One of my most memorable experiences in high school was the trip members of our Sky View High School Spanish Club took to Mexico the summer between my junior and senior years. We joined students from Logan High and spent almost three weeks traveling in Mexico. I have my parents to thank for the experience, since they contributed monthly to my trip fund, which allowed me to go. It was a life-enriching experience.

Our instructor and tour facilitator was Señor Leon Oswald, who remains to this day one of my favorite teachers. Señor Oswald had made the trip to Mexico many times and had the planning and itinerary down to a science. The plan was to fly into Acapulco, then take a tour bus through the country’s interior. Our home base was to be Guadalajara, where we would be split into partnerships and stay with pre-arranged families immersed in the language and culture for the time we’d be there.

A few weeks before our departure date, we were informed that the airline we were scheduled to fly on had gone belly up and was no longer in service. This was probably a blessing at the time since the plane was probably a C-47 used in the invasion of Normandy in 1944 and hadn’t had an oil change since. We were pretty bummed about the possibility of not being able to do the trip until we heard that we’d be going after all! Hooray! We’d be traveling to the border of Mexico from Smithfield by bus — school buses that is. Yep, we traveled all the way to the border crossing at Nogales in non-air conditioned, standard-transmission yellow school buses, which made the trip through Sardine Canyon excruciatingly slow.

After crossing the border, we made it to Hermosillo, where we stayed the night and transferred to an actual touring bus (yippee!) that had a restroom, comfortable seats and, best of all, air conditioning! Everywhere we went, hoards of kids followed us wanting to shine our shoes or sell us something. We were all wearing tennis shoes or sandals but let them “shine” away on whatever we were wearing.

Once in Guadalajara, we attended classes in music, culture and language at the university and received our family assignments. The family my group (three of us, I think) was assigned to was actually an older woman and her 14-year-old son. Our “Mama” spoke zero English, so right off the bat we had to start communicating using our “Spanglish,” including lots of hand gestures, grunts, facial contortions and pure luck to figure when we would eat, where the bathroom was, when the buses were running, and after dinner exclaim “I can’t feel my tongue!”

Mama never moved from the kitchen, where she sat at the table preparing meals and chattering away at her son, who ran all the errands. Food was prepared fresh for each meal and was delicious, especially the rich hot chocolate served every morning with our sliced papaya and melon.

After classes we’d return to our families and would have evenings to go where we wanted (wouldn’t happen in today’s world) and explore. We spent most our time in the marketplace trying out our language skills and haggling over prices for items to bring back home with us. One of our favorite things to do was to take part in arm-wrestling matches where we could knock a few bucks off the price of some merchandise we had our eye on, IF we won.

Our day tours included trips to Tlaquepaque, where we watched glass blowers and skilled potters create their wares. We enjoyed roasted whitefish at Lake Chapala, climbed and explored the ruins at Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City, and on our return to the U.S. stayed up all night running through the warm surf at Mazatlan, chasing sand crabs.

Always looking to improve our language skills, whenever the bus would stop in town we’d yell out the windows to passers-by and ask if they knew how far it was to our hotel. We never understood the responses, but I’m sure it went something like: “Yes gringo! Keep driving south until you come to the Panama Canal, then jump in the ocean and swim west!”

Other than what Mama fed us, we survived mainly on mini-football sized rolls called bolillos and orange soda. I never got sick or had any health issues while I was there even through I ate everything I could get my hands on.

The border crossing back into the U.S. was much different than today. A border guard glanced at the bus and simply waved us through. I found out afterward that some of the guys had hidden switchblades in hollowed out bolillos. I’m sure they’d still be in prison there today if they’d been caught.

To this day, whenever I get on a school bus for a field trip, I’m reminded of that amazing trip and am grateful for automatic transmissions and that we are only going 80 miles instead of 2,089. I learned more Spanish on that trip than I did in two years of classes, so if your child has an opportunity to go abroad, it’s well worth it! Viva Los Bolillos!

Chad Hawkes is a fifth-grade teacher at North Park Elementary School. He can be reached by email at chad.hawkes@ccsdut.org.

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