From the Yukon to the Yucatán: observations on Mexico

What would the world be without Mexican contributions: the long staple “Egyptian” cotton that made the industrial revolution possible, the rubber of the automobiles and electric insulators that defined the second industrial revolution, chicle and chewing gum (although gum is now mostly rubber and not chicle, but still of Mexican origin), and two of the things that make life worth living—tomatoes and chocolate.

Speaking of tomatoes, it is hard to imagine Italian food before the Mexican contributions: no tomatoes for sauce, no corn for polenta, no beans for pasta fagioli (the pasta fazool of the Dean Martin song “When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool, you’re in love.”), no fagiolini or string beans or French haricots, no zucchine (which have an Italian name in English despite their Mexican origin, although the Mexicans do call it calabaza italiana – Italian squash), no peppers for peperoni ripieni or peperoncini, no diavolillo for the spaghetti aglio e olio. The same hot peppers or chiles that have taken the South and Southeast Asian cuisines to their arsehole ripping heights. For those of us further north in the Americas – whether we are of Native or European descent doesn’t matter – no turkey and squash for Christmas and Thanksgiving, no pumpkins at Halloween or pumpkin pie, no ketchup, no succotash, no baked beans or fêves au lard, no corn on the cob or épluchette de blé d’Inde, no peanuts or peanut butter, no vanilla ice cream, NO CHOCOLATE!!!!

I made an Italian meal for Sophie’s friend deliberately using mainly ingredients that originated in Mexico: polenta with a tomato-bean sauce, turkey breasts in prosciutto and cheese, fried zucchini, string bean salad. OK, the prosciutto and cheese did not originate in Mexico, but the other main ingredients all did.

The Mexicans:

I love the Mexicans, what else is there to say? With few exceptions, maybe fewer than in other countries, they are unfailingly polite, pleasant, helpful and honest. The main exceptions are the Estado de México cops and the bus drivers. A dishonourable mention also goes to some toll booth attendants, who can mislead you in their attempts to be too helpful (see the “Shit Happens” entry) without knowing what they are talking about.

While you get harassed in the tourist areas by shopkeepers, wannabe guides and knick-knack sellers, this does not happen in other parts of Mexico. I discovered how to deal with sellers in tourist areas: you ask how much, say too much and then walk away. Watch the price drop by about half in no time. Then offer even less. They will usually accept that. Not that they are unpleasant or dishonest, it’s just the way the game has evolved: tourist think they are getting ripped off so offer less than the asking price, the shop owners know that the tourists are going to get them to drop prices, so they raise the asking price and a vicious circle is created.

Luigi with Rosalba Peraza, artist

I would only use this tactic with shopkeepers in tourist areas; when it comes to artists or artisans selling their own work I am prepared to pay the asking price or close to it if they offer a small discount. I believe artists and artisans should be able to earn a decent living. The prices are extremely low by Canadian standards anyway: I bought a painting (acrylic on canvas) from an artist for $M600 ($CDN50) that would have gone for at least $CDN300 in Canada. I was not going to try to bring her price down. I got a deal and she got a deal I think, so everybody’s happy.

Some of Rosalba's paintings

On the other hand, I have told of experiences with Mexicans: street sellers spontaneously helping me with directions even if I was not buying from them; a food stall operator telling me I made a mistake giving her a 500 peso note instead of 50, telling her to keep the change; people just happy to give me directions when I ask, or even when I don’t ask and look lost. They all think Canada is cold but their eyes pop when I mention Canadian salaries. As I said earlier, we could do a lot worse than encouraging more Mexicans to immigrate to Canada.

And the Mexican government would not object: immigrant remittances are a large part of Mexico’s balance of payments, almost as large as petroleum or automobile exports. In fact, from an economic perspective, Mexico reminds me very much of Italy of the 1950s and early 1960s and will perhaps follow its path to economic development. Automobiles and road and expressway construction to stimulate internal demand, with large tourism spending and emigrant remittances to help the balance of payments. Other parallels with Italy include: massive tax evasion, large number of highly skilled artisans, an increasingly important organized crime industry fuelled by US demand and corrupt politicians, a richer industrial North and poorer agricultural South, and finally free access to the richer markets in countries to the North. Plus, unlike Italy, Mexico has oil and gas, so won’t suffer from having to import energy. Like Italy had Japan to compete against, Mexico has China and the rest of Southeast Asia competing against it on the basis of low wages, so the cheap labour maquiladoras producing crappy goods are no longer an option or strategy for helping development, if they ever were.

Driving in Mexico

Autopista in Sonora

Soon after crossing the border, I was on the “expressways” from Nogales to Hermosillo in Sonora. I believed everything they said about Mexican roads: the pavement was at the low end of Quebec standards and the lanes were narrow with no shoulders but a one metre drop on each side. I thought: “Holy shit, I don’t really want to drive on this kind of road.” The buses kept on passing me, doing 120-130 kph while I was doing 100. And they created a wind effect that almost sent me flying off the road, despite the signs that said the speed limit for buses was 90 kph.

Two-lane highway in Sinaloa

Things got better as I headed south. By the time I got into Sinaloa, the road actually had a paved shoulder on the right and a small shoulder on the left before the median, something like Italian autostrade. There is also great variation in the two-lane federal highways. Some, like around Villahermosa are little better than rutted tracks. East of Mexico City, it was very much like an Italian mountain highway: I was not driving fast. Others are absolutely beautiful and a total pleasure to drive on, especially the newer highways in the Yucatán: straight roads, wide lanes, paved shoulders wide enough for a car to pull over to let another pass.

Mexican truck drivers are great: they are polite and helpful. They signal they are going slow with their flashers, they signal it is safe to pass them by turning on their left turn signal. They drive skilfully on bad narrow roads as well as roads that are the equal of any others in North America.

Driving habits are yet another reason to like Mexicans. Mexican drivers—except the above-mentioned bus drivers who are a law unto themselves—are pretty good. Certainly nowhere near as crazy as Italians or Montrealers, and a lot more polite and helpful than other North Americans. If you ask, almost all will let you get in front of them. Even taxi drivers will stop to let you go or to cut in front of them, sometimes even without asking. Drivers will pull over to let someone else pass and signal each other about radar traps. I only got the finger once, and that was entirely my fault as I missed a stop sign and almost smashed into the other car. While driving a big pick-up truck on narrow roads is not always a pleasure, it is certainly made much easier by the attitude of most Mexican drivers.

The other thing I started appreciated were the windshield washers at street corners and toll booths. My first reaction was the same as in Canada: “Don’t bug me with your dirty rag!!” But then I realized it was OK and that they performed a useful service and for 5 or 10 pesos I would get a truly clean windshield. Unfortunately, they disappeared in Central Mexico.

Other than the bus drivers, there are two things I dislike about driving in Mexico. The first is the outrageous tolls on the autopistas con cuota (toll expressways). I have paid up to $M200 for a 100 kilometre stretch. I suspect they are the highest in the world. The other is the “topes” or reductores de velocidad: speed bumps. There is no fucking around with speed limits in towns in Mexico. As soon as you reach a populated place, you had better slow down to almost standstill to go over the tope, or you lose your suspension and muffler. And you won‘t get a chance to accelerate to more than 40kph (the usual urban speed limit) before the next tope.

The Mexican language

I became reasonably fluent in Spanish after taking a one-year course at McGill. My ex-wife was Spanish, which helped, although she spoke Catalan at home. I also spoke French and Italian, and, as I like to say to piss off other speakers of Romance languages, Spanish (and French, Portuguese, Catalan, Provençal, Romanian, etc.) are all just mispronounced Italian with bad grammar.

I was convinced I spoke Spanish with an Italian accent. In Cuba, servers would respond with the Italian word prego instead of the Spanish de nada when I said “Gracias”. But a number of Mexicans have told me I have a Spanish accent rather than an Italian one despite my effort to extirpate all the lithped Cs and Zs.

Having heard Mexican Spanish spoken quite often, I had thought that Mexican was the purest version of Spanish, without all the funny regional pronunciation of Spain or South America, something like Canadian English. Mexicans also think so, and are not shy about saying it. But it also resembles Canadian French in its ambivalence towards its Anglophone neighbours. When I first saw “rentar un carro” (in Cuba actually, not in Mexico) instead of the Spanish “alquilar un coche”, I thought, “Hey, this is just like Quebec French.” But rentar is a perfectly good word of Latin origin, and the English “rent” is of French origin as are most legal terms.

Just like in our Canadian French, Mexicans use a lot of Anglicisms: carro, checar (to check), clutch, tunap, güinch, mofle, lonchería where you have your midday lonche, etc. On the other hand, just like in Quebec they are leery of using English words or abbreviations on traffic signs: Alto and Arrêt instead of the “Stop” used in Spain and France, the parking signs use an “E” (for estacionamiento) instead of the “P”. Instead of the Spanish aparcar and parking (also used in France), it’s officially estacionamiento in Mexico and stationnement in Quebec.

There are also some purely Mexican or Latin American words: llanta (probably related to the French jante, rim) instead of pneumatico (tire); mofles (muffler) instead of silenciador, res (beef), elote (maize), ejote (string beans), etc. I really like the word seminuevo for used cars. I guess used car salesmen are the same kind of bullshitters right across North America.


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One Response to “From the Yukon to the Yucatán: observations on Mexico”

  1. giuliano Says:

    Oggi siamo ritornati a Rio Gallegos (dopo ore di coda alla verie frontiere).
    E’ stata un’ avventura fantastica!!!!!
    Ciao a presto e scrivimi

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