With each passing week, I get more and more comfortable with living in Mexico. I remember that when we first arrived, a drive across the city for a quick trip to the market was almost always a white-knuckle experience that left me exhausted and mentally distressed.
Besides the concerns with the hazardous road conditions, damaging wear and tear on my car and the fear of getting stopped by police who are attracted to the foreign license plate for a possible payday, there was just the general ‘newness’ of being in-country that made me feel anxious most of the time.
Now, almost six months into our stay, I just don’t feel like any of those things are as relevant anymore. What’s weird is that nothing has really changed. The road conditions aren’t any better, my car has squeaks, rattles and scratches it didn’t have before we left Canada, and although police are everywhere (with their lights permanently switched on) the risk of being involved in a traffic stop seems less likely. As with most new experiences in life, the ‘newness’ wears off and you start focusing on more important things.
Shifting Perceptions on Safety
Just this week, as I was out driving, simultaneously dodging errant pedestrians while deftly skirting a wheel-devouring pothole in the road, I thought about how my tolerances have already changed and how I am now able to navigate
the insane city traffic with barely a second thought. Riding the incredibly rough and broken pavement on the highways, avoiding downed electrical wires and side-stepping slow-moving farm vehicles on the road are all taken in stride now. Funny how things become easier to handle as soon as they become familiar. Mexico is proving to be a great place to reset expectations and build durability of character. The country and its conditions demand it, in fact.
Coming from a place like Canada, where the Rule of Law holds sway with such overbearing tenacity, Mexico comes as a shock to the system. It feels like there are no rules, not even the ones we’ve come to rely upon as constants in our narrow universe. Perhaps even more surprising to me is how Mexico begins to reform your perception of what ‘normal’ looks like.
One perfect example is how traffic safety is approached differently between the two countries.
Shortly before I left Canada, I was travelling uptown by bus to a chiropractic appointment. The bus was forced to edge around a lane closure to reach my stop, but on exiting the bus, I discovered that the ‘construction zone’ that held us up was nothing more than an area cordoned off with orange traffic cones.
Most frustrating was the fact that the zone thusly marked defined an area that contained absolutely no construction work, excavation or hazard of any kind. Granted, the pavement was a bit muddy. I suspect that the city road crew probably blocked the entire lane in anticipation of future work, but there was no evidence that they were planning on starting any kind of work in the near future. That is the nature of traffic safety in Canada.
Contrast the above road work non-event with the way road construction work happens here in Mexico.
Last month I came across a Mexican example of road work that really highlighted the differences between Canada and Mexico. For some unknown reason, a work crew decided to replace the concrete around a manhole cover. Rather than dig out the old concrete and haul it away, they took recycling to
the next level. The old concrete ring was broken in half and made to serve double duty as a construction barricade around the newly poured concrete. When you think about it, it really does make sense. Why use those sissy safety-orange construction cones to mark out your construction area when you can use massive hunks of concrete with protruding rebar as a combined warning and enforcement measure? With traffic cones, folks are likely to just drive over them, messing up your nice new concrete. Such problems are much less likely when using half a ton of broken concrete foundation works to delineate your construction zone.
This fact was illustrated very well as I stood at roadside contemplating the situation. A woman in an SUV decided (for some unknown reason) to reverse all the way from the left side parking lane on the one-way street to the opposite side. In the process she managed to run the back of her Jeep right up on the concrete debris left guarding the new concrete. I was so stunned this happened right in front of me that I forgot to take a picture. The woman got out, looked at how her Jeep was hooked up on the concrete, then sheepishly got back into the SUV and drove away.
See? If Mexico used orange traffic cones like Canada, the road crew would have had to come back to rework the wet cement that got messed up. Disaster averted!
The rationale seems to be that if you were dim enough to drive your car into a construction zone, you kind of got what was coming to you. Here in Mexico, because of the way they handle these kinds of situations, they often become self-correcting problems.
The Perception of Cost
Another way that I am adjusting here in Mexico is how I perceive the prices of things. With the Mexican peso hovering around 14.5 to the Canadian dollar, the cost of things in Mexico seems really high compared to Canadian prices, just because of the number of digits involved. For example, a nice turkey sandwich at an average tiende will cost $40 pesos, or if it is a really upscale cafe (think ‘American style’), maybe as much as $120 pesos. Since our funds are held in Canadian dollars (we only take out cash as we need it at the current exchange rate), I am always using a converter to figure out what things cost. I am usually pleasantly surprised when comparing the cost of almost anything to its equivalent in Canada.
As with my changing perceptions on other things, I find that I am increasingly comparing local prices to other local prices instead of worrying about what the cost would be in Canadian dollars.
Last week I was downtown near Plaza de Armas on a festival day. On holidays, temporary food vendors pop up all along the street at the narrow end of the park to cater to the larger crowds. They bring in portable tables with gas burners and raise umbrellas or string up tarpaulins to protect customers from the sun.
Some of the food on offer is absolutely wonderful. There are often things you don’t commonly see in other restaurants, but which are typically Mexicana, making for a fine opportunity to try something different. The food is fresh and hot and is usually prepared right in front of you. You sit on little rickety benches around the outside perimeter of the vendor’s tables, which are laden with bowls of all their cooking ingredients, as well as roasted chilies and onions and a half-dozen types of salsa for spicing up your food.
I enjoyed a couple of sopes, which were made of blue corn with a deliciously salty, stringy local cheese (called Oaxaca, after the state where it is made) melted on top, as well as a meat of your choice. I like the seasoned pork and chicken best. Sopes are a simple snack food that is served in many restaurants, but these ones seemed better than any I’d tried elsewhere.
There were no advertised prices at this booth, so I was expecting them to be similar to prices I’d seen elsewhere. When we asked about the total, we learned that the vendor charged $25 pesos for each separate item, regardless of what type of food it was. I immediately thought that this really steep! After all, most other places sell sopes for only $15 to $20 pesos! What sort of highway robbery was this?
When I reflected on the costs later I had to laugh at myself. $25 pesos for a sope means each one cost about $1.70 Canadian. That means that ‘cheap’ sopes at other places I’ve seen cost more like $1.02 Canadian. Either way, that is great value for the money. The three of us who stopped for lunch that afternoon enjoyed a satisfying meal and an authentic Mexican food experience for $125 pesos total – about $8.50 Canadian. Even if you could find such a thing available in Canada, I have no doubt that the total lunch bill would have been closer to $25 CAD for three people.
I’m so glad that we made the move to Mexico. I’m even more pleased that I am finally really settling into the lifestyle and culture. The challenges and rewards here offer a chance to take a long, sober look at what we consider important and to closely examine how we prioritize things in our life. It helps you realize that things you once considered to be terribly important are less so, and vice versa. In my previous culture, it felt like there was never really time to examine why things worked the way they did. Without the experience gained from living in a different culture to act as counterpoint, it’s difficult to build a frame of reference to examine why things work the way they do.
Mexico has afforded me the luxury of time. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.