Saturday, March 29, 2008

Thou Shallt Not Speak Against the Hallowed Institutions or the Duly Elected Official

On Friday, March 28th there was a little article at the back of the Diario de Yucatán (page 10, sección Nacional) which reported on the declarations made by the Cuban-American mother and aunt of a Cuban man recently shot in Cancun.

I do not pretend to know the details of the shooting of this man, whether it was a narco thing or an immigration ring thing or just a random drive by. What I do know is that I actually laughed at the declarations made not by the obviously distraught Cuban-American mother of this individual, but at the lofty declarations made by the local assistant prosecutor, a one Luis Raimundo Canché Aquino.

Apparently the two women came to reclaim the body of their son and nephew, and made some declarations to the press in which they described the state authorities and their instalaciones (offices etc.) as dirty and and incompetent. They also said that Mexico is a country "lleno de miseria". If you are the assistant prosecutor for the state of Quintana Roo, them's fightin' words.

This pompous ass of a public servant issued a statement himself, saying that he would be informing the Secretaria de Gobernación about these terrible things being said by these awful women. He also said that it is a crime for a foreigner to make declarations against 'duly established authorities' and that at the very least they should be declared 'personas non grata' and that he would include a recording of the despicable things said by those two hysterical women.

I can only imagine the nightmarish mess of trying to recover the body of your son (whatever he may have done he is still your son) from a Quintana Roo government facility, with the added bonus of him and you being foreigners and the additional on-top-of-that bonus of having a crime investigation going on around the death.

Can you see the empathetic, professional government official walking the hysterical mother and aunt through the process and to the different departments, where they are greeted at every turn by more empathetic, professional and courteous government officials who move the case along in a clear, transparent, easy-to-follow process that is recorded for posterity on a several
sheets of clear, easy-to-read official documents. Come on, you can see it. Try harder!

Perhaps the idealistic Mr. Assistant State Prosecutor with far too much time on his hands is right. Us foreigners should shut our mouths if we don't know what the hell we are talking about. Why, everyone knows that the state government officials could not possibly be inept and are a model of efficiency, transparency and several other 'cy' words. As for their instalaciones; why, they are the Swiss banks of police-dom and the envy of police departments around the world.

Overreaction! Hello?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

HSBC - The World's Local Bank - Ha!

This little neurotic rambling is about the wonderful service you can expect should you happen to open an account or have an HSBC account related question in their Gran Plaza location! I have no idea how good or bad their service is at some of the other branches around town, but, knowing full well how foreign the concept of customer service is in Mérida, I can imagine that it's not much different. Of course you would expect better from the world's local bank, but then again maybe not. Service at the HSBC Gran Plaza location is absolute shite.

Fight your way to the two people in charge of clearing up customer inquiries (there's always a crowd) and you will meet two of the most customer-service-challenged persons you may have met in a long time. If you are beyond 1 meter (three feet) from the edge of their desk, even if they are not with another customer, they will not see you because you are in their 'invisibility zone', kind of like wearing an invisibility cloak like in the Harry Potter novels. Great if you want to sneak up on them, not so much if you want them to look up and actually provide you with some kind of service, like an answer to a question perhaps. They will poke away on their computer or write things on those important papers they have in front of them and make a supreme effort NOT to acknowledge you.

After some hemming and hawing (throat clearing works occasionally as does a good, loud Buenos Dias or Tardes) they will look up with a bovine expression bordering on disdain - imagine if you will the look on a bored, disdainful cow - and will look at anything but your face, preferably studying the paper you have in your hand to judge how much time and effort dealing with you is going to cost them.

If they are with someone, well, all the better to ignore you, standing impatiently behind the person seated in front of you.

There will be no friendliness at all, unless of course you already know and get along with these fine service-oriented (not) individuals.

When they get up from their chairs to walk through the bank they will not acknowledge anyone in the interminably long cashier lineup - this is not part of their job description.

The cashiers, for the most part, are much friendlier and customer-service oriented than these higher-paid "executives" are, proffering smiles and actually trying to provide some level of service to the exasperated clients dripping in one by one from the long lineup.

I wonder what the powers that be at HSBC head office would think if they had to suffer through the crappy service at this branch?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Why Most Mexicans Don't Read Signs - A Theory

While I don't profess to be an expert on anything except neurotic ramblings on this particularly blog anyway, I did want to throw out there my theory on the troubled relationship between Mexicans and signage in general.

From my observations, I have noticed that Mexicans pay little or only cursory attention to signs of any kind, be it in a restaurant (no smoking sign), a store (closed sign) or on the highway (construction zone signs) and little by little have come to understand why, or at least to develop a theory on the subject.

My theory is this: Mexicans have become so accustomed reading misleading, incorrect or just plain wrong information, that on a sub-conscious level, they dismiss written indications outright. Signs have no authority - they carry no weight. I know because I have lived here for 20 years now and it's happening to me.

  • On The Road Again

    Take the SCT. Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes. An important-sounding name that means the (federal) Secretary of Communication and Transportation. These are the experts on communication and transportation, right? As they build and rebuild Mexico's highways, siphoning off large portions of the budget allotted to the project for injection into personal bank accounts, they use signage to indicate to the motorist what is happening on a particular stretch of highway.

    How many times have I slowed down when seeing an orange (warning color, right?) sign that says "Workers Ahead - Slow Down" or "Construction Zone - 500 m.)" followed by more orange and red signs indicating some sort of slowdown ahead. But they mean NOTHING. There may or MAY NOT be workers ahead, the road might be fixed, the road might have a hole in it the size of the Chicxulub crater. They may be working now or they may have gone home last week and left the signs there because it wasn't their job to remove them. Everything from Men Working to Loose Gravel to Narrow Road signs, all red or orange, are used to indicate that something, anything, is going on up ahead. No need to pay attention to what the signs actually say, because it's probably not really true anyway. It's kind of an ambiguous, haphazardly flashing warning light, that something is different about the next stretch of road.

    So no wonder you start to ignore the signs and play it by ear using your own judgment and relying on your own quick reflexes if indeed there is a crater awaiting you around the next bend. I mean, look carefully at the photo above (clicking on it will open it up so you can have a closer look) and notice how the sign says Retorno while the retarded (no offense to the legitimately mentally challenged) powers-that-be have decided that they no longer want people to retornar at that point, and have applied a low-tech solution to people actually using this exit in the form of... rocks. They have no ladders at the Secretaria de COMUNICACIONES to take down the sign or cover it up? Sporting a typical gray color, they blend in nicely with the highway itself. Imagine you are new to town, driving along at night and want to turn here, at the last minute you see the rocks - they are not lit up at night, being the low-tech barrier they are - you apply the brakes and come to a screeching, sweating stop.

    The tragedy is that this is the Secretaria de COMUNICACIONES y Transportes we are talking about, on federal highways. If they can't communicate, what chance in hell do the rest of us mortals have.
  • No Smoking (Yeah Right)

    In a sushi restaurant a while ago, I watched incredulously as a client waiting for his to-go sushi order (what a loser proposition by the way, sitting in a sushi resaurant, waiting for a to-go order that you could be eating there... what, is the person at home so goddamn lazy they can't get dressed?) lit a cigarette right at the sushi bar, directly in front of the admittedly discrete NO SMOKING sign. The waiter approached him and, while the smoking client was distracted by something else, quietly and quickly removed the No Smoking sign. This was either an extreme example of empathetic customer service, or an overwhelming desire to avoid confrontation. You decide. In either case, the sign served absolutely no purpose whatsoever.
  • No Parking - Handicapped Only (Hey My Leg Hurts so it's OK)

    No parking areas, particularly those reserved for the handicapped are easy picking for the driver in a hurry whose needs are infinitely more important than anyone else's and so he or she will park there, "only for a moment". The sign or yellow paint on the curb means nothing at all to him or her.

    Now examine certain areas of the city like streets around the Gran Plaza mall or Paseo de Montejo in front of Tequila on a Saturday night and you will see hundreds of cars parked along the yellow curb, which supposedly means No Parking.

    So, what is the message? Park if you can get away with it! Again, signs have little or no authority. This all changes around Christmas, when the local police must fill their cuotas for everyone's Christmas bonuses and fines are handed out liberally; the law is a little stricter during the month of Peace and Love.
  • Signage Overload on the Highways

    Highways have so many signs, that reading them all would literally bring you to a standstill in many areas! Leaving the City. Maximum Speed 60 kph. Hacienda Whatever. Keep our Highways Clean, Amigo Visitante (like we locals are so concerned about keeping our state spotless). No Left Turn. Glorieta Ahead. Etc. Etc.

  • It's Closed!

    How many times have I seen people approach a store, its door closed and a CLOSED sign hanging in plain sight, rattle the door or tap on the glass and asking, with hand signals "Are you closed?" The same sign will remain hanging on the door throughout the day, when the store is actually OPEN, thereby generating confusion and the general feeling that the sign again, means nothing.

I state again that I am not a student of anthropology or human sciences or urban development even so I really don't know what I am talking about when I speculate on what goes on in someone else's mind, but my observations have led me to the conclusion that we Mexicans (and I include myself here) have no respect for signs in Mexico.

We do when we travel elsewhere because we know that they are there for a reason and will be enforced and are reliable sources of information.

But not in Mexico. We have been conditioned to believe that signs are meaningless, carry no authority, contain outdated or useless or untrue information and are no more than landscape-polluting visual distractions that serve no purpose whatsoever.

Friday, March 07, 2008

SSP Policeman Admits Error

Just the other night, around midnight, zipping along the periférico, I suddenly saw a pair of headlights coming up fast in my rear view mirror; then the inevitable flashing blue and red lights came on as it rode my rear bumper at 110 kms an hour.

I pulled over and the policeman from the newly created SSP (state police) stepped out of his truck and came up to my window. He looked in, put his hand on my shoulder and said "Oh, sorry, I thought this was the speeding car I was looking for. You didn't see a white Pontiac pass you?" "Um, no" I replied. "I thought it was you. Sorry about that" And he got back into his truck. And drove away.

A real first for me!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The View from the Dentist's Chair

The title is misleading because I am writing not from the dentist's chair, but from the patient's chair, lying completely flat, head a little lower than my feet which is an excellent way of exacerbating a gastric condition known as reflux of which I have been suffering as late.

I am 'in for' a root canal, which in the formerly white city of Mérida is called by its much more elegant moniker endodoncia and can cost you between $1500 and $1900 according to the dentist and the tooth in question. I had one just a few weeks ago to celebrate my 47th birthday (thereby ensuring that there would be no birthday 'lunch' the following day) The $1500 was spent on what I believe is called a 'canine' tooth; it's kind of on the corner between those front teeth and where the molars begin. Yesterday, the $1900 job, on a long-rooted molar located in the upper left hand part of my long suffering mouth.

I notice, as I am lying here, that the concept of dental hygiene with regards to my - ie the patients' - hygiene, seems to be much more relaxed than I remember it having been in places like Canada, where I remember the dentist sitting like a surgeon, his gloved hands in the air while his assistant passed him tools and bits and pieces from a metal tray that had been removed from a micro-wave like contraption that apparently sterilized the equipment between patients.

Now before my critics pounce on me and tell me to just go home - and yes there are some out there who have a selective reading capacity and insist that everything I write is negative - I will have you know that I am not criticizing anything and that it is all observation. Note the preceding paragraph: "seems to be much more relaxed than I remember" This is not saying "those filthy third world swine". Do you see the difference? Then, read on. If not, please leave now by clicking here.

So I am lying there, lightly coughing occasionally to keep everything in it's place gastrically and thinking these little thoughts.

Now this is not the first time I have had thoughts along these lines. I have been to 'the dentist' on many occasions during my 20 year extended visit to Merida. This hygiene-related observation extends itself to all the dentists, from the general teeth cleaning visits to root canal specialists.

I have always wondered where the sterilization equipment is. I look for it and it is nowhere to be found (or seen, at least). I know it's there, but I can never see it. It would make me feel so much better if i could see it, filled with a tray of shiny, sharp clean steel pointy things, ready to be used on me. Just me!

And when you are lying in the dentist's chair, waiting for the next piece of steel to be inserted or perhaps the doctor is taking a phone call and you are unwillingly listening in like some inert piece of furniture as he plans his/her weekend or gives instructions to her/his maid at home, you have time to look up and observe that there are other life forms in the room with you, and their homes are the cobwebs in the corners. Perhaps you have a view of the air conditioning unit and you make a mental note to remind the doctor later to have someone clean the alarming volume of dust accumulating on the vents.

Then there is that tube that suctions your thickened saliva from your mouth. It's hanging there from your lower lip doing it's thing on auto-pilot, a little like those automated pool cleaners that roam about in your pool sucking up dirt and leaves. You can watch the saliva leave your mouth and travel along the tube. I always wonder: at which moment does the tip of that thing get changed and put on the tray to be sterilized?

This thought also occurs to me when the drilling starts. The little drill bits.

Then we have the whole glove thing, which seems to be for the dentists protection really. Watch the hands:
  • Grab drill handle.
  • Drill in mouth.
  • Open drawer.
  • Take out piece of film for x-ray.
  • Place film in patients mouth.
  • Move arm of x-ray machine into position.
  • Insert fingers in patients mouth to hold film in place.
  • Remove film.
  • Move x-ray equipment arm.
  • Turn off overhead light.
  • Go to another room and do god knows what (with the gloves on the hands).
  • Come back.
  • Turn on and adjust overhead light.
  • Take sharp steel thing from tray.
  • Insert fingers in mouth.
  • Poke around. Etc.
Then there is the assistant, perhaps a dentistry student from a local university (yesterday I had two, watching my open mouth and talking about their puppy). No gloves. No mask. Again watch the hands:
  • Doctor asks for something.
  • Open drawer.
  • Rummage through stuff.
  • Hold up different shiny steel things and ask doctor "this one?".
  • Put most back in drawer.
  • Close drawer.
  • Hand shiny steel thing to doctor who inserts it into where your root used to be.
  • Scratches her chin.
  • Grabs suction tube and sucks up some saliva.
  • Goes next door for something.
  • Comes back.
  • Another look around the drawer.
  • Another piece to the dentist, who inserts it into you.
  • Scratches her head.
  • Etc.
So these are my thoughts as I am lying there. Thinking of bacteria, of germs and things like that which I shouldn't worry about really because nothing ever comes of worrying, right? And I haven't caught anything really bad in all my visits to the dentist over the years. And they have all been friendly, accessible and inexpensive compared to the rigidly expensive system in Canada. Maybe I am just becoming more and more Mexican as time goes on and my immune system, like many Mexicans, is so much stronger than that of a recent arrival because of the resistance built up over time. Still, in the back of my mind, I wonder...

Monday, March 03, 2008


Since Jack Nicholson announced his support for Hillary, NotTheNews has put it's considerable political weight behind Obama.