Today's Spanish Language Learning Digression 1: Learning Through Kids' Books

Hi Gang,

Here are my thoughts on using Spanish language children's books to take your Spanish from beginning to functional. Like the other "digression" videos, this was also shot last fall in anticipation of my cancelled / rescheduled trip, which I am now experiencing however many months later.

Thanks for watching!

Today's Spanish Language Learning Digression 2: Comic Books

Some of my thoughts on using Spanish language comic books in my own journey to functionality in this language:

August 17: Day Tour of Cenote and Chichen Itza with multiple tour guides

I got so busy the past 2 days that I am actually writing this entry 2 days after it occurred. However, all of the pics and videos are uploaded and ready to go, so I hope to have this as well as the following posting up this morning, in the next few hours.

So today I did a packaged tour, very reasonably priced, via Go Mexico!, and I would highly recommend these tours to anyone. There was a bit of  "pressured selling" going on throughout the day, which I will mention as it occurred, but because I stayed the course and did not succumb to the pressure of purchasing unnecessary tourist souvenirs, for me the experience was amazing and I can only give it a top rating!

So, up at 5:30 am, showered and got ready. Saw this little lizard guy scampering about my room as I was getting dressed:

Out and walked 3-4 blocks and crossed the 2-lane highway called Avenida Kabah / Rodrigo Gomez to the OXXO at the gas station near me. Loaded up on tamales, beverages, and cashed a larger bill to have money for a taxi and throughout the day.

It took a little while for me to catch a taxi, and I was getting a bit nervous because I had allowed plenty of time to get from my place where I am staying to a section of Cancun City called Plaza de las Americas, to the "Fiesta Inn by the fountain" where I was instructed to meet my tour group.

The only negative experience I had with the tour was actually understanding their rendezvous instructions and logistics regarding my pickup spot. When I got to the hotel, no one was there in reception and the entire shopping area where it was located was completely deserted at that hour of the morning, except for the gym in the adjoining building. To make things more complicated, there was no fountain of any kind in sight. Come to find out, this bare space of gravel by the sidewalks and taxi stand used to be a working fountain some years ago, and this was what they were talking about:

I called the tour company on my Mexican sim card / cellphone and prayed that someone would answer. Though I gave the lady my confirmation number and she found me in her system, for some reason she thought I was on a fishing tour and proceeded to give me VERY wrong instructions, completely different from my receipt from the other day. Finally I was able to get through to her that I was not going on a fishing trip and was instead waiting for a bus to Chichen Itza. Within minutes of me getting off the phone with her, after confirming that I was indeed waiting in the correct spot, people finally started to show up. A van with the Go Mexico! logo arrived and took me and a few other folks to a very cheesy tourist mall in the middle of the Cancun Hotel District, right across the street from the Convention Center.

After 2 coffees and 40 minutes of wandering the store looking at cheap plastic objects, my bus arrived and I boarded.

Because I was the only English speaker on the entire coach bus on this particular day, it was agreed that the tour guide would present everything entirely in Spanish. This worked out fine, and I am not exaggerating to say that I understood between 85 and 95% of the tour in Spanish for the rest of the day. This also inspired me to ask all of my questions in Spanish and to have mini-conversations in Spanish for the rest of the tour, including all interactions with locals and merchants at the sites. Go me.

As you will read in this entry, the tour company missed no opportunity to parlay the tour experience with partner vendors to create a constant potential shopping experience in the cheesiest, almost "Chinese tour bus" kind of way. Those of my readers who have taken any kind of packaged tour in China for Westerners will know exactly what I am talking about. The constant bombardment with potential purchasing opportunities and the more than subtle pressure for everyone on the bus to buy things throughout the day was a bit much, but once I realized what was going on, I was able to politely refuse and even joke about needing to save my money each time someone asked me to buy something today.

The first such sales pitch came disguised as a very informative 30-40 minute presentation by our tour guide on the bus about Mayan mathematics and numerology, followed by a fairly detailed explanation of the Mayan calendar, how it works, and how it differs from the Gregorian notion of the passing of time. This was one of the most fascinating aspects of today's tour, actually -- this presentation on the bus by the tour guide.

It was only later, upon arrival at the cenote, that most of us on the bus realized that the whole purpose of that presentation was the encourage us to purchase hand crafted and personally calculated Mayan fortune-telling calendars, which might predict the best dates to get married, etc. Also encouraged were sales of beautiful (and costly) hand crafted sterling silver pendants with your name spelled phonetically in the limited Mayan character "alphabet" written down in the 1500s by Mayan scribes working under the immensely destructive priest Diego Landa, who single handedly was responsible for the destruction of thousands of years of Mayan culture when he ordered the burning of every single Mayan book then in existence with the exception of 3 that he kept as souvenirs and a fourth that was found some years ago in a store somewhere in rural Yucatan (don't remember the exact details but I read about it last fall during my initial research for this trip).

The first of many "hard sells" on today's trip -- annoyance or excellent partner business model?
Anyway, this said, our first stop was a cenote, much like the one from yesterday in spirit, only this one was not a collapsed roof / hole in the ground cenote, but rather a full-on cavern with stalactites and stalagmites. Also, this particular cenote had been "built out" with cement stairs descending to cement platforms and a faux beach of sorts where teh well over 100 people sharing the space with me were able to leave their towels and belongings and wade out for maybe 10 or 15 feet before the bottom dropped out.

I could tell that this cenote was much shallower than yesterday's, and because there were so many people there, including obvious staff, presumably qualified to rescue struggling swimmers, I felt completely comfortable swimming out into the middle by this amazing shaft of light that shined through a 4 foot hole in the ceiling. What a wonderful way to spend a morning.

Waiting to go in to the cenote...

Back on the bus, I was pleased to listen to more Mayan history and archaeology from the tour guide, presented entirely in Spanish, and I really did understand almost all of it, more than 90% of it in real time, including several cute jokes that other native speakers laughed at. THIS is the way to go when learning a language if you are already at an advanced beginner or low intermediate level: do things, participate in social events that occur entirely in your target language and forget for a moment that this is not your first language. Just soak it up, let the spoken language of many people wash over you like a calming shower, or tranquil waves at a beach and simply allow your brain "to compute," as my friend Cecilie Gamst Berg in Hong Kong teaches her Youtube students about Cantonese Chinese. If you relax and allow the language to wash over you, once you know some basic vocabulary and sentence structures, things will start to make sense and gel in spite of any reservations the language learner might have.

If any of my readers are interested in my sidenotes on language learning, please contact me and I will be happy to reply to your comments!

From the cenote, our bus took the group to a very nice, spacious, clean buffet restaurant, where I was finally able to eat some vegetables other than starches. This was a huge breakthrough for me and my food allergies, which have been suffering a bit since I arrived in Mexico. There really isn't any kind of concept of "healthy" or "low carb" or "low sugar" or "vitamins and minerals" in any of the food here, from snacks on up to meals. I am finding that I really have to seek out alternate food possibilities here, and so far I have not been very successful. My skin has been suffering from the unnecessary sugar and starch in my diet, and I am really looking forward to an elimination diet of fruits and vegetables in a few days once I return to New York. Also, the amount of meat that I have consumed since arriving here, to the exclusion of fruits and vegetables, is astounding!

Before lunch, though, the tour guide spent over 1/2 hour telling us about the wonders of obsidian, volcanic glass that the Mayans considered a sacred material, which they traded honey and other goods to acquire from the volcanic highlands of Guatemala, and from which they made weapons and statues, jewelry, etc. Our tour guide explained that the type of obsidian used by Yucatan peninsula Mayans glows yellow in sunlight, and it was from first seeing statues of obsidian in the distance that the first Spanish settlers in this region of Mexico reported back to Spain that the Mayan cities were cities of gold. Actually, they were cities of limestone with black obsidian statues and adornments that glowed gold in the sunlight from a distance!

Well, this would have been a wonderful presentation in and of itself if it weren't actually a veiled sales pitch for the thousands of obsidian objects available in the giftshop of the restaurant. Should I buy a beautiful but completely unnecessary obsidian letter opener, or a mock sacrificial knife? I think I will stick with the agenda at hand and eat lunch...

Beverages were not included in my buffet lunch. That's where they get you. My Diet coke cost me $3.50 USD. Diet Coke in Mexico tastes different than in the US. I think they use Splenda in everything "diet" here...

The coolest thing about the restaurant where we stopped for lunch was the following: Our tour guide on the bus explained to us that there are Mayan ruins and relics EVERYWHERE throughout the Yucatan -- literally everywhere. Back in the day (1000 years ago or so), the Yucatan was basically a huge metropolitan area with interspersed rural communities of lower class and workers interspersed between the middle class and upper class cities. Because of this, everytime a hotel was built in Cancun, something Mayan was revealed and destroyed. Everytime a local Mayan-descent resident of the area formerly occupied by Mayans in Quintana Roo or Yucatan or Guatemala, or wherever, digs a garden or builds a house or digs a hole for any reason at all really, something "Mayan" is found.

Of course, most working class Mayan-descent residents of Yucatan, etc. don't want the Mexican government coming in a confiscating their property or land in the name of archaeology and national heritage, so most of the Mayan finds go unreported. Some people, though, do clean off their finds and place them in their gardens. Case in point: the restaurant where we ate lunch today. Check out these amazing Mayan relics found during the construction of the restaurant and now displayed by the parking lot and entrance to the souvenir shop:

On the bus to Chichen Itza after lunch came Hard Sell #2: Our tour guide, along with another Mayan fellow who had boarded the bus and was now traveling with the group to Chichen Itza, did an amazing 30 minute presentation on the traditional Mayan liqueur made from corn, honey, anise and several other ingredients. We were all given a little taste, and I have to say that it was amazing! Really wonderful tasting stuff -- a bit like Scottish Drambuie, if any of my readers have ever tasted that little bit of heaven.

The presentation was informative and really interesting. I was mesmerized. And then...Here was a bottle of Mayan liqueur that just happened to have a horrible photo of me on the  front and I could purchase it for only $20 USD.Apparently someone had taken our pictures when entering the cenote. I had assumed it was for security purposes, much as occurs in some buildings in NYC with the security guards.

Very clever sales pitch. Fortunate, the photo of me was horrible and I really wanted to conserve my funds for the rest of the tour. I politely declined. I wonder how many suckers on the bus couldn't say know...Truth be told, though, it did taste pretty amazing, the liqueur. Alas, the photo I took of the bottle did not come out good, but here it is anyway, mainly for my own posterity as opposed to that of my readers:

If you are wondering what driving through the Yucatan is like, it is not all dense jungle. Some of it has been "civilized" and has a similar vibe, albeit in a distinctly Mexican style, to any rural highway in the United States:

At Chichen Itza, we received 50 minutes of guided tour, weirdly focused on human sacrifices and the techniques used to perform that ritual, and somewhat short on more practical knowledge of, say, THE BUILDINGS I was seeing. Nevertheless, the tour was informative, as was my hour of free time to walk around the ruins before boarding the bus.

First, our tour guide explained to us a unique acoustic phenomenon whereby handclaps and other sounds reflecting of the temple and stairs of the great pyramid at Chichen Itza create an illusion of a bird chirp, of a very sacred bird to the Mayans. Here is a video of that:

Here is a great pic of the Great Pyramid Temple at Chichen Itza, from an alternate angle:

Following this, we walked a bit, saw a structure where the heads of human sacrifice victims were stacked and displayed on poles:

Then we made our way to the giant ballcourt, where our guide explained the ritual that the Mayans performed there. Some might think of it as a game, but in what game that we know of today is the winning scorer executed in a public ceremony?

I encourage my readers to explore the world of the Mayans and to learn a bit about their fascinating culture which, due to time constraints as I type this, is beyond the scope of this current blog entry. I am happy to elaborate once I return to the US, should any of my readers leave a comment.

Highlights of the rest of my time at Chichen Itza included a visit to the sacred cenote, famous in books and magazines for the human sacrifices that the Mayans performed there:

Along the way, and indeed all over the Chichen Itza site, many local Mayan crafstmen were selling all kinds of handmade (and made in China) souvenirs:

From the Sacred Cenote, I made my way to the Temple of 1000 Columns:

Following this, I meandered through the rest of the "campus" for another half hour or so before needing to meet the rest of my tour group and depart. I would have liked to explore the gift shop, which I did not leave time to do on this particular occasion.

My impressions of the Great Pyramid at Chichen Itza

My visit to The Observatory, a Toltec addition to the city 
following the collapse of the Mayan civilization

Back on the bus, most people slept for the ride back to Cancun, which was punctuated by a brief rest stop at the border between the states of Yucatan, where today's sites were located, and Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located. I read, watched videos on my Zune, and reminisced about the amazing day at a cenote and Chichen Itza.

I was able to convince the tour guides and bus driver to drop me off at the ADO Bus Terminal in Cancun City as opposed to the Fiesta Inn. I purchased some beverages, recharged my sim card, and caught a taxi back to my place, where I uploaded the videos from this blog entry to Youtube and promptly fell asleep.

Today's Side Note 2: Using bilingual children's books to improve your conversational Spanish

Some of my thoughts on this excellent (and cheap) educational resource for advanced beginners and low intermediate students of Spanish:

August 18: Tulum and Coba Tour

Hi Everyone,

Thanks for joining me so far on my exciting Mayan adventure in Mexico's Yucatan and Quintana Roo states. Today will be a very detailed and exciting entry, as I visit the seaside Mayan middle and upper class city of Tulum and then the dense jungle of Coba, located further inland and surrounded by several natural lakes -- a very unusual geographic feature in the jungles of the Yucatan.

I woke up again at 5:30 am, again hot and wishing I'd had more sleep. It is very hard to get a completely rested sleep in this kind of heat and humidity without air conditioning. Have to keep that in mind the next time I visit Mexico, particularly if I visit again at this time of year.

 Left my room at 6:05 am and headed to the nearest OXXO for more tamales (orange corn with shredded chicken inside -- I will definitely miss them when I return to NYC, and will have to find local sources in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Tamales make excellent, food allergy-friendly breakfast food -- gluten free and pretty nutritious compared to a bagel or other typical NYC breakfast options. Also purchased the first of many, many liters of water that I would consume today. Literally -- I think I consumed 5 or 6 liters of water throughout the day in Tulum, Coba and afterwards, rehydrating my body according to my level of thirst.

Caught a taxi, a bit quicker this time, to Plaza de las Americas, to the Fiesta Inn, where I waited for my 7 am pickup -- this time very confident that I was in the right place. What a difference a little sense of confidence can make to a traveler when he doesn't really know what lies ahead on a given day!

Again at the cheesy tourist mall in the Hotel District, this time I ordered a large cafe Americano sin leche and 3 tasty beef and onion tacos in soft corn tortillas (the way that all "proper" tacos are served here in Mexico, of course -- none of that crispy corn tortilla shit, as I found quickly found out the other day). Also purchased a snall bag of fake coconut cookies which were tasty but too carby and would make my skin break out later today. Dumb food decision. Stupid Brendan, stupid Brendan...

The bus departed at 8:15 for Tulum, and either luckily or quite sadly, no one sat next to me on the bus. I think there were only 2 or 3 empty seats on the whole bus, and the seat next to me was one of them. Note to self, because this happens to me often on Greyhound buses and other public transportation in NYC (and I know that I don't smell bad or anything to that effect, and I also know that I am a halfway decent guy): Find out what vibe I give off that makes people not want to sit next to me on public transportation. Sometimes it is a good thing, and sometimes it simply makes me feel a tad bit lonely...

I shot some video of the drive from Cancun's hotel district to Tulum, to give my readers an idea of what the roads and countryside are like here:


Tulum was amazing. Rather than write about it, I am going to let the photos and videos that I shot speak for themselves.

Here are 2 short videos of our bus tour guide explaining in Spanish and English about the history of Tulum:

Here are my first impressions of Tulum, first at the bus stop / entrance to the park, and then upon emerging through one of the walled gates into the restored portion of this middle and upper class city on the coast:

And here are photos and video from the guided tour portion of my visit, as well as from my hour of free time to walk around the site:

There were many iguanas at Tulum, perfectly suited to blend in with the rocks of the buildings and the grey, sandy soil.

This particular building was built on top of a cenote -- even on a cliff as it was, overlooking the sea!
This building is actually overlooking the sea. On the other side of the building is a 60 or 70 foot drop to the beach below.
From Tulum, we divided into several vans. Part of the group continuing on to a water park in the area for snorkeling, swimming with the dolphins, that kind of amazing stuff that I think I will do the next time that I visit Cancun (oh yes -- I am DEFINITELY coming back here, hopefully with a significant other to share the beauty and excitement of this place...). Part of the group proceeded to another cenote. And a third portion of the initial coach bus group was off to Coba. That was my subgroup. Yay!

On the way, we stopped at a restaurant serving traditional (modern) Mayan cuisine. I had no idea during the meal that we were literally 1/4 mile from the ruins of Coba, which was a very pleasant surprise, as I was super excited to see Coba -- a very different type of Mayan city whose ruins are still to this day literally in the middle of very dense jungle -- as opposed to yesterday's visit to Chichen Itza, for example, where all of the jungle vegetation has been cleared away to provide a huge open space to take in the enormity of the ruins, or Tulum, which is also a wide open space, having been cleared and also being right on the seashore.

Here are some impressions from the restaurant. During the mean, I had a wonderful conversation with Cindy and Jesse, a couple from LA, both of whom are spiritual counselors (Cindy is certified; Jesse is earning his certification in the same program). What lovely people, and we continued to have a nice conversation at the ruins of Coba after the meal.

This time, instead of a $3.50 USD Diet Coke, I splurged for a $3 USD limonada, literally lemon juice and water over ice -- no sugar in mine, thank you very much. Man, that was refreshing in this heat and humidity!

Here is a view of one of the lakes of Coba, right behind the restaurant where our group had lunch:

 At Coba, like at Tulum earlier today, we received 1 hour of guided tour and then 1 hour of free time to walk around the area and explore the buildings and monuments. Coba is MUCH more spread out than Tulum, much larger and much older. Also much more confusing, without any kind of markers to tell tourists which way to go to see what, in any language. Spanish, English -- the difference is negligible for me now; I understand almost 100% of all rapidfire spoken Spanish coming at me at this point in my trip, unless someone is talking about a deeper concept, such as something philosophical, religious, political, or pertaining to love or relationships. Regular "non-fiction," and in particular at this point, archaeological words -- no problem with almost total comprehension now. What I do have a problem with is no map, no signs, and no other tourists or site guides to ask questions to...

When this oversight happens, one gets lost.

I got lost.

But, hey -- -- I am getting a bit ahead of myself.

Here are my videos and photos of Coba, along with a portion of the tour guide's shpiel and some explanation from me where necessary as to what you are looking at:

The larger of 2 ball courts at Coba, literally 1/10 the size of the one at Chichen Itza!

Jesse and Cindy, my new travel friends from LA, whom I met at lunch today.
Note the way that the trees are growing out of these ruins. This is one of the main struggles that archaeologists always experience in clearing and restoring these sites for public view...

The shorter of the 2 tall pyramids at Coba, this one was constructed keeping in mind the concept of "women," or female energy. The other, taller one that you will see in a moment, has more steps and was constructed according to the Mayan concept of "men," or male energy.

As I say, alas, I got lost at one point. In a way, this worked out in my favor...Our tour guide had attempted to dissuade all of us from taking a certain path that led off to some stellae in a more densely "jungle-fied" portion of the park, and though I thought I was on the right path to go climb the tall 127-step pyramid at Coba, the most famous building there, instead I accidentally visited the stellae.

Again, just because I could, I took advantage of the absurdity of this moment -- having perfect cellphone reception in the middle of the Yucatan jungle -- to call my parents and tell them where I was. Sometimes the blending of nature and man can be jarring, but also kind of wonderful...

This is a STELLA. Originally, it had a combination of glyphs and a drawing of a god or king.

Not one to be daunted or discouraged, though, I asked directions from one of the pedicab drivers waiting near the stellae area what was the quickest way to "the tallest temple." Thanks to a brilliant shortcut over a rocky path and through more jungle, I emerged in time to see the tall pyramid, but unfortunately not to climb to its top -- which had been one of my goals of visiting Coba.


Can you hear me crying?

In all seriousness, it was fine, if a bit disappointing; I had gotten to climb the temple at Ek Balam, and unless I am mistaken , the one at Ek Balam seemed either taller or at least around the same height.

Here is a video of me lamenting not having time to climb this pyramid at Coba:

Unfortunately, I shot one more selfie video at this location and my phone died, corrupting the video, which I then had to delete upon returning to my room last night and charging my phone. Also unfortunate was that I did not get to video my bumpy and super fast pedicab ride back to the entrance to the Coba archaeological site to meet my van -- which would have been amazing, had I been able to shoot that.

Again, we cannot have everything in life.


Upon returning to the entrance to the park, I paid the $7 USD for my pedicab ride and made my way to the exit, using the restroom and meeting my co-travelers from my Go Mexico! van. There was enough time to purchase and consume another liter of cold bottled water, as well as yet another pineapple pulp/juice/water popsickle for $2 USD -- maybe the best thing I had ever eaten in my life, given how overheated and dehydrated and just TIRED that I was at this point in the afternoon.

I want to remember the beauty of the experience of eating that pineapple popsickle in front of the entrance to the Mayan city of Coba for the rest of my life.

From Coba, the van drove us all back to Cancun. It was still daylight and I paid attention, really paid attention on the ride back, whereas everyone else in the van (besides the driver and tour guide) slept. I was able to see and get a feel for the layout of the entire Mayan Riviera from south to north as we drove past many enormous resorts, then through Playa del Carmen, and then into Cancun's hotel district. I am so glad that I got to see that, that I really paid attention, and I am making a note to myself now in this entry to look on Youtube for some kind of video tour(s) of all of these same resorts, so I can remember them vividly going forward, and so I can consider possibly visiting one or more and staying there some point in the future, perhaps with the family I hope to have one day.

Once the van dropped everyone back at their hotels in the resort section of Cancun, I was able to convince the driver and tour guide again to let me off at the ADO Bus Terminal in downtown Cancun. Drinks and snacks purchased at OXXO, I caught a taxi back to my place where I am staying, uploaded all of my pics and videos from today's tours, and crashed -- legs, body, mind and soul tired from my 13 hour Mayan adventure.