A Little Taste of How the Upper Ex-pats Live in Mexico…
When my friend Dave and I were invited to join some rich ex-patriot friends in Acapulco for a 50th birthday party and a day’s sailing on Paul’s yacht we should have guessed that we would be well out of our league. I knew the clichÃ©s about the closed circle that these British businessmen and women lived in, but was absolutely stunned – and a little horrified – to see it for myself.
After a long drive during which Dave proudly finished off a six pack, we arrived at our hotel with views of a derelict building in one direction and the neon signs of “the strip” in the other. In an instant I ruined the next two hours by locking my keys in the car. The time spent hanging around for a locksmith in a stiflingly hot underground car park was not pleasant, and by the time we got our suitcases out we were late and more than ready to head for cocktails at the party.
We arrived and there was a lift in the apartment block to take us down to sea level. When the doors opened I caught Dave’s eye to mouth the words “fook-ing hell!” The swimming pool was on our right, looking beautiful with underwater lights. A paved path lead to the left, past sun loungers and under palm trees to a large palapa where the party was in full swing. A mariachi band of about twelve musicians was playing, the chairs (as well as the tables) had cloths, and the waiters were standing around in white jackets and bowties. But the most stunning part of the scene was that the Pacific Ocean was lapping at the wall of the terrace, and the backdrop was a view across the full length of Acapulco Bay.
We acted like a pair of school children, giggling incessantly about how out of place we felt, and guzzling the free paella and mojitos. My conversation with an older man named James was clearly a disappointment for him because when he asked me, “So what business are you in?” I had to admit that I was actually in a job and I worked for someone else. Then when one of the uncles found out I was a teacher he advised me never to work at the Sao Paulo British School (the school his children attended), but after a dance with him I found myself with a job offer. He was obviously so influential that he could make decisions like that.
Later, sitting under the stars on the wall and watching the ocean slopping around my feet, I could understand why people aspire to this kind of lifestyle. It is luxury. My euphoria was interrupted however, when Dave staggered over, clearly in need of someone to prop him up whilst he tried to get home. Everyone else had been at the party since the afternoon, Dave and I had been there three hours, and he was the only person smashed enough to trip over a small wall, plunge himself face first into a flower bed and then refuse to get out. It was an inelegant exit and he was sick out of the taxi window on the way to the hotel.
The boat trip two days later was when we gained a true insight into the workings of the rich white peoples’ bubble. Arriving at the dock with a very sheepish Dave wearing a silly hat made out of palm leaves was a great moment – you could see the others looking at the cheap Mexican tat on his head thinking, “Why would you waste your money on that?” I wondered if they had ever walked amongst the general public on the beach, and if they had ever helped a local make his living by spending $1 on something they don’t really want.
Our first little trip was along the cliff to inspect the multi- million dollar houses. We discussed which celebrities owned which houses, and whether the architecture of a white block was nice enough to entice Phil to buy an apartment. I’m not sure whether I detected a hint of competitiveness – probably. They certainly went on about their brand new cars a hell of a lot, and they expected special treatment (because they are rich, or because they are white?). When Robert arrived late to check in for a flight, the desk was closed and he was outraged that they wouldn’t let him through. He called his travel agent to demand the cell phone number of the manager at the airport. By pulling the right strings he made the flight.
For lunch we anchored near a small island where we could snorkel, eat and enjoy some fine white wine and “Cuba libres.” The packed lunches had been bought from the deli and there was plenty of food, but by all accounts, it was below the usual standard.
So there we were bobbing about in the sun. The St Georges cross flag was flying and the men were sucking on some fine Cuban cigars when someone actually said out loud with a grin on their face, “I wonder what the poor people are doing today.” As I saw that the comment was received with a chuckle from most people my jaw actually dropped. Bless Dave for casually saying “Yup, that’s us.” They obviously realized that we were the “backpacker” contingent because we loaded up with all the spare bananas and cake from lunch to help us on the drive home. (Another couple were returning to Mexico City that night, but they were flying).
Due to a dinghy incident earlier in the day (it tipped over, got caught in the waves and smashed up against the rocks) we had to moor the yacht near one of the massive hotels and ask the water sports instructors very kindly if they would take all seven of us to shore. I still have the image in my head of Phil, not a small man, clambering over the back of the wooden boat into knee deep water. He had his trousers rolled up revealing his white legs, his cap slipping off his head, a cigar in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. The dark skinned boat boys were wading around in t-shirts and shorts trying to hold the boat still and as near to the beach as possible. When we had all made it safely to shore it came to arranging the price. The four lads asked for 50 pesos each ($5 US), that was quickly negotiated down and we paid and left.
In a fair world our new friends on the yacht would have worked hard and not exploited anyone to achieve this lifestyle, and I am sure many of them have. What seems strange is that, having lived and worked in Mexico for many years they seem to have little interest in understanding the culture, or in adding anything positive to the country. It is true that Mexico is riddled with corruption, that there is a ridiculous gap between abject poverty in many rural communities and the billionaires in Mexico City, and that the cultural differences in work ethics can be very hard to understand. But when you hear comments like, “Well, I wouldn’t let a Mexican organize it” and “Mexicans can’t do that” it sounds like a sweeping generalization. Phil moved his parents out from the UK to a home in the temperate and well-located city of Cuernavaca but not until he had found a nursing home run by a trustworthy Canadian couple (“I wouldn’t put them in a home run by a Mexican”). The wives on the boat were discussing an office job vacancy, and after about five minutes had discovered they had a mutual friend who would be the perfect candidate. Right there and then, while the sea breeze was messing up their hair, an ex-pat found a job. All these conversations, heard in the space of a few hours, gave a very strong impression that this particular circle of ex-pats were on the take. They were there to enjoy rich lifestyles, make money and avoid “Mexico” as much as possible.
If I had more self-confidence among these kind of people (and wasn’t thoroughly enjoying their hospitality) I would have started some kind of left-wing rant about Mexico’s social problems and asked them what they felt about having so much when they drive past people begging on the street every day. I probably would have discovered that they are, in fact, very well-informed, that they give money to several carefully-chosen Mexican charities and have been involved in various education projects. Either that or they would have given me 300 very well-backed-up reasons why giving their money and time away freely would make no difference to anyone anyway.
On the way back through Mexico City at nearly midnight, there were still some children begging at the traffic lights. I have always been told that fruit is one of the best things you can give them – it is healthy and it goes straight to the child without any risk of parents spending it on their own alcoholism – but had never tried it out. Thanks to our backpacker status on the boat we actually had about seven bananas in the car and when I gave them a handful (with some change as well) they looked genuinely pleased. It was great giving the fruit away rather than wasting it (the “trickle down effect,” I believe it is called) and we were well aware of the fact that these children would not even be able to imagine the lifestyles of the people who paid for it.