Friday, August 19, 2011

Living Here: Getting Things Done

I had a plumbing problem a while back. After about a week it was fixed. Below is an image of the crew on the patio in the midst of a critical phase of the project.

You might say, "It took a week? No wonder, it looks like those guys just sat on their backsides drinking Coke and eating chips!"

Actually, the photo was made in the afternoon, normal time for a break, and the adhesive on the newly-installed PVC fittings needed to set before we could crank up the pump and check for leaks under pressure. So actually the guys timed their rest break to coincide with this halt in the work. This scene was all in a day's work, and fine by me.

While waiting for this crew to show up one day, I started thinking about the issue of efficiency and getting things done in Mexico, and a few thoughts came to mind.

The issue of time is a frustration that most expatriates here experience. To be quite frank, sometimes you arrange for a service and the people come hours late or simply don't show up. You sit around the house watching the day slip away, and the guy who you are waiting for to fix the fridge or paint your cabinets probably doesn't think it's a big deal.

Many foreigners move here because the way of life is less stressful, more casual, and "laid back." Americans I know here especially like the "laid back" part -- for themselves -- but some of these same people then want everybody else to stick to a schedule and for things to to happen on time. To those I would paraphrase an old saying in English, "you can't have your flan and eat it, too."

It is possible to find conscientious, punctual workers, but people don't operate in a vacuum. Sometimes there is a domino effect and people will be late, no matter what their intentions, because others on whom they depend hold them up.

Another thing that foreigners who've moved to Mexico may not take into consideration is that culturally we're the oddballs here, living as many of us do as singles or couples without a lot of extended family around. In most Mexican households there are mothers with children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, so someone is usually around. In addition, even middle-class families may have a household employee around during the day. For most Mexican families, a worker being late for a service call or repair job is not the big inconvenience it is for someone who lives alone and has to wait around "wasting time" when a worker doesn't keep an appointment.

The best strategy is to expect a wait, and then plan to do something useful or fun with that time. Prepare to work on projects or hobbies around the house that day so that staying home won't be a big inconvenience. And, if the washing machine repair guy says he will come at 10:00AM, don't commit to a lunch out with friends at noon. Invite your friends over and be ready for interruptions, or reschedule something for another day. And by all means, get the cell phone number of service people so you can check in with them if necessary. 

Another way to deal with waiting is if you have a trusted house cleaning person, try when possible to schedule repairs or other services when that person is working. That way you can go about your business while someone else is home waiting for service personnel to show up.

I find that generally although services here are not always as timely as is expected in the U.S., they usually are effective, especially considering that the cost of getting things done is often much more economical. I think it's important to examine your expectations. Define what result is needed. If you want everything to be the same as north of the border you will be unendingly frustrated. If you put the lower costs and more personalized service into perspective, you'll likely find that usually you are getting a pretty good deal. Get recommendations, and once you find good crafts, repair and technical people, stick with them. If you communicate effectively with those working for you and develop a relationship, you'll find that you generally get what you need and that the time factor is manageable.

In the case of this plumbing job, I waited for the crew to get around to me because they have worked for me for years, know the house well, and are trustworthy. I paid 400 pesos or about 33 U.S. dollars to have a check valve at the bottom of my well (which entailed disconnecting and raising a long section of pipe), a damaged valve and a cracked fitting replaced. It took a few days to get it done (they are busy), but the quality of the work is good, and I suspect I would have paid at least several hundred dollars in labor to have the same work done in the states.

Did I wait around some? Yes. 

Was it inconvenient? That depends upon your point of view. I've adjusted my expectations a bit. Overall it worked out fine, as far as I'm concerned.


  1. I love your attitude, Marc. I have waited around for plumbers north of the border as well. In the midst of a bathroom remodel, our plumber disappeared, but still managed to bill us for the 3 days he vanished. Turns out he was having some personal problems and I was able to get the breathtaking bill reduced by 24 hours.

    On the other hand, Mike was making a pot of soup and having some guests over one Saturday night in Chuburna. As the workers were finishing up for the week at noon Saturday, one of them called him to look at water bubbling up through the ground next to the palm tree. Turns out the pipe had been accidentally cut in the middle of some other work. Our guys were masters at concrete, paint, and tile, but not so much at plumbing.

    A few phone calls were made, and a gentleman found who would come out to Chuburna that very afternoon from Chelem. He did show up, fixed the problem, spent about an hour at it, and presented Mike a bill for the equivalent of $12 US.

    I love the attitude toward work in Mexico. I love the concept that most things can wait a little. I am charmed to my toes by the tendency of workers to sing while they're working. I've found this everywhere in Mexico, and it makes me nostalgic for the old American habit of whistling. I am pretty homesick tonight. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks again for your comments, Lynette. I didn't mention in the post that this team of plumbers is a pretty nice bunch, and pleasant to have around. It's more like having some buddies in to help with a project than "calling the plumber." That's an additional reason why I cut them a little slack.

  3. We're learning to adopt the ni modos (is that the right phrase?) philosophy and go with the flow. It sure makes life a lot less stressful.

  4. That's exactly it, Barb. It usually works out fine in the end.

  5. Lynette is right. Many of them do sing while working. I love the sound of happy voices ringing while accompanying the swish of a cleaning mop or the splat of freshly thrown concrete.

    Nice post, Marc. Your workers have taught you well.

  6. Paul: I agree that it is much more pleasant to have pleasant and happy people working around you. That's one of the charms of my plumbers; I like them and we have a good time. I have many memories of grumpy, complaining plumbers and repairmen in the "old days" up north. Enough of that!

    Bob: Thanks for the comment. I have read your blog for some time, but rarely comment. I have to say I appreciate it for your depth of knowledge and variety of topics. I have turned over a new leaf and will be a little more active in the future.

  7. I like to say that spontaneity and impunctuality are two sides of the same coin. Most of us enjoy the fact that friends will call us up on a whim and invite us for lunch, but we aren't so keen on having to wait for plumbers... Unfortunately, one can't have it both ways. Your advice of planning a day at home to do other projects while the plumbers marches to his own drum is as solid as it comes.

  8. Joanna, all I know is that this is what works for me. I know too many people around Merida who do nothing but complain about such things. That's not for me. Life is too short. I've adapted.

    Given your long experience in these things, your affirmation carries a lot of weight. Thanks for the comment.

  9. I certainly agree with your take on things, although I'm still struggling with how to accomplish a major project, since I'm single and really NEED to get out of the house almost daily.

    But I'd like to suggest another path to consider. I've found the people who have the hardest time adjusting to their life here are what I have called the "prima donnas." Turns out, these folks are probably ones who score high on the scale of narcissism.

    Sure, it's my own theory as to the root cause of the complaining. I certainly may be wrong. Yet, I'd suggest that anyone thinking of moving here might take the test themselves and then ask themselves more directly if they'd be happy here.

    This is basically a PATIENT culture, in which complaints don't often yield as much as does just waiting-it-out, or a compliment (when things go very well), or trying to see the possible reason behind the undesired acts.

    After reviewing a bit of literature on Narcissism, I now believe one is talking to deaf ears in telling a narcissistic type to "adapt." But for those of us on the lower rungs of the narcissism scale, your advise if surely excellent.

    Anyone interested in their own profile can take a test, here:

  10. Alinde, I like your comment about this being a patient culture. How very true that is...not for everyone, but for the majority. People learn to wait. Angry outbursts and impatience are much less common here than where I used to live. People just shrug, smile, and hang in there.

    Thanks for the food for thought.


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