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Letters of the Week

We don't know about you, but travel always makes us want to write long juicy letters to everyone we know. Maybe it's bragging rights, maybe it's a burst of poetic inspiration from seeing the Taj Mahal, but one way or another, suitcases and sunsets in strange places turn us into letter-writing fools. So, if it turns out you're the same way....be sure to include us in your list of people you just have to drop a line to. Don't worry, you will make us jealous...but hopefully we'll also be inspired by your adventures.

Want to see what other Savvy visitors have to say? Read our letters of the week, and be sure to tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you!

June 15, 2001

Language School, Part I: Precious Memories

Dear Rudy and Staff of The Savvy Traveler,

I listened with much emotion to your story on Centro Bilingue Language School in Cuernavaca. I was transported back to 1995 when I treated myself to three weeks at the school as a 50th birthday present. My then 16-year-old son said that since he was taking advanced placement Spanish in the fall, he should join me on the adventure. It seemed like a fine idea, and we changed from mother and son to fellow students and travelers.

We made the same observations about the school that you reported, like the incredible beauty of the buildings and the many fountains, which were turned on during the breaks for students' pleasure and turned off during classes to save energy. My son was a talented student who was moved up several levels, while I struggled for all three weeks in the same class.

We had a great deal of homework, which I found very difficult. Brad, however, breezed through his. Our mother-son roles completely reversed. One evening I said to him in exasperation, "I don't want you to help me with my homework, I want you to do it for me." He did and we were both satisfied.

We, too, went to Las Mananitas, but found it so expensive that we merely had a drink, watched the peacocks, took several photos, and then rode the collectivo down to the Zocalo and went to McDonald's.

Brad and I also became well-versed in the bus system and traveled to Taxco for a fabulous day of sightseeing. Since the bus we took was for locals and quite crowded, we had to stand up all the way back to Cuernavaca, but gained a store of terrific memories of the day.

When we got home, Brad continued to study Spanish in high school and at UC Berkeley where he became quite fluent. In fact, he spent a semester abroad in Santiago at the Universidad Catolica. He mastered Spanish and became a citizen of the world, a transformation inspired, in part, by his time at Centro Bilingue.

This wonderful student and traveling companion died last January 28th in a house fire in Berkeley. He would have graduated last month (see www.bradevansfoundation.org for more information). His passing has left his father and me heartbroken, but I was delighted to hear your story because it evoked such happy memories. This email is to thank you for bringing me such a vivid recollection of my son and fellow student.


Scottia Evans
Balboa Island, CA

Language School, Part II: The Dark Side

Dear Rudy,

Like your reporter in a recent story, I, too, went to a language school in Cuernavaca. Different institution, different details, but at the heart of it, a similar experience.

My school was run by a "Mexicanized" American, a superbly literate, partial expat who had a foot in the best part of his two worlds: the USA of his clients and the dollars they paid him, and the low-overhead Mexico in which he ran his business. He was fantastically well-informed and outspokenly progressive - at least on the surface.

Given his professed liberality, I assumed our school's patron was a generous employer, operating his language paradise to the benefit of all. But in the course of my stay, I learned differently. The place may have been structured to nurture an illusion of community, but it was revenue that ruled. After giving clients whatever it took to keep them coming and spending, it lowered operating costs by paying the people who did the work almost nothing.

Like the school in your story, our school was bursting with amenities: a beautiful physical plant, libraries and patios and book stores, and a resort-sized swimming pool in a garden setting. We also had a comfortable bus for after-class and weekend excursions to cultural sites and fancy restaurants. But the school paid slave wages to its employees, keeping them compliant by threatening to cut them off from their livelihood if they complained.

As part of our language and culture immersion, we lived with Mexican families. They provided us with rooms in their homes, talked to us, fed us, and gave us a place at the family table, as well as friendship and support. We totally imposed on their lives while they cleaned our bedrooms and bathrooms, fit their schedules to ours, and gave us lodging that was many times cheaper than a hotel.

I was charged about 20 American dollars per day for these living arrangements. Aside from assigning us a home and collecting the payment, the school played no role in our housing, but it kept about 60 percent of the income. Families had to scrimp and work double time to make money from this arrangement.

I could go on for pages more. I won't, but I do wonder how many other language students have discovered that school owners become wealthy by underpaying their employees. You can't blame it all on "the way things are." Owners have a choice in how they use the money they take in.



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