On being … what we’re used to

By Ingrid Sapona

I took an extended vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in January. It was one of those vacations that wasn’t about seeing anything or doing anything in particular. It was just about spending time in a warm, sunny city on the ocean. And yet, it did get me thinking …

Puerto Vallarta is a lovely city of about 250,000. There’s a large expatriate community (Canadian and American). Many expats own places there and many more rent for three or four months during the winter. Besides finding all the fast food places you’d expect (McDonald's, Subway, KFC, and so on), there’s even a Walmart, Costco, and a Sam’s Club. You get the picture.

But, for as much as it caters to gringos and to our lifestyle, there are little things that are just done differently from how we do them. I’m not talking about things that can be attributed to different views on what the government should regulate – like being able to walk around pretty much anywhere with a beer or drink, or being able to buy over-the-counter lots of medications that we need prescriptions for. I’m talking about little, everyday things.

For example, one day I wanted eggs so I went to my local convenience store. I saw some behind the counter on an oversize cardboard egg tray like the kind you might see in the kitchen at a restaurant or diner. When I asked for some eggs, the sales clerk asked how many I wanted. Not sure whether they had containers for a half-dozen eggs – actually, not seeing any egg containers at all – I hesitated. Then, just to see what would happen, I said five.

She counted out five and put them in a plastic bag and put the bag on the counter with my other items. After paying, she bagged my stuff, putting the eggs in with everything else. It was up to me to get them home without breaking them. I did, of course, but I was always aware of the fragile goods in my bag. By the end of my stay, however, I was not only accustomed to buying eggs that way, I came to like the idea of being able to buy just the number of eggs I wanted, rather than having to buy them in multiples of six.

Then there are the city buses. They’re privately owned but municipally regulated. In other words, each driver owns his own bus but they’re assigned (or maybe leased) a particular route. There are no printed bus schedules or maps showing the stops. But, in the downtown area, most buses go along only a few of the major streets. So, once you figure out the key streets, it’s kind of straightforward. All you have to do is find a bus stop (not all of them are marked, but a crowd on a corner is as good as a sign) and hop on a bus that goes to, or near, where you want to go.

On the front of each bus – I mean, hand painted right on the front windshield! – is a list of major landmarks the bus goes to. So, for example, the list might include various hotels and other important destinations, like Walmart, Costco, the Airport, the Marina. Sometimes the list is so long, it continues on a side window. You learn to scan the list pretty quickly and decide whether to signal the bus that you want to get on. But, if you’re in doubt, you can always ask the bus driver if he’s going to X.

And then there are the buses themselves. They look like old school buses that have been re-purposed as city buses. As soon as you get on, however, you realize they probably weren’t school buses. For one thing, the seats are rock hard, molded plastic (not the cushy padded benches that most school buses have). Also, there don’t seem to be any kind of shock absorbers. Given that the streets are mostly cobblestone and there are big speed bumps everywhere to slow traffic, they really make you thankful for whatever natural padding you have on your derriere.

Despite cracked windshields, the occasional hole in the floor through which you can see the street below, and doors that don’t seem to close quite right, I’ve never seen one in an accident or broken down on the side of the road. The buses are a very popular way of getting around and the system is widely used – by young, old, local, and expat. The buses may lack in comfort, but they are frequent, reliable, and quite an adventure.

Though the examples I’ve described are admittedly mundane, the point isn’t these particular things. The point is that it was refreshing to notice some of the routine tasks that we do one way – often tacitly assuming it’s the best way – and coming to realize that other ways aren’t necessarily worse, they’re just not what we’re used to.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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