Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Once Upon a Time in Mexico

I glanced at the giant clock ticking on the wall in the empty airport.  Two hours had passed and I was still trying to figure out what to do.  I was scared, alone and Spanish-less in a city that spoke nothing else.  The clock read 11:00 pm and I decided it was time to go somewhere…but where?

I was nineteen years old and sitting on my suitcase in an empty terminal in the city of Monterrey in Mexico.  I had remembered to pack everything; a year’s supply of clothing, teaching supplies and gifts for my new students, a Spanish-English pocket-size dictionary and even my favorite heels that I figured I may never need at my destination of a village with dirt roads.  There was one thing I forgot to pack though: the phone number of the person who was supposed to pick me up.  That would really come in handy right now.

I took a breath, said a prayer and stepped out into the muggy heat of an evening in Monterrey.  A plan was coming together in my mind that seemed simple and good: hail a cab, give the driver the name of the village and school where they would be expecting me the next morning and voila, everything should work out perfectly afterall!

Now, how do you say “taxi” in Spanish?!

I quickly realized I should have payed more attention in my high-school Spanish class to how to speak Spanish instead of the cute guy in the third row!   My taxi driver and I were having a major communication break-down (the fact that he was missing most of his front teeth didn’t help the language barrier) although I was able to gather he would be delighted for me to come to his “casa” for “mucho tiempo” and there was something else he kept saying that left me clueless.  After repeated, frantic searches through my pocket-dictionary, I just nodded “yes”…and sometimes “no”, and hoped the rest of my ride would be in the back-seat and not the taxi’s trunk!

I also quickly discovered two things about the booming city of Monterrey; 1. No one in the entire city of Monterrey had ever heard of the village of El Carmen and 2. in spite of what my American banker friend had promised, no hotel within a hundred miles of the airport accepted cashier checks.  

This was precisely why my toothless taxi-driver dumped me on the steps of a police-station two hours later, at 2:00 am.

Should you be thinking, police-station, that sounds safe…what a good idea!  Let me paint the scene: I’m standing on the steps of a building that looked like a bulldozer had started to demolish it in a neighborhood that would make an American ghetto look like Beverly Hills.  I’m holding onto a giant suitcase, a purse crammed with valuables, and am probably the whitest thing other than the stars overhead in the dark sky for a mile radius.  Once I walk inside the police-station, I also notice I’m the only one not wearing a bullet proof vest.  Darn.  That’s another thing I forgot to pack.

I’ll save myself the embarrassment of reenacting what came next.  It involved a room full of amused police officers that didn’t speak English, a girl (me) that wished like she’d never wished before that she spoke Spanish and a game of charades with the contestant (me) acting out an airplane, school-teacher, taxi-driver and a rude hotel clerk while the participants (policemen) shouted out guesses in Spanish and laughed.

Thankfully, no one got that on video.

It seemed at the end of that little game that (other than being exhausted from some good belly-laughs) the officers understood what had happened and decided I could stay while they figured out what to do with me.  Perhaps from sheer habit or lack of originality, they had me step into a jail cell and fingerprinted me while I filled out some forms (that I didn’t understand as they were all in Spanish).

It was at this point that I got a little worried.   I hadn’t really been scared until I heard the latch click when the jail door slammed behind me.

I remember thinking at that moment, Well, God, I thought you led me here. If I could offer up a suggestion for how I’d like my life to end, PLEASE don’t let me disappear forever in a little jail cell in a city in Mexico.  I promise I’ll never forget to pack someones phone number again…especially in a foreign land where I don’t speak the language.  Oh, and sorry I didn’t pay attention in Spanish class either!

But, speaking of phone numbers…I suddenly remembered something!  This could be my salvation…

To be continued tomorrow...!

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