This article is from the July 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Treasures We Should Not Miss

bv Robin Rutz

Robin Rutz of Olympia, Washington works as a controller for a non profit organization and travels Mexico frequently Robin's mother claims to have been a Toltec in a past life, so she thinks she may be a Mexico native but she can't prove it. 

Everyone has a friend who has returned from a trip to Mexico with a shopping horror story. So often, all we hear are stories about the poor quality merchandise and how the vendors will cheat you if they are given even half a chance. If you listen to these stories and take them completely to heart you run the risk of missing one of the most wonderful parts of the country and its culture. Are there unscrupulous sales people and poor quality merchandise in Mexico? Of course. ..and what country does not have its share of these? With a dose of common sense, however, these can be avoided. With an open spirit, treasures can be found and friends made in the markets of Mexico.

Every December my family takes what we call the annual pilgrimage to the beaches of Puerto Vallarta. While the town is lovely and the scenery beautiful, what brings us back to this place year after year are the people we have met and gotten to know.

Our first morning in town, as we sit by the beach side pool bar watching the hotel wake up, we are greeted like a long lost friend by Celestino, the silver vendor. And that's what he is, a friend whom we haven't seen in awhile. He tells us stories about the new baby his wife had since the last time we saw him, about his new Ford truck, of which he is very proud, and about his annual trip to his family's farm in Michoacan. We tell him of the things we have done in the last year, and how glad we are that he and his family are doing well. It is only after a few days of catching up with our friend that the subject of his jewelry even comes up. He lets us know about his new merchandise, and he points out the pieces he thinks we will like. After all he is a salesman, but it is understood that whether we buy anything or not, we will still be greeted every day with a smile and a handshake. Our relationship with Celestino is not an uncommon one. I can tell the same type of stories about Max, who sells the day cruises to the tourists, Rolando with his blankets, as well as Jose, whose iguana's name changes along with the political climate of the United States. One year the iguana's name was Dan Quayle and the next it was Hillary.

Relationships like these are not isolated to the well traveled resort towns, nor do they necessarily take years to develop. We spent a week in Guanajuato and quickly made friends with Maria, who sold styrofoam chickens she made at Maria's chickens, which positively defy description, were cleverly equipped with a plastic cup, toothpick, and string. They made amazingly realistic squawking noises. Maria had one of those faces usually only seen on the cover of a guide book...fitll of wrinkles and life, and a smile that was completely infectious. After striking up a conversation with her, we in our limited Spanish and she with her almost non-existent English, we began a daily ritual of meeting her in El Jardin, where she would sit, take a brenk and chat. We found out she was 72 and that she traveled to Guanajuato every day by bus from the nearby town of Leon to sell her chickens. We heard the pride in her voice, when she told us how her granddaughter was teaching her to read in the evenings. Getting to know Maria was one of the highlights of our stay in Guanajuato.

On another trip to San Miguel de Allende, we stayed in a casita up on a hillside overlooking the town. Every day we walked through the callejon down to the market. Along the way we passed a small store which quickly became our version of a 7-11. The first day we went in, we were greeted courteously but with reserve from the owner, Gracia, and her 10-year-old daughter, Maria Guadalupe. Just a few minutes later, Gracia was trying to hide her smile, not wanting to hurt our feelings as she laughed over our sad attempts at trying to communicate in Spanish. After that first day we were greeted by the other women in the neighborhood with shy smiles, waves and whispered comments between them about "las Americanas." We had obviously been the talk of the neighborhood!

After stopping at Gracia's, sometimes just to say hello, we would continue down the hill to the market to pick out our daily produce. We quickly learned to listen to the advice of Rosita who kept us informed as to which produce was the best and the freshest that day. One day, after first politely saying no gracias to the oranges she wanted us to buy, she insisted we try one. She cut the orange up and gave us each a piece. These oranges were wonderflil. They were the juiciest, sweetest oranges I ever had! Needless to say, we went home that day in a taxi, because we had more oranges than we could carry back up the hill! The next time we wanted oranges, however, we were told no.. .they weren't good that day, and to have the papaya instead. Again, she was right. When we wanted to know which chiles made the best salsa, we found ourselves taken into the back of the stall, amidst a group of women all debating the merits of each particular chile. The conversation being totally above our Spanish, we smiled, nodded and bought whichever chile won the great debate. Once again, they were right. The resulting salsa was incredible!

My fondest memories of my trips to Mexico are of stories like these. While I love the country for many reasons, such as the beautiftil scenery and, of course, the endless sunshine, it is the people I have met that have completely won me over. It is the people who keep me coming back year after year. You never know when you’ll meet another Celestino or Maria. These are the treasures I would have missed had I listened to my friend’s advice and kept my mind as tightly closed as my grip on my wallet.