What started with trepidation ended with my friend giggling “this is the BEST vacation ever! How do you say I love Mexico in Spanish?!”
Her whirlwind trip was absolutely chock-full of typical Mexican experiences such as tamales with atole for breakfast and tacos after 1 am.
I was impressed. Megan ran with everything that I offered up as an experience. Because of her open-minded attitude, we were able to delve as quickly and profoundly as possible into the culture, resulting in her saying over and over: did that just happen?
There was only one thing that she tried that she was had a hard time tolerating beyond a cursory glance: I took her to a typical Mexican market, or a mercado. Apparently it was a bit too chaotic for her taste.
No doubt, mercados can be overwhelming. They are full of sounds and colors and movement.
Hundreds of piñatas hang over piles of exotic fruit; four-piece bands play songs in the narrow hallways; women tap strangers on the shoulder to show off their bags full of de-spined cactus paddles, only 10 pesos, blondie!; chicken breasts are pounded into flat paddies next to corn masa being slapped into the signature tortilla-shape.
It is hot and crowded. And somehow, through all of the commotion, kids can be found sleeping under tables.
What is surprising about mercados is that NOTHING is surprising. That is why I do all of my grocery shopping there. Yes, I could go to one of the large supermarkets where the only reminder that you are not in the United States is that the chili variety goes far beyond jalapeños, habañeros, and serranos. Still, I prefer the mercado. To me, it is THE place in Mexico. Here are a few reasons why:
- That human connection. To buy anything, you need to talk to someone, and in Mexico, you can almost never jump right in and get to the point. You need to make some pleasant conversation: Hello, good afternoon is bare minimum. Usually I get asked what I will do with my decidedly un-Mexican ingredient combinations in my decidedly un-Mexican quantities. You only want four onions? What can you even do with so few?
- There are seriously great deals. Only suckers pay full price. In mercados, bargaining is the lingua franca, and gifts are given to big-spenders. Why yes, I will take 8 cucumbers for FREE because I spent the equivalent of five dollars on other produce!
- You get to snack while you shop. Just bought a quarter kilo of gummy worms? Chow down on a few while you browse! Wondering if those mangoes are good? The vendor will likely give you a taste. Maybe you are hungry for something more substantial? There is a food court with plenty of stalls that sell a range of sit-down options including four-course meals. Smoothies, cups of fresh sliced fruits, warm tortillas fresh off of the comal: just about anything goes in the mercado!
- Impulse-buying is so much more fun. Maybe you have a shopping list. It does not matter. You will end up with all sorts of magical things in the end. Most recent surprise purchase: chia seeds! Who knew?
- The challenge/adventure of the scavenger hunt. Where might you find candles? Better start asking around! I looked for walnuts for six months before I found them. I now feel that I have earned my walnut supply.
Having Megan visit was a great reminder of how much I have changed (more on this in a post, soon to be published) and how much I have adapted to living in a different context (see number 1). She also attempted to teach me about how the United States has changed since I have been gone.
So to her I respond: #yeahthatjusthappened.
I did that hash-tag thing correctly, right?
Making me smile, guest edition:
- Things that you can buy on the metro in Mexico City: Calculators, flashlights, bubbles, Mickey Mouse DVDs, hair gel, the Mexican version of Icy/Hot, history books, gum, suckers, and CDs full of mp3s sold to you by men with speakers strapped to their backs. This was only from four rides on the metro
- Street food goes well beyond the street. Favorite food sighting: flan and empanadas in the metro station at 10am
- The meat market is awesome from a sustainability standpoint: tongue, stomach, liver, intestines, uterus, throat, spinal cord; it is all utilized
- Drinking hot chocolate (which was invented in Mexico and contains cinnamon) with sweet bread at a garden café while a street musician improved a song about us
- Fast food, comida corrida, which translates to “food on the run” is four courses and is cooked with as much pride and care as food at fancy restaurants
- Sitting atop the third largest pyramid in the world with a local who was so excited to share his culture that he ended almost every sentence with: “you haven’t tried that yet?? Well then you have not lived yet!” He did this for two solid hours, with topics ranging from traditional foods, drinks, music, dance, slang words, and for some odd reason, German people
- The people are so nice, friendly, and helpful it is almost overwhelming. It feels like you are in someone’s house even if it is a breakfast restaurant [Editor’s note: This is probably why mi casa es tu casa is a common phrase, or as I hear it more frequently estas en tu casa, you are in your house]
- Being witness to sheer joy when a man was able to get out of the metro car during rush hour, all possessions, body parts, and clothing in tact
- Everything comes with chilies, including ice cream