Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Meeting Mr. Alejandro

"Mr. Alejandro? Where can I find you again Mr. Alejandro?"

The words reverberated in my head again and again as I was awash with a deep sense of sadness for not being able to say goodbye.

Mr. Alejandro is the tour guide I had met earlier that morning. I was on a day trip to Taxco, about 200 km away from Mexico City. I had just arrived for the first time in Mexico three days ago and learnt quickly that tipping your way around is not only recommended, but is also the right thing to do. That day, we had our driver, Marcus, and the person who had escorted us to Taxco, Hugo.

When we reached Taxco, Hugo placed our tour group in Mr. Alejandro's hands and disappeared.

Taxco is a silver mining city. They plan the trip so that tourists can have hours to shop for silver. I was a little interested in learning how silver is mined, but not interested in purchasing silver at all. I was done looking around in five minutes.

It had been more than 30 minutes and the fellow tourists were still inside the stores, happily buying away. Bored, I took my camera out and started walking around a block or two. That is when I saw Mr. Alejandro, an old and short man who could be easily passed off as being from India. He wore a brownish shirt tucked in his trousers. He had a lump in his back and walked with a leftward limp. Although not a native English speaker, he spoke English with authority. My grandfather had a close friend from Hazra who used to love visiting foreign countries, dabbing generous amount of Cuticura powder on his chest, and spoke like that.

He told me to check out the streets on the left, those that had a nicer view of the church. And thus, we started talking.

At first, Mr. Alejandro seemed just like any other guide, saying the best and claiming to show us the best. He told us a little bit about the city and promised to take us to a really nice restaurant with magnificent views. And he kept his promise. The food was average, but the views were great. Mexico is quite cheap and even if they took you to a restaurant that was a total rip-off, you would only end up paying maybe a few US dollars more. I was beginning to get an idea of how the tourism industry works here. It's just like in India, everyone has their "internal setting." Guides take you to a pre-decided restaurant they have some kind of a tie-up with. In return, the guides get free meals and drinks. The same way, they took you to certain pre-determined shops for retail therapy.

"This is the only road in the city made of marble," he showed us. "And the widest road in the city too," he added knowledgeably. He did take us to a few shops to look around. Tourists (both men and women) jumped into these shops like they had never gone shopping before. I have stopped buying things I cannot consume. Souvenir hunting was a waste of time for me. I was wondering how many shops he would take us to. I should have brought along a book to read.

I looked up the mountain and saw a statue of Christ, arms outstretched. It was a hot afternoon in December and we were on a pre-determined schedule of shopping and church-hopping. Hiking up the mountain to the Christ statue was not a part of the plan. But that is what I wanted to do.

"Mr. Alejandro, would it be possible to hike up the mountain all the way to Christ's statue?" I excitedly asked.

Mr. Alejandro didn't seem encouraging, and I knew why. It was not a part of the plan. He would rather the visitors shopped for silver and souvenirs and boosted the sales of these shops he had connections with. But he also knew that I was not interested in shopping. He had seen my bored face not too long ago.

"Do you really want to go? You'll have to stick to my plan. We will all walk up to the church. From there, I will try to find you a taxi driver I know personally. You pay him 200 pesos. He will take you up the mountain and wait for 20 minutes for you to look around. He will then bring you back to the main square by 4:30 pm so that you can get back to your group. Are you game?"

"Yes! Yes!" I said enthusiastically. Ideally, I would have wanted to hike up on foot, but we had to leave by 4:30 pm and there was no time. Taking one of those white, cute Volkswagen Beetles would have to do. I knew separating from the group had its risks. I spoke no Spanish and did not have a working phone. My return to Mexico City would be jeopardized if something went wrong. 200 pesos might be a lot, I have no idea, and I was in no position to bargain. Did Mr. Alejandro have a percentage share in that too? He said that he would get me a driver he personally knew. Was it for my safety or his profit too?

My brain chatter never ceased.

200 pesos is $10. Even if it turned out to be an utter waste of time and money and even if I was being ripped off, I was leaning towards climbing the mountain. I can't even buy a decent meal in the US for $10. How bad could it be?

When we got in front of the church, Mr. Alejandro said that he'd rather I go inside the church first since I was there anyway. There was a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe that I must see. Although I didn't care about churches, I did not want to say no. Inside, he gave us a background of the church. To me, it was the story of another rich man from Europe who had come to Mexico to kill and conquer and mark his territory through an ostentatious display of wealth. Sometimes, I can be quite apathetic to the things around me that other people find incredulous, bordering on being flippant.

True to his word, he escorted us out of the church, sent the other tourists on their way for more silver shopping, and started walking around the busy square looking for a taxi for me. Every taxi had a little ID number painted in red. He told me that it is very important both of us remember the number, in case it was past 4:30 pm and my group was not able to find me.

He flagged a few, but he did not know any of the drivers personally. I was beginning to get impatient and wondered again if this hunt for a known driver was solely for my safety, or for his percentage of tip too. I told him that he could just find me any taxi, that I would be fine. He seemed to consider it for a moment and that is what he did eventually. He flagged a taxi, gave the driver instructions in Spanish, and told me to be back by 4:30 pm, no matter what. He asked me to stay safe, helped open my door as I hopped in, and even closed it for me.

The fun started from there.

It was an amazing taxi ride. When I'd asked Mr. Alejandro why our big van cannot take me up, he told me that I will know soon. And I did. The narrow, serpentine roads that led up were heavily inclined. Roads out of a physics textbook, only these tiny Beetles could make it up there. For the next 20 minutes, I sat at a constant incline, my neck literally thrown backward, my hamstrings trying hard to balance. The roads were single-lane and every time cars came from the opposite direction, ours had to go on reverse gear to make space for them. It was one hell of a scary ride. And exciting too. Although I spoke no Spanish and the driver spoke no English, we chatted constantly. By the time I reached up the hill, I was dizzy with excitement. It was the best ride ever and I would have happily paid the 200 pesos just for the ride up.

The driver motioned that I spend 20 minutes after which, he would whistle loudly. That was my cue to come back. I was wondering if he would ask me for more money on my way back. I suddenly had this irrepressible urge to learn how to whistle back.

Like a child or a puppy without leash, I jumped out of the car and made my way to Christ's statue. The views from there were spectacular. The entire city I had walked around with Mr. Alejandro not too long ago was sprawled below me, nestled in the arms of the mountains that looked just like the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia. From the top, I could see the huge church (now a tiny figurine from the distance) and the square in front of it from which Mr. Alejandro got me the taxi. I took dozens of pictures from various angles, changing my lenses to take close ups and then distant shots. Mr. Alejandro would be thrilled to see these pictures. He told me that he grew up here, he must have visited this place many times. When I had asked him earlier to accompany me, Mr. Alejandro had politely declined, saying that he needed to stick around with the other tourists from our group. It was his job. The ride up was so thrilling and now, the views from the top were fantastic too. I am so glad I had broken off from the group, something I usually never do. I made it a point to give him a fat tip when I went back. Mr. Alejandro totally deserved it.

20 minutes later, my driver whistled loudly, a rather funny sight. I jumped up the stairs and hopped inside his taxi, but not before asking him to pose for a picture in front of his taxi, something he readily obliged. I think I liked my driver too despite my initial hesitation of being sent up a mountain with a stranger. He sported a mustache and for reasons not quite clear to me, I tend to trust men with mustaches more than men without one. Don't ask me why, biases and blind beliefs usually have no scientific, data-driven basis. My driver continued to talk on the way back too, stuff I understood nothing of. The ride downhill was even more scary and thrilling. He waved to a woman with a baby and later told me it was his wife and child. He asked me if I had babies. He motioned with his hand and told me he had four babies. "Cuatro," he said. Traveling up and down with a mustachioed man with four babies was probably not that unsafe after all. I might be all brave and adventurous, trying out new things in life, but it did cross my mind that the possibility of a man taking me hostage, forcing me inside a desolate building and tying me up was something that had a non-zero probability of occurring. So far, the driver hadn't shown any such signs. Excitedly, I continued to take more videos of my ride downhill, sitting once again slanted at a precarious angle and without a seat belt. Roller coasters are so passé, this was far more exciting.

When my mustachioed driver dropped me off, I was half-expecting him to demand more money. But he took his 200 pesos and drove off. I was a little surprised, I was expecting him to wait for Mr. Alejandro and give him his share. I was back at the main square where I started that morning. I could see Christ's statue when I craned my neck. I smiled at the statue, so glad for having made a trip all the way up there. I was dying to tell Mr. Alejandro all about it. And while I waited for the group, I took out 120 more pesos from my wallet and tucked it in my camera bag's pocket. This is the most I have considered tipping, but Mr. Alejandro totally deserves his tip.

The group was back within 10 minutes, happily holding bags of merchandise. Hugo had magically reappeared and was leading the group. I had not seen him since morning.

"Hugo! Where is Mr. Alejandro?" I asked excitedly. I had to quickly tell him about my trip up there, tip him and thank him before saying goodbye.

"Mr. Alejandro left," Hugo told me.


Mr. Alejandro said goodbye to the group in front of the church after which, Hugo took over. This means I was not seeing Mr. Alejandro anymore. This also means Mr. Alejandro knew that he will not see me again when he got me that taxi and waved me goodbye. Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't he ask for a tip?

I boarded the van feeling strangely empty, no longer enthusiastic. I had so much fun in that taxi ride, I wish I could share it all with the person who made it possible. He had magically transformed a boring shopping trip to one of the most exciting trips I will always remember. Why did he disappear from the church?

I rode back the 3+ hour long ride in silence, wishing that I had a chance to say goodbye. As we left the outskirts of the city, I kept glancing back, taking in the views for the last time, the spectacular white-painted colonial houses by the side of the mountain, the serpentine roads and the white Beetle taxis, and up above everything, the statue of Christ standing with its arms outstretched, offering fantastic views of where I now was from that vantage point.

Mr. Alejandro from Taxco, I don't have a picture of you, and I only remember how you look from my memory now. I don't know how you would ever get to read this post. Maybe you will never. If you do, remember that there is a girl eagerly waiting to tell you all about her trip and show you the pictures. She owes you your tip. And a huge thanks. For she could not have asked for a better trip. Thank you!



Footloose Dev said...

Love every word you've written. Keep writing.

sunshine said...

Footloose Dev, you look like a traveler yourself. I loved going through your website.