I’m staying with a local family here in Tehuacán, a small city in the south of Puebla. They’ve put me and another teacher in their third floor bedroom (the penthouse, as we call it), and they feed us and feed us and feed us. Lunch is the largest; served at 4 p.m., it’s a meal that requires hours of slow-cooking prep. Six different pots of taco makings often crowd the table: frijoles, nopales, quesillo, calabaza con tomate, chiles secas, chiles frescas, chiles chipotle, jalapeños adobado, and an ensalada tossed with cilantro. It’s a dream. I have to chase lunch with a coffee every afternoon just to keep from slipping into a food coma.
In my first weeks in town, I joined a local guide, Irma, and toured the central market. Los mexicanos compran flores por todo, she said. The smell of fresh flowers permeates the open-air space, erasing the odors that seep from butchers’ counters. Weeks later, with a house full of sickies, I return downtown for an herbal remedy. A woman hides behind a table piled with fresh flowers, herbs, and what resembles bags of wood chips, but might as well be the cure for cancer. She tears up bunches of plants, stuffs them into a plastic bag, and says hierve en agua con miel. I slip her thirty pesos.
I love the informality of it all—la familiaridad. The cocinas economicas parallel a family’s living room. The hand-painted signs for tienditas and restaurantes. I like the silver saucer-like trays and tongs that clink when you pull them from a pile on a panaderia counter. Selecting each fluffy concha pastry or crunchy, sugar-coated oreja and spacing them across the dish. The juice shops that resemble neighborhood lemonade stands: orange plastic cloths draped over foldable tables, and 3-liter pitchers filled with jugo de mandarina. Tehuacán is fuss-free. It feels fresh.
Downtown, coapeñas crowd the market doorways with baskets stacked with tortillas in tans, beiges, and blues. Señoras stand outside their homes with extension cords hooked up to their comales, circular flat tops, where they fold quesadillas and drizzle memelas with salsa verde. A neighbor down the street keeps us supplied, selling handmaid tortillas by the kilo for 13 pesos.
Tehuacán is small. Life here feels simple and manageable. The streets are sun-soaked by noon. My shoulder scrapes cement facades as I angle my body toward the shade. The sidewalks are swept, the cement-locked trees, groomed– trimmed like show dogs in bubbly globes or sharp cubes. When I get to a new place, I like studying the people. But here, it’s too small to stare. People-watching in the zócalo (the central plaza) means seeing the same potato chip fryers, the same couples holding hands, young students from school chasing after the same balloon vendors. I even met the same taxi driver twice—in an embarrassing encounter. (A story for another day.) Likewise, I can’t help but feel that someone’s watching my every move—and they are. Mexican families are incredibly protective. I’m learning that in this town, everybody knows everyone. If I don’t come home for lunch—even if that means grabbing a salad at the neighboring café, Titina’s, I feel as though I’m cheating. And somebody’s going to tell.