Looking to stay on a budget while vacationing in Cancun, Mexico, we decided to go grocery shopping at the "mega-mart" downtown. I had heard some of the other tourists talking about their experiences with the local taxi cabs (overpriced and crazy driving), so we elected to take the bus downtown. How bad could it be? It was only six pesos. I don’t imagine those big lumbering buses could move all that fast down the strip. With the taxis lined up outside our resort and the drivers trying to coax us in, like carnival barkers, we climbed aboard the public bus and paid our fare.
Before I could take my seat, I was thrust towards the back of the bus as it took off from the stop. I know how the astronauts feel during take-off. Thrown backwards past my wife’s seat, I noticed that her face had gone completely white. I quickly grabbed onto a seat as I flew by, held on in time to hear the brakes squeal and lock up at the next stop. Why was this guy in such a hurry? Was he late for his afternoon siesta? I later found out that the bus drivers get paid according to how many passengers they get during their shift. After several more stops and with my hands cramped up from clutching the sides of my seat, I got off at a stop across the street from the grocery store.
Upon entering the store, I noticed the usual chips and drinks I was accustomed to seeing at home. I also observed that you had to bring your own grocery bag. I’ll just buy a bag, I thought. After rounding the store without any success, I asked a clerk. "No hablo ingles, senor," the clerk said. Then it hit me. Sure enough, we were the only Caucasians. Another young man had the same response, "No hablo ingles, Senor". After going through four clerks, I pantomimed what I wanted. Bingo! "Oh, bolsa!" I was taken to the back of the store where there was an aisle filled with different types of bags. Mission accomplished.
The deli counter was next. I wheeled our cart up to the big glass case and stood among the dozen Mexican women waiting their turn. I eyed the lunch meat trying to determine which one had not been Fido the day before. When the woman behind the counter acknowledged me, I pointed at a stack of meat that resembled ham and said in my best Spanish accent, "Dos kilos pour favor." The women giggled. I thought I had ordered two kilograms of ham. Considering their reactions, though, I was feeling less confident. The woman repeated, "Dos kilos?" In a more assertive voice, I confirmed her question. More giggling. The woman behind the counter sent me on my way with my mystery meat as the giggling reached a fevered pitch. I was a little afraid to eat the meat, but it tasted like ham.
We came next to 10-gallon vats filled with olives and pickles. My sister’s saliva glands started working in overdrive. One problem; only one scoop spoon for three vats, and it was sitting in the pickles. Well, she wasn’t about to let a little detail like that keep her from her beloved olives; she fished the spoon out of the pickles and went for the olives. Problem number two – where to put the olives. There was no container in sight. We found small plastic bags across the aisle with the vegetables, and proceeded to spoon our olives into the bag. I was feeling good. There didn’t seem to be an obstacle we couldn’t overcome, even in a foreign country.
We made our way to the checkout lines and starting putting our food on the conveyor belt. When the clerk got the bag of olives, she held them up to her face staring at them as if she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. She said something to us in Spanish a couple of times; not understanding her, we shrugged our shoulders. She laid the olives off to the side while she finished checking out the rest of our groceries. Maybe she needs to get a price check, I thought. We bagged our groceries; she showed us the price on the register screen. The olives were still on the side! The clerk pointed at the register again. I heard my sister’s heart hit the floor. We paid and left the store without saying another word.
It was time to get back on the public transportation death machine. There were lots of people; I wondered how we would manage with all the food and the buses being full. When the next bus stopped, a wave of people engulfed us; we were pushed onto the bus. I stood in the rear stairwell and held onto the steel pole. Nobody seemed to notice the two boys sitting on top of the dashboard in the front window of the bus. The bus made its way down the street, while a man stood in the aisle playing his guitar at the same fevered pace as the motion of the bus. I’ll never know how he kept on his feet when the bus slammed to a halt at each stop.
I saw our resort coming up fast. I pulled the cord; the bus screeched to a stop. We quickly jumped off, happy to be back!
Next time I’m in Mexico, I will again do as the locals do. This was one of my greatest adventures. The chance to travel and shop with the Mexican people is an experience no amount of sandy beaches or pina coladas could ever replace. It's a chance to live "la vita local".