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by Karen Kirkwood

I stare at the stars someone painted on the hotel ceiling. The TV is blaring Spanish, a language I understood this morning, but now seems like obnoxious babble to my exhausted brain. My legs throb from walking too many miles and my heart is filled with despair. Have we made an expensive and disappointing mistake? What are we doing in Santos*, Mexico? Why can´t the four of us agree an anything? I remind myself of a basic rule for travel -- never make decisions at the end of a hard day; the situation will always look better and options seem more acceptable after food, a shower, and sleep.

The next morning we held a family council, and sure enough, the situation seemed not only acceptable, but exciting to all four of us. We gave up on the idea of living in the mountain town we had visited the day before, since there was no place to rent, and decided that Santos, with its sugar cane fields and orange groves, would be a good home for the next few months. Within two days we had found an apartment and began our winter “homeschool activity”.

We had met a man from Santos on our way to the mountain town and he had invited us to his home. He, his wife, and their four daughters -- warm, open people -- soon “adopted” us. They have good family relations and laugh a lot. Neighbors, friends and relatives come and go. While making tamales or sitting on the back porch under the lime tree, we have discussed everything from raising daughters to Vicente Fox´s unpopular fiscal reform. They invite us to parties, cook special foods for us to try, and take us on outings. Sometimes we all squeeze into their tiny front room and sit and talk or watch television together. Since they are on the poorer end of the economic scale, just being in their house brings a lesson that cannot be taught -- only lived.

As English is a required course in the high schools here, I offered to teach English classes to the four girls. Soon other kids in the neighborhood joined us. Word got out, and now in the afternoon I am teaching several classes of children and adults, which has led to more invitations and friendships. After class our two daughters, Jessica, age 15, and Patti, age 12, play soccer or baseball in the street with my students as well as some children and adults from the neighborhood. Sometimes they eat dinner at our friends´ house and don’t get home until late at night.

Part of having a cross-cultural experience is knowing when to push ourselves and when to pull back. Doing without, trying new foods, not knowing what will happen next, waiting, feeling confused and tired, are all a part of getting out of our comfort zones. In our case, watching movies in English or football games on T.V., buying our favorite foods, saying “No” to invitations, and communicating with friends in the U.S. through e-mail and MSN, provide needed relief and normality from the daily onslaught of Spanish and unfamiliar surroundings.

Every Sunday we walk to the stadium a few blocks from our house and pay 20 cents each to watch four to six hours of men’s intramural soccer. The game, however, is only half the fun. Vendors selling pumpkin seeds or hot corn in a cup peddle by on bicycles and blow their horns. Fights on the field among players are not uncommon, and even referees get pushed at times. The 200 or so people in the stands ring noisemakers, throw firecrackers, sway to chants, and yell “Burro!” and laugh at any unfortunate player that falls down or misses a kick. Several weeks ago a man near us, dressed in a cowboy hat and western shirt, went a little too far and the manager of one of the teams came off the bench ready to quiet him with his fists. Women yelled and pulled at the two men, people in the crowd hollered advice and jumped off the stands to surround them, Cowboy continued hollering and pulled a knife from his back pocket, the man next to me whipped a long blade out of his pocket. I stood up and said, “Let´s go girls.” As we made our way down the concrete steps the police arrived, wrestled Cowboy to the ground, and handcuffed him. We stopped and stood on the steps, caught up in the action. A young man near me turned, looked at me directly, and grinned, inviting me into the moment, as if saying, “Isn´t this fun!” I decided we could stay, since everyone else sat back down and Cowboy was being escorted to the police truck. We bought some corn chicharron (hold the chili please), and climbed back up to our seats as the ref blew the whistle and the game began again.

Besides wild soccer games, school has also been a new experience for the girls. Jessica wanted to start right away; Patti needed more time to prepare herself. They are both enjoying making friends and are learning Spanish by leaps and bounds. Jessica is serious about learning Spanish and has forbidden Patti to speak to her in English at school.

Santos is a small town in an area of Mexico not famous for anything, so there are few tourists. We did not want to be catered to or pay tourist area prices. There is everything we need, but not everything we are accustomed to. Since we don´t have a refrigerator, I shop every day for food. At home the girls each have their own bedroom. Here they not only share a bedroom, but also a bed. It takes constant deal-making and discussion to resolve differences in habits and cleanliness standards. After hanging out the first time with the four girls in our adopted family, our girls commented on how all four of them share one bedroom smaller than their own at home.

We are returning to the frozen north in March — my boss is expecting me. I will be glad to see my friends again, sleep in my own bed, pet my dog. But I will miss Santos. I will miss going to the bakery every morning for fresh baked, hand made rolls. I will miss hibiscus flowers and adobe houses and ranchero music blasting from curtained doorways. I will miss dark eyed girls with swaying black ponytails and old men wearing dirty cowboy hats and carrying big machetes. I will miss newly made friends and my students — Juan, Jael, Beatriz, Zaida, Jesus, and all the others. But I won´t miss them for long -- we´re coming back next year.

Hints on How To Homeschool in Mexico

- If your children are willing, have them go to school. Spanish, Spanish, Spanish!

- People appreciate it if you at least attempt to speak Spanish. Try to learn some before you come.

- Read travel books and research internet sites. The forums and articles at are very helpful. Jessica completed Language Now, an excellent Spanish software program.

- Try to stay at least a month, and two is better

- Avoiding tourist areas is essential. These areas, even in the U.S., are generally more expensive and have a different cultural feel than non-tourist areas. The purpose of our stay is to immerse ourselves in culture and make friends, not to see the sites, have U.S. amenities such as modern grocery stores, or find company with other U.S. citizens. Many areas in Mexico are accustomed to their neighbors from the north, but the non-tourist areas are not set up to cater to us.

- Volunteering to teach English classes at the local school or becoming involved in church activities is a good way to meet people. By shopping at a lot of different stores, hanging out in the plaza, walking the streets, and attending sports events, people will see you and approach you out of friendliness and to practice their English.

- Ask store owners about living space. Business people often have houses or apartments for rent.

- Use a credit or debit card for cash. Cash machines are the easiest way to get cash.

- If Mexico is too daunting, use this same idea in the U.S. or Canada. Homeschooling families might want to try living in a region different than their own for a few months. Families from the west and south might want to go to Wisconsin or Vermont for maple syrup season. Families from the Midwest could try life on the beach. City people could try the country and vice versa. The important part is to find a place where life is lived in different ways than in your region. Hook up with other homeschoolers and offer to host them in your area.

- I would be happy to discuss our trip and how we did it with anyone planning a similar experience. Contact me at

*We preferred to keep the name of the town we stayed in to ourselves. Santos is a made- up name.
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