I am still learning even though I’ve been in Mexico almost full time for 3 years. I often make cultural gaffes, and even though Mexicans are very polite, sometimes I know I just goofed from the look on their faces.
Case in point - a recent experience when we stopped by a restaurant for a drink and light snack before my hair cut appointment this week in Cabo.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon co-working at Biznest Coworking. The Senora who owns the location has great entrepreneurial energy, I am sure we would be friends if I lived here. She speaks mostly Spanish and has hired a young man who speaks perfect English to help with English speaking clients.
When we arrive, they are both there, in their branded shirts, smiling and saying hello. Sergio loves to tag along because they bring us coffee and little cookies. Like many Mexicans, he loves freebies. I mean who doesn't? But here it's intense - we have seen lines stretch around the block for a bag of free swag from brands during events in the Zocalo or street fairs.
We only have an hour in between the co-work session and my haircut. I check google and see one restaurant close by, Puerta Vieja. It is a big place, with a long history captured in photos of the owner with presidents and celebs on the wall.
It is still low season in Cabo, and it's about 4 hours before regular 9 PM dinner, so there is only one other party when we arrive.
Our waiter, who’s name tag says Oscar, shows us our seating options - large toasty outdoor patio with late afternoon sun, interior dining room that is a little stuffy, or enclosed air conditioned room with no one else in there.
Mexican restaurant service is usually 100% better than typical service the US, with a hierarchy in the team assigned to your table - a main waiter and his assistant, sometimes a third for water and clearing dishes.
We just want a drink and a snack, so I’m not looking for a sit down dinner with the "white glove and 3 waiters" ritual that is common here, especially in the low season when you may be the only client all day and everyone is bored to death waiting around.
Not to mention waiters make almost nothing per hour. They depend on tips to survive, so low season is literally dead calm for them.
There are 2 men sitting at the bar eating. Its a very cool bar - dark stained carved wood with iron accents, like a pirate bar in a Spanish port city.
I say to Sergio, Lets just eat at the bar, it’s more casual, and they won’t expect us to order a full dinner.
Sergio always tells me not to worry about that and he is right. You shouldn’t worry about it either. We often have drinks and share a small plate sitting at a regular dining table. No one ever looks pained or even thinks of charging extra to split.
Old habits die hard, though. I still feel strange ordering 2 drinks and a quesadilla, sitting at a table set for a 5 course meal, with 3 waiters at our beck and call.
I’m also trying not to be a total baby about the heat and run to a table in the AC room. I bravely assume there might be a breeze from the entry, those 2 men at the bar don’t look too uncomfortable.
We ask Oscar, aka Mesero #1, if it’s OK to sit at the bar. He looks surprised but says, OK. We pick 2 seats at the corner of the bar. Yeah, its a little warm but no problem.
Sergio gets up to peruse the presidential photos in the entry area, which is sort of like a hotel lobby, big enough to handle a high season crowd. Mesero #2 comes over to the bar with silverware and linens.
It is then I realize that my attempt to be low key and save them some effort has resulted in the exact opposite. There are at at least 50 table settings all around, and here Mesero #2 is, cheerfully setting up 2 more for the high maintenance Gringa who wants to eat at the bar, which, by the way, is not a thing here except for American chains like Chili's and TGI Fridays.
A couple minutes later, I notice the air at ankle level is not moving, it is nice and dim down there with a swarm of mosquito activity. I’m just about to ask for a fan when Mesero #2 returns with bug spray. I say (in Spanish) Thank you! You read my mind!
I’m sitting on the bar stool and reflexively stick out my legs, he looks a little surprised and I immediately think, what are you doing, Kala? Uh, no, we’re not at the beach and he’s not a cabana boy. He’s not going to spray your legs with OFF at the bar.
The two men down the way stop eating to watch all this unfold. I jump off the stool and grab the spray without really looking at it, laugh and say, No quiero usarlo cerca de la comida - I don’t want to spray it on near the food - and I go into the lobby to join Sergio and use the spray on my legs.
I put some on and its kind of foamy and gloppy, not like the fine spray of cancer-causing bug repellent goodness I’m used to.
I look at the label and it says “Jardin” - it is yard spray. It has warnings in Spanish on the back label with skulls as big as Dia de Los Muertos Calaveras.
At this exact moment Sergio looks over at me and says, Ai amor, que estas haciendo? What are you doing? Este no es por tu piel! That’s not for your skin! He’s got that bemused look like, I can’t leave you alone for a minute.
Oscar / Mesero #1, who was likely alerted to my erratic behavior by Mesero #2 after proffering my legs for a treatment and then running off with the yard spray, comes around the corner with a smile and a bottle of OFF lotion.
I grew up in Houston where most people, including my family, had a bug exterminator on monthly retainer, and fogging trucks drove up and down in the spring and summer, spraying a cloud of insecticide into the cul de sacs for mosquito control. Groups of neighborhood boys on bikes, just like in the ET movie, would pedal behind the truck as fast as they could to catch the spray.
I never went that far, but I am a little worried about my chemical exposure, and I begin to wonder if I’ll sprout a third arm out of my forehead if I don’t wash off the yard spray soon. I thank Oscar and retreat to the bathroom to wash my legs and reapply the slightly less poisonous OFF lotion.
I come back to the bar, Sergio has sprayed the base around our stools and the bugs have, for the moment, subsided. And, Thank God, Wine Has Arrived.
Oscar, after politely observing my one ring circus, has given me a decent pour.
Here is a tip - wine is still catching on in Mexico. Sometimes your first pour will be regulation 6 ounces, especially if the manager is on duty and the restaurant is not busy.
If you smile a lot, thank them for the little things like clearing your plate or more water, the second pour is almost always bigger than the first unless the pesky manager is watching like a hawk.
Ladies, Mexican men love attention, too, so you don’t have to look like Salma Hayek to ingratiate yourself with your Mesero. Learn a little Spanish, become a regular, smile a lot, tip 15% (the typical tip in Mexico is 10%) and you have it made.
Men, don’t feel left out, it works for gringos, too, as Mexicans are very appreciative of friendly attitudes. It can take years to work up to be Mesero #1 in nicer restaurant, they are very proud of their position and love it when you appreciate their efforts and tip them accordingly.
We order our split entree and chat with Oscar a bit. I noticed immediately that his Spanish is very clear. It is one of the first things I noticed when I met Sergio, too.
I ask Oscar where he is from and he says Mexico City! It always makes me happy to meet another Chilango.
Sergio asks which colonia and they narrow down each other’s home turf from the huge sprawl that is CDMX to within a couple of streets within seconds. I can see both of them visualizing the streets hundreds of miles away, like a shared memory analog google earth.
Sergio’s question is normal here. Where you are from gives new acquaintances a substantial unspoken bio. That, coupled with the way you speak, who introduced you, and, it must be said, how dark you are, is how you are judged here on first impression.
I tell Oscar, That is why I can understand your Spanish, you are from Mexico City. He grins.
Oscar is not from a barrio de ricos, but he’s not from one of the poorest, either. He worked his way west from CDMX, following an informal chain of Tios to stay with and Primos to help him get jobs. He’s at this restaurant right now because his cousin worked here.
This micro-example of upward mobility intrigues me. One of the reasons Mexico City is such a huge sprawl is because millions have moved there to find work, and still do.
Oscar has taken the opposite approach. Employment in nicer restaurants in Mexico City is very competitive. He has likely leap frogged a few years of marking time in a mid-level eatery in CDMX by getting some experience in tourist towns.
I ask him if he speaks English. He says, not much. I tell him Hazlo! Do it!
I turned 55 this week, so I have decided it's time to start giving young people unsolicited advice. I know they will love it. I always always tell young people we meet here to learn English. It opens up a whole new world of opportunities.
Plus, Oscar is still young enough to pick it up quickly. I tell him, if you wait, it is much harder when you are viejo. I point to Sergio and Oscar enjoys my poking fun at mi viejo.
Part of Mexico’s controversial school reform is mandatory English. I asked a teacher about it once, she says there are not enough English teachers so the initiative will not have a big impact any time soon.
No breeze has appeared and the mosquitos are back, lapping up the OFF lotion and my sweat. I am not sure if I'm just overheated or in the middle of a 40 minute hot flash. We pay up and head out to the hair salon, which thank goodness has AC.
And oh, those 2 men at the bar? Oscar tells us one of them is the owner. Funny, he didn't ask for a picture with us!
If you are in Cabo San Lucas, stop by Puerta Vieja restauraunt, and ask for Oscar! The space is lovely and the food is delicious. Just don't sit at the bar to eat...
(Just joining us from the newsletter? Welcome! Scroll down and look for the first blue sentence in BOLD after the photo, that's where we left off. )
It is warm and muggy, a hurricane is on the way, pushing rain ahead to the parched desert south of us. The sky all around Todos Santos swirls with gorgeous dollops of silver, gray and bruised-purple clouds, but not a drop of rain falls on the town. It is as if there is a black magic anti-rain shield arching over us.
The southern tip of Baja was an island unto itself in back in the days when the earth was much younger. The Sierra Laguna mountains were separated from the massive Sierra clan for eons. I wonder if those years as an island seem like yesterday to their mountain memory. Do the Sierras stretching north still consider the Laguna range an outcast for taking their solo journey?
Southern Baja’s history as an island may account for the “place apart” energy that still imbues this part of the world. Between the mountains, crashing ocean, desert, rising moon and setting sun, a sense of rhythm is palpable for those who spend enough time out of the car (or the bar), and in person with the land.
This time of year, nature is not that welcoming. Go walking too late in the day and the heat will beat the fire out of you, sending you into a mini-vision quest of sweat and discomfort.
You start to notice the small things. Odd muses show up.
Many times since I arrived I have thought of E.B. White, of all people. As a young American girl who loved books, he was one of my earliest inspirations. I reread Charlottes Web yearly until I was old enough to hide that fact for fear of being judged uncool by my friends who were getting into makeup and boys. Usually in that order.
Later, I discovered his This Is New York essay, which he wrote one summer in a cheap sweltering New York City hotel room. It still is benchmark inspiration for me in so many ways. I blame this whole Todos adventure on E.B., actually.
I think to myself, why does creativity seem to demand its pound of flesh? To live a more creative life, do we have to go through the artist garret gauntlet? Must we freeze in Paris or sweat in New York, or, in my case, the Baja desert late summer sauna?
For writers, even if being broke and starving doesn’t shove them into the arms of their muse, is there something else that makes us so damn restless? That pulls us out onto the road, the next experience, the discomfort? I think of Jack Kerouac and The Road. I confess, I have not read it. How can that be?
Anyone can enjoy Baja in high season. It’s a bit of a gringa badge of badassedness to hang out here in August and September, in a house with no A/C. Twice. (I say gringa because on a global scale, living with discomfort is not a big deal. At all. The majority of the earth's people who live in hot climates do not have AC. At all.)
I signed up for this experience, so I focus on being open and not falling into the universal trap of kvetching about the weather all time.
I’m at our kitchen table, shifting my weight around in one of the world’s most uncomfortable chairs.
That is actually what made me think of E.B. White in a New York hotel room, sweating in his rickety cheap chair.
My chair is the complete and total opposite of rickety. If Fred Flintstone had a mountain cave man cousin who made furniture, this would be the stuff. The table I'm at is a single 7 inch thick wedge of wood from a good sized tree, it must weigh 400 lbs. The legs are literally large branches. It's actually very cool in a furniture performance art sort of way.
I think of Donald Judd’s cool and uncomfortable furniture in Marfa. I believe he would approve of the Cave Man dinette set. He would approve of many things about southern Baja, in fact. The U.S. is lucky that he, and Steinbeck for that matter, didn’t come to Baja before they settled down north of the border.
The Cave Man chairs have seats that are also carved from 6 inch slices of tree trunks. In a passing nod to ergonomics, the seat has indents carved out for your butt cheeks.
Maybe the furniture maker was inspired by perfect nalgas gracing the Diana the Huntress statue in Mexico City - I know I certainly am inspired by her. Well, not for her nalgas, although they are a fitness benchmark to shoot for, or would be if I was younger.
The seat indentations are one size fits all, or one size fits many Mexicans. In any case, my one size doesn’t conform and my gringa butt is super uncomfortable.
Since I moved to Mexico, I have been stunned at how uncomfortable the chairs are here. Even in nice restaurants sometimes.
I have a theory that their Spanish Inquisition seating is a practical defense against 2 traditions.
One - restaurant waiters have to wait for you to ask for the check. It is considered very rude to bring it before you ask for it. If you visit from the States and you don’t know that, it will make you crazy until you figure it out.
Two: the “mi casa es tu casa” tradition. Sure! Come on in and have a seat, my house is your house! Make yourself at home in one of our boulder hard Cave Man chairs or pull up a rickety cheap plastic folding chair and pray today isn't the day it decides to finally collapse.
Pretty smart, huh? Both options will have you hopping up to grab your coat in about 20 minutes.
Finally, painful chairs are also a preventive measure against unwanted housemates. In Mexico your kids have a lifetime pass to move back home. On top of that, any random primo (cousin) or sobrino (nephew) also have implicit permission to move in this afternoon and live on your couch until further notice. Comfy furniture definitely is a liability.
Today it is lucky for me that my younger self also read the story of the Princess and the Pea, so I get up and add a cushion to my cave man chair.
My sweet man sits is across from me. He just googled our blog and has question. He looks over his glasses and it strikes me anew how much he looks a subject from a Velazquez portrait - a 15th century Iberian philosopher, perhaps.
No, that’s a stretch. In reality, he looks more like a wily royal court official plotting his next move.
Velazquez shakes loose a memory from the magic time I spent as a docent at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. I first came across the painter’s work there and I spent many quiet moments in the galleries with the Spanish paintings, knowing they were telling me something but stuck as to how to translate it into my life’s frame. The message was something like
Why haven't you moved to Spain yet, hermanita?
But that was beyond my hearing range and instead I groped for a socially acceptable solution. I began to seriously consider going back to get my Masters in art history.
Compare the happy hour or holiday dinner reactions of family and friends to the following:
"I'm working on my masters degree" vs.
"Oh, we're selling the house and car and saving to pull the kids out of school and move to Spain next year, no, don't have any grand plans, we're going to figure out most of it as we go".
See how this works?
It would have been the perfect cover story so I wrangled with the idea but never even applied, it seemed like an insurmountable challenge. I used to give up so easily back then.
Ironically, it was the requirement to achieve proficiency in a second language that seemed insurmountable.
I have zero regrets, it seems to be working out OK. Now, instead of being trapped in the frustrating dynamic of studying handsome latino men frozen in 400 year old paintings, I have the infinitely more interesting assignment of learning from the sexy caballero sitting across from me, en vivo, at the Cave Man table, looking like a Spanish conquistador come to life, googling “la vida wich wings” .
My heart has melted and not just because of the heat.
The fan we have turned up full bore in the open doorway is blowing in happy inane mayflies and keeping mosquitos at bay. My hair is up in a chula bandana and a bit of sweat runs down my back. The iPhone hums a Latin soft pop mix in a tinny way that reminds me of the AM radio that used to play in my grandmother’s Iowa kitchen every morning, along with the farm report, but sans the latin pop.
I feel EB sitting with me, maybe he’s got a glass of whiskey, I find myself wondering if I offer some mezcal, will he tell me all his writing secrets? I’m pretty sure Kerouac would, but as I haven’t read him, would I even want to know?
When I committed to house sit a few months ago, from my cool perch in Mexico City, there were practical reasons for it, yet there was something else, that I couldn’t fully articulate.
Does that ever happen to you when you decide on a course of action? It’s like that whisper in the gallery at the Kimbell - you can’t quite catch in the moment -
come closer so you can hear the story
This time I did listen to it and I remind myself of it everyday here at about 2:30 pm when the heat really peaks.
Not to be over dramatic, but the message was something like - this will be a crucible you need and will make us stronger. Desert clarity, heat, time to write, and also, my favorite part, animals to care for.
When we arrive, we discover there is a new a bonus kitty. She is barely weaned, a rescue from a litter dumped in the desert. I look at her and imagine what those hours were like - it couldn’t of been days, she would not have survived. Small, exposed edible creatures don’t last long out there.
Poor thing, what a rough start - the heat, no mama, panicked littermates, wide open sense of infinite space, strange smells, and above all a pervading sense of this is not good, not good at all.
When I saw her, I was surprised, but then not really. I thought, hello Little Teacher, you may be part of the reason I’m here or vice versa.
She’s fearless, active, and in the moment constantly, taking on the dog and already dominating the older cat. Like my Mexican, she doesn’t wear her rough start on her sleeve. She learned early on to keep moving, keep fighting and don't give up.
Do you ever wonder why we want to travel in the first place? Why is it a gillion dollar industry? I saw an interesting factoid recently from a study - it said that women reported feeling most empowered from saving money and travel, 2 seemingly opposite goals.
I can only speak for myself, and from comments of many other travelers I have come across in Facebook groups for women that travel.
It seems to be this: in a society that makes it very easy to hide from ourselves, travel is our soul's shortcut to getting us back on her path.
What does that mean? It sounds woo woo, I know. But it is actually very logical. As we will see next week.
Thank you for reading : )
Join our email list and receive our stories from the road, every Sunday.