Checkers and Humanity

A winner of the Silver Medal in the Childhood Travel of the 2014 Solas Travel Award, Checkers and Humanity is a charming look at a Colorado 5th grader’s trip to San Blas, Mexico..

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! I watched in shock as my bottle-cap players disappeared with amazing speed. The rules were different in San Blas, Mexico. I hadn’t noticed the rule changes as a spectator, but now that I was in the game, I felt stunned with the speed of my defeat. I sat back in my chair, feeling the warm Pacific breeze, staring at the empty square of cardboard someone had transformed into a checkerboard. Under an awning in the town square, the old gentlemen who gathered every day to play checkers encouraged me to play again. I sighed, smiled, and set up the board with bottle caps – tops up for red and tops down for black.

In December of my fifth grade year, my father inexplicably decided to take the family on a month-long vacation to San Blas, a tiny fishing village perched on Mexico’s western coast line about an hour’s drive south of Mazatlan. We had previously piled into the white Ford station wagon for road trip vacations before, but stayed close to our home state of Colorado, occasionally ranging into Wyoming and South Dakota. The trip to San Blas was a trip of many firsts. My first trip south of Colorado. My first palm tree, which I saw outside our motel room in Arizona after thirteen hours in the back seat of the station wagon. I remember being scared of its strangeness, the tallness – with no leaves except way at the top. It seemed hostile somehow, and I was afraid to touch it. My first international border crossing. My first warning about drinking tap water. My first experience with third-world poverty; riding in the station wagon at night, staring out the window into huts where the single light bulb could be seen through the walls. My first interaction with people speaking a foreign language. My first taste of freshly-butchered meat. My first outrageously opulent Catholic church, the tiny church filled with golden objects in stark contrast to poverty outside.

“Why don’t they use some of the gold to help the poor people?” I asked my mother. She had no answer for me. I’m still asking the same question.

My first experience as a foreigner. My first encounter with a fireworks bull. My first realization that my lower-middle class status back home in suburban Denver made me rich in the third world. The five dollars I squirreled away combined with an exceptionally favorable exchange rate also gave me the new experience of being able to buy whatever I wanted in the village.

Each night in San Blas, my family walked the five blocks down dirt streets past brightly-colored buildings to the town square. My parents bought beer and sat down to watch the town folk socializing after dinner, while I went to the general store to look for treasures. The blue balloon I purchased served as a great introduction to Maria and Jose, a local sister and brother who joined my brother and me in batting the balloon back and forth. We naturally fell into teams of sisters against brothers, laughing and leaping around the fountain and the staid grown-ups until the balloon popped. The play screeched to a halt as we all gathered to look at the deflated lump of blue plastic on the ground.

“No problem,” I said, recovering. I ran over to the store to buy two more balloons for a mere twenty centavos, which I carefully calculated to be five cents. My new friends’ eyes widened as if she had never seen such largess before, and soon we were again running around the square with a new green balloon.

But sneaking into the town square in the afternoons brought my greatest treasure. According to my parents, the tortilla factory next door to our rented house started production at four every morning. I never heard the offensive ruckus they complained about at breakfast, but it led them to adopt the traditional afternoon siesta. The first day of enforced siesta time, I watched as the rest of the family retired upstairs. Wide awake, I explored the downstairs, padding across the cool tile floors, looking at the Mexican art against white-washed stucco walls, trying to stay quiet and avoid incurring my parent’s wrath. Gradually, boredom begat bravery. I walked five blocks down the dirt streets in the hot afternoon sun to the town square to buy myself an orange Fanta – a touch of the familiar – at the local market.

Under the awning outside the store, a group of old men played checkers. An avid and accomplished board game player, I was drawn in. Obviously old friends, the group of five men took turns at the board, chatting companionably and commenting on the moves, often derisively. I learned that smack talk is easily identifiable in any language. These men, with creased faces and clean but well-worn clothes, behaved toward me with the highest respect and courtesy.

The second afternoon I snuck out, one gentleman rose after losing and graciously offered me his chair, doffing his battered cowboy hat. The crowd said encouraging Spanish things as I sat down to play. My opponent, who wore an incongruous beret, had been winning games all afternoon. I kept up with him, pleased with myself, until his first player got kinged. Then all hell broke loose (on the checkerboard, that is). In no time, all my pieces were gone, despite some defensive moves on my part. What happened?!?

We set up to play again. This time, I watched Senor Beret carefully, and saw that his king could move both vertically and horizontally in addition to diagonally. I was shocked as again my pieces left the board at an alarming rate. Used to winning – at least some of the time – I doggedly set the board up again, and the small group encouraged me, enjoying the change in their routine. I watched Senior Beret’s moves, determined, as I lost again and again. There was good-natured ribbing from the group, which I enjoyed. At four o’clock, I rose to leave so as to sneak back into the casa before my parents awoke. Senor Beret shook my hand. We all smiled and nodded a lot. I loved it – the challenge, the attention, my 10-year-old self being treated like an equal somehow with these wise and wizened men.

My days fell into a comfortable rhythm for the next few weeks. Waking up to breakfast, with my parents complaining about the tortilla factory. Walking to the square to shop for the day’s meat and produce, with my mother griping about the lack of cleanliness and choices.   Buying freshly butchered meat, cut directly from the carcass hanging in the back of the shop and watching her shudder because of the flies gathered on the carcass – or maybe just the fact of the carcass itself. Carrying the groceries back to the casa, listening to her complain about how it wasn’t a vacation for her if she still had to do all the cooking.

With the groceries stored in the casa kitchen, we donned swim suits, collected my brother, and walked the several blocks down dirt roads past neat, colorful adobe homes to a path through palm trees that opened abruptly onto the empty beach. My mother spread out beach towels and pulled out a book while my brother and I hit the waves. There was a shelf underneath the ocean waves and we could walk out about 100 yards from the shore, knee deep in ocean water, laughing as the waves washed over us. Feeling the new and strange sensation of fish being carried by the waves bumping against my legs. We were both startled, the fish and I, neither one expecting the other. But the swordfish I saw swimming an arm’s length away ended my carefree ocean swimming. Despite my mother’s complaining that I should get back in the water because the swordfish was gone and wouldn’t have attacked me, I remained on the blanket next to her. She had not seen the spiky sword, and my fear kept me on the beach.

Then, returning to the casa for lunch, listening to my mother complain about Mexico – the too-bright sunshine, the beach smelling like fish, how the sand got into everything, and, as we made our own sandwiches for lunch, the outrageous cost of bread. I pointed out that tortillas were really cheap, and we knew they were made fresh every day, but she refused to support the factory that woke her up every morning. I waited anxiously through the tirade, waiting for the moment every afternoon when everyone else went upstairs for their siesta when I could sneak away to play checkers. Then, in the evening, going to the square with my family to play with Maria and Jose, and to run away from the fireworks bull.

In the weeks prior to Christmas, the citizens of San Blas celebrate with a fireworks bull. People came to the square after dinner every night to mingle and celebrate the season. Sometime after dark, never the same time twice, the fireworks bull makes an explosive appearance. A man hoists a wooden structure in the abstract shape of a bull on his shoulders, loaded with fireworks, strung along one fuse in such a way that several fireworks would explode one right after the other, then there would be a lull, then another burst and so on for about fifteen or twenty minutes. The fireworks bull is lit, the man enters the square beneath the exploding bull, and people run screaming to get out of the way. A couple of times every night, when the noise and sparks would subside, the bull goes down a side street, and a crowd follows. The fireworks start up again, noise and sparks ricocheting off the walls of the street. People streamed back into the square squealing with excitement, followed by the blazing bull.

Evidently, this was considered great fun. I hated it. The randomness and the noise scared me. My family and new friends found my fear extremely amusing, and Maria would sneak up behind me and yell “Toro! Toro!” then laugh when I jumped up, looking around wildly, ready to flee. Looking back, I think she took great pleasure in teasing someone who had so much more than she did – sort of “sticking it to the Man.” Looking back, I’m glad I could give that to her.

In addition to learning the Spanish word for bull, my balloon buddies taught me other basic phrases over the weeks. I tried practicing my new language skills with my gentlemen friends while losing games of checkers, but most of our communication remained non-verbal. Every day when I arrived, the group welcomed me, raising their arms in greeting, pulling me into their group, then ushering me into the chair across from Senor Beret. I became a mascot of the group, and the man with the battered cowboy hat decided to mentor me, throwing his hands in the air in disgust when I made a bad move and smiling broadly when I was on the right track. They let me play over and over again, always giving me the advantage of bottle-caps up and first move. Slowly, I got better, in the square, drinking orange Fanta, learning checkers from the master and my mentor, using my failures to feed my learning, always returning to the casa by four.

I enjoyed this secret life. My parents found out, of course. Not because they noticed I was gone, but because someone told them at the town square, how much fun the gentlemen were having watching me play and what a good sport I was. A bit shocked, my parents told me I could continue to go – obviously feeling somewhat pressured to do so in public. They cautioned me to be nice and not bother the men – silly warnings given the friendly relationships I’d built with the gentlemen.

One evening before Christmas, a friend of my father’s joined us in the square. He watched my fear when the fireworks first started, but after my friends started teasing me and my father laughed at me, he took me with him to buy drinks at the market.

“It’s not as random as it seems,” he explained. “Pay attention to the man underneath the fireworks, and not the fireworks themselves. You can see where he’s headed and stay out of his way. It’s easy to get distracted by the fireworks. When you run all over, you’re more likely to run into him. If you stay put and watch the man carefully, you’ll only have to move a few times.”

And he was right! When we got back to the square, I sat down and watched the man’s legs. About ten minutes later, the bull headed our way and I got up. My father’s friend nodded and gave me a small smile as we moved away from the careening fireworks.

The next afternoon at the square, in the shade, the orange Fanta bottle almost empty, staring at the board, determined, watching, making my moves, losing one more game. Then serious, focused, moving the bottle-caps forward, getting kinged and kinged again, and sailing over the board, up, down, diagonally, capturing, capturing, my stake of taken bottle-caps growing and growing until … I won!

The patio erupted! Men were yelling and whooping and clapping each other on the back. Senor Cowboy Hat enthusiastically raised my arms above my head in the archetypical victory pose. I was grinning uncontrollably at all the acclaim. Senor Beret, the master, who had beaten me so many times I’d lost count, celebrated with the rest of them and shook my hand vigorously. I felt the warm glow of hard-won success as we celebrated, my new friends, there, in the square, at siesta time.

The next day when I returned to the plaza, I learned they had broken two rules for me during my long losing streak. When you lose, you give up your seat. When you win, you keep your seat, get the first move and bottle-caps up. I entered my final round robins, winning some and losing some until my mother’s incessant griping cut our trip short a few days later.

I learned many things on this trip of firsts. How easy it is to make new friends with a balloon. How wealthy I am even when times are hard. How a spirit of adventure can lead to wonderful experiences. How the distribution of riches is unexplainable. How to overcome fear and touch a palm tree. How to avoid noise and chaos with careful observation. How rules are different when you travel, and how you are the one who needs to adapt.   How complaining ruins things. How well you can communicate without words but with respect and ingenuity.

But what still warms my heart all this years later is the generosity of a group of old Mexican gentlemen who took me under their wing and taught me about checkers and humanity.