Shock and Awe

Tacos al Pastor in Playa del Carmen, MX

Nothing is more awkward, frightening, and fun at the same time like your first few days in a different country. People usually don’t like to admit this, but it happens to everyone. Sometimes you don’t even have to leave your home country to feel it. Even in the extremely touristy Playa Del Carmen, it happened to me. In spite of all the time I’ve spent living in Latin America, that uncomfortable sense of foreignness still tugs at me whenever I clear customs. It’s a familiar sense of awkwardness that I’ve come to embrace while traveling. Mexico in particular likes to slap you right in the face. It’s walking out of the bus station onto the jam packed pedestrian Quinta Avenida in Playa to be greeted by a welcome party comprised of  tour operators, restaurant greeters, oblivious tourists, “massage” ladies, and drug dealers.

It’s loud. Muffler-less cars with tinted windshields blasting “Mi Gente” nearly run you over while you were too busy staring at your feet in attempt to avoid shattering your ankle on the uneven sidewalks while being skinned alive by rusty barbed wire. It smells like a cocktail of car exhaust, cooking meat, and perfumed department stores. Local restaurants and bars also blasting “Mi Gente” from their neon PA speakers really throw you off cause you can hear “Mi Gente” bumping from three different locations simultaneously. And the humidity! Dry aired Colorado never prepares you for going to any humid climate, but coming the skin cracking dryness of winter in Colorado especially makes you feel like you should be breathing through a snorkel when you get here. Your shirt basically turns into a sauna towel in 5 minutes. It rains inside your bus because of the unnatural weather patterns that A/C creates when it’s at 1000% humidity outside. It’s just a four hour flight, but it feels worlds away.

I think what I like about the first few days in a new place is that your brain activity is so jacked up as it perceives unfamiliarity with equal parts caution, fear, and adrenaline. This is indeed a valuable trait and I’m sure it saved a caveman’s life a few times back in the day. It makes you feel like you shouldn’t even go outside. It brought me back to the first 20 minutes I experienced with my host family when I lived in Nicaragua. I circled around my room cause I was afraid to go into the kitchen and get grilled with Nica Spanish that I had understood basically none of. It’s all so unfamiliar, your brain is trying to say “danger, it’s awkward AF out there!”. But you just have to push through that funk to get to the glory land and then the place will open up to you.

I think what else happens is that your brain also tries to rewire itself so that your surroundings, once proven to not be life threatening, become “normal”. Things that catch you off guard at first (like hearing “Mi Gente” at ear shattering decibel levels) start to become part of the place. The blazing sun feels less intense, or maybe you just get used to being sweaty all the time. You start to readjust to using Spanish.

About 48 hours after I’d left Denver, I was squeezing a slice of lime on what already could have been my 100th taco on a muggy morning in Playa in attempt to shake off last night’s tequila hangover courtesy of two awesome Canadians I met in my hostel. It was in that moment, sleep deprived and inhaling tacos as a shop nearby had already begun blasting reggaeton at 8:30am for the world to enjoy. I felt familiar sense of home. I’d compare it how you feel landing in your hometown airport after some time away. Washed away was the awkwardness of the day before. We’ve arrived successfully here in the land of tacos, tequila, beaches, volcanos, cloud forests, cenotes, ruins, bad drivers, annoying street vendors, mosquitos, sweat, pot holes, tinted windshields, street murals, Jesus busses, and genuinely happy people.

“I’m back!” I thought with a visible smirk on my face. I felt at home.