As a newly arrived American in Mexico, I walk around with my eyes twice as wide as usual, trying to take in all the details and not trip on the uneven sidewalks. There are new smells and sounds, the sight of dogs and horses in the street, the beauty of the landscape, the diversity of the people, and all the charming signs I can’t read. We have barely scratched the surface of this vibrant country, having spent two weeks in the quaint coastal town of San Pancho, and now, almost a week in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town in the mountains of Central Mexico. I have already noticed, however, some things that Mexico does a lot better than the United States.
Disclaimer: This is not a sophisticated socio-political-anthropological analysis. I do not claim to understand the complicated factors that make societies/nations/cultures productive, enterprising, safe and/or happy. I don’t have a complete picture of Mexico nor have I conducted any research that would provide remotely substantive information on this topic. This is based entirely on my biased and elementary observations from three weeks in Mexico.
Beach food. Nearly every summer we visit the New Jersey shore to spend time with Scott’s family and enjoy the beach. I love our town at the shore – it’s family-oriented, safe, the beach is well-maintained, you can bike and walk everywhere, the same Mom and Pop shops have been operating for 50 years, and we’ve never been attacked by a Great White shark while swimming. It’s a sweet place.
When you’re on the beach, though, your food options are limited. You can buy a hot dog up at the entrance to the beach or snag yourself something from the “Fudgie Wudgie man” – a creative name for a guy/girl who pushes a rolling cooler with giant wheels around in the sand hawking Sponge Bob-shaped, chemically-flavored treats, and Choco Tacos. The kids think these options are spectacular, but they leave something to be desired for anyone with a more refined palate, such as 52% of American adults and French toddlers. In Mexico, however, the food options on the beach are astounding. Gourmet. And I’m not talking about resort beaches with buff guys in polo shirts delivering margaritas. I’m referring to the regular, public beaches. We spent time in Sayulita, a charming surf town a few miles south of San Pancho, where vendors walk up and down the beach peddling delicacies.
In the two hours we were there one afternoon, we spotted grilled shrimp kabobs with lime, homemade potato chips (with fresh lime and hot sauce), freshly baked macaroons, pineapple and mango (sliced in front of you), coconut milk (straight out of the coconut), fruit smoothies and juices (which really should have their own blog post because they are amazing), and beer.
Patience. We are pleasantly surprised by drivers in Mexico. Drivers here are skilled – they pass quickly and efficiently, navigate narrow colonial streets (that were built when horses were the widest thing you could drive) with a certain expeditious grace, and appear to have patience. On our drive from San Pancho to San Miguel de Allende we drove through the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. This involves sharing a two-lane mountain road that is curvy, steep and narrow with buses and trucks hauling double trailers. After a smooth start, cruising along to some Salt-n-Pepa, we came around a curve to see a man standing in the road, calmly waving (as if his life was not in danger) for us to slow down. Soon we came to a complete stop behind a line of cars. Since the road curved ahead, it was hard to see why we were stopped, how many cars were ahead of us, or estimate how long we would be stopped.
Within a few minutes, people began getting out of their cars to stretch and admire the view. Despite the language barrier, we were able to deduce that we weren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. I had to go to the bathroom and that amplified my impatience, so I spent my time groaning and complaining about how long we were waiting. Since I am also conflict-averse (an IRGQ Oscar-Mayer personality type), I did all my complaining quietly to Scott, with the windows up, while smiling at people standing around outside our car. After about 45 minutes I started loosening up a bit. Partially because I finally relieved my bladder into one of our portable urinal jugs (not made for women, but they work in extreme emergencies like needing to pee in the backseat of a van because 17 people are standing by the nearest bush), but also because no one else seemed worked up or annoyed. People were standing around talking, playing with their children, cuddling babies, giving their dogs a walk, chatting with strangers from other cars and laughing. It was downright…congenial.
There was even a guy walking around selling grilled shrimp! (Traffic food = delicious.) So Scott and the kids and I got out of the car, stretched our legs, ate some snacks, walked Aldo, and embraced the wait in a very un-American way – without complaint. It turned out a semi was in an accident a few miles ahead and the road was blocked both ways. Once the accident was cleared, an hour and a half later, we were on our way again, listening to music and the cacophony of our kids fighting over the last can of Pringles.
Fast food restaurants. I mentioned Karne Garibaldi, the speedy “meat juice” purveyors, with waiters and beer, in an earlier blog post. Today we stopped at Pollo Feliz for lunch. Happy Chicken. KFC it is not. There were guys dressed up like chickens dancing out front in a spectacle of species misappropriation.
The kids have been begging to stop at a Pollo Feliz and we passed one on the way back from getting yet another round of passport photos for our visas. I was kind of blown away. There is a staff member who opens the front door for you as you approach, it’s spacious, bright and clean, they have waiters, and every table has a stand for your purse, jacket or anything else you need to hang in a restaurant. There is also a HUGE play area for kids. Not that silly little zoo cage with a toddler slide and a wavy mirror built into the average Chik-fil-A. No, this is three stories high, has a wide, steep slide, tunnels upon tunnels and a zip-line. It is all enclosed and not crowded at all and the kids spent most of lunch running around in there. The older boys don’t generally have much interest in playgrounds anymore, but they looked like American Ninja Warriors with glandular problems when they finished.
And the food served family-style, was delicious. We ordered pollo asado, which came with tortillas and all the fixin’s – salsa, jalapeños, limes, lettuce, shredded carrots and a 2.5-liter bottle of Sprite because we did not understand the question. Cost? $24 for our family of six. I’d say that’s a win for Mexico.
And the world.