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Today is our last full day in Mexico. My husband and I have spent nearly two weeks traveling throughout this vibrant country — from Mexico City to Oaxaca to Cancun and Tulum — doing our best to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of Mexico with very little Spanish on our tongues. And it has been a powerful lesson in the goodness of humanity, particularly the warmth and kindness of the Mexican people, but also the incredible complexity of human communication.
To immerse yourself in a foreign culture where you don’t know the language or the people is akin to throwing yourself out of a moving plane and hoping that there’s a net down below somewhere to catch you. You are completely at the mercy of others and their willingness to engage you through vague gestures, mispronounced words, broken speech. You are essentially navigating without a compass.
Both my husband and I have very limited international travel experience — our only other shared international travel was three weeks in northern India nearly five years ago. India was a place that I knew very well. I had studied and worked there before meeting my husband, and I knew the culture and language on a level much deeper than any average tourist. So while India was altogether overwhelming, frightening even at times, I had come to understand it. I had a compass, and a well-tuned one at that.
But our experience in Mexico has been altogether different. We did not opt for the all-inclusive resort stays. Rather, we wanted to experience the real Mexico, as real as two gringos could experience, that is. My husband is of Mexican descent but has grown up entirely in the U.S. So our vacation in Mexico was intentionally planned as a way to immerse ourselves in his cultural heritage more deeply.
And what an immersion it has been! It has been an exercise in comparisons: “Isn’t it funny how they do it this way here but they did it that way in India.” It has been an immersion in assumptions: “Nobody seems to bring us the bill unless we ask for it. I wonder if that’s their polite way of letting us take our time.” It has been like decoding a gigantic mystery at every turn: “There is an ‘M’ on the bathroom door. I think that is for mujeres, not for ‘men’!” Context becomes everything. You have to observe every detail around you if you want to understand anything.
The people of Mexico have, with relatively few exceptions, been incredibly warm-hearted and welcoming. Despite our embarrassing attempts at the poorest Spanish, they engaged us, smiled, welcomed us into their stores, restaurants, and homes. In Mexico City, we tried out our first few words at the cafe below our rented apartment, learning how to order an espresso with dos cargos (two shots), and one of the day’s delicious pastries. We met Irma, our Airbnb host in Oaxaca, who was a professor of linguistics for many years in both Spain and the United States. And there was Roxie, our host in Tulum, who is an accomplished painter and artist. Her eye for color was exceptional — a multi-colored basket placed atop a white appliance to give it splash, an accent wall painted bold purple for contrast.
The colors of Mexico — bright, vibrant, full of energy — were as brilliant as its people. You see it in the clothing, the flowers that grow in the lush parks, the birds that greet you in the morning, even the sky and the sea.
So as we make our departure, and in keeping with the theme of this blog, I thought I would pay homage to our first adventure in this great land with a few reflections, framed in color…
Gris (grey) — Yes, let’s begin with grey. A dull color, perhaps. But grey was the color of the sky when we landed in Mexico City. It is rainy season here (why didn’t someone tell us this beforehand?), so the skies were cloudy and soft Gris. The cars on the streets and highways billowed with gris and dusty smog that quickly clogged our lungs. Still, gris brought out the green of the trees. It made the whites of the concrete buildings seem whiter. It had us focusing on the bright red and blue street signs that we struggled to translate in our heads as we rode along in our taxi. Against the Gris backdrop, all of life seemed richer.
Verde (green) —The color of foliage throughout Mexico. What a lush country! We strolled through the neighborhoods of Roma, La Condesa, Coyoac`an and in Mexico City. We walked through Bosque de Chapuleapec (think Central Park) to get to the Museo Nacional de Antropologica, one of the highlights of our trip and a great way to become better acquainted with Mexico’s rich indigenous history. Verde showed up in other places too: in Oaxaca as the rains fell and brought out the lush grounds of Monte Alban, the majestic archeological ruins that sit atop one of the mountains of that region; in Cancun as we made our way through jungle paths that emptied out at Chiquila, where we caught the ferry to Isla Holbox, an under-developed island off the northern coast of the Yucatán; in Tulum as we took refuge from the hot sun in the Mayan ruins where iguanas and lizards watched us from tree branches. And who can forget the light mint verde of margaritas that we sipped to refresh us in the hot summer heat.
Rosado (pink) — The colors of the bougainvillea tree against the white concrete walls in the courtyard of our small apartment in Tulum. Rosado adorned the fabrics of the interior chairs, curtains, and fabrics that our host thoughtfully decorated there. Rosado was the accent that brought zest to almost every handicraft and colorful outfit we laid our eyes on.
Purpúra (purple) — The color of the wooden heart-shaped necklace I fell in love with in Oaxaca, its beads made of small unpolished amethysts. Purpúra adorned the wooden figurines (artesanias) of hummingbirds, lizards, turtles, and skeletons that are common throughout Mexico. Purpúra was the color of the vast magical sky as it met the Caribbean ocean in Tulum, changing from periwinkle to deep violet as the sun moved across the horizon.
Marrón (brown) — The color of finely cultivated and aged Mezcal that we sipped and tasted in Oaxaca. Reddish brown were the grasshoppers that are a delicacy in that region, served atop of tacos and stuffed inside quesadillas, surprisingly…edible! Brown was seen in the terracotta rooftops and stone ruins we visited throughout Mexico. Brown was also the color of the highway in Cancun where a police officer pulled us over, claiming that we were speeding and threatened to take my license from me unless I paid him $2000 pesos. Our rental car gave us away as tourists. Unfortunately, it is well-established that the police are corrupt in Mexico, and this one saw us as perfect prey to stuff his pockets with some extra cash.
Negro (black) — The color of the molé that we tasted time and again in Oaxaca, whose cuisine is famous for its seven different types of molé. The molé we tasted throughout Mexico was complex, rich and chocolatey with subtle spices that always blended into an intoxicating flavor. Negro was the color of coveted fine pottery in Oaxaca that the local artisans create. Negro is also the color of beetles and cockroaches that sometimes made their appearance in our rented rooms, creeping along walls and floors and surprising us in the night.
Azul (blue) — The color of the sea and sky everywhere in Mexico. We saw the richest azul at La Casa de Azul, the childhood home of Frida Kahlo that is one of Mexico City’s most popular attractions. It is the home where she returned late in life and painted until her death. In Isla Mujeres just off the coast of Cancun, we played in clear waters rich with azul and turquesa (turquoise) hues, cooling us from the heat of the afternoon. In Tulum, we saw the most amazing azul ocean waves that crashed against pure blanco (white) sands and blended with the purpúra skies into a seamless canvas of tropical paradise.
De colores de Mexico. As a less-than-seasoned traveler, I have been reminded again of the power of cross-cultural meeting, communication, and exploration. Our trip has been amazing and challenging from end to end, but we are richer for the experience and are certain to return again soon. Volveremos!
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June 9, 2017