It was 2 days before Christmas, and I was itching to break my routine, get out of Dodge for a while. This last minute urge was nothing new.
When stresses build up, the best remedy for me is to get on an airplane. From the moment I put on my seat belt to when we reach 2000 feet, whatever is bothering me fades away. Every time. All my worries, my troubles, become as minuscule as the glimpses of dots and dashes of the city I’ve left behind.
As a backpacker, I’ve become well versed in finding last minute flights that allowed me to reach my destinations affordably. The trick? Fly out on the holiday itself.
Just as my right hand was starting to feel sore from all the clicking, I found it: Mexico City, round trip. Leave on Christmas Day, which I don’t celebrate, and fly back on New Year’s Day, as there was no New Year’s Eve party to attend.
In my world, as a language teacher, language schools were a very popular way of traveling. They often offered small group instruction or private lessons, at a reasonable cost. By studying at language schools, I added a variety of stamps in my passport: Guatemala, Argentina, Ecuador, and now Mexico.
These schools also gave me a place to stay and a way to connect with locals as they also offered daily activities and weekend excursions. If I wanted to take a cooking class, I could. Guacamole, empanadas, you name it. Go to see the blue-footed boobies? It was only a bus ride away.
And if I didn’t want to go anywhere, I could close the door to my private room and escape into books or music or the dreaded subjunctive tense, if I so desired. If I stayed a week or a month, I would come back speaking better Spanish. You can’t get that kind of real-life practice from a Rosetta Stone.
So I emailed a Spanish language school my friend recommended, hoping for a response. I was surprised but happy to receive one the night before Christmas.
The school had been able to arrange a homestay, private Spanish classes, and an airport pickup as well. All for about the price of a night out in Los Angeles. Feliz Navidad!
Not a rich woman, it was quite a high when I saw my name written in big block letters on a piece of white paper held up at the airport. These kinds of signs usually reserved for top executives being picked up by chauffeurs on business trips.
My handmade sign felt even more powerful because of my independence. I’d found the school, the ticket, and the courage to pick up and take on a new adventure.
My host, father Adan, smiled when greeting me. He grabbed my large duffle bag and brought me inside the gate of his historical home. Like an old hotel, the place had a series of rooms for students and boarders, but this week it was just me and a professor from Toronto.
My room was the nicest I’ve ever had. A large comfortable bed with handmade colorful blankets folded neatly on top, ornate artistic mirrors throughout, and the best surprise of all — my own bathroom! Hot water, too! A first.
Each morning I woke to the best brewed coffee, which my host father affectionately called “gasolina.” There was an assortment of homemade treats; green tamales, tostados, fresh fruit. All served on hand-painted porcelain plates.
When the family was around, we would all speak in Spanish and when they left, the Canadian and I enjoyed long talks about philosophy or poetry in English. Sometimes we’d head to town for a café or buñelos.
Most days, we’d find ourselves on the roof in our sweaters with Conchita, my host mother, enjoying the view of the colonial city while petting the dog and taking in life.
If I were alone, Conchita would grab her bag and take me to town. She’d show me the sites not on the tourists’ maps. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the town was — old cobblestones and brightly colored buildings changed hue when the light hit them and it mesmerized me.
At this time of the year, I was the only student at the school, but they kept it open anyway. My teacher was a young, full-sized man with incredible energy and patience. We would chat and laugh for 4 hours each day, and the time would fly by. His genuine excitement to see me made me feel special, not isolated, during this holiday.
Not wanting to impose on my host family, I tried to put together a plan to celebrate the holiday alone, but they insisted I celebrate with them. Their two sons came by for a visit; all dressed in crisp white shirts and creased black pants. The sons were so loving with their mother, holding her hand and doting on her every move.
We ate a feast of salads and meats and finished it off with sips of fresh Tequila, purchased by my Canadian housemate the week before. The good stuff, no limes needed.
As I sat there sipping my drink, I looked over at my new host family, whom I’d known for merely a week. When midnight struck, they came and gave me a warm embrace, almost angered that I was leaving so soon.
A part of me wanted to stay longer. Everyone in the family made sure to hug me and wish me a happy new year. Everyone wanted to make sure I was comfortable.
I stayed up that night sitting on the roof with my new friends, some from Mexico and others who were visiting from Europe. Each person open and without pretension. The view of the mountains spectacular. The air was welcoming and sitting outside on an open terrace, wearing a T-shirt and not bundled up under coats, was relaxing. It was the perfect night that ended too soon.
With my host family fast asleep on the floor below and my new friends sipping spicy Mezcal across from me, I had to say goodbye before returning to my room to get ready for my early flight. I took a deep breath, taking in the scene of the white walls, lights dancing in the skies, and arches of the aqueducts that filled the city one last time. Tomorrow I would be back on a plane to JFK, where the streets would not be this quiet again.
In New York, most of my friends are people I have grown up with. My family lives within a few blocks and there is little room for newcomers. Through taking risks and staying open to love, I learned to let in good people at every turn.
And by not letting age determine my travel, I learned 1 week of Spanish school can teach you more than just grammar, it can remind you what holidays are all about: friends and family in whatever form they come in. Or that you will never have a better tamale — ever.