So what did YOU do on Sunday?

Yesterday was just another perfect day for the beach, and since my husband works at least 6 days a week, I had been looking forward to a quiet Sunday, watching huge Mexican families getting drunk, growing some more freckles and observing swimwear dos and don’ts.

Woman sewing on old treadle machine

Woman sewing on old treadle machine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before we went to the beach, however, we decided it was time to buy me a sewing machine. (Yes, yes, I am trying to get this whole housewife thing down. Plus with the arrival of some new babies, it might be time to get crafty.)So off we went to SEARS in Playa where they offererd a moderate variety of sewing machines. Far more expensive than in the US, but well… I have to say, I hate shopping for household appliances or furniture here. The sales people all flock together in a corner and as soon as someone sets foot into the store, they JUMP at that poor person. No matter what you want to buy, you get a summary of all current discounts, various payment methods, and they keep sticking to you like chewing gum to a heel.

Finally, we gave this young guy the satisfaction as to make a purchase – and he told us the machine could be delivered in 2 weeks. -?- Any other machines available for today? No, they all had to be delivered. So we decided it was time to drive all the way to Cancun which is about 40 miles (or 60 kilometres) up north. Well, never mind, because then we could also get a new battery for my watch. 2 birds, 1 stone.

We were lucky, we did get a sewing machine straight away (and it even has a flower on it!), and we set out for our next adventure: changing a battery. We went to a store where my husband had got his watch fixed – he is a watch lover and has some really NICE watches. Mine, however, is just a pretty watch that indicates the time. The nice lady in the posh jewelry store sent us to their service center, for which we had to drive across the whole city. Luckily, there was a MANGO store next to it – 3 birds, 1 stone.

The guy at the service center looked at my watch in disgust and told us, we should rather go to another store where they sell less exclusive watches. That store could be found on the other side of MANGO, so after browsing through the latest collection, we entered the third store in search of a battery. Oh no, said the sales guy with a very feminine tone of regret, we don’t do this here. You have to go to our service center – which happened to be in the same mall as the first jeweller. Since we didn’t fancy driving all the way back, we tried yet another jeweller in foot distance. Oh no, the friendly young man said in a similarly feminine voice, we can only exchange batteries for watches that were purchased here. We might want to try a store in Playa del Carmen – which is where we came from!

After 4 hours of trial and error shopping, I came to the following conclusions:

1. Sometimes the good is closer by than we might think.

2. Sometimes the good is farther away than we might think.

3. A feminine voice might get a guy into pretty fancy Mexican jewelry stores.

On a different note, my watch is still dead as dead can be.


Friends don’t grow on Trees

For a year now, we have been living in Mexico, and many people ask me, whether I had made any friends yet. Well, I am lucky that by now, I consider our landlady my friend, although we hardly plan any activities together. Whenever we meet, though, we are chatting away, forgetting the time and she has indeed become very dear to me.

Other than that, the answer is no, we haven’t made any friends yet. Acquaintances yes, colleagues yes, but friends? They do not grow on trees, do they?

Maybe this is one of the most challenging issues of living the expat life. When you stay in your home town or at least your home country, you stick with the same crowd more or less forever. Some may come, some may go, but you already know where to go. You have your routine, you know that some of your friends are going to the farmers’ market every Saturday, while others go to the same bar every Friday night – it is a cozy life. And you don’t really feel the urge to find new friends, do you?

So here comes the expat looking for friends and those circles are already full. You don’t belong to the market crowd, nor to the Friday night crowd and it hardly occurs to anyone to invite you to join in. Now there are a few people who ignore that and just join in anyway, being invited or not. My husband and I do not belong to this category, maybe it is because we are from the North and they say that people from the North take a little longer to warm up, don’t they?

But even if after a while you meet people to sometimes hang out with, be it for a coffee or a glass of wine or at the gym, those people do not automatically become your friends, do they? I consider people friends when I know that no matter where I live, we will stay in touch. People whom I can call upon anytime. People who are around also in not so happy times.

For children, making friends is easy.

Kids at shore

Kids at shore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We go to the same school – friends. We both don’t like our maths teacher – friends. She also wants to have a pony – friends. I remember how I met my oldest friend: I was sitting on the pavement, she came along and sat down next to me. 30 years later, we are still best friends. How easy, huh? And how often does that happen to you in grown-up life?

Later, we become a little more particular, but as long as we share the same kind of lifestyle, it’s a done deal.

Bride-to-be (center) and friends share a toast...

Bride-to-be (center) and friends share a toast at a bachelorette party (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She is also single and lives in my neighbourhood – friends. She likes the same movies, the same kind of music, the same bars – friends.

But I find that at a certain age, it is getting more and more difficult. So why is that?

I believe it has something to do with the image we want to create of ourselves. I noticed that (and I used to do the same) whenever we meet new people, everything about their life is perfect. Their relationship – happy. Their job – fulfilling. Their financial status – carefree. We all strive to project this flawless commercial image of ourselves as if admitting that something in our life lacks perfection, makes us less loveable. We believe, that success in whatever area is the only measure for our personality. Thus, our conversations become meaningless. It is quite honestly boring. Because, come on, whose life is that perfect? Who is happy 365 days a year and 24 hours a day? Whose marriage is plain sunshine all the time? And whose job is non-stop fun and excitement and highly paid at the same time?

Only after a while when we know the other person a little better and we start to trust her or him, we reveal what really makes us us. Unfortunately, very often we are deprived of that opportunity after sharing meaningless and shallow details about our oh so perfect life – and by this losing our very personal touch.

I find that I establish the most valuable contacts when I don’t shy away from sharing who I am. And sometimes, it is amazing to see how other people open up and all of a sudden, become so much more complex. In the end, what do we have to lose? If someone doesn’t like us the way we are, it is better to know straight away and to move on. Precious time can be saved. And true, long-lasting friendships can be forged!

Mexican Design Project II: The Wellness Apartment

So in my last post, I was praising the indoor water system of our newly found (what we thought soon-to-be) condo. But of course, the fun didn’t end right there, you might have guessed that there had to be more. Uuh, the pleasures of Mexican new constructions!

After we had discovered the unpleasantly wet features of the apartment, we made the effort to look a little closer, and what we found blew us away!

Being a passionate cook, I took a particular interest in the kitchen. And it was beautiful! The condo had an open kitchen with a big block in the middle – perfect for inviting friends, sipping a glass of wine while preparing a wonderful meal. However, when I opened the cabinets, I found that you could only open one side at a time. When opening all doors at the same time (which might happen when there are more than one person in the kitchen), the doors were slamming into each other and you couldn’t walk anymore but had to jump over the ajar cabinet doors. After thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that this must be a built-in workout area: a fancy kitchen hurdle race. Now that would add some cheeriness to a friendly get-together, wouldn’t it?

Enthusiastically I called my husband only to find him busy inspecting one of the bathrooms. There they had installed an air vent at the ceiling that blocked the door of the toilet. Only a very slim person could get in and out – better watch your diet, pal. No more beans and cervezas. The architect explained to us that the door was meant to be opened inwards but upon trying, the door hit the toilet bowl. And the architect preferred to take an urgent phone call.

In all the showers, they had somehow managed to build the drain on the highest point as well – they sure did follow through on this idea. So taking a shower automatically included a foot bath.

It became very clear to me that this apartment was made for relaxation. However, if whoever lives there now should have enough of the spa like atmosphere, there is an easy way out: Just step into the laundry room that was completely under water and turn on the washer and dryer. Electrocution was already included in the rent.



Mexican Design Projects: Home-Grown Stalagtites

After a rather rainy week, we are back to the Caribbean sunshine that the cranky tourists had obviously been promised by their travel agencies. Hooray for that.

I always thought that I was used to rain. Back home, we put on our rain gear and went for a nice walk before enjoying a cup of tea and some scones in front of the fireplace. Or when I was little, my friend and I would take the horses for a ride and afterwards, we would cuddle up in the hay drinking tea out of our thermos. (Now that I come to think of it, it seems that with the rain comes the tea. Although, of course, there is no bad weather for a nice hot cup of tea!)

Here, rain is different. It can be pouring down for days, the air is getting heavy with humidity – it is like stepping out into a steam bath. While the plants are flourishing, the houses are not really built for this kind of weather and it is a wise decision to spend some money on a dehumidifier. Otherwise, you will have mould everywhere, on all your clothes, on all wooden furniture… It is such a delight!

Since their houses are not waterproof, people try to stay dry inside the big shopping malls, however, you might want to watch out for puddles there, too, since the rain always finds its way in after a while. That’s not a big deal, they will put buckets everywhere and the joyful drip adds some atmosphere.

No, I do not like those rainy days here. However, during our househunting days, we came to appreciate the rain more. We had just found a splendid apartment with a plunge pool on the rooftop terrace, a magnificent view over Playa del Carmen and some fancy schmancy design features. We were thrilled! And we went for just one more walk-through before signing the contract, mainly to take some measurements so we could go ahead and buy furniture and such.

We were up for a bad surprise, though. After days of heavy rain, the apartment had turned into a flowstone cave. The water was running down the walls, the wooden floor upstairs was soaked and it was raining down on our heads. We soon found what had caused this unexpected water adventure: On the terrace, they had put some beautiful lighting system in the walls – unfortunately, they hadn’t sealed those off, so the water had no chance but to get straight into the walls. Moreover, they had built a drain at the highest point. Needless to say that the water wasn’t very willing to flow upstream but instead, it built up right by the walls where they had forgotten to do some water proofing. Oops.

On top of that, since Mexicans are not the tallest people on earth, they had sealed off the windows only on three sides and left the top out. Maybe their cousin Paco had borrowed the ladder for a day, so who am I to blaim them? It was almost hilarious. Then the landlord and the architect showed up to tell us, no problem, they would fix everything within 3 days. Sure.

We had some hassle getting out of the contract, since here you have to make a down payment before they even take the realty off the market let alone let you sign a contract. Now, nobody could understand why we were so picky. We tried to explain that we were not very keen on putting our furniture out in the indoor rain, and judging from the shrugging and eye rolling, apparently that was just what they had expected from some fussy Europeans.

Meanwhile, I think we might have made a mistake there. I am sure that by now, we would have grown some stalactites… Wouldn’t that be an innovative design project?

Fancy a swim in a puddle?

Today, I got overtaken by a very sudden and very heavy shower. For one thing is for sure: When it rains, it pours – literally.

So there I was seeking shelter under a roof of a mall with plenty of other shoppers and within seconds, the road rather bore a resemblance to a  river than to a – well, road. After about 5 minutes, the shower was over and everybody went about his or her business again and I hurried back to my car. Not without sinking up to my ankles into puddles – or rather: ponds.

And that is when I asked myself: What is it that we avoid rain so much? We take showers, some of us (e.g. people living in Mexico…) several times during the day, we love the idea of relaxing at a spa, taking mineral baths and whatnot – even mud baths! People brag about their jacuzzis. We drive hours to get a swim in the sea. Lakes tempt us to just jump into their crystal clear water. And some of us even choose water for their fitness activities.

So why then did I wrinkle my nose in disgust when stepping into a foot-deep puddle? Why do we take our umbrellas as soon as it starts drizzling? (Well, not the Seattleites, I actually did not use my umbrella once while living there.) We put on our wellies, our raincoats and rainhats and try everything to remain dry – only to get to the next swimming bath where we take it all off and jump into the water.

Children are not like that. They like playing in the rain and getting wet, I remember that I loved to be outside in the rain. So when and why do we change? Same goes for muddy and sticky stuff. When do we decide that sludge is to be avoided? Or that we need to wash our hands immediately after eating a deliciously sticky toffee?

So next time I take a swim in a local puddle, I will put on my happy face. Promised.

Money lying all over the Mexican streets?!

Recently, I read that Mexico is the country with the lowest minimum wage per hour: 0.79 USD. (In comparison: Chile with 2.43 USD and Hungary with 2.54 USD). And they say that by the end of Calderon’s ministry, more than 50% of all Mexicans will live in poverty.

But when it comes to money, people here are very creative. They come up with all sorts of jobs and frankly, I admire their hands-on attitude.

When you park at a parking lot, there are people who wave you into the parking spots and you tip them a few pesos. Sometimes I wished though, that I could tip them for shutting up, since they like to blow a whistle while swinging little flags – now that may be a great help, but most cars nowadays come with a parking aid. Which is good, since those guys are often so tiny that I cannot see them in my rear mirror. Just before I am about to run that little guy over, my parking aid gives me the signal to stop. But can you imagine the noise of countless waving whistlers and the constant beeping of the parking aids of multiple cars in a garage? It is like a carnival! But of course, you thank them and give them some coins, and they seem to feel like the rulers of the parking lots.

In addition to that, most garages have people who will wash your car for you while you are doing the shopping. I have never used this service, but I see that they are actually doing a great job! So off you go have a manicure, sip a coffee with friends, buy some new shoes, and when you get back, your car is all clean and shiney. But if you cannot make up your mind right there in the garage, you don’t have to worry, because people pass through the neighbourhoods offering a carwash service at home, too.

I however, always drive to a car wash. There I can drop the car off and pick it up after half an hour. They have like three to four people cleaning the inside of your car – honestly, my car has never been as clean as in Mexico!

When you park outside, there are then the guys, who will cover your windscreen with a sun shade, so when you get back, it won’t be 150 degrees but only 140 degrees inside your car. Of course, they have a limited supply of sunshades (some only use some cardboard box leftovers, but who cares?), so you can see them running back and forth in the heat trying to pick the cars that look like they might be owned by generous drivers. That’s the reason why it might take quite some time for them to return while you are waiting for them to remove the shades…

Of course, those guys don’t make an awful lot of money, but they do earn a few bucks during the day. And I was touched to see that even they still tip their fellow workmen at the supermarket cash registers – because at each cash register, there will be someone who puts your groceries into bags and it is common to tip them as well. Very often, those jobs are done by children, since we must not forget that school education is optional. After a while, you know their faces and you do a little chitchat with them, and some of them are quite nosy, studying every single item that you bought, sometimes nodding with approval, sometimes shaking their heads in disbelief (chocolate flavoured dog treats? Silly strangers…).

Outside the supermarkets there are people waiting to help you bring your shopping to the car and who will also collect the carts. They hardly take no for an answer. So if you walk out of the supermarket just carrying bits and pieces and you don’t want to use their services, they will follow you anyway, zigzagging amidst the cars until you open the boot of your car, then they jump out to give you a hand – and to hold out their hand for some tip.

So if you have a bit of cash on you when going shopping (which you should always do anyway in Mexico), you hardly have to do anything by yourself. I still have to get used to it, but a lot of people are prancing about like kings and queens, graciously handing out a few silver coins here and there.

On your way home, you will pass newspaper vendors at almost every crossroad. They just stand by the roads and if they see someone waving at them, they come running – honestly, it must be quite a strenuous exercise! Also at the crossroads, you will see people selling stuff like juices or sandwiches – those are the jobs that a lot of women and children do.

If you need to refuel your car and you approach a petrol station, it might be confusing in the beginning since there are so many people waving at you at all the various petrol pumps. So you have to pick one and then there might be up to four people working on your car. One is taking care of the refuelling process, one is cleaning your windshield and windows, one is polishing your rims while the last one might be checking on your oil level or tire pressure. Lately, I have seen a lot of young ladies doing these jobs and I suspect that is for attracting more male drivers. Smart move!

I wonder what happens next time I go back to Europe for a visit. Probably I will be waiting at the cash register for someone to put my groceries in a bag and carry it to my car, and there is a slight chance I might bump into other cars upon leaving the parking lot since by now, I am so used to whistle blowers and flag swingers!

How to spot a Tourist

There are many things to love about living at the Riviera Maya. However, one of the things that I dislike about living in Playa del Carmen, are the thousands of tourists. Of course, I am aware that when going on a holiday, I am also a tourist! But let’s face it: There are tourists, and then there are …tourists. Playa is full of both.

I have always asked myself, what is it that you can see straight away: Tourist! What gives it away?

OK, sometimes it is easy. Wristbands of all-inclusive hotels help. Or when a woman is wearing a rhinestone shirt that says “Playa del Carmen” you can be sure that she is a tourist. Same goes for men wearing shirts that say: “Sex Machine” or “You look like I need another drink”. This species you mostly meet in the beer aisle of the local supermarket or after 11am at the beer bar. Very often, they do a joint couple vacation with their BFFs. The women are sharing their sunscreen, comparing boob size and tan, while the guys do a beer contest and compare boob sizes. There is a chance that after their holiday, they might not be BFFs anymore – no risk, no fun.

Then there are the British tourists. On day one, easy to spot thanks to their white skin, later on equally easy to spot thanks to their funny red skin. On day 3 of their vacation, you will find them anywhere where there is shade (or beer, or both) and they reach their activity climax after sunset.

And then there are many, many tourists wearing big funny hats, dresses that are too tight, shorts that are too short – everything they would NEVER wear at home (or so I pray). They are busy posting pictures of themselves on Facebook, posing with a Mayan warrior or in front of the ruins, and their loved ones at home will leave comments saying: “Oh, you look like you are having SUCH a great time! Sooo JEALOUS!”

But what about the other tourists who don’t wear funny shirts or hats and who don’t have a major sunburn? Why can you still recognize them as tourists?

It must be the way they are walking. Strolling along looking left and right, commenting on every little detail like “Oh, look, they even have sliding doors in Mexico!” They mostly travel in packs, daddy is maundering about, humming a happy tune, while mummy is taking care of the whining children, rummaging in her bag to find a hanky, sunscreen, moist wipes or biscuits. In the supermarket, they are those who stop in the middle of the aisle screaming happily: “They’ve got Hershey’s!” (or alternatively: peanut butter / KRAFT cheese / or in my case: Quaker’s Oats or German black bread!) All the while daddy is scanning the beer racks, of course.

And always a good hint is the behaviour at an ATM. You see minimum 2 people staring at the screen, hectically pushing buttons – they always remind me of the yip yip aliens at Sesame Street. Clearly, a Harvard degree does not help with those everyday challenges.

I sometimes wonder what the locals must think of the rest of the world. Probably that our luck depends on Hershey’s chocolate, beer and iphones (well, they’ve got a point there, right?), that the British are somehow descendants of lobsters, and that we watch ATM instead of TV. No wonder, they are always laughing!