Spanish Lessons, Cooking Lessons and Gathering Firewood


The Project Amigo Alaskan contingent. I am in the purple shirt, Tatiana is in the dark blue shirt, and her Mom is standing between us.

It goes without saying that if you live in Mexico, you soon realize that people speak a different language and eat different types of food. There is no way I would ever be mistaken for a Mexican, and though I say “Buenos días” or “Buenas tardes” when I pass someone in the street, if they know a little English, they say “Hello” to me.  But most of the time, they return my greeting in Spanish.

Initially, way back in 2012, I volunteered as part of the Vision Clinic week. Since eyes were not my specialty, I checked blood pressures and blood sugar and counseled patients regarding those issues at my station.  I did this in 2012 and 2013 and had my script down almost perfectly. I could tell people what their blood pressures and blood sugars were, ask them if they were on medication, and were they taking it, and if not, then why not.  Occasionally, I needed help from one of the Mexican students to translate, or my friend and Mexican nurse, Magda, to make references to a doctor or clinic, but I was basically OK without much translation help needed.

The only initial hiccup was the glucometers – the machines to measure the clients’ blood sugar.  Normal in the U.S. is around 80 – 100 for  a fasting blood sugar. I was seeing numbers in the single digits and  my patients were alert and talking to me!!! It turned out that was a scale that is used in Canada, and a large contingent of our eye specialists were from Canada. We were able to adjust it so I could get readings in the more familiar scale.

The 2013 work week  was the last Vision Clinic that Project Amigo hosted, as it was thereafter to be run by the local Lions clubs. So – in 2014, I signed up to work with the Literacy Work Week crew. Turned out, a few of us who had signed up were nurses, so we were asked to organize and run mini health fairs for the students in the primary grades.

I was very excited to do this, and collaborated with the other nurses, including a public health nurse who had a lot of experience doing this sort of thing, including in low-resource settings.  We did a very good job of hosting these fairs, but now I had a problem – I knew how to talk to adults about very specific issues, not young children about brushing their teeth, washing their hands, exercising and eating healthy food. It was a whole different vocabulary, and I needed someone to translate for me most of the time.

Fluency in a language is very much dependent on the circumstances. My Spanish is passable on the street for very basic things, such as buying groceries, talking about washing my clothes or the dishes – simple things like that.  I know I need to be much more fluent in varied circumstances, and so – enter Tatiana!  She is one of our scholars, a freshman at the University, and she is tutoring me in Spanish..

So now I have “class” with her and drills to practice.  My accent is pretty good, except for one thing – the “rr” sound, where you trill your r’s . I can work on my vocabulary anywhere, but am a little shy about where I practice my pronunciation.  I can just imagine what all the Alaskans would think if they heard me repeating over and over,

“r con r cigaRRo

r con r baRRil

que rápido ruedan

los caRRos con azúcar

del feRRocaRRil”

With each “double-r” I take in a deep breath and force the air out while I bend my head forcefully forward.  I suppose that in a few months with lots of practice I will be able to pronounce these words correctly without having stop to take that deep breath to force out the sound.  At least I was able to practice out loud for a few hours while the other volunteers were out at their project this afternoon.

Doña Meche, who owns the local artisan shop/grocery store gave a cooking class yesterday, teaching the volunteers how to make salsa verde and guacamole.  Basic ingredients in many foods are avocado, red tomatoes (jitomate), tomatillos (small green tomato with a paper-like covering that you peel off), onions, lime, cilantro and – of course – chiles.  I am slowly trying to become accustomed again to spicy food.  I did try the food from the cooking class, and it tasted pretty good. It was fine, that is, until it hit the back of my throat. Fortunately, it wasn’t so hot that I had to make a mad dash to find water.

When I took Tatiana out to lunch in Villa de Alvarez, I found out something else.  Mexicans love ketchup! We bought pizza and she put a spicy green sauce (it was spicy for me, but not her) and ketchup on the pizza, and she said that they love to put ketchup on a LOT of food.

This entry is becoming quite lengthy, so I will finish up with our expedition to obtain firewood. Wood fires are still used around here, and so some of us volunteers took the pickup truck and a van and went out to harvest firewood. We went to a hill about 11 kilometers outside the village, and I am sure that some of the people who need it most here would have been unable to get to that spot.

Tatiana and her mother went along. When we got to the harvesting area, we had to go through a barbed-wire fence, which is harder than I had imagined. Some of the people went up the hill, cut down wood with machetes, then tossed it down the hill for us to bring to the truck.  Tatiana’s mom is a tiny little thing, and she was right up there with the men wielding that machete. I was amazed at how fit she was, but I am sure that she was doing it most of her life.

I settled for bringing the cut wood to the fence, where it was loaded onto the truck. I should mention that this land must also be a cow pasture, as there were cow patties all over the place, so I not only had to watch my step to maintain balance, but also to avoid bringing some natural fertilizer back to my residence on the bottom of my shoes.

Well, time to stop and practice my vocabulary so “mi maestra” will see that I am serious about improving my Spanish.

¡Nos vemos!





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