There’s something exhilarating about landing in a new place at night. I look out the window of the plane as it cranes its metal wings towards earth and see lights below. We could be landing almost anywhere on earth, yet our captain has assured us that we’re in Merida, the capital of Yucatán, Mexico. The wheels encounter the landing strip with an onslaught of force. There’s a new world outside these aluminum walls and I won’t be able to truly see it until morning.
We — my husband Alfredo and I — are in Merida for Christmas, spending the holiday with his parents who recently retired in a Mexican state on the opposite coast from where they once lived. I’m excited to experience my first holiday in a completely new place, with a newly formed family. The streets of the downtown city are filled with lights: blue, silver, purple, green, and red. White lights are strung on royal palms and Lebbeck trees.
Next to palm trees are Santas and snowmen, the commercialization of a white and snowy Christmas in full-force within the hot and humid city. Mexico’s Catholicism means there’s far too many Jesus shrines than I’d prefer, peppered with advertisements in Spanish, Mayan, and English. Slithered between the streets are a maze of markets — selling anything from flip flops and cell phone chargers to hunks of meat, dish soap, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
On our first full day, we enter the market. If possible, there are more people than items being sold. There is a wall of humidity around my eyes. My feet are hot and stick to my sandals. Alfredo asks a vendor for an empanada and is told they’re no longer making them. We move through a new section of the market, and I guess word has gotten around: Another women approaches us, knowing Alfredo is the man in need of food, and an empanada specifically. Ven con migo, she says, or maybe gestures, and we follow her to another corner of the market maze.
At his parent’s home, we sit in the living room, sipping Mexican lagers wrapped in paper towels that replace the need for a koozie. CNN is on in the background; all of the anchors are based in the UK. They talk about Trump and his wall. There is always something brewing in the kitchen: coffee, beans, tortillas, banana bread. The walls are white and there’s a staircase that winds and twists upwards to our bedroom and bathroom. On the main level in the back is a small patio with table and chairs, that leads to another room detached from the main house: the master suite. The home is deeply Mexican yet the decor is from around the world, illustrating the travels my in-laws have taken. There are pillow cases, knick knacks, paintings, alcohol bottles, and various decor from Sri Lanka, Abu Dhabi, Nepal, Thailand, Pueblo, Mazatlan, Manhattan, and Denver. A fat Christmas tree stands in the corner with shiny red and white garland wrapped around it. There are a couple gifts underneath. Lana, the standard poodle, places her nose on our knees, happy to be reunited.
On Christmas day, we drive to Sisal, a seaport town in Yucatán, about an hour from home. There are not many people around. We find a table and umbrella to sit at on the beach, next to a restaurant that’s opening in an hour. While we wait to indulge in a holiday feast, Alfredo and I walk along the shore, searching for shells. The water is bracing as the waves move over our ankles; if it was just five degrees warmer, and there was no breeze, I would jump right in. But the temperature and wind makes the cool water just cold enough that I squeal with reluctance as we finally wade in. When it’s noon, we make our way back to the table on the south side of the beach. Ordering ensues: ceviche mixto, jaiba y tortilla, píe de limón. Large mojitos and large beers. A musician comes by and serenades us with his guitar. Alfredo purchases a package of cigars and we share that too. A few hours later, I pay 150 peso for a 30 minute massage down the beach. The sky overhead is an untouched baby blue; my father-in-law calls it a ceiling.
We are in Mexico for nine days. A lot of it is spent exploring ruins — pre-Columbia cities built by the Mayans. Chichén Itzá, a wonder of the world, features massive step pyramids that towered from 600 A.D. to the 1200’s. Graphic stone carvings survive on structures like the Temple of the Warriors and the Wall of the Skulls. We also venture to cenotes. These underground caverns are formed when limestone caves in, leaving a hole in the earth that leads to a pool of turquoise-colored water. We swim and swim and swim until our limbs can’t hold us up any longer. Then, of course, we eat.
The food. I can’t help but think about how Americans ruin Mexican cuisine slathering tacos with mountains of processed meat, yellow cheese, caramelized pineapple, and Daisy sour cream. Throughout the week, we eat homemade huevos rancheros, fresh papaya juice, and Mexican pastries for breakfast. On our final night, my in-laws prepare a style of tacos from the west coast that are stuffed with potato and chicken and fried. You top them with shredded carrot, zucchini, onion, crema, and a special thin, red sauce. They’re called tacos dorados, meaning golden taco. When out, we eat taco al pastor, sopa de lima, and pollo pibil. My favorite is a dish called salbutes, the Yucatan version of tostadas made of a puffed deep fried tortilla and topped with pulled pork or turkey, avocado, cabbage, pickled red onion, and jalapeño. We drink tequila sunrises as the sun sets, order cold buckets of Modelo, and sip on a pink, creamy liquor made from pine nuts. Every sensation in my body is soothed with rich flavor and spice.
When we return to the airport to fly home, I’m not ready. The Spanish language was beginning to soak into my brain, the humidity in my bones and the kind spirit in my chest. My heart aches as we fly safely, without question, over the border that causes both pain and promise to so many humans.
We land on December 30th, the end of a long, full year. It’s there, on the tarmac, that I decide I’m ready to change my name. I feel like a Saracho now.