The Rough Edge of Mexico

Even though I’ve been living in Mexico for a full year now, there are definitely things about this country that I cannot accept as normal.

Don’t get me wrong… there are more than enough positive things about Mexico to make visiting and relocating here a good idea.  The fact that many things cost about one quarter what they do in Canada is a big plus.  The food is richer and more satisfying, with fewer preservatives and fillers than the processed food typical in Canada.  The people are friendlier;  greeting people as you pass in the street is pretty normal here.  Expected even.  In Canada, if you say ‘good morning’ to a complete stranger on the street, there is a better than average chance they will look at you like you have two heads or something.  In bigger cities especially, people rush past each other on the sidewalk without even making eye contact.

But with all the positive things about Mexico, there are some negative things that I still have trouble with.  The list isn’t long, but these things are definitely a problem.  Many locals even acknowledge that these problems exist.

Police Corruption and Bribery

First, let’s talk about corruption.  I know I’ve touched on this before in other posts, but this is still a sticky point that irritates me.  Yes, in Canada there is sometimes police corruption too.  Every once in a while there is a news item that suggests bribes and such do happen.  However, in Mexico this seems to be more the norm than the exception to the rule.

You always hear stories about problems with Mexican police, but when I moved down to Mexico, they were just rumors as far as I was aware.  An incident a few months ago, however, changed my mind on that score.

First of all, it is important to note that there are three levels of police in Mexico.  First, there are the Federales, or the federal police force.  They would be analogous to the RCMP in Canada.  They are responsible for interstate crime and highway patrol, but have no jurisdiction within large municipalities that have their own policing.

Mexican police near Plaza de Armas in downtown Queretaro.

Next are the state police, with jurisdiction within each Mexican state.  Canada really doesn’t have an equivalent level of policing that I am aware of.   The RCMP seems to have jurisdiction for everything in the country, apart from certain large cities that have their own police force.

Finally, you have the municipal police, who govern each municipality.  They would be similar in function to the city police of Calgary or Toronto.

If there is a reliable police force in Mexico, it would be the Federal police.  Most people in Mexico seem to acknowledge that they are generally honest and safe to interact with.  I frequently see them pulling over cars on the federal highways, but I’ve never been stopped by them myself, so I really can’t comment.  I do know that I’ve seen vehicles blast past a parked Federales car doing twice the speed limit with the police doing nothing to stop them.  On the other hand, I have also witnessed Federales setting up radar traps on certain highways and pulling over lines of cars for speeding.

The local, or municipal police, are a different matter completely, as I discovered a few months ago.  I got pulled over in a traffic stop by a municipal police truck right at a point where I was slowing for one of the notorious speed bumps (topes).  Right from the start, it was pretty clear that the officer was interested in something other than law enforcement.

City workers planting new flowers in Plaza de Armas, downtown Queretaro.

I pulled over the car and waited for the officer to approach my opened window.  Friends had told me that one way to tell if the process is a shakedown is how friendly it all starts out.  This certainly fit the description.  The officer came to my window with his hand extended for a friendly shake as his opening move.  

In the past, it has seemed the best course to feign complete ignorance of Spanish, rather than get into the discussion.  My Spanish has definitely improved over the past year.  It isn’t to the point where I am conversational, but at very least I can pick up the gist of what is being said most of the time.  And now was the perfect  time to put my skills to the test in a real life situation.

The officer, having extended a friendly greeting, proceeded to tell me that there was a problem.  “Oh sir”, he started.  “There is a problem.  You were moving at 60 km in a 50 km zone!  What are we going to do?  How can we fix this?”  The irony of having speeding used as a reason for the traffic stop was priceless.  Not only had we been slowing down for the upcoming speed bump, but other vehicles were passing me like I was standing still at the time of the traffic stop.  Speeding in Mexico, while technically governed by a traffic code similar to Canada, is in fact not enforced.  Typically, cars travel at whatever speed the road allows.  This is why Mexico puts speed bumps everywhere – including in the middle of highways.

As I reflected on the magnitude of the situation, the officer was getting a bit more pointed in what he was looking for.  “Sir, I will have to write you a ticket.  Is that what you want?  Do you want a ticket?  How can we fix this?”  The officer brandished his ticket book and pantomimed writing movements.  

In a combination of English and really terrible Spanish I asked him, “You want me to escribir (the verb to write, but improperly conjugated) something there?”  The man looked confused.  I then decided to pile on a few more Spanish words, just to get the point across that he wasn’t going to get anywhere.  Gesturing up the road, I asked him in all sincerity, “Gato pantalones?”  (Cat pants?)  This linguistic non-starter made it clear to the officer that the whole process was going to be a colossal waste of time, and that he’d be better off shaking down a Spanish-speaking driver who at least understood how this game was played.  He walked back to his truck and his partner climbed out to see if he could extract some money from me.  

The second officer went through much the same routine as the first.  The friendly handshake.  The threat of a traffic ticket.  The suggestion that a creative monetary solution would allow us to forego the current unpleasant situation.  The puzzling and meaningless English/Spanish responses from me.  The second officer gave up even more quickly than the first, and waving me onward curtly barked, “adelante” (go ahead).  We waited until the police truck drove off, then carried on our way.

Friends have since told us that this kind of shakedown for money most typically occurs in the early afternoon – right before lunch break.  The municipal police are paid so poorly that they often resort to shakedowns like this just to get money for lunch.  It is a sorry way to run a police department, but I think that many municipalities are trying to change this to improve service.  

Downtown parkades are often located inside of historical buildings. Glass blocks in roof allow natural light.

Incidentally, neither officer wrote out a traffic violation ticket.  Writing tickets means that there is an official record that would need to be supported by evidence.  Having none, and not being interested in the hassle of having to write a ticket, they were clearly just using this as leverage to see if they could get a payment to make the situation go away.  

Regardless of if or when the problem of police corruption and bribery is addressed in Mexico, I’ve come to call my avoidance technique the “cat pants’ maneuver.  Having a foreign licence plate probably causes us to be targeted more too.  If the police were enforcing an actual violation, I’m sure this whole process would have gone differently.  This situation is one of the things that makes driving in Mexico somewhat stressful.

Product Quality and Customer Service 

In Canada, when you buy a new product that comes with a warranty, there is always the option of just returning the item for a full refund.  Canadian consumer protection laws exist for a reason – bad products shouldn’t be allowed to create a ‘buyer beware’ situation.  In Mexico, things don’t quite work this way.

Firstly, the concept of returning ANYTHING is a fairly new notion in Mexico.  In the past, if pesos left your pocket to buy something, they were never coming back to you.  Period.  Ever.  Even if the product was complete rubbish, a store owner would never offer any kind of refund.  The concept seemed to be that if you were gullible enough to buy a bad product, then maybe you should have to live with that decision.  Most people in Mexico seem to accept this as a normal situation and nothing to get too upset about.

We found that there are ways around this, if you have the time and patience and you are dealing with a reputable store.  

Twice now we’ve been disappointed with washing machines.  First we had a terrible Whirlpool top loader that couldn’t clean anything.  Not only would the machine not clean clothes, but it had no lint trap.  After wearing clothes down at an alarming rate, the resulting fuzz was deposited evenly across all the garments in the wash.  This resulted in some interesting and unexpected consequences.  The failure of my electric razor, for example.  

A bad washing machine causing a razor to fail may seem like a leap, but it is the absolute truth!  Our bath towels were subjected to the same lint-clinging effect as the rest of the washing.  When I would towel off after my shower, my beard had a habit of collecting all the fuzz.  I’d finish up a shower looking like I had wool all over my face.  Even after getting the majority of this cotton lint off my face, my razor would still manage to pick up a lot of fibers I couldn’t see.  These wound themselves around the axle of each of the three rotary heads of the razor, causing the action to slow and the motor to overheat.  I was puzzled about what was happening until I opened up the heads and started picking long cotton threads off the spin axles.

Home Depot picks up the failed Whirlpool washer

We complained to Whirlpool about the terrible machine, so they sent out a technician to replace some parts.  What he needed was not in stock, so he had to place an order and we had to wait, making do with the way the machine worked.  After a month of following up repeatedly, the part needed didn’t arrive.  Whirlpool had a policy that any part not arriving within a month meant an automatic return.  We were glad to see the machine go, as even a repaired machine would have been unlikely to be much better.  Apart from the frustration of having a washing machine that couldn’t clean clothes, and actually left them in worse condition than when they came out of the laundry hamper, the overall experience with Whirlpool could have been worse.  (Not that I recommend Whirlpool in Mexico.  Avoid if possible.)

So we decided to spend a bit more and try a different brand of machine.  Enter the Samsung beast.  The new laundry pair was a top loading washer and a gas dryer.  They had more features (including a lint trap) and were definitely more spendy.  Surely these would be better?  Wrong.  

Right from the start, it was clear that the Samsung washer wasn’t well suited for its primary task.  For one thing, it couldn’t seem to get clothes wet.  This was unfortunate, since getting dirty clothes wet is an important first step in cleaning them.  Consistently, clothes in the machine would have mysterious dry areas when they were pulled out after the final spin cycle.  

UNESCO Plaque declares the downtown of Queretaro a heritage site.

We contacted Samsung about the problem, which over the next five months resulted in a parade of different technicians who replaced parts, ran tests and wrote reports.  At the end of it all, the machine still could not get clothes wet, let alone clean.  

We finally put our foot down when Samsung customer support began asking us to do the same steps all over again.  It seemed clear that they were just doing anything they could think of to run down the warranty clock.  When they asked to send more technicians to replace more parts, we said NO.  When they wanted to send someone to write a final report, we told them they had already done that.  When they wanted to do another Skype video call to see the machine not work again, we said NO.  We made it clear that we were exasperated that they had failed to repair their brand new equipment in a timely fashion and that we were tired and fed-to-the-back-teeth with their pointless service calls.  Even with repeating this message to customer service a number of times, they made it clear that they were not going to replace the machine or refund our money.

A bronze model of the buildings protected under the UNESCO world heritage declaration.

At that point, we got a friend involved who had been through this customer service nightmare herself before.  Her suggestion?  Play the ‘angry foreigner’ card.  

‘Angry foreigner’ is a customer service gambit that involves subjecting a store manager to their worst fear.  An angry foreigner who babbles away in what is clearly a state of high agitation.  In English.  Not understanding what is happening, a somewhat ‘neutral party’ who speaks both languages explains to the alarmed manager that her friends are NOT happy and that he needs to do something about it before the obviously unstable extranjeros (foreigners) pop their cork. 

The manager, not understanding a single word of the verbal tirade being directed at him, is firmly convinced of two things.  First, all extranjeros have money to spend, and seem to like his store.  Second, all extranjeros in the entire country know each other personally and are quick to share stories when they congregate to sip mojitos on the patio.  

Given the bleak outcome that would probably result from ignoring the problem, the manager nervously agreed to refund our full purchase price for the Samsung laundry pair.  Although there were a few doubtful days that followed where scheduling to pick up the machines failed, the collection was finally made and the money deposited back onto our visa.  We were overjoyed that the ‘angry foreigner’ play actually got results.  

One of the many pedestrian-only streets in Queretaro.

It seems strange to me that large, international brands like Whirlpool and Samsung play so fast and loose with their customer service in Mexico.  Try that in Canada (or the USA probably) and I doubt that they would be selling products for long.  For an example, look at Lada.  The Russian car manufacturer tried to flog their pathetic soviet econo-boxes in Canada through the 1980’s but discovered that Canadians expect quality.  They withdrew from the market, never to return.   (Update: An article HERE suggest that Lada is considering making a return to the Canadian market in 2019!)

Mexican people tend to be kind and loving.  This also seems to have developed a reluctance to stand up for their rights as consumers.  Many just passively accept that things can’t change and that this is how things have always been.  I admit that this is a pretty ironic thing for a Canadian to say.  Canadians aren’t exactly known for forcing change either.  I guess it is just a case of not knowing how companies should be responsible for the quality of their products. 

In any case, the whole customer service and low quality thing in Mexico continues to bother me.  

Mexico has been full of surprises for me.  This kind of immersive travel is a great way to experience different cultures and get an adjusted expectation of what ‘good’ looks like.  Each of us, no matter where we are from, are all subject to our own cultural curiosities and foibles.  It is easy to see things as either right or wrong through the lens of our own experience and expectations.  Sometimes it is just good to soak in a different culture and allow the diversity of view it affords to help us reflect on what is truly important.  

This past year spent in Mexico has definitely been about personal growth and coming to terms with the different thought processes and expectations that go along with a different language and culture.  I went from feeling stressed that things were so different, to feeling that I am starting to understand the cultural sensibilities involved, and really settling into the different lifestyle.

Yes, Mexico offers some things that outsiders may find frustrating.  But it also offers a different perspective on life and finding value in the simplest things.  I anticipate that my adventure here will continue as long as there remains time for me to discover what all those engaging, challenging, sometimes frustrating differences mean.

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