Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Working in Mexico

Tales From Mexico

At first working in Monterrey, Mexico seemed like a kind of exotic idea and on December 1 I flew a quick hour-long flight and arrived for a six-month long project.
As soon as I got to Mexico I thought I'd try out my fluency in Spanish with the taxi driver and realized very quickly I couldn't remember the Spanish for weather but somehow I conveyed to the taxi driver that I wanted a guided tour of every big building we drove past. When he dropped me off he seemed very happy and obviously had enjoyed my supposed request for a guided tour.
The senior manager of the project took me out to lunch and proceeded to order my lunch for me without my even seeing a menu. When I asked what he had ordered me the most clear answer I got was "meat". At that I thought it best not to enquire what kind. I also had my first spanish lesson, here Diet Coke is Coke Light - if you ask for Diet anything you get some weird looks but I don’t think what a said was a swear word in Spanish.
The Monterrey office was very hospitable and on my first night held a big party for me where they rented out a restaurant and had free drinks and set up casino tables. About 50 BearingPoint employees and their wives came. To be truthful I couldn't understand what the "fiesta" was for but it seemed reasonable that it would be for me.
At the party I had another Spanish translation problem as I tried to ask the waiter what kind of drinks they had. He just walked away and came back with two beers. Not sure what I said and I’m not sure about the Mexicans attempt at mind reading – I was looking for a soda.

End of day one.

Got up early as always and headed down to the gym. Got on the treadmill and set the speed for 8 miles an hour. Boy I was feeling strong today. It seemed a breeze and I knew I would break my record time for 2 miles. I suddenly realized it was in kilometers and I was running much slower than I thought. I spent the rest of the run trying to multiply everything by 5 and divide by 8 to get it to miles. I’d try again the next day.
Mexican timing is a little different. We don't plan to leave the hotel until 8:15 a.m. which, I have found, means 8:30 a.m. at the earliest. They don't have lunch until about 1 p.m. but it is a 2-hour lunch (oh, and alcohol is perfectly acceptable) and they knock off about 7 p.m. If someone says they will meet you in 15 minutes you can quite easily read a couple of chapters of a book before they get there. If you have a meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. it means that you don’t have to think about leaving for the meeting until about 11:05 and you usually go to it at 11:10.
I was a little worried about maintaining my Atkins diet down here. Now I am just worried about eating, period. Last night I didn't eat dinner, this morning I didn't eat breakfast and that seems to be the norm for all of them. I'm not sure if I can survive on one meal a day. Didn't care what I ate at lunch today. I even ate “huesito” which basically is scraping the marrow out of a bone and eating it. I remember my dogs liking that and I wasn’t quite sure why I was eating it – I put it down to hunger blindness.
At lunch I took the opportunity to try and blend in with the team here. I still have a hard time understanding all of the conversations so have just started to join in the laughter anytime they start. I figure if I laugh loud enough they will think I understand them and just enjoy being with them. I hope they are not calling me names. I also got another lesson today and found out that you only tip 10% and you don't tip taxi drivers at all. It all became suddenly clear why the taxi driver from the airport was so happy, I had tipped him 20%.
I have already given up on my jokes - I seem to be the only one who laughs but that seems to be par for the course every where I go so maybe I'll just continue on. Maybe if I laugh really loud at my own jokes they will feel obliged to laugh as well, just like I do with them.
Another thing I have realized is that I am the tallest person around. At last I have found a place where I can challenge people to basketball and feel like Shaq.
Driving down here is a nightmare. There are three types of drivers:

1. Those that drive about the speed limit.
2. Those that drive about 100 miles an hour everywhere
3. Those that drive at about 20 miles per hour, usually because their vehicle is about to fall apart.

There also seems to be no rule against changing lanes at will, without signaling even if there is a car next to you. The only laws against it that I can see are the laws of Physics. You know, the ones about when one mass hits another mass there is a displacement of force equal to the energy going into the impact. Surprisingly Monterrey has one of the highest car accident rates in Latin America. My team, to a man, drop into the 100 mph group. I constantly feel like I am living a video game something like Gran Turismo and Frogger combined.
I am determined to improve my Spanish and at times I actually find myself thinking in Spanish and every so often a long lost word will pop back into my memory. When I’m in a restaurant I make every attempt to order in Spanish. Usually I plan what I am going to say and then when the waiter or waitress comes to me I fire off my order in perfect Spanish. I don’t know why they cannot just take my order say thank you and go to the next person. But without fail they always ask me a question back that I am totally unprepared for and I just look at them like a lost puppy and hope that somebody will answer for me. On one of my visits to the Supermarket I made the mistake of saying something to the check out boy. He obviously was impressed with my Spanish and having scanned the last product asked me a question. That wasn’t supposed to happen. He was supposed to total my bill, I would see the amount and then give him the money. Instead, I apparently donated some money to a charity.

Overall Monterrey is better than I expected it would be and if I do stay for the six months I probably will have a few more tales to tell.

The Tales Continue

Mexico is a place that grows on you - like a bad case of athlete’s foot. Not really. The people here seem to have a great disposition and in general tend to have a smile on their faces. Now, I’m not sure if that is because they find my attempts to speak Spanish humorous but they do seem to laugh a lot.
When it comes to my trying to speak Spanish this seems to have its upsides and downsides. First, the upside. I really think they believe I understand what they are saying and so they don’t make fun of me. Now obviously I don’t know this because I don’t understand what is being said and the lots of laughing is suspicious but why I think this is true is that they do make fun of “los gringos” (the Americans) a lot and I have been clearly labeled as English not “gringo”. For the upside that is it and for the downside there seems to be a few more issues and these seem to be more important.
With my trying to speak Spanish they do jump to the conclusion that I am fluent and so they continue to speak at normal speeds and for some people that is fast. I’m not sure what the record in the Guiness Book of Records is for most words in a minute but I am sure that it was someone speaking Spanish and while I have been here I think I have witnessed several occasions where the person has come close to breaking the record as they talk to me. I have, however, figured out when someone asks me a question. The room goes very quiet and everyone looks at me. I hope my monosyllabic response of “si” doesn’t give away the fact that I have no idea what the question was. If they continue to look at me after I have said “si” then I know more was needed and so I have the fallback of saying “Well, hmm, let me think about that for a while”.
In restaurants I am still having a few problems. The other day at lunch with several colleagues they al got their plates with lots of food on them. Meanwhile I just got a slab of meat. Apparently my attempt to order extra vegetables instead of potatoes didn’t quite work. A couple of times at work someone has made an announcement about an ad hoc team meeting. The first I know about it is when I realize everyone has disappeared and then someone comes out of the meeting to come and get me.
Another endearing trait of the Mexican men is the greeting ritual. A simple “hello” or shake of the hand does not suffice. Instead a handshake, hug and pat on the back, or a handshake ritual similar to some kind of gang handshake will take place. Now either one of these greeting rituals will take place with every male in the room. It doesn’t seem to be limited to once a day in the morning but seems to happen when you return to the room after leaving for more than an hour. Now I’m not sure of which ritual is appropriate for which situations and most of the time I am okay because I just do the same greeting as the person in front of me. The problem comes when I am first in line. I’ll go for the hug and the pat on the back meanwhile the other person is doing some kind of handshake ritual. I usually defer to the hug and pat on the back because I also have no idea what the handshake ritual is and it keeps changing. My attempt to lead ends up being some kind of three stooges handshake.

For anyone stuck in the past Monterrey is the place for you. My record collection from the 80’s is back in fashion. I’m amazed I can still remember as many of Lionel Richie’s lyrics as I do. Also if you have ever wondered what happened to all the cars from the 70’ and, 80’s that aren’t preserved as classics in the US, wonder no more. They are here!
Through some major reconstructive surgery process these old cars are given a new life down here. A lot of these cars are the ones that are only going 20 mph but it really is amazing that they go at all. For all you VW Beetle fans, Monterrey is paradise. It seems as though the VW “Bug” has been a proven success in the reconstructive surgery process. There are thousands of them down here, so many so that a game of slug bug usually ends in blood. A lot of people have Beetles as their personal car but somewhat surprisingly the Beetle has also become a staple of the taxi force down here. It is surprising especially when you realize that the Beetle is a one-door car. The way they have overcome the passenger needing to climb over the front seat to get to the back is just to rip out the front passenger seat. This however, does limit the passenger capacity to two.
Another novel use for Beetle was as a school bus. No kidding, it had all the markings and colorings of a school bus. Even had the “careful children crossing” sign. Obviously it is for a very small school or it takes a long time to get all the kids home.
Even more surprising is that I saw my first ever VW Beetle police car the other day. Somehow that doesn’t conjure up the picture of a high tech police force. Mind you it doesn’t seem that the main purpose of the police force requires much technology besides perhaps a calculator. If you are pulled over by a policeman, which by all accounts seem to be an arbitrary event at best, you only need to find out what the fine is for your alleged infraction and then pay a percentage (10%- 20%) of that fine in a bribe directly to the policeman, hence the need for the calculator. It is such a widely accepted practice that at times you will even be given a sticker on your license that says you have already paid a bribe that day and you shouldn’t be charged another one but be let go scot-free instead. I thought this was an exaggeration until I saw the license of a work colleague with the sticker on it. I guess the Catholic tradition of indulgences has found another walk of life to be a part of.
Another interesting fact for all of you who complain about work conditions in America or elsewhere in the world is that for the first two years of employment with a company you get a whopping 6 days of vacation each year. After the first two years there is a jump up in the third year with an extra day added. I’m now not convinced that the Mexicans who illegally cross the border into America are doing so for the wages. I think they just want a day off.

Well it doesn’t look like I will be here for 6 months now. Mind you that is solely based on my estimation of my role. Seeing as I don’t really understand what is being said in the meetings I am not sure how the project is going and I am not sure if I am volunteering to do something extra every time I say “si” in one of those uncomfortable silences when everyone looks at me.

The six-month project is over in 6 weeks – well that’s the only thing that was early for the whole project. Monterrey is a nice place but I’ll be glad to be back home with the family where at least it’s the same language that separates us.

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