Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What to Expect on a Visit to Juarez, Mexico

A lot of people ask me when they hear of my travels what it is like. So perhaps I should take the opportunity to offer a perspective on the place I have visited most recently. Certainly there are a lot of rumors out there about Juarez, Mexico. As a border city, it has a long history of bars attracting college students and others across the border where drinks are cheaper, prostitution less frowned upon, drugs perhaps easier to come by, and the laws about age limitations more lax. Because of a long series of serial murders of women and drug gang activity (the two primary causes), Juarez also has somewhat of a reputation for violence. Add to that illegal border crossings which of course are common in the largest city on Mexico's border, poverty, and other items, and some might have found as I did that the mention of a visit to Juarez is often greeted with a number of warnings about such things.

In three visits to Juarez, two for a few days, one for over a week, I have encountered none of those negatives. I will admit to being concerned for safety, as I often have been in travelling -- most notably in Rio De Janeiro -- but I will tell you that I felt much safer than many other places I have been, even when I was alone. And I felt that these reputations are similar to many things: negatives get the most press. People do not like to write about positives because it is less juicy. Of course, I also must say I did not spend time looking for any of these things either. That being said, if you don't look for them either, they shouldn't bother you in Juarez.

There are some things I think might cause culture clashes to the average American. Those are what I will comment on here now. No one likes to hear negative things about their city, and overall, my experiences are mostly positive, but I also think it is better for people to go with more awareness than less, so that their reactions are lessened when they encounter cultural differences, and their enjoyment is less effected as a result. At least that is what I hope, so here I go.

1. Driving in Mexico is a trip. I have not yet been behind the wheel, but I have sat passenger-side front on numerous occasions and I think it is, to say the least, a true adventure to drive in Mexico. You hear warnings about making sure you have insurance. Of course you should. You should do that anywhere. And since everyone tells me Americanos get the blame for accidents first, no matter whose fault it is, it would be foolish to go in without insurance and a greater sense of a need for precautions. Drive like an old lady. That is my recommendation. Get a good map and know where you are going, but drive defensively and with extra caution. If you do this, you will not have many problems. Mexicans do drive aggressively. Some might call them "crazy drivers." I saw some things that amazed me, similar to things I have seen in Brazil. Rules of the road seem to apply only to those who wish to abide by them or when cops are around who feel like attempting to enforce them, otherwise, it is every man for himself.

2. Shopping at Mexican Markets is not for the faint of heart. The bargaining experience, as I comment on more in depth in an earlier posting, is not something for everyone. Some love it, some hate it. I strongly dislike it, mostly because I do not want to take advantage of the vendors, but I also do not want to feel like they took advantage of me. Prices are often marked up for you simply because you are American. Now granted, we are talking about items which are often handmade and in the US would be sold at two to three times the opening asking price, but nonetheless, I do prefer to get a market value price in that context rather than an inflated gringo one. At the same time, I totally realize how hard these people work and how little they earn, and compared to them, I am rich (though not at all by American standards). So if you want to get handcrafts and an authentic Mexican experience, go to the market, but be prepared to be assaulted by hundreds of new best friends, and be prepared to bargain. (For tips on how to approach this, see my earlier post).

3. Mexican food in Mexico is not the same as Mexican food in the U.S. One of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles was a Mexico City-style Mexican food place. And I enjoyed it particularly because it was different from Mexican food I had eaten anywhere else. But I was surprised how different everything was in Juarez. The people I work with there love it, Mexican and U.S., and in time, I will adjust too, but, for example, I love enchiladas, and none of those I found were very similar in looks, taste, etc. to what I have eaten before. So I was a bit disappointed. The flautas, however, were the best ever. Tacos were different but not in a bad way. Still, if you go, prepare to try the food, but prepare for differences, so you won't be disappointed.

4. Bathrooms. I also posted about this earlier and sorry to bring it up but three things to be prepared for here. First, toilet paper is not a god-given right. Toilet paper is something that most public restrooms outside of tourist places like hotels and shopping malls just do not provide in Mexico. Bring your own. Unless you don't mind buying it at the last minute, if you know what I mean. Second, toilets in Mexico like Brazil are not often up to the challenge of paper. This means that after you use the paper, you must deposit it in the receptacle (usually a small trash can). I am probably not the only one who finds this kind of gross, but trust me, what is grosser is what happens if you flush and the toilet flows back on you. It is also hard to explain without Spanish and somewhat embarrassing, especially in a private home, or where there is only one toilet. Just be aware. Third, hot water is a luxury many people live without. In most hotels, you will not have a problem, but in private homes, hot water is not something to take for granted. It may or may not be available without using a kettle on the stove. So if you don't like cold showers, keep this in mind.

5. Spanish. You don't need Spanish in a border town, but if you want a true cross cultural experience, take it upon yourself to learn some. If nothing else, it shows respect. The effort itself shows you want to communicate with them and that you feel their culture is worth some work to understand. You have no idea how much that means to people until you see their reaction when you speak to them, but it always moves me every time. You will find a mix of English and Spanish speakers. You will find a lot of people who understand more English than they speak. You will find Spanglish, a pigeon mix of the two languages. And you will find some people who understand nada (nothing in Spanish, for those who have not learned yet). But for the most part, it won't be an issue unless you make it one. Take a phrase book or pocket dictionary, and find humor in whatever difficulties arise, because language is funny. And then you will be fine.

6. Customs agents are not your friend. Customs agents will never be your friend. That is not their job. But if you treat them with respect and respond calmly as asked, with short, direct answers, they should not be a problem either. Provided you are acting honestly and within the law. That being said, take time to find out what the law is. The US Border Patrol and other websites offer lists of forbidden items, so read them. There are also many books. I say, the more you know, the better your experience will be.

7. While the water in big cities is supposedly okay these days, unlike the past, just drink bottled water, and probably use it to brush your teeth as well. It is readily available at good prices, so it is better safe than sorry. I have found that traveller's diarrhea is just a reality when you travel to various places. Most people experience it at least once in protracted periods over a few days abroad, whether in Europe or the Third World. So don't increase your risk of experiencing it by drinking the water. It is treated with different standards from the U.S., so it may still cause your body to object in various ways, even if it won't make you deathly ill.

I can probably think of more things to write here, and I will edit the post and add them later, but that will be it for now. Many of the things here you will encounter similarly in other places in the world. The bathroom thing applies in Brazil and Ghana, for example. The driving thing also applies in Brazil and Ghana. The customs thing as well. Others might be more unique to Mexico. But I do think you will enjoy visiting Juarez. It is an easy way to get your feet wet in a day for neophyte international travellers, if nothing else. But I urge those who can and are willing to have an adventure to go beyond a day trip and get outside the tourist areas and really try and experience Mexican culture and life. Don't do it on your own. Find a guide or a friendly Mexican, of course. You do not want to end up in the wrong area. But you will be richer for the experience. And so will the world we live in, especially on the US-Mexico border.

For what it's worth...

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