One Year in Mexico – What Have We Learned?

What a year! And what a question! As usual, the time is flying by, and the number of stories, facts, and lessons we’ve accumulated are innumerable. However, I thought it might be fun to share a few of the things that have stuck out this past year as we’ve continued adapting to our new home in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The Lifestyle

One of the first things that is easily recognizable as soon as someone enters Mexico is its vibe. Totally unique and bursting with energy, Mexico (and Guadalajara in particular) had an immediate effect on our mentality. Moving from China back to the US with Canada on the horizon during a global pandemic definitely had us in a more serious mindset. Luckily, only a few days in Mexico had us feeling considerably more relaxed.

More than relaxed actually – tranquilo is the word. The week we arrived in Mexico, I remember walking through a park and watching a man literally stop to smells the flowers. My American go-go-go brain couldn’t compute at first. But that was really all it was. He stopped, smelled the flowers, and went back to his walk. It was the first of many muy tranquilo instances we’ve encountered this year. You can’t help but slow down and ease up, even in a major city like Guadalajara. I have to imagine this year has been significantly better for my blood pressure!  

In addition to feeling more relaxed, we’ve also been re-learning the concept of divertido (fun). One image that will forever be ingrained in my head is that of a man we saw in Ajijic riding a horse down the middle of a road while simultaneously browsing his phone and downing a cerveza. He was definitely having fun. But it’s not just the so-called magic towns that have fun. We live a block away from the party street of GDL, and we hear ALL the fun. I know for some that sounds like a nightmare (light sleepers beware), but for us, it feels like we’re having a party every weekend. Even if we’re just in our PJs watching TV at a comfortable distance.  

Another aspect of our new lives in Mexico has to be living in the moment (o espontáneamente). Sometimes it seems like either something is done right then or else it’ll be “ahorita” (which basically means never). A good example of this would be the “afiladores” or “knife sharpeners”. Every week from our apartment we can hear a whistle and a shout from the afiladores who walk the neighborhood announcing their presence so residents in need can grab their knives and run down for an impromptu sharpening. So far, I’ve yet to attempt this, but maybe ahortia…       

The Lessons 

Of course, adapting to the lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. We’re basically still fumbling our way through life’s daily routines, making error after error as we go, but for me that’s where all the fun is. The laughs we get from the mistakes we make along with the little annoyances or oddities that give us a window into our own cultural confines definitely make all the ambiguity and confusion worth it.

¿Cajeta o galleta?

Most likely our biggest area of failure revolves around language (as it has in every one of our previous homes abroad). One that is still making us laugh actually occurred in the privacy of our own vehicle on the long drive down. The GPS kept saying we were headed toward Oeste, but neither of us had heard of that city or ever saw it on the map. Turns out “oeste” just means west in Spanish. How had we never learned the cardinal directions? Other language faux pas include my use of the word “cansada” rather than “casada” (“tired” instead of “married”) when asked my civil status, and Tucker’s continual struggle with the pronunciation of “galleta” versus “cajeta” (“cookie” or “caramel”) – for the record, I prefer cajeta.  

Another big lesson (mostly for Tucker) this year has been within the realm of driving. Driving in a foreign country is always challenging, but when you add increased frequency, the lessons just keep on coming. For example, we’ve just about reached our lifetime quota of driving through three-lane roundabouts. Still not always sure the best practices there, though. We’ve also realized that “yielding to flow” is not as easy as it sounds. But my personal favorite has been listening to forgotten 80s hits everywhere we go. The radio stations here absolutely love to play Rasputin, Take On Me, and the like.   

Glorieta de los Niños Héroes – pure chaos
Adiós Tony

Shopping in Mexico has also taught us a few lessons over the past year. We had previously learned that we might be expected to sticker our own produce before checking out (thanks Poland and China), but in Mexico, they thankfully do that at the registers. However, here it’s the bakery and cosmetics sections that are separate in most grocery stores, requiring separate check-outs/payments. We definitely lost a carrot cake in this learning process. Another fun grocery store occurrence is the covering up of any cartoon mascots on food products. There’s a law in Mexico that banned characters like Chester Cheeto and Tony the Tiger in an effort to combat childhood obesity and skewed marketing tactics. When we buy products imported from the US, there’s very often a huge sticker covering up some well-known faces.

Other Surprising Tidbits

In all honesty, every time I write a post like this, it’s hard to choose what to put in and what to save for in-person stories. I usually try to group our experiences in some way, but there are so many things we come across that are really in a world of their own. Things like…

Taco facts. Tacos are a way of life in Mexico, and we’ve learned a lot about how to rate, make, and eat a taco. First of all, two corn tortillas are a must for any self-respecting taco. We’ve heard rumors that in El Norte you can get flour tortillas, but I don’t know, it seems sort of sacrilegious now. Sadly, I also found out that putting crema on your tacos is totally fresa (uppity or snobbish). In fact, the purist tacos should have only 5 things: tortillas, meat, onion, cilantro, and lime. Of course, the final addition to any taco is a good salsa, but I could (and might seriously) write an entire post about salsa in Mexico. 

Another discovery in our early Mexico days was the constant morning cowbells. It reminded us of the “bring out your dead” scene of Monty Python, but in reality, it’s the call of the garbage collectors. There aren’t traditional bins in downtown GDL (and good thing too because the sidewalks are well-trafficked and the sun is warm), so instead of a weekly collection day, each morning the bells are rung, and if you have a full bin, you set your bag outside for collecting as they pass by.

Last but not least, I thought I’d end on a cultural tidbit that I’m not sure if I find cute or creepy. When children lose their teeth in the US, the Tooth Fairy visits their room while they sleep, taking the tooth and leaving some money (also somewhat of a mix between cute and creepy to be honest…). And kids here in Mexico experience a similar swap; however, it’s not a fairy that makes the trade. It’s the Ratón de los Dientes (or the Tooth Mouse). Makes me wonder if Mickey’s got a collection of teeth somewhere in the Kingdom.

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to during our first year in Mexico. Picking it all up as we go along and having a ton of fun in the process. We’re currently busy renewing our residencies for an additional 3 years, so I think the learning has only begun! ¡Deseanos suerte!

Hogar dulce hogar ❤

US National Parks and Rec

For me, the National Park Service is easily one of the most amazing things about the United States. I am very fortunate to have seen many of these incredible places growing up, and even now when I plan trips back to the States, I always try to include a national or state park in my itinerary. The diversity and the beauty of North America is absolutely astounding, and I (and many others) can’t get enough of it. FDR once said that “there is nothing more American than our national parks”, and I really couldn’t agree more, which is why I want to share a few of my recent NPS experiences and ultimately spur others to get out there and see these beauties while we can!

Number and Size

The United States is a massive country. As the song goes, it stretches from sea to shining sea, covering a whopping 2.43 billion acres. Thankfully, in the 1800s, Americans realized that we might just need to protect some of our incredible land (mostly from ourselves). Thus, the first national park was born. These days, national parks make up about 80 million acres of the US, and when combined with state parks and other protected areas, represent about 14% of the total land area. As of January 2022, there are 63 congressionally-designated national parks and 423 national park sites located in the US, all chosen for “their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities”.

What’s in a Name?

As mentioned, we have 63 infamous national parks, but what is the distinction between the parks and the national park sites? And what about national monuments or state parks? Well, the national parks can be seen as the big kahunas. They are what the other parks, sites, and monuments hope to be when they grow up. To be designated as a national park there has to be an abundance and variety of natural resources and large swaths of land or water areas that enable the protection of these resources. National park sites and monuments on the other hand are usually smaller and singularly focused (as in one element of a national park or a historic site completely separate from the national parks). They might also include things that are not so park-like, such as Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

State parks, however, are quite different. As the name suggests, they are run by each state as opposed to the federal government. This usually means that there is a lot more variety in how they are managed and upkept. Luckily, it also means that they are right outside your door (wherever that happens to be). Tucker and I really discovered the joys of state parks while we were pandemically pinned in Florida. Florida and most states east of the Mississippi are somewhat lacking in national parks, but they are not lacking whatsoever in state parks. Florida, for example, has 175 state parks, Illinois has 123, and Georgia has a still-respectable 46. While they might not be as big or famous as those in the NPS, they’ve also been chosen specifically for their natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential.

All Good Things

All of these protected areas are well worth seeing. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and so many others are the epitome of America’s beauty, and the lesser-known names are no less so. Our national and state parks are extremely accessible and fortunately not cost-prohibitive. The most expensive entrance fees are $35, but the vast majority of parks charge only a fraction of that, making national and state parks not only an incredible experience, but also one of the cheapest you can find (so much better than a day at the movies, in my opinion). Not to mention, the money you spend at the parks goes to an amazing cause: the conservation and preservation of our incredible homeland. So, who’s ready to get out there and explore our amazing parks?!

2021 Wrap-up

Another year is coming to an end…and although it wasn’t quite as crazy as 2020, it was close. For me and Tucker there were definitely some things that changed (drastically) and others that were oddly more consistent than ever before; all of which has me reflecting. So, here’s a look back at our 2021: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In an effort to cleanse ourselves from the craziness of the previous year, we started 2021 by burning everything we could find that said “2020” on it. It was extremely cathartic. As was our drive to Florida’s west coast for sunset followed by a drive to the east coast for the first sunrise of 2021. I enjoyed the dramatic ending of what was objectively one of the worst years in recent history. Although, unfortunately, a lot of what made 2020 so bad seemed to follow us into 2021, I was still extremely happy that I was able to use the New Year as an excuse to move on (mentally and physically as it turned out).

In February we finally said “au revoir” to Quebec (at least for now, accepting the long immigration pause as a bit more permanent than we had originally thought), and then we literally said “goodbye” to Orlando as we packed up and headed out for yet another (different) international move. This time we went south, moving to beautiful Guadalajara, Mexico! With all the new challenges, like obtaining residency, driving across the border, and settling in with a four-legged family member this time, we all felt completely refreshed. It’s amazing what having tangible plans and clear goals can do for your mentality, especially after a year of complete stagnation. I joke that Mexico became my therapist because I had seriously needed something to focus my energy on post-2020, and luckily, I found it.

In addition to giving us a new focus, Mexico has been an incredibly fun experience! In April, Tucker and I celebrated our birthdays with piñatas and cervezas before getting the best birthday presents ever: our vaccines! Getting vaccinated was another sort of turning point for us as we had severely limited our time outside the house prior to the vaccines. Having some sort of protection (in addition to our masks and other precautions) allowed us to begin exploring again. Since we brought our trusty steed (our Ford Focus) down to Mexico, we’ve actually been able to take several road trips thus far: visits to Puerto Vallarta, Aguascalientes, and Querétaro just to name a few.

Of course, we’ve also spent a good amount of the year simply adapting to life in Mexico. We’ve settled into our incredible neighborhood, and like I did with Orlando, I’ve essentially walked as far as I can in every possible direction to really get the feel for where we live (apparently this is my favorite pandemic-induced hobby: neighborhood walks). Another favorite pastime for me this year has been taking a plethora of Spanish classes. With the flexibility of my remote work schedule, I’ve made it a point to really work on my own language learning in 2021. I hope to continue this trend in the New Year as well. As for Tucker, he’s been paying a lot more attention to soccer as of late. We recently watched Atlas (our home team) win a championship, and we have plans to watch them play in person at some point. Fingers crossed!

Go Atlas!

While there have been many changes for us this year, one of the biggest things that hasn’t changed is work. This is the first time in many, many years that Tucker and I both started 2021 with the same jobs that we’re ending it with. Gotta love the remote work life! We’re also happy to report that our international family visits have continued as well without too much difficulty. As always, it has been such an amazing experience to share our new home with our most adventurous family members! During a lull in the variants, Tucker and I even got to continue our international travels by visiting an entirely new (to us) continent with our Thanksgiving trip to Ecuador. I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for that particular spur-of-the-moment decision. Maybe it’ll tide me over for a while…but probably not.

In contrast to all the triumphs, whether new or continued, we’ve also had a few unexpected hurdles this year. International apartment hunting amid a global pandemic was quite a challenge as was the procurement and installation of the most irritating dishwasher known to man. I also had to have a medical procedure done back in September, which not only tested our Spanish, but also our ability to lean into the unknown/ambiguous aspects of living abroad. Thankfully all went well, and I have only great things to say about the healthcare system of Mexico. Another difficulty arose a few months ago when a rogue highway rock hit and cracked our car’s windshield beyond repair. Dealing with car issues and insurance is never fun, but in a foreign country, in another language, it was torturous. However, as I kept reminding myself throughout the mishaps, this is exactly why we love living abroad: new challenges and endless lessons in patience.

As I write this, we’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the days between Christmas and New Year, which brings me to yet another one of the most exciting aspects of our year: celebrating all the holidays! Learning that Cinco de Mayo is mostly an American invention, reliving the events of “Coco” during Día de Muertos, and wishing everyone “Feliz Navidad” this month have all been incredible additions to our collective cultural knowledge. Now I can’t wait to eat my 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve and ring in what I hope will be an even more exciting and transformational year! Here’s to a próspero 2022!

Exploring Ecuador

Over Thanksgiving break this year, Tucker and I decided it was finally time to hit the international travel trail again! Aside from our move to Mexico last winter, we hadn’t been abroad for business or pleasure since 2019, so it was definitely an exciting prospect for us. For this particular trip, we decided on Ecuador, which meant that we’d not only be traversing a new country, but also a new continent since this was our first time to South America as well. Woohoo! Here’s my take on our latest journey:  

The Preparation

Of course, before venturing out, the first question we had to ask ourselves was where to go, which is not so easy in post-Covid times. Different countries have different restrictions and requirements for testing, vaccination, tourism, etc. We finally settled on Ecuador for several reasons. For one, I was happy that they require either a negative PCR test or a vaccination card for entry (a little regulation goes a long way). Two, we were also hoping to stick to the Spanish-speaking world (to continue our practice/immersion, of course). And three, I’ve always wanted to visit the equator – how cool is it to be able to stand in two different hemispheres at the same time!

…or sit on the line…

Once we decided on the location and made sure we had the necessary documents ready, we were able to start planning. The planning also turned out to be a little different than our pre-2020 travels. A lot of services and attractions have been permanently closed (including the postal system as we found out), and even those that remain open often require additional amounts of flexibility because everything is very much subject to change these days. This was really my first glimpse into just how hard the tourism industry has been hit over the last two years. Prices, schedules, options, procedures – a lot has changed, but with any luck, it’ll continue to bounce back and hopefully be stronger than ever. I know I’m beyond ready for that.

The Capital: Quito

Our first stop and home base for this trip was Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. If you weren’t already aware, Quito is one of (if not the) highest capital city in the world at 2,850 m (9,350 ft). I love the fact that the elevation meant chilly temperatures (even so close to the equator), but, unfortunately, my head doesn’t particularly like the pressure changes that also occur at elevation. The good news is I already knew about my sensitivity to high altitudes, and I was able to take Western medicine (Acetazolamide), drink the local coca tea, and share some traditional Chinese medicine with a fellow traveler all to avoid any unwelcome bouts of altitude sickness. I’m not exactly sure which one did the trick, but other than a mild headache, I was totally fine to climb stairs, hike volcanos, and do anything and everything else I wanted to do Ecuador. Another success!  

Aside from its elevation, Quito is also unique in that it is wedged between several Andean mountains and volcanoes. For this reason, although the city is about 40 km (25 mi) long, it’s only 5 km (3.1 miles) wide. It’s also extremely hilly, which made for many beautiful views all across the city as well as some of the most difficult driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. Imagine a 45-degree incline on slippery cobblestones in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a manual vehicle. I made sure to compliment the driving of every one of our taxi/Uber drivers- so impressive! Another amazing part of staying in Quito was the history. Quito has one of the least-altered and best-persevered historic centers in the Americas, and the plazas, churches, and neighborhoods were so much fun to explore. 

The Food/Restaurants

Pristiños y chocolate caliente con queso

Another really fun part of this trip was the fact that we were trying out a completely new type of cuisine. Neither Tucker or I could remember ever having Ecuadorian food, so everything was completely unknown. From the tostados (or toasted corn kernels) and ají (a spicy sauce served with every meal) to the most famous dishes from the highlands, we loved learning and sampling everything. Some of our favorites included empanadas de verde (empanadas made of plantains stuffed with cheese), locro de papa (creamy potato soup), and pristiños (fried dough with honey). Another infamous dish in this region (one that we actually opted to forgo) is cuy, or in English, guinea pig. Definitely new to us!  

While certain things (like rodents on the menu) made Ecuador seem very far from the US, other things made us feel like we’d gone north rather than south. For example, Ecuadorians use the US dollar as their currency, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the break from constantly converting in my head. Another similarity is that servers in Ecuador often take your credit card to a register in the back of the restaurant for payment. Not so strange for the average American, but after years in countries where that would never fly we found ourselves feeling a little concerned about identity theft. I mean, where’s the portable terminal? And why aren’t those commonplace everywhere?! It seems so bizarre to us now!  

The Nature

As amazing as Quito (and its restaurant scene) is, the nature is the real draw. Ecuador is home to the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos Islands. It has an incredible amount of biodiversity, and while we mostly stuck to the highlands (this time), we were absolutely blown away by what we saw. Our focus on this particular trip was definitely the volcanoes. Ecuador has the most volcanoes per square kilometer of any country, including some of the only volcanic glaciers on/near the equator. One of our favorite experiences in Ecuador was climbing Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the country. Not being very experienced or even prepared climbers, we only hiked to the refuge (at 4,860 m / 15,744 ft), which was difficult enough with the lack of oxygen, unstable terrain, and hail we experienced along the way. Still, I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat – so cool!

The other big hike we did was at the Quilotoa crater, about three hours from Cotopaxi. Quilotoa used to be a volcano, but after its last massive eruption in 1280, it is now classified as a caldera. Here we found ourselves climbing down rather than up as we made our way into the crater to get to the shores of the mineral lake that now fills the void. The hike down was absolutely breathtaking, but the hike back up was brutal: 1.7 km of steep, sandy paths (still at an elevation of over 3,914 m / 12,841 ft), and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it rained on us the whole way out. This was one of only a few trips where Tucker and I actually lost weight on vacation…despite all the good food. And speaking of food, my favorite part of this day might have actually been the meal we had after the hike – a Thanksgiving feast that will live in infamy.

The Random Facts We Gleaned

Since our buses out to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa were cancelled (because there weren’t enough people to warrant them), we actually got to tag along with a tour bus group instead. This meant that we got loads of information about Ecuador, the Andes, volcanoes, etc. – much more than I ever would have found on my own. For that reason, I have a plethora of other interesting facts to share about Ecuador. Here are some of my favorites:

-Ecuador was the first country to give constitutional rights to nature. In 2008, Ecuadorians voted to give its mountains, rivers, forests, air, and islands “legally enforceable rights to exist, flourish, and evolve”.

-One of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in this part of the world is Quechua, which is derived from the language used by the ancient Incan empire. Interestingly, Ecuadorians refer to the Peruvian dialect as Quechua while calling their own Quichua.

-Many place names and colloquial expressions in Ecuador combine Spanish and Quichua, such as the catchy “chulla vida”, which is the Ecuadorian version of “YOLO”.  

-Llamas and alpacas are both endemic to this part of South America and can be commonly seen alongside other livestock throughout the highlands. But how can you tell them apart? Well, alpacas are much shorter, have softer fur, and are typically less aggressive. Llamas are the ones to look out for!

-Another interesting fact about Ecuador is that it is home to the highest mountain in the world…sort of. The peak of Mount Chimborazo is actually the furthest from the center of the Earth (or the closest to the sun). Mount Everest is the highest if compared to sea level.

-Gravity is lower at the equator, which is why many rocket launch sites are located close to the equator. It’s also the reason it’s supposedly easier to balance an egg on a nail. #huevochallenge

-Ecuador is also the world’s largest exporter of bananas. Unsurprisingly, the bananas we had while there were extremely cheap and perfectly ripe.

Overall, it was truly an incredible trip. I feel so grateful that we were able to have this experience, and I sincerely hope it won’t be so long before our next big adventure!

¡Gracias por un buen viaje, Ecuador!

English is Weird

In the past, I’ve written about my struggles with learning Polish…and then Mandarin…and now Spanish, but this month, I thought I’d honor my students’ struggle instead. Just in case you’re not a linguistics freak (or language teacher) like me, I’d like to share just a few of the many reasons English can seem extremely weird (read: difficult) from a non-native speaker’s perspective. So, without further ado, here are a few of my favorite things (and definitely my students’ least favorite things) about my native tongue.  

Crazy Spelling System

First up, unsurprisingly, is English spelling. Even if English is your first language you probably still have a bone or two to pick with whatever drunk group of academics decided “ph” looked way cooler than “f” or even with those thoughtful teachers who recited “I before E except after C, and when sounding like A as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’” …nice little rhyme, but what about “weird”, “glacier”, “albeit”, and “seize”? Of course, there are about a thousand reasons both historical and linguistic to account for this mess, but students (and most speakers) just don’t care. They’re too busy trying to work out why we still have a “b” in words like “thumb” and “debt” or why “knight” isn’t spelled “nite”. One of my favorite linguistic observations demonstrating the absurdity of English spelling is the made-up word “ghoti”. If you take the “gh” from “rough” add the “o” from “women” and finally the “ti” from “nation”, “ghoti” should be pronounced as “fish”. WTF, English.

Gender and Case in Pronouns

One of my biggest complaints with Polish was the abundance of grammatical gender and case. It blew my mind that there might be a possible 21 versions of the same word, something you don’t have to worry about so much with English. That is until you get to the pronouns. “I, me, my, mine, myself”, “you, your, yours, yourself”, “he, him, his, himself”, “she, her, hers, herself” and that’s not even mentioning retired classics like “ye” and “thou” or more modern-day usages like the singular “they/their”. It’s really a mess of various elements of gender and number with a glimpse into a defunct case system and, of course, a plethora of exceptions to any sort of pattern. And when we throw in the contractions we use (such as “he’s” and “you’re”, which can sound an awful lot like “his” and “your”), I can understand why students get a little frustrated with the inconsistency.

Easy-peasy…

All the Vowels

However, even if we put spelling and word forms aside, English is still extremely bizarre when it comes to pronunciation. Bizarre and incredibly difficult. One of the hardest things about English pronunciation is the mastering of all the vowel sounds. We all know that English has 5-6 vowels: A E I O U (and sometimes Y), but interestingly, we have between 15-20 different vowel sounds, depending on dialect. That’s why we have all the strange combinations like “ee”, “ou”, “ea”, “oi”, etc. and a bit of a crazy pronunciation game with minimal pair lists like “beet, bit, bet, but, bat, bot, boot, and boat” (go ahead and read those out loud if you didn’t already – it’s so fun!). It’s no wonder my students are worried that with a slight change in the position of their mouths they might be asking to take an extra shit rather than an extra sheet or maybe heading to the bitch instead of the beach.  >_<  

I ❤ IPA

Phrasal Verbs

Another odd feature of English is our love of function words, particularly prepositions. I remember happily memorizing a song of about 50 of them in elementary school, but as a teacher, I cringe when students ask me how they can memorize not only the prepositions of English, but the phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are the multi-word verbs that native English speakers love to (over)use: “go on”, “give up”, “find out”, “calm down”, etc. Of course, we could use “continue”, “quit”, “discover”, and “relax” instead (much to the delight of other Indo-European language speakers), but that would be way too easy! Imagine if you broke up with your significant other after breaking into their house because your car broke down all while your skin was breaking out. Phrasal verbs like “break up”, “break into”, “break down”, and “break out” are so arbitrary and annoyingly similar that many learners of English often know every word in a sentence yet still struggle to piece together the meaning – it’s almost like we’re talking in code.

All the Englishes

Finally, a bit like Spanish, there are so many varieties of English to choose from, and if you’re going for proper World English mastery, you’ll have to be aware of the many dialectal differences in grammatical features, vocabulary, and pronunciation. For example, if chatting with a Brit, you might want to avoid referring to your “pants”. When speaking to those from the US, you’d better call it “soccer” and not “football” or you’ll definitely have them confused. Canadians use the “washroom”, Australians eat “brekkie”, and even the vast majority of native speakers need subtitles to understand Scots, so good luck with that! There’s an incredible amount of regional and socioeconomic dialects in English, and it’s only getting more diverse with the vast number of international varieties and accents being added to our ever-globalizing society.

Ultimately, English (like every language on the planet) is chock-full of oddities which make learning and speaking it quite the challenge. Of course, as this has kept me employed for the last decade, I wouldn’t want it any other way! Haha! Just remember, while English can be tough, it can definitely be mastered through thorough thought, though. Cheers!  

¡Guadalajara, Guadalajara!

Somehow, we’ve officially been residents of Mexico for 6 months already, and it’s absolutely crazy how fast the time went by! Of course, as we’re still in “pandemic times”, our usual explorations and goings-on in a new city have been pretty tame, but that doesn’t mean we’re not learning everything we can about the incredible city we call home: Guadalajara. Through virtual chats with local friends, outdoor excursions, online Spanish classes, and, of course, the internet, we’ve definitely gleaned a lot of information about GDL, and I would say we are already as fiercely proud of this city as any good Tapatío (or Guadalajara native) would be. We’re so enamored (okay maybe even a little obsessed) that this month I want to share some keys facts about Guadalajara in the hopes that someday soon anyone and everyone will want to visit this amazing city.  

History

First thing’s first: where did it all begin? This is always a tricky subject with colonized countries because there are typically two histories: one European and one indigenous. Guadalajara’s story is no different. In the region/state now known as Jalisco (of which Guadalajara is the capital), there were many indigenous groups such as the Tonallan, Tetlán, and Zapopan peoples. These names can actually still be seen and heard representing various parts of the modern-day, sprawling city, but it was in the early 1500s, when the Spanish settlers, continuing their journey west, officially founded the city known as “Guadalajara”. However, due to some unrest with the local indigenous groups of the time, the city was actually moved three times before finally settling in its current location in the Atemajac Valley, in 1542. In fact, the true founder of the city was Beatriz Hernández, one of the initial settlers, who got tired of all the moving around and finally put her foot down, ultimately choosing the city’s final placement.

From 1542 onward, Guadalajara has always played an important role in Mexico’s history. Miguel Hidalgo had his headquarters set up here during the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. President Benito Juárez made Guadalajara the seat of his government during the Reform War of the 1850s. Throughout the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the Great Depression, and multiple domestic and international wars, Guadalajara continued to flourish and grow. By 1910, it solidified its place as the second largest city in Mexico, and since then has also become known as the “Silicon Valley” of Mexico, hosting a large number of innovative companies and international events throughout the years. As the city of Guadalajara expanded, neighboring cities have also been absorbed into the greater GDL area, including Tonalá, Tlaquepaque, and Zapopan, each of which still retains its unique vibe and perspective.

Geography/Climate

The geography of Guadalajara is a really interesting mix because while we’re squarely in Central Mexico in a “humid subtropical climate” zone, we’re also at 5,200 ft (1,560 m), roughly the same elevation as Denver, Colorado. For this reason, the weather is extremely mild (read: gorgeous). The hottest and driest months of the year here are April and May, but even then, the average high is only around 88°F (31°C). With no humidity and with temperatures dropping into the 50s (10-12°C) every night, it felt somewhat like a brief, very manageable (albeit early) summer. From June-September, GDL is in rainy season, which typically means rainy afternoons and some seriously stormy nights. Luckily, it also means the temperatures stay down as well. It’s currently August, and I usually have to wear a jacket when taking the dog out in the mornings – how awesome it that?! After the rainy season comes a cool, crisp autumn followed by a dry, mild winter. In GDL, winters are usually quite sunny and “spring-like”, but it has on occasion snowed. In fact, we’ve already heard several great stories about the infamous snow event of 1997!

Although it sits at a high elevation, Guadalajara is still technically in a valley, which means there are low-lying mountains surrounding the city. To the northeast there is a canyon system and several surrounding forests including Bosque Primavera. In general, Guadalajara is much lusher than I would have expected: green grasses, leafy trees, and many waterfalls can be found throughout Jalisco. There are also several volcanos in the area, a few small ones to the west (near Tequila) and a few more, southwest on the border of Colima, another one of Mexico’s 31 states. The city of Guadalajara itself is quite large: 58 sq mi (151 sq km) and is home to approximately 1.5 million people. If it helps, it’s about the same size and has a similar population density as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Guadalajara, like most large cities, is broken up into many distinctive barrios (or neighborhoods). We live in the slightly hipster Colonia Americana, which lies a little to the west of the oldest neighborhood in the city, the aptly named “Centro”.

Food

Of course, I cannot write about Guadalajara without highlighting some of its most characteristic foods. I wrote a bit about the common dishes found in the Bajío (lowland)/Western region of Mexico in a previous post, but for Guadalajara in particular there are a few specialties that must be mentioned. The first being the infamous torta ahogada (“drowned sandwich”). Perhaps the Philly-GDL comparison can continue here because the fame and ubiquity of this particular sandwich is very similar to that of the renowned cheesesteak in PA. A torta ahogada is essentially a pork sandwich made on baguette-like bread smothered in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s absolutely delicious and very unique. Other famous dishes here include birria (slow-cooked meat stew), carne en su jugo (beef broth with beans, eaten with tortillas), and jericalla (a flan/crème brûlée like dessert). The French flair that can be seen (and tasted) in a lot of Guadalajara’s signature dishes actually comes from the large swath of French immigrants who came into the area throughout the 1800s.

Not exactly a food, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share the fact that tequila is also an important claim of Guadalajara/Jalisco. The city of Tequila (which is how the drink got its name) is about 40 miles (65km) outside GDL. Grown only in this particular region of Mexico, the blue agave plant (as opposed to other varieties) is what separates tequila from other types of mezcal. Its status is highly protected, and the drink is as beloved here as it is the States. Although the margarita is really more of a US thing, cocktails containing tequila mixed with various fruits, juices, and either salt or tajín (a powder made of chilis and dried fruit) are super common here. In Guadalajara, I’d say the paloma is the most popular tequila-based cocktail, which is made with tequila, lime juice, grapefruit soda (usually Squirt), and salt mixed right into the drink.  

Other Notables

Guadalajara is known as a cultural hub of Mexico because not only does tequila (a national icon) originate here, but so does mariachi. The traditional music often associated with Mexico in general has gone through a lot of phases during its development and various influences. From handmade stringed instruments played by indigenous groups to the brightly colored outfits and trumpets of performers today, you can listen to a variety of mariachi styles in the Plaza de los Mariachis or in various restaurants across Guadalajara (and across Mexico as a whole), especially for important events. Mariachi, and its history, is widely celebrated in GDL, for example with a yearly Mariachi festival, during which (in 2009) a group of over 540 musicians gathered to break the world record for largest mariachi group playing together. One of the songs they played was, of course, “Guadalajara”, famously covered by Elvis Presley.

Other interesting facts about Guadalajara include: the Roman/Greek goddess Minerva/Athena has become a symbol of the city. She has a large statue near the Arch of Guadalajara and is also featured on the city’s license plates. GDL has two professional soccer teams: the Atlas and the Chivas, and from what I understand, the latter is arguably the most famous and successful team in Mexico. Guadalajara also has the largest indoor market in Latin America (Mercado San Juan de Dios also known as Mercado Libertad), which spans over 430,000 sq ft (40,000 sq m). GDL was also the birthplace of celebrities Guillermo del Toro (the director) and Canelo Álvarez (the boxer). And…it’s only a 4-5hour flight from Atlanta or Chicago! Ultimately, it’s a really remarkable city, and unlike some of the other places we’ve lived, the locals here know it and love it just as much as we do. I think you will too!

¡Todos bienvenidos!

Fun Facts and Features of Mexican Spanish

Mi escuela

It’s pretty safe to say I’ve been learning and using quite a bit of Spanish as of late. Living abroad, immersed in a new language and culture tends to push certain language lessons to the forefront (like how to order food, how to pay your bills, etc.), but recently, I decided I wanted more lessons, formal lessons. So, I started taking intensive Spanish courses at the University of Guadalajara. It has been so much fun to be a student again and to learn so much about the Spanish language, a language that has been strikingly absent in my life prior to this move. I took Latin classes in high school and (mostly) French in university before focusing on Polish and Chinese, so for me Spanish is super exciting and feels brand new. In fact, it’s so exciting and new that I want to share some of the things I have loved most about getting to know good ol’ español.

1 The Arabic Influence

The first thing I noticed right off the bat was the huge Arabic influence. Of course, I know Spain and the Arab empires had a history (to put it mildly), but I was still really surprised at the number of daily-use Spanish words that have a strong Arabic flair. My favorite of which is definitely “ojalá”. Ojalá means “hopefully” in Spanish, and as soon as I heard it, I knew there was an “allah” connection in there. The sound and use are super similar to the expression “inshallah”, which I’ve been hearing my Saudi students say for years. Now I think I use “ojalá” almost as frequently as they use “inshallah”, and I absolutely love it. The name Guadalajara is actually another example of Arabic influence. It means “valley of the stone” in Arabic. Other common words with Arabic roots are: alberca (pool), arroz (rice), jarabe (syrup), naranja (orange), sandía (watermelon), taza (cup), and zanahoria (carrot).

This is what comes to mind when I think “alberca”

2 The Drama

Go team perros!

Another feature of Spanish that I immediately loved was the drama or passion that is imbedded directly into the language. For example, to say “I’m sorry” in Spanish, you might use “lo siento”. However, if you translate the phrase literally, it means something more like “I feel it”, which I feel has a bit more strength to it. Another super common expression in Spanish is “me gusta _____”, which is generally translated as “I like _____”; however, grammatically, it’s more like saying “I am pleased by ______”. I feel a little Victorian and definitely a tad dramatic when I translate phrases like these in my head (“Yes, the tacos please me immensely, thank you kind sir”). I can also feel the emotion in some of the vocabulary/etymology divergences as well. “Pets” in Spanish are “mascotas”, which feels so much stronger to my English brain. I also love the vivid images given to “word searches” and “ironing boards” in Mexican Spanish, which are “sopa de letras” (letter soup) and “burros de planchar” (ironing donkeys), respectively.

3 The Specificity

Something else that jumped out at me pretty early on in my Spanish crash course was the specificity of the language. The first example I was met with was the fact that in Spanish I can be American (“americana”) or I can be United Statesian (“estadounidense”). This is a specification I really wish was just as easy and natural to make in English. Another good example is the term “treintañeros” or thirty-somethings, which is a word that this particular treintañera has found quite useful. Of course, there is also a seemingly endless supply of words for taco-like things: tacos, vampiros, dorados, gringas, guisados, etc. We’re honestly still figuring out all the particulars there, but it’s not just Mexican dishes that require this level of specificity, the ingredients often call for it too: for example, the difference between tomate and jitomate. From my understanding, tomates are green and rather small, whereas jitomates are your general Romas, beefsteaks, etc. Neither of which should be confused with my personal favorite: jitomates cherry.

4 The Slang

Another fun feature (of every language really) is the slang. And no, I don’t necessarily mean bad words, just words that are used in a more playful way. Some of my recent Spanish favorites include:

-Chafa (crappy)

-Chavorucco (someone older that acts young)

-Chido (cool)

-Chin (darn)

-Codo (literally “elbow”, figuratively “stingy”)

-Crudo (literally “raw”, figuratively “hungover”)

-Fresa (stuck up/snobby)

-Garrón (freeloader)

-Güey (dude)

-Moja pendejos (literally “wet idiots”, figuratively “annoying drizzly rain”)

-Naco (trashy/tacky)

5 The Trip-ups

¿Jabón o jamón?

But perhaps the most fun (and memorable) part of learning a new language are the missteps. Language is tricky and one slip of the tongue or change of a vowel and you could be saying something completely different. For example, when I was asked if I have a boyfriend or spouse. Instead of saying, “sí, soy casada” (yes, I’m married), I said “sí, soy cansada” (yes, I’m tired). I’m pretty sure it sounded like I was tired of being married. Haha! Sorry Tucker! Another slip-up I made recently reminded me of my students. In English there is always an issue with the pronunciation of “soup” and “soap”. They’re super similar words, but definitely not interchangeable. Well, I made the same kind of strange substitution when attempting to ask for soap (jabón), but instead asking for ham (jamón). Oops! Sometimes the missteps can be a bit more extreme as well. When trying to recall the general word for seafood (mariscos), I actually said something not so nice in Spanish, and promptly got a lesson in pronunciation as well as political correctness.

I’ve been having an amazing time learning and using such an incredibly rich and fun language. Making new friends and discussing the intricacies of linguistics (or else trying to ignore them completely and just speak) has continually reinforced all the reasons I love living abroad and being (currently) surrounded by all things español. ¡Qué buenas ondas! Ojalá this is only the beginning!

La Comida: The Regional Cuisines of México

Mmm…enchiladas…

I absolutely love Mexican food! Tacos, enchiladas, guacamole…yes, yes, yes! But what I didn’t know and what I’m still learning is that the old stand-bys that we all know and love are only the teeny tiny tip of the authentic, Mexican food iceberg (quite the image, I know!). After delving a bit deeper into some of the regions of Mexico in 2019, and definitely more so recently, I’ve been discovering (and tasting) a lot of this incredible variety. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Like in many large, diverse countries, the dishes of Mexico are often grouped by geographical region. The boundaries of these regions might differ slightly from person to person and occasionally a few are lumped together for simplicity, but in general, there are seven main regional cuisines: Baja, El Norte, Bajío/The West, Gulf Coast, Central, South Pacific, and Yucatán. 

Starting at the top left is the region of Baja, and you guessed it; this region contains the two states that make up the Baja California peninsula. The food of this region is sometimes called Cali-Mex, and it is often seen as somewhat of a fusion of Mexican and Californian fare. Being surrounded in water, seafood is, of course, a big part of the local cuisine there. Baja is well-known for its amazing ceviches (fresh, raw fish cured in citrus juices) as well as the infamous Baja fish tacos. Interestingly, Baja is also the point of origin for the now quite internationally famous Caesar salad.

(ceviche)
(one-stop, cheese shop)

Next, and easily the largest region in Mexico is El Norte (The North). This is the region that has arguably had the greatest effect on US-Mexican food (including the super Americanized hybrid that is Tex-Mex). This cuisine and culture evolved around ranch life; thus, beef is a main component. Flour (as opposed to corn) also reigns supreme here, and the need for a meal on the go (say via horseback) is how some say the burrito was born. Fajitas and other grilled dishes are also popular, and many of Mexico’s numerous cheeses are made in El Norte.

(carne en su jugo)

The next region on the list is very close to my heart (I live here), and funnily enough it’s often referred to as the “heart of Mexico”. Bajío means lowlands in Spanish, but the region generally includes states not necessary lying solely in the lowlands. This region, of which Jalisco is front and center, is known for its signature dishes, such as birria (a sort of meat stew), tortas ahogadas (literally “drowned sandwiches”, which are sandwiches swimming in tomato or chili-based sauces), and carne en su jugo (“beef in its juice”), as well as its desserts, like arroz con leche (rice pudding) and the absolutely delicious cajeta (caramel made from goat’s milk). Jalisco is also the birthplace of tequila, so the influence clearly doesn’t stop at food!

(torta ahogada)
(coconut fried shrimp)

Heading east, we come to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. This is the region where the Spanish first landed, and their influence can be seen even in the modern-day cuisine of the area. One of the most popular dishes is Huachinango, or baked snapper flavored with traditional Spanish ingredients like olives, garlic, and capers. The incredibly diverse Caribbean and African influence can also be seen in this region. Unsurprisingly, seafood is generally the protein of choice here, particularly shrimp, although plantains also feature prominently, as well as vanilla, which is indigenous to the area.  

Another big-hitter in the Mexican cuisine line-up is the Central region, which includes Mexico City and Puebla, two very influential areas. Here the Aztec influence can still be felt (and tasted), especially in the abundant use of chili peppers. In fact, Mexico’s most patriotic dish, Chiles en Nogada (which are stuffed chili peppers in a walnut sauce sprinkled with parsley and pomegranate seeds), hails from this region. Street foods such as tacos and tortas are also generally associated with Central Mexico and like El Pastor (spit-grilled pork), probably come from the mixing of cultures that has always been prevalent in this part of Mexico. Interestingly, while the Central region is famous for its street foods and cheap eats, this is also the location for Mexico’s haute cuisine scene as well. 

Down in the South Pacific region, lies another internationally renowned cuisine, particularly the dishes and food culture of Oaxaca. Known for its moles (traditional Mexican sauces/marinades) and the use of chocolate in savory dishes, the South Pacific has been influenced by the Zapotecs and other indigenous peoples. This is the region where chapulines (grasshoppers) can be found as well as other unique ingredients like huitlacoche (corn fungus). Oaxacan cuisine is often touted as one of the greatest untapped resources of the culinary world.

(panuchos)

Finally, we have the oft-visited, Yucatán peninsula. The resort cities of Cancún or Cozumel have their own culinary flair (catered to the needs of their many guests), but this region also has an array of incredible Mayan-influenced dishes. Papadzules (hard-boiled egg-stuffed tortillas covered in a pumpkin seed sauce), Cochinita Pibil (roasted pork), and anything with achiotes (flavorful seeds turned spices), are all unique, colorful, and absolutely delicious. As are the numerous tropical fruits incorporated into this region’s cuisine. Another personal favorite of mine, Yucatán cuisine surprises me at every bite. Even the seemingly simple panuchos (fried tortillas topped with beans, chicken, avocado, and pickled veggies) are just perfect.

(papadzules) (poc chuc) (relleno negro)

Of course, this is only a sample of the thousands and thousands of dishes that originated in Mexico. In fact, some of the most ubiquitous weren’t even included on this list because they don’t really belong to any particular region; dishes like chilaquiles (sort of like breakfast nachos), tacos, sopes (sometimes called Mexican pizza), tostadas, quesadillas, molletes (toasted bean and cheese flatbreads), pozole (hominy or puffed-corn soup), elotes, and tamales. They instead represent the country and its people as a whole; a country every bit as diverse as its cuisine. So, the next time you find yourself in Mexico (or even in a Mexican restaurant) try to stray away from the classic enchiladas or quesadillas and see what other offerings are available – you might find a few new favorites (much like I certainly have). Either way, ¡buen provecho!

(elotes) (chilaquiles) (flautas, fried tacos, y molletes) (sopes) (pozole)

Crossing the Border and Settling in

It’s hard to believe it’s already May, but when I look back at everything we accomplished in the last month, I can’t believe it’s only May! At the beginning of this year, I firmly decided to stop waiting for whatever “new normal” will eventually present itself, and started the process of moving to Guadalajara, Mexico. The first few stages went extremely smoothly: we got our visas from the consulate, flew to GDL, received our residency cards, found an apartment, all while working full-time (remotely, of course). However, the final stage of the move was a complicated one. We had planned to fly back to the US, get our vaccines, pack our car with the rest of our stuff, and drive the 32 hours from Orlando back down to GDL – all in less than a week, during a global pandemic. Here’s how it went:

First, a little more on the logistics of this particular endeavor…

Driving our car across the border and down into the inner states of Mexico meant that we’d have to get an import license for our car. The import license required a lot of paperwork (like copies of our residency cards, US driver’s licenses, passports, proof of Mexican car insurance, etc.) It also meant that we had to renew our registration in FL and update our US car insurance policy without actually being in the US (thanks Mom and Google Voice). With crossing the border, we also had to have a list of what we were bringing across (in English and Spanish) as well as up-to-date copies of our dog’s vet records for customs.

We did what we could in advance from GDL, but the week we spent back in the US was crazy! We were lucky enough to get an appointment at Walmart for the J&J one-shot vaccine (absolutely perfect for our circumstances), and we got the jab about an hour prior to the national pause. Whew! We also made sure Jenn got her yearly vaccines and check-up, and then started the process of stocking up on US-specific goods (like Everything Bagel seasoning and our preferred brands of socks and underwear) before packing our little car to its gills. Did I mention that during this week of planning and preparing, appointments and vaccine recovery, questions and more questions, Tucker did not take a day off work! He did, however, take a day off for the drive.

One heck of a road trip…

We drove from Orlando, FL to Baton Rouge, LA on the first day. It took just a little over 10 hours, which was longer than expected due to heavy rains. Jenn thoroughly enjoyed the ride in the backseat on a pile of pillows, dog beds, and blankets. Day 2 was from Baton Rouge to Laredo, TX (right at the border). This was also a little over 10 hours (a bit of a delay again thanks to Houston traffic), but we enjoyed both legs with region-specific favorites like Café du Monde beignets and Whataburger patty melts. Aside from worrying about sitting in a car for three days straight after getting a vaccine with blood clot tendencies, we didn’t think much of days 1 and 2. The border crossing and drive across Mexico was our biggest unknown, and no amount of Googling was helping us feel prepared.

Around 6am on Day 3 (the only day Tucker requested off from work), we went through the McDonald’s drive-thru (our goodbye to the US) and crossed International Bridge II, which connects downtown Laredo (US) to downtown Nuevo Laredo (MX). We went through the first of many gates/checkpoints around 6:30am, before sunrise, when there were only a handful of other cars. Each car was eventually directed into a space that reminded me of where you vacuum your car after a car wash. Very intimidating looking guards came over, opened all our doors, checked a few boxes/suitcases and asked us a few questions like where we were going, what items did we have with us, etc. They were also surprised by our little perrita who promptly barked at them when they opened her door. Once they had ensured we weren’t smuggling goods or people across, we were free to drive through another few gates into Mexico.

It was thorough yet efficient, but as we’ve been told again and again, it’ll be much more difficult going the other way. Luckily, we won’t have to do that for a while! Once we were officially in Mexico, our first stop was at the Banjercito (import license and general immigration office). I stayed in the car with Jenn while Tucker handed over our documents and got the stamped form we needed in order to drive on with US plates. After showing this form to another guard at the next checkpoint (just as you’re leaving Nuevo Laredo), we were officially on our way – eating our McMuffins and calculating mph into kilometers, perfectly content.

The next 11 hours were uneventful and absolutely beautiful. We took mostly toll roads, which are newer and very well-kept. We drove through the Sierra Madres Orientals, Monterrey, desserts, canyons, and many little towns/rest areas. We never felt unsafe; there were plenty of gas stations, convenience stores, and clear signage all the way down. The only slightly challenging part was navigating the passing zones (and the fact that some drivers will pass regardless of zone). Overall, we drove through 5 US states and 5 Mexican states, 1,963 miles, over the course of 3 days, and I’d gladly do it again (although maybe not for another year or two).

And now we’re here (semi-permanently, or so it finally seems)

That first night in our own beds with all our stuff in the same apartment was magical! It didn’t take long to put everything away and feel truly at home, but there were (and still are) some things we’re getting used to. First, every time I’ve come back to Guadalajara, I have had to adjust to the altitude/climate again. We’re at about the same elevation as Denver, and in combination with the dry-season (and likely over-exertion) on this particular re-entry, I felt the familiar feeling of altitude sickness that seems to haunt me whenever mountains or plateaus are involved. Jenn is also adjusting to life A) in a high-rise building (with scary elevators) and B) in a city with a couple million inhabitants, but for her, the pros definitely outweigh any cons – so many new smells, a bird watching window, and her own room! Haha! Other than that, everything has been the usual fumbling along until we’ve figured it all out, which is exactly what I love about being an expat!  

Ultimately, I’m pretty proud of how well this all came together, and if I had been pining for an adventure, I definitely checked that off the list early in 2021. Now all that’s left to do is settle in and enjoy la vida en Mexico!

Interesting Country Facts A-Z

April is here and with it, as always, comes birthdays week. Generally, around this time, Tucker and I are gearing up for a celebratory trip; however, just like last year, no such adventure is on our horizon. No worries though because over the past year I’ve done more than enough armchair travelling for another round-up of interesting country facts, this time coming to you alphabetically. Enjoy!

Antigua – This relatively small island in the Eastern Caribbean has a sweet secret known as the Antigua Black, the world’s sweetest and rarest variety of pineapple.

Belize – Many countries are known for their wines, but Belize puts a bit of a spin on the traditional recipe. In this Central American country, they specialize in making cashew wine, or wine made from the fermented fruits of cashew trees.

Chile – While the world’s first potatoes are generally thought to have been grown in Peru, approximately 99% of modern-day potato varieties are genetically linked to a small island off the cost of Southern Chile.

Dominican Republic – Located on Hispaniola, one of the largest and most diverse islands of the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic was highly sought after during the Colonial Era. Due to the relatively early Spanish presence/conquest of the area, the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo is actually the oldest cathedral in the Americas (completed in 1541).

Equatorial Guinea – People from this Central African nation are called Equatoguineans and their official language is, somewhat surprisingly, Spanish.

Fiji – The name “Fiji” is actually the Tongan word/pronunciation of the island; the Fijian word is “Viti”. The misnomer occurred because the first encounters between western explorers and Fijians took place on the island of Tonga.  

Ghana – Ghana, which means “Warrior King”, is located on the Gold Coast of West Africa. It is home to the world’s largest artificial lake, Lake Volta, which has a surface area of over 2 million acres.

Haiti – On the other half of Hispaniola (the second largest island in the Caribbean) lies Haiti, which is often associated with Voodoo. However, “voodoo” is actually more of a product of US pop culture than an accurate portrayal of the Haitian religion known as Vodou.  

India – As a country well-known for its delicious curries, I found it interesting that the word “curry” likely comes from the Tamil word “kari” meaning “sauce”. Tamil is spoken throughout most of Southern India.

Jamaica – Like many English-speaking islands in the Caribbean, Jamaica celebrates Boxing Day and/or New Year’s Day with a colorful parade known as Junkanoo. Interestingly, “Junkanoo!” is also the name of a Baha Men album. 

Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan has a long history, thus it’s not so surprising that it has its fair share of epics, such as one of the world’s longest poems, the Epic of Manas. This poem of more than 500,000 lines revolves around the hero Manas and his many adventures.

Lesotho – An enclaved country entirely within South Africa, Lesotho has the distinction of having the world’s highest low point. In fact, the elevation of the entire country is above 1,000m (3,300ft), which is why it has the nickname “Kingdom in the Sky”.  

Madagascar – Madagascar is home to many diverse ethnic groups, each of which has their own traditional customs and rituals. One that I found particularly interesting was the Famadihana ceremony, or the turning of the bones, where families rebury their ancestors with fresh cloth, on which they write the names of the deceased so they will always be remembered.

Nepal – Most people know that Mount Everest sits on the border of Nepal and Tibet/China, but I recently learned that the Nepalese name of the infamous mountain is Sagarmatha. In Tibetan it’s known as Chomolungma.

Oman – The humble Sultanate of Oman is actually the oldest independent state in the Arab world, but perhaps even more interestingly, the most popular soft drink there is Mountain Dew.

Panama – The recent Ever Given debacle has shed some light on the importance of shipping canals, and where there’s a need, there’s a price. The Panama Canal makes over $2 billion per year in shipping fees. The average toll for a ship to travel through the canal is about $150,000.

Qatar – A peninsula on a peninsula, Qatar is the flattest non-island country in the world. It would also be a fantastic Scrabble word if proper nouns were allowed!

Russia – Russia is big. The Trans-Siberian railway, which crosses the entire country, is over 9,300km (5,700 miles) long. It’s easily one of the longest and busiest railway lines in the world. 

Sri Lanka – The teardrop of India is known for its tea (Ceylon being a former name of Sri Lanka), but it’s also where cinnamon was first cultivated.

Tanzania – While there are many notable features of Tanzania, my favorite country fact is that Zanzibar, an island just off the coast, was the location for the world’s shortest war. The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 lasted about 40 minutes.

Uganda – This Central African country was given the nickname “the Pearl of Africa” by none other than Winston Churchill. He wrote fondly of the country and its diversity in his book “My African Journey” published in 1908.

Vatican City – Technically a city-state, the Vatican City has lots of strange laws, one of which has to do with the guards they employ. Evidently the guards that protect the Vatican must be Swiss males between 19-30 years of age and they must be over 174cm (5’8’’) tall. The uniforms are also required.

Wales – Part of the United Kingdom, Wales is sometimes overlooked by its somewhat more famous neighbors, but a surprising number of celebrities are Welsh: Roald Dahl, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Anthony Hopkins just to name a few.

Yemen – Yet another country on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the suspected home of the infamous Queen of Sheba. 

Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe has had a rough history of leaders. From the late 1980’s to 2017, a disastrous authoritarian regime threw the country’s economy into a tizzy leading to many crashes and insane hyperinflation. For this reason, Zimbabwe’s government was printing 100 trillion-dollar notes as recently as 2009.