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...
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