During the Peace Corps job interview, I was asked if I would be comfortable sharing my skills, adapting them, and learning new skills as needed. It was pointed out that I may need to alter my appearance or style of dress, compromise my diet, and/or play by different gender roles.
I vaguely remember talking about eating Pig Blood Soup as a vegetarian while in Southeast Asia, and in always keeping my knees covered, despite the blazing heat in West Africa.
Living in Mexico proves no different. I have adapted many different behaviors over the past six months. Here is a quick brainstorm of 15 funny new habits. Keep in mind, there are many others!
1) Making internet to-do lists. On average, I access the internet once per week. At first, this was a problem. Once I finally got online, I would forget more than half of what I had planned to do apart from email and checking Face. Recently I started making internet to-do lists. Bam! Marked increase in productivity.
2) Always carrying stuff. What are you carrying in here, rocks?? This is a common question when someone helps me with my heavy backpack. But I don’t know how to do anything differently; Mexico is constantly throwing me curve balls. When I arrive at the office for a quiet day of report writing, I will suddenly find myself in a truck and head out for a meeting – topic still unknown – that ends up lasting most of the day. When I try to meet up with a colleague, they will cancel on me – luckily freeing me up to go trail running with a friend who happens by my waiting spot. In my experience, planning is done last-minute and impromptu. Lesson? Always be prepared. Which means that my bag has become my Batman Utility Belt. Except instead of making me look cool, I look like a turtle.
3) Consistently arriving late. Time is a cultural construct, and from my American perspective everyone here shows up late. Am I going to be the chump who always sits around waiting because I insist on sticking to my cultural idea of timeliness? I don’t think so. I am happy to culturally adapt to this one. Plus, even when I try to be on time, some other factor confounds the process: public transit is running late; I run into a friend in town and, in order to avoid being rude, I stop to chat for a while; a stranger spots me walking down the street and wants to tell me about their life in the United States or to ask when I will teach them English; et cetera. I know, I know… If everyone else jumps off of a bridge…
4) Carrying toilet paper, and throwing the used stuff in the trashcan. Because you never know what amenities a bathroom might have, and because toilet paper is too much for the sewage system in Mexico.
5) Allowing men to open doors, give up their seats, and walk into entrances behind me. In the USA, I am not accustomed to these behaviors. Instead, I am used to being treated in a manner that, for the most part, disregards my sex. Not so in Mexico. A man is not a caballero, or a gentleman, if he does not treat ladies accordingly. It took a little getting used to, but now I know how to play along.
6) Texting. I have always disliked texting; it takes too long to type out a clear and concise message. But that is just too bad here; texting is by far the cheapest way to communicate and plan meet-ups. It drives me a bit crazy, but I have become slightly more tolerant and accustomed to this means of communication. The hardest part was learning Spanish text lingo: Wy = guey (dude). Q = que. d = de. My personal favorite, xfa = por favor (please).
7) Staring at sidewalks, or walking with a light step. Especially important when trying to text and walk at the same time (SEE ABOVE). I think that this is actually a good metaphor for living life in a culture that is not your own; watch carefully how you move and act, and expect a few unseen “potholes”, “sidewalk surprises” left from dogs, and “sudden stops in paved ground.”
8) Refusing dance requests after three dances. I get it; I am unique and interesting here. Because of this, I receive more than my fair share of attention from single guys. No amount of talking about “the special guy back home” seems to deter them. I have been told – only half-jokingly – Una vez al año no hace daño, una vez al mes que rico es, which translates to “Once a year doesn’t hurt, once a month is wonderful.” All in the hopes that I might take on a temporary Mexican boyfriend. To be safe, I have established a basic set of rules to ensure that I am not giving off the wrong impression: limit the number of times I will dance with someone; never go somewhere alone with a single man; think ahead about how I can leave places if needed; and never never never invite a man over to my house…ever.
9) Looking like I am eating lots of food in avoidance of overeating. This is one extraordinarily hospitable culture, and a big part of the hospitality is all about food. Awesome, right? Except that Mexican mamas assume that your refusal for yet another delicious bowl of soup are insincere. I would really love to because it is soooo delicious, but I have already had a full bowl with tortillas, and those quesadillas and chalupas before…I couldn’t eat another bite! is read to mean I really want another serving, but am embarrassed to ask for more. Hopefully she will insist on offering another serving. My method to avoid overeating: eat slowly, push food around the plate to look like I am busy eating, and to be insistent with my refusals. Because even when full, it is still rude to refuse the cake and coffee that follow the meal.
10) Dropping stress. Life can be downright uncomfortable and/or inconvenient for all of us, right? I know that this is true in Mexico: the mail takes 3 to 5 weeks to arrive, if it arrives at all; sometimes I am crammed into a van with 20 other people, being jostled over 30 speed bumps in 20 minutes, and baking in the sun; sometimes people talk on cell phones in movie theaters and during meetings without excusing themselves. But you know what? Inconveniences are a part of life and most of them are temporary. So why get all bent out of shape all of the time? All that it accomplishes is adding a sour attitude on top of the inconvenience. Being in Mexico has taught me that if you give up the need to control things, if you just go with the flow, stress evaporates and life is just better.
11) Being self-confident despite knowing that, in all likelihood, everyone thinks that I am really, really weird. A single girl in her 30s? Living without her family… in a house by herself and in a different country altogether? Who communicates in such a direct, court manner? Who chose to volunteer in Mexico when she could work in the United States? And who could have been paid much more money? Who likes to go running and doesn’t add sugar in her coffee? Maybe my compañeros don’t understand my lifestyle. But they certainly seem interested in learning more about it, and that is awesome! Check out Peace Corps’ goal #2.
13) Rolling my tortillas. Burritos don’t exist in my Mexico. Using tortillas on the table to make tacos? Totally American! The locals make fun of us when we make our little tacos. Instead, locals prefer to roll the starchy warm staple into a cigar shaped tube so that they can better push food around with their edible fork. Most people here are so practiced at rolling tortillas that they can do it in under two seconds using only one hand! Now it is your turn. Go grab a corn tortilla and practice your rolling skills!
14) Finding the right shop for each need. Broken zipper on your backpack? Of course, head to the shoe repair shop just south of the central plaza. Looking for candles, avocados, dish soap, batteries, and a hammer? The large outdoor market is your spot, and it is next to the public transit stop! Supplies to build a fence? That one was tricky to learn because the word for fence, cerca, is the same as the word for near and around…try being a foreigner asking locals for a nearby shop that sells near materials. It results in many confused faces and a lot of pantomiming.
15) Being conscious about every drop of water. In my town, the water supply is turned on once per week. During the dry season, it only comes twice per month, filling a reserve tank for each house in town. If it runs out, too bad. You have to wait until the town commissioner turns on the tap again. Because of this, I have become hyper aware of flowing water. Flushing the toilet every time is a luxury that I cannot afford. Letting the tap run while brushing my teeth or washing my face; I don’t think so. Washing the dishes involves filling one bowl with water and trying to use only that water to soak and scrub all other dishes before the costly rinse cycle. Allowing the cold water to flow down the drain before the shower gets hot; no way. There is always a bucket to collect pre-shower water. I use it for watering plants and doing my laundry! Speaking of laundry, since I wash it by hand, I know that it takes a lot of water. Because of this, I wear most clothes several times before washing and opt to spot-clean between loads. Does this make you think differently about your own water consumption?
BONUS! Being blond. Take a look at the following picture and tell me what they all, save one, have in common? They are all blond. At least if you are Mexican. After being called blond all of the time, I finally asked a friend about hair colors. To her, all but the bottom right color are blond. The bottom right was labeled as “cafe.”
NOTE: I am still encouraging questions about Mexico, Mexican culture, or anything else that you might come up with. Ask them here!
Making me smile, Guest Edition (aka, why you should visit!)
- The relaxed way of life: getting up with the sun, going to bed when it gets too cold, and enjoying the time in between
- Eating good street food on tiny chairs in a lively market in a small town, all the while sharing the table with someone who excitedly shows me a picture of his two-year-old son
- Waking up at 7 am to more than 50 sheep baaahhhhing in front of the bedroom window
- The puzzled look on Mexican faces when they hear that the Blondie is not, actually, from the United States, but rather from Europe
- Having a backpack repaired in a shop where the storekeeper doesn’t look at you like you are crazy for wanting to actually repair something
- Seeing the locals repurpose items, eg. buying picked chilies from the market that are packed in a reused Nescafe jar
- Great vistas, clean mountain air, amazing hikes
- Appreciating internet when you have it, being able to unplug when you don’t
- Spending time in a hammock/in front of a smoky fireplace/breakfasting in the sun outside
- Running around in a t-shirt in February! (during the day only)