Stop Thinking Like an American

It’s Mexico. That’s one of our popular refrains when, for better or for worse, things don’t work out the way we thought they would.

We say it a lot. Like when fireworks wake us at six in the morning and when the only avocados in the market are hard enough to use as baseballs and we want to make guacamole today. We say it when the guy who is supposed to deliver our bed frames calls to tell us that the brakes on his truck aren’t working and he’ll see us in a few days.

It’s a phrase that has taken the place of all the curse words we used to say when things didn’t work out the way we wanted them too in the U.S. and an acknowledgment that Mexico is sure as heck trying, but not quite firing on all cylinders.

The pace is slower in Mexico - not everyone is trying to make that last dollar or be the first in line. And that suits us just fine. I take it as a sign I am doing something right when cars pass me because I’m driving too slowly.

Yes, inconvenience can be annoying at times, but usually it’s nothing a deep breath can’t cure. And after all, it’s kind of what we signed up for in the first place. The idea that every day can be a different adventure.

Lingerie Shop

After Spanish language class on Wednesday, I was in the Fantasy Shop buying my wife new underwear when I realized that I only had a 500 peso note for an 80 peso purchase. Of course, the woman at the counter didn’t have change for such a large note, so I asked her to hold onto the lacy panties I had picked out while I went down the street to break the bill.

My plan was to go into a different store and buy something that cost less than 500 pesos so they would have to make change. But the only other stores on the block were a store selling door knobs, a tienda that had only cookies and sodas, and a coffee place (not a Starbucks.) Since I didn’t really want any of those things, I kept walking.

Finally, I came to a paleteria. A paleteria is a store that sells popsicles. It was a hot day so the paleteria was crowded. When it finally came to my turn, I ordered a grape popsicle and handed the woman the 500 peso note for the 8 peso popsicle. She didn’t have change so she gave me the popsicle for free.

That was very nice, but it didn’t solve my change problem. There was a small grocery store around the corner and I went in and wandered up and down the aisle (yes, aisle, as in singular.) There wasn’t really anything that I wanted here either so I settled for a can of cold beer for 16 pesos. I was indulging myself with the popsicle and beer, but I really wanted that underwear.

Despite having only a single aisle, the grocery store had a real cash register with money in it - many places just ring you up on a calculator and drop the money in a basket - and was able to make change for my 500 peso note.


With cold beer in hand (but a little bit hidden, the law on walking around with open containers depends on the officer you meet), I went back to the paleteria to pay my debt, and then to the Fantasy Shop to get the underwear.

By this time, two MegaCable guys (MegaCable is one of the internet providers in town) who had been working on the lines across the street from the Fantasy Shop when I was browsing earlier had decided to take a break and were standing in the doorway of the lingerie place next to the styrofoam torsos that were modeling fancy bras.

We exchanged pleasantries as I made my way into the store and as I made mental note of the sexiness of the bras on the busty torsos. I gave the woman at the counter a 100 peso note, got 20 pesos change, put the panties in my backpack, and exchanged pleasantries with the cable guys on my way out.

The Sewers

When I was in sixth grade I walked to school with my neighbor each morning. One morning, we found ourselves in possession of two croquet balls and decided we would kick them to school. Part of our walk crossed a small creek and we thought it would be fun to drop the balls in the creek and help them float their way through the eddies and small dams formed by collected leaves and sticks until they ran up on a sand bar near the mouth of a large storm drain. Then we’d bring the balls back to the bridge, drop them in again, and scramble back down the bank to help them maneuver the current. We’d do it over and over until we decided we had to get to school. We did that every morning for a week.

The storm drain next to the sand bar was wide enough to enter standing up. I remember Steven and I standing at the entrance, balls in hand, and talking about going in. But we could see it was dark and muddy. And we thought there were probably rats in the dark.

At the end of the week, our school principal took our balls from us because we had been more than 30 minutes late five days in a row. We forgot about the storm drain.

More than 40 years later, I learned Parque Juarez in San Miguel de Allende also has a storm drain. One morning during the gym class I teach at my kids’ school, I overheard some kids talking about going into the tunnel and immediately recalled the storm drain from my own youth. I was intrigued, but I’m almost fifty and didn’t think I could pull together any friends to join me on the venture. I forgot about the storm drain.

A few days later I got a WhatsApp message from a friend in town. Her son was planning a trip into the storm drain with a few others and she wasn’t going to let him go unless he had an adult chaperone. Since I am almost fifty, I qualified as an adult chaperone. I’m not entirely sure why she thought I might be interested in going into the sewers.


Nevertheless, I quickly agreed to join the team, grabbed my son (who was game) and hustled over to the park. I was a little nervous; not because of what we might find in the sewer, it’s Mexico, after all, but because I thought that we might be stopped from going in.

The four boys and I had to scramble down a steep embankment to the dry river bed to get to the storm drain. In the rainy season, this would be a bad idea, but in February, the river bed is bone dry. There were two uniformed guards standing at the edge of the embankment as we approached and I thought our adventure was going to end before it started, but as soon as it was clear what we were doing, they left.

Once on the river floor, the storm drain sat silently in front of us like a gigantic mouse hole. Peering in we could see the floor was dry and dusty. Nobody hesitated. With flashlights blazing, we went in.

The passage was wider than my arm span, but we walked single file through the flat and mostly dry corridor. There were pools of scummy water scattered here and there which we easily traversed, a few rats scurrying away from us, and some cockroaches disappearing into the wall crevices. It was everything I imagined walking into a storm drain would be like and we all chatted loudly and comfortably as if we were taking a walk in the park on a dark and dank day and not fifteen feet below one of the busiest streets in the city

Finally, we came to an obstacle. A pipe from the wall was spewing liquid into the passage at a brisk pace, and beyond that, a layer of human feces lined the hallway for 20 yards. The shit was crustified enough that it looked just like yellowed concrete and if the pipe hadn’t created an obvious barrier, we may have just walked right into it thinking it was part of the floor. Instead, as we stood and contemplated what to do about crossing the water, we discovered what the shit was by throwing rocks into it.

As it was, one could navigate over the pipe without getting wet and then onto a narrow ledge built alongside the shit trough and that extended past it.. One of the boys had brought along a broomstick with a plunger placed where the broom head would go - the boy had vision. Using this as leverage to keep from falling off the slightly angled ledge, he was able to shuffle along the narrow walkway to where the passage was clear. Then he could pass the plunger back for the next boy to use. Each boy did this in turn.

J, my son, was the last boy to go. When he reached the far end, all the boys looked back at me.

I thought, I’m almost fifty years old and have so far managed to not fall into a cesspool of someone else’s shit. Let today not be the day when that changes.

I politely declined the plunger, encouraged them to go on, and made my way back to the entrance where I texted my friend to let her know everything was fine.

Temporary Import Permit (TIP)

To bring a car into Mexico you need to get a “Temporary Import Permit” (TIP) from Aduana (like Mexican customs for cars.) The validity of the TIP is tied to the expiration date of the visa of the person that is bringing the car into the country.

In our case this meant that the TIP we got for Wesley when we crossed the border in August would expire in January when R’s temporary resident visa expired.

Of course, in true Mexican style, the visa and TIP are issued by different offices in different cities. And the process requires that the TIP renewal be initiated prior to the visa renewal, which requires one to make a second trip to Aduana once one has the valid visa in hand. This would be fine if the Aduana office wasn’t an hour drive away. Ah well, it’s Mexico.

On our first trip to Aduana, the officials did what they needed to do to start the renewal process for the TIP and told us to come finalize the paperwork “the day after” R received her temporary visa.

Park Rules in US County Park - mere suggestions in Mexico

Park Rules in US County Park - mere suggestions in Mexico

We’ve been in Mexico long enough to know that manana, which means tomorrow, really only means “not today.” So when the seamstress who is patching a hole in the crotch of your pants because your wife decided the tear had become too big for you to continue to wear the pants in public tells you that she’ll be done manana, it really just means come back later in the week and I’ll see if I’ve gotten to it.

Our water and gas delivery is subject to the same whims. We’ll call and be told that they’ll be to our place in 30 minutes - very specific. But when they still haven’t come the next day we’ll call back and be told, yeah, we came by but there wasn’t a place to park so we kept going. We’ll be there in thirty minutes.

We figured that Aduana telling R to come “the day after” she got her visa renewal was similar to the line we’ve been fed by the seamstress or delivery guys; all it really meant is “come after you get your visa extended.”

And that’s what we did. About a week after R’s temporary visa was extended for three years, we drove to Aduana and finalized the TIP papers. If the official handling our papers was ticked off about us waiting an entire week to show, he didn’t make any bones about it. He may have just stepped into the back room, taken a few deep breaths and said, ah well, it’s Mexico.