Peering down from the airplane window, I could clearly see the human-made border between California and Mexico. It was a stark contrast between paved roads surrounded by big rooftops and dirt roads, small rooftops. The terrain had not changed, but a big wall marked the border between the two countries. I was traveling to Western Mexico to visit a friend, to brush up on my Spanish, and to learn more about the Mexican culture. I arrived curious and eager to learn. On the ground the contrast seemed just as great as in the air.
Before I left Oregon, friends had told me Mexico was not safe. On the contrary, I felt completely safe when I traveled by bus from Teacapan to Sayulita. The bus drivers, strangers on the street, and fellow travelers went out of their way to make sure I got on the right bus and stood in the right place to get my connecting bus. I felt taken care of and respected. Even though I did not know where I was, and I was traveling alone, I always felt that people were there to help me when I needed directions.
In Teacapan everyone greeted me as I passed them on the street. We don’t do this in the town where I live. When the residents of Teacapan were not saying “Buenos Dias” or “Buenos Tardes,” they said “Adios,” which literally means “To God.” I loved this; even though they did not personally know me, they acknowledged that we are both human, and we are here together in the same place. It was a sign of mutual respect. The Spanish language is an emotional language, and the simple Mexican greeting as people pass you on the street feels like a deep spiritual acknowledgment of who we really are.
One afternoon, I was sitting in the pharmacy in Teacapan when a U.S. man on vacation came in to get something for his chest congestion. He spoke loudly in English as if loud were the key to comprehension. He was demanding and I guess he was hiding his discomfort of being in a different culture. The owner who was working that day was not an English speaker, but she was a medical doctor. She knew by looking and listening what he needed. At that moment, I felt embarrassed because this man who was from my country was so rude. Why couldn’t he have been more respectful? He was in a Spanish-speaking country. Why couldn’t he at least learn how to say hello in Spanish?
In the U.S. people complain that the Mexicans who migrate here for work don’t speak English. I never heard one Mexican complain about the gringos not speaking Spanish in Mexico. Instead, I heard Mexicans practicing their few English words to make the gringos more comfortable.
When I chatted with my taxi driver on my way from La Peñita to Sayulita, he was impressed that I spoke some Spanish. I told him the purpose of my trip and he became emotional. He told me that the Mexican people want nothing more than for people to learn about who they are. I was touched by his answer, so simple, and yet so profound.