It was late at night, in the time before the U.S. state department travel warnings and color-coded terrorist threat levels. I was running on no sleep, and I was surrounded by smiling people jabbering at me in another language. Shaking my head to clear the brain-fog, it came to me that they were asking me a very important question: What toppings did I want on my pizza? (It was the mention of corn that had thrown me off.)
I’d just arrived in the Mexican mountain town of Uruapan after a winding bus ride from Mexico City. The friends I’d made just a few days before had dispersed into the night, and I found myself alone with my new “family” for the next four weeks (I was 16 years old and participating in a program called Experiment in International Living), a young couple with two adorable and chattery kids, all excited and speaking to me at a fast-clip in Spanish. (The true test of fluency in a foreign language has to be, I think, to try and have a normal conversation on very little sleep with an overexcited seven year old and her five-year-old brother, who will show no mercy with regard to their pace of speaking or your mispronunciations but instead look at you with totally unfiltered hilarity whenever you respond like you’re talking in some sort of monkey language.)
Out of this confusing night came one of those golden coming-of-age summers that can only happen when the doors of your world blow out (in a good way) and you’re on unfamiliar ground. There are such simple pleasures involved in making your way on your own in a foreign country and language, something that teaches you so much about what you’re made of, and in this beautiful Michoacan mountain town, the locals couldn’t have been more welcoming and friendly as they let me in on the secret joys of everyday life experienced by our neighbor next door.
Because in our little U.S. corner of the universe, the people of Mexico are our next-door neighbors, and it’s a shame not to get to know them like you would your own. Today, wherever you go in Mexico, you have to travel street-smart and savvy, heed the U.S. warnings and stick to the safe areas (mostly the resort towns) — but all that doesn’t have to preclude entirely an authentic getting-to-know-your-neighbor type of cultural experience, too.
Like I said, for me it was the simple pleasures: Squeezing tiny lemons to make the delicious fresh lemonade that accompanied lunch each day. Finding my way to the market on my own, ordering a coca-cola in Spanish, and being surprised and at first a bit confused to find it served to me ingeniously in a plastic bag tied around a straw. Meeting locals my age and getting immediately invited to hang out at the bowling alley or ride a dune buggy around the mountainside or gather in someone’s backyard to eat fresh pan dulce.
The resorts in places like Cancun and Cabo and Puerto Vallarta are gorgeous and generally safe and you can score some fantastic deals there right now, so go forth and keep your ears to the ground. Get tips from the front desk about the historical attractions, or embark on an eco-tour to learn about the country’s flora and fauna. Look for opportunities to learn local songs and dance, or ask some of the friendlier members of the resort staff for some of their favorite familial recipes. All these experiences on your next Mexico vacation will be a happy exercise in a more global sense of community, like borrowing the proverbial cup of sugar from your neighbor next door.