We’ve all heard them: rumours about what countries are like. The ones say Kosovo is a war-torn country, where tanks dominate the streets. Others get goosebumps at the thought of living in Saudi Arabia and Belarus is apparently exotic enough to be a destination serviced by travel companies like Young Pioneer Tours alongside North Korea and Chernobyl. In the case of Mexico, German reporters don’t fail to mention that although they have been living here for a long time, nothing dangerous has happened to them yet. Words of consolation. Like they absolutely have to say it or else no one will believe it.
Here’s an interesting observation: When I lived in Riyadh those to warn me of the dangers of this place were expats. None of the Saudis I had ever struck up a conversation with talked to me about not leaving my house on my own or lectured me on the things I couldn’t do because I ended up with the wrong genitals at birth. In Mexico City however, the warnings come from the locals (which also may be due to the fact that I barely know any expats).
How exactly do you recognize you have come to a bad district? Our security advisor talked me through the neighborhoods I should avoid right after I got here but as fascinating as the prevalence of the Aztec influence in Mexican Spanish appears at first glance, who on earth is supposed to memorize all the district names? Some Mexican words of Aztec origin are so complex, you’d rather learn German.
So again, how do you know you’ve come to the wrong neighborhood? Is it the poor appearance of streets, buildings and people? Is it the shop you have passed on the way there named Recuerdos de la Guerra (Souvenirs from the War) that has a swastika next to its name? I’ve still got a few months to figure it out but when your Mexican Uber driver tells you not to stay until dark, that might be a good indicator.
Just as there exist prejudiced opinions about people from different countries, my years abroad have shown me that, depending on where in the world you are, a similar prejudiced attitude may come from locals towards expatriates, regardless where they are from. Sometimes, when people come to live in a country for a while they are believed to only stay among themselves, creating their own little worlds where everything is familiar. More often than not, this cliché is true.
Sitting in the back seat of my Uber, watching as skyscrapers of metal and glass were replaced by buildings of weather-beaten stone, often no more than two stories high, it was somewhat becoming clear that I was getting out of some sort of comfort zone other expats have defined before I even had my own passport. The strangeness of a foreigner coming to a remote part of town is, among other things, what creates this gap between locals and foreigners. If more of us were travellers, not tourists, maybe we would be living in a different world by now.
Interestingly enough, districts that are known to be the bad ones, have a similar infrastructure to the ones that aren’t. Even in a bad district you will find homes, shops, offices, schools, kindergartens, you name it. It’s not like the world ceases to exist where the common and familiar ends.
I may have come to the wrong neighborhood but even bad neighborhoods are sometimes frequented by good people. A Russian woman in Germany once told me that you can come to a birthday gathering in Berlin not knowing anyone and by the time you leave you will probably still not know anyone.
In Mexico, the first lesson you might learn upon joining a birthday party is that walls and floors make great tools for crushing large quantities of ice in bags. Take the bag, think of your ex or whatever it is that gets your blood boiling and hit the wall. An easy, fun and cheap alternative to anger management therapy with a purpose for everyone involved.
Once you have released your excess stress by manually crushing ice and its combination with a drink of your choice has got you all calm, take a bowl of traditional Mexican soup that the host will offer you. Just like the name of the district you find yourself in, its origin probably goes back all the way to the Aztecs. You will just have tried your first mouth-full of soup when the first person asks you about where you are from, how long you have been here and what it is that you like the most about Mexico. You are likely to be treated like family and even if you have spent the last couple of years as a wallflower, you’ll notice that social gatherings are actually not that bad.
As the hours go by, you will notice that your progress in Spanish can be measured by your understanding of jokes told. In the coastal regions, so a fellow Mexican party guest, out of 4 words spoken, 7 are cuss words. 😉
Of course all the fun eating and drinking between conversations doesn’t mean you should forget your driver’s warnings and walk the streets in the dark. The locals probably don’t like that idea either and even if you live over an hour away, someone’s gonna give you a ride home. Not least to tell you more jokes on the way.