Glass Half Full
My parents emigrated to Canada from England shortly after the war. As my dad tells it, someone in the family had billeted a Canadian soldier from Alberta during the war and, afterwards, he sent a 5 lb canned ham one year for Christmas. A bunch of them were sitting around getting tipsy on ruby wine and they all decided they had to go to ‘the land of 5 lb canned hams’! Six months later, my parents were the only ones who showed up at the pier. That was in 1952.
In those days, most Canadians were wary of newly arrived Brits because they would perpetually whine about how they did things wrong in Canada and how much better it was in England. Many would go back and forth repeatedly, only to be reminded of the ongoing food rationing over there, among other things, before settling down in Canada. Some of them would actually refer to Canada as ‘the colonies’! Canadian colleagues would apprehensively ask my dad how he liked it and be both surprised and delighted when he said it was great.
When we would go to Cambodia, there was a large Christian church in Phnom Penh that would proselytize to the Cambodians. In a country that was happily 95% Buddhist, this always struck me as highly condescending. It is no surprise to me that imperialism, including cultural imperialism, has such negative connotations around the world.
I know I’ve been giggling like a schoolgirl about the affordable cost of living in Mexico ever since I started this blog. For a move like this to be successful, however, it’s not enough merely to be an economic refugee. Without a broader appreciation of the people and culture, some can wind up unhappy and resentful over the many small differences. For example, I’m sitting here writing this at 6:00 am because they started setting off firecrackers in the nearby village a half hour ago, in honor of a religious festival starting this weekend. I don’t know why they do this, but it’s different!
As Mark Twain once said said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Very true. (Completely changing the subject, my favorite quote of Twain’s says, in relation to cigars, “If I cannot smoke in heaven, then I shall not go.”!)
In 2008, my wife went on a mission trip to Ghana, in west Africa. While there, the group coined an expression to reflect that things were often done differently; ‘TIA- This is Africa’. Since moving, we have modified that to ‘TIM’. You can fight it or you can relax and enjoy the ride. Remember, this is the culture that gave us the word ‘manana’ which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t mean ‘tomorrow’ but rather ‘not today’. A subtle but revealing distinction!
As luck would have it, we’re having a ‘TIM’ day today. Yesterday we had our underground water storage tank cleaned. This needs to be done every few years. You drain it down, a couple of guys go in to scrub it and then refill. This morning, no water! Turns out the pressure tank on the system needs replacing. The bad news is this was done only 18 months ago. The other bad news is the new tank won’t be ready till ‘manana’. The good news is there’s a 5 year warranty on the failed tank. Guess I’ll just have to have a swim instead of a shower tonight. Damn!
With dubious motives, a few of the expats are determined to improve the locals. They kvetch to each other on social media about everything. An example; not enough of the Mexicans speak English (someone actually said that!). Or, a couple of pedestrians were yelled at for walking obliviously two abreast on the new bike path resulting in calls to establish rules for multi-use pathways. And, the paint colors on the basketball court at the malecon are too garish (Latin colors in a Latin country, imagine that!).
Early in the pandemic, they would prowl the malecons on Sundays to make sure everyone was wearing their masks properly. Lovely! With one day a week off to walk along the lake with their families and have an ice-cream, Mexicans have to put up with hectoring by that lot. It got so divisive that some of the local social media sites no longer allow pandemic commentary.
Most expats are here on resident visas; they are not citizens and cannot vote. In addition, most do not earn money in Mexico relying, instead, on pension and investment income from abroad. Apart from absurdly low property taxes, the only tax they pay is the 16% IVA (Mexico’s GST) which is included in the already low prices for goods and services. Their presence is certainly an economic boon to the local economy but, practically speaking, they have no ‘skin in the game’. They are guests here.
Periodically, I get a stark reminder that I have no idea what day-to-day life is like for ordinary people. I may think I do, but I don’t. There are ways to get screwed over here that would never occur to me. We must seem impossibly privileged to many. The fact that most persevere as well as they do in the face of economic hardship, stifling bureaucracy and petty graft and corruption is a testament to their character. We have more to learn from them than they do from us.
You can probably tell, I don’t have much patience for self-righteous reformers. They’re like the missionaries we would see in Phnom Penh, preaching to the ‘heathen’. In one respect, I came down to Mexico to get away from their kind back in Canada. With luck, maybe I’ll expire before they succeed in ruining it here, like they already have done there!
On a more positive note, there are a variety of ways to help improve things locally and many gringos throw themselves into these initiatives. Some contribute time and money to area charities. Others assist with food drives or education and health programs. Each of our neighbors have sponsored deserving local students to post-secondary education. Expats organize a number of cultural events and fundraisers in Ajijic throughout the year. You can even volunteer, or adopt, at one of the dog rescue centers. (It’s getting better, but it can still be a tough place to be a dog!)
Even when rules do exist, they may not be enforced. For example, I’m told there actually is an ordinance prohibiting dogs in restaurants. However, gringos out with their dogs want to stop and have lunch. Restaurateurs want to sell them lunch. Voila, dogs on restaurant patios; wonderfully pragmatic (and well tolerated)!
Driving here can be an adventure. Some drive like Grandma Moses, others like Dale Earnhardt. Motorcycles pass on both the left and the right. Helmets are required but not enforced. We’ve seen entire families on a single scooter and motorcycles transporting large propane cylinders. Groups of workers commute in the backs of pickup trucks. Traffic lights are sometimes burned out and, to be safe, always assume stop signs are ‘suggestive’ rather than mandatory!
Once a year or so, our neighbors take their car to the mechanic to get all the nicks and scratches taken out that have accumulated, usually when parked in town. These are euphemistically called ‘Mexican kisses’! Best not to be too car proud here. The good news is it doesn’t cost that much. I hit one of our retaining walls backing out of the garage scratching and caving in the bumper fascia. The total repair cost including paint was less than $200!
There’s an old story about a child who receives a mountain of toys for Christmas, but is too spoiled to enjoy any of them. Another child gets a pile of horseshit and attacks it with a shovel, sure there is a pony underneath. Be the other child. Feliz navidad!