"Why did you come to Mexico?" my Uber driver Omar asked. Sitting in some rare, mid-day traffic, we’d been chatting since he picked me up from the mall where I had been attempting to pay our internet bill for the third time.
Our landlord had told us we'd be able to pay the monthly internet fee at any Oxxo, the chain of ubiquitous convenience stores which are never more than seven feet away from any point in the city and provide an almost incomprehensible amount of services; you can buy beer and pay for an online order and reload your debit card and pick up your package from that online order and settle your utility bill all at the same.
Unless of course you're us.
About a month after getting our internet router, we set off for the closest Oxxo, a roughly fifteen minute walk from our house. As we live just outside the periferico in a newly developing cluster of private housing complexes, our neighborhood is slowly being built among the dense forest surrounding the city, which means the freshly paved roads sometimes end in dirt or gravel paths and the only way to get from our house to the local Oxxo on foot currently involves walking against traffic on the one-way road directly next to the highway, which does not have a sidewalk.
"Are you sure it's safe to walk?" David asked, because he is a reasonable human being who should be listened to more often.
"It's fine," I replied, mostly because I wanted it to be. "Plus it's a beautiful night for a walk!" Because what better time to stroll on what basically amounts to an extended freeway on-ramp than in the dark of night?
And it mostly was fine, if you don't mind almost falling into roadside ditches while the occasional truck roars past.
"MAYBE WE SHOULD TAKE AN UBER BACK," I half-shouted to David who was walking in front of me after one particularly close call. "I DON'T THINK THIS IS VERY SAFE."
When we finally arrived at the Oxxo, it was crowded with college kids back in town for their first semester since the lockdown, locals picking up last-minute groceries and us, windswept from our harrowing walk and clutching the internet account statement our landlord instructed us to bring. Perhaps in order to appeal to the university students or perhaps because the clerks behind the counter appeared to be students themselves, Bruno Mars was blasting from the overhead speakers, which made it feel less like a corner store and more like a nightclub, only with more bags of Cheetos.
Waved up to the register by a young clerk wearing both a mask and shiny face-shield, I handed over our bill and readied some cash, still unsure how much the monthly charge would be. After scanning our barcode, the universal tone for failure BA-DUMPed loudly while a red X flashed across his screen. Unfazed, he tried a couple more times before leaning over to the clerk next to him, showing her our papers and pointing at his screen. She then confidently did what everyone does when told something isn't working - the age-old let me try technique - and scanned the barcode herself, getting the same sad ba-dump sound. After exhausting her one and only solution, she shrugged and handed our papers back, leaving him to explain to us how we had risked becoming road kill for no reason.
It's hard enough understanding English through layers of masks and face-shields, but trying to grasp a language you’re still learning without seeing someone's mouth and only half-hearing their words over Bruno Mars wailing high notes in the background is about as effective as delivering a TED talk while scuba diving. Although there was no way to make out exactly what he was saying, after repeatedly motioning to the screen’s error message and performing exasperated shrugs, I understood something was clearly wrong with our account and we were also holding up the line.
Heading back outside we decided to try a different Oxxo, hoping the next one would have a working scanner or at the very least an explanation we could hear. We pulled out our phones and found another store a couple of blocks away, this one accessible via roads with sidewalks. Ten minutes later we arrived to find a much quieter store with a friendly girl behind the register who scanned our bill and immediately received the same ba-dump and accompanying red X on her screen. She turned to her colleague and after the now familiar routine of back and forth shrugging (including two more rounds of the let-me-try method), we were told the problem was we didn't have a bill.
Oh. Ok. What?
After calling our landlord from a bench outside and eventually passing him to the clerks inside, he let us know unlike literally everyone else in the country, for some reason in order to pay our bill we would have to go to the internet provider's store, which was conveniently located in the mall by our house but inconveniently closed for the night.
Which is why I was sitting an Uber a couple days later, on my way back from successfully paying for our internet and chatting away happily in my broken Spanish while Omar practiced his English.
"Why did you come to Mexico?"
I've altered my response to this question slightly each time it’s been asked since arriving three months ago, lately settling on some variation of "to work a little less and enjoy life more."
"What is your work?" he asked.
This was easy, having learned the word for "writer" back in my high school Spanish class, and when he probed further I was ready again with the words for "comedy" and "stories" and "internet." My god I'm basically fluent, I thought, congratulating myself. I am definitely ready for cocktail parties once the world is ready to have them again.
"But you don't look very funny," Omar said, curiously eying me in the rear view mirror like I just told him I was a professional snake charmer.
"What do I look like?" I asked, taking off my hat and sunglasses so he could get a better look at the rest of my hilarious face. Even with my mouth and nose covered, I was sure my eyebrows screamed comedy.
"You look very serious. You look like…” he trailed off, refocusing his eyes on the roundabout he was hurtling us through, all the while still searching for the right word in English. "A warrior."
I laughed. I’ve been told I look like a lot of things throughout my life; Andre Agassi, some YouTube science vlogger, a forehead hosting dueling caterpillars. But this was the first time I had ever been mistaken for anything close to a warrior.
“Well, I run,” I responded lamely while trying to remember how to say “exercise” and making a mental note to learn the Spanish for “high intensity interval training” in time for those upcoming cocktail parties.
“Like a gladiator!” Omar suddenly got louder, excited he found the words in English he was looking for. “Fighting! Soldier!”
“Oh,” I said, realizing my language abilities didn’t extend far enough to debate this characterization. “I like comedy.”
“Me too,” he said laughing, at what I could only assume was me. “Me, too.”