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COLUMN SIX: Polite meets persistent

His journey coming to an end, our man in Mexico has his patience tested BY SAMUEL PICCOLO Special to the VOICE In Hell there is a certain icy area behind velvet ropes kept on reserve for people who are rude to service workers.
Dusk descends in Oaxaca. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO

His journey coming to an end, our man in Mexico has his patience tested


Special to the VOICE

In Hell there is a certain icy area behind velvet ropes kept on reserve for people who are rude to service workers. As my time in Mexico comes to a close, I worry that I am getting nearer to earning a membership card, the bouncers guarding those ropes now memorizing my face so that I may be greeted with the appropriate pomp when they see me coming.

In my previous trips to other countries I was swaddled in the conviction that as a Canadian I was part of the politest, if not necessarily the nicest, nation in the world. This conviction was intensified in Europe, where I was, on numerous occasions, jostled, jabbed, bumped, berated, and given good reason to again breathe easy when I returned home, where I could expect apologies for every real or imagined slight and gratefully reciprocate the same.

Mexico has been different. I suspect that much of the blame for my shifting sense of politeness belongs to my deep dislike for being sold things, which happens constantly here. My dislike for it, I’m sure, comes from years of watching Western New York television, where local commercials for car dealerships and dubious lawyers instilled in me a desire never to own a vehicle and never to do anything requiring rescue by bail bond. This quirk, which no doubt began harmlessly, has worked itself into an advanced character flaw, so much so that if I were stranded in a desert, dehydrating into a stiff, human chamois cloth, and the only water vendor around tried to woo me with an Oasis oasis jingle, I’d probably gesture rudely and keep crawling.

During previous trips I was in countries where I blended in well, ethnically speaking. If I walked down the sidewalk like I belonged, and mastered the accent on a few local idioms, I could pass as a native. But in Mexico, while my particular shade of Caucasian may be over-represented on billboards as a hue representative of success and the good life, it is certainly not found commonly in the streets. Effectively, I have been walking around for seven weeks with an epidermal beacon that flashes: “The currency in my country is strong compared to yours. I am rich in Mexico. I can afford to buy two of everything you are selling.” Plus, I’m taller than most Canadians, let alone Mexicans, so this particular beacon has not gone unnoticed.

Since I stepped off the plane I’ve been offered anything you can imagine, and a lot of what you don’t want to. I was taking all of this attention pretty well, I thought, and getting good at smiling apologetically and saying, “No, gracias,” with enough force that the peddler or boot-polisher or tour guide or random teenager encouraging me to take magic mushrooms in the middle of the jungle on a 45-degree day would give up his efforts but not feel as though I were being rude.

But last week in Mazunte, a beach town on the Pacific, I just about came unglued. While there are only a thousand people in Mazunte, there are at least ten taxis, the drivers of which honk, ceaselessly, at passers-by. “Taxi?” they shouted at me again and again. Finally I turned to one and said: “To where? I have no shoes on and I’m walking towards the beach, which we can both see. And besides, where else could I be going, with no luggage? This whole town is a ten-minute walk end-to-end, and there are buses that go to the next town, anyway, for a tenth of your price!”

All of this came out haltingly in Spanish, and I suspect far less coherently than the version I’m giving you, but it worked and the driver left me alone. I walked on, now feeling ashamed.

I probably should have been. The driver was only trying to find a fare—that is to say, doing his job—and the continued presence of so many taxis in the town is proof of sufficient demand. I’ve seen many Mexicans taking taxis for trips that could more easily be done by bus or on foot. This, perhaps, has contributed to the origins of the “lazy Mexican” stereotype. On the whole, people here work hard in difficult conditions, but when they are not working, they are indeed idle. This is because nearly everything is available nearly everywhere. After a hard day or week or lifetime of work, hauling cement by hand or hawking food in the market, it is cheap—and highly desirable—to sit still and have everything brought to you.

Aside from the washroom, you could easily pass months here sitting on a bench in a city square not wanting for anything. In the morning, women push around carts with large pots of steaming tamales, which they sell in a sandwich for a dollar, with coffee for just a few cents more. Pre-cut fruit is wheeled around too, and by lunchtime there are tacos and quesadillas and popsicles on offer. You can sit on your bench and buy the newspaper and have your shoes shined while you read it. If the absence of a shower in the square gives rise to predictably unpleasant body odour, swapping clothes is a snap. More women will come around with shirts, shawls and dresses, along with trinkets and jewelry you can take home as souvenirs.

All of this selling and sitting reached its apex the other day when I went to baseball game in Oaxaca City. Baseball is big in Mexico, though this wasn’t apparent at the stadium, where there were just a few hundred fans scattered among 7,200 seats. When buying my ticket, I considered getting a spot in the outfield ($1 CAD) but in the end decided for the expensive seats ($3.50 CAD) right behind home plate. This was a good decision, since there was no one at all in the outfield, and no refreshment service either.

This service was well on par with that in the city squares. There was at least one vendor for every ten fans, and, again, anything could be bought. I counted five different kinds of nuts—the peanuts that you expect at a ball park, but also pistachios, brazil nuts, almonds, and cashews. There was hot chocolate and cold chocolate, coffee and iced coffee, tacos, tamales, empanadas, nachos, and ice cream.

It was the beer vendors that pushed me up to the edge. Just in my section behind home plate there were six of them, and they circulated in a pattern, meaning that there was always one within earshot. The strategy was to wage a war of attrition against the willpower of the audience. However irritating the approach was to me—no one else seemed to care—I can’t deny that it was effective. By the fourth inning all of the beer-boys were occupied all of the time, running back and forth retrieving cans and ice and plastic cups.

The level of play, especially defence, was pretty good, and I stood and cheered along with the crowd, and oohed with everyone else when balls were fouled back over the stands onto the street. I was disappointed, though, as I can only hope the rest were, that at these moments the music was always piped in quickly before we had a chance to hear whether or not the ball crunched a windshield or took out a streetlight on impact.

The last baseball game I went to was when I finished elementary school. It was a graduation present from my grandparents, eight years ago. Grampsie, as we called him, took me over the river to Detroit, from their home near Windsor, and picked up tickets the traditional way, at the booth. Not being much of a devotee myself, I remember little of the actual game. I do remember Grampsie though.

He was a fan of all sports, especially baseball, so much so that one year he and my grandmother skipped their annual vacation and instead spent the funds on an enormous flat-screen television, the better to watch sports by. This was in the early days of high-definition, and I remember talking to him on the phone when they got the thing.

“The trip is now sitting in our basement,” he told me proudly. “The picture on it is so clear that last night I could read all of the tattoos during the basketball game.”

He was the sort of person who would talk to anyone, anytime, even if they did display those visible tattoos, the one unforgivable sin. Nobody sitting near us at the Tigers’ game had any of them anyway, and by the top of the ninth, Grampsie was old friends with everyone. This was how it went with him. We’d be held up at the tee on a golf course, and he’d have interrogated the entire group behind us, learning enough about their home, their family, their schooling, and their job to ghostwrite their memoirs. I was only 14 when he died, and too young then to appreciate the sort of energy it took to be so polite and inquisitive all the time.

The pace of baseball provides occasion to consider such things.

The evening in Oaxaca was spectacular. Early on, the moon slid up above the horizon like a reliever scoping out the mound before it was time for his appearance. When the sun did finally drop, the sky smouldered in blue and violet. The game ended a half-inning early, which didn’t much bother me, though no doubt disappointed the vendors hoping to sell a few more beers. The refreshment team had anticipated a longer game and a better turnout, and as the fans left they were still trying to sell us food at the exits.

“Empanadas, my friend? Half-price now,” one called to me. I glared at him, but still paused at the offer. Because I had refused to buy anything to eat anything during the game—and because even when I’ve eaten a half-dozen empanadas I still find it difficult to refuse another—the deal was tempting. He noticed the hostility and looked away, and at once I could tell how tired he was. He started to walk toward the gates. I thought again about the evening, about the trip, about that icy area of Hell, and, if I had had more time, about Grampsie.

I started after him. “Yes, I will have an empanada,” I said. “It’s a long walk home.” ♦