke only Spanish.  She spoke so clearly and slowly that for the first time I felt like I might actually have a chance to learn this language!

Isabel, la profesor perfecta, and my Spanish class buddies

After four hours of Spanish class I was mentally drained.  It was a similar feeling to having played back to back soccer games, or of having done a terrific workout at the gym.  

I was exhausted, but in a good way, in a way that made me believe I was improving and getting stronger. I competed in three sports at a high level for many years. I had gotten used to physical challenges.  Spanish would be a mental challenge, and I was ready to start training.

Colorful boats at Xochimilco

The next day I signed up for one week  of classes.  Each day Frank and I would head over to class ready to make tons of mistakes and trusting that our dedication would pay dividends.  After class I would often take a siesta and then review all the notes I had taken that day.

Taco stand…the best place to practice my Spanish!

In the evenings I would go out with friends from the hostel and spend a couple of dollars eating at local taco, torta ahogada, or churro stands.  I would spend hours listening to the local Tapatios talking and telling jokes.  I was loving the omnipresent street stalls and stands which pop up on every corner once the sun goes down in Guadalajara.

Hector…one of my buddies who taught me lots of jokes in Spanish

After a couple weeks of classes I felt like my Spanish was growing by leaps and bounds, however these classes weren’t free.  I remember sitting in my tiny hostel room wondering if I should continue with the intensive classes with my fabulous teacher or if indeed it was time to head south.  I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to stay put at least until the end of the week.

Dinner with local friends

A day or two later I was having a snack at school with Walter and Brandy, a retired American couple who were in the beginning level Spanish class. Upon explaining my situation to them, they asked if I had ever taught English before.  I told them I had not and didn’t really consider myself an English grammar wiz either.  

Went to Chivas soccer matches nearly every week

Walter and Brandy explained that they taught a conversation night class at the Instituto Cultural.  They were looking for someone to teach two nights a week and they said that if I taught two nights a week the language school would allow me to continue studying every morning for free….and so my teaching adventure began.

Traveled across Mexico running marathons

I got to the classroom about an hour early for my first day of class. I had watched Walter lead conversations the night before on different topics from music to food to sports.  I had printed out several short articles on Mexican soccer and the most popular American sports of football, basketball, and baseball.  As the students filed in one after another I held my breath. I had never taught a class before, let alone a class of 25 Mexicans ranging from ages 16-40.

Birthday dinner with friends

I was so relieved that the students loved the article, had tons of questions, and enjoyed having someone more their age to learn from.  After a couple of weeks I started to feel more and more comfortable.  Soon after Brandi and Walter invited me to come live with them so that I wouldn’t have to pay rent.  I was loving my four hours of Spanish class every day, enjoying the conversation classes more and more, had met a bunch of friends at the language school, and was basically living for free…Guadalajara was going to home for a while.