Differences between Mexico and the US

I just really like all the street art.

I’ve just spent a year living and working in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. As an experienced world traveler, I’ve noticed a few differences between the US and Mexico. Just for fun, I thought I’d share them. This list is in no particular order. The photos are from my last days in SLP.

Time Everyone is a tad delayed here, though it’s not as bad as advertised. The airport time, for example, is 5 minutes slower than my automatically synced phone/iPad/computer. My students don’t really consider themselves late if they show up in the first 15 minutes of a one-hour class. I think differently, however.

Speaking of airports When your flight is delayed or there’s a gate change–nothing goes on the announcement board until after the time flight should have left. And you can’t look at the corresponding arriving flight because it won’t ever be listed as arriving late. Oh, and most announcements are only in Spanish, even for flights going to the USA.

It’s noisy Being loud is simply more acceptable in Mexico. Talking loudly on the phone in public places is common. The school near me had blaring music often in the evening. This past month, fireworks began just after 10pm. The noise and bangs didn’t end until shortly before midnight. This was on a Thursday night. The school is located between a residential zone and a hospital.

Personal space is less It’s common for someone to use your chair, which you are sitting in, for their purse or bags, as though you aren’t even there. At the airport, a woman sat beside me and put her shopping bag on the edge of my chair while she got adjusted, elbowing me twice. She didn’t even acknowledge me. I smiled and handed her the shopping bag as though she’d forgotten it. It’s common for people to touch you as you pass on a narrow sidewalk. They don’t mean anything bad, but as an American, I find it unnerving. Standing in an obviously busy doorway is common. And annoying. When you ask them to move out of your way, they smile and politely let you through, then stand back in the doorway.

Perfume WAAAAAY too much perfume.

Sidewalks They are often impossible to use, which is why people walk in the street. The sidewalks are narrow, broken and may have signs or power poles in the middle of the passageway. Open holes are very common. If the sidewalk is wide, there’s likely to be commerce blocking your way–food carts, especially. Heaven help you if you’re handicapped.

Stop signs There are very few of them. The ones that are there, may be ignored. However, in one year, I didn’t see a single collision at an intersection. I don’t know how they do it, but they do.

Turn Signals It’s rare for someone to use turn signals. Or seat belts. It’s like the USA in the 1950’s.

Green Spaces Mexicans use their parks and plazas. It’s not as trashy as I’d expected either. There was some graffiti, but no worse than in the USA, not that that’s saying much.

Buenas dias People are generally very friendly. People will smile and greet you on the street, even if they don’t know you. Having spent a summer in Russia, I really, really appreciate this.

An afternoon at the coffee house, playing cards (Exploding Kittens. Yes, it’s a thing). Donna, Paula and Pancho.

Sunday is family day. Forget trying to get friends together on Sunday. This day is dedicated to seeing Mom, Dad, cousins, aunts, uncles…. And the city closes down the main thoroughfare, Carranza, just for walking.

Buy stock in Spandex If you like tight clothing on women, this is the place to be. However, I find that if you don’t look good naked, you probably won’t look good in Spandex. The only country with a higher obesity rate than the USA is Mexico. Just sayin’.

Need attention? Beggars and sales people on the street are aggressive. They will follow you for a block or more, regardless of how many times you say no.

Snacking There are levels of snacks in Mexico. Small snacks, like popcorn and chips, are referred to as botanas. Heavier snacks are antojitos, which include tacos, pozole (a soup with hominy and meat) and enchiladas.

Lento, por favor Based on my personal, non-scientific survey, it’s impossible to speak Spanish slowly. People simply have to speak it rapidly. It didn’t matter how often I asked politely for people to speak slowly, the locals responded to me in rapid fire Spanish.

The coffee house.

Mexican kitchens/cocincas There’s usually no hot water from the faucet in a Mexican kitchen. I hate this. People simply rinsed plates under running water. They may or may not use soap. This never seemed to clean things to me, one of the money reasons I didn’t use the shared kitchen in the board houses. The cuisine in the home is cooked entirely on the stovetop, so few kitchens have ovens. They may have a stove, but the oven section will be dismantled and used to store pots and pans. Breads and cakes are purchased at the local panderia, not cooked at home. Tortillas are cheap and fresh in every neighborhood and sold at a separate shop.

More Plumbing Homes have a water pump and storage tank on the roof. Sometimes the pump works automatically to pump city water to the holding tank, but most private homes aren’t automatic. When no water comes out of the faucet, you have to turn on the pump. Yes, this usually happens in the middle of a shower.

It’s like a package of Crayola crayons Things are just more colorful here. Houses, clothing and decorations are multicolored. Windows in old buildings have colored glass panels. It’s lovely.

Hold the salt….and pepper There’s seldom salt and pepper on the table at home or in a restaurant. Instead, you squeeze half a lime (here they are called lemons/limons) to add a salty flavor and salsa for spice.

It’s just spicier here Popcorn (palomitas) and chips are served with a squeeze of fresh lime and hot sauce. Even the local coffee (cafe de olla) has a bit of cinnamon and hot pepper.

I loved this sink in the ladies room.

There’s almost no recycling.

Junk food is easy a little too easy to get There are neighborhood shops, often 2 per block. They don’t carry much, mostly snack foods, chips, candy and soda. They may have milk and beer. Occasionally they will also have liquor behind the counter, but almost never wine. These are tiny, usually one small room. Larger convenience stores are located every 3-4 blocks. These are usually a chain store, especially OXXO or Circle K. Actual grocery stores are much farther apart.

Did I mention the houses are colorful?

Review: Teaching at English Unlimited, San Luis Potosi, Mexico

I worked at this school for just a few days short of one year, from July 2016-July 2017. This is my detailed take away from my time there.

Short version: The city is great, the school isn’t.

Pros

  • San Luis Potosi is the perfect size. It’s not too large (less than 1 million people), but large enough to have public services and events. It has a lovely old downtown (El Centro) with colonial Spanish buildings from the 16th century that are in surprisingly good shape. While there is a LOT of street construction at this moment, they are improving the plumbing and sewage system, so it’s money well spent.
  • The buses are cheap (8.5 pesos per ride, about 47 cents US), though it takes a while to figure out where they go. There’s no bus map and many areas don’t have bus stops, you simply wave the bus down.
  • Taxis are everywhere, but I depended on Uber, since taxi drivers usually got lost if you were going to a residential address. Uber drivers always have a mapping service and are far more likely to speak some English.
  • San Luis Potosi should organize more tourism, especially to US Americans. It’s a lovely city with all the amenities, plus a great exchange rate. Americans like a bargain. However, it’s difficult to see nearby sites without renting a car, so organized bus/van tours would sell here. SLP has great hotels and lots of places to show off. There’s a nice trolley tour, but it’s only in Spanish.
  • The food is great, especially the tacos and fresh fruit on the street. Prepare to get fat.
  • Food, housing and clothing are relatively cheap, if you’re paying in US dollars. Unfortunately, you’re paid by the school in pesos.
  • Mexicans are very friendly and helpful. The more Spanish you know, the better, since there’s little English here.
  • Wonderful weather. SLP is on a mountain, so it doesn’t get as hot as you’d think in the summer, rarely over 85F. There’s often a breeze, but you’ll still want a fan. But the humidity is low. Conversely, winters are mild and most of my students had never seen snow or freezing temperatures. Low temperatures at night are rarely below 50F.
  • Notice how I haven’t said anything about the school yet? Well, here is one pro about the school. You do get paid for the hours you work. (Though not all the holidays promised and sometimes you get stiffed on private students. See details below.) The information you get from the school will say you’re paid “fortnightly,” which isn’t quite correct. You’re paid on the 15th and the last day or the month, as well as the last day of a 4-week session. It’s not unusual to be paid 3 times a month, in cash.
  • If you are a teacher who prefers to be completely left alone, you might like it here. No one will observe your classes, give you feedback or even comment on how many students you passed or failed. There are student feedback forms, handed out every 3-4 sessions, but you’ll only hear about the results if you rated badly or if you ask.

Cons

  • Manager Michael Tan is not a people person. He rarely interacts with teachers or students. He is seldom at the main branch during class hours and when he’s there, his office door is closed. He doesn’t welcome people knocking on his door, either. Lately he has been “out of town” a lot. He will usually leave for a week, but then extend his stay, sometimes for 3-4 weeks, leaving no one in charge. He ignores texts and emails that he isn’t interested in dealing with. If you do manage to talk to him in person, he’ll tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear just to get rid of you. He’s the only manager, there is no other authority. The Teacher Administrator positions have been eliminated, so you must deal with him. Except you can’t. Basically, when you have an issue, you’re on your own.
  • He offers the minimum assistance possible to new teachers. He’s big with promises during your interview (BTW, he doesn’t seem to like Skype. Most teachers get a phone interview. I tried to Skype with him, but he said his camera didn’t work.) If you were promised a pick up at the airport, for example, forget it. You’ll be lucky if he’s even in town. He’ll probably wait until a day or less before your flight and tell you to take a taxi from the airport. You won’t even get a map.
  • The only time Michael will help you is your first trip to immigration. You’ll probably need three trips total, if all goes well. And he will make sure you understand that he is “doing you a favor” by taking you there. Michael canceled four appointments with me (always less than 24 hours) to go to immigration. He showed for the fifth appointment, but was late, then made me sit outside his office and wait while he did other things. We left 35 minutes later than agreed, which meant we had to wait longer at immigration since the place had filled up. It wasted a day.
  • All written information from the school says you’re “guaranteed” a minimum of 15 hours. Verbally, Michael promises 20-25 hours and has even told teachers that the average teaching hours are 25/week. But you’re lucky to get the minimum hours most 4-week sessions. I usually was assigned 14-19 hours per week. On the sessions when I only got 14 teaching hours a week, I was not paid the “guaranteed” minimum. Hence, there is no guarantee. Most teachers had trouble getting enough teaching hours to pay their rent.
  • Contracts of one year are promised, but teachers rarely have any contract. I was given an initial contract of 2 months, then nothing. Most teachers didn’t even get that.
  • Private students are extremely unreliable. While this is a problem in every school, at English Unlimited, if they didn’t show up, you probably wouldn’t be paid. Most schools require private classes to be canceled 24 (or at least 12) hours in advance.
  • You are promised reimbursement of your work visa if you stay a year. If you try to collect, Michael will change his wording from “one year” to “12 sessions.” And if you do the math, you’ll find you can’t do 12 sessions without over-staying your work visa. A session is 4 weeks (48 total weeks in a year). Add in a 3-week break for Christmas, a week at Easter , and he asks you to come 1 week before you start classes to observe (all unpaid, of course). That totals 53 weeks–and your work visa is only 365 days, or 52 weeks. It’s not possible to work 53 weeks without breaking the law. Most teachers quit long before a year, though.
  • The teaching materials are mediocre. I’ve certainly seen worse and there is, at least, enough information to cover the class time, so it’s not all bad. However, there are many mistakes, especially on the exams, that are never corrected. I wasted hours correcting the exams, but my corrects were just thrown away. Many of the readings, especially in the upper levels, are so bad I was too embarrassed to use them.
  • Michael promises to help you find a place to live. In practice, he gives you the address of only one boarding house, take it or leave it. The average room there rents for 2,900 pesos a month, but he won’t tell you that in advance so that you can budget ahead. He also doesn’t mention that you’ll have to pay first and last month’s rent in advance, in pesos. Nor does he tell you you’ll need all your own bedding (sheets, blankets, pillows), hangers and towels. You’ll also need a fan for the summer (there’s no A/C) and a space heater in the winter (there’s no heat), so you’ll have to buy these. The boarding house is not near any store that sells these items, most of which you’ll need on day one. And you don’t know anyone, don’t know the area, or where these stores might be located. It’s a recipe for a very bad first few days. The shared bath was OK and the housekeeper comes often, though she only cleans floors and bathrooms. The kitchen is shared by way too many people and I found it too dirty to cook in, even if I had been given space in the refrigerator, which I wasn’t. Only recently have screens been put on the windows. The internet is pretty good, however.
  • Michael’s information sheet that he sends to new teachers gives a recommended amount of money to bring with you to get started before your first pay. It’s too low by half and he neglects to mention that you need to exchange all your dollars at the airport, since you won’t be able to do it in San Luis Potosi. Local businesses don’t accept US dollars and banks won’t change them unless you have an account with them. Getting a bank account as a foreigner is nearly impossible. And the only time Michael offered to exchange money for me, the rate he offered was basically stealing.
  • Sessions are 4 weeks. You won’t find out your new teaching schedule until about 2pm of the last Saturday of the old session. There’s basically no discussion. He gives it to you last minute, so it’s take it or leave it. If you complain and he promises you he’ll work to improve the situation, don’t hold your breath. He never once lived up to any such promise with me. I just kept my locker packed up so I could walk out if the schedule was bad enough.
  • The lack of information and the misinformation (or should we just say “lies?”) pretty much guarantees that you’re going to have a bad start at English Unlimited. And when you don’t get enough work to pay your rent, it just gets worse. In most cases, telling the truth and giving accurate information would actually be easier than what’s being done now. I don’t know why teachers are treated so badly.
  • If you’re looking for professional development, you won’t get it at this school. There are no information meetings. There’s no training. There’s not even a teacher’s guide to the texts. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a one-hour orientation meeting with the one and only bilingual staff member. After that, you’re on your own. We didn’t even get reminders of holidays or time changes. No communication.
  • Michael pays in cash with pesos. While that does make it easy to spend, cash businesses are notorious for not paying taxes. The school holds out 10% of your wages for taxes. Current pay is 90 pesos and hour, so you get 81 pesos and hour net. Since I couldn’t get a record of the taxes paid, I have no way to know if those were ever paid. And for at least three months, we had a teacher at the school with an expired work visa. It’s hard to believe taxes were paid on him. In fact, Michael tries very hard to avoid putting your employment in writing in any form. For example, I asked for a school ID since teachers get a discount at museums and when buying bus passes. Couldn’t get one from him.

My personal observation is that the school has dwindling enrollment and nothing is being done to stop it. I’d estimate that enrollment is less than half of what it was when I began teaching there. It’s particularly noticeable that many businesses are no longer sending their employees to the school. It is difficult for me to believe the downtown branch is profitable and the last session I worked, it didn’t look like the main branch was doing any better. A business must make money or it fails. And the signs of failure are there—not enough hours for existing teachers, few supplies available (at least one class didn’t even have textbooks last session), high turnover of staff, and staff positions are not always replaced. One-day holidays that fall on a Monday are often not paid (though they are promised). At least once during my year there, the staff was paid late, though so far, teachers were always paid. The last weekday of the final session I worked, we had to close the downtown branch early because there wasn’t enough staff to keep it open.

I was placed at this school through Oxford Seminars. Though the school has gotten worse in my time there, many of the red flags were in place before Oxford suggested I look at the school. When I told them some of my concerns, they refused to help me find another placement, even though I wasn’t under contract to English Unlimited. For me, and for other teachers who have complained, Oxford Seminars repeatedly sided with the school, even about pay issues. I can’t recommend them, either.

A taste of New Orleans in the heart of Mexico

Paula and Donna—they’ve really been lifesavers during my last week, keeping me laughing.

If you’ve been following along, it’s been a tough year. On top of that, Michael Tan at English Unlimited has refused to reimburse my work visa (a value of about $225US). I’ve stayed here a year and he owes it to me, but my placement agency, Oxford Seminars, doesn’t seem to want to back me up. With all the lies Tan has told, I honestly expected this. (If you’re an international teacher, avoid this school!). With the other thefts and short term stays, I’ve basically PAID to work in Mexico. In short, I’m sorry that I came here.

Fortunately, a couple of new friends have really saved my last few weeks here in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. They’ve organized cookouts, kept me from lying in bed all day and helped me laugh. What more can you ask for? Anyway, a special thanks to Paula and Donna, new teachers at English Unlimited (though Paula has decided not to stay since she isn’t getting enough hours to pay rent. See a theme here?). These are photos of our outing to Hank’s a New Orleans (inspired) restaurant near Tequis Park.

Hank’s is a New Orleans restaurant that Donna treated us to.
Donna is from New Orleans, but lost pretty much everything in Katrina. She’s a new a teacher in San Luis Potosi. I hope she has better luck than I did.
the bar
Jambalaya, Paula’s dinner
Trout Almondine with steamed spinach and a salad, Donna’s dinner.
Salmon salad with goat cheese and fresh mango, my dinner.
Our appetizer was listed as a muffaletta, but it’s really more a tortilla pizza with ham, cheese and olive tapinade. Really good, though.

Hank’s dining room
Found in the ladies room

It’s been a tough year

I really hope the next half of the year will be easier. First my mother was diagnosed with cancer in January, then she died much faster than expected in March. We had a difficult relationship, so it’s a lot to deal with.

Seems like that would have been enough trauma for one year. The universe had other ideas.

The last week has been so bad, that it’s colored my entire year here in Mexico. It’s made me question whether I ever want to return. I hope that with time I’ll gain some perspective and be able to see the good with the bad, but I doubt I will ever set foot in San Luis Potosi. My memories are ruined. Sadly, I’ve found my belief in people has fallen greatly since I’ve become a vagabond.

Starting in January, I’ve been living with a family as their personal English Teacher in exchange for room and board. Since the hours at school were so unreliable, this was a good situation for me, especially since I really loved this family. I did lots of things with them and felt that I was a part of them. Clearly, I was wrong.

Friday night, Meliza came to my room and told me they were missing a lot of money, 7,000 pesos (about $385US), that belonged to her mother. As they continued to check, other items turned up missing, too: an iPad, jewelry and some kitchen things. I was told that they suspected the housekeeper, which made sense to me. I checked through my things and found I had even more money missing than them! There’s at least $500US plus more than 2000 pesos, all in cash, plus a few items of jewelry. Someone would have to dig through my things to find that money, too. It wasn’t just lying around. I felt terrible about the whole situation and Meliza said that Ivan planned to confront the housekeeper Sunday morning.

I don’t know what changed, but by Sunday morning, I was a prime suspect and was fingerprinted along with the housekeeper! It was a total shock. And Ivan, Sr. was very clear that I wasn’t fingerprinted to rule me out, but because I was a suspect. I was terrified! How could they believe I would steal from them? They invited me to live with them; I didn’t ask. I couldn’t stop the nightmare I was having: A foreigner, accused of a crime, with no citizen’s rights, locked into jail with little legal recourse and poor language skills. There isn’t even an embassy nearby.

By Sunday evening, I got them to agree that I didn’t take the money. Or at least I got Meliza to agree. I wouldn’t have wanted any of the trivial things that were stolen, the money came up missing only after the new housekeeper was there and I’ve recently inherited money and don’t need to steal theirs. So at least Meliza believed I was innocent and apologized. Ivan said nothing. I don’t know what he thought/thinks, nor how he will proceed. (Also, I found it interesting that they thought the housekeeper was cleaning my room every week and doing my laundry. NOT!)

But here’s the problem: I had more money taken than they did and I didn’t suspect them for a moment, not even their two teen-aged sons. I didn’t accuse them of theft. I didn’t have them fingerprinted. I trusted them, but they didn’t trust me. It’s been my experience that once someone stops trusting you, you can’t trust them. You need to do what you can to prove your innocence and then extricate yourself as quickly as possible. Once trust is gone, the friendship is gone, too. Loosing their friendship was far worse to me than the money.

So I packed up everything and moved into a hotel for the night. Most of my cash had been stolen, but fortunately, I had a credit card as a backup. I spent three (expensive) nights there before I could arrange a room for the remaining 3 weeks of my time here in San Luis Potosi. It took all the cash I had to pay for the new accommodations, and I missed a couple meals until I got paid on the 15th.

I shed a lot of tears this week.

People are alike everywhere you go. And that’s not always good. I’ve had things stolen from me in every country I’ve lived in. I’ve been lied to in all of them. And I’ve been accused of things I didn’t do.

One of the issues with being a traveler is that you never get time to establish a track record with anyone and build up trust. Working hard, doing your best isn’t enough in the short term. Everything seems fine, until something goes wrong. Then, you are the outsider and the first person to be suspected of a crime. You are never going to be a trusted insider, one of the family. If they are forced to choose, they won’t choose you. And you don’t know who to trust, either. I’ve made a few costly mistakes with new friends (especially in Turkey).

And my week hasn’t improved. I’ve used the time to go through every item I own and reduce my stuff before the next series of flights. I tried to ship a box of items ahead to my next teaching job (Arequipa, Peru). I lugged the package to FedEx (8 blocks!), but the woman at the counter had to open it and go through everything. Then, after weighing it, she gave me a price of roughly 1000 pesos to ship it (about $50US). Fine. But the price kept going up, with no explanation. Suddenly it was almost 4,000 pesos, more than the cost of the items inside! It seems even more suspicious since she suddenly had to have cash, no credit card. The person in front of me had used a card. It’s true that I have trust issues at the moment, but I suspect the box would never have arrived. She would have stolen anything she wanted from inside, and my money, too. I called her a liar (mentiroso), grabbed the box and left. I took the package at the Centro branch (downtown) of the school and gave the items to the staff who happened to be there.

And just to add insult to injury, on the way home, I went to an OXXO (local convenience store). Two men pushed ahead of me in line. When I said something, they laughed. An employee saw the whole thing and wouldn’t intervene. She just shrugged her shoulders.

Maybe this isn’t such a good country for me.

Random photos from February

How did it get to be March already? I took a little siesta on posting, but still took photos. Here are some to share.

Plaza del Carmen, at night.
Plaza del Carmen, at night.
On Sundays, they close down Calle Carranza, the main drag, and make it a pedestrian street. Everybody walks their dogs, practices skating skills or bikes. It’s lovely.
Even the dogs get social on Sundays.

A local wrestler.
There’s an organization that puts together weekly bike rides in the evenings.
They are replacing most of the sewer/drainage in the older sections of town. Desperately needed since a single hard rain can turn the streets into rivers of sewage.
All this construction will be worth it eventually, but it’s a mess right now. This is Carranza, the main street of SLP.

A peace lily in front of my school. Love that there are flowers year around here.
Guavas are really tasty here and happen to be in season. They taste a bit like a pear and apple mix, with notes of orange.
We’d call them Popsicles. Ricas means delicious or tasty.