Sunday, July 22, 2007

Common Ground

If I hadn't wanted to see the handprints made by the precursors of the Mayans 10-15,000 years B.C.E, I wouldn't have gone to the Lol Tun Caves.

If I hadn't gone to Lol Tun, I wouldn't have been standing by the highway at 2:00pm, waiting for a colectivo taxi.

And if I hadn't been out there in the sun for twenty minutes with no sign of a taxi, if there'd been at least a little bit of shade I would never, ever have accepted a ride from a stranger. But I was running out of water. Besides, I'd see people take unofficial taxis in Oxkutzcab. So when a middle-aged man pulled up in an old truck, his shirt half-unbuttoned in the heat, well, you know what I did. I ignored the admonitions of maternal figures everywhere. I hopped in.

He asked the inevitable question: "Where are you from?"

"San Francisco."

"Oh yeah? I worked there for six years," he said.

"They treat you okay?"

"They treated me great," he said, a broad smile on his face.

That was when I knew I wasn't going to have any problems with this guy.

A remarkable number of Oxkutzcabe├▒os have found themselves in San Francisco at some point in their lives. Some transit back and forth regularly. I saw signs posted in front of ser: aceptamos encargos para San Francisco (we're accepting deliveries for San Francisco).

There's a grocery store just down the street called Super California. In front there's a big, bright mural of the Golden Gate Bridge. I showed the cashier my collection of San Francisco postcards. She smiled and showed me where inside the store, the same artist had painted the bridge from a different perspective.
Then there's the night clerk at my hotel (the staff here has taken a fancy to me: they help me make my phone calls and ask me how my project is going). He tells me he used to work at the Cliff House. "Funny thing is," he says. "I learned to speak Mayan there. All my life here I never spoke Mayan, but then I go to San Francisco that's what the kitchen guys are using so I finally learn it. Can you believe that?"

Back to my friend in the truck:

"What kind of work did you do?" I asked.

"I did apartment maintainance. A little wiring and plumbing. It was easy. I was working for these Arab guys. They were really nice."

"How was the pay?"

"It was excellent. And every six months? They gave me a bonus. Good money!"

"I'm glad to hear that," I said.

"Before that I worked in a restaurant. I can't remember the name, but it was near the Opera House. The owner was Tracy... Tracy something."

"Tracy, that sounds familiar," I said, scanning my memory banks, primed with S.F. Chronicle Food Section trivia.

"It was Jardin something. Jardiniere I think."

"Wait, you worked for Traci Des Jardins?" The wanna-be foodie in me was getting excited. "Jardiniere is one of the best restaurants in San Francisco. It's so fancy I can't afford to eat there. What was it like?"

"It was wonderful. Tracy was really nice. She used to come and talk to me. There I was, a humble dishwasher and she would come talk to me every day."

"Did you get to eat there?"

"Sure! They had something called Employee of the Month. So one time they came to me and said Ruben, it's you this time. I got to bring a friend and eat there one night. In Mexico there's no such thing as Employee of the Month."

By this time we were back in Oxkutzcab. I pulled out my wallet.

"No," he said. "Don't pay me."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I really enjoyed talking to you about San Francisco."


He handed me a pitahaya (dragon fruit) from his parcela, the piece of land he's cultivating.
As I got down from the truck I thought. . . Ruben, they didn't give you the bonus because they're nice. And Ruben, they didn't make you Employee of the Month because they do that for everyone. They did it because YOU'RE nice, and also hard-working and responsible. No doubt about it.