Culture Shock: Our Life in Mexico vs Our Life in the U.S.
One day as I left work I passed three people coming in for the next shift. As I passed the first man I smiled and said “Good morning!” He not only didn’t respond, he turned his head away from me in an attempt to pretend he hadn’t noticed. I said it again to the second person, and again there was no response. By the third person I was feeling a little desperate and invisible, but surely not everyone would fail to say hello back to me. Again I was ignored. By the time I got to my cars I was fighting back tears.
In Mexican culture everyone says hello as they pass, “Buenas dias” in the morning, “Buenas tardes” after noon, and “Buenas noches” after it gets dark. When I would greet them their faces would light up with a smile and transform them from a stranger to a new friend, even if just for a moment, and they always said something back. There was a warmth and openness in this simple interaction that I miss terribly as I walk around the United States in my isolated bubble of personal space.
We’ve been back in the U.S. for 4 months and are living in Austin, TX, a city we had visited briefly last summer and didn’t know well. We chose Austin because we can’t do winter anymore, and it’s close enough to Mexico we felt like we’d have the best of both worlds, an easier transition. Besides, we spent 3 years exploring in Mexico so finding our way in a new city where everyone speaks English would be easier, right?
During that time away our expectations and view of the world has changed, and reverse culture shock is so real. We experienced an adjustment period when we moved to Mexico in 2015 but then we expected things to be strange and foreign. Coming back “home” has been more difficult than starting to travel was.
I decided that I need to share this, so I’m going to write a series on different areas of our life and tell you about the things we are having a hard time with and why. The first thing we had to do was find was a house, so let’s start there.
Renting a House
We sold our house in Iowa when we started traveling so we rent wherever we go, and you would think that renting would be the same in any culture…but we’ve learned the hard way that it’s not.
In Mexico we either found a house through sites like Airbnb or directly by contacting someone who had a sign out, and pretty much if you have the cash in hand for the deposit and first month of rent you have a house. Simple and straightforward, we never had to go through an application process or compete, although we did lose out on a few because someone else showed up with the cash faster.
When we started looking at rental houses in Austin the rental contract for the first place we considered was 13 pages long. I asked the realtor that was helping us if this was normal or these people were especially picky and she said no, this is normal. The house we are in now has an 18-page contract complete with a special section just for our pets. There were background checks, our employers had to be called, and we had to list personal references. I found myself remembering a line from the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” when she buys a house and is given the keys before the money has come through, and when she says, “Just like that?” they tell her, “It’s a house, not a Vespa, what are you going to do, steal it?”
The list of rules was shocking after years of “here’s the cash, thanks for the keys” renting. We can’t have any overnight guests longer than 3 days, we can’t have any new pets that aren’t listed on the agreement, we can’t have more than 2 vehicles including ATVs or motorcycles. We also can’t break the lease, even if one of us dies or loses their job, without them coming after us for the rest of the money, and we can’t leave early and sublet. That part makes me feel a little trapped after 3 years of freedom.
After we moved in we found a few more things that have made us really regret our choice, like the sprinklers in the yard are part of the septic system, spraying “98% clean” water over the half of the backyard. Who thought that was a good idea for a family with kids and pets who want to play outside? This system also has its’ own 2-page list of rules, like what can be used to clean, when the dishwasher, laundry and showers can be run and how many times a day.
Inside the house this is the first time we’ve had carpets in years and it is really disgusting how dirty they are. The lease states that they are professionally cleaned when a renter moves out (and that’s taken out of the deposit,) but I don’t think their guy is doing a very good job because we’ve rented a cleaner from the grocery store twice and the water comes out black no matter how many times we go over the floors. It grosses me out to be barefoot in my own house, and Jason and I agree we’ll never have carpet again.
In Mexico we stayed in a variety of houses as we traveled, using local realtors or online sites like Airbnb. We usually stayed for 1-3 months, and most were not anything fancy, just a standard house rather than a luxury vacation home because we wanted to be part of the community. As the girls have gotten older we’ve gone from 2 bedrooms to 3 and we like having outdoor space for the dogs and a small backyard usually isn’t too hard to find. Having kids and pets did limit our choices sometimes, but we wouldn’t give up either one.
Many rentals in Mexico included a regular visit from a housecleaner, something that I think is not just nice for us as tenants but responsible as an owner who wants their house taken care of. If there wasn’t a housecleaner included we could hire one ourselves for 200-350 pesos per week, about $10-15usd. Airbnbs were fixed prices, but only once was a lease not flexible if our plans changed, and that was our very first temporary rental in Cozumel, ironically managed by a nasty American woman. I loved the flexibility of renting, the knowledge that if we really didn’t like where we were we could go somewhere else, although we only left early twice in 3 years of travel.
We knew things would be more expensive in the states but the cost of the house in Austin is causing a serious case of buyer’s remorse. Our first year in Cozumel our rent was 8500 pesos per month, about $450-500usd depending on the exchange rate. In Playa del Carmen it was 10,000 pesos, around $550usd at that time. In San Miguel de Allende we felt like we were paying a tremendous amount when we paid $1100usd per month for a 5-bedroom house, but it was a great house with a rooftop patio and fantastic kitchen.
In Austin we’re paying more than twice as much as we did in San Miguel de Allende for a really pretty 3-bedroom house that is turning out to have multiple problems. (Yes, we could have done Airbnb here like we did in Mexico but it would cost around twice as much per month.) With each broken doorknob and malfunctioning appliance I am thinking back on what bargains we had before, even if they weren’t perfect either. It’s hard to feel like it’s worth it to spend more and have it be so complicated.
Our longest rental in Mexico was in Cozumel: a two-bedroom house with a small shared pool, green space and tropical plants, a rooftop patio covered by a leafy palapa roof and only 3 blocks from the beach. Our neighbors became like family, and we had a community. When we moved there I had hoped to find either a rooftop patio OR a pool, so having both was like hitting the jackpot to us, and although we have since outgrown that house I still think of it fondly and measure all other houses against that ideal. I admit that’s a hard standard to beat.
It’s not just the house though, it’s the complexity of renting here. It’s the mistrust, the legalese, the cold distance of having to deal with a management company whose people we never actually see.
It’s not knowing any of our neighbors because when we see them walking their dogs past our house and say hello they don’t respond or maybe they walk a little faster. It’s living in a place where we feel alone, no matter how many people there are.
Tomorrow: Extracurricular activities in Mexico vs Austin