Sunday, December 21, 2008

Amigos y Extranjeros

It's crazy how often it happens. Everyone I know who has traveled has experienced it, and people write entire books about it. It doesn't matter where you go, whether you have the same skin color, the same religion, or even whether you speak the same language, it will happen to you. I am talking about the kindness of strangers (which, as I have mentioned before, happens to be the title of a pretty great book). Every time I experience it I am filled with more emotions than I can possibly describe. The obvious ones are gratitude and joy that there are so many kind people in the world, who for no reason other than kindness will invite you into their homes, share their food, and go out of their way to make you feel incredibly welcome. Then there are the other feelings it invokes. The ones that aren't as pleasant. There is a bit self-loathing, why don't I ever do the same thing for others? Never once have I invited a stranger who I have nothing in common with, but would like to do something nice for, into my house. And then there is that little voice in the back of my head saying "careful here, don't be too nice they might be trying to rip you off." Never once has that voice been correct, but it is always there, always causing me to be on guard, to make excuses to leave early, or otherwise excuse myself from the situation.

It started Friday night with a mildly intoxicated Mexican shouting out to me "Hello, where are you from." I was walking away from him at the time, headed in search of my favorite warm weather treat, ice cream, and did not stop to talk with him. After sating my craving for ice cream Natalie and I were walking back down the street in the opposite direction, and there in the same place was the same man sitting on a chair with two other guys drinking beer and listening to music. Clearly I was not going to be able to avoid them unless I acted like a total dick and just ignored them. This really isn't my style so I decided to go right up to them and say hello. Before I knew it we had been introduced to all of them, the man who had called out to me was named Julio Cesar, and he was with his father Julio, a now retired boxer who had apparently made a bit of a name for himself as a boxer and was nicknamed Chocomilk. Within a couple of minutes chairs had been brought out for us and we were sipping beers with Chocomilk and Julio Cesar. Jokes were told, and as a true test of my Spanish I actually was understanding them. We laughed and drank beer, asked each other questions and drank beer, and simply sat in the street and drank beer. When all was said and done Nat and I were both feeling a bit drunk and excused ourselves for the night, but promised to visit their restaurant the following day for lunch.

True to our word we showed up at their restaurant planning to be polite, buy a small lunch and then say goodbye. As a quick aside, Paradise, which is how I will refer to my place of residence for the past week (though that is not it's name), had only two drawbacks, the mosquitoes and the prices of food at the restaurants. Therefore we were a bit weary of going to a beach side restaurant where the owner had promised to cook us a feast, as this could quite possibly cost at least an entire day's budget. Julio was not there when we arrived, and so we sat on the beach sipping a soda and waiting for him. After finishing our sodas he had still not arrived and so we ordered a beer. When Julio showed up he was quite busy as he had just returned from the nearest town with everything he would need to operate hit taqueria that night. After about ten minutes he called us over to the kitchen and introduced us to his entire family. His four children and his wife politely greeted us, and then he showed us to a nearby table (I should mention that despite the fact that Julio has four children, the oldest of whom is 18, Julio is only 33). Soon the music was blasting, and a very fresh shrimp salad had been placed on the table in front of us along with two more beers.

There was only one problem. I'm allergic to shellfish. I had mentioned this to him the night before, but in our inebriated state it must have slipped his mind. Therefore I did my best to pick around the shrimp without anyone noticing, all the while encouraging Natalie to stuff her face with shrimp. "You are eating for two." I told her, and when her fork would lie resting on the plate I would shoot her a pleading look, and beg her to cram a few more bites into her mouth.

After the shellfish came a freshly cooked plate of beef that would be chopped into the filling for the tacos he would sell on the street that night. I'm not much of a beef fan, but this was truly fantastic, and of course was accompanied by more beers.

After a couple of hours Julio had to get his taqueria set up. We promised to come eat tacos that night, and as I got up I asked what we owed him for lunch. "Nada." was the reply. "Really?" I asked, "Are you sure?" He explained to me that we were guests in his house and that he was very happy to have met us and to become friends. He called me his hermano (brother), and hugged both of us as we left. He also invited us to Christmas dinner with his entire extended family.

We returned to his taco stand that night with our two German friends, with whom we had spent the week, and set about trying to eat as many tacos as we could in order to at least help him reach his goal of selling 20 kilos of tacos that night. We brought beers, and every time he had a few minutes he would come sit with us and drink a beer. When his friends would come by he would call me over and introduce me as his friend, and excitedly tell his friends about how we had met the night before.

When we were finally ready to live I paid for our tacos and was getting ready to leave a sizable tip. His 18 year old daughter, who was helping him run the taco stand came back and handed me 100 pesos which was far more change than I should have gotten back. She explained that she didn't have the proper change for me so I should just take the 100 instead. I tried to insist that they keep the 100 pesos since I was planning on giving them nearly the full 200 I had originally handed her anyway as a tip, but Julio wouldn't hear of it and insisted I keep my money.

We said goodbye promising to visit soon. I hope that I will. I hope that was not the last time I see Julio and his family. I hope that by the end of the night he had sold his 20 kilos of tacos. I hope that more people visit his restaurant, which like all restaurants there was perpetually empty. I hope that one day Julio will experience the same overwhelming emotions I did when a complete stranger decided to go out of his way to be kind, and to help me learn more about his language and his country. Most of all I hope that I will begin to act in the same way as Julio, that I will reach out to those in need, that I will be kind to strangers for no other reason than because it is how we should all try to treat one another.

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