This is the story of my experiences living as an ex-pat in Mexico since 2003. It's to culminate in a published book. With your help, I'll be editing, selecting a title, and cover art: a participatory project. Your comments are encouraged!

Letters from Mexico


January 27, 2018

Becoming Mexicanized--

Living in Mexico on a Low Budget

When you live in another country don’t expect it to be the same as yours. It’s an adaptation requiring patience. This is what I call “becoming Mexicanized.”

You might find a lot of my comments negative. If you've been following this blog regularly, or consult with the archives, you'll see other article balance this with more positivity. Please note that these are my experiences.


Living in Mexico, respect is key—much more so than in the US. You must pay attention to this to live well in Mexico.

It’s a lovely custom to look a stranger in the eye and say “buenos Dias,” and have the greeting returned with a smile. Likewise, when a stranger says “buen provecho” at a restaurant.

In the US I don’t experience this level of intimacy with strangers.

In an earlier blog, I described how Mexicans are often late to events or appointments, or don’t show, and don't call. You might consider this disrespectful. It’s a normal part of the culture with the flip side a wonderful serendipity.

Mexicans have a problem saying no. I guess they don’t want to disappoint or hurt someone’s feelings. This makes matters worse for me. For example, when I invite someone to dinner I pay attention to subtle cues, not just their words. This is another skill you’ll learn.

Language and Culture

Do you need to know Spanish? It’s a good idea to be learning it and practice with the locals as much as possible. Most people appreciate your efforts to assimilate. As a tourist it’s a good idea to use a phrase book or a translation app.

Even if you are fluent, there’s a depth you’ll not learn from taking classes.

Classes don't teach idioms, colloquialisms, swearing, and other expressions, nor correct usage in varying contexts. For example, it’s important to know the different ways to give a compliment, depending on the age of the person and your relationship with them. Using tu and usteds is hard to grasp for most foreigners.

What I’ve found helpful is Breaking Out of Beginning Spanish, by Joseph J. Keenan. U. Of Texas Press, Austin. 1994.

I’ve made many errors in conversations.

Talking in Spanish pleases me. Knowing what others are saying is more difficult.

I use the language learning program Rosetta Stone. It’s considered numero uno.


Mexico is cruder than the US. This may disgust you at first.

Most towns have regular street cleaning, but I often see litter. I don’t see many public trash containers.

I have smelled plastic burning.

Where I live, we have a weekly trash pick up and separate ones for recycling and organic waste. Sometimes a dog rips open a plastic trash bag leaving a mess in the street.

Mountain trails are littered. At the sides of highways people deposit glass and plastic. They just throw trash out the window.

Mexico is backwards in terms of environmental consciousness, but it’s getting better.


I met a native of Mexico City. She told me she goes to London on vacations to get peace and quiet.

Tepoztlan, where I live in central Mexico, is a tourist town. Mexicans come here from Cuernavaca, Mexico City, and other places for fiestas and family celebrations. The fiestas include loud bands and fireworks. Although I’ve gotten used to them, I find the fireworks annoying and get startled sometimes.

In neighborhoods away from the downtown (called “Centro”) one hears roosters and nighttime barking and meowing.

After a while, these noises didn’t bother me. You’ll adapt, too.


Dogs and cats roam the streets. There are many strays. Once a year, veterinarians offer reduced rates on sterilizations, but few pet owners take the opportunity.

When a dog approaches me on the street, I fear he will bite me, or, if I get too friendly and close, his fleas will bite me. I don’t relish getting bitten.

I learned what to do if approached by a ferocious guardian. I bend down and grab a stone. Even without the stone, this wards off an attacker.

People in Mexico love their pets but don’t treat them well. I lived with a guy who didn’t feed his cats on a regular basis. He told me they could get a tortilla from a neighbor.

Cows and horses roam the streets, too. They are fed at their homes and forage. I closed the gate at night so that a herd of horses wouldn't devour my garden.

When bringing your pets across the border, be sure to bring their vaccination papers. Consult with an official website.

Electricity, Internet, cell phones

Tepoztlan is a “Magic City,” meaning they get federal funding for infrastructure improvements. One project is burying unsightly overhead electrical lines. This will take years.


Water is scarce in Central Mexico and water use needs to take that into account.

The Centro (downtown) has sewage and water delivery systems. Moving further away, homes have septic tanks and rain water harvesting or have water delivered to their cisterns by truck.

There are pipes delivering untreated water from mountain springs to cisterns. Water stored in cisterns is not potable. Most people buy bottled drinking water in stores or have it delivered.

There are taps for drinking water on some streets. This is the same untreated water source that’s delivered to cisterns. I am fortunate to have a tap right across the street from my front door. I’ve been drinking this water for four years. It tastes better than store bought and I’ve never gotten sick from it.


Most folks have tanks of propane delivered to their homes on noisy trucks. A loud siren alerts potential buyers.

Living in Mexico takes getting used to and takes time and patience. One makes mistakes. It’s a humbling experience. This is part of what I call "becoming Mexicanized."

In a future Letter, I’ll discuss working or providing community service in Mexico. It’s not as simple as you may think. It entails offering something valuable to the community.

Have you gotten value from this article? Please share it in the comments. I am open to suggestions for future topics to discuss here.


For archives, click on the Letters button at the top right of this page.

Next Letter will feature murals, like this cat. They are all over town and varied. Photo: Don Karp.

Roadside litter is common (left). There are weekly trash pick-ups (right). Photo by Don Karp.

Pets are in the streets. No leash laws here. Photo by Don Karp.

Outlying areas have no meters. People hook a line from their homes onto the main one and get free power. Electric bills are low unless you have a high consumption. Rates double as usage goes above 500 kWh. My electric bill is  5% of what I pay for food.

Carlos Slim owns most of the communications services in Mexico.

My landlady provides Wi Fi for a small monthly fee. We have power outages during severe electrical storms or high usage times, during Carnival, for example. The constant outages and voltage fluctuations damage modems and they need replacement every couple of years.

Cell phone reception is spotty in this mountainous region. There are areas getting no reception. During parts of weekends and other times cell use is down.

Criss-crossing power lines destroy the view in Tepozltan,Mexico. In progress is a project to bury them. Photo by Don Karp.

Inside water comes by gravity feed. It's stored in a cistern (left) and pumped up to a higher feed tank (right). Photo by Don Karp.

Homes use propane for cooking and for heating water in a boiler for showers.

I’ve decided not to buy propane for a few reasons, but I don't know anyone else who does as I do. The deposit on the initial tank is high and not refundable. I move often, and either need to take the big heavy tank with me or try to sell it. Pipe connections leak gas. Boilers at many apartments are old and dangerous to light.

My alternative for showering is heating water on my electric hotplate, blending it with cold water and pouring the mix over my head. Someday I’ll get an electric on demand coil to attach to the shower head.

Delivery of propane. What a racket! Video by Don Karp.

Download: Mexicanized.mp3 - Where Expats Blog