Working the System

When living in another country it always takes a while to get used to how things work. However, I think in Mexico it may take a little longer than in other places. Two years in and I am still learning, being constantly surprised, sometimes frustrated and often amused when discovering new anomalies to living in this wonderfully complex country.

Here are just a few situations that have left me and others confused. Some of the stories here may seem to be tales of elaborate fiction, but they were all gleaned from personal experience or from talking to foreign friends and I promise they are all true.

The Post Office

Now the post-office can be a tricky business in most countries. In England a package can cost more or less depending on its size as well as its weight and sometimes the confusion of the type of mail you want to send your parcel can leave you all perplexed. However, in Mexico the confusion is taken to a whole different level.

As an innocent newcomer to Mexico I wandered into the post office hoping to buy a box in which to send some presents to family back at home. Once I had worked out which line to wait in (it seems a rather hit and miss process and has little to do with what the signs say), I asked a rather uninterested lady if I could buy a small box. “Oh not here” she said, wanting to end the conversation there. “Oh so where can I find one” I asked, to which she replied, “there is a shoe shop on the corner”. I was totally confused. Why was she sending me to a shoe shop? Had I asked the wrong question? Is that why she was so impatient with me? She had cut the conversation off before I could ask more, so I headed home defeated. Asking around however, I discovered that the shoe shop opposite the post-office sells surplus shoeboxes to eager package senders, inventive recycling at its best!

So, a few days later, having bought my shoebox, filled it with carefully wrapped presents, sealed it and addressed it, I headed happily to the post office, ready to wait in another randomly selected line. Getting to the counter, I explained that I would like to send the parcel to England. The lady looked at me rather wearily again and said, “I need to see what is in the parcel”. My heart sank and I skulked off to carefully undo my neat wrapping. I returned to wait in the line, which had now moved to the other end of the post office as the previous lady was apparently having her breakfast, and then showed the new lady what was in my package. She inspected the parcel and shook her head, and I wondered which of the artisanal items was contraband. However the problem wasn’t the content, it was the box, the lady said I needed to make the box smaller. Apparently it would make sending it much cheaper. She pushed as pair of scissors and some tape towards me and I skulked of to the corner of the post-office once again.

A little while later, I lined up once more and the lady looked at me and looked at the parcel and before I knew it she had whipped it from me and was hacking away at it, then she wrapped it in brown tape from top to bottom. I am not lying when I say that by the end the package was a quarter of its original size. Smiling at me, clearly satisfied with her work, she weighed it, told me the price and took the money out of my totally bewildered hands. I have to admit I thought that miniature brown taped parcel would never arrive at its destination, but 15 days later it was there. Goodness knows how they got it open.

Mexican Post Box

Mexican postboxes are not easy to find

Now this all happened quite a while back, when I was a more innocent new girl, and I feel pretty confident that I know how the Mexican postal system works now. However, the wonderful thing about living here, is you can always be surprised by a new rule that is sometimes so bizarre you cannot even believe it is true.

A few weeks ago, I headed back to my local post office with a present ready to send in a padded envelope. I told the lady behind the counter that I wanted to send it to Australia and after a quick look, she said it would be $380 MXN (£20/$30 USD). I was shocked as it was only small and so I questioned the price. With a deadly straight face she told me, “If you send it in a box, it will be cheaper!” Totally baffled I asked her why and she said “Because it is cheaper to send things in boxes”…Well that clears that up then! Still to this day I cannot work out any reason why sending something in a box would make it cheaper. Anyone? Once again I headed off to the shoe shop!

Receiving Mail

If that is the drama of sending mail, then receiving mail is even more hit and miss. In the UK, I know that if the postie tries to deliver a parcel and I am out, I will get a note letting me know. Here I wasn’t too sure. So having waited four weeks for some birthday packages to arrive, I popped to ask at the post office. Turns out they have a little list of people whose parcels weren’t delivered that you have to check. I did that (rather quickly because my name stands out rather a lot) with no luck, so then I was told to go to a type of cashier window and ring the bell three times, not twice, not once, but three times. I waited and a man appeared, peeping through the tiny hole in the window. The weirdest thing was that the window had the little hole and the rest of it was like a mirror, so his head looked like it was sitting on my body. Needless to say, concentrating on what he was telling me was tricky. Anyway, I asked the man about my parcels and he went to fetch my postman to chat to me. This was a revelation, I got to speak to my very own postman! I told him about my parcels, he said he would look out for them and when pushed he even said he would leave me a note if it arrived and I was not in.

Mexican postmen travel around by motorbike. Photo courtesy of Francisco Collazo

Mexican postmen travel around by motorbike. Photo courtesy of Francisco Collazo

I waited and waited for my parcels. When I saw the postman in the mornings he would give me a shrug and say “still nothing”. Then when one of my parcels finally arrived 7 weeks later, the postman knocked triumphantly on the door (whilst seated on his motorbike and blowing his whistle, one of the many sounds you learn to listen for here) and he looked as excited as I was, to present me with my parcel. As for the second parcel sent 8 weeks ago, we continue to wait and see…

The Pharmacy

I love toiletries. I think it is a bit of a weakness. I could spend hours in Boots, the largest pharmacy chain in England, just browsing the possible lotions and potions that I probably don’t need but would very much like. However, in Mexico the pharmacy experience is something I try to avoid. The problem is you can’t browse, because everything is behind the counter and nothing is priced. So you have to really annoy the staff by asking to see every different shampoo and asking the prices of all of them to even get close to a “browsey” experience. It is even worse if you are looking for something more embarrassing or sensitive.


The experience gets more complicated though when the item you decide to buy is passed into a line of items waiting to be purchased. I was so confused by this when I first arrived to Mexico. I didn’t understand why the person serving me couldn’t then charge me for the goods I wanted to buy. I always imagine a poor newbie arriving in Mexico with an embarrassing ailment to treat. Picture the scene…

You turn up to the pharmacy having looked up the name of your ailment in the dictionary. You ask a bored looking staff member for crema para las hemorroides (you can work that one out for yourselves). They shove you three packets and you ask to compare the prices. With a loud, attention catching sigh, he checks the prices and tells you them loudly using the name of your ailment too often for comfort. But you make it through that part, picking the middle priced one, so as not to look stingy (you would definitely have picked the cheapest if this was Boots), then your item gets put in a line by a cash register and your server disappears. Confused, you wait patiently, trying not to wiggle too much in case the staff think it is the “ailment” causing you distress,  and you are desperate to get out of the pharmacy. Then the cashier unceremoniously picks up your item and waves it in the air for all to see, asking “whose is this” and when you don’t answer straight away they shout “crema de hemorroides” loudly to the waiting, now obviously giggling crowd. Despite feeling like crying you shuffle up to the cashier to pay. They ask you if you would like to top up your phone and you say no, trying hard not to raise your voice or scream that you just want to get out of there, whilst handing over the money. Then they ask if you would like to donate a few pesos to a local school, to which of course you say yes because everyone is watching you. Then finally you get your change and snatching your bagged up items you rush for freedom.

Pharmacy Mex

To be honest though, for me this is the least of my worries, I just want to look at the different shampoos and face creams, admiring the packaging and deciding that I really do need an organic jojoba and hand-picked wheatgrass hair mask. Mexican pharmacies take away all my fun, but it turn they save me a lot of money!

The Buying Game

Sometimes buying things in Mexico can be a many part process. The following story narrated to me by a friend, is along a similar line to that of the pharmacy and is a story all too common here.

My friend, settling in to her new city needed to buy a mouse for her computer. Little did she know, this innocent little task was going to take her two hours!

Not knowing where to start she asked the people at the tourist information booth where she might buy a mouse. She was directed to a local outlet a few blocks away. Upon arriving she found everything was in glass cases, meaning that she couldn’t really see the different options. She found the glass case of mice (this is sounding rather strange) and strained to see what the differences were between them.  Realising this was a losing battle she asked the nearest staff member if she could have a look at the mice. “Of course” he said happily “but I don’t have the key” and he went of to find someone who did. Clearly the person with the key was busy opening every other glass case in the shop because almost half an hour later, he turned up to open the case and reveal the sacred mice. My friend chose one and told the “man of the keys” which mouse she would like to buy. “Of course” he said pointing into the distance “But you will need to tell my colleague, who can go and get it for you”.

It's not just electronics that end up in glass cases

It’s not just electronics that end up in glass cases. Here you have to ring a bell to get salmon in a tin!

Having told the next staff member which mouse she wanted she then had to wait for it to arrive from storage. The staff member who collected the mouse (are you keeping up here?) then delivered the mouse to another staff member. My friend, thinking she had cottoned on to how things worked, went over that member of staff with the mouse and attempted to pay for it. The staff member smiled and said “oh no, you need to take this slip of paper and go and pay over at the cashier’s desk over there” pointing to the far end of the shop, where she had just come from.

So off she went with a little slip of paper to pay for the mouse. Once she paid for it she was given a receipt and had to return to the other side of the store to pick up her mouse. Handing over her receipt, the staff member with the mouse passed it to someone else to put in a bag and finally, my friend had her purchase in her hand! Roughly two hours and six members of staff later she made her $100 MXN (£5/ $8 USD) purchase!

Working out the system in Mexico definitely takes some getting used to as well as a good sense of humour and a bit of patience, but on a good day it is all part of the charm!

Photo Credit: Nikhol Esteras PhotographySusannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, The Independent UK, Afar and The New Worlder among others. Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.

4 thoughts on “Working the System

  1. on the other hand the shopper looking for the crema de H…. could have avoided the whole experience by simply walking out to the garden and cutting off a piece of aloe vera plant. Scrape out the gel and apply….coconut oil works well also, if not readily available just buy some coconut meat from a vendor and cut into correct size and insert between the cheeks. Preferably done in the privacy of ones home. 🙂

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