My First Glimpse into the Real Mexico
© Copyright 2021 by Michelle Lin
Photo owned by the author.
When I got off the plane, a breeze of humid and warm air made me sweat. My ears filled with the sounds of fluent Spanish spoken at a speed I was not used to. My exchange partner Mariana and her family welcomed me with a colourful sign that said: "Bienvenido Michelle" and a Mexican sombrero. The sombrero, of course, was a joke because it is stereotypical of visitors to think that all Mexicans wear sombreros around. Despite arriving in a foreign country, her hugs made me feel at home. We walked towards the exit, and Mariana introduced me to her twin sisters, Esperanza and Victoria. They all had beautiful tanned skin and bright smiles. They greeted me by hugging and kissing the two sides of my face, a typical way of greeting others in Mexico. I could not wait to spend the next month there with them! Looking around, a giant stick of orange meat took my full attention. What could that be? As my eyes were fixated on the massive rod, Mariana read my mind and took me over to the taco shop. She told me that it is a type of meat used in tacos "al pastor," typically everyone's favourite kind of tacos. Being the fantastic host, she told me that the airport tacos do not even compare to the taco restaurants in her town, Cuernavaca, and she promised to take me to try them as soon as possible.
While I was on my way to Cuernavaca, the capital city of Morelos state, I could not shut my eyes for even one minute because I was curious to see if Mexico was really like what they described on the news. People were selling tacos and churros on the street, laughing and chatting away with one another. Everything was happy and welcoming. Despite being tired from the flight, I was excited to see the pool at Mariana's house. She told me that most of her friends all have pools because the heat can get quite crazy! After settling down and organizing my luggage, I was ready to have my first meal of REAL Mexican food!
We sat outside the house on a patio. The sun was not too hot that day, perfect for an outside picnic afternoon. The salty and flavourful smell of beef filled the entire patio. Mariana and I helped set up the table while her mother, Liliana, diligently cooked delicious foods for us. We sprinted towards the table once Liliana yelled that the food was ready. The table was filled with various types of food. Under a piece of thin fabric, the soft flour taco tortillas were kept warm. The beef with a side of mashed beans was steaming with a scrumptious aroma. The red salsa glistened under the sunlight; I could almost taste the spice in my mouth. Next to the salsa, a plate of green, aloe-looking vegetables intrigued me. I had never seen a vegetable like that in Canada. Liliana invited me to wrap my own tacos and gave me two big scoops of sour cream and salsa. My mouth was watering as I quickly wrapped a piece of hot beef, along with a small scoop of spicy salsa, one small squeeze of lime, and stuffed it ravenous into my mouth. The first bite was absolutely delectable, leaving me craving more. The meat's saltiness with the chewiness of the floury tortilla paired perfectly. Though I had thought I might not be able to handle the spiciness of the salsa, it turned out to be refreshing and took away the oiliness of the beef. The sour lime washed away the typical bloat after eating carbohydrates. Every aspect of the taco was combined so impeccably to create such a balanced taste. Mariana quickly introduced me to the plant that I had never seen before. It was called "nopales," a type of cactus. She told me that it is from the nopal plants, and it is actually on the Mexican flag because it is ubiquitous. I tried the nopales out of curiosity, wondering what an aloe-looking plant could taste like. The vegetable tasted crunchy and had a refreshing, grassy aftertaste. After eating four tacos, I barely had room for dessert. But Mariana insisted that I try “fresas con crema.” She walked over with a can of sugar, a brand new pack of sour cream, and freshly cut strawberries. I was confused as to how such a trio of ingredients could work out. Mariana seemed to have sensed my confusion and laughed. She poured the cubes of strawberries into a glass cup, then added two scoops of sour cream and one scoop of sugar. With a spoon, she mixed all three ingredients together. "Try this and tell me what you think!" she enthusiastically asked me while handing me the dessert. I was still questioning the combination, but the first taste proved me wrong. The strawberries' slight tanginess danced with the sour cream's creaminess, and the sweetness of the sugar, blended with the sour cream, added a sparkle to the flavour. It was literal heaven on earth. Fresas con crema has been my favourite semi-healthy dessert ever since then. I smiled and told Mariana: "Wow! Who knew these three foods could join together so well!" My first experience with Mexican food was unforgettable. I could not wait to spend the next month with all the amazing people and food.
The following day was a Saturday; Mariana's family took me to Tepoztlán, a famous mountain range that attracted plenty of tourists and local residents. We started climbing the mountain, chatting along the way. The hike was somewhat tiring, but I enjoyed the good sweat. At the top of the mountain, we were able to see the entire city. I was looking over all different types of colours and pavements; the blue swimming pools stood out amongst all the beige and orange walls. After taking plenty of photos, it was time for us to hike down. The return hike felt a lot shorter since it was mostly downhill. Once we were at the foot of the mountain, I was blinded by all different types of booths. Evil eye bracelets, aromatic candles, wooden toys… The various handmade goods were filled with vibrant colours. The dulcet scent of churros filled the street. As I was fascinated by the quaint candles, Mariana ran over to me with a bag of churros. The sweet cinnamon reminded me of carnival mini donuts. The first bite of the churro was crunchy and sugary. As I chewed, the sugar slowly melted in my mouth. Wow. That was unbelievably tasty. I never imagined street churros to taste even better than the ones from Canadian cinemas. On our way home from Tepoztlán, the traffic was relatively slow. As we waited in traffic, a man with many colourful taco-shaped things was walking on the sidewalk. Liliana waved at the man and bought three of those things wrapped in a plastic bag. "You have to try this! This is famous Mexican street food!" She handed me the "2D tacos," and I opened up the plastic bag. Not knowing what I was about to taste, I was pleasantly surprised. It was crunchy, like an ice cream cone with caramel sauce in between the two shells; The pumpkin seeds added an extra flavour to counter the sugariness of the caramel. "These are called obleas. You see people sell them on the streets!" Mariana said as she bit down on her oblea. This was my first street snack out of many pleasant surprises.
While I was in Mexico, I was lucky enough to celebrate the birthday of Mariana's best friend. The birthday traditions in Mexico were rather unique. The birthday girl was asked to bite her cake instead of cutting it. It was one of the traditions to bring good luck for her for the rest of the year. To me, it was bizarre at first, but It's simply a fun activity that makes people laugh. Then, of course, there was the iconic piñata. The Super Mario piñata was hung between two trees. Two people held onto the string at each side, swinging the piñata in different directions. The birthday girl was blindfolded and placed in front of the piñata. She prepared herself, clutching the bat. To make hitting the piñata harder, they told her that she had to spin around the same number of times as her age before hitting the piñata. Everyone stood around and sang a rhyme as she repeatedly hit the piñata. Finally bursting, piles of various candies fell out. When the rhyme finished, she took off her blindfold and ran into the piles of candy, grabbing as much as she could. We all shared chocolate cake and sweets as the sun slowly set, painting an ombre painting of pastel pink and golden yellow.
My exchange trip to Mexico was filled with joy and knowledge. Ever since I tried the REAL tacos in Mexico, Chipotle was never enough! I will never forget the creative ways that unique flavours were combined! Mexico, I can't wait to see you again!