It is time I write down some of my observations of living in Mexico as my fresh eyes are becoming more accustomed to the culture around me. So, this is for my own records and for many of my friends who have asked me what life is like here. For many of you with young children, you understand that sometimes things in our lives must be reduced to bullet points:
- The smell. Mexico has a definite scent I noticed as a girl when I first came to this land. It is a mixture of fresh tortillas and lime, terracotta tile, dusty roads, floral-scented ajax, arroz con leche and cheaply floral infused detergent. Its a strange mixture of earthy and chemical. I close my eyes and take a deep breath as I walk the streets here and I am 15 again on short-term missions trip right outside of Mexico City, with adolescent optimism and curiosity. The smell makes me feel that the whole world lies before me.
- The driving. Well. It is different. My first experience driving on my own, I heard the strange squeal of an ambulance several cars behind me on the highway. Instinct told me to pull over, but then I noticed the cars around me were actually racing the ambulance. If I did not join in the race, I would be smashed, so race I did. Like a crazy woman. I beat the ambulance and eventually it turned off behind me in the direction of the hospital. Then I did pull over just to ponder if that really happened. And the police? Well, thanks to my heavily tinted windows and Mexico plates I have never been pulled over. But I thought I would be many times until I realized that the cops here just like to drive with their lights and sirens on for no particular reason than to feel high and mighty. Yesterday I drove down a road that had four cops on each side pointing guns at each other. No one seemed alarmed. So I sat at a red light between them and reviewed my Spanish flashcards, the one that said “I have moved to a strange planet.”
- The grocery stores. My first time in one alone I was approached every several feet by a smartly dressed representative of a particular brand of milk or yogurt, holding out a tray for me to sample their product. Who knew Mexico has like 50 brands of milk and 80 brands of yogurt and that one store will actually carry them all? I should get a t-shirt that says “I don’t do dairy” They don’t, however, carry things like lemons or natural peanut butter or imported ice-cream for less than $13. Who knew it takes so many people doing so many little jobs to run a grocery store? And who knew the Holy Water of Mexico is Coca-Cola? And who knew that man can live by bread (tortillas that is) alone, here in Mexico?
- Roads. I expected the potholes and topes (speed bumps). I expected every car for itself and that a speed limit is a nice suggestion. I even expected the crosses and flowers and shrines on the sides of the road to mark where someone met their death, but I did not expect the little men. That is the little men (the ones I have seen are all little) who wake up in the morning and decide, “Today I will buy a small can of paint and a brush and paint bright lines on a tope so my fellow countrymen do not fly over the bump and damage their car. I will then stand there and hold out a tin can so they can contribute to my kind act. In fact I may not let them pass until they do, unless they put the medal to the pedal and I must leap out of the way for dear life. Yes, this is how I will spend my day! Tomorrow I shall buy some cement and go around filling potholes.” I confess I have hit the pedal hard more than once…
- The unconventional ingenuity and nonchalance. Unlike the US, this is not a crisis-oriented culture. At all. Most people live fully in the present (why think forward when survival is at hand and hey, there is enough joy for today!) thus they make things work. Now. Like hitching a ride in the back of a garbage truck. Last week I was behind 4 men who were taking a snooze and getting a ride on a pile of trash. Yesterday about four kids were riding on top of a truckload (like 9 feet up) of cilantro. The man down the street just ties his damaged bumper on with rope. Black and white TVs? Keep ’em working and open up your own shop to fix ’em! Hang stiff underwear on special hangers and set them outside your store; the colors and shapes and variety of sizes are bound to attract! Upholster furniture on the side of the road, within inches of buses passing by because your little shop just doesn’t provide enough work room. And car seats? Just put the baby on your lap and when they get jittery have them crawl around on the floor in the backseat. Mop with a stick and a rag at the end and just push it around. Use Styrofoam to put in the walls for insulation when you are constructing a house. Build the walls and then bang holes in them to install the pipes for plumbing. Stick shards of glass on the tops of your walls to prevent robbers from jumping over. Sleep late and stay up late and who says kids need bedtimes? Don’t have a car? Then get a bike and stick your whole family on it! You want your donkey to stop being distracted by the stray dogs when you are trying to plow the field with it? Then stick a sack over its head so it can’t see them. Don’t want to pay taxes on the house you are building? Then leave some of it unfinished and dilapidated looking; it will save you money! Don’t give folks a menu in your little restaurant, just plop some food in front of them with a smile or go next door and see what produce just came in. And should not every bank have a very armed guard pacing back and forth in front of it?
- Contradictions. Everywhere. I often have on one side of me a new 2013 car, the driver looking like they are out of Vogue magazine and on the other side of me a donkey cart with a husband and wife in straw hats with no shoes or teeth. It boggles the mind, the sharp distinction between the rich and poor with me sitting in between grieved over both sides and their obvious poverty. The same element is seen within housing and stores and it is all finely accepted. The classes do not mix or hold out a hand to pull out or pull up. Oh, it has been shocking to see how news is reported on the TV and in print media. Dead bodies are shown, fully and all gory details right out there with no prudence or discretion. Gulp.
- People. They are warm and accepting (and just beautiful), but do not easily trust and often speak what you want to hear. Confrontation is not comfortable unless the venue (like a neighborhood meeting) is right, then it is like a soap opera drama. Americans are loud, Mexicans are much more calm and reserved. They take things as they come with an element of fatalism yet contentedness. Yelling for my kids down the road is not kosher. The more white, Spanish Mexicans and leery of the darker, more Indian looking Mexicans. All these years I wanted to be tanner and they want to be whiter! The culture is quiet unless yet another fiesta is happening. There is pain, but it is inflicted behind closed doors. Tradition here is paramount to the people, even if they don’t understand the significance of all that they do, they are doing what has always been done. They are proud of their history and culture. Generosity? I think this culture has a corner on that virtue, especially, ironically enough, among the poorest. And clowns, how they love clowns and storytellers! One can dress up even with just a red nose and painted smile, grab a mic and little amp and within 15 minutes have a large crowd hanging on their every word. They love oral transmission so puppets, still very cool here for all ages. The little ladies and men probably my parents age, they stand on curbs selling bits of fruits or vegetables to get by. And when they are sick? Well, they go to the low-end more normal hospital here but they must be accompanied by a family member or friend to change their bedpan and give them food and if there are no beds left, then roll out their IV and sleep on the sidewalk with them outside of the hospital. Down the street are some of the best hospitals in Mexico. The ones that take our insurance card should we get ill. Can hardly handle that fact.
- Work. Stats say that Mexico has the largest and hardest working work force in the world. Living here, I don’t doubt it. But, certainly not the best paid for all their efforts. These are not lazy folks and they are not too proud to do whatever to make a peso. Even if that means painting your body with silver paint, standing on top of a ladder at the end of a row of traffic waiting at a red light, taking a swig of gasoline and blowing a breath of real fire, while juggling. One does not know whether to laugh or cry. I opt for cry as I look at the slow death. And then there is the lady selling green chicklet gum at the red lights, the children selling socks and nuts, the old man selling rags to wash your car with, the young man selling trays he made from pine. Everywhere you go, someone is selling something. Handmade, bought in surplus or off the black market–its all around. Folks even work at going through the garbage to take out the recyclables. No efficient (I don’t think they have that word!) recycle bins here, just more jobs for more folks to pick through more garbage. Meanwhile the CEO executives go to their jobs just around the corner from the heap of garbage and the “have everythings” go to the prestigious university just 15 minutes from our house.
- The weather and altitude. Granted, we moved from Florida. Zero elevation, 100% humidity, ocean air, shorts worn almost all year around, red ants, sand, alligators, scrubby pine trees. You know. Here we went up in the world to 7,000 feet. The nights and mornings are cool, okay they are incredibly cold. And the mountains, okay they are actually volcanoes we see on clear days surround us. Majestic is barely the best word to describe the site. Ahhh… There is no such thing as heat in these brick and/or cement made houses. No such thing as screens in the windows. Cracks around the windows and doors abound; things are not exactly an airtight fit. At least in our house. The wind often blows out of pilot light on the roof which heats our water tank, so sometimes I skip the shower. In our home though, we always can count on having water! No dishwasher, just mounds of dishes that can be quite challenging to keep on top of. And don’t forget they must dry completely or the risk of parasites from the water. Don’t stick your toothbrush in the water! Some do, we tried and got sick. Folks here do a parasite cleanse every six months, killing everything in their guts. Its a normal part of life here, just like the wild dogs and the poop on the sidewalks and the scarcity of cats (they poison them). Keeping house here is much harder because of the dust and the flies (we have sticky fly traps hanging from our ceilings). Not to mention the lovely wolf spiders and the cara de ninos (giant ants; look them up and you’ll squeal). We caught seven mice in our kitchen and pantry last week. Could be worse; we don’t have scorpions here! We are getting used to the attitude though at times we still run out of breath and get tired. Perhaps we’ll be able to run a marathon when we visit Florida again!
- Slower Pace and Lower Expectations. There is not such stress in the air like I felt in the States. Things are expected to take forever. And they do. Maybe if you pay and pay well a service will speed up. Doubtful still. Most places don’t even post store hours, especially family owned places (which is the majority of how families make it here). Timeliness is important in certain contexts, but lingering always happens. Manana forever indeed! Expectations are much lower than in the states. Things overall (except for the wealthy class and even then…) are not expected to be as sleek, progressive (c’mon the most common music we hear played here is from the 80’s) and put together. Folks are more accommodating, simple and patient. Bathrooms don’t really need to provide toilet paper now do they? Another job can be provided for a woman if you pay her for a few squares. And why should toilets be able to handling flushing the paper anyways?
- Hand gestures. They don’t mean the same things here. If I motion for you to come, I am actually telling you to go. This one is very useful here: Bring your middle finger and your thumb together while extending your forefinger, then waggle your forefinger back and forth, like you are shaking your finger no. I use it at stop lights to prevent the windshield washing guys from smearing my windows. Now all I have to do is a very casual finger no and my car is skipped without comment. And to say thank you, just put all your fingers together and hold up your hand, palm towards you and move it ever so slightly. There are more I am still learning. But I do know you don’t point here. No, no!
- Food. Yep, it’s spicy! And they eat breakfast twice, lunch late and supper way late. Have not adjusted to that all the way. You know what they sell by the gallons and smear on most things? Mayonnaise! Which our whole family hates. Food is a big deal here, they sell it on every corner and they love to snack. The Mole Poblano is incredible as are several other common dishes I am growing to love but cannot remember. Cannot however, do chicken feet, cow tongue, brains or intestines. Cannot stand to walk by the butcher because everything is just out. And limes and chili–they are the spice of life here! It has been a challenge to rethink how I feed my family and how to do it in an affordable and easy way. All produce must be soaked in a bucket for 15 minutes in microderm, an iodine solution that kills parasites. It can be a big job for folks like us who go through allot of produce. But the fresh stuff is amazing tasting! And to boil water takes much longer, as does baking with my Celsius reading oven that I must hand light. Oh my, I did not even mention that things here are weighed only in kilos, miles are measured in meters and all the like. Still confused.
I like it here. Really like it. Wouldn’t you?