Dayana sits by the bar after the lunch service, drinking a margarita, her apron is still tied around her waist.
This is supposed to be a light, easy story about Mexican cuisine.
The story begins in Jardín Mangos, a neighborhood by the shore in Acapulco, a central city in the South of Mexico.
Dayana Castillo, then 5 years old, dreams about cooking. She and her best friend pretend to run a restaurant, as Dayana the cook and her friend is the waitress. They make the food out of mixtures of sand, mud, fallen leaves, some concrete leftovers.
Dayana was always an independent person. She walked by herself to school, a distance of an hour walk by foot, and used to make her own clothes and take care of her needs.
As she finished elementary school, the class divided into specific courses – cooking, mathematics, computers, fashion, etc. Unfortunately, she was put in the mathematics course, but managed to swap with a girl in the cooking class.
The first year was only about the theory, combined with regular classes like geography or history. It was only in the second year when they got into the kitchen. Every student had to buy their own chef’s uniform, work-shoes, an oven and appliances. While their teacher specialized in the theory most of the students were stronger on the practical side, so they sort of taught each other.
After Dayana finished high school she got a non-paid internship in a small restaurant, and then another one in a hotel’s bakery. Money wasn’t a problem since she lived with her parents at this time.
During those internships, she learned some important lessons.
You can always learn something new, no matter how professional you are. You need to find those who have the patience and the will to help you become better.
She also learned that there always has to be some tension, but not too much, so you won’t be scared to try new things. For example, it is only when you keep in mind that tense feeling of boiling oil, keep in mind the dangers in it when you can respect and love your job.
And lastly – always cook with love, as if you are cooking for your family.
After the internship was over, the boss in the small restaurant asked for her help in the strong seasons, this time with proper payment.
She conflicted between two universities.
One of them let her see a class to check it out. Excited, she wore her uniform and work-shoes and joined the class, where everybody was older and more experienced than her. By the end of the class, they were supposed to make mango ice cream but as it turned out, they didn’t have the suitable equipment. Dayana remembered an old family recipe for home-made ice cream, so she overcame her shyness and told the class.
In the end, everybody asked her where she studied. They thought she was a professional cook, probably a friend of the teacher, who came to help the class.
She tells this story in such modesty that few people have. She obviously knows she has a gift, she would never disregard herself, but she would never show off as well. She just tells the things as they are.
After the first few days of school all the students were asked to split into smaller groups, and each group had to choose a leader. Dayana was chosen immediately to lead her team, even though her classmates didn’t know her that well by then – probably, she says, since on the first days she used to help everyone and give them direction and support.
For the final exam of the first term, they had to make a whole meal with a theme – their theme was a Christmas table. The group worked hard planning it, taking their time to figure out the best way. Dayana was nervous and sad since her parents couldn’t show up, and she had to speak in front of a crowd for the first time. The hard work paid off, and this group was the first to finish the assignment and were able to prepare a delicious, impressive meal.
For the next terms, the students were required to find jobs in restaurants or hotels.
Dayana needed to show a letter of recommendation from her prior jobs, but couldn’t get one from the hotel where she done her internship since she was never officially an employee. Still, many of her past colleagues remembered her so fondly, so they helped her arrange an official letter.
She worked in many hotels in Mexico during her studies, with lots of roles.
The first was another hotel bakery, which not only supplied the bread, materials, and desserts for the hotel, but also for neighboring restaurants.
She describes it almost as a factory – long hours of making thousands of cookies.
She also worked at a buffet, as an entrees cook, a line cook, and more.
These kind of jobs were part of the studies, and the students would get evaluated by their bosses. This evaluation was part of the final grade.
Despite being appreciated almost everywhere she went, one chef just didn’t seem to like her on a personal level. She says she gave it all, did the best she could, but he gave her a low evaluation saying she’s not doing her best and isn’t willing to learn.
Upset, she spoke with the sous chef who knew her well, and he re-evaluated her fairly.
After the years of hard work and studies, the school was almost over.
The students were given options for one final assignment before they’d be getting their degree. They could either write a thesis or choose some programs abroad.
Excited to try something new, and to travel for the first time, Dayana wanted to go far – so she chose an internship in Eilat, a small city in the South of Israel. Her parents supported this decision. Not only she will get to know a whole different culture, but she would also be where Christianity began.
She had to pass an exam to go and fill a lot of paperwork, issue a passport, and of course, get a student visa at the Israeli Embassy in Mexico. It took a while but she managed to get it all, and all that was left was to fly.
Dayana went with some colleagues who took the same internship.
The problems began right at the French airport, where they took a connecting flight, as her luggage was lost and she was left only with her backpack and the clothes she wore.
The luggage did arrive eventually as they landed in Tel-Aviv airport, but her laptop was broken.
It was mid-February when they arrived in Israel and went South to Eilat.
This internship also required that she combine a cooking job with her studies, so she began working in a hotel that participated in this program. Not speaking Hebrew nor English she was stressed. Luckily, her boss spoke Spanish, and talked with Dayana both in Spanish and Hebrew so she learns the language.
Eilat is a small city, facing the Nile (also known as The Red Sea) and bordering Egypt. It is very warm and dry as it is in the middle of a desert, surrounded by beautiful, red mountains.
On one of those days the class had a day trip to the near mountains. The students have been told there might be passports control, which shouldn’t be a problem since they all had valid passports and visas.
The officers indeed arrived to check the visas, and after a brief check and some questioning they told the groups that their documents were not valid, and they should go back, pack their belongings and come with them.
Dayana and her colleagues tried to keep calm. Thinking they would be sent back to Mexico, she packed quickly and helped her friends, and informed her family she was coming back. If God wants me in Mexico, she thought, there’s no use in being upset.
The officers took them to a bus going North. They were singing, trying to cheer themselves up with the thought of being back home.
Instead, the bus stopped in Be’er Sheva – a central city bordering the desert. This is when they learned that they were, in fact, going to prison.
The same round of questions again – Where are you from? What brings you to Israel? How come you work in a hotel, when you have a student visa?
It was 5 AM when they have been put in a cell with 3 bunk beds, and they decided to try and get some sleep, but there were too many interruptions since they had to stand up every time somebody entered the cell. Dayana got one phone call and tried to call her parents, but every time she thought about her family she felt a lump in her throat and almost cried. She finally managed to soothe herself, only to find out she can’t call to Mexico. The group did manage to contact people they knew at school and work, who informed the families and talked with the Mexican console.
After a few sleepless nights, they have finally been set out of prison with the help of the console. From there, they were transferred into a shelter where they would be waiting for a trial.
Dayana finally spoke with her family via Skype, and couldn’t hold back the tears as she saw her parents on the computer screen. She felt some shame, as if she disappointed them in a way, but they were very supportive. Her mother is a lawyer back in Mexico so she could give some useful advice.
During the trial, they were asked the exact same questions yet again. Then, they could choose if they want to go back home or stay in Israel.
Dayana chose to stay.
She was so determined to learn new things and experience different cultures, that she was willing to put all this behind.
After some more tiring bureaucracy, more questionings, and a few months of wait for a valid work visa, Dayana found a job in a nursing home, in a city near Tel-Aviv. The job was depressing and she missed the kitchen dearly.
A friend of hers said there was a small traditional Mexican restaurant in the center of Tel-Aviv so she checked it on Facebook and contacted the chef, a Spanish-speaking Israeli guy named Roni – yes, my Roni.
Being the floor manager at the time, I remember the first time she stepped into the kitchen. This sweet, humble woman in her early 20’s, quiet and ready to work. I had no idea what she’s been through, or how excited she was being in a kitchen again and knowing all the food from home.
No matter what happens around, how stressful the service is, Dayana Castillo has this halo around her of a calm determination. Always there when needed, loved by all, she can never be pushed out of balance.
Back in the room. We sit on the bar of the restaurant, on our third drink, speaking with my broken Spanish with some help from Roni and Google Translate. Her tones stay calm as she tells her story.
I thought this was going to be easy.
She finishes her story with the sentence she kept in mind all along –
Poco a poco, como el elefante, paso lento pero aplastante – Little by little, like an elephant, which walks slowly but with shattering steps.