In the last few weeks of 2013, I was lucky enough to do something that most people don’t have the opportunity to do. Yes, this does have something to do with the fact that in these weeks I traveled to Cancun, Mexico, or “MEH-HEE-KOH,” as our extremely enthusiastic AirTran flight attendant insisted on yelling through the intercom. He also took it upon himself to lighten up our travel with the following well-delivered jokes:
- We hope you fly AirTran next time, but even if you don’t, please don’t fly Delta– it stands for “Delayed-Even-Later-Than-AirTran.”
- Please turn your phones on airplane mode ASAP, unless, of course, you have T-Mobile because your service is so bad you probably won’t even get the text or call before the plane started.
- Are any of you feeling too chilly on the flight? Raise your hands if you are! [most passengers raise their hands] Okay great, now just stretch your arm a little further, and you can close that fan right above your seat.
- Adults if you’re traveling with children, make sure you put your oxygen mask first and then put it on your favorite child. Children, pay attention, this is how you’ll find out who’s the favorite.
- Ladies and gentleman, in one of your back-seat pockets we have placed $100. [entire plane begins rummaging through the pocket in front of them] Anyone find it yet? No? Well, just kidding, there is no $100, but now that you’re there you might as well go ahead and take out that safety card that’s right next to your hand and read along!
Yes, he was quite the flight attendant.
And it was also that despite the fact that I am afraid of heights, I impulsively decided to go para-sailing with the rest of the family. After breaking my head over whether or not to take camera in the jet ski to the boat from which we would go up in the parachute, I finally decided to take the risk. I began to question this a little bit as we bounced through crazy waves and I held on to the driver for dear life while all I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. But when we finally reached hundreds of feet above the water and could see the entire beach below me, the vast expanse of the sea, and the little boat looked like an ant, I had no regrets. Especially when I sat back and suddenly realized the profound silence. The bustle of cars, the motor of the boat, the crashing of the waves, the shouts of tourists on the beach–all of it suddenly disappeared so high above the ground.
But what was truly amazing about this trip was the fact that for the first time ever a huge contingent of my family in the U.S. was taking a vacation–together. That meant 4 families, consisting of a total of 8 parents and 9 kids, were going to finally, after years of planned vacations not working out for some reason or another, have a tropical beach adventure together. Yes, it’s true that as long as we were together, it didn’t really matter where we were, but no one was complaining about Cancun. 🙂
Other than para-sailing and swimming with the dolphins, the most memorable moments of the trip were the ones when we decided to stay and enjoy everything the resort had to offer. That meant jumping into the pool right after breakfast, walking right behind the resort straight onto beautiful white sand and swimming in the ocean, and even jumping onto stage at the hotel’s karaoke night.
On one night after dinner, we all walked outside to enjoy the warm night air and watch the moonlight shimmer across the waves as they crashed onto the shore. On our way back inside we saw two Mexican men at one of the many booths selling various trinkets and souvenirs. One of them was sitting, bent over with paint all over his fingers, the other standing next to him smiling and greeting every hotel guest that passed by. I was drawn toward the table for all of the beautiful paintings of Cancun that I saw on the table and I soon realized that these were finger paintings. Everything–the blending of colors in the sunset sky, the texture of rocks on the beach– was all from his fingers.
The man standing up had a jolly sort of smile and seemed sort of like a Mexican Santa Claus to me. He introduced himself as Alberto and the painter as Freddie. As we ooh-ed and aah-ed over the scenes, one of us asked how much. Alberto told us that the larger tiles we were looking at (“Made in Mexico,” he said with a mischievous smile, turning it over to show us the inscription. “Not China or Hong Kong or Japan.”) were thirty. One of my uncles decided to be facetious and asked, “Dollars or pesos?”
Alberto didn’t even blink. “Euros,” he said.
Everyone burst out laughing, thrilled that he had outwitted my uncle, who is known in the family to have the smart comebacks. Alberto smiled and put his hand on his chest, bowing his head a little. I had seen many of the locals make that gesture when they were greeting each other or expressing any sort of strong emotion. When my aunt told Alberto that she really liked that gesture, he simply said, “It just means that it comes from the heart.”
All this time, Freddie silently continued painting, squirting his oil paints and periodically wiping his fingers to start a new color. As the adults all sat down on the steps next to the booth while us kids continued to figure out which paintings we wanted, Alberto chattered away, asking us what language we were speaking (yes, there was a Kannada/Canada mix-up), what each of our names are, how we are related to each other, where each of the families are from. One of my cousins from Texas had a conversation with him in Spanish which I somewhat followed, realizing it was basically a conversation about why Mexican Spanish was better than Spanish… Spanish. Slowly, we also found out that Freddie had been painting for about ten years now and that the two of them had been friends for eight. They go from hotel to hotel each day and as people buy paintings, Freddie just continues to paint and replace them.
“We try to personalize them, if people want to give the painting to someone,” said Alberto. “Whatever you want us to write, whatever makes it special to you–we work for you, for your satisfaction.” He put his hand on his heart again and grinned.
Freddie’s silence perked my interest and I sat next to him. It took a while to extract more than few-word phrases from him, but I soon learned that Freddie had learned how to paint from his grandfather. “My whole family paints,” he said, wiping his fingers on a paper towel. In fact, he had really disliked painting when he was little.
I had stopped asking questions and given up hope that he would strike up a conversation, when suddenly he said, “My son paints too. I taught him.” I asked if his son was as good as him, and he grinned and nodded.
Meanwhile, most of us had picked the paintings we wanted. I had decided on a beautiful sunset painting, but I was wavering a bit because there was a beautiful reddish painting of the lagoon. As Alberto explained, Cancun was a city explicitly built thirty years ago around a lagoon, and both this and the Caribbean Sea provided spectacular views. On a whim, I asked Freddie which painting of all the ones he had ever done was his favorite. And of course, he pointed to the painting of the lagoon. “It doesn’t sell as much as the others. But there is so much detail. More fine detail than any of the other paintings I have done. That’s why I love it the most.”
In the end, I ended up taking both, and though he had given us a group discount, I knew my mom would give him the original amounts. As she told me, it was certainly true that we paid money all the time for things that in comparison were much less inspiring. Here was a gifted talent and two men honorably keeping it alive, a cause well worth it. An hour or so after we first came up to the booth, it was just my mom and me sitting on the steps. The ocean breeze felt warm on our faces as we watched Freddie finish his sunset painting. My mom asked Alberto whether he had any children.
“One girl,” he said, “And that’s enough!” The four of us laughed.
And then Alberto’s face became more serious. “It’s enough for Mexico. It is difficult if you want to support more than one child here. In America, you would get paid by the hour, right? Everyone who works at this hotel– waiters, cooks, cleaners– everyone would be paid some $8-9 per hour, no?” He pointed to the ground. “Here, they get paid that for one day. And so this,” he said, pointing to the two of them, “is much better. We have to pay to be here in this hotel, but it is much better than the markets where there are people yelling, so much pressure.”
I had asked Freddie if he would draw a conch shell on the beach. He seemed unsure, but not wanting to disappoint, he picked up a small brush, the first time I’d seen him use one. He closed his eyes for a good ten seconds, and then slowly traced an outline of the shell on the beach. His lettering in the corner, “Cancun 2013,” was steady and precise. When he finished, he looked up, and I saw that his eyes were bright-red and watering. “They are burning,” he said, laughing as he rubbed his eyes.
And in that moment, everything suddenly shifted into a perspective. The issues we had in the hotel booking 4 rooms next to each other, the lack of a variety of choices of vegetarian food, all of the little things that had been bothering us or caused arguments with hotel staff in the past few days, seemed to come from a completely different world next to this man with a gift rubbing his eyes after a long day of nothing but painting. I was “tired” from a day of frolicking in the ocean and para-sailing. He was tired.
I asked if they had any contact information, an email or something. Alberto ripped off a sheet of paper and wrote, “Jose Torres” on one line and “Policarpio Jimenez” on the second line. “Jose was my grandfather’s name,” said Alberto. “And Policarpio is Freddie’s real name. Find us on Facebook.” Of course. We may live in entirely different worlds, but there was always Facebook.
“Policarpio,” I said, turning to Freddie. “What does that mean?”
“Hmm. Sweet and sexy, I think,” said Freddie, bursting into laughter.