Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Forgotten Tips & Pink Toenails

My first six hours in Mexico were a little rough, the kind of rough that made me momentarily rethink my decision to leave my comfortable life in Japan (for those of you just stumbling onto my little blog, the back story is here) to start all over again in Mexico.

It started shortly after I touched down in Mexico City, when I was settling into my four-hour layover before my flight to my new hometown of Culiacán. I was walking half-asleep through the terminal and heard someone call out "SEÑORITA!!," and turned my head to see a security guard running down the hall in my direction.


A waitress was running right behind him. Fellow travelers stopped to gawk at the spectacle: Turns out I had forgotten to leave a tip after my lunch in the terminal restaurant. While tipping is not a custom in Japan, it is very much alive -- and apparently very much expected -- in Mexico. Having spent the last year NOT leaving tips in Japan, I had forgotten this small but important detail.

Flustered, I handed the angry waitress 20 pesos and apologized profusely. She looked at me funny, not because I hadn’t tipped, but because, in my embarrassed and exhausted state, I had said "I’m sorry" in Japanese.

Japanese continued to corrupt my Spanish throughout the day.

Then my suitcases got lost.

The guy who had agreed to meet me at the airport was 90 minutes late.

And, while I’m whining, let me add that Culiacán is hot as hell.

So the start of my Mexican life was a bit tough. But then I arrived at Dora’s house, and everything changed.

Dora answered the door, wearing a bright flowered dress and an even brighter smile, holding a tiny, quivering Chihuahua in her arms. She greeted me with a warm hug, thus squishing the dog between us, and kissed both of my cheeks, explaining that she had been waiting for me and that she was so happy to see me and that she was so excited to host me in her home (I’ll be staying with Dora until I find my own apartment here) and that I could call her ‘Dorita’ if I wanted to. She then introduced me to Miruña, the Chihuahua, asking if I liked the color of the bright pink nail polish she had meticulously painted on the dog’s toes.

"Lo encanto," I replied, using comprehensible Spanish for the first time that day. "I love it."

In that moment, staring at that dog’s ridiculous toenails, I remembered why I had decided to come to Mexico.

Dora gave me a glass of fresh-squeezed juice to drink as I unpacked my suitcases in my room, a comfortable bedroom that overlooks her plant-filled patio, and then treated me to a delicious dinner of tostadas at an open-air foodstall around the corner. She peppered our lively conversation with little expressions of affection, calling me ‘mamacita’ and ‘mi reina’ and ‘mi corazón,’ and ‘mi cielo,’ as she told me about the other teachers she’d hosted in the past. She took me to the market and together we bought fresh watermelon and papaya and mangos and avocados and chiles and cheese. Dora whipped these ingredients into an amazing batch of chiles rellenos, which she served me for lunch the next day.

"Creo que hemos empezado bien," she said to me during lunch. "I think we’re off to a great start."

I agree, Dorita. I agree.