Cop Out and About

Lessons Learned? by Steve Cherne

I’m 65 years old and back in school. Since I live in Mexico 6 months of the year I have decided I need to learn Spanish. Now understand this, language is not a strength of mine. My Iowa Basics test scores always showed my weakest subject is in the language area. In fact my English skills were so poor that for years I thought a “dangling participle” has something to do with the men’s room! And while the learning process is slow, and my mind is fried from doing gymnastics with verb tense and sentence structure, already the lessons have opened doors and bridged gaps in my daily life in Mazatlan.  

Whether I am in a Pulmonia, taxi, at the barbers or having my watch band repaired, indeed where ever I interact with Mazatleco’s I tell them, “Estoy estudiando Español, soy un principiante.” Which means; I am studying Spanish, I am a beginner. The response is always the same, a big smile, words of approval and a free mini-lesson! I am almost always asked, where are you from, have you been here before, how long are you staying? I am able to tell them in my imperfect Spanish that I have been coming to Mazatlan for 12 years on vacations, and for the last two years have come for 6 months. “Vivo aqui seis meses! Me gusto Mazatlan!” Now I have made a connection with a native and separated myself from the extranjeros who don’t learn the local language.

Politeness in Mexico is important. When I enter the country, I always greet the Customs officer with a “Buenos días, señor/señora, como esta usted?” This simple, courteous greeting shows the officer that I’m not just another tourista, but a person who is respectful and deserves some respect in return. I’ve always breezed through customs even with a van load of personal belongings.
Similarly, when walking on the street, people I pass nod and greet me with, “Buenos días, or buenas tardes, or buenas noches.” If they squeeze by on a crowded sidewalk they will utter a soft, “Con permiso.” While dining in a café or restaurant other diners smile and say to me, “Provecho”, wishing me good appetite or enjoy your meal. The politeness and warmth can’t help but créate a relaxed, warm atmosphere and reflects a welcome and hospitality and a shared sense of connection and inclusiveness that I think is rare north of the border.

One late afternoon my wife and I went up to the rooftop terrace for a dip in the pool. When we got up on the roof there was a Mexican family having a late lunch. Their food was spread out buffet style on a high table, laden with tortillas, tostadas, tamales, carne asado, pollo, rice, beans, salsa and coolers of beer and soft drinks. We were greeted by these strangers and after introducing ourselves and telling them why we were here and how long we were staying of course they invited us to eat with them. Plates were handed to us and with lots of smiles and laughter we were encouraged to dig in. My midwestern upbringing told me I was supposed to refuse until they asked three times but I have learned to leave that tenet of my upbringing north of the border. The Mexican way is that no matter how much food they have, there is always enough to share!

The Mexican people are right, there is always enough to share. Since they share so generously with me I feel compelled to learn their language. I want to share more with them, I want them to know I appreciate their many kindnesses, I want to share more in their big, open, warmth and joy. And so I sit in class, conjugating verbs, straining to hear and decipher the words, seeking understanding. And with understanding comes acceptance and maybe, just maybe the world gets a little better with lessons learned.



HOLY PLACES  by Steve Cherne

I love to travel! The world is full of interesting and amazing places and people. I am I must confess a travel junkie. I fully ascribe to the tenet that no one dies saying, “I wish I had done less!”

In my travels I have visited magnificent holy sites. I have stood in awe and wonder inside St. Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I have looked up at the rugged magnificence of Montserrat and the wind-swept cliffs of The Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico and have felt a holy presence, a holy spirit that permeated and enveloped me in reverence. I felt insignificant in the face of a power that transcends time and the temporary nature of our own existence. But the feeling was not of a diminishing bent, it did not cause fear or alarm. Rather, I felt a sense of peace, calm, comfort and well-being, that despite all the turmoil of this world, the conflicts in our lives, our doubts and anxieties, that there is a greater power than ourselves.

My wife and I were paddling our canoe across a remote lake in the Quetico wilderness of Ontario, Canada. It was a hot summer day, not a breath of air, the lake a mirror of glass without a ripple disturbing the surface. Beautiful white pines rimmed the rocky shoreline of the Canadian shield, interspersed with gleaming white birch trees. A high ridge rose above the lake to the east. We were quiet, drinking in the glory of the day, the only sound was the swish and plop of our paddles leaving and entering the still water.

We both sensed movement on the high ridge and our heads turned in unison. In a narrow path the huge white pines bent, doubling over and swaying back and forth even though all the trees around them remained motionless. Thoughts of King Kong and Godzilla crossed my mind as we waited astonished at what we were witnessing. Now the Windigo coursed across the water, a waterspout 50 feet high and 20 feet wide headed directly towards us! Should we paddle hard and try to get out of the way? It seemed like a futile exercise in the face of the power and force we were seeing. We sat mesmerized as the funnel traveled across the water, for at least a hundred yards, towards us and then effortlessly circled and glided back the way it had come, bending the pines as they swayed, as if waving a verdant goodbye as it traveled back up and disappeared over the top of the ridge. This was a holy moment, and this became a holy place.

Sometimes we come upon holy places in our lives and travels and they are big, magnificent, transformative places that are so overwhelming there can be no doubt about them and sometimes we can find holy places in the minute and mundane experiences of our daily lives. Sometimes the experience is unexpected and unrealized until it’s over and we are so startled that we don’t react until we have had time for reflection.

A few years ago Rebecca and I attended a Christmas party in Mazatlán for the children living in an orphanage. The kids were dancing with anticipation their faces bright and beaming with excitement because Santa would be arriving with the one present they would receive that year! At the conclusion of the party the piñata was hung and the blindfolded children all took a turn whacking away until it burst and the candy spilled out onto the floor and a mad scramble to gather up the treasure took place. Every child picked up a few pieces of candy, clutching the rare, sugary treats with delight. A young boy, about 10 years old approached me. He opened his hands, he had 3 pieces of candy. He held out one of those precious pieces towards me, “Feliz Navidad,” he said. Tears formed in my eyes, this little boy who had so little, chose to share with me who had so much. This was a holy moment and a holy place.

What a lesson he taught me. What holiness he showed me.   Sometimes we are in the holy, sometimes we are transformed by the holy, sometimes we can be the holy. The holy exists in, around and through us. This Christmas season let us strive to Be the holy!