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BE MORE THAN A TOURIST

A language immersion program in Merida, Venezuela, teaches more than just Spanish.

Limon. Zanahoria. Cebolla.

Lemon. Carrot. Onion.

Besos robados. Te amo en silencio.

Stolen kisses. I love you in silence.

And my favorite, Olvidame si puedes _ Forget me if you can.

More than 700 flavors of ice cream at the Heladerma Coromoto, and only two weeks to spend in Merida, Venezuela. Having to start somewhere, I begin with choco-naranja, chocolate-orange.

An inexplicable, yet no less compelling midlife goal of learning Spanish has brought me to live with a local family while studying in a language-immersion school. Considering the available locations, I settled on Merida because the Andes begin here _ a romantic notion to a flatlander from the Texas coast, where the only altitude to be found for hundreds of miles in any direction is a freeway overpass.

I came to improve my Spanish, but came away with more than I could have imagined.

Merida is the capital of the Andean state of Merida, rightly known as "the roof of Venezuela." Pico Bolmvar, the highest peak in the country at 16,427 feet, is one of the five snow-capped "white eagles" that surround the city.

Crowded onto a 5,400-foot-high shelf of land that falls off into semitropical valleys, Merida is thick with vibrant plants and trees draped in Spanish moss.

The city's quarter-million inhabitants include more than 35,000 students at Universidad de los Andes, which gives the city a youthful feel and probably accounts for the abundance of clubs, inexpensive vegetarian restaurants and ice cream shops. El Centro, the downtown area, is filled with old churches, shady parks, heroic statues, red-tile roofs and peddlers.

During the day, vendors crowd into the city from the surrounding countryside to sell produce, flowers, snacks, handmade items, T-shirts, pirated CDs and cheap knockoffs of Western designer goods. So many people are struggling to survive in a difficult economy that their shops _ which may be be just merchandise displayed on blankets, carts and trays _ overflow the sidewalks to share the streets with passing cars.

These entrepreneurs may entertain their young children and chat among themselves, but they still verbally grab the arm of every passerby with a courteous but insistent a la orden _ at your service.

Traveling to Merida was a leap emotionally and culturally as well as geographically. Since my plane landed in Caracas hours after the last flight departed for Merida, I had to stay overnight in the capital city. Finding a hotel, a safe cab and a ticket for the Caracas-Merida flight presented a problem, especially given my lack of fluency in Spanish. Had a language-school broker not taken care of these details, I would have chosen a simpler but less interesting destination.

But thanks to the broker's arrangements, a driver met me and two other students at the Caracas airport, checked us into a local motel and returned early the next morning to take us back to the airport for the hourlong flight to Merida. There, we were greeted by our Venezuelan families and remained in their care until leaving two weeks later.

Along with our teachers, our familias venezolanas eased the cultural and emotional transition into Venezuelan society. I have an insatiable urge to explore, to visit countries where the food smells different and people speak different languages. I am accustomed to traveling alone, but I found in Merida that the family, teachers and students who become friends were a delight.

I would not have braved the school's field trip on the telefirico, said to be the longest and highest cable car in the world, without a friend to hold my hand, literally. The car climbs over 10,000 feet along almost 8 miles of cable, with oxygen conveniently available to counteract altitude sickness at each of the four stops along the way.

During the ascent, the landscape below changed from semitropical to evergreen, then to treeless paramo, and finally to snow-covered rock. When the car reached the top of Pico Espejo, it seemed that we had been riding above the clouds forever. We bundled up and explored the moonscape in the thin, icy air of 15,630 feet.

Conversations in class took us into areas that would never be covered in a typical language course. I picked up a lot of useful slang, insults and even children's rhymes. I learned that Venezuelan roosters crow ki-ki-ki, owls hoot guru-guru and ducks quack cua-cua.

"Yuck" is guacala, while something that's cool is chivere.

Teachers and family serve as endless sources of insider information. Typically, after each morning's class there was plenty of time to eat in a cafe, explore the cemetery, chat with street vendors, visit churches or grab an ice cream cone. Each experience presented opportunities to try out Spanish phrases, and often the experiences raised questions for home or the next day's class:

Q. What are the messages painted on the windows of cars and buses?

A. Open invitations to parties being held around town.

Q. How much are local salaries and living expenses?

A. Wages are low and expenses surprisingly high. Typically, monthly income is about 180,000 bolivars or Bs (about $268), with rent costing about two-thirds of that (about $179) and telephone services Bs20,000 (about $29). In spite of Venezuela's oil riches, about 80 percent of the population is poor, and my teachers and family all believe that every day more of the middle class slips into poverty.

My mama venezolana previously worked as a secretary while making jams to sell in El Centro, but she has since found a better livelihood with her hosting income of about $8 a day.

She is a single parent whose ex-husband has four families and six children. This is not considered a sad story, just a typical one; most people take for granted the male sense of entitlement that leaves so many women to struggle alone. Two useful phrases I learned from my mama, as she spoke of things in her immaculate little apartment, were "It's broken" and "It doesn't work."

Living in Venezuela taught me that you can run a household and yet take out only a tiny bag of trash every three or four days, instead of a large one every day; that one piece of chicken can make two good meals for three people; and that a broken oven is a handy place to put the dishes to dry.

My mama took good care of me. Like the parent of a kindergartener, she came with me on the first day of school to make sure I knew which bus to take. She served me avocados because I love them, and she made me tea when I was feeling poorly.

We enjoyed the easy friendship, sitting together at the kitchen table, commiserating over raising teenagers. Singing while washing the dinner dishes. Watching strange South American soap operas and even stranger game shows. Laughing about being las dos viejas, the two old women who could never remember where we put things.

And we cried together when I left, because we would both badly miss a very good friend.

Did my Spanish improve in Merida? Some. Was the trip enjoyable? Olvidame si puedes, indeed.

IF YOU GO

Merida is clean, friendly and inexpensive, serving as a vacation mecca for Venezuelans as well as foreigners. Tourists are made to feel welcome. As summed up by Merida's encyclopedic and candid Web site http://www.andes.net: "This is a great time to tour Venezuela. Our economy is poor and your presence is really appreciated."

GETTING THERE: Several U.S. airlines fly to Caracas, including American, Continental, Delta and United. To save on air fare, try a consolidator that specializes in Latin America; my ticket cost about half of Continental's standard fare, and I even received frequent-flier miles.

After passing through customs at Simon Bolivar, Caracas' international terminal, look for a shuttle bus to the adjacent domestic terminal. Air Venezuela, Avior, LAI and Santa Barbara airlines together have more than a dozen daily flights to and from Merida's Alberto Carnevalli airport, for much less than $100 one way. Merida is also a $12 bus ride from Caracas, but the trip takes 12 hours.

GETTING AROUND: Although cars can be rented at the Merida airport, public transportation is cheap and plentiful. You can take a bus or por puesto van anywhere in Merida for less than 20 cents. Por puestos also travel between towns. Any taxi ride within town will cost $5 or less.

STAYING THERE: Accommodations are available for all budgets, but even the most luxurious are not expensive.

The highly praised La Sevillana, about 30 minutes from El Centro, offers a peaceful setting, courtyard and daily breakfast for two for about $72 (Avenida Principal de Pedregosa). In town, try El Tisure (Avenida 4 between Calles 17 and 18) or Park (Calle 37 at Parque Glorias Patrias). Reasonably priced guest houses called posadas are also available.

WHAT TO DO: The telefirico (cable car) leaves from Plaza Las Heromnas each Wednesday-Sunday. The cost is Bs7,500 (about $10.85) to travel to the third station at 13,270 feet, and an additional Bs5,000 ($7.25) to go all the way to the top. It is worth every penny.

Trips to neighboring towns are easy to negotiate from the bus station (less than 2 miles from El Centro, easily reached by bus or por puesto). Merida is a gateway for hiking, mountain climbing, fishing and biking; tour agencies and guides are available at the Plaza Las Heromnas.

Astronomy buffs may want to try the CIDA observatory; the Web site is http://www.cida.ve .

CURRENCY: Get some Bs at the Italcambio at the airport in Caracas or Merida, because changing money can be an ordeal. Bank lines are long, and most banks will not cash traveler's checks or exchange cash. If you plan to use traveler's checks, be prepared to show your original purchase receipt and passport.

ATMs may or may not give you cash. Every ATM I could find rejected my card, so I was forced to get a cash advance on my Visa.

LANGUAGE: Venezuelans study English in school, apparently to little effect. Although Meredeqos will go out of their way to try to help, a Spanish phrasebook will come in handy.

Donna Collins is a freelance writer living in Houston.

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