Seemed like a good idea. Everyone said it was – go to Mexico, learn Spanish, soak in the sun. I’d indulge and spend an entire month, maybe even live there.
Things don’t always turn out the way we plan.
I arrived at the airport without my passport. Last time I crossed the border one wasn’t needed, so I scurried, finding someone to make a notarized copy of entry from my drivers license. While running around, I saw a picture of a man whose name I recognized on the front page of the paper, the same man who provided bags of designer clothes to my granddaughter, clothes his kids had outgrown. A multi-millionaire, now featured on the front page of the Oregonian Newspaper being led away by a law officer for embezzling funds. That was the forerunner of my take off.
The four hour trip to Houston became a trip to Austin because Houston was having a big storm. No one could land. We sat in the plane in Austin for three hours. When we finally got to Houston, all flights were off schedule. I was asking about the flight to Leon, when a retired contractor named, Calvin came up behind me and said, I’m with you! I’m going to Leon too. Calvin stuck to me like glue.
We ran to make the gate, but the flight was delayed – again. We waited four more hours to leave. Calvin sat next to me. We visited. He was on his way to San Miguel to visit a cousin he had not seen for 40 years.
It was two in the morning when our flight landed in Leon. The shuttle that was supposed to greet us, with handy little placards with our names printed on them, was nowhere to be found. We were stranded. We could however, take a taxi for $100 to San Miguel. We split the fare. At 3.30 in the morning we were in San Miguel with a taxi driver who spoke no English. We spoke no Spanish. I showed him my address, as did Calvin. He drove to each door and knocked like a crazy man to wake up the occupants. First my address, then Calvin’s. We found out later he was knocking on empty storefronts, as lost as we were.
At four in the morning, my now good-buddy Calvin and I decide to share a hotel room. Two beds please. We split the cost again. I’m handed a bill for $816. and flip my lid until I’m told it’s pesos. Still high for Mexico. Calvin, thinking the taxi driver had done us a service by not abandoning us gives him an extra $20. One born every minute. In the hotel room the water doesn’t go down the drain in the sink, Calvin can’t figure out how to turn the light off, and I’m too tired to care about either one. Finally I climb on a desk and unscrew the damned thing. Calvin says, Why didn’t I think of that. I tell him, it’s because I’m smarter than you are. We had lots of laughs, hysteria will do that.
Calvin rises early, anxious to see his cousin. I try to call my contact people, Wayne and Susan, whom I’ve never met, friends of friends, but can’t phone out. Meanwhile, the water is backing up and threatening to overflow the sink.
Calvin, call room service!
No, he says, Won’t do any good.
I pick up the phone and use my best Spanish, Aqua, blub blub, blub, No go down. Someone knocks at the door, but as SOON as I open it, the water goes gushing down the drain. Of course. No problema, Senora Karina. Calvin rushes off to meet his cousin. We trade in-town phone numbers.
I look out the window and see the swimming pool of my dreams. Life is good after all. I rush down and dive in. It is SO cold I nearly have a heart attack. I’m told it’s been in the high 90’s for months, so I can’t figure it out. It is like swimming in pure ice. Worse maybe. But I am determined to swim. Guests are watching in disbelief. The Gardner puts down his tools to stare at the loco gringo. I’m breathing hard and moving slow. I will swim, damn it! I nearly die in that pool. No sleep, pure ice and high altitude take me to another dimension.
Point proven, I return to my room, dress and take my phone number to the front desk. Using advanced pointing and pleading gestures, I convince the clerk to dial the number. Wayne, a retired teacher from Washington lives only blocks away and arrives in ten minutes. He takes me to his beautiful home to meet his wife Susan, a retired CPA. Very dear people, and very sleepy people, from staying up waiting for my sorry butt to arrive. Their maid Carmen has made chicken enchiladas, which I dig into like a starving woman. Carmen came with the house. In Mexico it is considered bad form to do your own housework, since there is so little work to go around. Within moments, Karen, of the bland diet, is reaching for water to squelch the fire. No, that wasn’t the hot one. It was the mild one. Okay. Ground rules established.
These generous folks have a palace of a home. I think they paid $150,000. It would be worth half a million in the states. It has courtyards, a roof garden, and came furnished with wall hangings, art work and beautiful wooden furniture! Let me back up.
San Miguel is a 15th century town. Milk is delivered by a man on a donkey, as is fire wood and garden soil. You walk your garbage to the corner when a guy bangs a metal bar against his truck. There are NO traffic rules. Well, maybe there are, but nobody follows them. Not even the cops. The cops ride around on horses and oversee the fiestas that happen every week. They are a presence but no threat. Stop signs (ALTO) are everywhere. I don’t know why. No one ever stops. A few times I pointed out to my driver that he was going the wrong way on a one way street. He shrugged, It’s a slow day. Dogs roam and sleep in the street. They all look healthy and run in packs. It is considered bad form to hit them. Pedestrians are just above dogs in consideration.
San Miguel is a walled city. All you see are walls with doors. That’s all you see! A door can lead to a home, business, school or library, but once the door is closed, you don’t know where anything is. They have the running of the bulls in September. It’s perfect for that. Also, every street looks exactly alike – to me anyway. The sidewalks are only wide enough for one person to walk at a time, and the streets are made of stones. It’s VERY bumpy on foot or by car. Wayne showed me around but I was just as confused when he finished as I was when he began!
At the top of the hill is a large public square pronounced, Har-dean. A public gathering place for music and the selling of wares. Large churches tower over the square. This, and the street I lived on are my only landmarks. Everyone walks or takes a cab. You can go anywhere in town for $1.50 American.
Okay, so on Sunday, Wayne delivers me to my Mexican host family. They speak NO English. I speak NO Spanish. Bad idea. Plus they have NO aesthetic what-so-ever. The woman, sweet lady in her 70’s, Senora Theresa makes beautiful cakes for celebrations. All through the house are dark angry pictures of Jesus, the Virgin and some bad looking Greek Orthodox guys. Crucifixes are ever present, even on city buses. I quickly realize that this is not a host family, the way we think of a host family. This is how they make money, I was one of many who came and went. No need for them to be social or attached.
I was somewhat shocked by the realization and went into survival mode. I walked to the jardin and bought fresh flowers for my room, took down their religious pictures and put as much of my own clothes and art work as I could around the space. Still I felt awful. That was not helped by sitting at dinner with 12 people, feeling like a large white giant and not being able to understand one word when spoken to.
Monday: School! First day of a two week course.
School was great. The class was small, the teacher, Socorro, was animated and friendly. Her advise was: Do not suffer in this class. No crying. Life is short. Have a good time. All this I got from sign language, as not a word of English was spoken. OH…and they lied about it being a beginners class. Everyone there was talking to each other in Spanish already. I was in way over my head, but I just went with it. NO, Nope, don’t know that one. Can’t say that. Have NO idea what you’re asking me now. Long four hours! I learned the word bathroom but often confused it with the word bank, which did me little good in a pinch. (The Mexicans never give you toilet paper, by the way. You’re supposed to bring your own. Be warned.)
Monday night I got a Spanish – English dictionary and stopped strangers on the street. How do you say this? I was ready to take the bull by the horns.
Tuesday: I woke up with, I-want-to-die dysentery. That didn’t take long to get, even with the pills from my Naturopath. We were not supposed to use the phone in the house. No calls in, no calls out, but after a long time with a dictionary I convinced Senora Theresa to let me use it to make one call. I really needed to speak English to somebody, anybody. I needed support and medicine. I was supposed to have dinner with Calvin and Margaret, his cousin, that evening so I rang them up. When I told them what was happening, Margaret said, We’ll be right over!
San Miguel is the playground of the extremely rich, which describes Miss Margaret, who became my new best friend. Here take my bed, I’ll call the doctor. What do you need? Nothing is too much. No problem.. Her house made Wayne and Susan’s look like the wrong side of town.
The doctor came that afternoon. He was the rich young, handsome doctor to the rich Americanos. He wore designer clothes and gave me two of the worst shots I’ve ever had. I was bruised for days. I suppose if you look that good, you get points that make up for poor medical skills. Anyway…the door to my room often blew open in the wind, so when Calvin left he locked it from the outside. (I forgot to mention that when I arrived in San Miguel, it was the beginning of the rainy season. It poured every day. Just like being home in Oregon.)
Thanks to Calvin, the doctor found himself locked in my room. He paced and panicked, wondering who to call. He was probably swearing, in his elegant way, but I wouldn’t have known. Finally, I got smart and pushed open a window by my bed, which was wide enough for him to climb out of. He smiled as he stepped through. How romantic, he said, Only in San Miguel does the doctor leave by the window.
Meanwhile, I was crummy with stomach pains and throwing up and not caring about anything. Miss Margaret tended me. Calvin stayed in the guest room, and checked in. At one point, I asked for someone who could do energy healing. Drugs are nice, I said, but I’d love to see someone who could tend my spirit and energy. Do you know a Shaman or curendero?
Well…You’d think I’d asked for the devil himself to come into the house. Calvin launched into an adamant statement of his faith, thinking my request had somehow threatened it. I tried to explain that this was about my healing and not about his faith, but that only made it worse. I’d stirred a hornets nest.
If you have ever seen the movie, Driving Miss Daisy, you have the character of Miss Margaret. To her credit, when I asked if she knew a healer, she made a phone call to a friend who might know, but didn’t. It was Calvin who freaked. When asked what I needed at the height of my illness, I said, I need to be held. She did. I trusted her completely at that point.
By Wednesday afternoon I was sitting in the courtyard watching hummingbirds buzz around her feeder, feeling much better. (San Miguel sells the best hand squeezed Orange Juice in the world. I’m sure that was part of my speedy recovery.) I’m still trying to figure out HOW I got dysentery, considering I arrived early Saturday morning. Two days? I never drank the water, ate from street vendors, had no salads or fruits. I did brush my teeth from the tap. I can only think that was it.
By Thursday I was well enough to tour with Raul, Miss Margaret’s driver. He took Calvin and I out of town to visit an ancient church. The paintings were priceless, the walls painted with silver and gold. It was one of the few buildings left standing after the revolution. In one part of the church, if you are approved by the priest, you can stay and do penance. They sell whips so you can spend days beating yourself up in the privacy of your room. (I thought my vacation was extreme.)
After that Raul dropped Calvin off and took me shopping. I came to Mexico with a list of things to buy, which was a huge mistake, as purchasing anything while not understanding money or language was absurd. With Raul as my guide and interrupter it was all possible. (Raul learned to speak English from Chinese people, and still says lice instead of rice.)
That evening Calvin got his first manicure ever, at Miss Margaret’s request, since they were going to a very fancy cocktail party. Calvin took me aside before they left. Margaret is going to ask you to stay on, so you don’t have to go back to the Mexican family. Generous idea, I thought. Calvin was excited. She’ll be in soon. Margaret did come in asking if I would like my shoulders rubbed. Sure! Putting lotion on, she said, I want you to go home, you don’t belong in Mexico. Go home with Calvin! (Not what I expected.)
I told her that I still had two weeks left and that I was happy to return to my host family. I might engage a private tutor in Spanish, take an art class at the Institute or take a bus (12 hours) to Puerto Vallarta to sit by the beach and have a real vacation. I havn’t decided yet.
She frowned. Nobody goes to Puerto Vallarta this time of year. It’s not done.
I told her not to worry, that I would not stay on.
The conversation left me feeling odd and cold. I was not invited out with them that evening, which was fine.
Calvin left at 9 the next morning. We sent him off with hugs, smiles and morning tea. But as soon as the taxi was out of sight Miss Margaret looked at me like so much garbage and demanded I leave immediately. I was stunned. I had planned on it, but her attitude shocked me. My driver is away, he will not take you. I told her I would call a taxi, but she pointed down the street to the corner. You can take the bus, there is one in fifteen minutes.
I hopped on the bus (which was actually a great ride) heading back to my home stay and wondered what the heck just happened. I searched my mind for something to explain her change of attitude, but found nothing.
I spent one night at my host family, which also felt cold and unwelcoming, so I told them I would be leaving, then walked to the school and did the same. I decided to get a hotel. I called Wayne and Susan to confirm a date we had at the local hot springs for Saturday, and told them my plans. They would not hear of me staying in a hotel so I lodged again with them. We soaked in hot springs on Saturday and went to the Fiesta de Loco’s on Sunday. The parade was amazing, I’m glad I saw it. On Monday I visited a travel agent to book my return to the states, because really, I wasn’t having any fun.
To get home, I took a bus for an hour and a half, a taxi to the airport, two planes, a train and another taxi. On the bus ride across Mexico I saw an old white haired woman doing her laundry on a rock in the river, and farmers plowing fields behind oxen and horses. They guided hand plows and scattered seed as they walked. They are centuries behind.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, except for a woman who threw up next to hundreds of people roped in long lines waiting at immigration. I thought that was fitting. Embezzlement at the beginning of the trip, vomit at the end.
written July 2005