Like a man who has two wives, my life shifts back and forth between time at home, where I enjoy all the creature comforts bestowed upon those of us who are lucky enough to live in the United States, and extended international travel, during which I often lack access to even the most basic amenities. Although I long ago stopped experiencing culture shock when visiting other countries, I still need time to settle in each time I hit the road for a bout of long term travel.
When I backpacked around the world in 2007, it took more than a week in Vietnam before I relaxed into the rhythm of traveling. This time around, although it took me just two days to hit my stride, it was the little things that tripped me up. I had forgotten, for instance, that in Mexico, restaurants provide only tiny cafeteria-style napkins at the table. It had also slipped my mind that despite being a coffee-growing country, most locally owned Mexican restaurants do not serve brewed coffee and if they do, it is only available in the morning. For the first two days, I was repeatedly served a cup of hot water and a jar of Nescafe when I ordered coffee with dinner. Walking around town was a potential landmine. If I focused on landmarks in order to get back to my hotel I risked tripping on crazy patchwork sidewalks constructed of ceramic tiles and concrete, rife with standpipes and missing utility box covers. But if I watched my feet I risked getting lost. And then there were the health and hygiene issues. I had to remember not to drink the water (keep mouth shut in shower and do not rinse toothbrush) and to throw my used toilet paper in the wastebasket rather than flushing it.
Yet, there is a grace about Mazatlan and Mazatlecos that eased my way on this particular adventure. Within seconds of pulling a map out of my backpack, someone would inquire if I needed assistance. Unlike other Latin countries, no street urchins have tugged on my clothes and made big eyes, hoping for spare change. Drivers of Pulmonias – vehicles that resemble golf carts but which are really old Volkswagens converted into open-air taxis – slowed down and beeped once politely as they passed but quickly sped away when I shook my head. Everywhere, total strangers nodded and wished me “buenos dias.“
Three years ago in Vietnam, because the language was so difficult I learned only the words for thank you and hello and relied on familiar English, allowing the Vietnamese to struggle to communicate with me. However in Mazatlan, because my Spanish is fairly fluent I have been speaking it all day long. Each morning, Spanish words fly out of my mouth and verbs conjugate themselves, but by 5 p.m. my brain is so exhausted that I can’t even string together five Spanish words, much less understand what someone is saying to me.
When this language exhaustion sets in, I have been using the old ploy of nodding and answering everything with “Si,” hoping that my affirmative response makes sense. I got away with this a few times, until I met two gentlemen on the Malecon – the broad promenade that runs along the ocean. They were sitting in a street cafe in front of a hotel, sipping over-sweetened Nescafe and playing chess on a battered board. Permission to take their photo came with a price: the older of the two launched into a philosophical stream of consciousness about the game of chess. Between his thick dialect, the blaring music, and noisy traffic, I understood only that he meets his friends there each night, that he doesn’t care if he wins or loses or how many pieces he captures, and something about the sunset. Politely, I just kept nodding and responding “Si.” Suddenly he stopped, looked over at his chess mate and shook his head. His next words, though still in Spanish, were embarrassingly clear to me. “She doesn’t understand a word I have said!”
I sat down and listened more carefully. He was trying to explain what is truly important in life: good friends, good times, and beauty. He told me to slow down and open my eyes, gesturing toward the west, where a giant red ball was sinking slowly into the ocean, streaking the sky in gold and lavender. Believing that his message had finally been understood, he smiled a toothless grin and announced, “Now you may take your photo.” Sufficiently chastened, I snapped a quick shot and took my leave, but not before wishing him what so many other Mazatlecos have already wished me: “Te Dios bendiga.” May God bless you. “Igualmente,” he replied. The same to you.