Friday, January 21, 2011

my club

Sometimes I feel like Billy Pilgrim.

I have not come unstuck in time, But I recurringly become unstuck in culture.

I have no delusions about learning the subtleties of Mexican culture.  I know a little history.  A little more politics.  And a lot less Spanish.

I get by.

I now know that when I enter a store in Melaque, I will encounter a clerk who speaks only Spanish and will not be able to answer more than a few rudimentary questions about the merchandise offered in the store.

That means I need to have an idea what I want to buy -- and I need to rehearse the conversation in my head.  For me, improvisation is limited to English.

But there are still times I forget where I am, and I let my guard down.  Always to my cost.

The first time I visited the new Office Depot in Manzanillo, I thought I had been transported back to Salem.  With the obvious exception of the armed security guard next to the door.

A clerk immediately came up to me, greeted me, and asked if she could be of assistance -- in English.  I was astonished.  Nothing like it had ever happened to me before in Mexico -- or since.

In Melaque, shoppers are left to their own resources to find what they want and then take it to an indifferent cashier.  (With the exception of hardware stores -- where the counter man becomes your partner in solving your construction problems.)

The Office Depot experience misled me into believing that an American brand name on the outside of a building would mean a cultural nursery thrived in its interior.

The whole idea was silly.  The Manzanillo Walmart has the same type of service as the Melaque stores.  The commercial language is Spanish (as it should be in Mexico), and no one is there to make your shopping experience anything other than an exchange of currency for goods.

Knowing that, I still fell into the same cultural tiger pit on my trip to Colima.

Ever since I arrived in Mexico, my expatriate friends have raved about the wonders of the Colima Sam's Club -- a two hour drive south.  The closest warehouse outlet store to Melaque.  (There is a Costco in Puerto Vallarta.  Four hours north.)

After I spent a good portion of the afternoon tramping around La Campana (stuffing my mouth), I decided to drive directly back to Melaque.  But my route back took me directly past what looked like a nascent Gringolandia.  Office Depot.  McDonald's.  Burger King.  And Sam's Club.

Earlier in the day, I had decided not to try to track down Sam's Club after I discovered my GPS thought the nearest one was in Puerto Vallarta.

But there it was.  Right in my past.  Almost as if the shopping goddess had plopped it in the midst of my voyage path.

Because I had no crew to lash me to the mast, I heeded the sirens' call and stopped at the Promised Land of All Things Material.

I know from past experience that Sam's Club is a members only outlet.  No card.  No entrance.  And my Costco card would do me no more good than flashing my MasterCard.  (I tried it in Puerto Vallarta last March -- the day before I broke my right ankle.)

What I did not know is whether I could go in to take a look around before I decided whether or not I wanted to join.  After all, why join a club when you can buy their merchandise anywhere else?

And then it happened.  I suspect it was all of those American-looking signs that sent me off on an Ameri-thought reverie.  Without any reflection, I asked the woman at the door if I could come in and look around. 

All of that in English.  Without even the pretense of a polite ¿Hablas inglés? And because I had not mentally rehearsed to speak Spanish, I just froze up when she stared at me.  (I had no trouble translating what was going through her mind.)

Inevitably, whenever I get to reenact the part of Steve the Fool, I end up spending money.  It must be some type of control issue.  But that is exactly what happened at Sam's Club.

I ended up at the membership desk doing my best to navigate the maze of application hell.  After more than one humorous misunderstanding (resolved with my driver's license and my FM3), I had a new photo ID in hand -- and in the other hand, an empty shopping cart.

I must confess.  I am a slow cultural learner.  Even after the language brouhaha, I must have thought I was back in Oregon when I started down the warehouse aisles.  Because it looked as if half of the warehouse had already been cleared out.

It hadn't.  The warehouses in Mexico do not offer a wide range of merchandise.  You can buy one of thirty brands of laundry detergent.  But cheddar cheese is as rare as unicorns at an NRA convention.  Almost all of the merchandise was indistinguishable from offerings at Walmart, Soriana, or Comercial. 

No Carr's crackers.  No Hormel pepperoni.  No computer deals.

OK.  I know they were silly expectations.  I told you I was a slow learner.

After a full turn through the store, I had two items in my basket -- a four-pack of deodorant and a three-pack of (tiny) mouth wash bottles.

For my $(Mx)550 membership fee and a two-hour drive, I probably saved about $(Mx)100.

But the peso savings was not the value of the trip.  Its true value was another opportunity to learn Mexico is not Oregon. 

In some ways, it is better.  In some, not as good.  In others, simply different.

And that is why I have chosen to live here.

Of course, it would help a whole lot If I would continue to work on and improve my Spanish.

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