Saturday, September 3, 2011

Culture Shock

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida -- More and more now, when I go north to visit the 48 contiguous United States I experience culture shock.

I guess it's due to two things. First, I spent a lot of time living in small-town Alaska, in itself very different from a lot of what you find in the rest of the U. S. Add to that the fact that I have lived in Yucatán full time since 2005.

I just spent a week in this well-to-do area of South Florida, living for that time much as a resident there might. I woke and got ready each morning, climbed into a car and merged with commuters on eight lanes of highway traffic. I negotiated congestion, a great many parking lots, and chilly, air-conditioned malls. Later each day I returned to the highways for the commute home.

Oh yeah, how about the Kardashian sex tape?

What I can't stop noticing in areas like this is that much of the human-made environment puts the convenience of automobiles before that of people. Public transportation is not very good. In many areas it's hard to be a pedestrian. At one point I decided to walk over to a nearby mall, craving exercise and thinking it was silly to drive the car only a few blocks. What I discovered in an area that looked like an inviting and likely area for footpaths, with luscious greenbelts and plantings all around, is that there were not always sidewalks, crosswalks or pedestrian signals.

...of course you know the latest on Justin and Selena...

I found that because cars are king, it is difficult and a little dangerous to walk in this neighborhood. I began to wonder why. Is it because, in this area where Bentleys, BMWs and Mercedes seem to be typical family cars, no one walks? Or is the intention to keep pedestrians (read: poor people) out? I noticed that a lot of people stared at me from their cars as I walked in the greenbelt alongside the "parkway." I would not have been surprised if a police patrol had stopped and told me that pedestrians are prohibited there. I guess, in this area where even the lawn maintenance guys seem to be driving shiny new $50,000 pickups and the whole environment and culture is designed for the convenience of motorized transport, that someone walking along the street seems a little strange.

...and everyone's talking about Beyonce's "bump."

Despite the beautifully-maintained greenbelts and some lovely natural areas and parks, what I cannot stop seeing everywhere here is huge expanses of intentionally-created desert. I'm mostly talking about pavement, but even some of the green part, that which is sprinklered, fertilized, mulched and beautifully manicured, is apparently largely devoid of wildlife. It's all remarkably clean. Clean to the point of sterility.

...Tiger's house is behind that wall...

I feel a bit out of place here. The car and shopping culture is something I never embraced, the facades of ostentatious wealth are something I don't really understand, and since I don't watch television or read celebrity news I feel pretty much like a foreigner to much of the pop culture up north.

I arrived home in Mérida two days ago. I am always relieved to return to the human-scale, less ordered, and much less artificial world of Yucatán.


  1. Marc,

    Your thoughts mirror my own after revisiting the northwestern suburbs of my hometown, Chicago. I just don't get it :(

  2. Well, Bob, the important thing is that we're in a good place. I think we're of a like mind on that.


    I'm not going to leave here, ever, ever again, because I love you all. Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home.

  4. Jennifer, thanks for the link. I'll have to think about it awhile...

  5. I agree - I'm heading to Houston - the land of cars and freeways - but I pretty much plan to either on the beach at Galveston, on a sailboat or in the woods camping with family. Of course I have to get on the freeways to get there. I just grit my teeth and drive!

  6. Babs, that sounds like a great way to do it. When I end up spending time in places like that, I usually do fine by finding a pleasant place to hole up. When in Florida, that's my sister's house, isolated on a large lot amid tall pines and palmettos. It's the perfect refuge from the traffic and sprawl close by.

  7. Bob and Marc, I don't even need to revisit my country to be confused about consumerism. We still live up north and we don't "get it" either. We live simply, which is how we were able to afford to buy our condo. If we were given a sum of money and told we could either buy something nice for our NOB house or travel, we'll choose travel every time. People up here don't "get" us. Meh. We're ok with it. ;-)

  8. I live about two miles from downtown, can see the high rises from the end of my block. I feel a little like what you've described when I venture out to the suburbs where all the shopping malls sprawl. I detest all that new crap and the chains and the acres and acres of concrete.

    Still, in my neighborhood, few people walk out of necessity. There are some trotting around for exercise, it's true. And another bunch who walk dogs or push strollers. But when I see someone walking with a sack or walking-not-for-exercise but to get somewhere, I always have a moment of "poor thing," because surely their car's in the shop or doesn't exist or some other difficult situation that forces them to head out on foot.

    I don't like it. There's not a walk-to grocery store near my home, few sidewalks. It's just geared for cars and unlike the house in Chuburna, I can't trot a few blocks down the beach road, hit the butcher, grocery, and tortilla shop in a matter of minutes.

    I don't like it. I keep saying that. One day I'll get out of here. lynette

  9. I enjoyed reading this. The pop-culture inserts were clever. But welcome back.

  10. Well done, sir. But I must admit I do not react negatively to the American culture when I head north. There are lots of things I thoroughly enjoy. Some things baffle me. Just as some things baffled me in Greece, in England, and here in Mexico.

    One of my American bafflements, of course, is the celebrity gossip. And the tendency to create crises that would not even qualify as inconveniences in a world where wealth was not so pervasive.

  11. I totally agree, Marc. (But I've not been back to the USA for many years.)

    Yet sometimes I wonder if it isn't a sad irony that accounts for the difference you noted--poverty means that many people here in Mexico still don't have cell phones, computers and such, and aren't privy to the "pop culture" so prevalent in the USA.

    The other day, my car radio's FM station, played a live version of "Te Quiero Tanto, Tanto. I was unnerved by all the appreciative screaming and yelling from the audience--it ruined a lovely song for me. I presume, given the song, that it was a Latin audience.

    Consumerism and such public displays of "Isn't that GREAT" are media-driven vehicles to seduce the public into behaving accordingly. I'm afraid it is coming here as well. The media owners have a lot of power in actually shaping behavior. The secret places you so love will not gain much value by the media--precisely because they are quiet.

  12. Barb: I think I told you and Bruce once that you remind me of Alaskans. Maybe that's part of the reason you live the way you do...probably why we think along the same lines in this.

    Lynette: You know that I have lived in centro for some time now, but even before moving to Merida, no matter where I lived I found a setting where the commute was short, and the area was walkable. I look at these vast areas where you MUST have a car to get food and basic necessities and it seems to vulnerable to me, for one thing. If your car breaks down, it's difficult. If (as it likely will happen one of these days) the price of fuel for the vehicles goes through the roof, everything is not only expensive, the whole picture becomes pretty scary, especially given that almost all food gets shipped long distances. It's a very shaky structure. I much prefer to not be dependent upon cars, gasoline, etc., any more than necessary.

  13. unseenmoon: Glad you liked it...the things just kind of fell together. I really don't know much about that pop stuff. I saw some tabloid headlines in the checkout counter at, uh, Walmart.

    Steve, maybe my reaction sounds negative, but it's really not, I don't think. Sad maybe. I am just so perplexed by the whole system, I don't understand it. As I just wrote to Lynette, above, it's incredibly vulnerable, expensive, bad for the environment, and to me, pretty negative socially. People are isolated. I didn't even start on the gated communities....I find it a strange and surreal environment.

    Alinde: You point out something important that I didn't mention. That is the fact that working- and middle-class Mexicans overwhelmingly yearn for exactly that lifestyle I am talking about, largely due to the media and advertising. There are more and more malls, gated communities, and large corporate chain outlets all over the country. Overpasses, underpasses, multi-laning and all that comes with economic growth will roll over much of the beauty of Mexican culture. It does so wherever in the world it reaches. Mexico is no different.

  14. Marc,

    I love the way you interspersed the italic inserts of meaningless drivel, but then totally ignored them in your text. What a hoot!

    Architecture books on the new urbanism are attempting to address the car culture. City planners recognize that it's unpleasant, unbalanced, and undesirable. But change will be slow.


  15. ~eric: Meaningless drivel? What are you talking about? These were the headlines on the newspapers I saw at the checkout stand. Critical stuff!

    I agree that changing car culture will be a slow process. Many will not change until forced to by some sort of crisis, such as no longer being able to afford to put fuel in their car, or worse.

  16. Marc, I remember you saying that and it's a compliment I cherish. I don't think you've written a post yet that I haven't said, "Yes! That's what I believe/think/agree with, too." It's almost like you go poking around in my brain and then write my opinion. Maybe I *was* an Alaskan in a previous life. :-)

  17. I cannot resist responding to Alinde's comment that many people in Mexico do not have cell phones and computers.

    Virtually everybody has a cell phone. I imagine there are some actually poor areas in the outback which would correspond to the backwoods of West Virginia in which the folks don't have enough money for cell phones, but most everybody in Mexico has a cell phone.

    There is quite a market for used ones that get bought and sold for less, of course, than retail.

    Not only cell phones, but quite elegant ones. The lowest grunt helper albañil on a construction project will have a cell phone. My gardener whose transportation is a beat-up bicycle has a cell phone.

    Most homes do not have computers, I will grant, but since there is an inexpensive internet café on every block, that's no big inconvenience for most people. Mexico is very wired.

    We are not suffering for lack of technology due to being "poor."

  18. unseenmoon: Felipe, a case in point. I've spent a lot of time over the years in a pueblo in El Bajío, up in the sierra. Twelve years ago, the only public phone was in a little store, and if you knew them and wanted to receive a call, they would come running to find you when it came. A few years later, a very weak and unreliable cell signal was sometimes present, but you had to climb a hill or a roof and hold your phone at a funny angle to make tentative contact. Last year a cell tower went in nearby. This summer when I visited, an amazing number of people, even those who live in extremely marginal economic situations, suddenly had phones. I wonder at all the sociological changes this will cause in a rural area with an economy based upon subsistence farming.

  19. Sure, Felipe--there is increased usage, but....Well, in the Yucatan, I can say I sure do not see the same usage of cell phones that you report. The male gardener I hire also has an old three-wheeler (borrowed), wears one of two T-shirts, and woman's culottes. He has no phone of any kind. And the maid has a cell phone with her, sometimes, which suggests to me that it's a family cell. I could not find recent statistics, but these from a few years ago suggest that Mexican usage is roughly half that of the USA, and that USA is about half that of Taiwan.


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