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7 Commandments of Living as an Expat in Mexico

by Martina Žoldoš Dec 7, 2017

I never really gave it a good thought when my partner suggested I should move with him to his home country of Mexico. I had been traveling through Mexico for months and, with each day, I fell in love with the country and its people even more, so I said yes instantly. But when I finally put down my luggage and settled, I realized that traveling and living in a place were two totally different things. Here are the challenges I faced upon moving to Mexico.

1. Thou shalt not ask if the food is spicy, though shalt ask if it has chili.

In Mexico, every dish is seasoned with at least one of the 200 varieties of chili growing there. Mexicans start to consume chili as children, many of them at the age of 3 or less, so it’s not surprising that their perception of spiciness differs so much from ours, foreigners’. A number of times, a waiter or a cook ensured me that a dish “no pica nada” (it’s not spicy at all), but I ended up giving the food to my partner because it was impossible for me to eat. Slowly but painfully, I learned that if I wanted to avoid a burning mouth, watering eyes, endless sneezing and gastritis I have to stop asking if the food is spicy but ask if it contains chili instead.

2. Thou shalt get accustomed to driving in chaos.

I obtained an international driving license in Slovenia before moving to Mexico so I wouldn’t depend on public transportation or my partner to get around. It seemed easier to pay 30 EUR for a piece of paper than going through the process of acquiring a Mexican license. But once in Mexico, I found out that the traffic police didn’t consider the paper valid even though the country is on the list of signatory states.

The good thing about getting a license in Mexico is that the driving classes aren’t mandatory, so you save yourself some money; however, you do need to visit the local Vehicle and Licensing Office and pass the theory test. I did it in a time when my Spanish was pretty basic, so while I was acquainted with traffic signs and rules, I hardly understood any of the questions I was asked — it was pure luck that I passed. Nevertheless, if you fail you can repeat it the next day, and the next day, and the next day without spending much money, until you’re successful.
But the real challenge is sitting behind the wheel. Inconsiderate drivers who never use indicators, frequently go through red lights, and pass you on the right are all too common. Giant potholes and unmarked speed bumps make driving a living hell.

3. Thou shalt take safety seriously.

The statistics on homicides and kidnappings portray Mexico as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and this year is about to break records in being the most violent one since the beginning of this kind of data compilation.

Soon after I moved to Puebla, somebody burgled our house. It was during daylight and our house was in an enclosed area that was under surveillance. My friends talked about how they got mugged with firearms pointed at their face, or how their family members were kidnapped and killed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’ll inevitably end up being the victim of a crime; however, it is wise to follow certain rules and avoid situations that increase the odds. As a woman, it’s not recommended that you take a cab alone (rather grab an Uber, Cabify, or Laudrive, a service offered in Mexico City only to women by women chauffeurs) or walk the street after 10 PM. When you go out at night, it might be wiser to leave the credit card at home and bring only the necessary amount of cash. Don’t take a public bus when you’re carrying expensive and important objects, such as a laptop or a professional camera. Stay really close to your children in public places and hold their hands while walking the street. Don’t leave your bag hanging from a chair when you’re in a bar or restaurant, rather keep it in your lap. And regularly send messages to your partner, children, friends or any other trustworthy person about your whereabouts when you leave your house or job.

4. Thou shalt have a hard time staying away from unhealthy food.

Mexicans eat an awful lot of junk. A typical daily menu in a restaurant never includes salad; street food is either deep fried or extremely greasy; Sunday family lunches are made of tacos and gallons of soda; and parties are all about snacks and candies, stuffed with dozens of artificial preservatives, colorings, and flavorings.

While it’s easier for you as an adult to avoid unhealthy food, it’s pretty impossible to impose such rule to a small child when all their friends indiscriminately eat everything served. I also can’t control what my daughter consumes when she stays for a day or two with her grandparents.

Part of the solution to this unhealthy eating is preparing your own food. Check carefully the labels when shopping and cook as much as you can. The good thing is that fruits and vegetables grow here year-around, so they’re always fresh and cheap.

5. Thou shalt remain patient.

Time in Mexico is relative. Everything is done at a slow pace and everybody is always late, so you better get used to it otherwise you’ll lose your mind.

If a concert is scheduled at 8 PM, the crew is probably only arranging the stage at that time. If you have an appointment with a friend at 3 PM, she’ll still be having a shower at 3:10 PM. If someone sends you a message letting you know that they’ll be here in 10 minutes, you won’t see them before half an hour, at least. And if a plumber tells you he’ll finish the work in a week, expect it to be two.

So, if you invite friends to dinner and you don’t want to see the food getting cold while you’re waiting for them, tell them to come an hour earlier. If somebody tells you he’ll send the documents “ahorita” (now) it may mean in half an hour or never, so don’t hesitate to regularly remind him of his duty.

6. Thou shalt not be too direct.

In the first couple of years, my partner warned me several times that I was being rude to the people. According to him, I didn’t ask for the jam politely enough, and it was really unfriendly for me to hang up the phone on a woman who was trying to convince me to get a bank loan even though I had repeated at least three times that I wasn’t interested. He also considered inappropriate to complain or express my disagreement too openly, whether it had to do with a badly-prepared food in a restaurant or an opinion in a family reunion.

Later on, when a Slovenian friend visited Mexico for three months, I realized it was a cultural thing. Do say “please” and “thank you” often; when you meet people treat them as if they were your best friends even if you barely know them; and choose your world wisely when you wish to express your disagreement.

7. Parents shalt deal with illogical school workdays.

Almost all private kindergartens have relatively short workdays. Most of them open at 9 AM and close at 1 PM, offering daycare for extra money until 3 PM maximum. Besides, every last Friday of the month, children stay at home since that’s when teachers have their meetings. And then there are Teacher’s Day, Mother’s Day, Spring Day, etc. when the school is closed.

Such school workdays can be a problem if you’re a working parent. Most formal positions start work at 9 AM and finish at 6 AM, with a two-hour break — that’s when parents usually pick up their children and leave them in care with their grandparents. So, unless you have relatives that can babysit your kids or have a freelancing job that allows you to manage your own schedule, you might have a problem.

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