December 2009


Change is hard.  On the American Airlines plane from Mexico City, I heard the flight attendant speaking English in what was clearly an American accent, but I couldn’t help but speak to her in Spanish at first.  We transferred planes in Dallas, and as I approached the clerk at one of the convenience stores I started to think about what I needed to say, again, in Spanish.   When I went into the restroom I saw a man rinsing his mouth with tap water.  I had a little panic attack for the man before I remembered it was safe to do that there.

We also find ourselves looking for opportunities to break larger bills (twenties) and wanting to hoard small bills and change.  This is because in San Miguel, like many other places we’ve been, money is given out by the banks in bills too large to use at most businesses we frequent.  When we do go to a larger business or a nicer restaurant, we are thrilled at the opportunity to break a 100 peso (about $8) or 200 peso bill (about $16) and get smaller change.  It took a couple of purchases here in the States for it to sink in that we could break a twenty almost anywhere, and we could use the small bills whenever we wanted.

Amy experienced moments of transition on our trip up and during these first few days, too, but the biggest shift in thinking for her has been in the car.  In San Miguel, we’re in a motorized vehicle only about every 5 days, and usually that’s a bus, so Amy is still in the mode of thinking we should be on the left side of the road from her days driving in Ireland (she hasn’t driven since we left there months ago).  A couple of times while I’ve been driving here in Oregon, Amy has commented, “I really should not drive here – I keep thinking you should turn in to the left lane.”  Since I almost never drove in Ireland, my brain wasn’t rewired quite so much, but I do admit to being much more aware and cautious as I drive, since I’m afraid I’m going to mess up, having driven only a handful of times over the last two years.

The biggest surprise for us, though, is how we’re NOT reacting to being home.  Person after person told us before we left Mexico that we were in for a real culture shock when we got home, and more than one person has warned us that the sheer variety in the stores can be overwhelming to see.  Our friend Ivy told of returning to America after a year away and walking into a big store for the first time.  She began speaking to the jars of spaghetti sauce:  “There are so many of you.  Why are you all here?”  She couldn’t even buy anything on that first trip to the store.

So, when Amy and I went to the Fred Meyer, I told her I was going to go commune with the spaghetti sauce, but I didn’t start speaking to it.  Everything here has seemed so normal, so natural, that we haven’t experienced the culture shock at all, at least not yet.  We have a theory or two on why that is.  First, so many people warned us about it that we really thought a lot about what it would feel like to come back home.  Second, we’ve been to around 20 countries in the last two years, so we have gotten used to experiencing new cultures.

On 17 December 2007, Pat and I boarded a plane and flew to Ireland. Prior to this my international travel experience consisted of 3 days in Canada and a week in Cancun. This Monday, 14 December 2009, will mark the first time Pat and I have been back home since then. I’ve been thinking (maybe perseverating?) lately on what I am looking forward to and what I am going to miss. Some of them are pretty obvious, and some would never have occurred to me two years ago.

Looking forward to:

Seeing family and friends

Sitting on a comfortable couch while watching television

1% Milk

Listening to NPR while in the car

French Vanilla creamer in my coffee

A long HOT shower.  They have been rather infrequent for the past two months.

Drinking a Mike’s Hard Lime while playing Boggle/Scrabble/Quiddler with Pat and my sister-in-law Nora

Buying new clothes and binning the nasty stinky hiking boots I’ve been wearing since June

Artery clogging buttered popcorn at the cinema

Going for a hike in McDonald Forest

Going to miss:

Crossing the street regardless of what the crosswalk signal says

Mom and Pop stores on every corner

Colorful houses

Tiny cars

Driving on the left side of the road.  I finally retrained my brain for driving in Ireland, and now I will have to reprogram it . . . while driving someone else’s car.  Hmmmmm, is this wise?

Street food and agua fresca

Opportunities to speak Spanish

Swearing.  Ireland taught me well.  I really must try to clean up my language before I see my nieces and nephews.

The pleasure of meeting other travellers and sharing common experiences

The overwhelming friendliness and kindness we have encountered in San Miguel.  It is like no other place in the world in that regard.


Ice Cream vendor in San Miguel de Allende

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Many Americans tend to think of the U.S. as the place for small business people, but I suspect there are more small business people per capita in many of the countries we’ve visited than back home. Amy and I recently walked around our neighbourhood counting small family stores (think of a 7-11, but about 1/3 to ½ the size) selling pop, chips, and a few other things. Within a three block radius we counted 19 of these businesses. We may have missed one or two, and we weren’t counting all the other small businesses, like papelerias (paper and school supply stores), auto shops, small clothing stores, and many others. And this is a residential neighbourhood, as much as that means anything in a country where there isn’t any zoning, as far as I can tell.

There is the Mercado de Artesanias (three blocks long) where artisans sell jewellery, small crafts, tinwork, and so on. The shops vary in size, from about 8 foot square, to maybe twice that size. There are quite a few more carts on the streets here, too, selling ice cream, tacos, chips, you name it. Vendors may walk through neighbourhoods pushing a bike with a grinder on it for sharpening knives or carrying foods like jicama, corn, or tortillas to sell. They call out what they’re selling or, depending on their craft, they may have a particular whistle, horn, or recorded jingle that announces their presence.

People often don’t have many employment options even in places like San Miguel, which is fairly prosperous. In a city like Corvallis there are still large employers like Oregon State University and Hewlett-Packard, a few mid-size employers, and lots of small businesses that employ at least a few people. Most people in the States will never work for themselves or start a business, although with the recession I know more Americans have had to get creative in finding ways to support themselves and their families. Because the costs of starting and running a business are so much greater in America, though, a person normally has to really want to be an entrepreneur; here a person needs to be an entrepreneur just to survive.