Thursday, August 27, 2009

Making Connections and Answering Questions

I was at Office Depot today buying toner for my printer when the sales girl at the register looked at me and smiled and said "there are no returns on toner." Glancing up I realized it was the same one who sold me the wireless keyboards which I subsequently had Allan return. Apparently she knew I was the one who bought the items which were later returned. Soon I will have to find someone else to return my purchases at Office Depot!

Today I also was at Telcel helping my maid obtain a cell phone contract. I was tired of her claiming she could not call me because she did not have enough cell phone credit to place the call. She is poor, although we do pay her good wages as a maid, and does not have enough money to keep buying cell phone cards. Since she is a key asset to my business, buying the contract for her was the least I could do.

As we're at the counter in Telcel the sales lady was telling me how it costs money to check your messages. I was shocked. The call does not use your monthly allotted cell phone minutes, but rather is charged separately. Now I know why no one here uses a personal greeting on their cell phone - because they don't want people to leave messages as it will cost money to check them. Considering people here don't make enough as it is, spending that extra few dollars each month is not worth while to listen to a voice mail, when all they really have to do is just go through the list of missed calls. Just hang up - don't leave a message. I'll know you called by checking my missed calls. Now it all makes sense!

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Allan loves these flowers.

Lunch cooked by my maids - Adobo chicken and rice and beans.

A church (I think) in Bacalar, Mexico.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

No Cell Phone Greetings

I am trying to uncover the reason why many Mexicans residing in Playa del Carmen don't have personal greetings on their cell phones. When I call and reach voice mail, more often than not I am greeted by the sound of talking in the background, or shouting children or nothing at all, rather than hearing (in Spanish, of course) "thank you for calling, I'm unavailable, please leave a message".

It's quite frustrating. I think - should I even leave a message? If they haven't put the thought into creating a greeting will they put the thought into checking their messages?

I've asked a few people why, but I haven't come up with a solid response. It's more, well, my brother has a personal greeting and so does my friend, but I don't - but then they never say why.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Banned from Office Depot

I've been officially banned from returning electronic goods to Office Depot in Playa del Carmen. It's quite a funny story and is humorous to tell with tongue in cheek like it is some sort of scandalous tale. That being said it does make shopping difficult in a city with limited retail outlets.

It all started last December when my old HP all-in-one was having trouble receiving faxes. I really didn't want to spend money on a new one, but could not run a business without dual fax capabilities, both spending and receiving. Eventually I paid cash at the Office Depot in Playa for a new Lexmark all-in-one. When I returned home and plugged it in, I noticed that the fax component worked, but it jammed every time I tried to print. After 2 hours of troubleshooting with Lexmark I decided to return the machine.

The first return was complicated. Office Depot has a 7 day return guaranty as long as all the manuals and goods are still in the box, and since I was in the 7 day window I was good to go - or at least I thought. I brought the printer to the counter, said it didn't print correctly and that I'd like to return it. The sales associate called over a tech who took everything out of the box, plugged the printer into a computer and began installing the software. When I questioned what was happening I was surprised to hear that they were testing the printer; I said it did not print, so they were going to see if it printed well. If so, that was essentially their proof it worked and that I could take it back home with me.

I ardently argued that I spent 2 hours on the phone with a tech trying to get the printer to work with my system, and that perhaps the printer would work in a different environment, but since it did not work well with mine I wanted to return it. After a manager was called over, it was finally agreed that I could have my money back.

I took the cash, returned home and unsuccessfully tried to reconfigure my old fax machine so it could receive faxes. When that failed it was time for another trip back to Office Depot to purchase a difference model machine. This time I settled on an HP all-in-one and used my debit card. Once I returned home, installed the printer and tested the fax component I quickly realized it was experiencing the same faxing issue: it could send faxes but not receive.

I wondered whether it was an inherent problem with my system and not the actual HP device itself. Regardless I was not going to spend $200 on a machine with fax issues; I already had one of those at home.

This time when I tried to return it within 7 days of my purchase they refused to accept it since I had "used it". I explained that it could not receive faxes. As expected they pointed the finger at my system. When I mentioned their 7 day return policy they said I could exchange the item or take a store credit. Considering their policy states I can get all my money refunded back, I began to argue, that I was abiding by their return policy and wanted a full refund. Furthermore, Office Depot even goes through the trouble of placing a large green sticker on all electronic purchases saying they can be returned within 7 days for a full refund.

The manager finally relented, but insisted that I was now banned from returning electronic goods at their store. I would only be allowed store credits or exchanges. Also, since I paid with a debit card I would have to receive cash back and not a credit to my card. Since there was not enough money in the teller at this time I would have to wait until someone made a big purchase, like a computer in order to provide enough cash for my return. Wait? Not enough money in the cash register? You've got to be kidding me?! No, he was not.

I knew the manager was just playing with me. He could have given me the money if he really wanted to. But since I treated him disrespectfully by arguing with him, that was my punishment. I spent about 1/2 hour aimlessly wandering the store and then returned to the register only to find out there was still not enough cash. I went home and came back a few hours later. Still not enough cash. They had just emptied the register. Is this a joke, I wondered.

For the next hour I browsed the aisles and checked out the office chairs and tried to find which one was the most comfortable. Finally I approached another manager and pleaded my case. Luckily he was a bit more understanding, went out back to the safe, got me the cash and sent me on my way.

I still shop at Office Depot, but now if I have to return anything I go to the store in Cancun, 1 hour north. We just purchased 2 Microsoft wireless keyboard sets only to realize they are all in Spanish (duh!?!), and all the keys are in different places. This time I sent Allan to the Playa store to place the return. He played the dumb American who doesn't speak Spanish. The sales clerks gave him a hard time and a lot of dirty looks but eventually gave him a full refund. So much for their no hassle return policy.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

What does iHola mean?

As Allan and I were driving back from Cancun he noticed a sign that read " ¡Hola Riviera Maya!" Allan inquired what "ihola" meant. I explained that in Spanish when writing sentences ending with question marks or exclamation points one also needs to begin the sentences with the same mark but in an upside down form. In other works when writing "fire!" in Spanish one would write " ¡fuego!"

Allan wondered why? I pondered his innocent question and then reversed the logic back on him. "Why do we as Americans say soccer when the rest of the world says futbol? Why do Americans use Fahrenheit and miles when everyone else uses Centigrade and kilometers?"

I was trying to get at the point that just because we are accustomed to something different does not make someone else's customs wrong or abnormal - just different. I know Allan was not criticizing Mexican culture or customs. As mentioned it was just an innocent question. However, we've found living in Mexico that many foreigners easily judge and complain about how things are done south of the border. Rather than trying to assimilate and understand a different way of life many choose to stay in the comforts of what they consider normal and safe and shy away from anything foreign.

For example, yes I have waited in line at the bank and ATM in Mexico for over a half an hour. Yes, I can very impatient and it was a very trying experience. However, I should realize that most Mexicans get paid every 2 weeks and do not have direct deposit. Therefore if I choose to use the bank on the 15th or 30th or any given month there is surely going to be a line. Furthermore all companies operating in Mexico have to perform all sorts of accounting tasks at the close of each month which requires bank visits, thus compounding the bank's foot traffic. So, yes, I may not have to wait so long to use an ATM in the US, and yes waiting for one in Mexico is a hassle, but if I stop and look at perhaps why there is a line I might actually learn something and perhaps learn to be more patient.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Floppy Disks

I am ever amazed at the backward business procedures in Playa. I visited my accountant today to find out how to pay my employee's social security taxes every month. He hands me a floppy disk and tell me to go to the bank, hand the teller the disk and then give the teller the total due in cash. I am still getting over the shock. My computer does not even take a floppy disk. Didn't those get phased out years ago?

Of course I can counter my criticism by the fact that one of the accountants had a new born sitting snugly in a crib on her desk. What a forward thinking establishment to allow a new mother to bring her baby into work.

So I guess I am saying Playa (or Mexico) is years behind the US in ways but light years ahead in others. Yesterday I visited my housekeeper and there were loads of happy children running around and jumping rope in the street. It literally made me want to move from my swanky condo to a shack with no air conditioning and no beds - only hammocks. Yes, Mexico may be behind the US in terms of technology and procedure but they also bring us back to a place we long to be - where family values matter, where kids can run around the streets carefree without worry of predators and where mom's can bring babies into work. I'm not saying that all of Mexico is like this or that all of the US is cold and careless, I'm just making a general observation.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Gambling our Blues Away

Allan and I made it safely back to Playa today from Belize after a long drive. Surprisingly I had enough energy and where with all to drive the whole way considering I got only 4 hours sleep the night before. It was quite an interesting weekend to say the least.

The border zone between Belize and Mexico called the Corozal Free Zone is a rundown, typical looking and acting border town. Walking around I don't feel completely comfortable with my personal safety. Stores - or should I say dilapidated retail outlets, sell cheaply made junk like knock-off suit cases, sandals, t-shits, baby carriages and illegally copied CDs. The merchandise reminds me of that typically pedaled at a typical Mexican fair. To say the least the zone was very disappointing. Interestingly enough there was about 1 Chinese food restaurant for every block, which I guess does not say very good things about Chinese food considering the location.

On a positive note the casinos were wonderful - there were three, and everyone had Blackjack - our game of choice. After a few or more hours on the tables, we gambled our bad feelings away and came away with enough winnings to pay for the weekend trip and a little more.

We chose to stay at the Princess Hotel, not for any particular reason considering we came to Belize blindly having done no research, other than the fact it was the first hotel over the border and it was a casino. We were placed in the closest room to the casino floor, and I must say it was the most noisy and uncomfortable hotel experience ever. The mattress had no support and I practically rolled off the bed every time I moved. Furthermore there was live singing right below us, people slamming doors at all hours of the night, and an a/c unit which made a lot of noise but cooled the room little. I wound up returning back to the casino floor in the middle of the night because I could not sleep, had a few vodka tonics, won some more money, and then returned to the room around 2am and finally fell asleep.

At 8am I woke to confront the car importation issue. When one brings a car into Mexico they give you a 6 month permit and a sticker to place on your windshield. Our permit had expired back in February, but since we have an FM3 work visa technically we're allowed to drive in Mexico on an expired permit. However, crossing the border from Mexico to Belize we were instructed to rip off the sticker essentially invalidating our importation permit. I guess in order to get a new permit and sticker one has to return the old ones. And since it was expired, we conspired to get a new one.

Anyway, the permit office was closed when we arrived yesterday so I wanted to be the first one in line when it opened today. Our hotel was only a short 2 minute walk over the bridge spanning the Rio Hondo river and uniting the two countries. Luckily I ran into my hustler friend from yesterday, who was able to guide me to a supermarket to make copies of all my necessary paper work (FM3, passport, car registration and license). Arriving at the super I realized I did not have my registration, so it was back to the hotel to go searching for it. Well I didn't quite make it to the hotel, since I found it sitting in the hotel parking lot (flash back to 1/2 hour ago when I thought I saw something small and white fly out of my hands). I fear I would not have been able to bring my car back into Mexico without the registration.

So it was back to the super to make copies, and then over to the temporary car importation window. However, one more thing was missing - my car. The lady at the importation window wanted to physically see it. So it was back to the hotel, get in the car and drive it back to the booth. Now she wanted a copy of my driver's license which I forgot to make earlier, so it was back to the super to make the copy and then return to the booth and hope everything was in order.

I should preface all of this by saying since we arrived yesterday I had been thinking the worst about the car - that it would be stuck indefinitely in the border zone. I don't know why - I normally try to think optimistically, but in situations like this I keep thinking "what if?" What if they find out my Mass car registration is not in perfect condition? What if they realize my name is not on the title since I have a car loan? What if, what if, what if??? Needless to say it was a very stressful issue and perhaps a contributing factor to my late night insomnia.

Luckily everything was in order, and we were able to re-import the car. I gave my hustler friend a $200 peso ($20 tip) as a thank you. On the way back to Playa we were thinking we'd like to return to the border zone to play Blackjack but not to stay there overnight. On the way home, about 1/2 hour into Mexico we stopped in Bacalar, Mexico, a small village which sits on an inlet filled with the most gorgeous turquoise and blue water, and lined with wooden docks garnished with beautiful thatched roofs one might see on the cover of a travel magazine. We ate lunch in a seaside restaurant and thought - when we come back, this is where we are staying overnight!

Allan and I would also like to explore more of Belize. The border is not representative of the beautiful country just like the US border is not representative of the US. However, we'll be leaving our car in Mexico since to drive deep into Belize with a US car I've heard is a big issue (complicated to actually import it into Belize). We'll just drive to the border and rent a car in Belize since we prefer the comfort and freedom of our own ride rather than being less independent on a bus.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Belize/Mexico Border for the Weekend

Now that business is slowing down a bit as fall approaches and our condos are not packed full with renters, Allan and I decided to go south to the Mexico/Belize Border for the weekend. The border area is called the "Corozal Free Zone" and it's filled with shopping and our main attraction - casinos. So we hopped in the SUV and drove 3 1/2 hour south for a bit of adventure and relaxation.

The drive down was quite interesting. Once your are south of Tulum, which is 45 minutes south of Playa, the landscape turns into thick jungle, a reminder of what the Riveria Maya was once like some 40 years ago or less. Thatched roofs supported by sticks peered out of the thicket. We looked for signs of monkeys or cougars but did not see any. We also heard horror stories about the road conditions - it being a one lane highway with no dividers, and one is essentially taking one's life in one's hands upon deciding to venture down it. Now they are repaving the highway and widening it so most of the trip was quite pleasant. Even the short parts which were down to one lane, and crazy drivers who were passing at every opportunity without regarding to life or courtesy, Allan and I both felt it was old hat. Driving down from the border to Playa we experienced many such scary stretches, some of which were along roads hugging mountains where one had to dodge 18 wheelers coming in almost every direction.

Arriving at the free zone was quite a surprise. We did not expect to see a customs booth. We were told we didn't need our passports and that we could bring our car in no problem. Perhaps that is true but we were scared nonetheless and we decided to pull over. A Belizen gentlemen (noticeable by his very dark skin and Jamaican sounding voice) approached the car. He addressed himself as a "hustler working for tips" who was going to help us. We explained that the permit allowing us to import our car into Mexico had long since expired, but since we were on Mexican work visas called "FM3s" we didn't need to renew. Additionally since we had a car loan, our name wasn't on the title, a requirement for importation, less one has a notarized letter from the bank allowing importation. That letter is sitting on the desk of my condo in Playa.

The "helper" explained "no problem", just rip off the sticker, attach it to your vehicle import lettter (which was sitting in my glove compartment) and follow me to the customs booth to cancel this permit and get a new one. After humming and hawing for a few minutes, trying to decide if he was going to rob me in a dark alley, I gave in to faith and followed him. And by chance the import office had closed. The helper instructed me to return the next morning at 7:30 Belize time (8:30 Mexico time) when the office opens. Apparently it is a short walk from the hotel we are staying at so it is no problem. So we drove through customs without issue (they don't stop you going into the free zone - only out), turned left into the Princess Hotel and Casino parking lot, walked into the casino, over to the lobby, reserved a room and then proceeded up to my room slightly nervous for tomorrow, hoping I can easily get a car renewal permit and not have to leave it in the free zone for God knows how long!

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

One Year to the Day

It's been one year to the day today that we packed our lives into an SUV and drove 4,500 miles over 3 1/2 weeks from Boston to Playa del Carmen. I can remember the day we left (or should I say the night since it was almost midnight before we left - only about 12 hours behind schedule). Standing in my vacant condo I looked back at the past 9 years we spent there. All the furniture had been sold or given away. The night before we slept on an air mattress loaned to us from a friend. I was so excited to leave Boston on this jubilant journey not sure when I would return. Driving away as the Boston city line gradually passed from view I felt like shouting "so long Boston, Mexico here we come!"

I look back on that trip longingly. I miss the sense of adventure and excitement - seeing new towns and cities, having no commitments - no where to be and no one expecting me. We were jobless and homeless. Although the 8 hours of driving a day was a bit of a pain, there was such excitement and anticipation to explore the US and Mexico. However once we finally arrived in Playa we were both fed up with driving and weren't ready to repeat the adventure anytime soon. However, I feel ready again. I'm sure Allan is not.

Now I just don't have the time. The property management and rental business has grown to the size where I can't be away for more than 2 days without an inordinate amount of work piling up on us, which would take a couple of weeks to sort through.

I did have the chance to return home to Boston a couple of months ago and it was a very interesting experience. The first few days were weird due to culture shock - it was like I didn't belong. After that I really settled into seeing all my friends and enjoying the 2 weeks I had to spend with family. Duxbury, the town where I grew up and the surrounding area in the spring and summer is just absolutely stunning - lush green lawns, huge well-kept houses and just a beautiful green landscape.

My trip home really helped me to appreciate the US - the fact that one can go into a store and just buy whatever one wants. That's not possible in Playa. In the US not only can one buy something like a pot for cooking, one has the selection of a hundred different colors. I am lucky if I can find one here. And the time I spent with family and friends was irreplaceable.

And although I was sad to leave the US once my 2 week trip was over, I was equally happy to return to my new home. Playa is beautiful too, it its own way. It's a tropical paradise with some of the best beaches in the world. Allan and I have made so many good friends and have had some many wonderful experiences.

Allan also returned home for 2 weeks. Due to business constraints Allan and I had to travel separately - one had to stay behind and run the business. During Allan's first week he visited family in Maine: attended his grandson's high school graduation and his mother's memorial service. (She passed away in February.) His second week he visited Massachusetts, but came down with a kidney infection half way through and spent the rest of his time in a hotel room in bed. There were a fews days when we weren't sure when/if he would return to Mexico. Luckily he recovered in time to return home as scheduled.

I think over the past year I have learned to appreciate that I have 2 wonderful homes - my home in Playa and that back in Massachusetts. Hopefully over the next year as our business expands Allan and I will have more time to travel and visit friends and family state side.

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