By JJ Rushmore
My Spanish vocabulary today is limited to burrito, fajita, and una cerveza mas. It’s not that I never studied a different language, but in my younger days the foreign language of choice was invariably French. The general feeling was French was more refined, more cosmopolitan, more continental. If one traveled to Europe, one could converse with most folks there in French, if not in English.
My folks signed me up for after school French classes in the fifth grade. The Brothers of the Sacred Heart who ran my high school were French Canadian, so of course they taught us French in addition to the Latin that all Catholic prep schools required. My university chem department required either Chinese or German; I chose German. Jawol, mein Herr!
No one told me Spanish would become the second language of the United States. No one told me I would deliver a scientific paper at an international conference in Mexico. No one told me most Mexicans only spoke Spanish.
The year was 1980. I worked for the U.S. Army at the time. I’d like to say my job as a government chemist was glamorous and involved high-level projects and top-secret clearances, but that would be lying.
As a product of the sixties, I naturally railed against the so-called ‘military industrial complex.’ I figured the best way to fight the Man was to work against ‘the system’ from within. With my shoulder-length hair and Fu Manchu mustache, it was amazing my boss, an ex-Army Sergeant himself, hired me at all. Even after I trimmed my long locks to a conventional length, he still referred to me as a ‘hippie-fag-radical.’
It seemed self-righteous to work in an environmental laboratory testing water samples from rivers and lakes. In that era the environment was trendy, and I found the title of Environmental Chemist was acceptable to my liberal friends and helped whitewash my working for the Army.
One year I received an invitation to speak at an international conference in Mexico City. Working for the government, and particularly for the Army, one did not decide to travel outside the Continental United States on his own. It took months to get the Pentagon and the State Department to approve my OCONUS travel and issue travel orders. It required additional time to procure a passport, visa, and the appropriate vaccinations. The one vaccination I really needed did not exist—one for excess stupidity.
I had not been out of the country except for a couple of weekend vacations to Montreal and Quebec City. Apparently, my earlier French lessons had fallen on deaf ears, as my attempt to order a fancy meal in an Old Quebec restaurant resulted a large plate of beans and franks. So much for my multi-lingual skills.
The Aeroméxico flight from New York La Guardia to Mexico City International was anything but smooth. I was grateful to land without having to use the air sickness bag they so thoughtfully provided in the seat pocket in front of me. Needless to say, I didn’t read the Spanish language magazines in the seat pocket.
I arrived on a Sunday, but the week-long conference didn’t commence until the following day. I was determined to overcome my natural timidity and explore the city.
Mexico City was dazzling, the sights and sounds intoxicating. Street vendors selling sparkling jewelry, brightly colored blankets, and sombreros decorated every corner. Mariachi music floated in the crisp mountain air. Exotic aromas emanated from street-side restaurant tables.
Feeling uncharacteristically bold, I shunned the tourist area downtown and struck off to discover the true heart of the city. I walked until the street vendors disappeared, the city lights grew sparse, and grime replaced the glitter of the city center.
I found a quiet bar and grill, a below-street-level dive with the look of a local hang-out. There were no pictures on the menu, so I ordered by pointing at an indecipherable item. The only Mexican food I had ever eaten before then were some out-of-the-box Old El Paso tacos, and I didn’t see them listed. At that point in my life I wouldn’t have known the difference between a burrito and a chimichanga anyway.
I quenched my thirst with ice water while waiting for my order. Forewarned of acquiring Montezuma’s Revenge, I ordered a bottle of Perrier mineral water. I never thought about what might be lurking in the ice cubes.
My food finally arrived. The fare was spicy and savory, and I gobbled it up and washed it down with native beer. The dish included some sort of meat, plus beans and tortillas. The meat might have been beef, or goat, or some animal I’d rather not know about. The meal also included a secret something, a surprise ingredient for a wayward traveler such as myself.
I finished my meal and made my way back to the hotel in the darkening gloom of the evening. It wasn’t until then I realized I had strayed far from the safe parts of the city. I put on an air of looking like I belonged and knew where I was headed. I somehow escaped the shadows and arrived safely at my hotel. Or so I thought
That night I fell violently ill. I spent hours on my knees ‘driving the porcelain bus’ until the dry heaves took over around midnight, my punishment for eating like a native. The secret ingredient in my meal had revealed itself. I awoke the next day weak and shaky but resolved to continue my business.
I showered and dressed and headed for the conference center where I signed in and collected my registration materials. My talk was the first one on the following day’s agenda, so I had a full day to attend a few sessions before that.
I sat through one presentation before succumbing to extreme fatigue and dizziness. I staggered to my room and collapsed into bed. I set my alarm for six a.m. and passed out.
Morning arrived and I was still weak and woozy. I imagined all the grief my boss and the Army would rain upon me if I failed to deliver my talk after all the effort and expense to get me there. I dragged myself out of bed and dressed in my three-piece Brooks Brothers and wing tips. I couldn’t face a shower and the thought of breakfast made me shudder.
I slowly tottered to the conference center and delivered my talk. I don’t recall any questions from the audience, but I might not have been speaking clearly. By the time I concluded my speech I was sweating profusely. I don’t remember returning to the hotel.
I spent what remained of the day in bed in a delirium of chills and hot flashes. I swore insects crawled on the ceiling and walls. During one brief moment of clarity, I discovered this was no hallucination.
That night Montezuma visited me with a vengeance. This was undoubtedly additional payback for not paying attention to the ice cubes. I spent hours on the toilet, falling off at least once after passing out.
The following days I spent in bed, not able to move, with occasional sips of mineral water and precarious trips to the bathroom. I tried calling the hotel desk for a doctor, but all I ever received in return was some aspirin. I found out later the Spanish word for doctor is doctor. Go figure.
I spent the better part of four days lapsing in and out of consciousness while watching I Love Lucy re-runs in Spanish on a thirteen-inch black-and-white TV. Those shows are only funny that way for the first sixteen hours or so.
My condition had not improved by the day of my scheduled flight home. Not knowing how to replace a government-issued ticket, and afraid of being stuck there indefinitely, I steeled myself, arose from my sickbed, and dressed. If I hadn’t staggered to a cab and made it onto the airplane, I might still be there. I slept all the way to New York.
Our plane didn’t rate a jetway when we landed in La Guardia. Instead the airline trundled a stairway on wheels up to the aircraft. As I deboarded the plane I dropped to my knees and kissed the tarmac. No one appreciated the passion behind the gesture.
It took me a week to recuperate enough so I could return to work, and two years before I fully recovered from the ptomaine poisoning and regained my original strength.
I have returned to Mexico twice since then, once to Cancún and once to Cozumel. I stayed on the beaten paths, ate at the popular restaurants, and avoided all ice cubes. I did not get sick.
And I still can’t speak Spanish.
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