Safety in Mexico Means Watching Where You're Going
Sheets of rain had begun to fall with a vengeance in an angry alliance with the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean just on the other side of the patio wall of my house in Mazatlan, Mexico
Lightening cracked wickedly. I walked drenched into my room upstairs, barely making it home before the storm completely broke loose, and was startled to see a huge piece of ply board shifting on my balcony. Then a face.
“I think I’m being electrocuted,” said my housemate, the Intrepid Elise, just her wide blue eyes staring over the ply board she gripped with one hand, hand drill in the other. “Could you…?” I bolted downstairs and found the bright orange extension cord and unplugged it. "Crazy chica," I muttered.
Glancing out the back sliding glass doors, I could see the ladder she had used to muscle the three-by-five foot piece of ply board up to the balcony as part of the process of safeguarding the house for hurricane season, and with a hand drill no less. “In the States, we have this thing called OSHA….” I began lecturing my Canadian housemate.
Water was everywhere, including pools on the balcony floor. “The funny thing about it,” she said later, “Was that I’ve gotten so Mexican that I kept trying the drill, thinking maybe I could stand the pain long enough to get the job done.”
“I’ve gotten so Mexican,” made me think about how quickly I too had already gotten used to Mexico’s everyday hazards.
Mexican homes, for example, often have gas ovens. The dials on most of them have a blue mark so worn down from wear that from few feet away, it can be hard to see if a gas burner is on or off.
I had not lit a gas oven in thirty years when I started coming to Mexico. I know some younger people who have never even seen one. I came downstairs for coffee one morning to find out I might have become Mexico’s first skinny blond suicide bomber.
The Mexican culture will never include hordes of people walking and texting at the same time. Sidewalks sometimes end abruptly with a three foot drop (although in all fairness, they do the same in Richmond,Virginia ’s Shockoe Bottom, Denver’s RiNO district and any industrial warehouse area-turned-chic). I call these abruptly ending walkways "infinity sidewalks."
Air conditioners jut out into sidewalks, electrical cords drop down to noose level, re-bar pops up unexpectedly in a park.
It’s not hard to understand why you don’t see Mexicans in extreme sports videos. They have quite enough danger in their lives as it is, thank you very much. They are hard-wired to practice extreme caution and grew up with the understanding that they probably won’t get bailed out if they’re careless.
If you aren't paying attention and walk into a three foot hole in the ground, there will be no lawsuit here. As one of my Mexican friends put it, “We think you should watch where you’re going.”
America is lawsuit heaven. Several years ago, a financially-strapped friend of mine in Richmond was getting out of her car, parked on one of the Fan’s infamously narrow cobblestone streets in the dark and rain, laden with bags.
She opened the car door on a 74 year-old bicycle rider. He subsequently sued her and her insurance company for his extensive medical bills.
For several years she paid attorney fees and lived with the worry that it was going to cost her retirement savings as the insurance companies fought to determine which of his injuries were owed to my friend’s carelessness and which were owed to too many years of athletic pursuits with their attendant and documented breaks, tears and ruptures that his own insurance company had tired of paying for.
Almost everyone I know has sued or been sued. I cannot blame those harmed for their rationale for doing so. It is comforting to be a member of of a society that provides recourse for the injured to get their life back.
Often they are frivolous, as evidenced by hot coffee and many lawsuits pitting neighbors against one another. The U.S has the world's most costly and litigious legal system. Why? Mainly because in other countries the loser in a suit must pay a large portion of the winner's legal fees. In America each party pays their own. So, simply speaking, in America there's nothing to lose.
Mexico has a different standard by which it reconciles the individual’s desire for excitement, profit, unrestrained freedom of movement and uninterrupted comfort with its societal obligation to protect those desires as deserving of punitive damages if violated.
I try to keep that in mind as I navigate it's public thoroughfares. I see some day laborers doing some pretty crazy things. If the system doesn't protect them, it sure isn't going to protect me.
Whether you find the difference in such standards for bringing suit liberating or frightening should weigh in on your thinking when considering expat life in whatever country you are considering. If you love a good lawsuit, Mexico may not be the place for you.
Is Mexico Safe? Don't take it from me. Ask the one million people, many over 60 living here what they think.
Next up: "Half the expats here are getting over a bad break-up," and other indications that sojourns may be just the thing.
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Kerry Baker, is a partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web, linked and organized into lesson plans. She also wrote "If Only I Had a Place" on renting luxuriously in Mexico for less.