Donkeys, Dogs, and Dead Ends, Lost in Santiago

By Pat Solstad

I stepped off the rickety bus, looked around as it rumbled away, and realized I had no idea where I was. The bus had not taken the usual route alongside the ocean, and I was lost in the hills above Santiago, Colima, Mexico. Alone in a foreign country, I was acutely aware that my Spanish fluency had decreased in direct proportion to my increasing age.

My nervousness escalated as I surveyed my unfamiliar surroundings. “Don’t show fear,” I whispered to myself as I began a pseudo-confident, purposeful stride in the direction of the ocean. I zigzagged back and forth, thinking I would surely find a road leading down to the main road, but repeatedly encountered dead ends as I dodged dogs, children and chickens. Okay, I thought, I’ll head toward Santiago, which I reckoned was to my left. More walking, more dogs, more children, more chickens. But no Santiago.

I suddenly found myself facing a chain link fence that enclosed a large field. Directly behind the fence a lethargic donkey peered at me through droopy eyes. Finding me of little interest, he lowered his head to munch on the powder-dry grasses. I looked to my right and saw a modest house with an ancient, dusty car parked in front. Two young men leaned casually against the house and stared at me. I could almost read their minds: “What the heck is that old lady doing up here?” I clutched my handbag a little tighter.

I had literally reached the end of the road. In halting Spanish, I asked for directions to Santiago. One of the boys said it was too far to walk…I internally completed the phrase…for an old person. They asked me to wait a momentito; stepped inside the house, and emerged a few minutes later with another young man who said he could help me. I wondered if they all planned to drive me to Santiago. There was no way I was going to get into an old car with three young men, who, in my heightened state of caution, suddenly looked especially shifty.

The third young man to appear motioned for me to follow him. He introduced himself as Luis Alberto. We began to walk. With one part of my mind, I tried to communicate; with another part, I planned my escape, should that action prove necessary. Luis Alberto stopped, said, Momentito, por favor, loped across the road, and stepped into a tienda, a “Mom and Pop” store. He came out with a soft drink, which he offered to me. I declined. No telling what he might have put into that soda. I was proud of myself for thinking clearly under duress. We continued to walk and talk, attempting to understand each other, until we arrived at a crudely paved road. A bus appeared. There was nothing written on the front window that would indicate its destination, but Luis Alberto questioned the driver, who assured him the bus’s destination was, indeed, Santiago.

I thanked Luis Alberto and offered him a ten-peso note (about $1), which he adamantly refused. We shook hands and said adios. I climbed into the bus and arrived in town within about four minutes. Whew!

I confidently stepped onto familiar territory, did a little window shopping, and treated myself to an ice-cold Fanta in celebration of my victory.

I then proceeded, as planned, to walk back home along the malecón, a lovely concrete walkway alongside the ocean. Halfway home, I spotted someone shoveling debris into a large barrel. As I walked by, the person called to me. I turned and discovered it was Luis Alberto! He seemed pleased to see me again, and pointed with apparent pride to the restaurant where he worked as a waiter. I told him that a friend and I would soon come to visit him.

Ralph and I stopped in the next day, and I introduced my old friend to my new friend. Ralph, a retired high school Spanish teacher, loves the Spanish language, Mexico, and, I believe, all Mexicans. Ralph learned that Luis Alberto was 15 years old, living on his own, trying to finish high school. Luis Alberto said his rent took more than half of his wages, making it difficult to get ahead.

After fond farewells, Ralph and I walked out of the restaurant. Ralph turned to me and said, “Of the hundreds of 15 year-olds I’ve known, I’d have to say that Luis Alberto is one of the few who’s really got his act together.” We got into Ralph’s car, both of us happy that we had found a new friend in our beloved Mexico.

That evening, as I relived my day’s adventures, it occurred to me that sometimes we have to get lost in order to find ourselves. I’m convinced I found an important part of myself that day. I found the part that will no longer automatically fear every questionable situation that presents itself, because it could be yet another opportunity to be shown the innate goodness of people.

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