Mexican corner shop at a deserted crossroads

Culture Shock: Traffic and Time

I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty blasé about coming to Mexico. Not because I didn’t have any feelings about it, but because I made a conscious decision to suppress them. I was adamant that I wanted to come with an open mind and to minimise any preconceived ideas and expectations. One thing I was particularly unsure about was where Mexico lay conceptually in the continent of ‘America’. I’d always thought of Mexico as South America, but it’s actually geographically north of Central America, and is a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement – so did it technically count as North America? And what would it be like?

In all honesty, I had assumed Mexico to be far more US-influenced and Western than it is. Of course, there are coastal tourist hotspots that are full of North Americans, but residing in the ‘cultural and religious capital’ of Puebla as I do, European culture especially is largely unknown and irrelevant to most people here. From an anthropological point of view the Latin American culture is fantastic for me, but in terms of culture shock: it’s BIG! I spoke in my post ‘Participant Observation’ about my first impressions, but the food, climate and people are things that any tourist can learn about Mexico. Living with a local family allows me to experience real Mexican life, and the culture shock comes largely from the ‘comfortable chaos’ that is so characteristic of life here.

One thing that I learned about pretty quickly was the concept of time, or more accurately, lack of. When it comes to plans, schedules and organisation, time just doesn’t seem to be a consideration! I had learned that the Spanish for ‘now’ is ‘ahora’. In England, now means, err, now. And if you say now you mean now. Simple, surely? No no, in Mexico ahora is more like ‘maybe now but actually more likely at some unspecified time in the future’. If you mean right now, it’s ‘ahorita’. “Ok, got it” I thought to myself. In a couple of weeks, however, as I grew increasingly bewildered by my constant readiness and waiting, I realised that even ‘ahorita’ isn’t really right now either, but more like ‘slightly closer to now than ahora’. It’s funny, and confusing, but this is the Mexican way, and it certainly isn’t for those of a neurotic disposition!

If you think the Mexican notion of time would make you nervous, it’s probably best that you don’t read on: the traffic in Puebla is riotous at best and terrifying at worst. If you’re taking the bus, just try not to look out of the window. On my tenth day my taxi crashed with another car (don’t worry mum, I’m fine!) and full-on fisticuffs ensued between my taxi driver and the other driver and passenger involved.  A few days later, I was on a bus when another bus flew past and smashed the wing mirror. My friend Juliana who was sat next to me had glass in her lap. You ain’t seen potholes ’til you’ve been to Mexico. There are speed bumps at random intervals on the motorways. Most of the cars on the roads look like they haven’t have passed an MOT in the last twenty years. Seat belts aren’t compulsory for the back seats in Puebla, and there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of passengers any given car can carry. The list goes on, you get the idea.

Despite all this, however, getting the bus is worth the fear for the pure entertainment. Bus drivers are blessed with freedom of expression and you just never know what kind of experience you’re going to get: Mr Horn-Happy was my least favourite but I really warmed to the proper MexiLAD who likes to play Robbie Williams and has smothered his windows in Playboy stickers. One day a whole band got on the bus, the harpist parked himself next to me and they played a jolly little tune. The drivers tip a scraggly old guy for hopping on the bus to spray the aisles with air freshener and give the dashboard a quick wipe. Being six inches taller than the average Mexican woman, I can’t say the seats are spacious, but I use my hip to knee length advantage to wedge myself in and reduce the frequency with which my bum lifts off the seat. Sorted.

A typical bus in Puebla (with San Francisco Church in the background)
A typical bus in Puebla (with San Francisco Church in the background)

The chaos is fun: you’d honestly have to be the most miserly of gits not to have a good time here, it would be such hard work NOT to get swept up in the sunshine spirit and totally infectious zest for life. There’s no such thing as a party animal, it’s just a given. So what’s there to do but party on?!

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2 thoughts on “Culture Shock: Traffic and Time”

  1. What grace and beauty your writing has! Very enjoyable to read, I love how you end the post “so whats there to do but party on…?” You should be a novelist. No wonder you got a first in your degree. I’m so proud of your endeavours my friend, well done! xxxx

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