Apparel merchandising and product development student Kayla DeMark spent a month in Puebla, Mexico, this summer as a participant in the U of A Faculty-Led Spanish Immersion & Service Learning program. In this blog, Kayla frames her experience in the senses: from Latin American dance steps to street decorations to fresh fruit, everything takes on a flavor and color more vibrant than she could ever have anticipated…and the taste has whetted her appetite for more international travel.
Colorful lights flashed erratically while the vibrant music on stage nearly blew my eardrums out as we made our way to the dance floor. Everyone’s feet moved in step to the beat, twirling around in synchronized professional movements. All participants knew exactly what they were doing, and all eyes watched to their surprise as my classmates and I were able to keep up. With each spin and every misstep, I laughed louder, my voice drowned out by the band. My vision was filled with color and the smiles of everyone around me. It was an overwhelming whirlwind of fun, a sensory overload that required just enough focus to keep my feet in step for hours.
This snippet of the experiences I had dancing is the most descriptive of the vibrant culture of Mexico. Much like our nights dancing, I cannot describe Mexico as anything short of lively. The streets of downtown Puebla – the city I spent most of my days enjoying – are lined with colorful buildings and occasionally the infamous “papel picado” banners are strung up above. Some streets host markets of hand-made crafts and goods. Massive murals seem to appear out of nowhere where they weren’t once before, and one is never far from a store filled with the classic white and blue painted talavera pottery.
Every day was a new adventure in Puebla. When I wasn’t in my classes at the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), I was walking all over those colorful streets. Spanish being spoken was music to my ears as I strained to recognize words and phrases as we walked by. We visited countless ornate cathedrals and museums, including the oldest library in the Americas. My friends and I had the pleasure of befriending the best dancer in our class, and together we explored the city of Puebla in every way possible. It was awesome being able to practice Spanish with someone in casual conversation and really comforting to have someone who knew their way around town. On the weekends, we went on organized trips to other areas of Mexico such as Cuetzalan and Mexico City. On those occasions I swam under waterfalls, tasted the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had, visited Frida Kahlo’s house, and hiked up the pyramids of our world’s ancient past.
The food itself was also an adventure. The very first meal my host family provided me with was “tacos al pastor” from a tiny taco shop across the street from our neighborhood. These flavorful tacos would soon become the favorite meal among my friends. They consist of shaved pork with a rich seasoning that gives it a deep orangey-red color, fresh cilantro, tiny onion pieces and diced pineapple. I had never tried anything like them in any Mexican restaurant in the U.S. Another favorite of mine is a beverage called horchata. It appears as a simple glass of milk, but it is actually a delicious blend of rice milk, cinnamon and vanilla, which makes for a refreshingly sweet drink. Some other things I discovered are that tamales are often served as a breakfast food, most margaritas are rimmed with chili powder, and the fruit in Mexico is fresher than anything I’ve had in the U.S.
Inside the classroom, I studied Spanish, Latin dancing and cooking. Every day I had Spanish class for four hours followed by either dance class or cooking class on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. My Spanish class ended up only containing four students in total. This was not only great for my learning experience, but also resulted in a really close connection between my classmates and our teacher. In class we had presentations, played games and listened to Spanish music to improve our listening skills. Between actual class and living with my host family, I had constant practice to improve my language abilities and pick up little things about the culture in Mexico. For example: everyone knows how to dance, mayonnaise is a very important condiment and the police are not to be relied on. We made something new every week in cooking class and I got a really good workout during dance class every week. I chose the language immersion program in Puebla because I saw it as the perfect chance to improve and apply my Spanish speaking skills, as well as learn more about the culture of Mexico. After the program, I can proudly say I have greatly improved my speaking skills and completed my Spanish minor. I can dance the Cumbia and a little bit of Salsa, and I now have a few Mexican recipes up my sleeve!
By the end of the trip, Mexico had become my second home. I found myself in tears saying goodbye to my host family and the new friends I had made. We’ve already made plans to see each other again soon! I miss the vibrancy of Mexico, the opportunities that come with living in a big city and all the fun I had dancing. My advice to anyone going on this trip is to embrace it all. Try that food you don’t recognize on the menu, put your Spanish skills to the test, make friends with local students and don’t be afraid to dance on that dance floor. Coming back from this trip I feel more confident in my Spanish skills, more worldly with my experiences and completely inspired to create a future full of many more international adventures!