She was from Canada.
A photographer on her first trip to Mexico.
I met her on the flight to Melaque. We chatted. Or she did. I listened.
She was looking for The Shot that would sum up Mexico. In truth, what she was looking for was A New Life.
Recently divorced, she was taking her first tentative steps in a new world. Starting with Mexico. A week of freedom. She was giddy with the prospect of seeing the Magic of Mexico. You could almost hear italics and the extraneous capitalization of nouns.
I saw her several times in the village -- usually from a distance -- stalking her prey in her own private Serengeti.
When we talked, she seemed to be trying too hard to have a good time. Everything was Perfect. The People were the Friendliest she had ever met. Mexico had touched The Center of Her Soul.
The last time I saw her was on a street corner where Villa Obregon fades into Melaque. She looked tired. As if she had spent the full week pulling on the green chain.
And she looked disappointed. She was about to return to British Columbia without her defining Mexican Moment.
The conversation settled into the general hum of small talk -- until she froze staring into the middle distance over my right shoulder. Jungle cats have that stare. Something was moving her way.
I glanced over my shoulder to see one of the local grandmothers decked out in widow black carrying a plastic bag brimming with vegetables. Topped off by an umbrella for shade.
I have seen hunters suffer from buck fever. Trembling. Grabbing at equipment. But the photographer topped them all.
"Where IS it? Where IS it?" She muttered as she searched through her beach bag.
She found her camera and raised it to her face just as the grandmother was about to walk past us.
But that did not deter her.
In plummy English, she asked: "Excuse me. Could you go back and walk toward us? I would like a Photograph." The last word had the same intonation a priest would have in saying: "Shroud of Turin."
The Woman With The Umbrella (as the photograph would have been known) would never enter the world of art. The grandmother looked bewildered, and continued on her way.
The photographer looked at me in exasperation: "These people are so friendly, but frustrating."
I am not certain a few words of Spanish would have salvaged this vignette of cultural clash. But they would not have hurt.
Learning Spanish is essential for enjoying life in Mexico. Language is not merely a way to communicate. It is the foundation of culture. How people perceive life.
We all know people who claim to do just fine in Mexico without speaking Spanish. They often live in English-speaking enclaves and deal with English-speaking Mexicans. They may as well live in Scottsdale. Living in Mexico in spite of its culture, not for it.
Of course, the advocates of Spanish can overreach, as well. I heard a teacher extol the virtues of Spanish by arguing that learning the language would let you speak with over 450 million people.
Well, not exactly. 450 million people may speak "Spanish," but they do not all speak the same language. Put residents of Mexico City, Madrid, and Buenos Aires in the same room, and just wait for the anecdotes -- while they wait for the translator.
But that is not the type of Spanish you need in Mexico. The best place to learn is from your neighbors. After all, those are the people with whom you want to converse.
Before I moved south, I studied several Spanish courses on my computer. They helped me get started. But I soon realized the people in my village do not speak classroom Spanish -- any more than my neighbors in Salem speak classroom English.
Unlike my experience in Greece, I discovered most of my Mexican neighbors, with a couple of rare exceptions, were willing to teach me -- if I would just make the effort. They were pleased to see I wanted to talk with them.
I learned more Spanish from my first maid than I ever learned from a DVD. I also took a brief Spanish class in Villa Obregon to fill out my vocabulary.
The last four months in Salem have been deadly for my Spanish. Several words a day drop out of the memory bank. My Spanish has atrophied almost as much as my right thigh.
If I had it to do over, before I moved south, I would have spent more time on sentence structure and vocabulary -- and ignored some of the grammar. And, once I arrived in Mexico, I would have daily pushed beyond my comfort zone -- talking with as many people as I could.
Most adults have a fear of looking foolish. Language mistakes are near the top of the list for painting on our clown faces.
I long ago stopped taking myself seriously. I make enough mistakes in English to stop worrying about making them in Spanish. The great thing about making mistakes in Spanish is that I get to have a good laugh with my neighbors -- at my own expense. But I learn more about me while I am learning about Mexico.
In three more months, I will be heading south. I hope I have retained enough Spanish to act as a translator for the next photographer who needs to give modeling direction to our local cast of charming extras.
Or not --