A Gringo’s Guide to Being on Time in Mexico

Arriving at social gatherings in Mexico is a true art form. For Mexicans, it comes naturally. They know exactly when to show up for parties, coffee dates, dinners, etc without offending anyone or being offended by others.

For expats, we need a few years of careful cultural study before we finally stop checking our watches in annoyance every time we plan a meetup at Sanborns. When an American says a party starts at 7pm, you can be sure that all guests will be there at 7pm (and leaving at 9pm haha). In Mexico, parties start whenever and end some time before everyone has to go to work the next morning.

Hopefully I can help you jump ahead in your quest to being on time in Mexico by laying out what I’ve learned as an American in Mexico over the past 9 years.

1. One-on-one

So you’re in Mexico, and you’ve agreed to meet someone for coffee, or maybe a late dinner. If you made these plans more than one day in advance, I’m sorry to tell you that your plans do not exist. It’s useful to check ahead to make sure the other person doesn’t already have plans for that time, but your plans aren’t official until you call or text them the day of the meeting to confirm. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Tell the person you would like to meet up with them the following day. Mention the general time (morning, lunch, dinner, night, etc), but don’t bother with an actual time just yet.

Step 2: The morning of said meeting, text or call the person with something along the lines of, “Good morning! Can you still meet me today? Does 8pm at Sanborns sound good?”

Step 3: Now we’re getting into expert level. This is my secret to saving yourself a lot of headache… Text the person 30 minutes before the scheduled time with something like, “Getting ready now! See you in half an hour. Can’t wait!” This will help ensure they don’t forget or back out. It also gives them an opening to let you know if they will be late.

Step 4: Arrive 10 minutes later than whatever time they plan to arrive. It’s ok because they will be 15 minutes late.

Step 5: If for some reason you arrive after the other person, even if it’s 30 seconds after, you have to give a lame excuse. You can just quickly say, “Sorry, traffic was bad” or whatever you want, but you have to give some reason. Otherwise it would be awkward. I don’t know why. It’s just what you do.

2. Small groups of friends

The lead-up to plans with groups of 3 – 10 friends is the same as with a one-on-one. (Confirm the day of, etc.) However, things get a little tricky because the time is likely to be pushed back further and further the closer you get. With modern technology, I recommend a text chat group with this group of friends so you can get a play-by-play. Be ready to leave your house at the set time. If you planned to meet somewhere at 8pm, that’s the time you should be putting your shoes on to leave. BUT… don’t actually leave your house until you get a text from someone saying, “Ok I’m here. Where are you guys?” This way, you won’t be the first to arrive, but you won’t be the last, either.

3. House parties

If you show up within 30 minutes of a Mexican party’s scheduled start time, congratulations: you have just earned a spot on the planning committee. If you’re a family member of the host, you’ll be asked to run to Walmart to pick up soda, paper plates and tortilla chips. If you’re not a family member, you will have to help set up chairs and tables, then sit around in awkward silence waiting for everyone else to arrive. I try to arrive 1 hour after the scheduled time. That way you’re not the first person to arrive, but you’ve still made it in time to score the best taco ingredients and see the piñata. If you have close friends or family attending the same party, you can always call or text them to see when they plan on being there.

Bonus tips!!

  • While Mexicans are rarely on time for social events, they always try to be on time for business meetings, interviews, class, doctor’s appointments, exams and movies.
  • Never, ever make plans with a Mexican on a Sunday. Sunday in Mexico is strictly family day, and unless they’re inviting you to their cousin’s birthday party or their nephew’s baptism party, there’s no way they’re going to make time for you.
  • The Mamá Factor: Even if you follow all the proper steps, keep in mind that a Mexican may still cancel on you at any time if their mom calls and asks them for something. (I’ve had friends cancel on me at the last minute to go to the grocery store with their mom… more than once.)

 

 

Culture Shock at the Bus Station

I’ve written before about my struggles with culture shock when moving to Cancun, but since I’ve reached the final stage I rarely get too frustrated with the Mexican culture. Most things I’ve been able to embrace or simply laugh off.

Saturday morning, however, I went through one of my rare yet enraging Mexico culture shock moments. I’m not sure if it had to do with the fact that I’d just spent 9 days in the luxury of the USA, or maybe the situation really was bad. Dunno.

Jorge and I don’t own a car, so we always use public transportation. Normally this works just fine because Cancun has excellent and cheap buses and taxis, plus the ADO buses can easily take us to any nearby cities. Things only get difficult when it comes to traveling to a more remote area. Saturday morning, we were traveling to Chabihau, the tiny fishing village in Yucatan where Jorge’s mom grew up. Normally we catch a ride in Jorge’s parents’ car, but they had gone to Chabihau on Thursday. Our only option was to take the air-conditioned ADO bus to Merida, then catch one of the taxi vans to Chabihau.

My personal hell went something like this:

5:15 am: Our ADO bus leaves Cancun.

9:30 am: The bus arrives in Merida (I slept the whole way, miraculously). We immediately grab a taxi to take us to the taxi van station. (Merida has a street block filled with garages offering vans that take you to the smaller towns outside the city.) Jorge quickly finds the garage for the taxi vans to Chabihau, which also take other passengers to towns along the same route.

10:10 am: We’re told (as expected) by a ticket lady sitting at a rickety school desk that the 13-person van would leave at 10:30 am. If it fills up earlier, it will leave earlier. Jorge and I are happy to wait 20 minutes or less.

The garage we wait in is filthy, but we sit on the wobbly wood bench and joke around together for awhile to pass the time. Jorge goes to the neighboring store for a torta while I watch a little bit of one of Mexico’s strange but hilarious talk shows. Not so bad.

10:45 am: We begin to wonder why the van hasn’t left yet. Jorge goes back up to the lady at the tiny ticket desk and calmly asks what the situation is. The lady answers, “The driver went to the corner. He’ll be back in a few minutes.”

I ask Jorge, “What does it mean that he went to ‘the corner’? I don’t think it means the store because there’s a store right here.”

Jorge replies, “In Yucatan, ‘the corner’ could mean a lot of things.”

And that’s when the culture shock hits me.

I want to scream at the lady at the desk that they should have set times for van departures and stick to them. That the driver should know he has a dozen people waiting for him on a very uncomfortable wood bench. That my butt is numb from 5 hours of sitting. That this would never happen in the US. What is “the corner” and how far away is it? For the love of God could somebody please powerwash whatever disgusting substance is covering the walls and ceiling?

But I stay quiet.

10:46 am: I take my book out of my purse because somehow the plot of Game of Thrones is more calming than the thoughts going through my head at the moment.

11:05 am: Jorge steps back over to the lady at the desk for an update. I don’t even look and just keep my nose buried in my book. Breathe.

Jorge returns to my spot on the bench. “She looked at her notepad and said that she misspoke. The van leaves at 11:30, not 10:30.”

I give poor, innocent Jorge the glare of death. I go back to my book.

11:07 am: A group of 10 people makes their way to one of the vans. “Is that us?” I ask excitedly.

Jorge goes to ask if our van was being called, and comes back to tell me it wasn’t our van. Back to the book.

11:09 am: Jorge informs me that it actually IS our van. We’re the last 2 people on, so Jorge takes a front seat and I squeeze into the seatbelt-less back seat between 2 businessmen and a small boy who spends the entirety of the 45 minute van ride talking to an imaginary friend in the van window.

I want a car.

USA vs Mexico: Education

Readers are always asking me to write more about the day-to-day aspects of living in Mexico, and my first 4 years in Cancun were spent at college. My college experience in Cancun included so many ups and downs, mainly because the educational system in Mexico is so vastly different from schools in the USA.

My Cancun university had a hands-on approach with zero textbooks. I was interning at large beach resorts and giving presentations on luxury travel destinations while my friends back in the States were writing papers and doing homework. But did I graduate with more knowledge than my USA counterparts? I don’t know.

Me and some classmates at an event we organized for a college course

To sort out my ideas, I’m going to go through different areas of study to give my thoughts on which of the two countries has the upper hand in each specific area. Please keep in mind that this is from my experience (kindergarten through one semester of college in Virginia, then 4 years of Tourism Administration and 3 years working in Cancun), and it won’t apply to all areas of the USA or to all areas of Mexico. I’m drawing these conclusions based on the people in my circles of friends and my family, and it’s all highly subjective. You’ll see lots of generalizations here.

Geography and Current Events

The United States is so bad at this that they don’t even realize it. I always prided myself on excellent geography skills… until I moved to Mexico. My college classmates in Cancun knew so much about politics, conflicts and geography that I was dumbfounded. I realized that in the USA, we know a lot about our own politics and geography, but surprisingly little about other countries.

To give you an example, one day at work we found out that me and the other American girl at my office had no idea what the capital of Canada was. However, every single Mexican in the office knew the answer without hesitation. (I later tested my Facebook friends from back in the States, and only 1 of them knew the answer.) Humiliating.

Math

I will give this one to the United States, but with caution. In my experience, my USA classmates were great at math while my Mexican classmates hated it with a passion. However, I was in advanced level math courses throughout high school, while the tourism majors of Cancun aren’t exactly known for their math skills.

My husband Jorge’s great at math and majored in engineering. We should have a math contest sometime. 🙂

The Arts

USA wins this one by a landslide. American schools are very focused on creating “well-rounded” students, and in Virginia we were always required to take some form of art or music class. Here in Cancun, when they incorporated an art history class into my school, my classmates petitioned to have it taken away because it “wasn’t useful”. I’ve also never heard of a choir class, art class or band class here in Cancun, although I do know lots of musicians and singers!

That being said, Mexicans will always be better dancers. Sorry America. We’re not sexy.

On a class trip with my classmates to Xcaret

Business

Mexico wins. By a lot.

Remember how USA schools love well-rounded students? Well, that has a downside. We spent so much time in Virginia high school building all kinds of knowledge in different subjects that we never learned how to actually do anything. My first semester of university in Cancun, many class conversations went way over my head because my Mexican classmates had been taking business-related courses since they were 15.

I also see tons of people my age in Cancun starting up their own businesses. The USA also has many talented entrepreneurs, but not nearly as many as I’ve seen in Mexico.

Language

Mexico wins here, but let’s remember that I live in Cancun, where almost everybody has to speak some level of English. English language classes in Mexico (at least up until high school) are atrociously bad… many Mexican friends have taken 5+ years of English and can barely hold a conversation. However, once they’re thrown into the working world, they pick up the language impressively fast. Back in Virginia, most students didn’t seem to want to learn more than a conversational level of any language, even though the classes were great, but that might be from lack of necessity.

Spelling and Grammar

I’ll be honest, I used to think Mexican schools in general must have horrible spelling and grammar programs. My Cancun college classmates often asked me (the gringa) how to spell words in Spanish, and it’s common practice here to replace periods with commas. I also have many Mexican friends who misspell everyday words on a regular basis. My mind changed when I began working as a copywriter in an office with many Mexican copywriters, all with flawless spelling and grammar, not to mention great writing skills.

The invention of Facebook also made me realize that Americans don’t spell very well, either!

All that being said, I still have to give the win to the USA in this category.

On a class trip with my college buddies to the state of Chiapas

It looks like the two countries are pretty even in the score (3 – 3), and I received a great education in the USA and Mexico. I feel the USA focuses more on “book learnin” while Mexico has a more “real world” approach. I feel truly blessed to have experienced the strengths of both educational systems.

The main point of this post isn’t so much to enforce my own views (which are constantly changing), but to create a dialogue and hear the school experiences of Americans and Mexicans alike. How do you think your education holds up to other countries? What did you like? What would you change?

 

 

Culture Shock Strikes Again

Even after 7 years in Cancun, I still go through culture shock from time to time (as evidenced in the infamous sheet shopping incident a few months ago). These downswings used to last weeks and weeks when I first moved down here, but now they typically only last anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 days.

Today I went to lunch at Plaza Las Americas, downtown Cancun’s main mall. I was already frustrated that the ATM at work was broken (which seems to happen pretty much every payday… convenient) and I didn’t have enough money on me to buy lunch. The salad place at the food court informed me that they only accept cash. This wasn’t surprising, but it did begin a stream of curse words and arguments in my head.

  • “Why don’t most places in Mexico accept cards? They have the technology!”
  • “But wait… even the places that do accept cards always have problems with their machines not working.” (Starbucks, I’m looking at you.)
  • “If I were in the US, they’d let me buy a salad with a card. Heck, I bet they’d even have ATMs that don’t break down every 2 weeks!”
  • “Well now I have to walk aaaaaallll the way to the mall ATM just to get $100 pesos. FML.”
  • “Stupid Mexico with their stupid cash only policies.”

And then a miracle happened.

When I finally got back to the salad place with my cash in hand, the cashier gave me this with my meal:

That’s a free card worth 10 movie tickets at just $39 pesos each! (Just over $3 USD)

They may not accept cards at many places, but I’ll be darned if Mexico doesn’t have much better movie prices than the USA.

God bless you, Mexico.

Culture Shock and Bedsheets

I’ve written about Culture Shock before, and how I’m currently in Phase 3, where I have a more realistic view on living in Mexico: sometimes good, sometimes bad.

As you can probably tell from my blog, I am usually ecstatic to be living in Cancun. It’s such a beautiful place with great people.

The life.

However, there are still rare occasions when I think, “What the heck am I doing here?” This weekend was one of those moments.

From out of the blue, I’d spent the past few days thinking how nice it might be to live in the States again. I had fantasies of sprawling Target stores, malls filled with cute clothes, driving my SUV around town, filling up on Tex-Mex, central air conditioning, watching movies without mentally criticizing the Spanish subtitles, not living in fear of flying cockroaches … glorious. I wasn’t upset about Mexico, just thinking how moving back to the US might be an option someday.

Then on Sunday, things took an ugly turn. After a nice movie date, Jorge and I went to several department stores around Plaza Las Americas in search of new bedsheets. Much to my dismay, there wasn’t a single set of bedsheets for under $750 pesos. Most were around $1000 pesos (about $80 US). For that price, those sheets better give me a friggin foot massage. And none of them were even attractive. Jorge suggested getting sheets from the grocery store. Grocery store sheets in Mexico are undeniably cheap, but they also feel like sandpaper. (Trust me, I bought many grocery store bedsheets during my university years in Cancun. Never. Again.)

Wanting to get a comfortable night’s sleep without having to sell our firstborn child, Jorge said we could look online to order some from the US, then I could pick them up with I go to the US for Christmas. Well… I don’t want to wait until December. But that’s probably what we’ll end up doing.

I was in a bad mood the rest of the afternoon. When we got home, I started telling Jorge I was going through culture shock this weekend. Then I rambled on and on about giant pretzels, reasonably priced sheets, and Arby’s roast beef sandwiches with root beer.

And that’s when I started to cry.

Which Jorge thought was hilarious.

Until I Googled a picture of an Arby’s roast beef sandwich, and he suddenly became more understanding.

Update: OH MY GOSH Thanks so much to all my friends and readers who have offered to get me sheets! So, so sweet. I love the internet.

The Geography Lesson that Brought Me to Shame

Did I ever tell you how I broke my culture shock? The defining moment when I went from “I hate it here, why don’t they do things my way?” to “Well, this might be ok after all!”

I was in my second year of university here in Cancun. I had a world geography class that totally blew my mind. As I looked up at the world map for several weeks, I thought to myself, “This is wrong. Why is the professor teaching wrongness? Why are my classmates not correcting him? Does nobody care or even notice that the map is wrong?” (Gosh, I’m such a typical American.)

In the US, we’re taught early on that the world has 7 continents: North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and Antarctica.

In Mexico, they’re taught that the world has 5 continents: America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Under this model, what we Americans consider to be North and South America is actually one large continent of America, and Antarctica doesn’t factor in at all!

MIND. BLOWN.

But wait! It doesn’t stop there! North America is everything north of the Panama Canal, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Get this: Mexicans don’t consider Central America to be part of North America.  Here, the large continent of America is sub-divided into 3 regions: North America (Canada, the US and Mexico), Central America and South America. In this model, Central America is no longer part of North America, it just borders North America.

North America in blue, Central America in yellow, South America in green... 3 regions making up the continent of America

After a few months of fuming to myself, I decided to look it up on Wikipedia to prove that I was right. Instead, what I got was this:

Number of Continents

And that’s when it hit me. My way isn’t the only way.

Even though I was taught something as fact, there still might be millions of other kids in other parts of the world learning it differently.

It was a huge step for me as an expat to realize that I can believe there are 7 continents, and my friends can believe there are 5 continents, and people on the other side of the world can believe there are 6 continents, and we are all correct.

This led me to realize that just because Mexicans don’t do things the way I might want them to, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Sometimes their way is even better than my way! (Except when they put ketchup on their pizza. After 7 years, I still find that unacceptable.)

I spent my first year in Mexico trying to make everyone more like… me. Then I spent the following 6 years trying to become more like them. All thanks to one geography course.

Christmas and Culture Shock

Hello all! I’m back from good ole Richmond, Virginia, and it was a very Merry Christmas indeed. This was my first time back in Richmond after more than 3 years, and I got to see family and friends I hadn’t seen in forever.

Jorge LOVED the US. He liked the houses, mainly because they “don’t have bars on the windows, like in Mexico”. Very true. I took him to my favorite outdoor mall, and he was a bit overwhelmed but definitely enjoying himself. I have to admit I miss US malls, too… although I did feel bad for the shirtless guy standing in the freezing cold of the Abercrombie and Fitch entrance.

I was excited to be back in my hometown of Richmond! I got to see lots of friends and family I hadn’t seen in over 3 years. Jorge got to see my high school, middle school, elementary school, church and old house.

Everything seemed so much bigger and grander than I remember. In Cancun all the houses are right next to eachother (no side yards, shared walls) and yards are usually just tiny squares of concrete. The bigger houses here have walls around them, and almost all houses here have bars on the windows. In Richmond, the yards were so huge and the houses so much larger than they needed to be that I felt like I was way in the country or something (even though it was just the suburbs). Even houses I used to think were small growing up, today they look immense!

All the shopping centers and restaurants looked so pristine it was overwhelming. Immaculate storefronts were surrounded by massive amounts of parking space. Where were the flimsy taco stands? Where were the family-owned corner stores? Why are there so many SUVs? Who would go to a huge shopping center in the middle of nowhere? (a lot of people, apparently)

The only thing big about Cancun is the potholes.

I was seeing the first stages of reverse culture shock, and I was only there for 3 days. Everything from the cars to the houses, restaurants, movie theaters and malls was just so BIG and PERFECT. It was lovely, but I was glad to get back to the sun and tiny concrete houses of Cancun.

Here are a few pics. The lights are from the James Center in downtown Richmond, and the rest are just family photos taken at my grandparents’ house.

How was your Christmas?

The Secret Language of Mexicans

I’m not sure how to go about this post because it’s a topic that I still don’t understand after six years in Mexico.

During my time in this fascinating yet incredibly frustrating country, I’ve noticed that Mexicans have their own subtle ways of communicating that straight-shooting Americans like myself will never comprehend.

On Monday I woke up not feeling well, so I sent my boss a text message asking for the day off. He answered me with the following message:  “Don’t you have your interview today?” (some survey thingy our department is doing)

I texted back “No, not until tomorrow.”

I then sat around for a few minutes waiting for my boss to text me back with an answer. “Why doesn’t he say anything?” I said to Jorge.

Jorge responded with a casual, “He already gave you permission not to go in today.”

Me: “No he didn’t. He asked about my interview, and I said I didn’t have one until tomorrow.”

Jorge: “That means yes.”

Me: WHAT?!?! How does a question mean “yes”??? In the US, it doesn’t mean “yes” until someone says “yes”.

My boss never texted back and asked me how I was doing at work the next day, so I guess it did mean “yes”.

 

When I was in college here, this happened to me a lot with my classmates. There were several occasions when I might make a comment to a teacher, only to have my classmates later tell me, “Don’t you remember we agreed not to say that to the teacher?” Turns out there had been insinuations and clever nuances in previous conversations that I wasn’t even aware existed. I appeared to have broken some sort of code.

 

On weekends we go out a lot with my in-laws. Frequently we’ll get into the car to go somewhere, like Jorge’s aunt’s house, for example. We’ll then head in the direction of a supermarket. Conversations go like this:

Me: Where are we going?

Jorge: Walmart.

Me: I thought we were going to your aunt’s house?

Jorge: Yeah, but my dad said we have to stop by Walmart first to pick up some snacks.

Me: When did he say that?

Jorge: Right before we left.

Me: But WHEN did he say that? I was with you both the whole time!

 

I used to think it was a language barrier. Maybe my limited Spanish was preventing me from picking up certain sentences. Now that I speak fluent Spanish, I see that’s not the case. Mexicans have a way of saying something without directly saying it. I wish I could go into further detail, but I still have NO IDEA how it works.

Ok fellow expat bloggers in Mexico, tell me you know what I’m talking about!! What is this secret language and how does it work?

Time is Fluid

Here in Mexico, the culture has a very different concept of time from in the US. Growing up, my family taught me that if you’re not 5 minutes early, you’re late. When I tried to apply that concept here, it resulted in lots of time waiting for other people to show up.

Mexicans consider time to be fluid. There aren’t really specific times, just general times of day and periods of time when things need to be done.

When setting up a get-together with a Mexican, you can usually plan for them to be late. Recently, I got together with a bunch of girlfriends for a bridesmaids dress fitting. My friend Viri and I got there 15 minutes late, 2 girls arrived 45 minutes late, 1 girl arrived an hour late, and another girl arrived an hour and a half late! In the US, this would be completely unacceptable. Here, however, we just used it as an opportunity to have some micheladas and tortas while we waited. No problem!

A few weeks ago, I heard the perfect conversation to represent the “time is fluid” concept. We were in Chabihau, and stopped by a little shop for some machacados (a Mexican version of a slushee, made with natural fruit). As they were preparing our machacados, this conversation occurred:

 

Jorge: Are you going to be open tomorrow?

Lady: (turns to husband) Are we going to open tomorrow?

Man: Sure.

Jorge: What time?

Man: Ummm… (looks at wife)… in the afternoon? Yes, in the afternoon.

Jorge: Ok, thank you!

 

For any American, this would cause confusion. Do they open early afternoon? Late afternoon? What time do I need to be here to get my machacado tomorrow?

For the Mexican, however, this is a non-issue. If they’re open when I show up, awesome. If not, they’re probably just having Sunday lunch with the family, right?

For an American living in Mexico, it’s hard to find a balance between “local time” and what we consider to be “rude” by our American standards. I’ve learned to adjust my time to each individual. I have a few friends who are normally punctual, so I try my best to be on time as well. Other friends tend to arrive an hour late, so I’ll wait for them to text me that they’re on their way before I leave my house.

How do you feel about time? Are you punctual? Does it bother you when others are late?

**We stopped by the machacados shop the next day at 1 pm, and yes they were open.**