A Good Place to Start


Last week I wrote a blog post about supporting our neighbours and the local government. It got a lot of response from international residents, not just in Merida but also from those who live in different parts of the country: The majority said they would like to be more involved with their neighbours and the Mexican community in general, but they don’t know any specific ways to do so. One person wrote:

I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t know the Mexicans who live next door to me and I’m sure they have no interest in being friends. So just what am I supposed to do?

I wondered how to answer that, and later in the day, I got an idea from another reader:

Two weeks ago, I was thinking, I am locked up in my house and so are my friends. I know everyone is having a really hard time, and I have no idea what to do. But I will go crazy soon if I don’t find something to keep myself busy. On Pinterest, I saw some very cute face masks and I made a couple, just for something to do. I had no one to give them to, so I just sat them on the ledge outside my window. Soon enough someone picked them up. Now, I make a few every day, and it feels good to know I am helping, even if I don’t know “who”.

When we live in the same place for a long time, we accrue random knowledge… We can tell by the wind when the seasons will be changing, and the look of the sky tells us when it will probably rain or snow or be a good day for a hike. Most of us know how to choose local fruit that’s ripe, and we know how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B, without Mr. Google’s help. “Back home”, we instinctively know how to interact with others.

Truly, in times like these, it is not easy to live in a place where we have no history. Even ordinary outings are peppered with pot holes. For example, at a local market… how did you feel the first time you saw a giant papaya? Did you have any idea which one would be a good choice? Have you noticed how Yucatecans greet (and often kiss) everyone in sight when they arrive at someone’s house or even a meeting? Many newcomers have language issues and experience a multitude of thorny cultural clashes… your neighbour’s dogs bark day and night, and he expects you to be OK with that? Ditto party noise. What do you do?

The local people often have cast-in-stone ideas about what constitutes a good neighbour. If you have missed out on these “mystifying interchanges”, you have probably not been getting out in the community.

During the COVID 19 pandemic, a lot of foreign residents wish they had made more of an effort to get to know their neighbours. In this never-before-experienced situation, it is comforting to know there are people living right next door who could help you if necessary. And truthfully, I doubt this “voluntary isolation” will end soon.

The good news is that it is NOT too late to become more active in your local community. Learning Spanish may not come easily, but you would be well-advised to have a minimum vocabulary. You could use this time of “voluntary isolation” to get started (or pick it up again) There are lots of online options, and really it is not a difficult language (like Dutch or Mandarin Chinese)

It came as a surprise to most, when people over 60 were no longer allowed to shop at Costco, Walmart or other large supermarkets. On a regular basis, you might be wise to start buying some items in the local smaller stores and markets because if you have a relationship with the local shopkeeper or vendor, they will make sure you don’t run out of essentials.

Try to keep busy. Like the lady I mentioned earlier, you could make some face masks; if you don’t have a sewing machine or fabric, tear up a piece of clothing you no longer use and cut the masks from that. Here’s a good website for mask making: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8OyV15ua24 If you don’t have a sewing machine, no problem, you can hand sew them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN4qWMKfbSo If you don’t sew at all, here you are: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mgp7DSGN33k

Another good icebreaker with your neighbours or other social contacts is to offer cookies. When I first moved to Merida, I met so many people because I offered them cookies. They liked everything I baked, even plain old sugar cookies. You might set out little bags of cookies with the masks.

Offer a (disposable) glass of cold water to anyone who comes by, like the trash collectors, the mail man, the gas delivery guy, etc.

To show support, you could make a sign to hang in your window. I made one that declared my support for health workers.

You could make one that simply says,
HELLO NEIGHBOURS… WE’RE FINE, AND YOU? –

HOLA VECINOS… ESTAMOS BIEN ¿Y USTEDES?

And of course, hopefully, we can all donate money or goods to organizations who are helping the many, many, many people in need. Two excellent organizations are:
Yucatan Giving Outreach – YGO : https://ygo.mx/
International Women’s Club – IWC: https://iwcmerida.com/

Right now the government says they hope we will begin to see normalcy returning by June 1st. But as I’ve said,  I think our “voluntary isolation” will last a lot longer. The numbers of new cases are climbing… On April 22nd, Mexico passed the 10,000 point, and by yesterday there were 13,842 confirmed cases. Interaction with “strangers” may make you feel a little weird. Maybe you never intended to be “part of the crowd”.

But these are extraordinary times. For our own self-preservation, we have to keep busy and we have to keep safe… contributing even in small ways, is a good place to start.

Published by Changes in our Lives

I am originally from Canada but have lived in Mexico since 1976. My husband is from Merida, Yucatan and we raised our family here. We both worked for many years at Tecnologia Turistica Total (TTT), the tourism, language and multimedia college we founded for local and international students. Now retired, we enjoy spending time with family and friends, My other interests include spending time with freinds, reading, painting, cooking and travel.

9 thoughts on “A Good Place to Start

  1. You have such great ideas Joany. I love how you have always embraced the people and the culture of wherever you have been. I cannot find my Rosetta Stone program (prob at the condo) so I am going to order a book to learn Spanish from – and hopefully we will be able to come down next year to that place I sent you the link too. I cannot fathom not learning at least the basics of the language if we are going to be there for a month or more… and hopefully come back again and again!

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  2. Again, a well-written and kind piece. Starting small and anonymous is a splendid suggestion.

    Even though I have lived here a dozen years, this semi-isolation has reenforced something I have long known. Getting to know one’s neighbors in a cultutre different from the one in which you were raised, takes time and effort. I have found the time well-spent for the people I now know. But there are plenty of people I talk with every day who I know very little about. For years, I was providing money, through a source to ensure my anonymity, for an elderly neighbor woman who lived a block away. I walked by her house today. It is obviusly abandoned — and my sourece has no idea what happened. Or when. I should never have let that happen.

    I hope I will do better once this is all over. But I suspect I will fall back on my hermit-like ways.

    Your suggestion, though, is brilliant. I am going to give some thought to building off of the small things.

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    1. Hi Steve, I appreciate your story about the elderly neighbour… you know I learned a lot of “the small things” from my mother-in-law… she was such a generous and thoughtful woman. She never worried that people would feel embarrassed if she offered them food or another necessity, and you know what… no one ever did.

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  3. Hi Joanna! Thanks for the good article. We have been ‘connecting’ with neighbors over the years we’ve lived here. Once, my husband accidentally left the keys in the lock of the front door. Our neighbors saw this and saved them for us when we returned home. We gave them a bottle of tequila as thanks and they’ve been friends ever since. When other neighbors moved in next door, we gave them a box of chocolates as a welcome and that gesture has secured their neighborliness. We wave at all the neighbors and sort of “know” them but they are aware we are there. At Christmas, I make gingerbread and give it out which is much appreciated. — The people in Merida are generally kind and forgiving of our lousy Spanish, the taxi drivers gallant, and wait staff in restaurants friendly and everyone treats you like a family member. I feel very blessed to be living here especially at this difficult time. If you treat people with kindness and respect, they will give you the same back – almost all the time.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Alex. Like you, I have found that I usually get back whatever I give. People here are kind and they are curious about “extranjeros” … If international residents behave respectfully and in a friendly way, they almost always respond.

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