Two Hours in Mexico

"Ignorance Abroad"

For the past week, I've been so close to the Mexican border, I could hurl a taco into the country, and you just can't get this close to a country without venturing inside for a peek. In El Paso, I was, well, scared to go into Juarez, Mexico, a city with a reputed very high crime rate, where they might just eat dumb, white, American tourists with chips and salsa. I don't know if Nuevo Laredo is any safer, but I brave the odds.

I leave "Bob" (Harley) in Laredo, Texas, because I don't want to pay the $15 Mexican insurance (tax) you must pay before taking a vehicle into Mexico, and because I don't want to return to find only his frame and handlebars remaining. Do I sound at all nervous?

What's with the tortilla shells! I dredge the soup looking for a goat's eyeball.
When traveling to a foreign country, it is usually wise to carry more than $3 in cash; you may want to buy something to eat, or a souvenir, or maybe the local police chief - not everybody accepts credit cards. I, of course, am carrying exactly $3 in cash - make that $2.65, after a thirty five cent toll for the foot bridge. Make that $2.30 so I don't rot in a Mexican prison for failure to pay the toll on my way back. Boy, I can get myself into some real messes, sometimes. Like that trip to Britain, when I "became separated from my passport." It's a long story that had a lot to do with being thrown over the shoulder of a 300 pound, drunken rugby player - maybe later.

Once across the bridge, I am on one of the main shopping strips of Nuevo Laredo, and it is humming with commerce. Within two minutes I have offers to sell me pharmaceuticals and other drugs, and the services of a dentist, a plastic surgeon, and chiquitas. I scoff at the offer for pills, I tremble at the thought of a dentist here, I am insulted by the offer of plastic surgery and I wonder how the chiquita would feel about me, with only two dollars and change.

The streets and alleyways are lined with vendors; some legit, some shady and some notorious. The first thing I notice is that the prices are sky high, like $500 for a pair of cowboy boots! Then, I realize that the dollar sign is also used for the Mexican Peso. Fortunately, I am wearing my PageNet pager, which gives me up to the minute reports on news, sports, stocks and the Peso pounding, and so I look up the latest exchange rate. Today is Sunday, but it looks like the Peso traded at 9.85 to the Buck on Friday, so those boots are only about fifty clams (U.S.)

Downtown is a veritable shopping mall, and the curbs and streets are the food court. Every corner has a cart, wagon or wheelbarrow with something to eat. A favorite seems to be corn-on-the-cob-on-a-stick, cooked on a grill. I actually pass by most of these without stopping, not for fear of Montezuma's revenge, but, because - remember - I only have two dollars.

I am at a severe disadvantage here, because I have "rich American tourist" stamped on my forehead (guys are still offering me chiquitas) and I don't speak a word of Spanish, other than "taco" and "burrito" which I suspect aren't even real Spanish, but some Tex-Mex concoction. OK, I can blurt out "Quanto?" and I can count to, oh, thirteen or so in Spanish, but I can't count to "a dollar-seventy-five" or understand more than one word at a time. If I could just get one of those chiquitas to take me to lunch, I'd be all right.

I stop at a wheelbarrow full of grapes and put a quarter in the the guy's hand. He cuts me off a stem of about a dozen grapes - probably half what he would give his regular customers - and gives it to me. They taste delicious.

I remember watching someone in an American sandwich shop put on a new pair of plastic gloves for every sandwich she made, and thinking how wasteful it was. Now I'm wondering if there are any health regulations at all, here. This is a cute, little stand, where people actually eat shrimp cocktails from glassware. This man is making the cocktails, shoveling the shrimp with his hands. If he scratches his groin one more time, I think I'll pass out.

Using my "One block over" strategy of always wandering around the outskirts of tourist areas, I come across a man selling a bicycle. It's a tricycle, actually - a food cart tricycle. His name is Roberto and he is very friendly and he speaks English. I stop and we chat for a while - he wants to sell me the bike.

He just bought it at a store down the street for thirteen thousand Pesos and will sell it to me for only one thousand - he has to leave town, for some reason. We are in a small room - about ten by ten feet - which looks like an abandoned apartment - maybe not abandoned. Something is percolating on a hot plate, but I honestly couldn't tell you what it is - some kind of stew, I guess. After a while, I take a photo of the bike and say good bye to my new friend, Roberto.

A block away, I see a barber shop. "Haircut: $20," a sign says. OK, that's about two bucks - a great price - and I could use a haircut. But, I pass. I don't know why, maybe I'm afraid they might translate "a little off the sides" to something like; "shave half the head and dye the other half orange." I continue on.

Time for lunch. I decide to eat at a restaurant where they accept credit cards, and I catch one right on the main drag. I study the menu in the window for the lunch special. All I can make out is that it includes a long list of items and only costs $50 - I can afford five dollars. I sit up front and the waiter shows me the menu - he speaks English. "I'll have the special," I say.

"Very good, sir. Which one would you like?" Whaa? He shows me the menu, because he knows that I haven't got a clue what I'm doing, and I look at it more closely. I guess the list of items is really a list of choices you have.

"Do you have something spicy?" I ask. He points to the third item on the list. "I'll take it." Great. Mystery dining. The thing about Mexican food - at least to this ignorant tourist - is that it is all the same. You have about three or four ingredients; tortillas, beans and a vegetable or two, and you just mix them up in different ways and throw hot sauce on it. So, whatever I get, it will taste the same as anything else I could order.

Each time I visit a country where I don't speak the language, I can't help but feel sorry for the person who lives in the U.S. and doesn't speak English, and there are millions of them. Sure, you can get by, but you are missing so much! They must be as intimidated by the thought of learning English as I am by Spanish, but I can't imagine living for decades in a country without learning the language.

Within minutes, my food arrives. I get a bowl of some kind of hot sauce, with tortilla chips, a plate of rice, a bowl of chicken soup (on the bone) and some soft tortilla shells. The waiter was right; I haven't got a clue. What am I supposed to do with the shells? I start working on the chicken soup.

Dining in a foreign country can be intimidating. You're supposed to know how to eat this crazy food? What's with the tortilla shells! I dredge the soup looking for a goat's eyeball. I like American food. You just take the hamburger and eat it. OK, lobster can be pretty challenging, but we didn't invent that, we just found it. Right now I've got a pile of tortilla shells and - heck, I'll just roll one up and eat it. The busboy is standing like a Marine about six feet away from me, watching my every move. He's probably thinking; "I bet he rolls the tortilla up and..."

Just to give them something to talk about, I pull out my camera and take a photo of my food. "American tourist!" I feel brave - and pretty bored with plain tortillas and I decide to make some kind of fajitas or something, and I smear some of the sauce on a shell, then some rice, and I cut some of the boiled chicken off the bone and hoist it up out of the soup. I roll up the shell and - to the amazement of the stone-faced busboy, I put it in my mouth. Hmmm, pretty bland. Something's not right.

After my fourth shell, I'm almost out of rice and my waiter brings over another stack of shells. He looks at me with a face totally bereft of amusement and asks; "are you ready for your spicy food yet, sir?"

No kidding. OK, that was just the appetizer. "Yes, please. Gracias," I say, and he brings me out a plate of barbecued beef or something - still on the bone - cut into bite-size pieces, with a pile of (what else?) beans. Well, now, this is food! I toss some of them beans on a shell, then some of the rib-things, veggies, hot sauce, and - viola!

Back out on the street, I am feeling much better. With lunch out of the way, I now have two dollars to burn, on what else, but cervesas! I pull into a corner grocery store with a sign that says "Cold Beer." Inside, a boy sits on a crate, using packing tape to attach some mean looking fireworks to four-foot long sticks, like some massive bottle rockets or something. I wander to the coolers. None of the beers have price labels, so I guess I'll be paying the tourist rate. I pick out a Corona and ask the boy; "how much?" He gives me a serious, thoughtful look and says; "seven Pesos." I know I'm supposed to offer him about two Pesos, but I just give him a dollar and he hands me a couple of coins change. "Is it OK to drink outside?" I ask. He nods, back at work on his artillery.

Outside, I drink the beer and people-watch. Somehow a Corona just tastes better when you're sitting on rough concrete steps on a dirty street corner, watching locals mill about, with the hot, Mexican sun bearing down on you.

Back on my feet and a few blocks down the street, I happen upon the same store from which Roberto bought his tricycle. I know this, because I recognize the name and because there is another bike, just like it, for sale out front. I wander over to see if I can get a price off of it - Roberto might have been giving me a line of "toro." A young couple is looking at the bike, talking with a salesman. They look like they want to buy it, but they seem to have a hard decision to make.

When the salesman turns away for a moment, I look over to the couple and ask; "English?" They shake their heads. I've got this plan, now, to try and sell them Roberto's bike. He said he would go as low as 800 Pesos, and so they could save some forty percent (even in Spanish!) They wave goodbye to the salesman and start walking away. I follow them. "Excuse me," I say. They look at me strange. I take my pen out of my pocket and fumble with it. "Did.. you.. want... to... buy... that.. bike?" I ask them. They actually look somewhat nervous, and they clutch each other's hands. I figure I can write "$800 Pesos" on a piece of paper, if I can only - I drop my pen. As I stoop to pick it up, the young man and woman actually run away from me! I don't get it... could it be that they are actually afraid of me; a dumb, white, American tourist?

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