Caroline Tegeler is a Latin American Studies student at Colby College and studied abroad through the IFSA-Butler Mérida Universities Program in Mérida, Mexico in 2015.
With exactly one week left until my plane ride back to Boston, I found myself four hours away from my study abroad city of Mérida, on the beaches of Cancún, cheering enthusiastically in Spanish, and scoring one of the final points of the three-hour Mérida vs. Cancún Ultimate Frisbee game we had travelled to play. After weeks of practices preparing for this moment, the high winds and hot sand made us have to work even harder. My uniform with our team mascot, the Makech, a Mayan word for a cockroach adorned with gems typically worn as jewelry, was sweaty and sandy. I was the only member of either team from outside of México, was three hours away from anyone else on my program, and was a plane ride away from my friends and family from home. But there, under the Caribbean sun and beside my new friends and teammates from Mérida, I was happy.
As a long-time player of ultimate frisbee in the U.S. both in high school and in college, I couldn’t imagine a semester without my beloved sport. When I decided to study abroad in Mérida, México, I made sure to do my research and found the Facebook page for the Mérida ultimate team. After sending a message to the captain and finally mustering up the courage to go all on my own, I went to my first practice on a Saturday evening in February. Despite the challenge of speaking Spanish with a local team, the sport is the same across countries, and I ended up coming home that evening sweating and covered in so much mud that my host mom almost didn’t let me into the car when she came to pick me up. But again, still happy.
I was the only member of either team from outside of México, was three hours away from anyone else on my program, and was a plane ride away from my friends and family from home.
Joining the local team was the most independent thing I had done thus far in the semester. Everything else had been with my host family or with the rest of the IFSA-Butler abroad group. Having an activity and friends that were entirely my own was a unique experience that allowed me to see Mérida in a whole new light. I learned new Mexican slang, got invited to grab pizza after practice with the team, and learned how to get to and from practice on Mérida’s complicated and unscheduled bus system. I kept going to practices, and I kept learning from my teammates through my favorite sport, one that is increasingly becoming popular abroad.
Somehow I made it to Cancún
In April at practice one Wednesday, I got invited to go on the team’s third annual trip to Cancún to play the closest other Ultimate team in Southern México. The trip was the weekend before I went home, and IFSA-Butler had organized a tour of cenotes (the Yucatán’s famous beautiful sinkholes) as a farewell excursion for the day before my team’s first game. I would have to ride the four-hour bus to Cancún by myself, figure out the Cancún public bus system by myself, and find my Mérida Ultimate Frisbee team without cell service or internet. When I told my host parents about the idea and my discomfort with the idea of trying to do both, my host parents and siblings encouraged me to do it. You only study abroad once right? I had made it through over four months of life in a Mexican city, was comfortable with my Spanish, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play my favorite sport on the beaches of Cancún.
While I’m all smiles here, getting to this spot meant rushing to the bus station to get the last ticket available, asking three different people how to get to Playa Marlin, and standing up against a Ruby Tuesday’s that hadn’t yet opened to try to get onto their wifi. From there I had to WhatsApp message my friends on the team, all while carrying my bag, cleats and uniform, and meds for the sickness I was getting over.
But everything became worth it when I got to play ultimate on a beach most people can only dream of seeing on vacation. And I just hopped on a $6 bus for four hours! I was in awe of how lucky I was in that moment to have made it so independently to this place, and to be able to fully communicate in a different language, and become friends with a whole new group of people!
Joining a local team made my experience so unique among my group, and it was just the push I needed to branch out and become much more independent, both abroad and back home. That weekend is something I’ll never forget, and it was the perfectly crazy end to an insane semester where I did things I never would have believed I would be doing all alone. The next day over tacos for breakfast with my tacos (cleats) in my backpack, it hit me that I only had six days left now before I’d be back in Cancún, but instead of being on the beach I’d be inside the airport ready to head home. I didn’t have much time left to embrace my environment and the people around me; I wished I could stay longer. In that moment, all I could do was look at my new Mexican friends and ask, “Anyone else want another round of tacos al pastor?”