What It’s Like To Live In Mexico As An Expat During The Coronavirus Shutdown

Situations such as viral pandemics do tend to focus the mind to deeper and more serious topics than would otherwise be considered.

Even though my wife, Jet, is always prepared and was aware of and planning for the coronavirus starting in mid-January, just like in the US and elsewhere, the gravity of the pandemic dawned on us here in Mexico at first very slowly, and then, in a series of herky-jerky developments, ratcheted up very quickly. And just like everyone knows where they were when 9/11 happened, we will always remember where we were and what we were doing when the level of concern among expats shot up here in Mexico.

Jet and I were in Bucerias, a popular expat beach community near Puerto Vallarta, on a trip to help one of our clients unload their household goods and to expand our moving business, Best Mexico Movers, to the general area. Like many areas in Mexico, Bucerias has a lot of Canadians, so when the government of Canada went from almost blasé indifference one day to just a few days later warning all Canadians in very clear language that if they didn’t get back to Canada essentially immediately, they may not be able to return at all for the duration of the virus, lots of Canadians around us understandably panicked. In turn, this raised the alarm for all expats, including the Americans, who also were forced to confront on “stay or leave?” and other “what to do” questions.

When something momentous and unpredictable happens, you generally want to be within the familiar confines of your own home (in our case, in Mexico), but this was not to be for us; we were staying at a house we had rented for a week that was located about five hours away by car from where we live, in the Central Mexican Highlands.

Our first question was “What do we need if the worst happens?” Watching what was going on in the US, we of course thought of items we should buy at a supermarket that may or may not be available later on. We also thought of money; if the banks close or if it wouldn’t be advisable for us to leave our house, we may need a lot of pesos in cash. Thirdly, we made plans to cut short our trip and drive home the next morning, because no one knew what the situation on the roads would be in the coming days, especially for expats.

That evening in Bucerias, Jet and I visited La Comer, which is like visiting a very nice, high-end grocery store in the US, but with prices that a typical American consumer would find much more agreeable. It was shockingly relaxing and pleasant. There weren’t that many people there and the shelves were fully stocked, including lots and lots of toilet paper. I took pictures to send to my daughter in Los Angeles, who reported that in LA, there was panic buying and shortages. No panic buying and no shortages here at La Comer in Mexico, but there were lots of beautiful displays.

On a selfish note, what also made anything we wanted to buy so much more beautiful was the huge change in the exchange rate over what seemed like just a few weeks or less. It had gone from around 18 pesos to one US dollar to around 24 pesos to one US dollar. This meant that if we spent 1,800 pesos at a supermarket a month ago, it would have cost me USD $100, while now, it would cost me around USD $75.  It was like the entire country of Mexico was having a 25% off sale.

“Buy up, sweetheart; the T-Bones are looking good tonight.”

Jet was so happy with this supermarket that we not only stocked up that night on beautifully displayed fruits and vegetables and quantities of higher end meat we usually wouldn’t buy, but on our way back to the highway the next day, we stopped at La Comer again; the market shopping experience had been transformed from the humdrum to a delightful, alluring event.

In between the joyous shopping, we visited the ATM twice. Other than a lot of Canadians nervously waiting in line, there were no issues at all. We had more than enough pesos and hit the road. While Canada was well advanced on the panic scale and the US was just days behind, Mexico was still at Stage I Slumber with a dash of international awareness.

Driving on the way back, we purchased an entire jackfruit (which is huge; see the photo on the right just to the side and above the “Yaka” sign) on the side of the road for something like USD $3.00. Quite frankly, I forgot the price, because it was so low. If we were in the US, an entire jackfruit would cost so much that they cut it up into about sixteen pieces. But here on the side of the road in the Mexican state of Nayarit, we just purchased the entire fruit. We would have bought two, but we wouldn’t have known where to put any more and our freezer was full.

The next day, as I exercised at our home outside while overlooking the lake, Jet set about the task of processing the Jackfruit. Just a few moments later, she told me she was so dizzy she couldn’t stand up and had significant pain in her ears and throat. She also reported a fever. We would have to visit the hospital and see a doctor right away.

Jet stayed in the car while I approached the front door of the hospital, which had a hastily made sign on it that stated in Spanish and English that if we had coronavirus symptoms, we would have to go around the back. After talking to the receptionist, he and I decided it was OK for Jet to come through the front. He told me to wait in the car and he would send someone with a wheelchair to get her when the doctor was ready.

If you were in the US at an emergency room hospital, how long would you expect to wait? 

After being wheeled in about six minutes later, Jet was sitting in her wheelchair, in the hospital, talking to the doctor in his office. The doctor was very thorough and unhurried (after all, we were in Mexico) and made his diagnosis: ear and throat infection; no virus. Ten minutes later and after paying for our visit with 290 pesos (less than USD $13 out of pocket with no insurance) we left with a prescription, which I filled next door in about five minutes and paid the equivalent of about USD $10.

A day or so later, as things were beginning to close down in Mexico, I visited Rosy, (all of the names of the locals have been changed) the woman who cuts my hair. Being a very stylish person, she was wearing a custom-made mask with a design to match her outfit and earrings, but Rosy was not happy; she was worried. She told me that all her clients but me had cancelled for that day, and that the government had told her she would have to pay her one and a half employees even though there was close to no business. Like so many others in Mexico, Rosy runs a very small business, so of course she would not have the money to pay her employees for more than a few weeks because the business had very little saved capital. Nonetheless, the government mandated that she pay for what would be months.

When it came time for me to pay for my 120-peso haircut (less than USD $6), I gave Rosy a tip many times the size of the charge. How could I not? Her revenue had already been drastically cut while she had bills to pay. It is so easy for Americans to help with money here in Mexico, because compared with most of the local people here, we have so much. When Rosy went to give me the change, I told her to keep it, that she would need the money much more than I. There was a pause, as Rosy tried to process the gift and the amount, which, as I stated to Rosy, would mean very little to me and I was very happy to give to her. After what felt like several seconds, during which we stood in what seemed like suspended animation, the only thing that changed was that Rosy’s eyes welled up and then, in a tiny little voice she squeaked out “You’re making me cry.”

Even writing this now, I feel like crying, too. What I considered to be the absolute minimum, easy to do act of kindness I could show Rosy was so monumental to her (and evidently so rare) that she got emotional over it. We “air hugged” from about 6 feet apart and I left for my car.

This ties into another theme living here. Many of the Mexicans we expats interact with day-to-day are, by US standards, materially very poor. Not poor in spirit, happiness, family or friends, because a typical Mexican is rich in these areas, but as far as money goes, they have very little, compared to us who hold citizenships north of the border. We are here in Mexico as guests, and as guests, we should act appropriately. For example, I consider it not only good manners but a moral requirement that, in order to demonstrate our gratitude for our good fortune of being born where we were (money-wise) and now enjoying our life living in Mexico, we should show other human beings who were not that fortunate (money-wise) kindness and understanding, and that we help out where we can. For us, it is very easy to do, and it is very, very appreciated.

Later that day, the Mexican state of Jalisco, where we live, shut down stores like Rosy’s, along with many others such as day spas, hotels, the inside seating of restaurants, etc., so I will not see Rosy again until this is all over.

Whether or not you believe that it was or is necessary to “flatten the curve” in the US, in Mexico, at least to me, it makes much more sense. The reason: in Mexico, it would take very little comparatively to overwhelm their healthcare system, so here, it is much more serious business.

However, curve flattening in Mexico would be a bit more difficult. Mexicans are more physically and emotionally close with each other than we are north of the border. They hug and kiss each other more. As a result, maintaining “social distance” is not as easy or perhaps even as natural as it would be for other cultures (think Central Europe). Friendships and family are more important. Also, where we live, Mexicans live in much smaller houses with more people in them; perhaps three generations all living under one, smaller roof with at least grandma in one of the groups most at risk.

On the good side, the population in Mexico is young (median age, 28, while the US is 38), but on the bad side, at least from my observations, they seem to have a higher percentage diabetics, which I understand to be a risk factor for the virus.

I next visited our local doctor who I knew from the past and who maintains an office right next to a local pharmacy. His entire office is perhaps 50 square feet and is accessed from the street by a very narrow hallway with chairs on the right and just enough room to squeeze by on the left. It was through this narrow hallway that I walked when I saw the door was open and the doctor’s assistant was wiping down his office.

After a hearty and mutual greeting, I explained to the doctor that we wanted to have some antibiotics on hand just in case there was an emergency and we couldn’t get to him. He agreed and wrote the prescription. We talked a bit about the coronavirus, with me envisioning a potential disaster with this one doctor having to treat lots and lots of poor, sick people, with him having very few resources. I asked if he had masks for himself. He said he only had a few of the surgical masks, but no more, and none of the much better N95 masks. When I told him I would go home and drop off three N95 masks (I told you Jet was prepared), he was shocked and very grateful. Given his relationship to the small pharmacy next door, his visit was at no charge, because the pharmacy paid him out of the equivalent of the USD $10 prescription I got filled. 

After the shelter in place order was issued here in Jalisco, virtually all of the local expats paid their housekeepers in advance and told their housekeepers they didn’t have to show up for work. As a result, many expats are finding out for the first time since coming to Mexico what it is like to clean their own house and wash their own clothes. A joke that made the rounds here on Facebook about that time went something like “My housekeeper is sheltering at home. Now, she just calls me on the phone and tells me what to do.”

Thinking well in advance, starting more than a month earlier and at regular intervals, Jet had given our housekeepers, Maria and Lety, extra money to purchase bleach, masks, extra food, etc., which they dutifully did. Jet also gave provisions to each of them of things that were difficult to find in Mexico but that we had from our previous trips. Now, after paying Maria and Lety in advance, I drove both of them to their homes, but first, we stopped off at their local supermarket, where I would buy them some supplies. I told them to buy whatever they wanted and I would pay for it. Sweetly, both of them purchased the exact same things in small quantities that were very inexpensive: chips, bread, tortillas, and oil.

When Jet would keep in touch via the phone and WhatsApp, Maria would thank us again and again for the “dispensa (a gift basket, usually given around Christmas)” we purchased for her at the market. Later, when I gave her extra money, she said that we had already paid her in advance, and that she didn’t need it. I persisted but she wouldn’t relent, so I and asked her if she had any neighbors who needed anything. She said that, yes, the husband of one of her friends was out of work, so there was no money coming in, and he was diabetic. I gave her what by US standards would be a very small amount, but to Maria, it was huge, her telling me again and again how thankful she was for the money and that her friend would be very, very thankful as well.

Later on, Maria would tell us that she loved her job and that she missed her expat clients. I suspect that, in addition to missing them, she may also be afraid that we will not clean properly, and she would have to come in later to establish some order. Maria takes pride in her work and in helping in any way possible. She is like a mother for when you were in high school who makes your bed, does your chores and takes care of you but who never nags you to do your homework or come home early from the party.

Relative to our business moving people to and from Mexico, any new business has stopped completely, while a few clients in process sped up their move back to the US in a bit of a panic and one coming to Mexico couldn’t return to the US because of health reasons and had to rely on a neighbor in the US to help out. Others who are moving to Mexico had to put their plans on indefinite hold, either because the sale of their home in the US fell through, or because all the Mexican consulates in the US are closed, or just because they are unsure about the future. My friends in the moving business tell me it is the same with them. One friend from a medium-sized company headquartered in Mexico told me they will have enough money to pay their employees for one month but didn’t know what she would do after that.

A few days later came the order that no alcohol could be sold. Walmart taped off that section of their store. 

I am not aware of any significant financial help coming from the Mexican government, and of course, they couldn’t afford to spend the equivalent of USD $2,000,000,000,000 so it is a real question what will happen if this drags on. As of now, I am told that the shelter in place will remain through the end of this month and into at least the middle of next month but may be extended after that. This is a much bigger problem here in Mexico than it is in the US. Lots and lots of people here like Maria, Lety, and even Rosy have little or no savings. Many of their husbands may operate a small business as a driver or as a waiter in a restaurant that now has zero customers or they may work as a gardener at a hotel that just shut down. Maria and Lety’s families don’t even have a bank account. A very large percentage of the country works on a cash basis. Many of the locals live on what they have in their wallets and what I would suspect is hidden somewhere in their home, and that’s it. Also, they have no credit. If one person loses income, their relatives pitch in. If several of them lose their incomes, who knows?

As of now, the healthcare situation in Mexico appears to be manageable, even though I am told we are in the early stages of community transmission, which would put the progression of the virus several weeks behind the US. Speaking very locally, we have about 100,000 people living here around the lake, and there hasn’t been a single case of coronavirus reported. There are trucks with loudspeakers giving health advice to those in the villages, and checkpoints where police and firefighters make sure you have a mask, ask you where you’re going, tell you about washing your hands, and make sure no visitors who don’t have a house in the area (for example, from Guadalajara) are allowed in. Just today, the police were out and broadcasting on a loudspeaker telling people to return home and stay there.  The locals don’t generally travel much, so if we do get any infections, they would come from wealthier Mexicans who do travel or expats like us who brought it in.

For the expats living here, the sun still shines and the views are still magnificent, but their homes are not as clean as they were before and they can’t go out to restaurants and nightclubs and all their social engagements. But all in all, for us, it’s not that bad. I worry, though, for Mexico and I worry for the Mexican people.

When this is all over, my fondest hope is that Rosy and those like her make up for the business they lost and that perhaps some of that manufacturing that was taking place in China before all this happened may move to Mexico.

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