Living in another country is full of challenges and this is certainly true of Mexico. Below are the four biggest challenges that I found in my two years on the Yucatan Peninsula.
1. Language. Let’s start with the biggest cultural wall you will run into – language. Most of us from north of the border, come here with little to no Spanish language skills. And, let’s face it – this is their country. It would behoove us to learn to speak Spanish, even rudimentary Spanish, if we want to live here. But, for some reason (arrogance, indifference, laziness?), we believe that everyone should/will speak English, and we settle right in without even an “hola” to our name.
This one thing alone will make your life five times more difficult in Mexico. Yes, there are many Mexicans who speak English, or a bit of it, but there are many who do not. And, there are some people who may speak it, but don’t like all these gringos in their country, so they won’t use it, particularly if it helps you in any way. (On the other hand, there are many Mexicans who will go out of their way to help you, even if they don’t speak English.)
Best advice: Start learning Spanish before you arrive, but at the very least, make an effort to learn the language of the country.
2. Time. The second thing that was not a comfortable fit for me is the difference in the concept of time. Be prepared. Unless your patience makes Job’s look puny, you may become disenchanted with charm of living on “Mexican time.” Don’t get me wrong, much of the problem was mine – I am not, in any manner, a patient person. And whatever patience I was endowed with by nature, or learned at my mother’s knee, was used up long ago by my four children. I am, however, a fairly practical, and practically fair, person, so when a “repairman” doesn’t show at the appointed hour of 9:00 am, I am not crushed, do not panic and murderous rage does not set in. I actually got to the point where if the job was done by the end of the appointed day, I was willing to call it “good.”
But, when days and even weeks would go by, without even a phone call, my last nerve stretched to the breaking point. To me, a gringa of “Type A” persuasion, this behavior seemed dismissive and arrogant, as if they could only be bothered with me when it was convenient for them. As if, all I had to do with my life was to wait around until they showed up.
However, to a Mexican, my reaction is inexplicable. They have a totally relaxed attitude about time, schedules, appointments and that over-riding “north of the border” concern, efficiency! To a Mexican, it will happen – in the meantime, just relax and enjoy life. Since I’m retired, and time for me is a copious commodity, it’s particularly good advice. But, alas, my Type A personality nurtured by a culture in which efficacy is revered cannot deal with it.
Best Advice: If you’re not long (very long) on patience, then try before you buy in Mexico. Rent for at least two years.
3. Third big issue – Trash!! Here is another area where the Mexican attitude and mine are polar opposites. My European roots dictate that I make every effort to keep my “home area” clean (how far your area of responsibility actually extends is a personal matter, but most likely includes the street in front of your home).
A Mexican’s home area stops literally at the walls of the casa. This becomes clear when, as part of a morning’s rituals, all the dirt and debris from inside the house and yard is sweep out into the street. I used to marvel at my neighbors in Progreso as they fastidiously swept everything from their property into the street every morning where, of course, it was tracked, or blown back in as the day went on.
A walk along the Progreso malecon (“boardwalk” to gringos) was a bi-polar experience. There were palm trees, white sand beaches, the ocean, and trash everywhere. Worse yet, the number of stray dogs that used the malecon as a public bathroom was unconscionable. And, bear in mind that there was a mighty effort made by the city to keep the malecon clean because it pulled in the tourists. Go four streets back from the beach, and all efforts at gringo-style cleanliness stopped.
I found the same thing in Merida, Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Obviously, Mexicans are aware of the cultural conflict because they keep the tourist areas clean, but back home in the poblano (“hood”), the street’s a dumpster.
Best Advice: Get used to it, or live in “gringo” or tourist areas which are more expensive because they pay for things like picking up the trash and cleaning the sidewalks.
4. The last BIG issue was the business culture. And, I’m not talking about the problem of showing up late for appointments. The overriding aspect of Mexican business culture is best described as a “predatory” attitude toward customers. They go through the motions of “customer service,” but they are fundamentally “motions” without substance. And, make no mistake, they will not pass up a chance to “gig” you financially.
First and foremost, you’re a gringo, therefore you are rich and need to be fleeced for the good of the Mexican economy. But, truly the attitude is universally applied, and a Mexican is just as much a target as someone from outside of the country. However, Mexicans, having been schooled their entire lives in these practices, have developed sharp “consumer defenses (aka dickering).” The irony is that a price that has an enormous profit margin to a Mexican entrepreneur is often a bargain to a gringo.
Best Advice: Go in with “low expectations” about getting real satisfaction. Good deals are plentiful, but good customer service is rare. Accept that you have no leverage if they have your money. And, learn to dicker no matter how good the deal appears to be.
As with any transaction, living in Mexico has benefits and drawbacks. After two years of life in “Paradise,” I found I was not happy enough with living on white sand beaches, crystal clear ocean waters and beautiful geography to keep trying to deal with the frustrations of life in Mexico. Seems petty, doesn’t it? But, for me the “snow bird” life is the way to go – in the future, I will visit in the winter months only. This eliminates many of the frustrations of dealing with business and government, relegates the “trashiness” to a part-time annoyance, while still allowing me to enjoy the gorgeous scenery, a beach life and warm winters.