I have been in Mexico for two weeks, and once more feel a deep sense of place; of fitting in, of belonging to a locale. How can I feel this way when I’m in another country, culture, and language? It comes from traveling IN a country rather than traveling THROUGH a country. What do I mean?
When I travel THROUGH a country, I cover many miles, shoot hundreds of photos, check items on the bucket-list yet these places make no lasting impact on me. These are external experiences where I’m a bird of passage, a spectator, a tourist, standing aside and watching others live their lives. I know about the place, but don’t feel I’m a part of it.
When I travel IN a country, I take time, travel fewer miles, take fewer photos, and live without a check-list ‘must do’ items. Traveling IN a country is an inner journey wherein I participate in the community life around me, engaged in the lives of others. It is the shared experience that gives me a sense of the place as my own.
On Sunday, I returned to Oaxaca, Mexico, as a volunteer English teacher and the sense of place returned immediately. It began with Rosita, whose home laundry is six doors down the cobbled street. Spotting me through her wrought iron gate, I saw the light of recognition bloom in her eyes. “Ah, ¡buenos días!” she said, her voice rising. And, before we did business, we exchanged snippets of our personal news that passed during the last nine months.
With our relationship reset, I walked to El Mercado Merced, one of the small local grocery markets. The tortilla vendor on her stool glanced up at my approach, and I saw that she recognized me. Although I bought her tortillas many times last year, we never introduced ourselves. After I bought memelas, we talked for a few minutes—everyone here has time for a few words. She speaks Spanish and Zapotea, the local language. She knew all about Teotitlán, where I teach, and told me the town’s name in Zapotea, a tongue-twister for me. We will talk again when I buy tortillas next week. From vendor to vendor, I was heartened by seeing the expression that says, ‘he looks familiar.’
A sense of places goes with a sense of belonging. I’m also completely at home in Puebla where I learned Spanish have a circle of friends. Without friends, as in Guadalajara, I feel no sense of connection. It’s simply a large city. I return to Puebla annually, but not for it’s marvelous colonial buildings, historic and anthropological sites. My love of the city is woven into the love of friends who live there, with whom we share a personal history. The sense of belonging, the ‘hometown feeling,’ arises from knowing I occupy a place (however small) in the lives of friends; that my life matters to them as theirs does to me. My sense of place grows out of loving and being loved by the people who live there.
Why slow down and invest in distant friendships? For the past 10 years I have returned to Puebla at least annually, and the circle of friendships has widened each time. Friends introduce me to friends and families. I go to dinners, birthdays, Sunday excursions, and parties. My circle has great grandparents, adults, youths, and infants. Last week, nine of us ate dinner, talked about our children, grandchildren, health, work, and the state of politics in Mexico and the United States. Jokes went around, a bottle of tequila died in the cause, and we exchanged many expressions of love and cariño. Despite miles and months apart, we picked up where we left off as if we met yesterday. What is the value of this? It widens my sense of myself as a human. It is a way of expanding the possibilities of the brief life we’ve been given.
I am fortunate to have spent enough time in several places to put down emotional roots. My friend Lorena moved from Puebla to Cuetzalán, an indigenous Nahua town in Puebla’s Sierra Norte. She was my Spanish coach in 2009, and is now an intercultural teacher. Our friendship began in a museum, looking at artifacts of pre-hispanic cultures and grew through the interplay of personalities. A form of miracle. Eager to share the indigenous culture with me, she introduced me to her friend, a poet who writes in Totonaco. He and I now communicate. The circle of connections ripples outward, adding another cultural thread, another occupation, another perspective on the country.
As you can see, a sense of place comes when I let daily life take me where it will. Here, in Mexico, people I don’t know acknowledge everyone with a nod, a ‘buenos días,’ a way of saying ‘I see you, I affirm or accept your presence as a fellow being.’ Their simple human courtesy acknowledges their humanity in me and vice versa. Recognition by others gets to the root of a sense of place. Remembrance, however shaky, confirms my place at the table, however distant from its head. When I occupy at least a small part in someone’s life, I know I also exist in that place even when I’m not physically present. My life expands exponentially by any small recognitions .
In the end, a sense of place is also a sense of oneself. This is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of learning another language and culture. Our formal or factual knowledge of a place is less important than our emotional knowledge of who we are within that place. Sometimes, it may be best to forget what the guidebook says about a place and rely on what your heart tells you.