There’s cultural differences between Mexico and the United States that surprised me during my recent visit. There were pleasant surprises, and not-so pleasant surprises. Let’s explore them all.
The good stuff
Mexico City is in many ways a world-class major city. Good restaurants, hotels, street food, and the entire place is huge and packed with people and businesses. They have easily the best public transit I’ve ever seen, with a Metro where trains are spaced less than two minutes apart, bus rapid transit, electric trolleys, as well as traditional buses. (Traditional buses in Mexico are independently operated, sort of like shared taxis with pre-planned routes.) I never got to try the bicycle sharing program, but it looked like something to try.
It’s also a beautiful city with art everywhere. They’re big on statues. Certain parts of the city are very walkable, with pedestrian streets.
I’m told safety is an issue, but I never really saw any crime; of course, I was traveling with Mexicans who knew the country much better than I did and were aware of which areas to steer clear from. The police in Mexico City often have automatic weapons. They seem to mainly patrol tourist areas, which is nice if you’re a tourist but I’m sure is infuriating if you’re a local.
Some of the things surprised me not so much as an American, but as a San Franciscan. Sidewalk vendors seem to have free reign in terms of the space they take up and what they do. Street food was everywhere and often delicious. I can safely say I had better Mexican food in a Toluca parking lot than anywhere else, ever. One guy was selling homemade sorbet right outside of an elementary school, a concept that would make American parents’ jaws drop.
Now all this said, there’s a few big issues that Mexico needs to address, the sooner the better.
Lack of trust
We take it for granted in the US that we can walk into almost any store without surrendering our bags to the front desk. In Mexico, this is unheard of. In most stores, everything is either sold from behind the counter, or you have to check your bags before they let you go in. (Why I’m supposed to trust someone who makes $3 a day with a $500 camera was never explained to me.) There were exceptions to this, but they were mostly convenience stores or stores swarming with security guards. One store even had security guards standing on stools to watch over everyone. Another store insisted on putting cable ties on the zippers on my backpack so it couldn’t be opened.
But the lack of trust extends much further than shopping. Most homes in and around Mexico City are small buildings made from cinder blocks. They line the edges of the roofs and balconies with broken glass, sort of a cheap alternative to barbed wire. The outside of these homes is almost never painted, because to paint your home would suggest that you have money, which would be like putting up a “Please rob my house” sign.
It’s hard to imagine why everyone is treated like a criminal. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it (i.e. lots of crime) but unless you’re used to this sort of treatment, it’s damn insulting.
It’s funny, but I thought the worst plumbing I’d ever have to deal with was in my trip to Greece. There, toilets simply couldn’t handle toilet paper. I was told many toilets in Mexico had the same problem. But in my entire visit to Mexico, I never had a problem with flushing TP.
But there was a different problem — stinky sewers. I don’t know know a lot about plumbing, but whatever they’ve done in Mexico can’t be right. All three hotels we visited had major odor problems in the bathrooms, especially at night. Street sewers often smelled terrible, even worse than our stinky street sewers in San Francisco (exception: foul street sewers on 19th Ave outside of SFSU which could probably kill a person.)
Someone from the Mexican tourism bureau needs to get a team of plumbers together and go around fixing this ASAP.
Another issue which may or may not be related is the foul-smelling rivers! This was especially noticeable in Toluca, where a river a couple blocks away from our hotel smelled so bad that I was able to smell it inside hotel, even in spite of having a stuffy nose due to my cold.
Lack of customer service
I think part of this is related to the lack of trust (described above) but there’s also an issue of just not caring or trying very hard. It’s not like Greece, where everybody moved too slow. This was something much worse about Mexican customer service that was hard to pin down.
- On many occasions, when asking for help finding something at a store, they were simply unwilling to help. I found this not only to be bad service, but also generally rude.
- The aforementioned bag-check at many stores as not only an insult, it was a hassle as well.
- Larger stores tended to have long, slow moving lines. There wasn’t any rush to get people through the checkout.
- We went to extend our stay at the first hotel we were at, but they insisted we had to pay 700 pesos ($70 USD) per night instead of the 350 pesos ($35 USD) we had bought the original two nights for via Kayak.com. They said it was fine though if we wanted to order online to get the discount. So we did that, and then they told us we’d need to print out the e-mail confirmation, and “no you can’t use our printer.” Would it have been that hard for them to explain that we would need to print the e-mail BEFORE we placed the order? It would have saved about 20 minutes, and wouldn’t have been hard to explain in the first place.
- One more example: a cashier at a drink stand refused my 100 peso ($10 USD) note for a bottle of water that cost 10 pesos ($1 USD). She claimed she didn’t have change. I didn’t buy anything there, including the cashier’s lame excuse for laziness.
Granted, this wasn’t true everywhere. But for the most part, I really got the impression that everyone who worked for someone else was doing the bare minimum necessary to keep their jobs. Were it not for the fact that I was visiting my girlfriend’s family — who were all very nice to me — I would have been under the impression that most Mexicans were lazy, self-centered assholes.
Overall, I’m a little torn on whether I’d go back to Mexico or not. On the one hand there’s still a lot more to see and do. I need to finish climbing the pyramids! But on the other hand, between the problematic customer service, the stench, and the way everyone is treated like a criminal, it’s a bit hard to justify returning.
I hate to say this, but perhaps the deciding factor is the price; Mexico is a cheap place to go, and it’s close enough to the United States that traveling there is inexpensive as well. Round trip airfare was less than $200 (USD) per person even after taxes and fees, rides on the Mexico City Metro were 3 pesos ($0.30 USD!!), and there’s excellent food for mere dollars.
So yeah, I’ll be back in Mexico someday. But it’s not at the top of my list.