Words Fail Me

A few days ago, my daughter Ellie told me this story: She was exiting a local business, when she encountered a little boy. He looked up at her and said, in that earnest way that only children can pull off, “You look like a nice lady.”  She answered him, “And you are a nice boy.”

The image of this encounter delights me. I have revisited it more than once over the last few days. A chance moment between an adult and a child, a few kind words spoken that did not need to be said.  And now, joy in the telling and retelling. So simple.

Funny thing: when I was sharing this story with Charlie last night, I realized that, though the incident happened in Westmont, New Jersey, I was imagining a Mexican child. I saw a boy of about five, with wide dark eyes, silky black hair and an open face. Every time I encounter a Mexican child, which is several times a day, I fall in love a little bit.

Which is one of the main reasons I grow frustrated with my laborious acquisition of the language. Lets face it: I’m turning sixty years old in less than two weeks. These old synapses are not as flexible as they were back when I should have been more serious about learning foreign languages. I have continued to work on my Spanish, but I will have to be much more committed if I am going to get further. It’s really true that immersion is the only way, and I haven’t tried hard enough to engage with the people on a daily basis. I’m always afraid I will end up out on a limb of incomprehension.

Having long flourished in the world of verbal expression, it is difficult for me to try to communicate with only a limited arsenal. I dread that moment when I run out of words, wanting to express a thought or question for which I lack the vocabulary. It’s like starting to cross a bridge to a splendid place, and discovering that the bridge has not yet been completed. You can see where you so fervently want to go, but instead of a road to get there, you face a churning river. Maybe there are alligators, or you’ll drown. So jumping in and trying to swim doesn’t feel like an option. That’s me trying to speak Spanish.

Beyond not being able to befriend small children, another major frustration for me involves taking cabs. I HATE riding in cabs. Many of the cab drivers don’t speak English, and I feel like the ugly American, sharing in silence a small, almost intimate space with someone who is performing a service for me. Yesterday we took a cab downtown for dinner. The cabbie had cheerful instrumental Latin music playing, and I said, “Me gusto la musica.” He laughed and I could tell he appreciated my comment. It was a little bridge, so we were humans together for a moment. The ride was very pleasant.

But I can’t always create that little bridge. Or I get so far, but no further. Case in point: Yesterday Charlie and I were in the artists’ market – this week, a fantastic artist’s market with artisans from all over Mexico is on our island. Charlie was buying a lovely hand-stitched shirt while I was at a table nearby, perusing amber jewelry from Chiapas. Charlie came over to me and asked, “How do I ask him where the shirt was made?” So I (momentarily…) left the amber table, and asked Charlie’s vendor, “¿De donde es la camisa?” The young gentleman smiled widely and said, “Isla Mujeres.” It was made right on our island! A little surprised, I asked again, “¿Isla Mujeres?” He pointed at the colorful sign at the front of his table, “Isla Mujeres.” And then we had what I call a bobble-head doll moment, when we smile and nod our heads in lieu of communicating more deeply. I would have liked to ask him more. Who makes this beautiful clothing? Is it sold anywhere on the island regularly? My inquisitive mind works faster than my words can communicate, and I get frustrated, and turn into a bobble-head.

Last weekend we were on our way into the big supermarket, Chedraui, and happened upon some vendors selling pottery on the sidewalk in front of the store. We decided to purchase two mugs, and made our selection. Alas, we did not have small enough bills and the vendor did not have enough change. I had a simple request – can you hold these mugs for us while we go into the store and do our shopping, because then we will have the right change? But I could not communicate this effectively, although I did my best. We ended up having Charlie stand down there with the two mugs in his hands, while I went up the escalator, into the store, on the cashier line, made change, and went down to complete the purchase. Awkward, but we got the mugs.

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While on the subject of Chedraui, I recall that early in our stay here we needed to purchase a frying pan. Charlie found one there that seemed nicely heavy, which everyone knows is a good quality in a frying pan. The pan was covered in a colorful cardboard wrapper with a lot of writing on it, then covered again in cellophane. Charlie couldn’t read the writing on the cardboard, but it was clearly a frying pan of the size we desired, as we could tell by the contours and the handle sticking out from the packaging. He brought it home, and upon unwrapping it we discovered that it contained not only a frying pan but about two pounds of powdered chicken broth, which actually comprised the weight of the parcel. It was actually a flimsy, lightweight pan! Well, we thought, who knew that chicken broth came free with the pan???

A couple of months later, when shopping again, I discovered several of the very same packages on the clearance table. With the Spanish I had gained in the interim, I was able to discern that we had NOT purchased a pan with free chicken broth, but rather, we had purchased chicken broth that came with a free pan! Such are the perils of shopping in a foreign country.

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Getting back to taxi rides: I need to vent. As I explained early on, our transportation on the island is a tapestry of walking, bike riding, rental golf carts when we have guests, sometimes being lucky enough to catch a ride with friends, and, as a last resort, the occasional cab ride. I’ve already expressed the hatred I feel about this option, but it seems important to elaborate. To begin with, there is a lot of negative feeling about the taxi business on the island. The drivers have a union, and, I’m told, a good deal of political clout. It is suggested that the taxi folks don’t always use that power for the common good.

That being said, I have nothing against the individuals who are struggling to earn a living providing this service. In spite of all the popular complaining about the cabbies, I have observed that the drivers are struggling just like everyone else…their lifestyles are just the same as their neighbors’, they work long hours, and no doubt deal with some very unpleasant customers in the bargain.

Added to my frustration with not being able to communicate sufficiently with the drivers while sharing their space, there is another sticking point: the fares. Not because they are expensive, but because there is such a strange dynamic involved. When we were first tourists on the island, we would dutifully pay the driver what they asked of us, and we felt we were getting a fair price. As we spent more time here, we began to realize that there was a wide chasm between what the tourists paid and what the locals were charged. Often a local will ride up front with the cabbie while another fare sits in back, so that essentially the driver collects two fares on the same trip. No problemo. It makes things more interesting.

As we grew to be aware of the two-tiered fare system, our local ex-pat friends gave us the scoop: “Don’t ask the cabbie what you owe them, just give them 30 pesos,” and, “Ask them what the fare will be before you get in the cab, and refuse the ride if it is too much,” and “Make sure you have the right change.” While I found the whole ordeal more than a little uncomfortable, Charlie embraced this approach. (After all, he has family in Sicily.) After a year or so of experimentation, he now has this down to a science. Before we leave the house, we gathers 30 pesos, exactly. Then we hail a cab, and when we arrive, as I disembark, he hands the driver the money and we say adiós. The cabbies accept this – even though, had we asked them what the fare was, the answer would have been anything from 40 to 70 pesos, sometimes even more. Apparently, by just handing them the exact change, the assertion is, “I know what this costs, don’t pull one over on me.”

For me, the word-woman, this is just a little too nonverbal, too posturing. The other day, as we were vamoosing out of a cab, I said to Charlie, “I feel like we’re Bonnie and Clyde and we just pulled off a heist.” I just can’t shake that feeling, with two consequences. One, I always let Charlie be “the man” and pay the money. Two, I refuse to take a cab by myself, because, as much as I don’t like the method, I’m certainly not willing to revert to paying the turista rate. So, in this one aspect of travel on the island, I am not an independent mujer. I have been known to walk three miles in the burning sun to avoid that experience. Crazy, I know, but we are all allowed our little quirks on Isla Mujeres.

As I write this, we have one week and one day remaining on this beautiful island. We have begun our process of taking leave, as we discuss what restaurants we want to visit one last time, how to spend our diminishing days, and how hard it will be to take leave of this place that has become another home for us. If I have one regret as I write this, it reverts back to my disappointment in the slow development of my fluency. If I had these four months to live over, I would spend more time immersing myself in the language by speaking with the locals more and the English-speakers less. You can get by on Isla Mujeres with little or no Spanish, but you miss out on getting to know many wonderful people, with stories to tell that are truly the fabric of this magical place. I am sorry for the stories I have not heard, and hope to hear more next time.

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