Chelsea O’Byrne/The Globe and Mail

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The Asian Bodega was the first stop I made when I got to Tulum, Mexico, 12 hours after leaving Vancouver.

It’s a food truck in Palma Central Park run by my sister’s partner, a chef who was asked to create the menu and turn it into a success. Jacqueline and Dave moved to Tulum last fall, looking for a break from the weary winters and exorbitant rents in Toronto. I was travelling alone, managing the two-hour trip south of Cancun on a bus without knowing more than five words of Spanish. That didn’t worry me; what made me nervous was my holiday turning into a waitressing gig.

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It had just rained – one of those skies-breaking teeming showers that last for only 20 minutes. The wheels on my suitcase became caked in mud – and my face caked in sweat – as I dragged it through the streets to the food truck park, Google Maps on my phone lighting the way.

I arrived at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, and the park was bustling. A live band was playing and patio lights hung above rows of picnic tables where people were eating arepas, churros – and Thai food.

I plunked down at a table and Dave handed me some red curry to eat while I waited for him to finish up. From there, we’d meet up with my sister.

This wasn’t just any vacation. During my two weeks in Tulum, my birthday would hit. I was saying goodbye to a tumultuous year in which I entered my 30s, got a new job and moved across the country. My sister had been there for all of it. It felt fitting to celebrate with her in her new home.

Tulum, the town – or pueblo – is not typically what you see in the travel brochures. It’s hot and dusty, with little shade but many dogs. It’s also noisy. There are people shouting up and down the street, selling mangoes, bread, corn on the cob and natural gas delivery. The main road through town is lined with bars and restaurants blasting reggaeton. A favourite establishment with twentysomethings serves litre beers for 50 pesos – or $3 Canadian – before 1 a.m.

Many visitors to Tulum stay in the hotel zone (about a 15-minute drive down a wide road that may or may not have a speed limit), and never visit pueblo. Rooms in the beachfront hotel zone can go for more than $1,000 Canadian a night. There are picturesque views, a variety of restaurants and clothing boutiques. But in town, there’s heart (and tamales for 15 pesos).

I hadn’t seen my sister in months, and I hadn’t taken a holiday that didn’t involve attending a wedding in years. My first few days were party, coffee, beach, repeat. Both Jacqueline and Dave worked in the evenings, so I typically had time to myself for a few hours. That was, at least, until Dave came back to the apartment after work one night in a huff. He’d had to fire an employee on the spot because of some missing money.

“Kim, you’re in tomorrow.”

I had no choice. Familial duty called.

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Dave told me to show up at 6 p.m. I sauntered in at 6:05, after spending the day on the beach, wearing shorts and sandals. I’d never worked in the food industry before. Dave didn’t just have to teach me the menu, he had to show me how to take an order, write it down, relay it to him and even how to carry a tray. The night went smoothly. Our customers were mostly American tourists – and if people spoke Spanish, they also spoke a bit of English. I became good at talking with my hands and smiling wide when I didn’t know what someone was saying. Most important: the cash balanced.

By the end of the night, I was relieved. I thought my duties were done. I made enough money to take a taxi to and from the beach the next day instead of getting on the local bus that whips down the street at what feels like 130 kilometres an hour. But Dave still didn’t have anyone else to help him.

So, on my 31st birthday, during a vacation where I was supposed to be escaping work and stress, I ended up running orders at the truck on the busiest night of the week. Jacqueline and another friend came along, too, after both taking the day off from their regular jobs. Either all three of us would work, or no one would. Between the three of us – one who spoke Spanish, one who could count money and one who could run food – we equalled nearly one good employee.

In the middle of my shift that night, I took a moment to look around. I realized if I had to work on my birthday, was it really so bad to do it with family, surrounded by happy people, in a place that was 30 degrees warmer than home?

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Days later I boarded the bus back to Cancun airport to fly home. It occurred to me that I hadn’t bought any souvenirs. Though, if I’d found a T-shirt, it would’ve had to say: “I went to Tulum and all I got was my first job in a food truck.”

But really, it was so much more than that.

Kim Magi lives in Vancouver.

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