TIP-TOEING IN TEPIC

Hasta Luego, Amigo
The Mexico Life

This is a story about the second time I visited Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. It was in the winter of 2005. My first visit was in 1984.

I didn’t have particularly sweet memories of Tepic from 21 years ago, the last time I was there. But today’s sojourn there erased what few fond memories I have of the place. Come to think of it, I don’t have any memory of Tepic at all, except that I changed buses in its nasty bus station when I traveled from San Blas headed to Puerto Vallarta.

I am staying at Casa Mañana  in Playa Los Cocos. The owners, Lourdes and Rinehard, live in Tepic. It was Monday morning, and Lourdes had been at the hotel for the weekend. She was headed back home, and she kindly offered to give me a ride to Tepic. I wanted to do some souvenir shopping.

She has a spiffy new VW in a sedan I haven’t seen in the States. Almost all Volkswagens in North America are partially made here in Mexico. Street-ready VWs cannot be bought south of the border and driven home across that border; they don’t meet US specifications. More’s the pity, because they are significantly less expensive here. Many of the city police cars and taxicabs are VW bugs.

Playa Los Cocos (Coconut Beach) lies about 30 miles south of Tepic at the end of a harrowing, curvy road that weaves through the jungle and tests the nerves of even the most skilled driver. Having driven the road many times, Lourdes didn’t seem to notice as we sped along, slowing only for Mexico’s ever-present speed bumps. When we reached the outskirts of Tepic, she apologized to me and said she hoped she was not scaring me with her driving.

“One can’t be too polite when driving in the city. You have to assert yourself,” she said as she cut off a dusty pickup truck and came close to clipping a bicyclist. Seeing the near misses just as she was speaking, I believed her every word.

Salvador, the Casa Mañana waiter who has adopted me, and helps me improve what can only be described as my deplorable Spanish, had drawn a map on a napkin showing me the location at the station of the buses that traveled the road to Playa Los Cocos and would let me off in front of the hotel. He told me to use as a landmark the tall cathedral on Victoria Street. It was only five blocks from the bus station.

Lourdes dropped me in front of the station. Across the street was the “zocolo,” or the town square. There were the usual fruit stands on the zocolo edges, and a student band was just concluding a noontime concert. I kept to the street leading to the church. There was a variety of shops and farmacias. I wanted to buy presents for my family and cut-rate medicines for me. But first I had to have some cash.

There was a Banco Mexico on the street, and I went in to exchange a travelers check written in US dollars for pesos. Knowing I was supposed to co-sign the check in front of whomever was going to cash it, I started to sign it at a teller’s window. She waved me away and pointed to a counter with a pen and a calendar on display. Anyway, I thought she was pointing to the counter. I was confused, but I signed the check and took it back to her window.

“No,” she said, pointing to a bank officer in the back. At least I guessed she was a bank officer. She was seated at a desk rather than a teller window. In the States, such a configuration usually indicates a lower-rung officer.

The well-dressed, beautiful young lady, took my travelers check, and told me I had to sign it again. I pointed to my signature now in two places on the check.

“No,” she said again. “Aqui,” she insisted, pointing to a space under the signature line. I signed it again.

She took the check, carefully inspected it back and front and asked for my passport, which I handed over. She examined the photo on the passport, which is probably the worst photo ever taken of an earthling. Daniel, the kid at the hotel, who cashed a previous travelers check, teased me about it, saying it looked like a picture one would find on a wanted poster.

The bank officer held the passport up where she could compare the photo with my actual face. She frowned. By this time, I had not seen a smile in the entire bank. Everyone looked at me as though I might be an imposter at best and Ma Barker at worst.

Trying to lighten things up a bit, I said, “Yo tiene un malo dias.” I was trying to say, “I was having a bad day,” pointing to the passport picture. But whatever I actually said seemed to deepen her concern. She took the check and my passport to a more official bank officer. This one sat in a floor-to-ceiling glass office. That glassed-in officer now held my passport aloft and inspected my countenance some more.

The un-glassed-in officer came back to her desk. There were still no smiles or the slightest indication of the standard “friendly banker.” She punched a few numbers on her telephone and started writing on the back of the travelers check. When she finished, there were four closely spaced lines of numbers on the back of the check and more on the front. I’ve cashed many travelers checks in Mexico, but I’ve never been subjected to that much scrutiny.

At last she gave me the check, my passport, and a printed slip. The slip had more numbers on it. Now I had the slip, my passport, the numbered and re-numbered travelers check, but still no pesos. She returned my steady gaze, except to look around me toward the front door.

No, I thought, it’s not Ma Barker. She thinks I’m Bonnie and she’s looking for Clyde who must be waiting for my signal to burst into the bank, tommy-gun blazing. I made the gesture with upturned hands and raised eyebrows meant to indicate, So, what do I do now? She stood up and motioned for me to follow her.

Back to the original teller we went. I had the feeling she wanted me to put the items in my hand into the metal scoop at the bottom of the glass partition separating the teller from me. I looked about pondering that the officer at the desk where I sat for so long was the only individual in the bank not in a glass cage. She looked very small, but she was obviously capable of taking care of herself. Maybe she was a black belt or one of those colors that mean her hands must be registered with the Federales as a lethal weapon.

Now in front of the teller again, I felt sure I would at last get my pesos and be off on my shopping spree.

Not yet.

The teller punched some buttons on her telephone and listened as she wrote more numbers on what was now a tattered travelers check. She, too, sized me up by my passport photo and frowned. I smiled at her. There was no show of reciprocated friendliness from inside the teller’s cage.

At long last, she riffled through a stack of multi-colored paper money and pushed it at me in the metal scoop.

I thanked her profusely. “Mucias Gracias,” I said.

“De Nada,” she answered, still not smiling. At last they let me go. Glancing at a clock as I made my way to the door,  I saw that my transaction had consumed 40 minutes of the banco’s and my time, just to cash one of those quick and easy travelers checks.

Leaving the bank, I walked four or five blocks up Victoria Street, stopping in first this shop, then another. I bought shirts for the grandsons, some wooden tops, five pens, each decorated with a yarn and feather God’s eye, and I bought Daughter Mandy a pair of orange and yellow sandals “Hecho en Mexico.”

I crossed the street beside the large cathedral Salvador told me about and started down the other side of the street toward the zocolo, stopping to take a picture of the church’s tall spire against the puffy clouds in a beautiful blue sky.

I had only gone a few steps, when someone touched my arm and said, “Excuse.” I turned around and saw my arm was being touched by the long arm of the law. A member of the policia had interrupted my shopping spree. 

How nice, I thought. Like so many policemen in Mexico, he was going to inquire if I needed directions. Something was wrong, though. This one didn’t seem the least bit friendly. He must be related to someone in the bank, and it runs in the family, I thought..

He rattled off some Spanish, and I picked up the word, “photograph.” As I always do when I don’t understand a word and I think someone is being helpful, I said, “Ah, si.”

His eyes grew wider, as he took a step nearer. The touch on my arm now turned into a grasp. Not menacing, but nonetheless a grasp.  I looked at it and said, “Que?” (What?)

After a few minutes of mutual misunderstanding, I realized he was asking me if I took his picture.

“No,” I answered, and shook my head. Then, I was astounded when he asked if I took a picture of the bank. (“Photograph banco?”)

“No, nada,” I answered as plainly as I could.

There were several more questions from him all of which I answered with “Mande?” or “Que?” Then I realized he was asking me if I didn’t take a picture of him or the bank, what was I shooting?

I searched my limited Spanish vocabulary for the word, “church,” but came up with nothing. I pointed at the cathedral. Taking out my camera once again, I pantomimed as I pointed to the top of the church’s spire. I said, “church” about five times.

Having shot pictures all over Mexico, I know the protocol: (1) If you want to photograph a man, his child or his burro, ask permission. Ladies don’t seem to mind. The man will probably ask you to pay. It is rude at that point not to cross his palm with a few pesos. (2) Never take a photo of an Indian. In fact, don’t even let an Indian know you have a camera on your person. The story about a guy being stoned to death because he took a photo of a local ethnic group may be a Mexican urban legend, but I never take the chance. (3) Buildings are fair game. Shoot away.

The policeman was finally satisfied I was not taking pictures of him or the bank for the purpose of sharing them with my bank-robbing comrades. We would just have to case the joint in person. Besides, the bank was three blocks away, and it wasn’t even close to the church steeple way up in the sky. I don’t know where the cop was when I snapped the picture. But should there be a next time, which I doubt, I will proceed with the picture-taking assuming the police are all Indians.

I made a quick decision then to take a bus back to Playa Los Cocos as fast as I could. I didn’t exactly feel welcome in Nayarit’s capital city.

I made my way to the bus station and was told the bus that passed by the Casa Mañana would leave in one hour. Fine. I forked over 13 pesos, much to the confusion of the ticket agent. He pointed to 30.00 on the ticket. I just as vehemently pointed to the 13.00. I’d had about enough of Tepic’s inhospitable attitude.

There was a boy standing at the ticket booth who, I was told, had spent a great deal of time in California. The boy pointed to the 13 and then to his watch. Whoops! The 13.00 meant 1:00 p.m., and the 30.00 was the amount of pesos the bus trip cost (about $2.73). I was a little embarrassed, but all three of us laughed.  Amazing! There were at least two people in Tepic who knew how to smile. I felt better.

I bought the ticket and took a seat in the street level waiting room. The buses left the station by an exit immediately adjacent to the place where I was sitting. It soon became clear I would die if I sat for an hour breathing their noxious exhaust fumes. I sought refuge on the upper level where the buses took on passengers.

I waded through my memory weeds trying to remember leaving from that very bus station for a trip to San Blas many years ago. The bus I was to take today was considerably bigger and in better shape than the bus I rode 21 years ago.

Remembering there were reserved seats on the primera classe buses, I mused they must have abandoned the assigned seating because no one paid any attention to it anyway. When we climbed aboard the bus that was to take us to San Blas in 1984, I remember there were two people sitting in the seats that had been assigned to my husband and me. We said nothing, and took seats in another part of the bus.

When at last the driver indicated the 2005 bus was about ready to take off, I climbed aboard and sat in the second seat on the right-hand side. Almost immediately, an older Mexican gentleman told me I was in his seat. He asked to see my ticket. Mind you, almost all this communication was accomplished using hand signals. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

“Ah, cinco,” he said, pointing to the number, 5, previously overlooked, on my ticket. He pointed to the seat across the aisle.

“Lo siento,” I apologized, and stepped across the aisle to take my correct seat. A Mexican lady of my approximate age and weight sat down beside me in the aisle seat. We were a bit crowded. Our passenger list now numbered six, but I knew we would pick up more who would hail the bus from the roadside.

We were soon out of town and back on the jungle curves where we were to spend the next two hours if we were lucky. If we were not lucky, we would either spend the time in the hospital or in the morgue.

The driver, obviously trying to break a land speed record, “put the pedal to the metal,” as we said in those carefree teen years. We zoomed through the jungle missing by mere inches vehicles coming from the opposite direction.

There were tiers of mountains, fading into blue haze on the horizon. There were banana fields, agave and tobacco fields and thick jungle foliage sprinkled with the intense colors of tropical flowers. Yes, it was beautiful. I half expected to see Sigourney Weaver at the edge of the jungle cooing to a mountain gorilla. I did spot a truly fine iguana that blinked its eye as the bus sped by.

I tried to think only of the breathtaking scenery, but mostly I was scared.

Suddenly feeling a little sick, I slid the window open next to my face and drew in the fresh air. About this time, the lady in the seat beside me drifted off to dreamland. Sharp curves to the right caused her sleeping body to lean into my terrified one, crushing me against the side of the bus. She neither knew nor cared that the Angel of Death awaited us at the apex of every hairpin curve. Had he not claimed many a life at a curve in this very road, now marked with a memorial cross? Had he not called home many at one time where the curve was marked with many crosses, no doubt done in by a bus crash?

My seatmate seemed perfectly comfortable as she took her afternoon siesta. The line was crossed when her head drifted toward my shoulder. She also neither knew nor cared that I have a life-long prejudice against being touched by strangers. The same prejudice had already been breached in Tepic by the cop.

She apparently wanted to cuddle  as she laid her head so close to my face, her hair tickled my neck. I jerked my shoulder upward, which brought her out of her stupor enough to lean in the other direction, thereby avoiding what could have been a nasty scene.

As it happened the bus arrived at my hotel in only one hour and 50 minutes, knocking off 10 minutes of our ETA and at least that many years off my life. I stumbled over the cobblestones in the Casa Mañana parking lot and climbed the steps to my room. Once there, I plopped down on my bed and was soon off to dreamland myself.

But before I dozed off, I promised myself I wouldn’t take a bus or any other form of transportation, including a burro, to visit Tepic again. Enough, as they say, is quite enough.


 

Addition to story as of  2014: In my usual manner, I spoke too soon. I have now been in Tepic many times with no harm befalling me at all. My favorite dentist practices there, and several friends live there. There is a beautiful new bus station at Tepic, and most of the buses no longer belch noxious fumes. I still love Casa Mañana,  and I have spent many wonderful times at the hotel. That area along the Pacific Coast is now called Riviera Nayarit, and the tourist office is marketing it as the next big tourist area of the many big tourist areas in Mexico. My friend, Lourdes, is now a grandmother, although she still looks as though she has not yet seen 45. She built a casita on a farm near the hotel, where she raises fruit trees and keeps horses. I have yet to see it, but I hope to visit again soon

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IF IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR HEMINGWAY,

IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR….(well, maybe not)

Well, I finally did it. I’ve always been curious about it, but I considered it a morbid curiosity. Because I love Mexico, I want to understand its people and its customs. I may not adopt the Mexican way of life, but I won’t shun it until I experience it myself.

So, as it happened, I was sitting on a bench in the Jardin at San Miguel de Allende when a young girl gave me a flyer. It announced there was to be a bullfight that afternoon. I had been speaking with a Mexican man who was sitting on the bench beside me. He was watching me as I looked at the flyer. In answer to my question, he told me had seen many bullfights. He was not an aficionado, but he attended the occasional bullfight. I told him I had never been to a bullfight, and I asked him what it was like. He thought about it a second and finally said there was a lot of blood. He was surprised to find there are no bullfights where I live.

“Don’t you have bulls in your country,” he wanted to know. I set him straight about USA bulls. He told me all bulls are dangerous, but the bulls that fight are highly trained. I don’t know how one trains a bull to fight. I suppose it’s a reverse obedience school where the teachers are mean to them, and probably flap red capes at them till the poor bulls are nervous wrecks.

I was staying at my friend, Joyce’s, house. When I returned to her casa, I asked her if she had ever been to a bullfight. Joyce, an expat from New York, said she had never gone to a bullfight, and she would not consider going to such a barbarous event. She let me know she was surprised  I would even consider going. I told her why I wanted to go, which she branded as pure hogwash. It was spitting rain, and she gave me an umbrella, telling me I needn’t feel obligated to describe the event if and when I managed to get home, but she would appreciate the return of the umbrella.

So, trying to ignore Joyce’s disapproval, I set off down the rocks that comprise the street in front of her house. Somehow I remembered the location of the bullring although I had never been there when I was in San Miguel 20 years ago.

I wound my way through throngs of people celebrating the Fiesta of St. Miguel, the town’s patron saint. At the bull ring’s ticket window, I was surprised to learn there were two kinds of tickets. If one wished to watch the bullfight in the shade, a ticket to the side of the bullring that was not exposed to the sun cost 150 pesos (about $15 at the time).However, I opted for  the sunny side and only paid 100 pesos. My ticket was marked SOL. It didn’t make any difference given the fact the whole city was socked in under heavy gray clouds.

I took a seat and waited. There was a band playing across the way, and seated on the front row was a girl in a mantilla and her ruffled skirt draped over the side of the ring. In front of her was a semi-circle flag marking her place. I’ve seen such an arrangement in the movies, and I suppose it is preserved as a tradition. Nobody seemed to pay it much attention.

I began to think about Hemingway and his love of bullfights. Suddenly, a big black bull dashed out of a gate, interrupting my muse. There were six matadors stationed around the ring; the bull swerved toward the matador directly beneath where I was sitting. The matador quickly ducked behind a little partition, which the bull crashed into making the “sol” side of the ring shutter from the impact.

I noticed the bull had a red ribbon attached to his side. It seemed to be stuck to him. I made a mental note to find out what that was all about. One by one he ran at the other matadors, all of whom jumped behind their little partitions.

There were a few surprises. For one, I didn’t know the fight commenced with six matadors. They took turns taunting the bull. This continued for a few minutes, then the gate opened again and two picadors (I think that’s what they’re called) on blindfolded horses wearing heavy padding entered the ring.

The bull immediately lost interest in the matadors and went for the horses. While the bull aimed its horns at the horse’s side, the rider, who wore armor on his legs, stuck a long sharp stick into the bull’s shoulders. The man in the jardin was right. There was a lot of blood.

bull_fight_1Then the matadors, who were dressed in beautiful suits, stood in the middle of the ring and when the bull ran at them, they poked ruffle-topped pointed sticks into its sides. More blood. The crowd cheered.

The band played a fanfare and THE matador strutted into the ring. His suit was considerably shinier than the others. In fact, if the sun had been out, everyone in the stands would have been temporarily blinded. He threw his matador hat down, exhibiting defiance toward it. Curious. Maybe it was because the hat looked like a Mickey Mouse hat with the ears misplaced. Below his shiny knickers, he wore pink stockings and black ballet shoes. That would have been enough right there for my grandsons to give rout to the matador’s macho demeanor.

His cape was redder than the others, and he tormented the bull much closer than the apprentice matadors. He made a big deal about hiding his sword under the cape. Everybody knows bulls take offense when threatened by a sword! At last he managed to sink it into the bull’s shoulders.

After a while he toyed with the bull a bit more. Blood poured from its shoulders into the dirt. When it was about done for, Senor Shiny Suit turned his back on it, and disdainfully strode away. What bravery! The crowd loved it. Never mind that the bull was too weak to move, let alone charge.

It wasn’t long after that when the bull collapsed. Everyone involved in the massacre either assumed the bull was dead, or they didn’t care. Two draft horses in harness came into the ring and were driven toward the bull. A couple guys attached the bull by its neck to the pulling thing on the harness. While the harness was being attached, the secondary matadors pulled out the sticks from the bull’s apparently lifeless body. Someone cut off its ear and the main matador paraded around the ring holding the ear aloft as he graciously accepted the boisterous adoration of the crowd.

I don’t remember how many fights were scheduled, but I left after the first two. I was hoping if I stayed for one more fight, I might get to see the bull win. I would have given almost anything to see one or more of the matadors tossed into the air by the bull, if not fatally gored. The bull in the second fight had a tiny victory. As another shiny suit went for his sword, the bull charged and sent the sword and the cape flying. The onlookers exhibited displeasure without actually booing. They’re much too polite to boo.

bull_fight_2So now my curiosity is satisfied. I hope when I indulge the next whim, death won’t be involved.

The sun was setting when I walked to the jardin to watch some traditional dancing in front of the parroquia. The Arc Angel St. Miguel fiesta was winding down, but not before fireworks shot high in the sky, and there was dancing in the parroquia courtyard. People were packed in the street shouting and singing. Over the crush of people, a neon banner proclaimed “Viva Mexico.”

Have I mentioned I do so love Mexico, whether deserts, mountains, beaches, cities or countryside? All I can do is agree with the San Miguel celebrants:  Viva Mexico!

An Afterthought

The above was originally written in 2007. To tell the truth I have forgotten where it was published. Most of the time, I keep everything in whatever computer I used to write it in the first place. As I reread the “Hemingway” piece just before it was posted, I realized some people would wonder how I could be in love with a place that condoned a practice so brutal as a bullfight.

I gave it some thought, and came to realize that every country or every place indulges in practices that I consider heinous. A large contingent of our own U S of A is addicted to NASCAR, wrestling, or whatever that “sport” is called where two people climb into a cage and try to kill one another, while onlookers scream and encourage the participants to hit or kick harder.

Even widely-accepted sports are becoming increasingly dangerous. More and more football players are suffering concussions that sometime lead to permanent disability or death.

Given all this brutality, it’s unfair to condemn an entire country because a portion of it enjoys a blood sport. I think we should be able to enjoy what the rest of the country has to offer, after giving the “Sporting” events a pass.

A SURPRISE ADVENTURE RIDING THE MEXICAN RAILS

If you become a regular reader of my posts, you will soon learn of my love for Mexico. This is the story of my ignominious introduction to my favorite place to visit.

A SURPRISE ADVENTURE RIDING THE MEXICAN RAILS

It was our first visit to Mexico. My husband John and I love trains, and we had decided to drive to Laredo, Texas, walk across the border and take a train into the Mexican interior. The three o’clock train rumbled into the Laredo station, only two hours late. Having read all the guidebooks, I was aware the Mexican people paid little attention to time and schedules, one of the country’s most endearing qualities to my way of thinking.

Boarding the sleeper car in which we had reserved a bedroom for the 12-hour trip to Mexico City, I found it wasn’t the bedroom at all. It was a tiny, one-person roomette.

“There must be some mistake, I said to the young porter, who spoke a little English. “We reserved a bedroom.”

“This is a bedroom, Senora,” The porter smiled and nodded toward the other roomettes lining the narrow aisle of the sleeper, all of which were being quickly occupied by Mexican families.

John, who was less than enthusiastic about this particular adventure, spoke: “Stop arguing and sit down. There’s no mistake. This is what they’re obviously referring to as a bedroom.” He was right. I gave up. If five Mexicans could sleep on one narrow cot, the two of us could manage as well. After all, we wanted to experience the true essence of the country, and believe me, the essence on that hot, humid, sleeper was overpowering.

Pretty soon, I heard band music. Not wishing to miss one Mexican moment, I ran to the little platform on the sleeper to see a student band arranged across the track playing its heart out. I seemed to be the only one impressed by it. Our fellow travelers paid them no mind at all.

As I listened to the music, the train suddenly came alive and lurched forward. There being no rail to hang onto, I very nearly fell off the platform. It was the first of many such experiences in my travels There are no safety rules or warning signs anywhere in Mexico. You are totally responsible for the safety of your person. If you fall off the back end of a train, you shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.

I bounded from side to side back down the aisle of the swaying train and sat down on the bench in our “bedroom.” It was covered in patched plastic, the stuffing long gone. The journey was to be non-stop to Leon and then an express to Mexico City. We were no sooner off than the train groaned to a stop.

“Great! It’s broken down already,” John wailed. But no. After a few seconds it started up. I breathed a sigh of relief just as the train stopped again. After the fifth stop, which occurred in a curve, I discovered the reason. Peering out the grimy window, I saw a man alight from a car up ahead in the curve. His family was waiting for him, standing beside a campfire and an adobe hut. I was amazed to find that our express train stopped to take on and let off individual passengers.

We had now experienced at least three surprises. We’re still being surprised by this magical country even after 26 years.

We ate our picnic supper, and decided to turn in. There was nothing to see anyway. We soon discovered that was no easy feat. By standing in the aisle and with much tugging and pulling, the berth fell down from its overhead compartment completely covering our other accommodations.

Peering down into the toilet before the berth covered it gave me a quick view of the railroad ties as they sped by underneath the train. There was no need for a flushing mechanism.

By now it was at least 110 degrees in the sleeper. We clamored into the berth from the aisle. There was no sheet. Back in the aisle we shoved the bunk into its receptacle, pulled our luggage from under the bench and found our largest towel. At least it would be absorbent. The way we were now perspiring, the towel would be soaked in no time.

Back on the bunk, we found if we both lay facing the train wall and not bending our knees we wouldn’t touch one another. The bed was about 30 inches wide and about eye level to anyone passing by in the aisle. Fortunately, there was a zippered canvas curtain hiding us from the view of passers-by.

I lay there for an hour, unable to sleep and very nearly suffocating in the stifling heat and the dank air.

“I’ve got to get these clothes off!” I hissed. I was barely able to peel them off. Although better than sticky clothing, it was precious little relief to wear only my skin. I then found if I bent my body slightly, just enough to poke my posterior over the side of the bunk, I was treated to the merest whisper of air under the canvas curtain.

I was just settling in when suddenly I felt the zipper being unzipped up my backside. A voice in the aisle said, “Pardon, Senor and Senora, I have come to make up…”

There was a brief pause and then a blood-curdling scream. “Dios Mio!” cried the voice. I flopped over and peered out the curtain just in time to see the young porter dashing up the aisle. Heads began popping out of curtains up and down the sleeper car. Pandemonium reigned as the other passengers tried to identify the source of the pandemonium.

I quickly zipped the curtain up again. John still lay with his face to the wall. He hadn’t moved. Finally he spoke quietly: “I hope that boy’s reached his full growth. If not, it’s stunted now.”

“Dios Mio,” I replied.