Sunday, September 28, 2008

My Date with the Motorcyle Cop

I'm going to tread carefully on this topic since any discussion of police in a public forum can be a potentially problematic situation. Luckily for me all my experiences with police in Playa have been pleasant. Having armed cops patrolling the streets can be unnerving at first - but after a while it becomes old hat - and adds a nice sense of security. I've heard negative stories of police in Mexico and in Playa but haven't met the same sort of unpleasant encounter myself.

Last week when driving out of Walmart onto a two way street cut by a couple of separated islands which allow for two way traffic to turn into either lane, I made a split second decision to turn left going the wrong way so I could quickly turn right between the islands and head in the exact direction I wanted. Otherwise I would have had to turn right and then go around the block. I should also note that the exit to Walmart is right next to an intersection with traffic lights. Just as I exited the parking lot the lights turned green meaning that oncoming traffic was headed my way - and I was facing the wrong direction. Leading the traffic was a motorcycle cop, who I unfortunately did not see until it was too late.

He immediately spotted me and began saying something, though I couldn't hear with my windows up. He indicated for me to pull over, which I did. He then drove up behind me, unmounted and approached my window. Feeling amazingly calm I apologized and pleaded my ignorance of the Mexican driving laws. The officer was very nice, but firm, indicating that it was my responsibility to know the laws of this land. He asked for my license and then began to tell me it was expired. Knowing it wasn't I pointed to the expiration date - sometime in 2009.

The officer began to write me a ticket and explained he was going to take my license and I would have to pick it up out of town at some station once I paid my ticket. Wait a gosh darn minute. You are not taking my US license. I don't care what I've done. I've heard of cops taking license plates off cars for being parked illegally but never a license.

I began to explain to the officer that I didn't want to lose my license and asked if there was another was to resolve this issue. Without getting into too many details (use your imagination), I was able to leave with my license in hand and without receiving a ticket. I even introduced myself to the officer and feel like I've made a friend. I have to tell you he was really nice.

I'm sure there are many who have horror stories of experiences with police whether they be in Mexico and abroad. And I'm sure many of them are true. Luckily for me my experience was a pleasant one. And from now on I'm going to drive going the correct way on the street and will obey the traffic laws more closely.

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

Views from Punta Roca, a condo complex in Puerto Adventuras, which is about 15 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. I'm taking this photo from a balcony in a condo owned by a friend of a friend.

Most all our furniture has arrived. Now it's starting to look like home.

When is this going to be over?

Rickey, the rebel. He's such a ladies man!

Mitzi poses for the camera. I swear she's such a ham!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Wearing Pants is like Eating Candy

OMG - this is the first day since we've been in Mexico that it's been cold enough to wear long pants. By cold I mean it's in the mid 70s and rainy. Now if you're native to this region you might already be wearing winter clothes. I've heard when it hits the 70s the natives pile on winter boots, hat and down jacket - no kidding.

Today is also the first day since leaving Boston that the sun hasn't appeared all day. Usually in Playa there might be a cloud or two somewhere in the sky, and occasionally they do pass overhead and drop rain for 15 minutes or so - but they always pass quickly. The clouds and rain are actually a pleasant relief from sun, sun, sun - and this is coming from someone who LOVES summer, loves the heat.

Tonight Allan and I are going to hit Bad Boys, a beach side bar where the expats (Americans) hang out. To get there we'll stroll down trendy 5th Avenue and then cut down a side street, take off our sandals and walk along the sand a couple hundred feet to the bar. Hopefully by then the clouds will clear and we'll have the stars and moon to gaze upon in addition to the ocean and lights from Cozumel across the water. After a beer and a shot of tequila I'll be stumbling home.

Today I don't need alcohol to get high - I'm already feeling like a million. I haven't worn a pair of long pants in almost 60 days. But tonight I'm going to wear 'em with pride! Don't ask me why I'm excited - I haven't thought about it and had time to break down my feelings and search for their origin (yes, I really do this - often). All is know is I feel like a kid in a candy store - pure elation, like nothing can get me down.

P.S. - I just tried on the pants and they don't fit as well as they used to. So maybe I feel like a hundred thousand instead of a million. But, who cares?! I'm still going to have fun!!

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

Steak fajitas with potato and grilled onion - OMG the food here is delicious - and cheap. This only costs $5 US with a drink.

On our way to the beach - we're trying a section where the locals hang out - north of Coco Beach.

I'm enjoying the waves, weather and warmth at the beach. Yes, I really am that fat.

Allan searches for plants to adorn our outdoor patio. We've stopped at a roadside nursery.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Feeling Like an Outsider

Yesterday Mexico celebrated it's independence from Spain. Much like the 4th of July in the States, there were fireworks, large crowds of drunken party goers, celebratory hats and costumes donned by kids and adults alike and the cacophony of plastic horns being played by everyone at ear piercing decibels. Although Allan and I are early birds, we just had to partake in the festivities which began Monday night at around 10pm.

It was shoulder to shoulder in Playa's main square as locals and tourists alike gathered to be in the center of it all. The focal point of the night was a live broadcast from Mexico City where the country's president reenacted the call to freedom made by Father Hidalgo some 200 years ago. Father Hidalgo, tired of being ruled by Spain, rang the bell of his little church calling everyone to fight for liberty. This was the beginning of the Independence War, which lasted 10 years and eventually ended in Mexico's freedom from outside rule.

What struck me most about the celebration wasn't anything I saw or heard - rather it was how I felt. Numb - like I didn't care. I felt absolutely no emotion even among the crowds chanting "Viva Mexico" (Mexico, live). The Mexicans displayed such pride for their homeland - in their smiles, in their songs and in their celebration. I'm not Mexican, and I'm not proud of Mexico as a country. I'm not ashamed of it either - it just doesn't evoke strong emotions either way.

I began to realize that we're really outsiders here. Allan and I are just visitors - hopefully not temporary ones. If something were to go awry, it's the US we'd flock to. The US is our home - where our friends and family live - where we were born and where we have our allegiance.

Granted we've only been in Mexico just over 30 days. We're still newbies, and there's plenty of time to get acclimated and to develop some sense of pride for our new homeland. It's not like I hate it here. On the contrary, I love living here. The weather is great, people are nice, food is amazing and landscape is breathtaking. I guess I just realized for the first time that although we live here, this is not really where we call home.

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

Allan checks out the various carts selling patriotic goods.

Celebrations outside the municipal square. In typical Mexican fashion someone from the roof shouted "that'll be $5" after I shot this photo".

Eating panuchos and empanadas at Dona Marias. Panuchos are like open faced tacos while empanadas are like dumplings.

Fireworks Mexican style.

Allan reviews our marketing brochure. Why sit behind a desk when he can relax?

Beach front condos - great in the sunshine, awful during a hurricane.

I try my hand at boogie boarding. It's been about 15 years since I've last tried. Being out of shape and overweight certainly helped me miss every wave!

I try to hide the 10 or so pounds I've gained since leaving Boston.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Patience, My Friend.

Patience is an art form in Mexico. A good part of our day involves having to wait - waiting in line, waiting for someone to arrive, just simply waiting. It's a small price to pay for living in this beautiful land. Consequently accomplishing even the most simple of tasks can take a good part of the day.

For example, our second day in Playa we bought pay as you go cell phones. Down here most people buy cards to replenish the minutes on their phones rather than purchasing plans. That way one pays only for the minutes used. After purchasing the cheapest phones available we returned home only to find out they didn't work. Go figure.

The next day we returned to the Telcel store, Mexico's largest cell phone provider, and were instructed to stand in the very short technical service line. There were only 2 people in front of us in line and 4 employees assisting clients. After 1 hour it was my turn. ONE HOUR!! Granted I've mentally prepared for this; friends have advised us that waiting down here is part of life. This was a test of just how patient I could really be. I didn't have a book, a video game or music. It was me and my thoughts - what a scary place to be. I mean, really.

Frankly it was very boring. Big surprise. And yes, I really am an idiot because my phone was fine. I was dialing the wrong number. Why not test my patience at the electric company where the line goes around the block? (electric bills - like many bills down here - are paid at the provider's office, often in cash and in person - not via mail or online). Why wait only to have my deepest fears confirmed - that I really am that stupid?

At the ATM today there were 13 people in front of me - THIRTEEN!! In the States I wouldn't wait. Here I patiently gathered in line like anyone else. Did I think I was special or something? Yes, here comes the American, let's part the sea of people and let him pass. Gee, can I touch your shirt and get an autograph?

Not all ATMs are backed up. I just chose to use the one at Santander Bank since they have an agreement with my US bank, Bank of America, whereby I won't be charged fees which can total up to $7US per withdrawal. So in one way it was worth the wait. Of course when I was standing in line I half expected someone to declare the ATM was out of money. The other night the same ATM refused to dispense my cash even though it graciously debited my account. It took a few calls to Bank of America to clear that up.

Needless to say when I was next in line I was prepared for the worst. It figures the guy in front of me took an extra long time - something was not working for him and I was sure the ATM wasn't spitting out cash. But he didn't say a word when exiting the ATM. And when it was my turn I left wallet full without any hassles.

Things down here just move so much slower. Getting our internet installed took 2 weeks since the provider kept postponing - and then we were told they were out of equipment and they'd have to drive to Cancun to get it. In one way I am surprised that anything gets done down here.

In another way we all could use a bit more patience. Life in the States moves so quickly. I feel like I'm goofing off in Playa when I'm not working 8 hours a day or when I take 3 hours in the middle of the day to have lunch, go for a swim and rest. Really - what's the point of rushing? Why not wait 1/2 in line for an ATM (yes, it took 30 minutes) - where else do I have to be?

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

The line at the ATM - 13 people deep.

Mitzi gets in the Mexican spirit.

Rickey joins in, too!

Allan prepares for Mexican Independence Day. (independence from Spain)

The entrance to Quadra Alea. The roof is called a Palapa roof. They are supposedly hurricane proof.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How to Pay Your Rent in Paradise

How does one come up with the funds to pay rent (first, last and security) south of the border? It's not as easy as you might think if you haven't been around the Mexican block per se.

When we signed our 1 year lease on August 26th our first rent payment was due in cash in 2 days. The maximum we could withdraw from an ATM was $500 per day. There was no way we could withdraw the requisite funds in time. The second method was to become a client of a local check cashing business, write a US check to ourselves and wait up to 11 days for the check to be deposited and funds given to us. 11 days was too long for us to wait. The third method was to bring the money with us into Mexico. You're allowed up to $10,000 in cash, I believe. Since we didn't think that far ahead that option was out as well. I'm sure there are a thousand other ways, but those are the primary ones we considered with our limited experience down here.

We explained our situation to our landlord, who understood and agreed to let us transfer the money via wire to his Mexican account. Well, how does one do a wire transfer in Mexico without a Mexican bank account? Both my US bank and Allan's US bank don't have offices in Mexico. Furthermore, they require one to be physically present to make the transfer. (Our banks don't allow online wire transfers.) That would mean one of us would have to fly back to the states. Although we seriously considered that option there had to be another way.

Luckily through advice from friends in Playa we did manage to find a Mexican bank that would allow us to open an account. But how do we transfer funds held in our US bank accounts into the new Mexican one? It so happens this Mexican bank has a relationship with our American bank - so we could transfer the money into the account - or could we? It was time to call the US bank to find out how.

After going through $20 in international calling cards (we only had an 800 number for the bank, and you can't easily dial 800 #s from Mexico without a calling card - or VOIP system like Vonage), we finally were able to talk to someone at the bank only to find out that to set up the transfer between the US account and Mexican account I would have to be physically present at a US bank branch. It was looking like either I or Allan would have to fly home to make the wire transfer. Luckily our US friends who live in Mexico pointed us to a US bank that allows one to open an account online and make online international wire transfers!! It seemed so easy....but IT WASN'T.

After 2 weeks - YES 2 WEEKS and $30 USD more in calling cards we finally were able to send the wire ALMOST 3 WEEKS LATE. OMG. When an account is opened with this bank, apparently you have to wait for the account paperwork and cards to arrive at your home address before anyone at the bank will talk to you. Second, one needs all that paperwork to apply for the wire transfer service. So we spent 1 week waiting for the paperwork to arrive at my folk's home in the US (which we listed as our home address since the Mexican postal system is poor at best). Once the paperwork arrived we applied for the wire transfer service, which took another few days to complete. Then to make a wire transfer online one has to "add a wire recipient" which really entails filling in a TON of information, which I didn't have - and had to wait and get from my landlord. Then once the recipient had been added we had to wait for the bank to approve the recipient. This entailed 1) having the bank disable my online account access and 2) calling the bank spending about $20 USD in cards to verify that yes I was who I said I was (about 10 questions pulled from my credit report) and no I didn't win the Nigerian lottery and yes I did know the person I was wiring money to.

After all the money spent and time wasted waiting and stressed out that I was late on my first month's rent, we finally were able to wire the money. It's just unbelieveable that something I take for granted in the US can be so much more difficult south of the border without proper planning, without the knowledge of how things work down here and without knowing all the work arounds. One of these days I am going to write a book on how to get things done in Mexico. It's going to be called "The Workarounds". It will explain that, yes, almost anything is possible in Mexico, if you know how and are willing to be patient - like a saint.

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

Our bedroom less curtains which are due on Saturday. Yes, that is a sheet, and no I wasn't raised in a slum.

Our bedroom. Allan's working on a cheap fold up table and chair purchased at Walmart. This is life until our furniture arrives one day.

Closets in the master bedroom.

Sinks and jacuzzi tub in the master bath.

Dual sinks in the master bath.

Our shower less 1 wall. The bathroom showered with us for a week until the door arrived.

Guest bedroom less curtains again.

Guest bath. The shower is still missing a door.

The laundry room.

Our kitchen. Notice how small the oven is. Apparently not many people cook down here. It's hot and local eats can be found for so cheap.

Our kitchen and living area less furniture.

Our living/dining area.

The pool is about 20 steps from our door. We've been in almost everyday. The water's at least 90F.

Local artisan pottery adorns the wall outside our slider - soon to be Allan's garden.

Local pottery to be hung outside.

The First 3 Weeks in Paradise.

I'd like to thank everyone for their patience in waiting for my next blog entry. The first 3 weeks in Playa del Carmen have been a mix between good and bad - mostly all good. The bad is primarily attributable to dealing with the hassles of living in Mexico (power has been out at least 5 times and for as long as 4 hours, if you want anything done you have to wait and wait, unlike America if you want to buy something - say a hanging shelf for the shower, there are 1 or maybe 2 options, if you're lucky).

The weather is simply amazing. It's been sunny almost everyday except today since hurricane Ike is passing just to the north of us. Even then the sun has been visible on occasion - and the clear ocean water is still 85+, and people are surfing. For once the air temperature has actually gotten below 80 degrees F!! Mostly it's been sunny, barely a cloud in the sky, in the 90s F and humid! Even though Allan and I don't go tanning, we're both getting very dark. Going on the mentality that if suntan lotion kills fish, it's probably no better for us, we've been going without. It's not like we're out in the sun all day anyway - it's like an oven outside!!

We happen to live in an amazing area. We're 4 blocks from the beach, 2 blocks from trendy 5th Avenue with shopping and restaurants, and 2 blocks from the cheap local restaurants where for $5 US you can get soup, a drink and main entree with meat, vegetable and starch!! Being situated between the residential area and the hip touristy spot is perfect for us. There's a great park next door where local neighbors congregate and a school 1 block away where the cutest kids walk by single file dressed in uniform.

We've been trying to get our household together and business up and running. We finally have internet and TV, still barely any furniture (it's been promised on Saturday, but this IS Mexico, so who knows?). We just got our business cards for our property management company and began distributing them around town via bicycle. I'm working on our brochure to give to potential clients while Allan's drafting a welcome package for vacation rental guests.

Rickey and Mitzi are loving it here. Although it's hot and humid, they prance when it's walk time.

I've lots of stories to tell and promise to do so soon. It's taken us almost 2 weeks to try to figure out how to pay our rent - boy was that a hassle!!

Best from paradise,

Matt and Allan

Playa del Carmen Condo and Villa Vacation Rentals

There are some beautiful flowers here - and they grow year round. Imagine that? Plants that don't die during winter unlike in Massachusetts!