Puebla, where Rachel and I are tonight, is a grey city. At least, it has been since we got in a day or so ago. We left Oaxaca yesterday morning, after booking a room on Airbnb with a young architect living in the heart of Puebla’s Centro district. When our jam-packed bus pulled up on the side of the highway and dropped us off, we tried to secure directions from the driver in the cold grey rain, and the best we got was a rough idea of where to catch a cab.

But we made it to our host’s address–an eight-story tall complex called Edificio Vaca, or “Cow Building”–and before long, were settled into the comfort of his apartment. Today, we explored a very small stretch of the city, and before we go out for dinner, I figured it was time to update the blog with some more Oaxacan adventures.

A Day of Mezcal

One of the experiences we were looking forward to most when we left the States was a mezcal tour. The state of Oaxaca is known for its mezcal–a complex agave spirit that’s a close relative of tequila–and Rachel and I had both enjoyed the liquor since we first tasted it in our favorite bar in Eastern Washington. Lucky for us, Alvin Starkman, a Canadian ex-pat with a deep love for mezcal, lives in Oaxaca City and gives day-long educational tours about the spirit. We signed up immediately.

The tour took us to four or five different rural production facilities, allowing us to see every stage of the process. At our first stop, for instance, Alvin showed us the three-still setup belonging to palenquero (producer) Felix Ángeles Arellanes, where fermented agave juice went into a clay pot, condensed on a metal cone, and dripped out a bamboo shoot. At another facility, crushed roasted piñas–the juicy heart of the agave plant–were sitting in a trough, and we sampled the molasses-sweet liquid they were floating in. By the end of the day, we had not only a thorough understanding of not only how mezcal was made[1], but also a glimpse into the culture and industry surrounding it.

And, of course, we got to sample mezcal. Over the course of the morning and afternoon, we must have tasted at least a dozen different mezcals. There were fruity pechuga mezcals, named for the poultry breast (pechuga) that, along with a basket of fruit, is inserted into the still on the final distillation. There were crisp, sharp mezcals, and–our personal favorites–smoky mezcals that tasted, oddly enticingly, like burnt rubber.

Needless to say, it was a wonderful way to spend a Oaxacan day. The worst part: packing our five new glass bottles of mezcal for the plane.

Exactly What It Says on the Tin

Our candy apple-red bus was bumping and bouncing down the streets of Tlacochahuaya, a small self-identified Zapotec community outside of Oaxaca. Tlacochahuaya[2] was Stop #1 on our tour with Fundación En Via, a local organization that supports working women via microloans.

I looked out the window, and as we passed, saw a wonderfully self-referential piece of faded graffiti. All it said:


Walk? Maybe?

Being a pedestrian in Mexico is a world apart from being one anywhere in the U.S., save perhaps for New York City. Cars respect traffic lights, more or less (which gives Mexico one up on NYC), but as long as they have a green or a yellow, taxis and buses will barrel down urban streets with a downright harrowing velocity. Here and there, you’ll see painted crosswalks, but more often than not, crossing the street means dashing out in gaps between oncoming traffic–or when the streets are clogged, dancing between the hoods of honking cars.

In Oaxaca, a handful of street corners actually have crosswalk signals, but these are relics in and of themselves. Based on careful study, I’ve deduced that when they are actually functioning, a timer on top counts down the seconds left to cross, while a figure in white LEDs below moves in a smooth walking motion, speeding up with 10 seconds left on the clock. However, the overwhelming majority of these signals in Oaxaca are on the fritz, so instead, they simply sputter and flicker in unpredictable patterns, occasionally sparking red as part of the “stop” signal accidentally illuminates.

We didn’t much rely on the crosswalk signals.

The Beetles That Oughtn’t Exist

The streets of Oaxaca’s Centro Historico are beautiful, lined with bright storefronts and old stone architecture. If you tear your eyes away from that, however, and look at your feet, you will inevitably spot a peculiar sight: large brown beetles. Or, rather, large brown beetle bellies, because the chances of seeing one right-side up are utterly infinitesimal.

A brown beetle, belly-up on the ground

These beetles are the pandas of the insect world, as far as I’m concerned; a species that should have been picked off by natural selection generations ago, yet still, inexplicably, keeps on ticking. About the size of a middle-sized strawberry, these beetles lope along the ground at a comically lethargic pace until they reach either a steep incline (like, say, a wall) or a steep decline (like, say, a curb). Upon encountering this startling change of elevation, they attempt (inevitably) to traverse it, only to fall (inevitably) and land (inevitably) upon their hard-shelled backs.

Then they die.

Really. Sure, they don’t go gently; they flail their little legs in the air and attempt to rock back and forth to right themselves. Some of the cleverer ones spread their wings to give themselves extra leverage. But it rarely works, and the beetles usually give up and die there. The streets (and, really, all paved horizontal surfaces) of Oaxaca are lined with belly-up beetle corpses, only a few inches away from those treacherous curbs and cornerstones.

Pen Perils

For how much I love my pens, I have a shamefully bad track record with them. Ever since I got my first Parker Jotter, I’ve suffered the semi-regular misfortune of misplacing my everyday pens. Frustratingly, I never know how it happens; even when I have a designated spot for my beloved pens (in a jacket pocket, in a pouch, clipped to a pocket), there will inevitably come a time when I reach for the pen in its place and realize, with a sinking feeling, that it’s not there anymore.

Rachel and I, along with our guide, Carlos, were barely 10 minutes down the dirt road that lead out of Latuvi, where we spent the first night on our trip to the Pueblos Mancomunados, when I tightened the chest straps on my backpack and noticed something odd. I was expecting a sharp bit of pen-shaped pressure on my chest, since the straps sat right over my pen pocket, but there was nothing.

Then I remembered I had handed my pen to Rachel to sign a guestbook before we left Latuvi, without telling her it was my pen.

Damn it.

Carlos radioed back to the office, and we pressed on. Within fifteen minutes, we heard a whizzing behind us, and a smartly-dressed worker from the Latuvi Tourism Office dismounted from his bicycle, fished around in his pocket, and handed me the runaway.

I had hopes that that would be my only pen-related mishap on the trip, but this story has a sad ending. When we visited the Monte Alban ruins outside of Oaxaca City a few days later, my pen once again went missing, and this time, it was gone for good.

I will be traveling with cheap plastic ballpoints for the rest of the summer.

Not Quite What It Says on the Tin

As Rachel noted, there was an endlessly amusing disparity between what our itinerary for our trip in the Pueblos Mancomunados said we would do, and what we actually did.

Itinerary for Latuvi: “Visit Doña Julia to learn the process of pulque and tepache, visit the group of women who produce jams, and after a long hike, enjoy a steam bath with a massage and scrub.”

Actual experience in Latuvi: Drank some tepache and looked at a squirrel in a cage. Asked about the steam baths, were told it would take a couple hours to warm up and that it might not be possible. Wasn’t possible. Walked around town. After dinner, watched some kids play basketball, got asked if we were in line for the municipal office. Bought two cans of Modelo and drank them in our cabin. Dared to shower without knowing if the boiler was on.

Itinerary for La Nevería: “Walk around town, take a bike ride, learn to bake bread in adobe ovens, go with a farmer and learn about his daily activities in the field or the greenhouses, and memorize some Zapotec words while speaking with some members of the community. You can also make a trip into the community to learn about medicinal plants of the region.”

Actual experience in La Nevería: Watched a guy paint some signs. Tried to follow a game show on fuzzy TV screens. Explained we had a homestay, were taken to the home of the tourism administrator’s family. Were shown to a lovely concrete room with four beds, Santa bedspreads, and two bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Asked about the bread-baking, were told we could help someone shuck corn for an additional fee. Walked around in the rain.

By our third night, we’d learned to simply disregard the itinerary’s optimistic ideas.

Our visit to the Pueblos Mancomunados was really quite great, to be sure. It just wasn’t filled with adobe ovens and Zapotec legends, as the itinerary may have had us believe.

Rollin’ On

We leave Puebla tomorrow, and take a bus to our final destination in Mexico: Mexico City, where we plan to see some museums, visit the Teotihuacán ruins, and experience the major Mexican metropolis. Stay tuned, because I’m sure I’ll have more to share.


The new WordPress Gutenberg editor does not currently support footnotes. This is silly, but here we are. Here are my footnotes from this post, preserved awkwardly until I can reintegrate them more elegantly:

[1] For more on that, check out Rachel’s blog post.

[2] Pronounced “tlock-o-cha-why-yah”, more or less.

Adventures in Oaxaca Pt. I

It’s 10:00 in Oaxaca as I write this, and Rachel and I are relaxing in bed in our hostel. If you want to be technical, yesterday was our first (nearly) full day in Mexico, as we landed in Mexico City before the sun was up, but given how much of the day was spent in planes, cabs, and buses, I’m feeling like quietly[ref]Well, okay, I’m not sure it counts as “quietly” if I spend a whole line disclaiming that…[/ref] discounting it. Today was our first full day, and already we’re adventuring.

Here are a few of our adventures thus far. Continue reading


But excited.

But terrified.

That’s been my emotional state for the past few days. Rachel and I arrived in Seattle on Friday evening with a car full of our possessions, and in the days since, we’ve been working through a massive pre-departure checklist. Around dinnertime tonight, passports in hand and with little more than the gear and garb our backpacks will hold, we’ll be boarding a flight at SeaTac, destination Mexico City. Continue reading

Lousy Japan photos

Throughout the month of August, I'm aiming to write 25 blog posts. This is post #16 of 25. Find them all in the "blogathon 2014" category.

When I lived in Japan, I took a lot of pictures. Over 5,000. Then, when I returned home, I did what everyone with a digital camera does these days–put them all on my external hard drive and forgot about them.

There are some really great memories in there, but there are also a bunch of pictures that I have absolutely no reason to keep, and have just kept around anyway. I’ll pull out the great photos and share their stories some other time, but today, I want to look at a small portion of the goofy, pointless, or just plain inexplicable photos from my time in Japan. Continue reading

Traveling Without a Map

Throughout the month of August, I'm aiming to write 25 blog posts. This is post #6 of 25. Find them all in the "blogathon 2014" category.

The other night,  after cleaning up the dinner dishes, R and I went to the ale house around the corner for a beer. The evening air was gentle, a welcome change from Walla Walla’s oppressive summer heat, so we took our beers out to the patio and sat.

“What will it take,” R asked me teasingly, “to convince you to go live with me in another country for a year?” Continue reading

Here’s my problem with my study abroad program.

In the next week and a half, I have to:

  • translate interview questions in to Japanese
  • interview five Japanese people (in Japanese)
  • prepare a 25-minute presentation based on that data (in Japanese)
  • take a Japanese test
  • listen to and critique my performance on my most recent 20-minute Japanese oral exam
  • write a 600-character composition (in Japanese)
  • finish writing a 4-minute script for a film (in Japanese)
  • work with classmates to create the aforementioned film from my and others’ scripts
  • read approximately 200 pages of articles regarding minorities and immigrants in Japan
  • read a Japanese article for my reading comprehension class

This does not include any daily incidental homework that may be assigned in clas–this is just the stuff that I can see coming. And indeed, I’ve seen most of this coming from a mile away.

But I’ve been so swamped with the daily incidental stuff that I’ve been unable to make any headway on these long-standing projects. To illustrate this, in the last week and a half, I had to:

  • read 20 pages of a comic (in Japanese)
  • prepare a vocabulary list/task sheet for those pages (in Japanese)
  • do a Japanese listening practice assignment
  • read roughly 100 pages of articles regarding minorities and immigrants in Japan
  • take two Japanese vocabulary quizzes
  • take two kanji quizzes
  • translate a dozen complicated sentences into Japanese in preparation for a test
  • interview my host family about jobs and employment
  • select (and clean up) pictures to showcase in my photography class
  • write an article in Japanese about my experience with お正月 (oshougatsu– the Japanese New Year)
  • read a Japanese story for my reading comprehension class
  • write a 5-page midterm essay for Minorities and Immigrants in Japan

And that list’s probably not exhaustive. That’s mostly the daily incidental stuff that just came up. The longer-term projects, such as the midterm essay and the article on お正月 were pushed back to far later than one might consider prudent–not from laziness, but from sheer lack of time.

There is so much daily busy work simply required by my classes that I can not touch the long-term projects. I see them coming. I want to get them out of the way. But thanks to all of the stuff I have to do for class just to stay on top of the daily requirements, I cannot get a head start on them.

There are corners I can cut. I can come to Minorities and Immigrants having not read the articles (which I’m doing lately), and I can cut my sleep schedule short (which I’m doing, drastically). But skipping articles means that I don’t get as much as possible out of my Minorities class, which will bite me in a few more weeks when I have to write a final. Cutting my sleep–I’m already getting only about 5-6 hours each night anyway–means that I doze off in class (bad) or when trying to work, so I either get less out of class or my working efficiency drops. Beyond those two, I have a hard time seeing anything I can do (save for not writing blog posts, but this venting is preventing me from just completely breaking down into a nervous wreck, so I believe I can justify it on grounds of preserving my health).

This burns all the more because, for Pete’s sake, I’m in Kyoto. There are a million and a half things I want to be doing. I want to be roaming the streets, checking out temples that catch my fancy. I want to continue my as-of-yet-fruitless search for a double-edged razor (seriously; every drug store in Japan sells Feather brand double-edged razor blades, but none sell the razor itself). I want to peruse the wacky offerings of the enigmatic store called Don Quijote, buy manga at Book Off!, try crepes at a restaurant near campus, or just wander Uji and see what sights pop up to surprise me. I want to go on walks. I want to sing karaoke on Shijo and then slip into the weekend with a visit to a bath. I want to experience Kyoto again.

But I can’t. I can’t even spare time for the long-term projects that are required of me, to say nothing of my personal whims.

Rather than someone experiencing life in Kyoto while studying as a student, I’ve become a student grinding away at the piles of work he has, who just happens to be in Japan. I eat Japanese food for dinner and nobody’s speaking in English, but that’s the current extent of my daily–weekly–monthly experience in Japan. I can’t afford to do anything more.

It’s a recipe for disaster. Take one Spencer, marinated for years in “prone to stress out about work”. Coat in daily obligations. In a separate bowl, mix long-term projects. Keep separate. Sear until the juices of”possible stress relief” have all come out, then throw in a pan and bake on high until carbonized.

This is not, as a keen reader might deduce, ideal.

Damn, it happened again.

I have this unfortunate tendency to stifle my own writing and put off writing about easy or simple things because I have multiple big ideas for posts, and I feel like I owe it to someone to write something “of substance” instead of “shallow” day-to-day posts. For instance, part of the reason I haven’t written in my study abroad blog here for a while is that I feel that, since I’m getting space on the Whitman Pioneer website, I ought to do my liberal arts education at least a bit of good and try to post content that’s actually analytical or thoughtful, and not merely, “I went here! I saw this!” I’m not sure how much there is to that–while it would be good to apply some thinkin’ to my experiences over here, I imagine it would be better to post shallow day-to-day content than post nothing because I want to be deep and significant.

I suppose I can always write analyses after I return, too. After all, I do get to take my experiences through customs.

Of course, there’s also the excuse that I haven’t had too much time, what with homework and adventures, and that much is true. Still, a moderate chunk of my excuse for not writing has simply been my (misguided) desire to write something “worthwhile”.

So, worthwhile or not, here’s what’s on my mind.

Lately, I’ve been starting to think about America again. Not just in my typical terrified-of-how-absurd-American-politics-is way, but in a more real sense. I’ve been mentally placing myself in the US again, thinking about the foods I want to eat, the places I want to go, the things I’ll be able to do when I return. I think about all the packages I’ve had shipped to my house, and–maybe most dangerously–how I’ll be able to “continue” my life when I get back. As if my time spent over here in Japan was just a diversion, a detour from our regularly-scheduled programming. As Sam says, I’m “slipping out of Japan”.

The problem is that I’m a whole two and a half months away from being done here. It makes no sense to be thinking as if my time here is already done when I have all of this time left.

This is what Ben, a previous student who stayed with my host family, described as “culture fatigue”, one of the steps of the cross-cultural experience. After being immersed in a foreign culture for six months, it’s starting to wear me down. Not in any conscious way–it’s not as if I’m actively hating anything at all about Japan–but rather in a subconscious way. It’s not easy to spend six months straight in a country vastly different from your own, and after a while, the difficulty of navigating daily activities, making yourself understood and understanding others, and ultimately attempting to be a functional human being in an entirely new context all piles up. My brain has decided to take a cultural holiday, and it’s pushing me hard to just go back to being American again.

So, I’m speaking more English. I’m enjoying my (scarce) leisure time by reading English books and English websites. I’m hanging out with American friends. It’s as if I’m doing everything in my power to avoid Japanese culture and language.

Which, y’know, is absolutely stupid.

It wasn’t really a conscious choice to begin with. I didn’t look at myself in the mirror and say, “Well, we’ve had a good haul–time to stop all that Japanese stuff.” (However, now that I’m aware of it, it must be conscious to some extent, since choosing not to address it is a conscious choice.) But even if it’s not conscious, it’s moronic. Or, more accurately, it would be moronic to keep doing this now that I see what’s going on.

According to literature on the topic that we studied last semester in my cultural psych class, cultural fatigue is part of the study abroad process. It happens to many. I’m not unusual in trying to revert to my American lifestyle. However, as is likely obvious, it’s the make-or-break point of a cross-cultural experience like studying abroad. If I allow myself to continue insulating myself from Japanese culture, that’s essentially the end of my experiences here in Japan. If I let my mind resituate itself in America now, then I might as well be there in the flesh for all the good I’ll get out of the rest of the semester. On the other hand, if I take this opportunity, bunker down, and throw myself full-force back into Japanese culture, I have the feeling I’m going to reach a very happy place by the time the year is done.

It’s a tempting trap, though, particularly because completely pushing America out of my thoughts is impossible for all practical purposes. I have to secure housing for next year. I have to look at job and internship opportunities. My future doesn’t end when I leave Japan, so there will be some things that require me to switch back into “American mode”.

I suppose the trick, then, is finding how to switch into “American mode” when necessary–and then going promptly back into “Japan mode”.

I finally finished my last final a week or so ago, which means that winter break has officially begun. Victory!

It also means that I’ve been here for a whole semester, which is a little more difficult to believe. Time has flown by like I never would have anticipated. But I’ve also had more amazing experiences than I can count, and I’ve been learning a ton, so although this year is already half over, I don’t feel in the slightest like it’s been wasted.

Being at the end of a semester, as well as just about the end of the calendar year, I thought it’d make sense to reflect a little on what I learned so far in Japan. When thinking about this post, I’ve been unable to decide if I want to style it as a letter to my past self–what I wish I knew–or a note to future AKP students, or who knows what. In the end, though, I think I’m just going to leave it as reflections.

Here, in no real order, are some reflections on this first semester in Japan.

Continue reading