I call him the shoeless Mexican.

Clearly that is not his real name. I don’t know his name, or anything else about him for that matter. Honestly, his name isn’t really all that important to me, since it is extremely unlikely we will ever cross paths again. And if by some bizarre circumstance we ever do, I am fairly certain I would just smile as I walked by, seeing as I don’t recall his face.

But I remember everything else.

[quote]I recognized him from earlier that day, the same guy loitering outside of the hotel…I noticed him watching me, and worried that he would initiate conversation, I picked up the pace and bolted inside.[/quote]

The entire week had been scorching hot, causing the blisters covering my entire backside to fester and burst at random intervals. Inadequate sunscreen coupled with epidermal neglect had resulted in a sunburn so severe, it felt as if I was just a tanning minute away from spontaneous combustion. Abandoning all prior intentions of spending my holidays wearing nothing but a variety of attention-grabbing bikinis, I was confined to muumuus and other unflattering items of clothing, guaranteed to provide maximum coverage with minimal contact against my swollen skin.

Even if I did self-ignite, it would have to be done outdoors. After all, I was in Puerto Vallarta, and it would be ludicrous to waste one minute of my precious seven days sitting in our shoddy room, even if it did mean a potential skin graft or two. Besides, it was a given this time of year. Canadians flocked to the beach during winter to escape the bitter cold, not in mid-July, the heat unfathomable for those used to spending a good six months out of the year in turtlenecks and down-filled jackets. Since my sister was a starving student and my paltry income–courtesy of the Government thanks to employee lay-offs—wouldn’t get us far, we had to take what we could get and settle for the most budget-friendly time of year possible, an uncomfortable vacation better than no vacation at all.

My sister was less than enthused with the resort. The weather didn’t agree with her pasty white skin, and in less than 48 hours she had both sun stroke and an aesthetically unpleasing heat rash on her chest. Had it not been for Juan, the local bartender she met and fell head over heels for within an hour of our arrival, I was pretty confident she would have booked the next flight back.

I, on the other hand, loved everything about Mexico. The culture, the laid-back attitude shared by the locals, the siestas and fiestas– it was all such a welcome respite from home, where people obsessed over schedules and their daily to-do lists.

The only aspect I found disconcerting was the severe disparity of wealth throughout the area. It was easy to remain ignorant to it, were you not audacious enough to veer off the beaten tourist bath. However, beyond the affluent neighborhoods—which boasted a myriad of charming homes lined up and down the street, children splashing each other while they ran through the sprinklers—an impoverished community emerged. A community consisting of makeshift dilapidated tin shacks positioned alongside the ditch, with children in ratty clothes playing baseball using rocks and a rotted stick in place of balls and a bat.

Poverty scared me. I had grown up in a somewhat sheltered, middle-class bubble, where vacations consisted of a week at youth camp, or four days spent in Las Vegas, my parents hitting the tables while my sister and I entertained ourselves at Circus Circus. The homeless didn’t frequent our neighborhood, and whenever I was forced to travel downtown I would avert my eyes, accelerate my pace, and more often than not act as if they simply didn’t exist. I associated them with drug addicts and criminals, because in my mind, every mentally stable, law-abiding citizen was capable of finding a well-paying job. And if not, there was always social assistance–whatever that was.

I recognized him from earlier that day, the same guy loitering outside of the hotel when I returned from picking up breakfast for my nocturnal sister (a well-balanced meal of Pringles and salsa), who refused to leave the room during daylight hours. I noticed him watching me, and worried that he would initiate conversation, I picked up the pace and bolted inside.

Here he was again, wearing the same shabby cotton t-shirt, sleeves ripped off and front collar seam split to chest level. His tattered shorts were held up by a piece of twine, and his filthy bare feet revealed a set of mangled toes, most likely caused by years spent devoid of adequate footwear.

“Senorita! Senorita!”

I tried to ignore him. I sped up my pace and acted as if I was either oblivious or hard of hearing. But when I realized he wasn’t going to let up until I acknowledged him, I stopped, took a deep breath and mentally prepared myself for the worst.

Thankfully I noticed other tourists in the vicinity, people I could call for help if he tried to attack me.
I turned my head slightly, so as to not give him the wrong idea. The last thing I wanted was for him to think I was okay with being forced to take notice of him. Without looking him in the eye, presuming I already knew what he wanted, I reached into my shorts pocket to pull out the spare pesos I had lodged in the corner. Just as I succeeded in wheedling out a coin, he put his fingers lightly on my arm as a signal to stop.

With his other had he held out a tiny white plastic container, awkwardly positioned in a calloused palm which evidently hadn’t seen a washcloth in months.

“Para ti”, he said.

He unscrewed the lid of the container, revealing a thick white creamy substance. He pointed to the back of my legs, which by then had become so red and blistered I looked like a burn victim. Recognizing that I still didn’t understand, he replaced the lid, gently lifted my arm, and placed the container in my open hand. He said something in Spanish, his voice calm and soothing, and even though I didn’t understand his vernacular, I knew that whatever he said had nothing to do with my spare pesos. He then smiled at me, turned around and limped away.

I stood there on the side of the road, frozen stiff and unable to speak. By the time the feeling of numbness had disappeared, so had he.

I went back to the room, turned on the shower and stood in the tub for 20 minutes, crying my eyes out while cold water ran down my backside. I told my sister I had severe sunstroke and spent the rest of that day and night stifling sobs with the hard, tattered pillow. It’s not that I didn’t want to tell her what happened, it was that I couldn’t. I was ashamed.

It’s funny how a lifetime worth of perceptions can evaporate in a single moment. How the person you once considered a burden to society suddenly becomes the mentor you spend the rest of your life trying to emulate.

I spent the rest of the trip reliving the incident on the street, occasionally loitering outside the hotel in the hopes of seeing him again, to offer some sort of monetary repayment, a way to thank him for his compassion and apologize for my unforgivable behavior. When that didn’t happen, I spent an entire month afterward organizing and donating material goods I deemed overly extravagant, determined to live a more altruistic life.

Unfortunately, as we all know, memories fade over time, and just like I discovered after my New Years Resolution–to hit the gym six days a week and give up my beloved Doritos and salsa–old habits die hard.

Currently the world is suffering from an economic crisis, a recession unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. Some of us live in fear of our financial stability being threatened, whereas others are unable to maintain the standard of living they have become accustomed to over the years. I wish I could say I’m immune to these fears myself, but of course I’m not.

But unlike him, I was lucky enough to have seen a before. And even luckier to know there is an after.

People ask me why I work every day during the Summer months, accumulating vacation and overtime while my co-workers enjoy long weekends and camping trips with the family.

They wonder why I choose to spend the Christmas holidays studying Spanish and volunteering in some random Latin American town, instead of being home, decorating the Christmas tree and gorging on turkey and baked goods with my family.

“Why are you so fascinated with that place?”

I call him the shoeless Mexican.


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