The kindness of (Mexican) strangers

 

strangers-kidsOne of the delightful things about traveling in Mexico is the people. If I may generalize, Mexican people are dignified, hardworking, devout, family-oriented, and very, very kind. If you’ve spent much time in Mexico, you know this is true. If you haven’t, you may be experiencing some jarring dissonance between this statement and your preconceptions.

Take my trip from Teacapan to Guadalajara, for example.

When the early bus from Teacapan pulled into Escuinapa, a much larger city, I had to find–somewhere–the bus to Guadalajara. I thought I knew where the bus terminal was, but just in case, I asked the driver as I was leaving, “Where can I find the bus to Guadalajara?” because I was pretty sure he would just point me up the street.

Instead, his brows knit. He ponders for a minutes. Uh-oh, I’m thinking, This is getting complicated. Then he tells me to sit down. He will take me there.

I am driven around the city in my personal, publicly funded limousine until the driver finally deposits me at a tiny storefront that services one bus line to Guadalajara.

Kindness of strangers #1.

I wait the half-hour for the storefront to officially open. Then I discover that there’s only one bus to Guadalajara, and it doesn’t leave until 7pm. I briefly consider waiting for, um, the entire day, but then I further consider that I’d get into this large and unknown city in the wee hours of the morning.

“Are there other buses? Other options?”

After some consultation with the neighboring storefront, the man points me down the street.

“Wait on the corner past the gas station. Buses to Guadalajara pass by there.”

I take a deep breath. I’ve been in this spot before–trundling my luggage down crazy streets looking in vain for some vague thing, like a certain, unmarked street corner for something equally vague that may or may not happen. I repeat the directions, hoping I got it straight, and begin the trek to…a street corner past a gas station.

I pass the gas station. Yes, there’s a wide and dusty corner. There is also the usual clutch of tables and a family-run food stand. A two-year-old is toddling around giving his grandparents high-fives. With a knot in my stomach that tells me that I may have fallen down the rabbit-hole–again–I ask if they know where to catch the bus to Guadalajara.

Right here, they say, gesturing. Just wait. The bus will come. Sit. Sit.

I perch on the edge of a plastic chair. The toddler gives me a high five.

We try to converse, but my Spanish isn’t up to normal, friendly conversation, so we smile and nod, and I hope I have a pleasant look on my face.

A bus stops at the corner. I jump up.

“No. no. Not that bus.”

I sit down. Time passes. More nods and smiles. More high-fives. Another bus comes by. Like a puppet on a string, I jump up.

“No, no, not that bus,” they say.

Patience,” says the older man. “Have patience.”

I sit down. More time passes. Another bus comes by.

“THAT’S the bus,” they yell. The older woman runs out to flag it down, while I grab my stuff. Finally, I’m on my way to Guadalajara. And it only took a village.

Kindness of strangers #2.

It is dark when we finally reach Guadalajara. I’m not even sure where to get off. This isn’t a first-class bus, so the stops could be anywhere. I ask the driver to let me out close to El Centro.

Guadalajara is huge–4 million people in the greater metropolitan area. Second largest city in Mexico, all of which freaks me out a little. We are on a proper highway now, with traffic zipping by. All at once, the bus stops, and it seems to be right on the highway. People get off. I get off, a bit dazed and trying to collect myself.

Someone touches my arm. “Do you need a taxi? Here is a driver.” I am even more confused. Then I realized that a passenger on the bus surmised that I’d be looking for a taxi and brought the driver to me from the nearby taxi stand.

Now this, folks, is the kindness of Mexican people. #3.

This stuff happened all the time. People on buses (I took a LOT of buses) would literally take me by the hand and lead me to the right stop. If I was lost, instead of simply giving directions, people would walk me to the place I needed to be. Once, a man at a bus stop took my bits of loose change and combined it with his to make our fares. A taxi driver in Mexico City gave me the choice of getting out at a crosswalk where I could simply walk across the street to the bus station instead of driving me all around to the front of the station, which would have increased his fare, I’m sure. Then, in the flurry of unloading my bags and digging out his fare, he rounded it down to the bills I had in hand, rather than making change.

“Pero su propina!” I said. (But your tip!)

“No, no, don’t worry. Go.”

Now, sometimes I was scammed by taxi drivers, and sometimes people gave me hostile stares, and sometimes, to the hordes of weary young women with babies on their backs trying to sell tchotchkes made by their husbands at night, I only represented the possibility of a few pesos. By and large, the indigenous people who are at the bottom of every pecking order in the world tended to be the least friendly. And they were CERTAINLY unfriendly toward my camera. (Understandably. And so I missed some great photo-ops because it’s just not very nice to take stealth photos.)

 

Selling tchotchkes that her husband made

Selling tchotchkes that her husband made

"My father and I paint these." On tree bark. I bought this one.

“My father and I paint these.” On tree bark. I bought this one.

 

One thing the Mexicans get right is a sense of community and connection, especially in the villages. Everyone counts. Everyone has a task. People rely on each other. They have to.

This was very evident when I trekked to five villages in the mountains in the state of Oaxaca. Each village had a guesthouse and a comodor (an eating place). They had guides, horses, and bicycles for rent. They had an office in the city of Oaxaca to help tourists plan their trip. The coordination required among these small villages is complex–and to the visitor, it was seamless–all without fancy technology.

The most amazing thing? Every job was done by volunteers, from the construction of absolutely beautiful guesthouses to the young men who guide tourists from one village to the next. Each person donates up to a year of service. (“I do it for the community,” said a young woman who works in the comodor.)

Making cocoa in the comodor--her volunteer job for a year. "El sabor es en la espuma," she says. The flavor is in the foam.

Making cocoa in the comodor. Running the comodor is her volunteer job for a year. “El sabor es en la espuma,” she says. The flavor is in the foam.

The level of cooperation is amazing, and it has paid off for the villages. People from all over the world come to visit the Pueblos Mancomunados, bringing their dollars, euros, and different perspectives on the world. The concensus of all the people in the villages that I asked was that, yes, the program is challenging to coordinate and maintain (it’s been around for two decades now), but that it brings good things to the people.

This stuff doesn’t work in a culture without deep roots and a respect for community.

 

And finally, I am Catholic. I like visiting Mexico because I feel like I belong to the club. (Ninety percent of the country is Catholic.) I can genuflect with the best of them.

What is striking to me, however, is the simple, unselfconscious devotion that I see everywhere in this country.

Churches (and there are a lot of them) are always open, and they are never empty. Young and old people go to church. Men and women, rich and poor. They bring flowers. They touch the statues. They leave money. They kneel at the altar. They walk around. There is usually a sense of the sacred even when tourists are flooding through. I didn’t see crazy emotion or showy rituals, even during Semana Santa; I just saw people for whom religion means something.fi

strangers-in church

A fun thing to do in Mexico is to walk down the street and say with a smile “Hola. Buenos dias!” to random strangers. And then to watch their faces light up with an instant, spontaneous smile as they greet you in return. By and large, these are a happy people, I think.

Passing out free drinks from the family's storefront on the Oaxacan festival of Samaritana.

Passing out free drinks from the family’s storefront on the Oaxacan festival of Samaritana.

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6 Responses to The kindness of (Mexican) strangers

  1. Maria 1 June, 2014 at 2:22 am #

    I’ve got to start traveling with you

  2. Veronica Jabrocki 29 May, 2014 at 10:53 pm #

    Totally enjoyed reading this article! You did a great job of illustrating the general kindness of the Mexican people which I too have experienced again and again. Thank you for sharing your trip and also for the stroll down memory lane that your story gave me. Years ago when you used to ask me about my time in Mexico, I had no idea how our lives would reverse themselves. Funny how life goes …

    • Kate Convissor 30 May, 2014 at 9:32 am #

      I KNOW! All those years I talked about traveling. And now I’m doing it! Crazy.

      Mexico gets such a bad rap, it’s really nice to see that others who’ve actually traveled there have had a similar experience. The country is so incredible with its rich history, its artesans, its festivals, its food. And the very wonderful people.

      I’ll begin traveling in South America this winter, so it’ll be interesting to compare.

  3. Hoz 29 May, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

    Love your writing.

    • Kate Convissor 30 May, 2014 at 9:26 am #

      You need to know, Hoz, that people like you keep me writing this thing. So there.

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