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Nine Steps To A Happy Life In Mexico

by Maggie Van Ostrand

Maggie Van Ostrand
Moving to Mexico isn't a matter of simply relocating to another country with your belongings. No indeedy. Of the many things you might expect to find south of the border, the most important can be Recovery from Cultural Shock. This generally takes three to six months; constant vigilance is imperative if you wish to survive and enjoy your new life.

Having lived either full- or part-time in Mexico since the mid-90's, I'll be happy to share with you a few survival tidbits based on personal experience. Here are nine cultural shocks to watch out for:

1. The Clean Air: Unless you're from a farm in the wide open spaces, Mexico's clean air can kill you. I'm originally from New York and never did trust air I couldn't see. Accustoming oneself to breathing clean air can take time, but you can do it. Not seeing soot float by your eyes can be disturbing at first, but hang in there and the craving for dirty air will fade over time. At night, the silence caused by the fact that you no longer wheeze might create insomnia; not to worry, it's only temporary.

2. The Smiling Faces: Coming from another country, it's not easy to learn to drop your guard against strangers. The years you spent learning to protect yourself from strangers are wasted, alas, and you will have to learn to smile back at people when you live in Mexico. Smiling back isn't as difficult as it sounds unless you're Canadian; it seems to take Canadians a little longer to get friendly. For citizens of other countries, you may at first feel your cheeks cracking with the unfamiliar effort of reacting positively to the smile of a stranger. We visitors tend to think it's our country and that they're the foreigners. If you see a hand sticking out somewhere beneath the Mexican stranger's face, either shake it and say "buenos dias" or drop a peso into it. If however, the hand you drop the peso into belongs to a policeman, you might be arrested for insulting an officer.

3. The Living Traffic: While it's true that traffic can be irksome in heavily populated areas of Mexico, it wasn't that way until we got there, so try to be tolerant. Also kindly remember that livestock cross the highway at will and in Mexico, chickens have the right of way.

4. The Sounds: Nothing is so energizing to the human soul as a display of colorful fireworks. No special occasion is required to benefit onlookers with a dazzling array of color and sound. Fireworks are perfectly legal in Mexico and are occasionally loud enough to enable even the deaf to suddenly shout, "Eureka! I can hear!!!" One might suspect the presence of Oral Roberts, but he isn't there. It's just nature's way of enabling the hearing-impaired to again enjoy the sounds of life. The very least this phenomenon accomplishes is melting the wax in the ears of the post-elderly.

5. The Music: At first, you might not care for the music of Mexico, until you compare it to the rapping hip-hop of certain other countries. I once considered Mexican music the cuspidor of sound, naive fool that I was. The truth is that one hasn't lived until one hears a solo rendition of "Sentimental Journey" played with gusto and saliva on a dented tuba. Mexican music is best defined as "quirkily international," since it's sort of Swiss, sort of Spanish, sort of German, sort of Little Richard, with a soupçon of Sousa. In fact, if Mexican music could take human form, it would have a huge frenetic mustache, gentle, slumberous eyes, and its fly would be open.

6. The Wildlife: Do not pull the tail of large black animals who have horns, unless you are very young or have a new pair of Nikes. The ensuing chase by such creatures can result in shortness of breath; yours not theirs. There is no need to fear scorpions; they do not fear us. In fact, they love us enough to live in our shoes while we sleep and sometimes drop right off the ceiling and onto our heads. Do not feed the mice; they are extremely intelligent and crave our attention to the extent where they have been known to dance right across the floor, totally nude, right in front of us. Nothing to fear, that's how Walt Disney started.

7. The Language: Unlike the United States of America which has no official language, there certainly is an official language in Mexico -- English.
If you feel the need, you may rent the videos of "Destinos," hire a tutor, send for Pimsleur or whatever schooling you fancy as the most efficient way to learn Spanish. You will frequently find it wasted, since often when you ask a Mexican a question in Spanish, you'll get an answer in English. Try to utilize Spanish with your American and Canadian friends only. Better yet, confine it to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

8. Meeting A Mate: If you are a single woman, you are definitely relocating to the right place. Although Mexican men prefer Mexican women, there are plenty of North American men looking for a mate. Beware of the question, "So how much money did you say you had?" as this can cause friction between your children and your new friend. Even if you yourself have passed your "sell by" date, keep your eyes peeled for a fresh male. Remember that it's far more beneficial to fall into a man's arms than into his hands.

9. Gossip: To ex-patriates living in Mexico, Alice Roosevelt Longworth's pithy observation can be applied, "If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me." I myself do not like to repeat gossip, but what else can you do with it?

I trust I've been of some assistance, and leave you with these words of wisdom by an anonymous someone: "First you are young; then you are middle-aged; then you are old; then you are wonderful."

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus" 2002 Column

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