The two-hour conversation, we hoped, was ready to wrap. Anselmo was a charming raconteur but the get-acquainted meeting had grown out of proportion. Yes, he would be happy to take care of the garden. Yes, he would be happy to begin immediately. Yes, he would be responsible for watering and maintenance during our summer sojourn in the States.
One hundred minutes and several cervezas later Anselmo had shared his life story. My husband and I tried to follow the twists and turns of the anecdotes but Anselmo’s dialect transcended classroom Spanish. My niggling headache inched toward meltdown.
Anselmo made a motion to stand. We popped up in encouragement.
"It would be an honor to invite you to dinner," he said, using sign language to facilitate our understanding. "My wife makes excellent ceviche. She will cook for you." Anselmo kissed his fingers in appreciation of her cuisine.
"Thank you," I said. "We would be happy to meet her. Where do you…"
"We will come here, to your house. We will bring everything. Tomorrow, five o’clock."
Anselmo and Maya arrived on the dot dressed in crisp cotton pressed for a party. Glossy black hair pulled into a tight chignon, lipstick impossibly red, Maya was lovely in her middle years. She nodded hello, almost smiled. Plump arms embraced an assortment of bowls, sacks, the accoutrements of a confident cook. Dark eyes darted beyond me, assessing the kitchen. She bustled to the island counter. Anselmo followed toting a six pack of beer and bottle of tequila.
"The water was shut-off early today," I said. "We still have water in the tinaco (cistern). Will you be able…"
Maya shrugged. "No problema," she said.
My husband and I took seats at the counter. Anselmo passed us each a beer.
"It is the freshest fish," he said, his English broken but confident. "Huachinango, cooking all day in the lime." He proceeded to describe how Maya had cleaned, cubed the red snapper, submerged the chunks in a lime and water concoction that cooks without heat. As Maya pulled from sacks the rest of the ingredients, a vocabulary lesson ensued.
"Apio," she said, pointing to the long limbs of celery. "Cebolla…aguacate…ajo," she continued, spreading out on the counter onion, avocado, garlic. "Chipotle…cilantro…"
"I know cilantro," I said, pleased with myself. "I like cilantro."
Maya nodded. "Jugo," she said, pulling out cans of V8 juice.
Cutting board requested and produced, Maya set to work, the chop of her blade performance art. My husband and I pulled back a bit as we watched the speed and swipe of a pro.
Dinner was delicious. The ceviche tender, almost sweet, served atop corn tortillas crisped in salted oil. Sliced avocados on the side. Cold beer, tequila shots to cement a new friendship.
I wanted to repay Maya and Anselmo for the excellent dinner. I would prepare for them a specialty of my own: shrimp empananda, black beans, bananas baked in honey and cream.
We found Anselmo at his home, extended our invitation.
"What day is best with you and Maya?"
"Martes. Tuesday, next Tuesday," he said. Spanish chased by English to make sure we understood. "Six o’clock."
The following Monday I drove to Puerto Vallarta, 45 minutes south, to shop at a supermarket replete with food stuffs not always available in San Pancho’s small sidewalk stores. Shrimp, large and fresh, cream cheese, Parmesan, black beans, epazote and oregano. An assortment of olives, marinated crudites, imported wafers to whet the appetite.
I began preparation early Tuesday morning. Devein shrimp, saute with garlic, nestle on tortillas slathered in cream cheese, dust with Parmesan, fold in half, refrigerate until time to bake; cook black beans, mash, refry in olive oil, oregano, epazote; whip the sauce to top bananas.
At five-thirty I was ahead of my game. Food kept warm, tapas arranged on the coffee table, wine and beer chilled. My husband suggested I was trying too hard. Maya and Anselmo would be happy with whatever I could throw together, he said. I ignored him, rummaged in the cupboard for colorful cotton napkins.
Six o’clock and we were in position. Six-thirty came and went.
"Thirty minutes is not necessarily late in this culture," my husband said, checking his watch against the clock on the bar.
But seven o’clock is more than fashionably late, I decided. We nibbled around the edges of the crudite platter.
Eight o’clock, eight-thirty, nine o’clock. We decided there must have been a misunderstanding. I began to reheat dinner then opened the wine. We selected a DVD with plans to settle in for the evening.
Five minutes later Anselmo bounded down the stairs that led from the street to our garden living room. "I have the head of a camaron!" he said. He thumped the side of his head to demonstrate its physical similarity to an oversize shrimp.
Not waiting for an invitation to "Pase," he plopped down on the couch, spread his knees to accommodate belly girth, thumped his head again for good measure. Maya followed him down the stairs.
Their explanation was delivered with a flurry of gestures. They had gone to dinner at a friend’s restaurant. After a couple of beers and hefty blue-plate specials, Maya suddenly remembered our dinner invitation. So here they were.
"Uh," I began, "would you like something to eat?"
"Gracias," said Anselmo. "But we are stuffed to here!"
Cervezas, however, would be appreciated. Maya and Anselmo settled in for long conversation. Too polite to eat in front of them, we kept our dinner on the back burner.
The incident discombobulated me. But since then I’ve learned a thing or two about living here: sometimes people lose sense of time; sometimes people accept invitations just to be polite; and sometimes people hesitate to socialize with those who hire them.
My learning curve continues its ascent.