Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Lost The Translation

*From the 2006 Archives*

And more than once, at that.

At a time when illegal immigration is a hot topic, and Gunsmoke is relating his own experiences with our INS, I digress back to a time and experience when I had the opportunity to undermine that great myth of international travel, The Ugly American.

Or to underscore it.

In the summer of 1989, I was assigned to accompany another corporate investigator and auditor (who doubled as our translator) on a trip to Mexico City; seemed that an asset there who'd helped to uncover a case of embezzlement in the corporate facility (a couple years prior) wasn't terribly amused when the embezzler got what amounted to a slap on the wrist. So he decided to join the fun.

Clumsily. Amateurishly. Badly.

At any rate, it was to be my first trip outside of the continental US in this life time*. The senior (and very well-travelled) investigator undertook to enlighten me about Mexico City, customs, and the way things were. The stories he told were eye-openers, including his experience of being in his Mexico City hotel room when the big quake hit in 1985; it cured him of his love of high rise buildings ever more.

We flew from Denver to Houston, went through Customs, then flew onto Mexico City. Enroute, he enlightened me about the horrific air pollution that usually shrouded the city, worse than anything I'd ever see in Denver, as well as the madcap cab drivers and the harrowing trip we'd most likely endure from the airport to the hotel downtown.

And he cautioned me about my sense of humor with the Mexican customs officials: leave it in my carry-on. El horsefeathers.

Murphy's Law was along on the front-half of that trip: we flew into Mexico City through a crystal clear, cloudless sky, with visibility for miles. Our trip through customs was a breeze (and yes, my sense of humor stayed put, despite temptations and opportunities); and the cab ride in a renovated Volkswagen Beetle was a pleasure, not in the least what I had been prepared for. The auditor and myself -- newbies to south of the border -- needled and tweaked our senior guide accordingly.

He just smiled and took it in good grace; he knew.

For the next three days, it was an experience I'll never forget. Just a few examples:

-- our first walk along the main avenue through Mexico City, on which the hotel was located, revealed groups of Mexican Federales (police), in bands of 12. All armed with shoulder-fired automatic weapons. A further eye-opener came from the Mexican corporate attorney we would work with on the embezzlement case: as a gringo, he counselled, never leave the main avenue for more than a block either way on foot, alone, and not even on the main avenue on foot at night.

-- during another of our walks from one office building to another, I noticed that many of those on the street were looking very intently at my new Reebok tennis shoes; when I asked about it, our guide chuckled and told me my shoes would be worth hundreds of thousands of pesos on the black market, and they'd slit my throat like a chicken to get them, if I were off the main avenue.

-- during the suspect interview, it became apparent that our auditor/translator was woefully out of her league in translating; her Spanish was classic Castillian, which was fine in Spain, not here. Our guide took over the duties, remarking that persons of single language abilities were handicapped. Weak grins all around.

-- on our walk back to catch a cab to the hotel, we happened to be walking past what appeared to be an armored car (aka, a Brinks-type), when I heard a distinct *clunk*, followed by a sound that sent a chill through my toenails: the cocking of a machine gun bolt. I glanced to my right, and not six feet away, behind the plexiglass of the car, stared an armed guard, with his machine gun barrel out the gun port. Pointed at us. Our senior member just muttered "just keep walking", while he took our ready-to-faint auditor's left arm, and I took her right, and we "just kept walking" while carrying her. The spinchter battled me for dominance in that instance; still don't know how I won out.

-- but it got a second chance to win the day, on the cab ride back. The wild, madcap, "no rules, just go like hell" style of cab rides he'd described from his previous Mexico visits, on top of the other day's events, was just about what the doctor didn't order. The auditor was green; my sphincter wanted to scream. I was too busy holding on (in more places than one) to even think of cracking open my book of English-Spanish translations for something that would convey "whoa, dude!" to the driver. Despite the horns, angry shouts, a few screeching tires and one very green auditor, we arrived at the hotel, and crawled out. I thought about kissing the curb, but decided it'd be in bad gringo form.

-- that evening, the senior member decided I should 'christen' my corporate credit card, and buy dinner for our little group of four. Which I thought nothing of, until the bill arrived: 339,800 pesos!!!! It took a moment for the exchange-rate gear in my head to kick in and remind me that it was only about $148 American dollars (the rate of exchange back then was something like 2300 or so pesos to the US dollar). I'm told the look on my face was "priceless"; I'm glad it wasn't added to the bill.

-- and, of course, the 'lost the translation' moments: I tried my very elementary Spanish when making a call back to the Denver-based corporate office; I started with an afternoon greeting and started to slowly state the numeros uno at a time, when the operator deluged me in a virtual avalanche of, to me, unintelligible espanoel. I was forced to meekly mutter "no habla espanoel", at which time she glided seamlessly into accentless English. And when I stood in the hotel gift shop, getting a promised souvenir for our corporate receptionist, thumbing through my English-Spanish dictionary while the senior member and the gift shop clerk waited with patient, condescending smiles. When I was finally unable to find the spanish word for "wrap", I wound up making a rotating circle with my hands, and muttering "uh...wrappo por favor", which she did with a smile, while the senior was convulsed in the corner. I had to hear that story recounted for the next year at the office...

-- and, of course, the "tipping" episode: the next morning, I was asked if I'd left a tip on the pillow of the bed; "uh, to enlighten me?". When we returned from the day's activities, I found that my room had been serviced marginally. *El TOING*. So the next morning, I left a $1 US bill on the pillow. Upon our return later that day, I'd of thought I was a visiting dignitary: the place was spotless. I hope I didn't cause a riot on check out day, when I left a $10...

-- finally, the trip back to the airport. The cab I'd had worse ;-) Going through Customs, I wasn't concerned, having only the el wrappoed por favor souvenir to account for in my carry-on. Our auditor, however, decided to put her Sony Walkman in her carry-on (on the trip in, it'd been in her checked luggage), so she could listen to tunes on the flight home. When her bag went through the x-ray machine, a security official directed her and her bag off to the side. And up behind her stepped a Federale with an automatic weapon at the ready. We couldn't step over to support her this time; she wavered, but remained upright until cleared to proceed.

Fortunately, it wasn't far to our gate, so carrying her and our luggage was awkward, but manageable...

And yes: despite my knowledge of the admonition about the water, and my careful adherence to it, I did contract a mild version of Montezuma's Revenge a day after returning home.

At least I didn't have to worry about losing the translation on that.

* if you subscribe to the previous life thang...


Blogger Raggedy said...

Your trip scared me to death. What ever happened with the embezzler? Did you have other shoes to wear? Do you think it is any different now? That sounds like an experience you could have lived without.
Have a wonderful day!
(=':'=) meow hugs
(")_ (")Š from da Raggedy one

12 July, 2006 03:41  
Blogger Andrew said...

It's funny isn't it, but the rough experiences of travel are the most fun to recount years later. At least a trip like this makes one appreciate what we have at home.

12 July, 2006 11:27  
Blogger Skunkfeathers said...

Raggedy: having only been there the one time 17 years ago, hard to say if it's still like that, but I'll wager this guess I consider to be well-founded: with the south of the border migration north, I would suggest that it's still just as bad. Not at the resorts; the authorities need the income the resorts generate. But elsewhere...I reckon so.

12 July, 2006 21:25  
Blogger Herb said...

Lived in El Paso and went to Juarez a couple of times. If Texas is like a whole other country, Mexico is a different planet.

13 July, 2006 04:47  
Blogger Monica said...

The way you keep bringing up Murphy's Law and all that...well, no wonder Montezuma's revenge popped up. But I AM glad you just got a small dose of it and nothing major.

Have fun at the blog meet!

13 July, 2006 08:25  
Blogger Karen said...

I think Monica is a bit touchy about the Murphy's Law thing, I mentioned it today too. Sheesh... ;-)

What a funny story - the machine gun part would have caused me to soil those expensive Rebocks. I bet the maid who got the $10 wondered what the previous day maid did for you. LOL

See you Saturday night! :-D

13 July, 2006 15:26  
Blogger deni said...

I just wanted to stop by and say thank you for your kind words and thoughts and prayers.

14 July, 2006 07:18  
Blogger Little Lamb said...

and they want to come here to live? HA!

08 October, 2008 16:32  
Blogger Debbie said...

Been there, done that. The cab rides are something else. We were not in Mexico City, but getting away from the resorts into the real Mexico was an experience. Very sad and depressing. I too caught the famous Montezuma's Revenge shortly after we arrived. I had been very careful not to drink the water, even not to brush my teeth with the local water. I was assured the water had nothing to do with my upset tummy. Maybe the spicy food, the cab rides, who knows.

It was the children that touched our hearts more than anything. Begging for anything, pennies, change. Of course we could not resist them,even knowing that their parents sent them out for the sole purpose of begging, even on the resort beaches. We stopped going to the beach it was too depressing.

Debbie Hamilton
Right Truth

10 October, 2008 08:14  
Blogger Ringleader said...

I've never been to Mexico, but this little story will probably have me sticking with an "all inclusive resort" if I ever do!

10 October, 2008 09:33  

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