Travelings “Deep” into Mexico
Mexico is a large, beautiful country blessed with a friendly disposition. Despite news of late suggesting exotic dangers and capricious hoodlums, when traveling throughout Mexico I’ve never been targeted with any sort of harmful experience and continue to believe folks who live here are usually happy despite greater poverty, more crime, and fewer tangibles that collectively can often augment human contentment. There is much generosity of spirit even when unpredictable things happen. Perhaps within the unpredictability of the unexpected, we’re exposed to environments where we learn much.
Sure, there’s drugs and guns, pickpockets and corruption; and, I imagine if you seek these kinds of things, you’ll find them just as easy as you might in Detroit, L.A. or New York City, or in lots of other places around the World as well. And yes, occasionally, bad things happen to good people. Life is not without risk; yet, as I’ve sojourned around some relatively good risks seized, they have produced repeatedly good rewards.
Most of the trips Carol and I took were tourist-oriented voyages or incountry excursions experienced once or twice a year; but on two occasions, we actually sought and planned less-touristy more travel-oriented experiences that took place in 2002 and 2003 without specific itineraries and without a tour company to take care of details for us … quests along roads less traveled.
Our First Journey into Mexico – April 2002
Our first sojourn into central Mexico took Carol and me to Guadalajara where we engaged a taxi to Ajijic, a village about an hour south on Lake Chapala. We had been to most of Mexico‘s coastal cities before on cruise ship excursions, and I had of course crossed the U.S.-Mexican border numerous times for pottery, souvenirs, or Bacardi rum; but, this time we were interested in experiencing culture firsthand by picking one destination and living there for a couple weeks without specific tours or prearranged schedules.
To this end, our intentions were indeed over-fulfilled, overwhelmingly. That’s two “overs” in one sentence, isn’t it? Well, there’s a reason.
After some homework, we zeroed in on this nicely-described, small community, a place popular with North American visitors called Ajijic [áhh-he-HEEK], reported to have one of the largest concentration of English speakers in Latin America; and, we did find speaking English not at all a handicap. I’d practiced my Spanglish whenever I could despite all the signs with English words. Most stores had neon signs with “Open,” not “Abierto” …natives would say “hello” to anyone who looked like they lived north of the border.
Ajijic is positioned on the north shoreline of the largest inland lake in Mexico where many Americans and Canadians have chosen to live year round, most of them retired ex-pats who find it completely reasonable to settle down for more than just a vacation at less-than-North American prices. Some are “snowbirds” who spend winters here in second homes thus avoiding North American cold weather extremes. Retired couples can easily afford a maid and gardener, and live on Social Security; at least most folks here say they can with some pride in their voices maybe in order to justify what might be considered an offbeat choice to leave their home country. Homes are modern and equipped as Americans like them, some quite fancy. Consequently, many seem drawn to this almost-exotic locale where icons of small-town Mexican living, like true cobblestone streets and fresh fruit and vegetable markets overlap with laidback loitering in the plaza in the shadow of the church, or sipping margaritas under an umbrella in the shade around an outdoor patio.
For those of us who like maps, one’s eyes also converge on the word “Ajijic” often for no other reason than to study those four dots over the four letters “i” and “j”. I don’t know any other placename like this.
Otherwise, the climate is moderate, and the local population, friendly.
Nearly all norteamericanos have no actual employment, yet they do employ Mexicans thus contributing significantly to local economies. Therefore, the townsfolk appreciate the notion of English speakers hanging out around town, employing people, and spending money. So, yes, everybody gets along.
Observing receding beaches (the largest internal lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala, was literally drying up), we learned the lake acted as a water source for other nearby cities and towns, and the outgo usage was a great deal greater than inflow to the dismay of the rest of the little villages bordering the Chapala shore for decades. Old beach resorts were no longer what they once were: now lined with boardwalks to nowhere, a lot more “beach” and docks with white-crusted sand lapping around sun-rotted posts but not much water. A few kids might be playing in the sand, but no tourists sunbathed anymore. Even as folks explained this to us, there was sadness in their voices about the place than once was.
Still, Ajijic itself was not only quaint, but clean and neat with streets narrow enough to be alleys with aromatic cafés, little-windowed shops, and a beautiful central church just off the plaza where everyone would meet at least once a day. While it was easy to spot a Gringo here, there were so many of them all over the place, they all seemed to fit in. Interestingly, because of how English speakers dressed, I became able to distinguish between visiting Gringos, like Carol and I, and Gringo expats. There were two kinds of conversations among expats we met: one that was about what sights to see or the cost of dining out, the other about whether to change maids or all the problems with Mexican sewers.
Ajijic appeared safe, friendly, comfortable. My “where-you-from-originally?” questions always produced conversations of some length with ex-pats as I could tell them something about their hometown they would not expect me to know; and, they enjoyed explaining why they chose to live here in Ajijic. Many expats had become bilingual.
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But I’m getting ahead of myself as I think back about this iconic little village in Central Mexico; and, I’m forgetting about the days Carol and I spent paying tuition in our own Latino-oriented classroom learning the ropes once we touched down at the airport fairly late in that afternoon in April 2002 with our eyes round open and ready to take it all in. Our one hour trip south from Guadalajara had been accentuated by a taxi driver who could speak enough good English to give us a pleasant educational tour in addition to transportation. After about an hour’s trip, he easily found our little B&B hotel in Ajijic dutifully waiting curbside for us to make contact with the manager then graciously helping with our luggage before returning to Guadalajara with an above average gratuity.
Cobblestone streets were neat, clean, and peaceful under picturesque lighted street lamps with none of the oft-seen trash and debris prevalent elsewhere in Mexico. Evening air was humid, tropically warm. Quiet serenity overtook us as we unloaded, ending a heavy day of travel.
The hotel billed as a bed and breakfast, was typical stucco, one story with just a few rooms that surrounded a central patio for guests. There were palms and other native plants nestled in terra cotta pots in this modest patio, and our room was warm and clean with a Saltillo tile floor, pink walls and a few pieces of unnecessary decoration and furniture here and there; still, it was large and comfy. And, we were so exhausted.
The hotel manager, seeing we were tired, explained a few necessary things in excellent English, and we began unpacking what we’d need for the next seven days. There were more than enough hangers and drawer space for clothes, shoes, cosmetics, tour books, maps, and other paraphernalia, so we took time to spread things out finding a nook or cranny to get our stuff completely out of sight while looking forward to doing nothing further at all once done … with a “whew!” tagged onto each sentence.
After seven days, it was our plan to check out then check into another, different accommodation for a second one week stay in the same community. Two different types of hotel venues and two different living experiences we rationalized for one trip. Bottom line: a little more traveling, a little less touristing.
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We had advance-purchased Mexican pesos, but where were they? I found a wad of about 2,000 pesos (about $200) in my pocket. We also had travelers’ checks we could exchange for local currency; but, where were the checks? I examined all my other pockets, and asked Carol to search her purse thoroughly. We began rummaging through just-sorted, just-stored stuff in drawers and nightstands. Then we repeated exploring suitcases, tote bags, and carry-ons. And, then we did it again at faster speed as mutual concern gelled into the room amid this frantic activity.
Suddenly, we realized we were not only unable to locate our cash or travelers’ checks, we couldn’t find our airline tickets either and, more important, not even our passports! Carol held her purse upside down emptying its entire contents onto the bed with a slapping hand to confirm nothing there.
Surely these valuables had to be in the suitcase or somewhere; they had been handy just a few hours ago. But now, in these few slow mutually in-synch heartbeats, our leisurely-clad lightheadedness evolved into a serious foreign-oriented anxiety. We opened both suitcases yet again sliding hands into zippered slits and plastic folds then searched folded clothes and closets yet again, jacket pockets a fourth time, and everywhere else that seemed logical; nothing. Our process slowed as realizations set in. I robotically checked the floor under the bed, behind doors, under suitcases now expecting nothing; these expectations were fulfilled.
Concern evolved into worry. Carol checked her carry-on bag, my carry-on bag for maybe a fifth time; still nothing at all. Frowns of worry evolved into mild panic. I then rushed outside to see if I might have accidentally dropped them on the street sidewalk while coming in. No such luck. I looked under parked vehicles, in the gutter, in the bushes and under lounge chairs en route back to our room. No providence. My stilted walk back slackened. We sought out the Manager and explained our dilemma. “What now?” Speculating we had probably left them in the backseat of the taxi, he volunteered to take us back to Guadalajara if we would pay for gas. We agreed and we all three departed five minutes later.
By now it was getting late, and during the hour’s drive north we concluded odds of finding the exact same taxi were remote at best. We had a hard time enjoying this journey as we diagnosed our situation. At the airport’s arrival gates, we began looking at each of the taxis in line to pick up passengers. Miraculously, we found the exact same taxi we had used a few hours before. I explained to the cabdriver we may have left some things in the car, and he permitted us to look thoroughly in the back seat, under seats, and in the trunk, but all to no avail.
We’re now acknowledging an inevitableness of a situation. We started a second trek to Ajijic pensively, now late evening the same day but this time in a different vehicle (the manager’s vehicle instead of a taxi) and in a completely different mood as midnight eventually slipped unnoticed into wee hours of tomorrow. On the way back, the Manager said with genuine concern that he knew someone who might help us: Carlos, Maria the Hairdresser’s husband, who lived just a few blocks away from the B&B, was ably bilingual and knew his way around. Despite the late hour, the manager said he would call him early in the morning to set something up for us right away. Carol and I remained apprehensive but quite appreciative for his help and suggestion. We agreed once again without much thinking. After all, we did need some good advice as well as find someone we could trust to help us.
Before finally getting to sleep that night, Carol and I talked about how much money we could withdraw on our BankAmericard Visa and how often we could (daily?) in case we needed more cash. While we knew we could eventually get our travelers checks replaced, we didn’t know where to do so (any bank?). We added up how much money we had lost, and how we would have to manage finances differently.
We slumbered restlessly after this unusual initiation into the Mexico Club; and, after a long, mentally depleting day, we finally surrendered to the inescapable.
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Knowing Someone Who Knows Someone
Next morning during breakfast, we received specific directions for Maria the Hairdresser’s place of business. Carlos might be there by the time we arrived. The ten-minute walk through and beyond the plaza was precisely what the Manager had described; we easily found Maria’s shop. No one was there, but the door was open, so we entered; it seemed completely empty. In a little while, Maria came up front. She didn’t speak English; but in my limited Spanish, I communicated we needed Carlos. She spoke her Spanish slowly for my benefit; and, I understood enough to know he would be there shortly.
Carlos spoke almost perfect English without even much accent as he had lived in California for a few years as a teenager and young adult. He knew things American as much as he knew things Mexican. We learned later he’d been not merely a cook but a real chef, and had competed in several culinary contests in the States. A big man, it was easy to imagine him alongside Emeril Lagassi or Julia Child. We explained the loss of airline tickets, cash, travelers’ checks, and passports; and, he seemed quite calm as well as sensitive about it all despite our frenzied presentation.
The first instruction was our need to file a police report, but there was no place in Ajijic to do this. There was a police station, of course, but no officials who could take this kind of report. It seemed Carlos knew exactly what he was talking about; he’d done it all before. After that task, we would then buy passport photos and go to the American Embassy in Guadalajara to apply for duplicates. On the way back from Guadalajara, we’d go via the airport to report the airline ticket loss. He gave us estimates about how much this would likely cost us, and Carol and I both agreed it seemed reasonable. Our trust that Carlos could help us was established quickly.
The police station in Chapala was a half hour east; we agreed to leave promptly to complete this part of our assignment. I agreed to pay him 1,000 pesos (about $100) for showing us where and how to do all this, for translation help, and for whatever else we might need. It could take all day today, plus a second and third day going to Guadalajara to apply for passports, then picking them up! Gasoline was extra.
Carlos turned out to be a wealth of knowledge. We were taught about Americans and Canadians living in Ajijic, local history, and disputes over the lake’s water rights, plus recommendations on where to dine and what to see. More relevantly, he knew shortcuts on precisely where and when to go to the embassy for passports, knew where to buy on-the-spot passport photos. He explained further we’d need the original official police report to accomplish this efficiently in Guadalajara.
Essentially being a captive audience yet genuinely appreciative, we said “uh-huh” while we dutifully rubberstamping everything as presented and departed promptly, mission in hand.
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Once we three had lunch in Chapala (we paid), we found an ATM machine and obtained another 2,000 pesos [$200] then walked into the police station, a smallish old building with several compact rooms and a forest of tiny desks and lamps, so many desks in fact, it was challenging to navigate around them without bumping into chairs, in/out baskets, trash cans, or someone’s elbow, to get to any one person.
Carlos found two chairs for us, and screeched their legs over the tile floors to accommodate our need to sit. This also put Carlos into a standing position overlooking the police agent’s desk; it seemed like there might have been a specific protocol doing this. It almost looked as if Carlos were representing us as a lawyer might.
Despite a room full of agents and people, we three waited for the particular agent to return to his desk patiently. Walls displayed that identical glossy institutional light pea-green seen everywhere throughout Mexico’s public buildings. The ceiling fan turned slowly around but so insanely slow, one wondered what impact, if any, it had on air circulation. Flies had time to alight on the blades as the old cobwebby fan theoretically kept pushing air around. This was a scene from an old movie, like Casablanca and it would not have been befuddling to see Humphrey Bogart sitting at the next desk. After being seated for a couple of minutes, the agent returned with some papers and sat down. Carlos immediately made eye contact and shook hands as if he knew the mustachioed civil servant personally; this was reciprocated with mutual smiles, pats on the back, and appropriate small talk in Spanish that I didn’t understand. The agent chose to ignore us two Gringos, not impolitely mind you; I think he just didn’t speak English.
Acting like an attorney would in a courtroom, Carlos began describing what happened in Spanish so the officer could pen notes. He’d ask Carlos questions, Carlos would ask us, we responded with a word or two, and Carlos thereupon rattled off four or five rapid-fire Spanish sentences for each sound we expressed. It was serious enough, perhaps for our benefit, but they talked like old buds with multiple hand gesticulations, eyebrow movements, restrained grimaces, and smiles of mutual understanding. Yes, Carlos must have been here many times before. Our agent took copious notes on a lined tablet, flipping the page again and again with laborious paper swishy sounds and facial frowns, almost over expressively. Was this for the sake of accuracy and completeness? Or, was it performed just for this stage?
Then Carlos asked when we might pick up the final report. The officer looked at Carlos, pursed his lips almost imperceptibly, pondering the question as he looked at Carol and me. I detected from my limited Spanish there was more to the conversation than merely a date and time. Yet it was friendly, and Carlos certainly understood without revealing any sign of dismay or disagreement. Quite the opposite, Carlos seemed to make suggestions with his hand and eyes on behalf of his two helpless charges.
Smiling business smiles of mutual empathy glancing our way ever so slightly, I grasped a few tidbits of what was happening. Then Carlos explained details in English. “The final report can be obtained in about ten days, possibly longer depending upon how busy they are.” He let that sink in.
“In other words, count on it taking at least two weeks.” His eyes genuinely requested understanding and consideration in one implied, otherwise wordless conversation as he exhibited calculated caution with English in the real conversation we could actually hear. Then he sighed resignation explaining that it often took longer than two weeks for locals to get these kinds of reports; tourists did have priority.
“But, we will have departed back for the U.S. by then.” Carol said.
“I know, but that is how long it takes,” he said with his restrained educated smile that continued to ask for our understanding. “There are lots of reports to type up, each is reviewed by another officer, and then each is signed off by the Chief.” Carlos let that sink in too. “There may be an alternative option.”
We were pretty glum about Carlos’ description of local bureaucracy, and earnestly asked what else we could do. This time Carlos smiled his more grandfatherly smile at us then questioned the officer.
They exchanged a subtly different but knowing kind of eye contact along with short idiomatic responses making little sense to me. Carlos nodded a knowing approval to the officer with an emotionless type of pucker on his lips before making eye contact with us again. “Well, for 300 pesos, the staff could get everything you need by the day after tomorrow.” He lowered his chin as he nodded at us to encourage agreement. Carlos’ expression was overtly positive facing us; the agent’s face was a sterile bureaucratic blank stare.
Carol and I took a half minute to deliberate how this $30 spent would help out with our situation, and Carlos, who was listening intently to our words, picked up on the word bribe and interrupted us. “Please, please. Think of that 300 pesos only as a special fee for expeditious service,” he said to us with a smile that again beckoned a positive response. “It’s really not so much.”
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We nodded consent.
Carlos beamed a well-practiced business smile and returned to his job. After all, it was a useful, perhaps nonjudgmental way to look at it. Carlos with experienced facial expressions graciously communicated to him how pleased we’d be to pick up the report early. The officer was also pleased. We supposed later a certain portion of the agent’s income depended upon the collection of such fees for expeditious service, at least from those who could afford it. Carlos was quick too. We caught him palming the already-readied three 100 peso notes into the agent’s right hand as they agreed on terms more tangibly, completely undetected by anyone else in the room except Carol and me, but otherwise un-translated into English as well.
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Back in the taxi, I reimbursed Carlos 300 pesos (about $30) as we were heading back to Ajijic. We had a valuable and educational conversation about bribes, how Americans typically failed to grasp Mexican attitudes toward such things; and, how certain people, government employees in particular, were so underpaid. It was an okay way to earn money from those financially able to pay for these kinds of extra considerations. After all, accuracy and fairness of the endproducts were identical. Carlos wanted us to appreciate how this subtle point wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Actual bribes were bad of course, but this was not a true act of corruption; it was just one of the costs of doing business, and a useful one. He further digressed to teach me the Spanish word, mordida, derived from the verb morder meaning “to bite.” La mordida translates literally as “the bite” or “the cut” but not technically a “bribe” (which is a different word in Spanish) using typical American lingo; and, it was definitely incorrect to translate it as such. There was a subtle difference I was beginning to grasp, more like a “commission” for being helpful than an illegal bribe previously surmised. I accepted it in this context even though government employees earning commissions this way still didn’t sound right to us. Carlos admitted that lax attitudes about las mordidas had created some negative outcomes; but, he pointed out how average citizens could always obtain identical legal rights, the same police reports, the same privileges that anyone else could get. They weren’t deprived of these or the justice they represented; they would just take longer to get.
Carlos talked on and on about other examples in business where such concepts of “expeditious service” were an expected part of the free market process even in the U.S. Carol and I let this sink in as our backseat classroom took hold; and, our trip back to the B&B was completed before all my “what if …?” questions were answered. I have to admit how culturally educational this was. $30 wasn’t a huge amount of money for what value had been gained.
We never did see much else in the little town of Chapala that day. Looking back, we could’ve spent some time there walking their streets and taken some photos, but we never did.
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A Reprieve Touristing
Once back in Ajijic, Carol and I then took time to walk casually around town and found an attractive little local place with low ceilings and stuccoed walls to eat some Mexican cuisine for dinner. The place had nicer artwork on display unlike the typical south of the border restaurants in the U.S., paintings by good Mexican artists depicting Latino lore.
The next day was open, so after breakfast we explored the plaza and side streets, a couple shops along well-used narrow sidewalks, and then the church. While it wasn’t Sunday, there was lots of activity going on among groups of young children in costumes. Easter was next Sunday, and we observed how festive decorations were already being posted in the plaza across from the Church. Holy Week, we learned later on, is arguably a much bigger holiday in Mexico than Christmas.
After a late dinner (it seemed locals typically ate dinner late), we strolled into the plaza and noticed it was the gathering place for everyone. Despite the hour, little children were playing games, older folks were talking to other older folks, teenagers were hanging out. Even a few overt romances were at play, but absolutely OK since it was in full view of everyone. Many other norteamericanos were sitting in one of the numerous greenish-black wrought iron park–bench chairs scattered throughout the plaza.
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Wednesday morning after breakfast, we rendezvoused with Carlos early morning at his taxi station on the plaza then immediately took off for Chapala, another half hour of education and humor. Although we had to pay Carlos a small additional amount each day for services and gasoline, we were getting more than our money’s worth for tour guide education alone. At the Police Station, we received the copy of our final report (in Spanish of course) beneath that same slow-swirling fan, as duly promised (including happy smiles and brotherly handshakes from the officer who helped us). Carlos read it to assure it was what it needed to be. The document was several pages in length, and the signature at the end was an immense (half page in height!), undecipherable zigzagging scribble. I tried to read it but was able to only translate the date it was signed. But it did look official, Latino style.
From Chapala we headed for Guadalajara, an hour’s ride away with an extra stop planned where we’d get photos to accompany duplicate passport applications at the Embassy. Carlos explained it would be advantageous to get to the Embassy well prior to noon since there was a three hour siesta after they closed at 12; this was considered routine. We later learned Embassy workdays actually started at 3:00 pm ending at noon the following day. No one explained why this was the way it was; it just “was.”
Anyhow, police report and two black and white double photographs in hand, Carol and I finally approached the open Embassy’s brassy bank-teller cage-type window at 11:15 a.m. and spoke to a pleasant bilingual young lady who kept looking at the clock as she helped us complete the two Duplicate Passport Applications while asking us questions, scribbling notes, but making no eye contact or small talk. She read the police report quickly as I filled out forms. By 11:40 when we finally completed the steps, she rushed all the documents plus our Montana driver’s licenses to a back room to make copies.
There were a five or six others behind us in line looking eager to get to the window; maybe they were unaware of the siesta thing (hmmm, probably not). It was ten minutes to 12 when she returned to let us know we could pick up our passports tomorrow, Thursday, after 3:00 p.m. She explained matter-of-factly that had we arrived a few minutes later, we would have had to wait yet an additional day to complete the replacement process. This was certainly expeditious service for which there was no la mordida.
Mild forms of resignation remained on the faces of those still waiting in line as they overheard our conversation with our “bank teller.”
Carlos, Carol and I had a small snack nearby, and then headed to our next stop, the airport. Upon arrival, Carlos dropped us at Departures telling us to meet in the lower parking lot where arrivals picked up their cars. Carlos predicted our task would take less than forty-five minutes. Inside at the Delta Airlines counter after asking about replacement tickets, she looked and found our reservation, and said we could obtain substitutes upon our departure about ten days hence, and not to worry. This ordeal was relatively easy but still took all of those forty-five minutes Carlos had predicted, a little more perhaps because of waiting lines and a small form to fill out and sign.
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More On-the-Street Education
Exiting through Baggage Claim, we found Carlos’ parked cab outside in the taxi parking area with little trouble. Upon the three of us deserting the air terminal parking lot area along with numerous other local taxis and private vehicles, I paid the nominal parking fee of ten pesos ($1) and Carlos veered into the right lane to take the first exit and head south, back toward Ajijic. Nearly all other cars headed north toward Guadalajara. I was recounting Delta’s red tape to Carlos when his right hand left the steering wheel, and then his index finger touched his lips followed by a quick point in my direction. I stopped talking as his taxi slowed.
A few seconds into the onramp, flashing red lights apprehended us, and we slowed to a complete stop on the offramp berm as the slickly-uniformed policeman braked his motorcycle right behind us, parked the big black bike and approached us slowly and deliberately with this detectable Mexican swagger. He looked like Marlon Brando strutting up our left flank as he let his sun goggles, on cue, drop onto their black leather tethers in front. It was a stereotypical “gotcha” kind of saunter combined with a Latino type “look at me” almost soap opera bearing.
Carlos instantly exited his taxi, stood tall but polite, and began listening to the officer with submissive and respectful mannerisms, something one doesn’t see in the U.S. since we must remain inside the vehicle. After about a minute, we saw Carlos elevate his hands with a certain kind of smooth gesticulation, purse his lips with that confident ever-so-slight business smile, then vigorously shake hands with the officer, and finally get back into the taxi. Zipping his jacket, the officer athletically remounted his muscular bike, revving its ligaments then exhausting a departure toward us then by us with nimble, predictable macho pageantry. We departed once again as Carlos exhaled an “I’m glad that’s over” kind of heave letting the black cheetah with wheels accelerate away and merge with other southbound cars.
Once Marlon Brando was out of sight, Carlos told us about laws taxis must abide by at Guadalajara Airport. “All taxis discharging passengers are not permitted to pick up arriving passengers on the same trip, and vice versa.” So, since Carlos discharged us at Departures, technically he could not pick us (or anyone else) up at Arrivals.
“Did he give you a ticket?” I asked? “How did he know? Was he watching you?”
“Well, not exactly a ticket. Y’see, I accepted the gentle lecture I received with all due respect, expressing my appreciation for his considerations since I was from Ajijic. I added that I had American passengers. Then when I shook his hand as part of this process, I gave him 300 pesos, another form of mordida I was personally willing to pay for an appropriate warning. Had I not paid him, then I would have received a ticket, and would have had to come back and appear in a local court … and still pay a fine.”
“How much are such tickets?”
“I probably would have paid less than 300 pesos, not exactly sure about that; but, anextra trip would have been a nuisance, not to mention the gasoline cost. Also, as you might guess, he earns a little extra cash from these kinds of transactions, plus he enforces the law. Remember, these guys don’t earn much, y’know. It’s like a fee to accommodate the value of our time, both his time, as well as my time.”
We gave Carlos $30 to cover the second mordida. We then learned that 300 pesos was considered the “standard mordida”. Offering less was disrespectful, offering more would be arrogant even if accepted. He knew we would reimburse him and he graciously accepted it. By midafternoon, we arrived back at our B&B, and found another nice restaurant for dinner on the plaza. We made yet another ATM run for cash.
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More Pomp and Circumstance
After lunch on Thursday, we met Carlos again, and headed back to Guadalajara for the fourth time that week. Hopefully this was going to be the final trip for this enlightenment tour we found ourselves participating in; but, it wasn’t over quite yet. Picking up our passports, despite the cost for replacing them, turned out to be an unremarkable almost routine event. We felt relieved having accomplished these tasks in a foreign country with relatively little consternation. True, we didn’t have our $200 in travelers’ checks replaced yet, and true we had to pay Carlos for time helping us not to mention both mordidas of course. But, Carlos was a lot more than just a taxicab driver. The harrowing yet informative experience was something unforgettable.
Perhaps this “course” was a learning event that I should try documenting in a story sometime I remember thinking at the time. But finally, Carol and I now could honestly plan to relax later that afternoon and enjoy our vacation days in the sun sipping a couple of margaritas near the plaza as we had earned our diploma from Carlos’ school. Almost done!
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On the way to Ajijic, Carlos stopped by a roadside restaurant. It was more than just a tent but less than a complete building with some wooden slats on two sides, a drape of sorts on two sides, plus a red canvas awning on top to shield the business when it rained or from direct sunlight. There were no real floors, just hardened dirt from spilled margaritas, lots of sweeping, and foot traffic over time. The open air café had eight clean white small metal-legged table benches with red and white plaid oil-cloth table coverings, and the usual salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce.
Although we supposed the tables, chairs and condiments could be put away at night, we weren’t sure where they’d actually put them. It was a nice day to sit in the shade, outside yet inside at a roadside stop. We admired pristine green hillside views of orangey red-tile topped, white stucco houses and small green fields and pastures, dirt roads, cows, and kids happily playing as the gentle sun massaged our receptive shoulders and faces.
Recognizing Carlos, the waitress engaged him in old-friend conversation. Carol and I wondered if Carlos earned a commission for bringing clients in as was often the case with Latin American tour guides. Probably not, but it made for interesting private side chats between Carol and I while Carlos recounted things humorous with the waitress a few yards away. In a way, it didn’t matter if he did.
“This is one of my favorite places,” he said minutes later approaching our table, “and I do know exactly what to order.” Smiling, he described their specialty, ceviche, a substantial serving of fresh-cooked then chilled shrimp cut into little pieces then mixed into ripe uncooked finely-chopped tomato salsa intermingled with freshly-cut onions, green and red bell peppers, diced freshly-cut cilantro plus generous squeezes of fresh lime. This mixture is served in large, glass bowls on stems, like heavy brandy sniffers with three long uncut chilled shrimp hanging on the sniffer’s lip. There was enough ceviche to consider this presentation a full meal perfect for a warm sunny day. Somehow the dirt floors of this restaurant didn’t really matter anymore. Had Carol and I been driving down this road, it’s not likely we would have considered stopping at a place like this at all! Besides, Carlos had been a chef in the U.S.; surely his testimonial was worth something. I’m glad we stopped, and of course we skipped dinner that night since the afternoon was by now wearing on so well.
Completing this long day, we thanked Carlos for all his efforts on our behalf and lingered around the town square on one of those green iron benches in front of the church. By this time, we knew our way around town and then decided to walk out our recountings of all the things we harvested from the week’s classroom of firsts.
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Proverbs and Revelations
On Saturday, we packed up our four suitcases to ready ourselves for the other B&B in Ajijic still ranting with quiet sarcasm about the week’s events. The other B&B was only about a mile away. We were stuffing our carry-on bags, combining and compressing some souvenir purchases into fewer bags, tossing tourist flyers, candy wrappers and no-longer-needed receipts into the trash. I picked up and sorted through a stack of maps and local travel brochures lying largely ignored for a week. Upon lifting them up, I noticed in the back of the now open bookcase shelf where these had been stored next to the night stand to my shock:
… both of our original airline tickets …
… and all of our travelers’ checks…
… and both of our two original passports. I slowly lifted the documents.
How in the world were these missed when we searched the room, when I examined this very shelf? I guess I presumed the pile of paper was all brochures and maps. I picked up the newly-discovered batch of stuff and held them in the air for Carol to see. As her eyebrows arched in a certain maybe even anticipated way, her eyes squinting a little, an immediate mix of different emotions filled the room from how we wasted so much time to how stupid I was not having discovered our valuables to begin with or even later on in the week. It was funny, it was sad, it was brainless, it was annoying, it was absolutely infuriating. I didn’t know which emotion to grasp, so they all hung heavily throughout the room …
No one particular facial expression prevailed, of course. After all, Carol did share at least some of the responsibility for not finding the stashed valuables; yet, I felt greater stupidity for completely missing that spot. As we continued to pack, we wondered about each of us having two airline tickets and two passports might mean later. Were there now going to be yet further cultural idiosyncrasies to deal with?
Once we moved into our second week’s B&B, we reminisced about things lost, learned, and gained that prior week again. Such irreplaceable events we would not forget. Carlos was priceless.
The second week’s B&B was a nice, up-scale place, but there was nothing much to add beyond the first week’s la mordida or el ceviche except, thankfully, for all of our money, airline tickets and passports. The owners were very gracious. This was a more typical coffee-in-the-patio kind of place in the shade of some old cottonwood trees, home-base for our afoot walk-about-town trips, the kind of place that’s remarkably pleasant amid its mundane cultural predictability, the kind of place that’s comfortable, yeah, the kind of experience that has few extraordinary outcomes … [yawn].
The week passed comfortably amid our sojourns to nearby little villages, pottery manufacturing sites, and several other little town plazas and not-often-used shops with interesting wares. Our trip home was on time and uneventful; four airline tickets and passports evolved back to two without undue hassle or worthy story. Whenever the subject of these “mislaid” passports comes up, Carol gives me that knowing look worth a thousand words, and maybe even worth yet another 300 peso mordida for her not to pursue. Every time I eat ceviche, I just can’t help thinking about passports.