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Some Thoughts On Living In Mexico

Ken Luboff

When we meet people in the States and tell them that we are retired and living in Mexico, many begin immediately to salivate, then their eyes go soft as they conjure up images of their own perfect retirement fantasy. For many the idea of playing a faultless round of golf every morning and cocktails at sunset is enough to quicken the pace of their tickers. Some dream of sitting in a shady spot reading each of those books they haven’t had time for in years. For others it’s the image of lounging on a terrace overlooking a tropical beach and when hunger hits throwing a line in the sea and catching a fish feast.

The truth is that in the five years we have been living in Mexico, we have rarely met a “retired” person who isn’t just as busy now as before. Golf, tennis, fishing, and other relaxations are definitely part of the new lifestyle, but the rest of the time is filled with a myriad of other pursuits. In part this post-retirement energy is due to the fact that people who worked with intensity, creativity, and dedication do not suddenly lose those traits the day they retire. We don’t receive an automatic retirement lobotomy along with the gold watch. What seems to happen for many is that once a little time has passed and the old career baggage is left behind, the creative juice begins to flow once again and take a different form. We write books, paint, learn Spanish, work in the library or join a volunteer organization. A surprisingly large number of us eventually get low-stress jobs, or start small businesses, even though we may not need the money.

Our friend Jack was a successful MD in his former life. He moved to Mexico and took it easy for a few years, making as few commitments as possible that didn’t include golf, eating, and cooking, his second favorite pastime. Jack says he eventually got bored and went looking for something to do that would be fun and engaging. He began selling real estate and found he loved doing it, especially introducing new people to the Mexican experience. Not my cup of tea, but hey!

And look at me. I promised myself I would spend the first year after retirement doing nothing and that is exactly what I did. My nothing included a few months of panic, exploring Mexico, hiking, hanging out on beaches, studying Spanish. I suppose my panic was a natural consequence of going from a 27 year entrepreneurial career to sitting around wondering what to do next. It took a little time but I eventually figured out that life was not just about being “productive,” and that lounging at mid-day, reading a book was OK. That first year I just emptied the cup.

The next year the cup began to refill when my wife, Barbara, and I bought an old, broken-down colonial house in San Miguel de Allende and began the laborious and often frustrating task of renovation, in Spanish no less! We settled down and began enjoying the house, and last year I wrote my first book, Live Well in Mexico, all about retiring and living in this amazing country. During our years in Mexico Barbara became a wonderful and highly regarded yoga teacher in San Miguel. We have our “work,” our social life, our play, and an occasional project. We do them all in a very relaxed Mexican, “manana” style, without the kind of stress that most people associate with living in the 90’s.

One of the most difficult aspects of starting a new life in a foreign country like Mexico is running head on into the unexpected idiosyncrasies of a new culture. For many of us, living among people who have a 180 degree opposite world-view from our own is hell on earth. After all we have been conditioned our entire lives to believe that our way of doing things is the “best” and “right” way. This leads to inevitable major frustrations when things don’t go the way we expect them to.

For instance, Mexicans’ concept of work is different to ours, and this is slow to change (except amongst professionals). For many generations Mexicans were ruled by such brutal and authoritarian bosses, they were not encouraged to think for themselves. If a group of workmen are not well supervised they will each work on their own without consulting their fellow workers, resulting in a completely disorganized job that will take forever.

Then there is their concept of time. Mexicans view time as circular, not linear like us in our goal-oriented society. Doing things according to a precise time schedule is not viewed as important, it can always be done later, manana. Besides, working like a robot or to a rigid schedule is seen as taking the spice out of life. I have seen this clearly with my excellent carpenter friend, Gabriel. He will take on the job, like building us a door by the first of the month. His intention is to finish the door on time, but other jobs will come his way. He will take on each of them and work on them all at the same time. When I ask about our door, he will put it on top of the pile and move ahead with it.

When I ordered it, I had already accepted that the door will not be done on time.

If, for example, a plumber or any tradesman says he will be at your place tomorrow morning, you never take that as a given. He may arrive in the morning, or he may not. You’ll get used to it, and if you don’t, then Mexico is not for you.

For most of us who have moved here, the manana attitude has entered our thinking too, and often when we return to the States we have to snap to and get back into the routine of punctuality. Mexicans live and work in the here and now, not for tomorrow or the day afterwhich is the distant future for most of them. The exceptions are flights and buses. Flights always depart on time, and buses almost always depart on time. Professionals, (doctors, lawyers, etc.), expect you to arrive on time for your appointment.

In social situations, this tardiness is usually learned the hard way by foreigners. You may invite some Mexicans to dinner at, say, 7:30 p.m., only to have them roll up at way past 9:00 p.m., by which time the dinner is spoiled. You can try saying “7:30 gringo time” or 7:30 p.m. “en punto,” (on the dot) to stress the point, but even that is usually ignored. Or they may not arrive at all. When a Mexican is invited anywhere, they will always accept the invitation, even if they know they will not be able to make it, as to say no is an insult! We have learned to do this same thing. On occasion when invited to a party at a Mexican’s home we have accepted graciously, so as not to insult them, and then not shown up.

Expatriates who go to the trouble of learning the history and customs of their adopted country will be able to put the seemingly strange actions of its people into perspective, and hopefully they will develop a more tolerant and accepting attitude, and a sense of humor about them. Others usually give up and return to the States or they stick around and never stop grumbling.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Ken Luboff © 2008
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