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Traveling, Family History, and Why I Hate My Mother
There are many things that one is prepared to deal with following the successful completion of one’s doctorate, but a surly customs agent who thinks one speaks a language that one does not immediately following an extended plane flight is not on the list. Staring at aforementioned customs agent, I made a mental note to kill my Mom.
It had initially seemed like a good idea: complete my doctorate in Ancient Greek Civilization and then take some time off travelling before looking for a job. Then Mom brought up Mexico. It’ll be great, she said. Go find your dad’s family, she said. Expand your cultural boundaries, she said. I brought up the following points. First, Dad’s family has been in the U.S. of A. for five generations and the only things we have to go on is a name and the fact that my great-great-grandfather left during the revolution in 1917. Second, that I'm planning on researching Ancient Greece for a living and so my “cultural boundaries” are pretty broad already. Third and finally, Mom was born in Japan, so if I want to travel, I could just go there, where I would not only have a much better chance learning anything about our family, but I also speak the language. She told me that if I went to Mexico, she’d help with the cost. I got online and bought a plane ticket.
Now, here I was, staring at a grumpy customs agent who had taken one look at my passport and unleashed a flood of Spanish in which the only words I understood were my first and last name- Josefina Rodriguez. I usually go by Jo, but foreign customs officials don’t care about your nicknames.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish,” I told him slowly. That was technically a lie. I know two phrases – !Hola! and !Adios! and can count to five – but that info wouldn’t have helped.
The customs agent frowned at me. "You are a citizen of the United States,” he said in heavily accented Spanish. “This line is for citizens of México only.”
I looked up. Sure enough, the sign above my head read, “Ciudadanos de los Estados Unidos de México Solo” followed by a picture of the Mexican flag, and below that, to my intense embarrassment was “Mexican Citizens Only” To my right was a sign reading, “Ciudadanos de Otros Países” and “Citizens of Other Countries.”
I blushed bright red, muttered an apology and, hefting backpack, purse, and suitcase, murmured “excuse me” and “pardon me” all the way back down the line to people who likely couldn’t understand me.
Half-an-hour later, I stood again in front of a customs agent. I handed over my passport and customs papers, which he apparently didn’t read, as he proceeded to interrogate me about everything on them.
“Are you a natural born American citizen?”
“Are you here for work or pleasure?”
“How long are you planning to stay in México?”
“Do you have a place to stay?”
“Do you know anyone already in México?”
“Have you visited México before?”
“Do you have any signs of illness, including fever, dizziness, runny or stuffy nose, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, faintness, ear pangs, or any other signs of illness?”
I almost expected him to check my teeth. “No.”
“Have you ever had the swine flu?”
“Yes.” At least I figured it was the swine flu. It had been at the height of the pandemic, but my case hadn’t been bad enough to go see a doctor. It had been bad enough to skip class for a week, but that was a different scale.
That, apparently, was it, as he stamped my passport, handed it back, and waved me through.
The first task was to get to my hotel, a process easier said than done. Upon exiting the airport I was drowned in heat, a wave of it slamming into my face. I went to look for a taxi, holding my luggage close. Mobs of people shoved me back and forth as I worked towards the street, keeping a keen eye out for an empty taxi. I found one after a while, and resting my bags on the hot sidewalk; I leaned down to talk to the driver.
“Do you have a passenger?”
“No, no, Señora. Where you wish to go?” He grinned at me, displaying two rows of even, albeit yellow, teeth.
I consulted my notes. “The Best Western Estoril, near a park?” I asked hopefully.
“Sí, sí, Señora. I go there. Pero,” he cocked his head and looked thoughtful. “Señora, why not the hotel of my brother? A very nice hotel, very nice indeed. And cheap, only 35 dolores a night. I take you, if you want.” He pronounced dollars with a Spanish flair, and finished with a quizzical look.
I shook my head. “No, just take me to the Best Western. I’ve already paid.”
He sighed, and asked, “Certain, Señora? My sister, she makes the best tortillas I’ve ever had. She’ll make them if you come. I, José swear it.”
I wouldn’t be persuaded. The Best Western had been expensive, and cancelling now wouldn’t get me my money back. “I’m positive. Just take me to the Best Western.”
Suddenly he jumped out of the taxi, and grabbed my suitcase. I started, fearfully, but he only opened the trunk and threw my bag in. “Your mochila, Señora?”
“Pardon?” He reached for my backpack, and I nodded in comprehension. “My backpack. Yes, go ahead.” He tossed that into the trunk as well and then held the back door open for me. Somewhat uncoordinated, I clambered into the taxi.
He started the engine, which made several rattling thunks before settling down to a low purr. “Señora, you mind if I put on music?”
“No, go ahead.” I leaned back and attempted to relax. This was hindered by the sudden blare of the radio playing rock music, similar to that which played at home, except all the words were in Spanish.
I discovered, upon our arrival at the hotel, that the taxi-driver when stopping had the habit of coming to a sudden, screeching halt, punctuated by a crash, thud and bang from under the hood. I got out nervously, and José handed me my suitcase and backpack.
“14 dolores, Señora,” he said.
I pulled out my wallet, and rifled through it, eventually coming out with a twenty. “Keep the change,” I told him.
He grinned broadly again. “Gracias, Señora.”
I smiled, and walked into the hotel. The receptionist smiled at me. “¿Sí, Señora? ¿Tiene un reservación?” I didn’t understand much of that speech, but I guessed that he was someone who would probably know English, being the receptionist and all.
I walked reasonably confidently towards him. “I'm here to check in. I'm Josefina Rodriquez.”
He typed something into his desktop computer. “I found it. Josefina Rodriquez, six days?” He spoke English with a slight but scarcely noticeable accent.
“That’s me,” I said excitedly. I’d never checked into a hotel before; all of my traveling had either been with my parents or professors.
“Thank you for coming to stay with us. Can I have proof of identity?” I handed over my passport again. “Thank you,” he said, after glancing at the picture. “I will also need to see your credit card.” I gave it to him and he punched a series of numbers into the computer, frowned, and punched them in again. “You may have this back.” He shoved the card and passport back at me. “Your room is number 672.” He passed over a hotel key.
I said, “Thank you,” and hefting my bags, made my way over to the elevator. Pressing the button, I waited for the doors to open, loaded my bags into it, got in myself, and pressed “6”. On arrival, the doors opened, I heaved my bags out, followed them, turned right, read the sign in front of me, took another right, and found my room. Dropping the bags, I inserted the key into the lock, turned it, and opened the door.
Finally. I had a hotel room, all my stuff was there, and I still had two hours until dinner. Time to call Mom.
It took three tries to figure out how to type in the number, but on the third try I heard the phone ringing.
“Hey Mom, it’s me, Jo.”
“Jo…” Her voice trailed off. “That was a quick flight. Did customs go fine?”
“Yes, Mom. But the flight was just as long as it was supposed to be.”
“Really? I didn’t know that you could get to Tokyo in less than eight hours. How funny.”
“Tokyo?” I asked, surprised. “Mom, you told me to go to Mexico.”
“No, I didn’t. I clearly remember I said Tokyo. So you could look up my family.” She sounded as if she was pouting.
Hanging up, I reinforced the mental note to kill my Mom.