Many of our expats start out as tourists in Puerto Vallarta, maybe eventually they buy real estate and extend their stays in the winter while renting their house or condo in the summer, and then sooner or later, many become full time residents of Puerto Vallarta and get to experience the whole enchilada.
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It isn’t long after making the transition from tourist to full or part time resident that you get an idea of how different Mexico can be compared to your home country, in many cases the USA or Canada.
As a tourist you probably didn’t conduct a lot of business in the city, such as dealing with utility companies and banking, things that residents cope with every day. You might even assume that banking and utilities are pretty global in their experiences, an assumption that will be proven wrong in very short order at the start of your residency in Mexico.
Mexico is still very much a paper processing nation, while the US and Canada has switched to digital records in both private and government sectors. There is nothing that will remind you more of this reality than your first visit to a bank in Mexico, and every other visit that follows thereafter.
The simplest bank transaction requires multiple documents to be stamped, the inside of banks sound more like a drumming competition between the peak hours of 2 and 4 PM with stamps pounding documents through the cashier window and at every customer service desk.
Of course all this additional paper processing exchanging hands also makes for a much longer wait, well that and the fact that peak banking hours are also the time the banks schedule less staff, but I digress.
You always know the foreigner in a waiting line at the bank. They are the ones shifting their body weight from right to left, looking at their watch every 30 seconds, and standing on their toes to get a glimpse of the line’s length over the shoulders of the people in front of them. Of course you are also trying to figure out how many people are together and not actually separate individuals waiting for service, because then you can count the open teller windows, typically just one or two, compared to the people waiting and come up with an unrealistic estimated time of arrival. You forgot to factor in paper stamping time. As you get more desperate you will amuse yourself by making up songs in your head to the beat of the stamps being pounded around you. Don’t worry, your moment at the window is coming, eventually.
Your banking is now complete and you have worked up a thirst with all your body weight shifting and tippy toe raising exercises. Not to worry, there is an OXXO on the corner without a doubt, you can run in there and grab a drink on the way to your next stop.
You grab your water and approach the cashier, a great relief to see only two people in the line also buying drinks. Waiting at the bank was enough for one day. Wait, what is this, people can pay for their pre-paid cell service at the OXXO? Good grief, they don’t even know their own phone number, now they are fumbling through their purse looking for their cell phone so they can give the cashier their amigo phone number for credit. For the next five minutes you begin your body weight shifting, clock watching, tippy toe standing routine. Five minutes later the customer has successfully purchased $20 pesos of Telcel credit.
Now just one more person in front of you, you are comforted by the fact that it will just be a few more seconds in line. Don’t be so sure, you can also pay all of your utilities at the OXXO, which is exactly what the person in front of you plans to do for the next five minutes. Bills and cash exchange hands, the OXXO cashier is just as efficient at using the rubber stamps required on every paper in Mexico, she must have worked at the bank across the street at one point.
After 10 minutes you have purchased a liter of water at the OXXO and begin to think about what other business you should take care of before heading home.
Now that you live in Mexico you will more than likely want to have internet and maybe a home phone and cable television, easy enough, give them a call, place your order, and your service should be connected within 24 hours. Right? Oh you silly gringo, of course not.
Utility service requires that you find the nearest office, take a number, and begin your body weight shifting, clock watching, tippy toe standing routine to make sure everyone understands you are new to Mexico. The only other proven way to show you are a foreigner is to wear a Hawaiian floral printed shirt and sombrero, but the desperate look on your face and impatience works just as well. After all is said and done you could have your service within a month if your paper written trail isn’t lost between the customer service desk and their field personnel.
Foreigners find long lines and waiting to be irritating, maybe because we have been extremely spoiled with a focus on customer service and using technology to streamline much of our lives. We are used to doing almost all business and bill paying online, or calling a phone number, ordering our services, and moments later the magic switch is turned on and we have phone, cable, electric, and internet without ever putting on pants.
Several hours later you have been to the bank and ordered internet service, now it’s time to eat. You choose a local restaurant and everything was delightful, as it normally is in most Puerto Vallarta restaurants. The waiter has taken your plates away, offered you dessert and coffee, you declined, and now you sit and wait for the bill.
Five minutes pass. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen minutes pass. Now you are standing, shifting your body weight, looking at your watch, and on tippy toes looking for your waiter. Back in your country the bill is on the table before you even receive your food, the service in Mexico is just horrible. The frustration of the waiter not wanting you to feel like he wants you out is almost too much to comprehend.
After having to practically beg to pay for your meal it’s time to catch a taxi home and unwind from being wound up tighter than a virgin at a prison rodeo. You flag down a taxi and ask for the rate to take you home, $60 pesos, you get in the taxi knowing you have $100 pesos in your pocket. You white knuckle the ride home in a speeding taxi with windows down blowing 90 degree air across your face. You wonder what’s wrong with using air conditioning, but you have had enough so you just hold on tight anticipating a stiff martini when you arrive home.
Finally you arrive at home and have never been happier. You hand the taxi driver your $100 peso bill and await your $40 pesos of change only to hear the driver inform you he has no change. How dare he not inform you about the need to have exact change before accepting his services. You exit the taxi mumbling “keep the change”, while you vow never to take a taxi again, on a Friday, between 2 PM – 3 PM, on a day with a full moon. Who are you kidding; you will be back in the taxi tomorrow.
You stumble through the front door and make a beeline to the vodka, it’s been one of those days. You whip yourself up a nice vodka martini, head out to the patio lounge, and kick back as the sun sets over the sky casting the most amazing colors on the horizon.
Your blood pressure begins to lower and you are almost ready to forget the troubles of the day. As you take a much needed deep breath, it happens, the neighbor’s roof dog begins howling and the donkey down the street is screeching as the truck driving by the house is calling out his tamale offerings through a megaphone.
Soon you come to realize that living in Puerto Vallarta is a completely different experience than just visiting Puerto Vallarta.
Don’t be discouraged, over time the red tape and waiting that is experienced in doing business just becomes the norm and doesn’t deserve a second thought. Soon the sounds of the tamales, gas, or fruit trucks announcing their goods over a bullhorn simply go unnoticed. You learn that no one has change when shopping so you make sure you have your coins and small bills before heading to the market or hopping into a taxi. Eventually you will even notice the phrase “that isn’t how we do it in my country” rolls off your tongue less frequently, you see, eventually you become Mexican. It’s contagious, you can fight it all you want, but soon you are one of us.
Ian Hayden Parker