In my last post, I discussed the power of routine. To be sure, it would be hard to raise a family our size without it. In managing eight schedules, I certainly lean more towards routine than not. Like most things in life though, there are two ditches, one on either side of the road. It is possible to become so committed to routines that these little ‘to-do’ lists nearly organize the fun right out of life.
This summer, our family took our road tripping expeditions to a whole new level. We left our northeastern home and drove south. We met our Mexican friends at the U.S./Mexico border, and kept going, ending our travels in northern Mexico, where we have been residing the entire duration of July. Though Mexico touches the United States, the culture differs quite a bit from America; in particular, the northern, colder parts of the U.S. If you are at all familiar with some of the generalized differences between warm and cold cultures, you will easily understand what I mean.
Time is much more fluid here. Daily activities are frequently mapped out on the fly. Schedules are basic. The important items may be worked out ahead of time, but not always. And details are things to be taken care of in the moment. Additionally, we in the U.S. northeast tend to be very task-oriented; our time is of great importance because most of us have many tasks that must be accomplished on a deadline. Where we are residing in Mexico, the culture is much more people-oriented. Tasks are often delayed or modified because family and friend interactions are a priority. Timelines and deadlines are frequently flexible.
Here is an example: One day, we were in a city several hours from my friend’s hometown. While out that day, a friend of hers from the area contacted her about attending a birthday celebration which was happening that afternoon. The location was undetermined due to weather, but the celebration was at 4:00 pm, which of course, means 5:00 or so. My friend wanted to attend. After deliberation about if we would go along, we finally decided it would be best to continue our afternoon plans separately, but she reassured me that, “It should only take a few hours for me to say ‘Happy Birthday’ and I’ll be right back.”
A few hours? For a quick drop-in that wasn’t even on the schedule until…20 minutes ago? I don’t know many people from my hometown, nor myself for that matter, who would be so quick to drop whatever notions we had of our schedule for the day, and spend hours at a birthday celebration. This is a prime example of the fluidity of Latin American time. These sort of schedule shifts are anticipated.
Another day, as I was inquiring about some Spanish grammar, I lamented to my friends that I was, “Stuck in the present tense.” Adding future and past tense verb conjugations was challenging for me. One of my friends smiled and reassured me, “Present tense is all you need in Mexico.” We all laughed long and hard. This is indeed the truth.
While the lack of timeliness and sometimes, foresight, can be fatiguing (and I’ll admit it, my first time in this country it was outright irritating) for those of us who are acclimated to the fast-paced, time-sensitive, structured life of the American northeast, there is a lot to learn from our southern neighbors. Since my initial culture adjustment years ago, I have fallen in love with the Central American approach to life, and have come to appreciate how they embrace the present moment.
Flexibility is a necessary skill anywhere, but in Mexico, it is life. The Mexicans are flexibility czars. Austin and I often have to prep our children emotionally – and ourselves at times – if our plans for the day change. They can easily get upset if expectations are not met precisely. In this area of the world plans are expected to change, and this constant, present readjustment is embraced with ease.
On the whole, there is less stress here. I have a theory that much of the daily life stress we experience in the northeast is a result of too much to do, and too little time to do it. We max out our schedules for efficiency’s sake. Down here time is, in a way, endless. Whatever doesn’t get done today can be dealt with tomorrow. Or the next day. Or next week. While some tasks do run on a tight deadline, many do not. Life is much more laid-back.
Relationships are a priority. This culture is people-centered. Because people are the focus, if there is any reason to celebrate, there will be a celebration. Meals together with family and friends are frequent. A quick 5 minute drop-in to run an errand at mom’s house doesn’t exist here; 5 minutes is not nearly enough time for most family and social interactions. Rushing in or out of family gatherings and social events due to other commitments would be rude. It is expected that you will take the time to enjoy others’ company and connect with them in a meaningful way.
The fluidity of time and focus on human interactions results in a less efficient lifestyle, if you count accomplishing tasks as efficiency. On the other hand, relationships are robust here, and the present moment is valued. People are not always fretting about upcoming plans and all that needs to be done, because enjoying life right now, with the people you love, at this very moment, is the priority.
I personally live my life with a mix of our two cultures, and try to embrace the strengths that both have to offer. If there’s one thing I have learned from my Mexican friends, it is that the present moment is the only moment you have. Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow is not here. You cannot live your life in either; you can only live it right now. So enjoy the present. Vive el momento.
The photo above was taken during our road trip south of the border.