His head, glistening with sweat under a wide-brimmed black cowboy hat, appears in the space between wooden slats at the door a few meters from my hammock.
“Mezcal?” he asks.
“Uh, si?” I reply/ask. “Lo siento. No trabajo aqui,” I say, trying to explain my bumbling presence. Sorry, I don’t work here.
He nods, pulls open the door and takes a step inside, followed by an equally glistening woman with grey hair and a shy smile. Both are, I’m guessing, in their early 60s and it’s clear they’ve been walking around Puerto Escondido all morning in the face-melting sun peddling their wares, in this case mezcal, which is basically like an artisinal, micro-brew Tequila. Both of them have faded bandanas flung over one shoulder, which they use in unison to wipe their brows upon entering. I offer them a seat using hand signals and basic charades and call for Achilles, the manager, to come bail me out of whatever I’ve just invited into the hostel.
As the three of them sit around a table discussing the product in question, I assess the situation. The man (his name is, quite perfectly, Alberto) has taken off his cowboy hat and it rests on his lap. He smiles easily beneath a stereotypical bushy black mustache, which matches the pair of furry eyebrows that rise and fall emphatically as he speaks. The rest of his outfit consists of an oversized t-shirt with the symbol of the Duke University Blue Devils, but it says Demons Football, so I can’t be sure if a Mexican university has just ripped off the logo or if it’s an actual shirt from the US that’s been translated for Mexican markets. Below the waist, he’s wearing grey dress pants and black leather sandals. His feet are cracked and dry and bloated, which makes sense given his life’s work and mode of transportation and, to my total glee, he takes the front hem of his t-shirt and loops it up through the collar so it becomes something of a sexy look, a là Debbie Gibson, circa 1988. His big shiny belly protrudes without shame beneath the t-shirt situation he’s created and he rubs it from time to time, especially when I offer he and his wife a few cookies from my personal stash in the kitchen.
His wife, whose name I never do catch, is wearing a similar outfit, only her t-shirt is pink, her pants beige, and she sports a ball cap instead of a cowboy hat. So I guess not really that similar, actually. (At no point does she follow suit and tuck her t-shirt through the collar like her husband.) She doesn’t do or say much, and I find it endearing that she’ll accompany her husband on his sales missions when, clearly, she is not an equal partner in the whole affair. It seems she’s just tagging along in the dusty heat to keep him company and offer moral support. She laughs at his jokes and smiles at him, even when he’s not talking, and leans in at one point to brush cookie crumbs out of his moustache.
I enjoy watching the three of them sit and do business. If I hadn’t seen the preliminary introductions take place with my own eyes, I’d think they were just old friends getting together over cookies and mezcal. They laugh, they chat, they drink, they snack: It’s charming and so universally small-town.
At one point, Achilles finally gives him the nod and Alberto proceeds to syphon the liquor from a big container that once held vegetable oil through a yellowing plastic tube into a smaller container that once held PowerAde. This is how he measures a litre. He then pours each litre from the PowerAde bottle through a funnel that his wife retrieves from her old leather purse. It flows into a glass jug that will sit on a shelf behind the bar for customers and guests in the busy season to come. Once the transfer is complete, it all looks very tidy and sanitary. So much so that it’s kind of hard to believe that the entire process happened right here in front of me using funnels and tubes and bottles that look like they got pulled out of a pile in the back of someone’s dad’s garage.
But I know the truth. I saw the hands go from sweaty bandana to shiny belly to dirty t-shirt to cookies to mouth to plastic tube to funnel to glass bottle. I know how much of Mexico really went into that jug. And, honestly, I love it. Later, when I sit around the table with my new friends at the hostel and toast to our health with a shot of truly authentic Mexican mezcal, I’ll chuckle to myself thinking of Alberto and his wife and cross my fingers that I don’t wake up tomorrow with a telltale rumble in my tummy.