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Ask an old gringo: health care, bureaucracy, bike paths and Christmas gifts

Marvin West

It is flattering to be mistaken for a resident expert, to have questions come tumbling into my e-mailbox. But, in a spirit of honesty, accept this warning: It is possible that, even at my age, I don't know it all.

Question: We need to learn about Christmas gifts. What do you give Mexicans?

Answer: Just a minute while I recover my limited ability to communicate. Mexicans are people. Christmas in Mexico is a religious holiday and not the extravagant bonanza promoted north of the border. That said, we try to keep it simple and moderate.

We give Mexican children in our neighborhood the same type of gifts we once gave children in Tennessee, toys, thinking games, sports equipment, small electronics, wallets with spending money, clothes as a last resort. There was one bicycle, a replacement for one that mysteriously rolled away. There was one boom box. That was a mistake.

We are mostly practical with grown-up gifts. Would you believe a tool set with a bright red bow?

It appears our most meaningful gift to our best friends across the street was a family photo album, with a new 8x10 and assorted snapshots added each Christmas. It is now a precious nine-year record of their lovely clan growing into beautiful and handsome young adults.

They didn't have a camera. They still don't. We cherish the role of official photographers for special occasions for these very special people.

Question: What do you know about the Mexican government trying to reduce bureaucracy?

Answer: When I first heard about action against inefficiency, I thought it was a joke. No way would Mexico shorten waiting lines or cut out duplicate copies of all documents. This is a way of life. Tradition. This is pure Mexican culture.

In fact, President Calderon has invented a game: Report red tape and bribe requests, suggest ways for improving government functions, win prizes for good ideas. Amazing, but risky. Several friends have already fainted.

Question: We are considering retirement in Mexico. What is your assessment of health care?

Answer: Excellent, good, fair or awful, depending on location. Big cities have modern facilities and skilled doctors, including specialists. Small cities and towns have clinics, generally capable. Villages may or may not have a physician. Some places don't have roads. Help may be the nearest grandmother with a burro.

Cost? Medicare does not pay in Mexico. Private insurance is available. IMSS, the national health care system, is poorly funded and gets mixed reviews. We know it requires patience. We had it and dropped out. Some foreigners are self-insured. Treatment and medicines are less expensive than in the U.S.

Question: I've heard a lot about the Day of the Dead. How about the Year of the Dead? Crime statistics are frightening. Are killings and kidnappings causing Americans and Canadians to stay home?

Answer: Probably. The United States issued a travel warning a few weeks ago, advising extra precautions. That's one of our goals every day. Being alert is not a bullet-proof vest but it's not a bad idea.

It appears most victims in the drug war have been Mexicans who probably knew each other. Grenades at a fall celebration in Morelia had the ugly smell of terrorism. Some innocents were killed.

Wealthy Mexicans are adding guards to discourage kidnappers. Volkswagen is making $65,000 armored cars. If you want one, I'll try to get you on the waiting list.

Yes, there is some fallout, even though most of us travelers come and go without incident. We've stopped doing stopovers in border towns.

Will snowbirds stay away? Economic conditions and travel costs are more likely to impact the tourist industry than the crime rate. The situation is not good but it isn't alarming enough to cause widespread cancellations, especially if you have prepaid.

Question: I saw a story on TV about bicycles in Singapore. Does Mexico City have bike lanes?

Answer: There are a few but don't count on peddling anywhere meaningful. Wild and crazy motorists are all around. There are collision horror stories without a single skid mark.

Sunday morning riders catch a break. The city prohibits cars on several streets around the historic district for several hours, creating a new kind of congestion: bicyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers, three-year olds on tricycles and parents pushing strollers. Enjoy.

Question: True or false, Mexico puts animals in jail?

Answer: Are you setting me up for a punch line about red-nosed Rudolph flying too high on Christmas Eve?

To tell you the goofy truth, officers in Tuxtla Gutierrez did put a burro behind bars for kicking one man and biting another. The idea was to keep the bad beast locked up until the owner paid doctor bills. The owner proposed forfeiting the burro. The police chief proposed putting the owner in the same cell. The case was soon settled.

Extensive and intensive research reveals that Chiapas police once jailed a bull for criminal mischief -- trampling a cornfield, breaking down a fence and tearing up two vending stands beside a road.

The farmer who owned the bull said it was probably a preemptive strike. The merchants were selling leather goods.

Published or Updated on: December 1, 2008 by Marvin West © 2008
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is

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