After a week settling into my new Mexican home, I was informed that another exchange student from Columbia would be arriving the next day, hosted by my host’s best friend (conveniently also named Valeria). As I tend to be, I was leery about introducing someone new into my comfortable Mexican life… but (as is so often the case), I should never have worried. Sandra “La Columbiana” arrived in full force the next morning, flooding Mexico with “usted” (the respectful form of address is used almost exclusively in Columbia, even between dating couples) and exclamations of “chiquitico” and “poquitico” (the Columbian diminutive form manages to be even more adorable than the standard Spanish diminutive).
Warm, generous, wildly affectionate and wickedly hilarious, Sandra was a welcome addition to my exchange experience. From our first day spent together exploring the many parks of Tuxtla, it was evident that the four of us fit comfortably together, and rarely a day or night passed without us going out for micheladas, going out dancing, or sleeping over at one of the Valeria’s houses.
Getting pulled into a sexy catwalk/dance contest hosted by a clown in the park. After some Ukrainian Baptist dance moves that I believe only thoroughly bewildered the crowd, La Canada won second place! My prize? A light-up hippo keychain and a heart balloon.
The next week, we found out that one more exchange student would be joining Tuxtla for the summer – a chico from Venezuela who was studying medicine in España. We went to his SCOPE welcome dinner more out of curiosity than anything: he was a research student while the rest of us were clinical students, and he would be living on his own by the university campus instead of with a host family, so the expectation of seeing him regularly was low.
However, Andrés had the definition of buena onda, the Latino description for that indescribable quality possessed by truly genuine people that irresistibly attracts you to them. Impulsively, we invited him out with us the next night for more micheladas… which turned into a uninterrupted string of beautiful days and impossibly fun nights together.
It wasn’t only the insane weekends spent dancing until 6AM in Sancris that made our time together unforgettable (although those certainly helped 😉 ). It was also the mornings after dancing, when we’d go out for breakfast empanadas at noon in the Mercado de los Dulces and argue about body image and health education in our respective countries. It was the long afternoons in Andrés’ apartment, watching Amityville Horror (not my choice, I assure you!!), eating Rockoleta chili suckers, and discussing our countries’ views on homosexuality, our own views on sexuality in general, and all the social/political/religious/personal elements that affect our relationships whether we want them to or not. It was sharing stories about taking night shift at the hospital, our agreements and disagreements regarding doctors’ bedside manner, our arguments about antibiotic use. It was the twelve hours round-trip to Palenque that we spent crammed in a combi together, careening through the jungle and tipping precariously over mountain cliffs, trying to sleep wrapped around each other like the canned tunafish we shared for supper on the road. It was the long afternoons spent lying on Valeria’s bed, sharing pictures from our incredible day and stupid memes on Whatsapp.
This is the golden reward of an exchange. Unlike, say, a conference, where you have the opportunity to talk to people of different backgrounds and cultures, but only for an isolated moment in time; an exchange gives you the gift of actually living and breathing and eating together in a real snapshot of your life. Having the gift of time allows you to spend time doing absolutely nothing together, thus cultivating a level of comfort that paves the ground for even more genuine conversations. And surprisingly, it is the in-between times, the times between ridiculous adventures and intense conversations, where you learn the unexpected things about yourself and others that you can both laugh at and challenge each other on.
We were five individuals of different ages, skin colours, faith backgrounds, language backgrounds, travel histories, sexuality, and definitions of family. One of us can’t handle spicy food. One of us doesn’t drink. One overuses antibiotics. One didn’t know what cystic fibrosis was. One of us was terrible with changes of plan. One was terrible with punctuality. We were all medical students, all determined to improve the health of our world around us in some way, with different resources at our fingertips, different supports at our back, different goals in front of us. And wherever we went next, we would all be immutably changed by our time spent together in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico.
Valeria, Valeria, Sandra, y Andrés, como podría describir la importancia de su amistad en mi vida? De nuestros conversaciones, de las historias de sus vidas, del tiempo que pasamos juntos, he aprendido un chingón de cosas de ustedes que van a cambiar mi vida por siempre! Muchísimas gracias para desafiar mis pensamientos y me daban apoyo y amor cuando lo necesitaba. Tienen siempre una casa y una amiga loca en Canadá! Los quiero muchísimos, mis bebés, y los extraño. #Cancún2016!!