There is no perfect life to be had. If you are older than 15, you already know this but that never stopped anyone from working hard to find their “best life” as Oprah says, nor should it!
At some point, you realized that you were never going to be an NBA, NHL or NFL athlete. Your dreams of becoming a ballerina, Supreme Court Justice or a world-class architect to rival Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t pan out and your life found its own rhythm and path, enduring hardship and celebrating joy along the way. Perhaps there was a marriage…or marriages and children.
So it is with my life! While I try to remain ever grateful for the wonderful things about living in Cancun, Mexico and remember the amazing adventures of living in Ecuador, my life as an expat is certainly not without challenges and not at all what I expected!
As I was searching for a reason to further delay my morning five-mile walk, I remembered I needed to prepare a post for my blog. As I had been recently grumbling to myself about a few things… here, in no particular order, are the top three things I don’t like about my life as an expat.
1. Driving and Highway Safety
Having driven a variety of vehicles (both 2 wheeled and 4 wheeled) in a number of different countries, I have observed that the drivers in the U.S. and Canada may be the sanest and most courteous drivers I’ve experienced. I know that’s a broad, general statement but it’s true!
I have no idea why the drivers I’ve encountered in other countries drive so dangerously and very fast. They are often seen cutting in and out of traffic, passing on blind curves and creating extra lanes without regard for road stripes or marked lanes (if stripes even exist). I was recently driving with another couple in the back seat of our car here in Cancun. We had some shopping to do and errands to run. We were on the road for a bit over 2 hours altogether. When we returned safely to our complex, the other couple thanked me profusely for keeping them safe and alive. They commented on the horrendous driving they had witnessed all around us. I chuckled inwardly, realizing that one’s first experience on these roads will almost certainly be a bit nerve wracking! I’m certain my defensive driving skills have improved immensely over the past few years. Truly, one must expect any of the drivers around you to do anything at any time. Once you actually understand that most important survival strategy, it gets easier!
It is not uncommon for drivers, especially taxi drivers, to pull out from the curb directly in front of you without any signaling and virtually no time to react. Buses are the worst as there is no way they can enter the traffic flow without simply forcing their way into the stream. No one offers any courtesy for merging traffic. It is simply a matter of having enough guts and horsepower to jam yourself into the smallest possible opening, hoping the oncoming drivers will tap their brakes long enough to avoid a collision. I stopped counting the number of “close calls” I have had, now understanding that this is simply the norm. Even Diane has stopped with the apontaneous shrieks and “bracing for impact” postures she regularly displayed the first couple of months. Now, her warnings, when they come, are greatly appreciated. We have come to consider driving as a team effort with both of us on-guard for the “other guy”. When I drive alone, it requires extraordinary concentration.
Me: “But officer, he was backing up, blindly, into oncoming traffic… going the wrong way down an entrance ramp to the highway…pulling a trailer.
Police Officer: Yes, but he had his flashers on.
It’s as if the flashers are a bright neon light proclaiming to the world, “THIS DRIVER IS AN IDIOT AND IS LIKELY TO DO ANYTHING AT ANY TIME INCLUDING:
A. U-TURNS IN HEAVY TRAFFIC
B. STOPPING IN THE MIDDLE OF A TWO- LANE BRIDGE TO TAKE FAMILY PHOTOS
C. PARKING FOR A SHOPPING TRIP WHILE LEAVING THE CAR UNATTENDED AND COMPLETELY BLOCKING TRAFFIC
D. SPEEDING THROUGH CROWDED STREETS AT BREAKNECK SPEEDS
E. STANDING ON THE BRAKES TO DISCHARGE A PASSENGER IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LANE… AT RUSH HOUR… WITHOUT WARNING AND WAITING WHILE MULTIPLE PIECES OF LUGGAGE ARE UNLOADED AND CARRIED TO THE CURB ACROSS 3 LANES OF TRAFFIC.”
Yes, I’ve seen all that and worse! For further amusement, streets signs are rare and poorly placed, traffic signals are often ignored, speed bumps and pedestrian crosswalks can be found in the middle of freeways, slowing traffic from breakneck speeds to a crawl in an instant, WITHOUT WARNING.
Okay, so the driving habits are a bit extreme. But that doesn’t explain the absolutely non-sensical design of intersections and highways in general. Intersections often bring together 4-7 roads at one point, all joined by a rotary or round-a-bout. If you live someplace where these types of intersections do not exist, they can best be described as a paved, circular center hub with the intersecting roads appearing as spokes on a wheel. Again, courtesy does not exist and the drivers all must merge into the circle-hub and drive around until they have successfully maneuvered themselves to exit on the correct spoke as they pass. The most aggressive drivers do this on the first go ‘round while I have often circled 2-3 times, slowly working myself across the multiple lanes of traffic while trying to find the correct, unmarked spoke to make my exit. There is horn honking, rude finger gestures, wild arm and hand signals and, in my case, much adult-language conversation inside my car, even if I am alone!
2. Live for Today!
That is the primary driving force, it seems, behind all actions that I’ve noticed in both Ecuador and Mexico. On the surface, that might sound great! After all, none of us knows exactly how much time we have left. Live for this moment! We’ve all heard it. Both Diane and I have tried to adopt a bit of that lifestyle for ourselves.
But here’s what that means as we live within a culture where that is the prime directive. And before I begin, please know that this is a broad, general statement that is not intended to cover all people in every Latin American country.
Many vendors of goods and services seem not to be concerned about repeat business; this sale at this moment…that’s all that matters! They will do their best to maximize their profit on a single sale with seemingly little concern for future business. And when I say maximize their profit, I mean some of them will excessively overcharge for goods and services as much as possible. It is up to the buyer to recognize this and either negotiate a better price or walk away. This is true for taxis, small restaurants, many small retail stores and even some government offices where “official fees” are often negotiable. While we encountered this in Ecuador, it is worse here in Cancun where most gringos are here on a short-term vacation. The businesses know they will only be here for a week or two and there are many others waiting in line behind them.
Shopping deep in the heart of the city, where tourists rarely go is where the deals are to be found. I simply do not like being on-guard at all times. I’m used to it now…but I still don’t like it! I once paid WAY too much for a small bottle of special Tequila blended with Almonds. It was spectacular as the vendor offered me a taste. It was “quite rare” and “difficult to find”, he said. I bit! I paid his outlandish price, ONCE. A couple of months later, I found the same product in a much larger bottle for a fraction of what I had originally paid. Did I feel like an idiot? Yep! But guess what? That vendor has never received one more dollar from me; nor will he!
I fully recognize that all countries have unscrupulous business people from auto mechanics to general building contractors. They, too, take as much as they can at the moment not expecting any return business. With enough volume and few immediate consequences, that unethical business model actually works.
I was recently having this conversation with a very successful Mexican business owner. He owns a very large, internationally known food franchise with locations throughout Mexico. He was actually the one who brought up and explained the “live for the moment” philosophy, recognizing how much harm many local businesses do to themselves in the long run. He simply acknowledged that is a deeply rooted cultural benchmark, with no change in the foreseeable future anticipated. Buyer beware!!!
3. The Language Barrier
As I have often said, I am not yet fluent in the Spanish language, although I continue to do my best each day. I miss being able to converse on a wide variety of topics and I hate sounding like a nitwit with folks I’ve just met! I get by but I miss a lot of what is being said. I may grasp the general tone and context of a conversation but it is hard to participate beyond the basics. Yesterday, while killing time wandering through a Big Box store, I was approached by a representative who wanted to show me a gorgeous, HUGE flat panel television set. When I told her that I already had a television and this particular television was way too big for my small living room, she proceeded to ask me questions about what type of television I had; brand, size, technical information, etc. Because my initial conversation with her went well, she presumed that I was a fluent Spanish speaker. I had to stop her and explain that I only spoke a small amount of Spanish. I then asked her to slow down and repeat her questions. Then, I could figure out what she was asking and crafted answers. She was patient. She smiled when I was done and complimented me on my Spanish. Yeah…right!
Earlier in the day, I had taken some neighbors to check out some rental car prices at a few of the local agencies. They speak absolutely no Spanish so not only was I providing their transportation but I was also acting as their interpreter and negotiator. We entered the first office and I sailed through the conversation, immediately answering all questions and negotiated a price for them. I repeated that performance several more times at other offices until they had found the best van and price they wanted. When we were done, they told me how great my Spanish was. Ha! You should have been with me in Sam’s Club!
Like I said in the beginning of this piece, there is no perfect life anywhere on the planet and even though our lives as expats may not be perfect, they’re pretty damned great! I actually had to work pretty hard to come up with this list of 3 things I didn’t like.