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La Paz: The Differences11:20 PM -- Tue April 12, 2005

The Differences
Don't read this if you're the type who doesn't want to look at peoples' vacation slides (i.e. normal) - it's not anything interesting
I'm just sharing it because this was my first time ever outside the U.S.! It was all news to me.

Mexico is not the same as the US. It's different. Because of this, there are differences. A lot of them can all fit together under my one big umbrella theory that I formulated while wandering lost in Pichilingue:

America is the kiddie pool. In America, there are signs that warn you of every conceivable danger, no matter how ludicrous. Further, there are tons of laws to force you to be safe, like seatbelt and helmet laws, and more subtle things like the requirement of nutrition information labeling, anti-smoking laws, 25 different kinds of insurance, and so on. You can't get hurt in America, there are orange cones everywhere! Everything is redundantly safety guarded over and over, though not so much to keep you safe, as to make it so that you'll lose when you sue them, since you can't say they didn't warn you.

It's different in Mexico. Walk down the street, and somebody will be smashing down the front of a building with a sledgehammer (because they're renovating, not because they're extremely aggressive vandals), with nary an orange cone or hardhat in sight. You just have to have the common sense to give it a wide berth as you go by. Lots of bits of the sidewalk are being worked on, and you just have to watch your step! We tripped in more than a few places. There was even a manhole in one place with a flimsy board over it and a brick holding the board down. There are also gigantic steps up or down out of the blue, like 2 foot curbs for no apparent reason. But there's more to it than watching your step. For example, we ended up getting off at the wrong stop on the bus because the general attitude in Mexico (or at least La Paz, only place I've been!) appears to be that you know what you're doing. If you ask for some kind of help, you can get it, but if you don't ask, they're not going to plaster everything with signs, or even call out the names of the stops the bus goes by. They just assume you are competent.

It's scary to be in that environment - I'm used to being overwhelmed with assistance! But it's also awfully refreshing. I mean, think of the pluses: natural selection is a big one. The cost savings is big too (well, assuming you can't sue for a million dollars if you slip on a wet floor...). And just psychologically, it feels good to be trusted to be able to navigate a street without someone holding your hand. Doesn't feel as good when you're laying at the bottom of a manhole, but I'd like to think their assumption of competence is correct. And we didn't fall in any manholes, so maybe it was. Our bus fiasco was absolutely harmless, it was just painful to the ego and nervous system. A learning experience.

What else is different? I've read a bunch of differences, but I think I should only discuss those that I actually encountered and can vouch for (though, have a grain of salt with them - they could've been unique experiences, or local to the area, or my own total confusion). How about some quick notes:
  • The people there speak Spanish.

  • I never read this in any guidebook, which is odd because it was absolutely pervasive, so take heed if you are ever going to Mexico: you must ask them for your check when you are done eating! For the first few days, we spent a lot of time very frustrated and bored in restaurants, assuming the service was bad, until we realized that they just don't bring the check until you ask! Maybe it's another assumption of competence - they trust you to know when you're ready to leave. Once we figured it out, dining became much more logical. La cuenta, por favor!

  • You non-Californians think you're so clever referring to a rolling stop as a "California roll", but you know what? You should be calling it a Baja California roll, because those guys really know how it's done!

  • I mentioned this in the snacks: lots of Mexican treats come fortified with vitamins. That's a really good concept... if your kids are going to be munching on unnatural preservatives and refined sugar, throw in some unnatural vitamins to counter it!

  • The speed limits (going against my kiddie pool theory) are ridiculously low!

  • There were a ton of half-built buildings in La Paz, making it look run down in a lot of areas (and unlike in the US, there wasn't "the really nice area" in one place and the "really bad area" somewhere else - the 'ruins' were sometimes right between two beautifully maintained buildings!), but that's misleading. The people we visited explained that until very recently, the locals weren't able to get loans (and most make very little money), so these buildings are actually under construction. They'd scrape together a little money to buy the lot and get started, then run out, and go back to work for a year or two to save up some more. Then build a little more with the savings, run out again, and go back to work. It could take years and years for a building to get finished. This whole thing creates a strange dichotomy - besides the stuff under construction, there are finished buildings that are in disrepair or just patched, since that too is expensive. But even though it's damaged, there's always somebody out there sweeping or doing touch-up paint or just generally taking care of it. So the buildings are cared for nicely, there's just no money to fix the real damage, or in other cases to build them in the first place!

  • They get their arcade games from Japan! They were all Japanese versions, and some cool stuff you don't see a lot of in the states, like drumming games.

  • Tips aren't very much expected (cabs don't expect them at all, and you should've seen the face of the guy we gave one too!), so I hope our tipping was appreciated!
I can't really think of anything else that stood out much. The main thing is that people are people, everywhere you go. The culture's different, but since everybody is so different anyway, even within one culture, personality differences seem to be a bigger differentiator than any culture could ever be. And in general, most people are just nice (well, to strangers). I have just as much trouble figuring out Mexicans as I do Americans. You are all weirdos.
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