My wife Usha, and I are on a short visit to the States. Our five-year-old granddaughter, Shanthi is with us. Yesterday we all enjoyed Sea World in San Diego.
Anish, Shanthi’s father calls me early in the morning from Los Angeles and suggests, “Dad, since you are in San Diego, take a half-day tour to Tijuana.”
“Let’s go to Tijuana,” says Usha putting stress on the letter “J.”
At the lobby, a “Dream Tours” agent sits at a table displaying colorful brochures and oozing hospitality.
“Mr. Rao and Mrs. Rao, what tours interest you? Sea World? Zoo? Tijuana?”
“Tijuana. We were at Sea World already,” I said.
“Half a day tour or a full day? How about a ‘lunch included’ option?”
The agent looks at me.
I look at Usha.
“Let’s have lunch there. I want to taste Mexican food,” said Usha.
“Please note, we’re strict vegetarians,” I told the agent.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Rao, You’ll be dining at the La Casa Restaurante. Five stars. They have plenty of veg choices.”
“It’s a big city. There must be many vegetarians in Tijuana,” says Usha facing the agent.
“Yes, Yes.” The agent nods his head, collects his fee and hands us the travel vouchers.
The next morning the tour bus arrives on time. Usha wears her favorite green sari and a pink blouse with a flowery border. She looks beautiful like a rose bud among green leaves. Shanthi is in her ghagra choli.
“From India?” the driver queries with a smile. I nod.
“Your wife is beautiful.” Usha blushes.
After a couple hours at the shopping area in Tijuana, the bus driver takes us to a downtown area and parks in front of La Casa Restaurante. “Mr. Rao, lunch is preordered for all of you. Enjoy,” the driver says. Then he and fellow travelers melt into the crowded street like ice in soda pop.
“Senor, Senorita,” the server, colorfully robed, greets and shows us to a table, hospitality gushing out like leaking water from a fire hydrant. “Agua? Coke?”
“Coke,” we all chorus.
“It’s included in the lunch,” I assured Usha.
Shanthi is happy. She plays with the straw, blowing bubbles into the coke making funny noises.
The server comes back in ten minutes dexterously carrying three plates of food covered by metal lids and places them on the table in front of us.
“Disfruta,” he curtly says, bows and walks away.
Usha is hungry and removes the lid in a hurry. The smell of sizzling steak and sautéed onions hits our nostrils.
“Oh, no, we don’t eat steak,” she blabbers. She covers her mouth and nose with a napkin and puts back the lid.
“No meat, no meat,” I say very loud raising my hand.
The server is taken aback and returns to our table. “Problema?”
A burly Hispanic gentleman, at the far end of the hall shouts, “Ramon, No carne.” The man obviously is a regular customer.
The server apologizes, “Lo siento mucho, señor, lo siento mucho.”
It’s my fault too. I should have told him clearly. “No chicken, no eggs, either,” I say.
The burly gentleman shouts. “Ramon, No pollo, no huevos, por favor.”
The server disappears into the kitchen.
Now I see three Hispanic men wearing huge sombreros entering the restaurant. One carries a violin, the other a huge guitar and the third one has a drum. Smiling benevolently, they surround us and start singing. I don’t understand a bit but this is royal treatment.
Shanthi gets up and dances.
One song is over and I think they will leave us in peace. No. They start another one. Soon this song is done. Then they start a third one. The violinist bends down close to my wife and passionately breaths part of the song and cigarette stink into her ear. It is probably a love tune.
Usha is scared.
The husky friend shouts, “Señor, give dollars.”
I place five dollars on the table. The singers stop singing and the violinist picks up the money.
“Gracias, gracias,” he says. They move to a corner of the hall, sit and order three tequilas.
Peace at last.
With a smile exuding confidence, the server comes back with plates of food and puts them on our table.
“Camarón, Señor. No carne, no huevos, no Puerco,” he announces.
The Good Samaritan is ready. “Señor, they are shrimp. No meat, no eggs, no pork. Enjoy.”
I can see these shrimp. I see their long mustaches. I am speechless.
Shanthi has already taken a bite. “Good,” she says.
Usha studies her plate. “Oh, No,” she shouts.
The server rises hands up and murmurs, “O, Dios, como les puedo ayudar?”
Just then the bus driver enters.
“Mr. Rao, what’s going on? The server is frustrated and wondering how he can help you.”
“We are vegetarians and I’m unable to convey that message. He is serving all kinds of non-veg dishes.”
“I’m sorry. Come, we have to go back. A few passengers have to catch a plane.”
We get up. Shanthi is reluctant to leave her plate.
“Señor, dólares para la Coke,” the server reminds us. He thinks we will give him the slip.
Obviously Coke is not included in the lunch deal. I place ten dollars on the table. That covers the tips as well.
When entering the bus, the driver stops our granddaughter.
“What’s your name, cutie?”
“Very sweet name.”
He opens an icebox and picks up three small packets wrapped in paper.
“Shanthi, these are cheese sandwiches. My daughter packs a few of them daily for me. Here is one for you and these two are for your grandma and grandpa.”
He smiles and says, “On this tour, lunch is included.”
Raghavendra Rao is a pediatrician at Sequoia Family Medical Center in Porterville, Calif. He has authored two books and contributes articles on health to Porterville Recorder, a local newspaper.