Every place, every culture, every peoples – have their way about them. We go to Europe and stand in awe of the work/life balance of the Italians, the diligence of the Germans, the loyalty of the British. We travel to Malaysia and see a wonderfully tolerant and welcoming culture. In our time in Australia, we found a genuine spirit that pervades the people.
As every place and culture has its own wonderful elements, so too does it have a few less desirable traits. Let me be very clear, I love Mexico. I love the heart of the people, the depth of its culture and the warmth of the smiles. I love the honest, heartfelt friendliness found on the faces across this country. This is – for all intents and purposes – my home, as much as we actually have one.
With all that said, sometimes I find myself on the brink of madness with Mexico. It isn’t that Mexican society is ‘wrong’ in its methods and processes, so much as they are so opposed to what I am used to that I find it hard to adjust willingly and cheerfully. (Although, in some ways the Mexican culture is objectively ‘wrong’, but I will get there in a moment!)
To be sure, there are business practices that have us scratching our heads sometimes. A young friend of ours talked of opening a small store near his home. He outlined his reasoning that his uncle had a small store on that street and had made fairly good money. His success spurred his cousin to open another small store a block away. Surely, this was a deep, rich market! Our friend’s location was going to be directly between his cousin and his uncle. Since both of them were making money, surely he would too! The beauty of it even extended to the fact that since they all sold the same products, they could source inventory together!
I tried to explain the basics of market saturation and diversity of products… and went as far as drawing supply and demand curves on a napkin… but nothing I could say to him would counter his belief that since his family members made money – cash that they had in hand – he would be successful just like they had been.
This was one of the smarter kids I have met while living in Mexico. No matter what I said, nothing could sway his ingrained belief that cash in hand is the only proof of business success and his family members had that. I was only offering theory and conjecture. In this land, in this culture, reality beats conjecture every time… just like it has for centuries. The cultural thought process has stamina if not strength.
We shook our heads and watched him go about his way. Who are we to think ourselves superior just because we believe differently? It works for him.
We are not so understanding of large businesses. These are companies that should know how to operate in a modern business environment, but are mired in the traditional inefficiencies that come from optimizing for cheap labor, rather than using modern technology and business methods to operate. Cablemas, our local internet provider, is just one example of that failure to move into the modern era.
I am quite certain that there is some method to pay bills online – or perhaps not – yet every single time I venture to the local office to pay my monthly account, the line is out the door. By definition, most of the people standing in line have access to computers/tablets and could pay online, but the company does nothing to promote or maintain that ability. Every month is an exercise in patience that takes an hour or so just to keep paying for service that should eliminate my need to stand in line!
That is simply an annoying, but harmless, inefficiency brought about by a company culture that recognizes that people’s time is worth less than the cost of what it would take to adequately administer an online payment method. Other business practices arising from that mentality are not so harmless.
Recently, a lightning strike zapped our cable modem, rendering it quite electronically ‘dead’ – no lights, no activity, nor functionality. We took the equipment down to the office – standing in line with the others there to pay – and attempted to make a simple switch. We were informed that since there the office did not have a ready stock of replacements, but not to worry as some were coming in ‘soon’. Those are words you do not want to hear in Mexico. Time takes on a new dimension here. ‘Soon’ may be in 10 minutes or it may be a month, if ever.
The wonderful lady who works at the local office (see also, how much I love the genuine warmth of the Mexican culture) told us that we were scheduled for a service call on ‘Wednesday’. As it was a Monday, that seemed prompt enough, if unbelievable. Things just don’t happen that quickly here. The following ‘Wednesday’ came and went with no visit from the technician. Anticipating this, I purchased a replacement cable modem while returning to the United States for business. It even had instructions for ‘self-installation’ in the box for most US providers. After installing it in the place of our dead modem, all of the lights blinked, the service worked (it provided a diagnostic page telling me so) and only needed an ‘activation code’ to be fully functional.
Being Sunday and the office was closed, I contacted Cablemas via Twitter (a whole other blog post is coming about the power of direct communication that Twitter provides!) The representative worked through getting my information and then let me know that a service call was scheduled for ‘Wednesday’, I can only assume they meant the NEXT one at this point! I made it very clear to the representative that I only needed a code and they could cancel the service ticket… I offered to go into the office to have the modem inspected and entered into the system there. It seems that the ONLY way to receive a ‘self-provisioning’ activation code is for a technician to come to your home and do it manually.
I began to slowly pound my head into the desk, as I knew it would most likely not be the following ‘Wednesday’… and all I need is one set of numbers. When the assumption is that people cost (employees, as well as customers) is less than the implementation cost of automation, highly manual processes that make no sense in the modern world both survive, and thrive.
Who knows, maybe next Wednesday?
While all of this is maddening to even the most laid back of ex-pat, there are other aspects of Mexican culture that are more… harmful.
Coming through the airport, I got the ‘red flag’ for an additional customs search. This is not that much of a concern as I have received them in the past and it amounted to a mere formality and cursory ‘search’ of my luggage. This time, as I began to notice, that attitude had changed. As I was waiting to be processed, I noticed that a MUCH larger percentage of people were getting the additional customs search flag. Again, odd but nothing too out of the ordinary.
When it came time for my search, I was prepared for the cursory glance and a welcoming smile. As I slid my bag on the customs table, I sensed something was different. Rather than the quick search, I was thoroughly inspected and found to have excess ‘merchandise’ over my allotted amount. I bought my wife a new laptop while in the US and the rules are only one per person. I knew my attempt at explaining this was going nowhere by the look on the inspector’s face. He rather abruptly wanted to know how much the most expensive one cost. We arrived at $800.
As I was escorted to the tax payment window, I noticed that there were several people standing in line to pay. In a hundred trips through the Cancun airport, I have never once seen anyone standing at this window. Today, there were around a dozen.
While I certainly understand countries taking a hardline on customs, I also know that making a bad impression costs the overall economy much more than a payment for an extra carton of cigarettes (the most common thing people were standing in line for) or a bottle of booze. A video proclaiming Mexico to be ‘open for business’ played in the background as I noticed that every single person in that line – including myself – came away with the exact opposite impression. Someone in the tax office had suddenly realized that there was money to be made harvesting questionable imports and they were going to make it.
(NOTE: I know that Americans are just as guilty, if not more. I had just come from Washington, DC where my rental car bill had over $100 in ‘convention fees’ and such. The difference is that I EXPECT to be fleeced like this in the United States…but not Mexico!)
Fortunately, I know the reality. Mexico is a wonderful place, populated with wonderful people. However, even the most die-hard Mexiphile like myself can be drawn to a breaking point. To live a wandering, ex-pat life, a person just has to learn to roll with the punches and not get too bent out of shape over these things. In the end, the good FAR outweighs the bad. Even so, some days it is harder to remember that than others!
[UPDATE: Just went to rent a car in Phoenix and the ‘extra’ charges are:
PER RENTAL SURCHARGE MINIMUM 2.50USD QUOTE MAY CHANGE 1.84 USD/DAY
OPERATIONAL MAINTENANCE RECOVERY AND ENERGY SURCHARGE 6.44 USD/DAY
Do not think that for one moment that the United States is not worse than Mexico in fleecing travelers!]