Gringo in Guadalajara

Varied Politeness

How could a people so pleasant and kindly face-to-face become such cutthroat sharks behind the wheel?  It is a provocative question one naturally must consider after heading out for even the most casual of Sunday drives.  Indeed, the differences between the Mexican in the car and out of the car can be extreme. 

Take for example the comparison of the crowded stairwell vs. the crowded city street.  There is a rather narrow staircase in the four-story apartment where I reside in Guadalajara. Almost any two people have a difficult time passing when going in opposite directions…especially when loaded up with the proverbial shopping bags, boxes and household supplies one must lug upstairs without assistance of an elevator. 

I began to notice that without exception the beleaguered stair climber in Mexico could always expect a friendly smile and “pase!, pase!” from anyone encountered heading upstairs or down.  Indeed, at one point during my stay, I turned into a stairwell statistician, tallying the number of polite residents I met on the stairwell.   On 10 straight occasions, whether meeting kind-faced women, formal nodding men, or teenagers with cut-off shirts, I was greeted in this friendly manner.  And it wasn’t just me.  Watching Mexicans negotiate the stairwells with one another clearly proves that the country is indeed a land of generous stair climbers.

And yet on the road, tight squeezes are a different matter entirely.  Woe to the innocent driver who casually attempts to merge into the compact spaces of the Guadalajara grid.  That friendly middle-aged woman with her kind “pase!”s in the hallways becomes a lead-footed stock car driver out on the road.

A defensive driver looking for a kind stranger to wave them through a tight squeeze could be left waiting for hours.  Indeed, every Mexican driver seems to have a pregnant woman in the back seat of their car with a desperate need to get to the hospital.  All chances will be taken, all rules disregarded.  Naturally, it’s hard not to catch the spirit of this atmosphere.  At first it may be a defensive move.  “If I don’t get aggressive, I’ll never be able to make a left.”  Soon, the virgin driver has lost all innocence --- cutting off drivers, heading the wrong way down one-way streets, using one’s horn with a liberal abandon.

Certainly in any country, behavior behind the protective and anonymous glass of the car windshield worsens, but in Mexico the difference between face-to-face manners and vehicular manners seems to be particularly extreme.  Best to travel on foot and enjoy the kindness of the Mexican pedestrian. []