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A Few Tips for Speaking Spanish in Mexico

"I'm done." I said in Spanish as I smiled and looked at our waitress, "Muchas gracias!", I continued, beaming at my Spanish prowess. She smiled back -- actually she looked like she was struggling to hold in laughter when I realized my error --- I had just told her I was done like DEAD. Ack! The embarrassment of the situation got me, I smiled sheepishly and dragged Tom to the exit to make a quick escape.

When traveling in a foreign country it is important (and so much more fun!) to try speaking the language -- even just the tiniest effort can make all the difference. So far the Mexicans seem to be pretty encouraging, they happily smile and nod while we stumble through our limited Spanish. They even are nice enough to pretend that we are making sense!

When you are learning a new language you are going to make a lot of mistakes, that it just the way it goes and, of course, the only way to learn is to make a few errors. However, there are some things that would be nice to know before you start chatting away in another language.

Here are a few tips for Mexican Spanish that you might want to keep in mind to prevent awkward speaking situations:

Try the Fish Taco: Baja's Favorite Food

Maybe it's just me, but the first time I heard the words "fish" and "taco" together I felt rather nauseous. But, the ol' fish taco is definitely Baja's favorite and most famous meal -- be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Just about everywhere you look there is a taco stand accompanied by a sign with a happy looking cartoon fish encouraging you to come over and try this local specialty.

The customs officer who helped us with our paperwork in Tijuana was the first person to mention the fish taco. In fact, he recommended that we eat as much fish as we could in the Baja. I don't mind fish but it seems like a risky food to consume at an outdoor stand...really how long can shrimp sit in the sun before it becomes a hazard to someone's health?

Rumored to be a creation of Japanese fishermen, this meal was the word on everyone's lips by the time we reached Southern Baja. "Try the fish taco" was pretty much a daily occurrence. Usually, I am game to try most foods but for some reason I pictured this dish as a soggy taco with undercooked fish coated in a slimy sauce. I hadn't even seen a fish taco in actuality but already this figment of my imagination had turned my stomach against it. Soon, though, curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to see whether the fish taco was any good -- so I came up with a plan. This well-devised plan was to get my husband Tom to try one and let me know how it was.

No Wrong Turns: Accommodations and Restaurants in Todos Santos

Todos Santos, the little town I mentioned in my last post, offers a quiet escape from the typical vacation destination of Cabo San Lucas. This small town is home to a mix of Mexicans, artists, surfers and ex-pats and offers some of the best surfing in the Baja. Pair that with great places to eat, interesting galleries, beautiful beaches and cheap beer and you have a pretty perfect vacation spot.

To get here you will need to fly into the San Jose Del Cabo Airport and either rent a car or hire a taxi. It is more cost efficient to rent a car and the SJD airport has numerous car rental agencies to choose from. The highway from Cabo San Lucas to Todos Santos is apparently the most dangerous road in Mexico, so make sure you are prepared to focus on the journey ahead. If you are tired after your flight, spend a night in Cabo San Lucas and head out the next day refreshed and ready to enter the madness that is Mexican driving.

Once you arrive in Todos Santos, you will find that there are numerous places to stay as well as some truly great places to eat. Be advised that most of Baja California Sur has been affected by the influx of foreign money, so prices are higher than those found in mainland Mexico but they are less expensive that Cabo. That being said, depending on the time of year you travel, here you might be able to negotiate lower room costs, especially if you are planning on a longer-term stay.

Where to Stay: Short -Term
Don't be surprised to find the hotels in Todos Santos starting at about $45US a night for pretty basic accommodations. The Maria Bonita Hotel, located at the corner of Colegio Militar and Hidalgo, offers clean rooms with hot showers for around $50US per night. The couple who manage the hotel are very friendly and will happily encourage all of your Spanish speaking attempts. Be warned this hotel is located on a main street so it can be quite loud at night. There also happens to be a laundromat below the hotel which also contributes to the noise by running at all hours of the day and night.

A Lesson in Mexican Gestures

We are slowly starting to feel relatively comfortable in Mexico: things don't seem so unusual, and both of us are starting to notice subtle things. Well...if you can call gestures in Mexico subtle.

Chins tilting, cupped palms, and a version of the "OK" sign are only a handful of the gestures that I have noticed in Mexico. I wanted to find out what they mean, so we had our our friend, Iker (a Federali turned lawyer), help clarify the meanings. He was also nice enough to pose for photos.

Here are a few gestures you might come across in Mexico:
  • Hurry Up!
    This gesture, shown by rubbing the forefinger and thumb together, does not mean money in Mexico, it means you need to get moving!
  • Expensive
    Holding the thumb and forefinger up with the back of the hand to the viewer indicates that something is expensive. You'll see husbands making this gesture to their wives in the markets or other shopping venues.
  • Cheapskate
    If you are haggling with someone and you notice someone else nearby tapping their bent elbow consider yourself insulted. Tapping on the elbow means "stingy" or "cheap" in Mexico.
  • Cunning
    You should watch out for someone who is "colmilludo", which loosely translates to cunning or crafty. This is indicated by tapping one's eyeteeth which are called "colmillos" in Spanish. This gesture refers to someone that is always looking out for himself. Iker told us that it is used both positively and negatively it just depends on the context -- but I got the feeling that this is rarely used as a compliment.
  • Asshole
    Yup...the one gesture you need to know the most since it resembles the Western "OK" sign. It is formed by touching the thumb and forefinger together creating a very small circle. This is extremely rude and never used to someone's face. See the gallery below to check out our friend Iker who kindly modeled all the gestures for us...even the rude ones.
  • OK
    As mentioned above the "OK" sign is the same here as at home. Just make sure that circle you make isn't too small!
  • Lazy
    The gesture for lazy is a cupped palm facing upwards, like you are holding something heavy. One or both hands can be used in this gesture. This is highly inappropriate because it refers to lifting "huevos" (which is Mexican slang for testicles). Basically the meaning behind this gesture is that the owner's "balls" are so big and heavy that he can't get up!
  • What's up?
    People will greet you with this gesture which is often just tilting the chin up or tilting the chin up with palms upturned and a shrug. It means "What's happening?" but you will also see it used as a general greeting. I have found even the youngest kids know this gesture and use it in replace of a verbal greeting.
  • Expensive!
  • Crafty like the Wolf
  • Elbow tapping = Cheap
  • Don't mess this one up!
  • This is OK (really)
  • So lazy

It might take awhile at first to recognize these cultural cues but once you have an idea of what to look for you will see them used all over Mexico. Gestures tend to vary from place to place so it's probably best to use them when you are absolutely certain you know what they mean...after all, calling someone an asshole when you meant to say "OK" might not go over so well.

"No Wrong Turns" chronicles Kelsey and her husband's road trip -- in real time -- from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.

Mexico's Green Angels: Your Road Trip Saviors!

Imagine you are driving happily along in Mexico, taking in the view, bopping along to some tunes, and smiling at how perfect your road trip is going. Then you notice a small noise: it gets louder and, with panic setting in, you pull over, let the car cool down and then try to start it up again to no avail. One look around confirms that you are broken down in the middle of nowhere on a desolate Mexican highway. Now what?

This situation has played over in my head since we arrived with our own car in Mexico. Breaking down in a city or town is one thing, breaking down in the middle of a deserted Mexican highway is a completely different story. We had one close call a few weeks ago when we sputtered into town after spending a couple hours surfing. We pulled into the local supermarket, got out of the car and watched as the car's fan belt promptly fell off. We were lucky that it happened in town and that a mechanic was located only three minutes away. What if it had happened on the highway hours from town? Fortunately the Mexican government provides a "heavenly" service for motorists in distress.

Minding your Manners in Mexico

Being polite is the best thing you can do in Mexico to ensure good service and to also undo those nasty rumors that Canadians and Americans are generally rude and want everything "right now!"

In our time here we have learned a few tips that have made our lives easier while living and traveling in Mexico. As with all countries, making the effort to be polite will always work in your favor. Mexicans are very friendly people and are more than willing to assist you with whatever you need. However, being demanding, disrespectful and causing a scene are all great ways to not only lose whatever help you might have received but also furthers the unfortunate stereotype that all foreigners are impolite.

Some things to keep in mind when you explore Mexico:
  • Always Greet People First
    Always greet whomever you want to speak to with "Buenos Dias" (Good morning), "Buenas Tardes" (Good Afternoon) or "Buenas Noches" (Good Evening). It is customary to greet staff when you enter a store and to acknowledge them on your way out. If you launch into a tirade about what you want without a proper greeting you can expect mediocre service--Mexicans find this type of behavior extremely rude.
  • Shake Hands and Pucker Up
    Like some European countries it is customary to shake hands (for men) or kiss cheeks (this only applies to women) whenever you greet your Mexican friends. Men usually shake hands, though the Baja has some local handshakes which have a few flashy add-ons. Women are not included in the fancy handshakes -- I asked a gentleman why he didn't high-five me and he look absolutely appalled that I would even consider it. So ladies, get ready to kiss a lot of cheeks. Surprisingly, for a culture full of machismo, bone-crushing handshakes are considered impolite, a light grip is more than adequate.
  • Remember to Ask for the Bill
    Tom and I sat for ages in a café waiting for the server to realize we were ready to go. We finally asked for "la cuenta" (the bill) and quickly left the restaurant complaining of the poor service. A friend of ours enlightened us to the fact that it is considered rude to bring the bill to the table if it has not yet been requested. Instead of rushing you out of the restaurant, the servers give you time to relax and enjoy your meal, quite a change from Canada where the staff tend to push you out the door so they can serve more customers. Whenever you are ready to leave just nicely ask for the bill.
  • Address People Using their Titles
    Titles are a huge deal in Mexico. "Señor", "Señora" and "Señorita" all show respect and it is best to use them until the person you are speaking with indicates otherwise. Education is highly regarded and it is a good idea to address people by these titles as well, "Doctor(a)", "Ingeniero" (engineer) and "Profesor(a)" (professor)) are some titles you may come across. If you are a university grad you can always introduce yourself as "Licenciado(a)" in formal situations.
  • Say Adios to your Personal Bubble
    Mexicans tend to stand close when they are talking to you. This can take some getting used to but whatever you do try not to step back, it is considered offensive and gives the impression that you don't want to be near that person.
  • R-E-S-P-E-C-T
    Overall, the best thing you can do in Mexico is to be respectful to everyone. From taxi drivers to business executives you need to make sure you treat everyone graciously. Those travelers who make the effort to be courteous and polite will experience better service, lots of smiles and a much better reception when traveling in Mexico.

"No Wrong Turns" chronicles Kelsey and her husband's road trip -- in real time -- from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.

How to spend your time in Todos Santos, Mexico

Todos Santos, once Baja's sugarcane capital, is a small town located about an hour outside of Cabo San Lucas. Known for its laid back vibe, great surfing and large artisan community, this small pueblo has managed to retain some authenticity in spite of the huge growth of tourism here in the last 15 years.

We chose to settle here for a few months so we could complete a work project before continuing on our drive. When we were looking for a place to stay we knew that a city like Cabo San Lucas was not for us, but realized the benefits of being close to a bigger city. With Todos Santos located only an hour away from Cabo, it was pretty much the perfect fit. So far it has been great; it's easy to work here and, for a relatively small town, there is quite a bit to do. Those who prefer activity packed vacations will probably prefer to only spend a day or two here. But for the more laid back traveler who prefers to mosey through their holiday time Todos Santos offers a great mix of activities and allows for ample down time.

Here is what you can do in Todos Santos:

  • Surfboards for Rent
  • Beach Sunset
  • Taking it Easy
  • Downtown Todos Santos
  • Main Street

No Wrong Turns: Skip Cabo and Head to Todos Santos for a Unique Baja Experience

About an hour north of the cruise ships, the huge gleaming hotels and the Cabo San Lucas party crowd lies the small town of Todos Santos. If you are looking for a place to relax and unwind, minus the deafening party beats found in Cabo, this little town is it. It offers everything from amazing surf breaks and great restaurants to a lively social scene made up of Mexicans, ex-pats, old school hippies and those who just came and never left. Todos Santos offers a much different "Baja" experience than Cabo.

Tom and I ended up stumbling onto Todos Santos accidentally. Fueled by the need to start the work project we brought with us, we released a flurry of emails to many vacation rentals places in the Baja area. We knew that we didn't want to live in Cabo San Lucas but realized the benefits of being near a larger city. Considering most of the replies came from Todos Santos we figured it would be a great place to start looking.

No Wrong Turns: The Pros and Cons of Taking your Work Traveling

Three weeks before Tom and I left on this trip, a work opportunity came up allowing us to work remotely from Mexico. At first we weren't too sure whether it was the best idea and initially we declined the offer, but after a little convincing and our joint realization that earning while traveling could keep us on the road longer we decided to go ahead and agreed to take the contract. It seemed too good to pass up.

Working while traveling is much more feasible now than it has ever been before. Laptops, teeny tiny portable hard-drives, the expansion of wireless internet, email, online storage facilities and companies like Skype have made connecting around the world easy. Some people (like Gadling blogger Tynan) have chosen to forgo the office and squeeze all they need, their life and office, into their backpacks. To most people this sounds like "living the dream" and although it is hard to complain when you live 10 minutes from the beach, working while traveling isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Here are some positives and negatives of traveling with your work:

No Wrong Turns: Protect yourself from food poisoning

You know that feeling: the one where the contents in your stomach churn and before you can say "I think I ate something bad," you are already running for the bathroom. Fun, right?

Every time you get on the plane, bus or (in our case) in the car and travel to another country you expose yourself to the likelihood of coming down with some sort of stomach illness. Call it what you like (and we all know there are some pretty descriptive names out there) but the experience is the same and it flat out stinks.

Last week I was unlucky enough to eat something disagreeable (I believe a locally made tamale was the culprit) and spent a rather uncomfortable and feverish 24 hours trying to recover. I have been pretty lucky in the past to avoid food poisoning but I knew I was in for a rough time as I was with Tom when he succumbed to food poisoning in India a few years ago. And it really did live up to it's horrible nature.

Generally my rules to avoid food poisoning/unhappy stomach are as follows:

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