The following comments are from English teachers who have taught, or are currently teaching English in Mexico.
First of all, learn the language! Although there are many kind and considerate Latin people who will help you, if you wish to be respected at any level, learn Spanish! The majority of Central American people look at us “gringos” as rich, educated, privileged, and spoiled. Unfortunately, many also are opportunistic and will try to take advantage of your desire to help. They do not see this as a problem. Culturally, it is considered polite to tell you what they think you want to hear – they believe they are pleasing you. To them it is not lying. This can lead to many misunderstandings, and even legal problems.
Never give up your passport. If you are pulled over by police checkpoints, they usually want money. I once stashed our money in my shirt so I could honestly show them an empty wallet. We were detained for awhile, but released without paying.
The people are warm, and relationship oriented. They do not schedule their lives around a clock, most not even wearing a watch. You will have to adjust yourself to this. Bus schedules can be fairly accurate, I never understood that one! Public transport is a very inexpensive means of travel, but be sure you know the route before you pay and board. You don’t want to get on a bus that travels an hour before you reach your destination if you need to be there in 30 minutes. It is also very crowded, buses can carry 120 people. Women who do not speak the language should not ride alone.
ALWAYS allow time for “inconveniences” – you will meet with them every day. Unless you are fluent in the national language, you will pay more for taxis, gasoline, goods, etc. You are rich after all.
Weekend markets are great places for fresh fruits and vegetables and even wonderful bouquets of flowers – cheap. Boys will be available to help you carry your load for a dollar or two – they will seek you out.
Banking can be unreliable by U.S. standards, as they may close unexpectedly. Keep a small amount of cash on hand, and some at “home” in a secure place. Don’t wait to exchange your money. You may be left for 3-4 days without bank access. money changers sometimes have a good rate – again, if you know the language, you can find out from locals where your best options lie.
Best advice is to remember that you must learn to think internationally, and not expect them to think like you – you are after all, a guest in their country.
And you can drink the water if you boil it or bleach it first!
Amanda, I do think you are exaggerating a lot. I was born in Mexico city, with foreign parents (Swiss and Italian), I have a sister and we all have managed to stay free and well for more than 50 years.
First of all, Mexican people are very nice and try to do the best they can with their badly-spoken English. So you are not so lost in the streets and there are always people speaking English around you. I don’t know what you have done or carried to have the police stopping you and having legal problems as well as with your passport.
It is strange to listen to you talking about the politeness of Mexican people or their culture. You really don’t understand them at all. They are very shy people who will never tell you the truth in front of you. I do agree about transportation which is CHAOS if you do not have your own car, and it is difficult to be on time if you do not know the city well enough to move around by time schedules.
Mexican banks have a schedule to open and close, and you must check it, as well as places to change money. You were really unlucky. Saturdays and Sundays they do not work but if you’d paid attention to the time schedule you would already know.
Speaking of water, you can find it anywhere, any kind of shop will have bottled water that you can drink with no problem. I would add, apart from water, do not eat Mexican food if it is not in a clean space (real restaurants), and do not eat fruit from the vendors in the street. They wash it with any kind of water. Preferably buy your fruit and prepare it in your hotel room.
Hope this explanation will help readers who are interested in coming to Mexico.
Amanda, I am afraid that I also think you are exaggerating somewhat. I am Australian and have lived in Mexico for almost 3 years, both in Mexico City and in the south east. I didn’t speak any Spanish when I first arrived but have studied and learned by simple immersion. I rarely had problems back when I didn’t speak Spanish so well. A phrase book is a great place to start when arriving in a new place, and people REALLY appreciate it if you try to speak in Spanish. It doesn’t matter if you get it wrong, it is the effort that counts. Lots of people in the cities speak English, even if just the basics, and will try to help if they can. If in doubt, point to phrases in your phrase book. You will learn quickly enough with the right attitude.
I really think that Amanda’s points above (some of which I will address below) are unfair and will scare people away from coming to teach in Mexico. Please do not take everything she has said as being correct. Obviously she had a hard time with certain aspects of living here in Mexico and needed to vent her frustrations in a public forum.
As for practical advice when coming to teach in Mexico, it is often the norm if you come to work here that you arrive on a tourist visa. The company who sponsors you will then organize your work permission. This visa is called a FM3 and if the company organizes this for you through their lawyers, they will need to give your passport to immigration for processing. You will keep a copy of your passport and you should get a receipt from immigration/lawyer or company which says that they have it. As when you live in your own country, it is not normal to carry your passport around the streets with you and you shouldn’t need it. Simply keep your drivers license (and a photocopy of your passport if you are worried. I don’t).
Teaching adults here has always been excellent and a joy. I have found school age kids a bit more difficult as it takes time to get used to cultural differences, and manage certain situations, like with any culture in the world. Here in Mexico for example: general chatter in class seems to be tolerated while others have the stage in the classroom, unlike in my country. This was quite frustrating at first as I was not used to it. The kids were also shocked at what they perceived to be my ‘very strict’ manner. Trial and error and a good attitude is the key.
Bureaucracy in Mexico is slow and frustrating. Deep breathing helps at times. Things just run differently here, and a lot of processes are manual. Banks however, are modern and as Sylvia points out, have specific opening and closing times… and they stick to them. Expect things/processes in general, to be slower and take longer in the countryside than in the cities.
I find public transport great in Mexico. Long distance buses are VERY comfortable (although pricey), but the more you pay the better bus you have! In fact, the buses are better and more comfortable than in Australia! Traveling as a single woman when I did not speak Spanish was never a problem for me. When in Mexico city, I disagree with Sylvia and say that public transport is better than having a car! Walking is often faster than driving thanks to the terrible traffic jams in a city whose population is bigger than that of my country! Try and live near a metro station. It is soooo cheap and it is underground where there are no cars! Just use common sense and keep your bag close to you in crowds and don’t travel alone late at night on the metro. Take the bus which is just as fast after peak/rush hour . Also, don’t walk the streets late at night in Mexico City. Again, this is normal and common sense for many big cities around the world.
In general, when you come to a country where a language and culture are different there will always be frustrating and difficult situations. Treat it as an adventure, a challenge and embrace the challenge. Mexico is a great place with warm and friendly people. Come and enjoy. Below are a few points which I felt I needed to address regarding some of Amanda’s comments. Read on if you wish. If not, simply come and enjoy with an open mind.
Amanda, I have a few things to point out, the first being that your advice continually refers to the Mexican people as “them’ and “they”. This immediately sets up a ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide, and is quite frankly offensive, and not a great example to set when giving advice to people wanting to visit or live in new places.
Secondly, and rather importantly, Mexico is in North America, not Central America. I suggest you revise the continents of the world… this however, is a common mistake that many people make.
As for problems with the police, like Sylvia, I wonder why you seem to have had such problems or bad luck. I have traveled throughout Mexico by both bus and car, and yes there are police check points throughout, but I have never been asked for money nor been asked to hand over my passport. In fact, I have witnessed Mexicans being stopped and hassled far more than foreigners. I have never been asked to show the contents of my wallet to anyone in this country! A little word of common sense advice on buses, is to make sure that you do not put anything valuable in the compartments above your head as I have met people whose cameras weren’t there when they woke up in the morning. Personally I thought them foolish to put them there in the first place. Keep cameras and day packs by your feet. This is common sense for travel in any country.
Finally, I apologize if you feel attacked, but I really think your advice was rather over-the-top and narrow minded. You may as well have written, “just don’t come… it’s miserable!” I hope you return to Mexico one day, a little wiser, and I hope that it is a better experience for you.”
I have been teaching English in Mexico for 10+ years. I am a Canadian citizen (born in Canada) and did not come to Mexico until I had finished two careers in Canada. I agree with Amanda. I have been waiting forever to be treated as a paisano, I am completely fluent in Spanish and am able to hold a complicated political discussion or anything else that requires a university education (in Spanish). I cannot change my white skin and blue eyes, but the Mexican people from Mexico city DO, with lens covers and hair dye, and can change the pigment coloration of their skin. Being a native speaker should be an enormous advantage in teaching, but alas, I have found that when it comes right down to it, the L2 speaker gets the job, to feed their children, regardless of our certification or diplomas. This is Mexico, and believe me, Mexicans take care of Mexicans, first. Some schools are petrified at your request for an FM3 application. Beware, because this usually means that they do not want to “put on paper” certain things about their school, for example salaries paid, taxes paid, who the accountant is, etcetera! Combine this fear, with the fear of your native language education and it can manifest a pretty dead-end situation, regardless of your qualifications and experience.
Living and working in Mexico has many exciting benefits but not without challenges. Owning and running a school here has been very rewarding in every area except financially. There just is little appreciation for education and even among the wealthy who pay a lot for their children to go to private schools it seems true learning is something that people don’t talk much about. It is all about credentials and just getting a job. My greatest challenge has been to find teachers that are professional, will stay in a poorly paid position, teach from their hearts and professional backgrounds and let the love, great smiles and hugs of their students be sufficient to keep trying to influence for good the sincere and wonderful students that we teach everyday.
Amanda, lay off the pharmaceuticals and do not provoke the police with your behavior. I have found Mexican police to be very forthcoming and respectable in my few dealings with them. That cannot be said of New York State troopers who placed me under arrest for alleged speeding and who upon searching me prior to being jailed found all my money and offered to “allow” me to post all of it as bail…
As for the water, I never had a problem drinking it after treatment with inexpensive purification tablets; well, except after big storms when the color can be quite a turnoff.
During my first visit I spoke some 20 words of Spanish and upon leaving 3 weeks later I was conversational thanks to the patience of all I encountered who took the time to help me change my sign language into vocabulary.
Maybe it is because I already speak 9 languages and have lived on four continents that I adapt quickly but I Mexico very welcoming and reasonable. And for all the whining about their willingness to pass on a foreigner in favor of a Mexican where are you when Mexican slave laborers are underpaid and mistreated in Canada and the USA. The only way they ever get a visa is if they agree to be paid less than us, pay all the taxes we pay with none of the benefits and agree to be indentured laborers who can be deported at the whim of their “master”.
Perhaps you ought to offer to work under the same conditions for an FM3 visa, and I am sure they will be willing to sponsor you for half the minimum wage and indentured status, and the state would certainly love to tax you yet offer no protection or benefits. Truth is, as much as you may not like it, that they have plenty of university educated people who cleaned your office or worked on your farms for years, and who speak fluently upon their return to Mexico. Sure, usually they do not have formal teacher training, yet their bilingual fluency and ability to connect with the children culturally means they can learn on the job quickly.
Public transit, especially in DF, is cheap, and just as fast and reliable as in Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo and other world class cities except USA and Canada. The banks are the same as everywhere else and offer similar hours and service quality as everywhere else. The people in Mexico are warm and welcoming if you are not being a pain in their ****, if you like to be difficult they will placate you with “how are you?” equivalents intended solely as empty words. Certainly you would not give me a situation report if I posed that question to you in USA or Canada; unless you were a close friend and knew I actually cared to know the answer.
Enjoy living in a country where a balanced lifestyle is still the norm except for when they kill one another over the privilege of supplying us, further north, with the chemical release we need from our miserable secluded existence.
Just my $0.02.