Street lifeVida de calle


One of the things I have noticed here in Mexico City, usually beginning at about 8am, it the profusion of controlled yelling, whistling, long tones and other sounds emanating from various service vendors patrolling the neighborhoods. At first these sounded like nothing other than a twisted set of cris de coeur designed for no other purpose than to annoy me. Upon further investigation, it has become obvious that these are vital sales professionals, providing to-your-door services that have long since disappeared from wealthier countries due to higher labor costs. (Think of the milkman of old, or the profession of peddler, for example.)

Although each service provider seems to put their own jovial spin on noise making, with time I have been able to discern some distinctions:

1. The traveling knife sharpeners almost always use a plastic whistle.

2. The garbage collectors use a somewhat low pitched wail when shouting out “Basuuuuuuuuuuuraaaaahhhh“.

3. Competition is most intense among the water sellers. They will usually start with the brand name of their water (said rapidly), followed by a throaty and somewhat higher pitched “Aguuuuuuaaaaaaaaaa!”Entre otras cosas, he notado que en el DF hay mucho ruido en la calle desde las 8 de la mañana. Hay gritos y silbidos muy agudos. Al principio pensé que ese ruido existía solo para torturarme. Más tarde, vine a entender que hay gente que vende cosas y servicios en la calle, y cada uno tiene su propio sonido. Despues de estudiar un poco, he notado algunos sonidos distintos:

1. El afilador de cuchillos utiliza un silbato de plástico.

2. Los colectores de la basura gritan un poco bajo y profundo como “Basuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrraaaaaaaaaahhhhh!”

3. La rivalidad es lo mas intenso entre los vendedores de agua. Normalmente empiezan con la marca, seguido con un tono más arriba…”Agggguuuuuuuaaaaaaaaaaa!!”

Deconstructed: The Calculus of Change


I have always been a tiny bit perturbed by how difficult it is to get change for bills of any size in foreign countries. You take money out of an ATM and they almost always give you bills that are in denominations that seem almost impossible to get change for, either in Asia (India in particular) or Mexico. As my experience in various countries continues, I do detect a certain pattern and mathematical formula at work. Here are some of the rules, at least for the countries I have been to so far:

1. The poorer the country, the harder to get change. This one is fairly obvious as small venders in the informal economy don’t usually have large sums of cash on hand with which to change large bills. They are very often living on a very thin edge and have no reserves.

2. Sometimes, however, vendors in these places will take advantage of the fact that the difference won’t mean that much to you, counting on you rounding up by some ridiculous amount. I have been in cabs in India that refused to offer me change for not very large bills and as I got up to leave without paying, change miraculously appeared or they would go to a local shop to get some.

3. The best locations to break big bills would be in large established places such as a hotel restaurant or upscale boutique. Of course, you have to spend more in these places to get your change. No one will just give it to you.

4. Using the US currency as a base, there is a kind of proportional math at work when assessing the difficulty of changing a bill in any particular country or situation. For example, the difficulty of changing a $100 bill in a cab in the US is roughly equivalent to trying to change $12 in the same situation in India and about $46 in Mexico. For small street venders, the amounts are even smaller.

5. The best thing to do when taking money out of an ATM in a foreign country is to take out smaller amounts which often times will result in smaller denominations coming out. One should be careful about ATM fees however if your bank charges per transaction set fees instead of a percentage.

Deconstructed: driving in India.


Sometimes we fail to realize that there are ordered systems at work in a seemingly chaotic environment. Driving in India is one such example. It is one of those things that has only slowly, over time become understandable (as a system). Based on my observations over the past months, here are some of the “rules”:

1. The road is not comprised of lanes, it is a “field” onto which as many cars (as well as people, bikes and animals) as possible will float with the sole intention of moving forward and not touching other cars. This is not apparent at first go, because some streets are deceptively painted with western style dashed lines.

2. All manner of “me first” and “dog eat dog” behavior prevails on the road here. That said, unlike in the US, there seems to be very little road rage. People just accept that they will be cut off and the larger vehicles can bully the smaller ones by sheer force and fear. They also know that they will behave in exactly the same way towards other vehicles (and people) on the road.

3. The horn is a navigational aid here, and it is used incessantly. Without it, there would be no way to warn the cars (mostly to the left of you) that you are coming through or that they are about to hit you. At night, the use of the horn declines slightly in favor of blinking lights three times.

4. Drivers posses a strong (emotional) need to get ahead of whatever vehicle (or vehicles) are in front of them. Passing is just what one does, and so driving on non divided roads consists of an elaborate and never ending game of chicken with the oncoming traffic. One learns to accept it calmly or lock oneself indoors, never to travel.

5. It is a great help in navigation if there is a small (often blinking) statue of Ganesh glued to the dashboard. This is because Ganesh is, among other things, the god who removes obstacles. Taxi drivers in particular worship Ganesh to insure smooth sailing through heavy traffic.

6. Moving right or left across the field (known in the US as “changing lanes”) involves a hand gesture pointing to the right to move right (and cut someone off) and sometimes a signal. To move left, you use your turn signal if it is working, or just hope Ganesh will clear out the obstacles if your signal is broken.

These are some of the rules of how the system of driving works in India. Anyone out there care to share any I’ve left out?