Whenever you visit a new city or country, there are certain unwritten codes of behaviour that, for the sake of personal safety, need observing. Here in Mexico City, these rules are so numerous that they would fill a fair-sized book. Like meerkats in the African savannah, Chilangos (as Mexico city residents are popularly known) have evolved to develop a sixth sense for hidden dangers or distant threats. In this fantastically chaotic monster of a city, prudence and vigilance are the order of every day.
For example, as a pedestrian you should always look where you’re walking, for you never know when a pothole, a tree root or an uncovered manhole might be lurking in your path, just waiting to catch you unawares. Crossing the street can also be a perilous operation. Whatever you do, don’t place all your faith in the flashing, dancing green man, for such time-honoured conventions as stopping at red lights seem to hold little weight among some of the city’s time-pressed drivers.
You should also be extremely careful when withdrawing cash from an ATM, because you never know who might be watching.
Another cardinal rule that visitors should observe at all times is to avoid catching random taxis on the streets. Pick the wrong one and, at best, you will be abusively overcharged. At worst, you will be whisked away to some remote neighbourhood where the taxi driver’s partner(s)-in-crime will be waiting. The taxi will pull over, the accomplice(s) will get in and, before you know it, a gun will be pointing in your general direction.
As the victim of what is commonly called a secuestro express (express kidnapping), you will be escorted to one ATM after another. At each one, you will be politely urged, at the barrel of a gun, to max out your card – the proceeds from which will be gratefully accepted by your new acquaintances. Once your account has been drained of all funds, you will be dropped off in another remote neighbourhood, freed from all further transactional obligations.
A couple of days ago, my wife and I broke this rule: we hailed a cab on La Avenida de los Insurgentes, one of the city’s busiest throughfares. Fortunately, we were accompanied by my mother-in-law, who, as a life-long Mexico City resident, is as street-savvy as they come and can sniff out danger a mile away.
Her system for selecting the right cab was very simple: she stopped one taxi after another, meticulously inspecting both the driver and the interior of the cab. If either failed to meet her high standards, she would wave the cab on. After what seemed like an endless stream of rejected taxis, a humble little Chevy Colt pulled up. Its interior was in immaculate condition and the driver was a kindly looking old man. My mother-in-law gave a little nod of assent and we all climbed in.
The Philosopher Taxi Driver
During the journey, el abuelito waxed lyrical about his life as a widower, the problems facing Mexico and the transgressions of the younger generations – chief among them, their lack of respect, manners or marital commitment.
When we finally reached our destination, we offered to pay the 19 peso fare with a 200 peso note, but the driver had no change. After pooling together all our coins, we realised that we had exactly 19 pesos, and not a centavo more. To our growing consternation, we realised that we would not be able to give the kindly old man a tip (here in Mexico, it’s common practice to give tips for virtually all services of anywhere between 10 and 15 percent of the service charge). We began frantically searching for stray coins in the most unlikely of places, but to no avail.
All the while, the taxi driver watched us with a look of gentle amusement on his face. “No se preocupen (Don’t worry), señores” he said. “A peso is just a peso. I have enjoyed chatting with you, and you have paid me all you owe. What more do I need?”
He then turned off the engine, looked back at us and said: “Listen, can I tell you a story? When I was young my father gave me some advice I have never forgotten. He told me to save the centavos like they were pesos, so that one fine day I could spend the pesos like they were centavos.”
“These days,” he sighed, “people don’t save either pesos or centavos. Instead, they want everything here and now. When they want a new car or TV, or a holiday in Acapulco, they go to the bank and ask for a loan, with all the usurious interest rates thrown in. Then they are shocked when, months or years down the line, they have not a single peso or centavo to their name, and the banks end up taking their car, their big TV and the roof over their head.”
You see, dear reader, Mexico City might be a monster of a city, an unruly jungle of unwritten codes and rules, but it is also a place that forever holds pleasant surprises in store – at least for those who seek them out. And it is only in a city such as this one that you will find a humble, uneducated taxi driver with more economic wisdom than a thousand Ph.D. economists combined.
If only Europeans and Americans had collectively had just half an ounce of his wisdom, we might not be in the untenable economic situation we are in. Cyprus might not be on the verge of financial collapse and the banks would not be bleeding our communities dry.
In the perversest of ironies, instead of encouraging people to save or invest shrewdly for a rainy day, our political leaders and central bankers have embraced financial repression, throwing savers under the bus, so as to save the profligate and irresponsible. In a world where almost all money is quite literally debt, it is the latter who are held up as the paragons of virtue, and the shrewd or responsible who are made to subsidise their insatiable greed.
So, the next time you find a penny, or a cent, or a centavo in the bottom of your trouser pocket, remember the wise words of the taxi driver. Save it, let it grow and one day, that penny will be a pound, that cent a dollar, that centavo a peso. And whatever you do, avoid taking on more debt. It’s nigh time we stopped feeding this monster!