Even as five years Permanent Residents of Mexico, there are certain things about our lives here–some of the cultural and regional norms and facets of day-to-day life–that still set give me reason to pause, a giggle or a gasp -things that carry the impact and magic of a first impression…that amuse me, get my attention and that cause me to be both absorbed and perplexed at the same time.
Some are more extreme than others. Take for instance:
1. Three lanes on a two-lane highway
There apparently is an invisible middle lane—primarily on las carreteras (the main highways)—that is created and bordered by nothing but the driver’s daring, risk-taking spirit and his/her willingness to tempt fate. Navigating oneself on las carreteras often feels like a game of Russian roulette and riding as a passenger usually has me alternating between holding my breath, back seat driving, white knuckling, grimacing, gasping, blurting out various profanities and finding a multitude of ways to distract myself to make the ride as tolerable as possible. You can imagine how much my husband Frank loves this!
2. The trash truck is coming!
I wasn’t too sure at first if the ice cream man was coming, if the knife sharpener was on his way (in fact he blows a whistle a top a bike) or what was going on until I asked a nearby shop owner what the loud, clanging metal sound meant. He kindly informed me that the trash truck was on its way, and indeed it was! In a colonial town, with narrow cobblestone streets, it is best to have the heads up that a wide-bodied truck is making its way down the road!
A walk through a tianguis—an outdoor market filled with a potpourri of every imaginable regional fruit, vegetable, handmade craft and meat—certainly leaves no doubt as to the origin and freshness of the carne asada tacos you might find yourself eating at one of the many open-air stalls, likely having been delivered that very same morning from a nearby rancho.
If you are accustomed to purchasing your t-bone steak or chicken breasts all cleaned, trimmed and nicely packaged, or if you are a vegan, prepare yourself for the potential shock value of meandering through one of these vibrant and dynamic markets. It is not uncommon to see an entire cow or pig head sitting on the corner of a butcher’s stand, along with all of the other parts that in the States are normally discarded and not necessarily considered edible, let alone desirable to look at.
On more than one occasion, while passing by a very popular butchers here in the centro of San Miguel de Allende, I have come upon beheaded pigs and cow carcases hanging from the back of a delivery truck. It definitely catches me off guard and gets my attention, even after several years of living in this country where this is no mystery or secret as to where your bacon or filet comes from. When the driver is not able to find a parking spot right in front, they will wheelbarrow the cargo down the very crowded street to the entrance. A sight that gets many transplants and visitor’s attention for sure!
(Edited to add: I know the following photo is pretty intense and perhaps shocking or disturbing to some, but it’s a reality and at the least will hopefully encourage people to consider the sourcing of their food and therefore be advocates for ethical treatment of animals. I do not work for PETA, nor am I a Vegan—but the in-your-face reality certainly makes me be more thoughtful about my own purchasing power.)
When I took my Mom through the mercado during one of her recent visits with us, she jumped about two feet in the air when she came face-to-face with an intact cow’s head, eyeballs and all, sans the skin. I suppose if one were playing with the idea of veganism, a walk through a tianguis just might seal the deal. For us carnivores however, it is an important reminder to support farmers who are raising their animals in the best conditions possible.
It’s the small things in life. Thank you Soriana for separating the avocados into a consumo para hoy (consume today) and a para madurar (let ripen) pile. That is so kind and considerate of you. Also, when going into a Mom & Pop’s frutería, one often has to ask for the avocados as they are more often than not behind the counter, hidden and protected from public fondling, and not out amongst their other fruit and vegetable friends.
Those perplexing roundabout traffic circles that serve as an intersection for oncoming vehicles from all four different directions, often converging at the same time. If you are not careful, alert and prepared when you enter this whirlpool, you just might find yourself getting stuck, going around and around, like on a merry-go-round spin toy at a child’s playground, feverishly trying to calculate the right moment to jump off and get out!
I have learned that I must enter the glorietas with confidence, ready to kick ass and take on the fast and furious obstacle-like course of dodging oncoming cars, trucks and motorcycles. I find myself holding my breath until I have successfully exited the glorieta and am hopefully, on the right road. It has been on more than one occasion that I was unable to get out when I wanted to and had to take a road not initially intended on…but, better to err on the side of safety and add a few minutes to my trip than make a hasty and potentially dangerous move.
6. Left-Hand Turn Signals
It is not safe to assume that a blinking left-hand turn signal means that a left turn is intended by the driver in front. Quite the contrary, it often means “go ahead, it is safe to pass me now—on the left”. However, don’t assume that either, for a pass on the left, when in fact a left turn is in the making by the driver in front can be a risky assumption to make. Additionally, in Mexico, it is common road etiquette and practice to pull to the right-hand side, before making a left turn. Are you following all of this? Keep in mind too, while you are mentally and tactically navigating the driving conditions, that there are often burros, horses and dogs on the shoulders that one must avoid for both their safety and yours. Again, similar to the dynamics of a glorieta, stay alert, aware of your surroundings and able to respond quickly and safely!
7. Line Manners
I will need to consult with one of my Mexican National friends on this matter to get the “inside scoop”, but it has happened on more than one occasion where Frank and I will be waiting in line—at the cell phone store to pay our bill, at the corner tienda (store) to buy a beer, even in line at the movie theater—and we will be superseded by a local—i.e. cut in line! I would be lying if I weren’t to admit that this peeves me. Perhaps they are erroneously judging a book by its cover and think that because of our physical presentation, that we do not speak the language nor know the “rules of the land”. Whatever it is, I don’t like it, and if you were a fly on the wall, you would see that I stand my ground and graciously, respectfully and firmly take my place right back.
8. Metric System
I am an educator by profession—a Spanish one with a knack for all things liberal arts, minus the mathematics. Algebra and metric conversions, admittedly, are not my strong suit. Fahrenheit to celsius, inches to cm, kilos instead of pounds…..it’s enough to make a girl dizzy!
Time to get to work and study this helpful chart!
I give it my best effort and although there is a lot of guess work and generous rounding off, I seem to get by okay. My first few trips to the local butchers, I held my breath wide-eyed waiting to see what the two kilos of salchicha that I ordered would look like. Fortunate for me, my family loves Mexican sausages and over four pounds of them could easily fit into our fridge and freezer!
9. The streets are ALIVE with life and magic!
Quinceñeras, weddings, funerals, blessing of the corn, a multitude of celebrations….the rich gamut of life is celebrated openly and publicly on the streets here in San Miguel de Allende and throughout many communities in México.
My husband Frank captured this little video of a wedding procession in centro on his way home from a walk. One just never knows what they’re going to run into in this colorful, alive country! I have certainly learned to never leave home without my camera!
10. Do Not Pass Go
As an educator and mom, I believe in the importance of hands-on parenting—including and certainly not limited to, walking your children into their classroom (up to a certain age of course), doing a quick and informal assessment that “all is in order”, kissing them goodbye and letting them know that you will see them at the end of the day. This little bit of continuity from home to school, in my opinion, creates a palpable cord of connection between parent and child throughout the day.
Here in Mexico, it is the societal norm, rule and expectation that you will drop your child off at the school entrance, to not enter past the main gate, and to await their turn to be dismissed—again at the gate—at the end of the day. Of course parents are allowed on campus for special functions, but the daily round is to part ways with your little ones and retrieve them only at the entrance to the school.
No doubt there are reasons in place and I am not saying they are wrong, just different.
11. Sometimes direct translations don’t always work!
12. Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Determined, resourceful, ingenious, skillful and innovative are all adjectives I would freely use to describe the Mexican people. Whether it is reusing, reconfiguring and repurposing or coming up with the most interesting ways to assign function and form to something that might otherwise be thrown out or thought impossible…for me, the Mexican ingenuity truly embodies the “where there’s a will, there’s a way” expression.
During one of my morning walks around Parque Benito Juarez, I saw this woman balancing what appeared to be a very heavy load on her head, navigating her way down the slippery cobblestone streets in flipflops! Impressive indeed!
13. Side Mirror Care
To avoid collisions and keep your side mirror as part of your car, pull it in on narrow, cobblestone streets or any narrow streets for that matter! Trust me, you’ll be happy you did.
14. Burros for field work, transportation and deliveries
In many parts of México, burros are used for field work, transportation and delivery. It is not uncommon to be out and about here in San Miguel and come across a pair of them hard at work.
15. Different Types of Saints
I debated whether or not to post the following, and my apologies if I offend anyone but it is just too funny and too odd not to. The other morning after dropping our twins off at school, Frank stopped by the tortillería to pick up a medio kilo of flour tortillas. Next door was a small furniture store that had this little treasure on full display out in front:
Now use your imagination and I will spare you the picture of what this darling little statue looked like from behind. Indeed, the artist who created this piece had multiple and distinct things on his/her mind!
Other things that have garnered my attention and are definitely worthy of including in this article:
* People that are always willing to lend a helping hand
*A pig on a leash
One day while walking through the jardín here in the center of San Miguel de Allende, I saw this young woman walking her pig on a leash. Not an everyday sighting and one that got my and many other passersby attention!
*Trampoline on a 3rd floor terraza!
*Booze samples at Costco
*Two different speed limits on same side of highway
The other day after dropping off Mairead’s friend at her house, we all got a good giggle as we noticed that the lane we were in had a 40 km/hour speed limit whereas the one just to the left of us had a 60km/hour limit! Hmmmmm….
* Movie tickets for 40 pesos each (around 3.20 USD!)
* Email, WhatsApp & Phone Communication with Doctors
* Here in San Miguel de Allende (and other smaller and/or colonial pueblos), an absence of stop signs and street lights
Believe it or not, these are but just a few of the interesting features and “oddities” of life in Mexico that stand out to me….the ones that I have been able to capture in words and photos. There are many more that occur in the ebb and flow of any given day that just make me feel grateful to be living in a country that keeps my senses alive and has taught me just to roll with it and take things as they come…
Have you had any experiences in Mexico that make you feel simultaneously absorbed and perplexed? I would love to hear about them in the comments section below!
Cheers y Saludos
Last but not least, today’s Spanish Lesson:
The Spanish Teacher in me just can’t help herself! You will notice that many of the words throughout this article are cognates–words that sound alike or are possibly spelled exactly alike as their English counterpart/translation. Thus, another reason that Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn—truly!
1. Carretera: highway
2. Tianguis: open-air market
3. Centro: center
4. Mercado: market
6. Soriana: major grocery chain in México
6. Consumo para hoy: consume today
7. Para Madurar: need to ripen
8. Frutería: fruit shop
9. Glorieta: roundabout
10. Salchicha: sausage
11. Quinceñera: a girl’s 15th birthday celebration
12. Tortillería: tortilla shop
13. Medio: half
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All photos taken by Katie M. O’Grady
© Katie M. O’Grady @ Los O’Gradys in Mexico, 2012-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photos and links may be used, provided that permission is granted and full and clear credit is given to Katie M. O’Grady @ Los O’Gradys in Mexico with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.