Getting It Wrong: Fear and Learning in Mazatlán

I love giving presentations.

It’s sick, I know. But I used to fear it deeply. I have a friend who is a professional street performer, and I have always admired his ability to withstand the potentially saucy, unforgiving, or worst of all, bored crowd. But as the result of training and good advice during my recent academic years, I finally get it: there’s a moment when you can see that you have captivated the room, when you have showed them something new. It’s electric—and worth the risk of failure to see the light of understanding in someone’s eyes.

During my grad work, I had plenty of heart-pounding podium moments, from research presentations to explaining complex principles of ecology to students, many of whom were undergraduates much more dedicated than I. (Thanks John Harte for giving me that job!)

But all these presentations had something in common: they’re in English. So when Dr. Martín Soto invited me to give a talk about my project at The Institute of Ocean and Limnology Sciences (part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico – Mazatlán), I accepted. But now I had to DO it. Before me stood my greatest presentation challenge: a different language.

Josh brings his morning coffee to one of the cliffs of Mazatlán.

Josh brings his morning coffee to one of the cliffs of Mazatlán. Taking a break to exercise is key to letting the mental juices flow and staying relaxed.

 

A little background on my audience: Martín’s lab chronicles lead pollution through land and sea in Mexico. A massive white machine fills an entire room in his lab, analyzing tiny samples in its hidden bowels, humming quietly under the constant attention of his equally quiet research assistant. I met Martín through a fellow Fulbright researcher—because our research is strikingly different. By contrast, my social science research hinges on interviews of everyday people, with a distinct bent towards story-telling and increasingly toward development practice. Our research isn’t even like comparing apples and oranges, its like comparing elephants and microchips.

But Martín enthusiastically encouraged me to present to the entire department. Real excitement around interdisciplinary is rare in academia. Yet Martín’s lab and the Institute has that feeling: an open-minded interest in discovery outside of the instruments for precision testing. Unfettered curiosity. So I set myself to corralling my limited Spanish for the chemists of Mazatlán.

Learning a new language brings out strange insecurities. When learning, I feel like I look dumb ALL of the time. And who likes feeling dumb all the time? Grad school, however, got me used to this. I have had to cultivate a whole new level of humility along with the ability to laugh at my linguistic wanderings. (People really do laugh; in fact. this would happen in my presentation.) But at some point, the desire to relate with people overwhelms the (sort of pathetic) need to appear smart. (It’s also excellent to do this in countries like Mexico and the Central American nations with their warm, forgiving culture around honest attempts.) Sincerity translates better than words.

Almost in spite of myself, my Spanish has improved in mysterious ways. Conducting interviews in Spanish has improved it, and of course regular conversation about new topics all the time (like trying to find batteries in Santa Rosalia or searching for sewing pins in Guaymas.)

Interviews, like spending the day shrimping with Alfonso in Altata, can be daunting to undertake, but they are ALWAYS a great idea.

Interviews, like spending the day shrimping with Alfonso in Altata, can be daunting to undertake, but they are ALWAYS a great idea.

 

I have met scores of Mexicans who told me that they learned English by watching English-language TV shows and movies, but I had no idea how this would work. Somehow, Spanish comprehension bore its way into my skull when I watched, in rapt confusion, as really, really beautiful people fought and cried and cried some more. I made time for the Mexican telenovela Pasión y Podér every day in Guaymas after working on the boat. To my astonishment, my comprehension unknowingly grew. With this regular practice of listening, one hour per day, I found that I could understand so much more.

A surprisingly great way to increase Spanish comprehension: watch beautiful people yell and cry at each other! This show was incredibly entertaining (even for Josh, who tolerated watching it every night we were in Guaymas!) and I'm forever grateful for it's help!

A surprisingly great way to increase Spanish comprehension: watch beautiful people yell and cry at each other! This show was incredibly entertaining (even for Josh, who tolerated watching it every night we were in Guaymas!) and I’m forever grateful for it’s help!

 

So I took to my normal presentation method to Spanish: I practiced. My friend and colleague at ERG, Jess Goddard, gave me this simple, unbeatable piece of advice: practice. Practice until you are bored. Rehearse the presentation six, seven, ten times, until you look at the slide and the words bubble out of your mouth without hardly having them pass through your brain. This is the key to stomping out the demons of intimidation for me.

I made slides and rattled them off in the boat cabin as we surged around in the El Cid marina in northern Mazatlán. When the day arrived, I nervously stepped into one of the open-air cabs and took the scenic drive to…the wrong place. Sweating in the only semi-clean button-down shirt I could find (these normally are sacrificed to the elements for their excellent sun protection and breathability,) I raced around a building on the water, searching for Martín’s office, only to slowly realize I was not in the right spot.

 

Fortunately, for once on my life, I was early. (It’s true! It’s possible!) I dashed out to the street in my pumps (another weird fact, I carry heels on the boat,) and waited breathlessly for another cab. And waited. An eternal five minutes later, a taxi dropped off a group 200 meters away, and I once again ran him down. The desert climate of Mazatlán already suggests its unforgiving summer heat in January.

We wound our way to the very tip of the malecón, and here I found the Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnología, perched on the jagged gray rocks underneath the tallest lighthouse in the world. Mazatlán’s turquoise surf crashed just below the windows where professors and their students worked out mysteries of organic chemistry. I found Martín, and he showed me to the presentation room. Students and professors filtered in.

So there I was. Forty people scattered themselves in clumps around the room, and Martín introduced me in Spanish to their expectant faces.

I launched into my research and our story. Since I knew that this was a crowd of seasoned scientists in a completely different field, I had crafted the presentation to be about not only the research, but my motivations for literally going to sea, and the benefits and hazards therein. Twenty-five minutes later, I had given my first presentation in Spanish. (Sadly, I have no photos for this momentus occasion.)

Questions following the talk were my biggest concern: what if I couldn’t understand them? There were a few times that I had to ask for clarification, but more than anything, the crowd appreciated my sincere attempts to answer. Mostly, everyone expressed concern not about my methods, but for our safety. Afterwards, as we drank coffee outside, I asked them what errors I made. With grins, they told me that I used the wrong word for “fiancée:” I used the word “promised.” So when I talked about “my promised” (Josh) on our sail, everyone giggled a little.

“We don’t really use that word for fiancée anyway,” Martín shrugged. “We use ‘novio’ for all of it.” By getting in wrong, I learned not only about the language, but a little bit about perception. In English, fiancée makes the relationship more official; in Spanish, it’s all the same until you’re married. But I would not have known this if not for my error. Plus it makes me laugh even now.

Outside the presentation room and clustered in the shade, a group of four female students surrounded me conspiratorially—and told me with glittering eyes they wanted to be my research assistants. Yes! A week later, we took Martín and his four students sailing from the marina, out past the breakers under their labs. Many selfies with sails were taken, and much giggling was done trying to crank in the jib, but more than anything, Martín’s students got a glimpse of what can be possible for women in science.

Cranking in the jib sheet, amid much laughter.

Cranking in the jib sheet, amid much laughter.

 

Future scientists of the sea.

Future scientists of the sea.

 

This is part of our mission: I hope that we can show that outdoor, exploratory, human-based research is not just necessary for understanding climate science, it’s an opportunity for women to thrive in the sciences and expedition-style discovery. Ships and science aren’t just for sea-crusty men.

I learned a lot from Martín and Mazatlán. Sea level rise was eating away at resorts, and those that guarded their sand with rocks meant that the ocean gobbled up the sand on either side. After seeing this here, I started to notice it more down the coast: as towns or resorts tried to keep the ocean at bay, they unwittingly let it closer in. As we would get further south, we discovered that buildings perched within a few feet of the sea is not standard for all countries. Mexico makes a stark contrast with Nicaragua and especially Costa Rica, where restrictions on development mean that businesses have a space buffer for a rising tide. As Martín would say with a sigh, Mexico has many great laws. It’s the enforcement that lacks.

Mazatlán has old Spanish charm mixed with international beach flair. It was our first stop in Mexico with an historic zócalo, a preserved slice of the cultural town square. These existed in La Paz and Guaymas, but it felt like our first foray into the complex, deeply-historied mainland. It’s a gem of high-rise humanity springing out of the desert, and clouded only by the smog belching from nearby industrial towns. The malecón stretches for miles along the surf, and locals and tourists alike take in the eroding sands.

The beautiful church downtown.

The beautiful church downtown.

 

What once was a beach resort, now retaken by the sea.

What once was a beach resort, now retaken by the sea.

 

The vibrant zócalo.

The vibrant zócalo.

 

I learned subtle clues about Mexico’s culture here as well. Martín drove me back to the marina after the presentation, and he waved to the guy in the booth at the resort and we slipped inside without stopping. When I commented that I was surprised he wasn’t stopped, Martín said that was because of the gringa: he could never get away with that if I wasn’t in the car. Even through the tinted windows, my light skin and eyes were a ticket to an open gate. There was no malice in his tone, and I felt shamed by Mexico in that moment: this open-minded professor, a pillar of research and mentorship, a kind and inviting stranger for a crazy international researcher on a sailboat, would be stopped for his appearance—while any light-skinned woman could slide through. This isn’t unique to Mexico by any means: but these subtle ways of living impact everything from telenovelas (with casts of light skin and eyes,) to funding for research, to how Mexico culturally faces the rising tide.

Mazatlán and the rising tide just outside of the marina. The breakwater becomes impassable with bigger swells.

Mazatlán and the rising tide just outside of the marina. The breakwater becomes impassable with bigger swells.

 

Since Mazatlán, my perspective on the impacts of climate change has been turned upside down and shaken out like a dirty, overloaded toolbag. As I carefully dust it out and start to place the useful tools back in and gather new ones, the ocean (and its keepers) remind me to stay honest. The sea reminds me that the greatest rewards come with the greatest risks—and that practice and preparation mean that, even with fear, meeting the unknown becomes more about sharing knowledge and watching the weather, and less about pounding forward into the swell or turning tail and running.

I can only learn if I get out there. Screwing it up is the way to comprehend a new language, enjoy it even—whether Spanish, the art of presentation, or getting to know the wild sea.

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