I speak a little Spanish — not as well as I once did but I can order food and ask for directions. The usual touristy stuff. But like anything that you do a little of — speaking a foreign language, mountain climbing, bungee jumping — trying to do more than you are capable of usually leads to trouble.
Years ago, I was in San Luis Potosi, a town north of Mexico City. It is an interesting place in and of itself — with old silver mines, archeological sites, museums and many fine artists. It is not a touristy place so it seemed the best place to have a real tourist experience. I was travelling on my own researching a book that got written though was never published. I decided I needed to find out what it was like to go to a traditional cantina.
The cantinas of Mexico (this was 20 years ago) are all-male establishments. I suppose women could go in them but they don’t. Men go there — mostly working men — to drink and get drunk. Usually you enter through swinging saloon doors. There are a few tables and then seats at a long bar. This one had a jukebox loaded mostly with mariachi and other Spanish music.
I sidled up to the bar and ordered a cerveza. I drank it slowly as I observed the scene. A man at a table by the door suddenly slumped in his seat and fell over. The bartender came around and dragged him outside to prop against the wall. His wife will fetch him, he said to no one in particular. It was that kind of place.
I was soon joined at the bar by a couple of men who were obviously friends, one dressed as an office worker ,the other in the traditional white garb of a campesino. They taught me the proper way to drink tequila which does not involve salt or lime. We chatted in my ever improving Spanish. At a certain point we gave the campesino money to go find a real mariachi band. He returned an hour later with no money, no band but with a bag of candy.
I cleverly said. Donde es la musica? Pagamos por le musica no por los dulces. Very funny stuff and he laughed but then his friend chimed in — saying the same thing: Where is the music we paid you for the music not candy. But with a snarky tone. Then without much more said they started to fight. I was between them as fists flew.
The bartender took a small wooden club from beneath the bar. As soon as furniture or bottles got involved, he would make his move. I got between the combatants, blurting out something — again in great Spanish — about us all being friends and that we shouldn’t fight. They stopped and the bartender served us another round. But the fun had gone out of it and one by one we slipped out into the night.
A vivid memory but not as vivid as the rare hangover I had the next day.
But that’s ten minutes.