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Feb 13, 2008

Symbiosis, or Just an Undefended Border?*

Thank you to the folks who have been reading my posts from Mexico.  You may have been wondering, "when is Phil going to post about things related to Mexico, instead of things related to travel?"  Bueno.  Here is a post about something common in Mexico that I'm not used to seeing in the US: the informal sharing of commercial space.

First example: On the 90-minute bus ride from Progreso to Mérida, one of my fellow passengers asked the driver if he could play a few songs for tips.  The driver nodded his head, we got a half-dozen songs, and the performer passed his hat for a few dollars.  In this photo**, he's one song away from a canción about getting a letter from his mother.  Being too poor to own a pen, he writes back using his blood for ink.


On another morning on the city bus from Mérida to Cholul (30 minutes on a good day, arriving maybe on time for my Spanish lessons), a man hopped on and asked the driver if he could do a quick solicitation.  The driver agreed, and the bus got a 3-minute fundraising pitch for "El Taller del Maestro." ("The Master's Workshop"), a Christian drug rehab program.  Note the disclaimer at bottomThis association is not responsible for the crime of fraud or robbery or of the illegal use [of its name] conducted by lucradores [panhandlers?] soliciting donations without a valid ID.  Please to confirm.  Now they tell me.  In any case, I wonder if my friends at UMD might try this on the Durham Area Transit Authority buses?***


In town, one of my regular restaurant stops is El Trapiche, a Yucatecan place whose dining room opens to the sidewalk near Mérida's main plaza.  Street vendors wander in and out of the restaurant as they please, approaching diners, showing off their fans, pecking chicken toys, necklaces, whatever.  Beggars stop at the doorway and lean in with their hands out.

At other restaurants with sidewalk seating, the vendors are even more numerous.  Little kids, grownups, and old ladies will walk around the tables, selling anything from gum to hammocks to shoeshines.  One night at dinner, a beggar woman holding her baby came by my table to ask for a contribution.  My friend Marie didn't want to give her anything until she realized that the woman wasn't a beggar: she was soliciting tips for the flute player who had just finished a few songs.  So Marie gave her a few pesos.  But not me.  I don't like the flute.

Last night I bought a small woven bracelet from these cute girls. 


10 pesos (~90 cents) for the bracelet (you can see a bunch hanging off the right wrist of the girl in the green sweater), plus another 10 pesos to ask if I could take their photo.  They tied my bracelet on for me.  I think it stayed on for about 18 hours before I probably caught it on my belt or bag or who-knows-what and lost it.  Anyway -- I hope someone else found it and is enjoying it.

So: what's interesting to me is that these vendors don't seem to pay anything to the storekeepers (or bus drivers) for the pleasure of soliciting their customers in the storekeepers' space.  I had a brief debate with a young Australian woman about this.  As some of my readers know, I have decidedly mixed feelings about property rights and private property.  It's nice to be a visitor where I can observe without needing to have an opinion.


*A joke for you -- Question: How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? Answer [in dorky French accent]: Nobody knows! hohn hohn hohn hohn hohn.

**Gringo in Mexico moment: as the guitarist started to play, I used a few hand gestures to ask if I could take a photo.  He nodded (lots of nodding here), I shot, and after the song, I handed him a 10 peso coin.  Before he stuck it in his pocket, he looked at it.  Why would he look at it?  Did it seem like a surprisingly large tip?  Or was he worried it was only a 5 peso or 1 peso contribution? (FYI: the 10 peso coin is significantly larger than the 5 peso coin, which is a tiny bit larger than the 1 peso coin.  You'd think that a guitarist would have sensitive fingers.).  His face didn't reveal his sentiment.  Later, when he passed the hat at the end of his performance, I think he got ~40 pesos total from five or six riders.

***I doubt this would play well. Barry R. at Dependable Erection has some read-worthy posts (make sure to check the comments) on panhandling laws in Durham.  Here's the Google path to Barry's multiple entries.  (No pun intended.  Really.)

10:17 PM in Mexico | Permalink


I love the joke about France. My dad told me a similar joke in which representatives of several countries are asked to write a definitive book about camels.

The Briton writes Hunting Camels in the Colonies.
The American writes Bigger and Better Camels.
The Frenchman writes Le Chameaux et Son Amour.
The German writes The Camel in German Politics: Volume I, 1800-1835; Volume II, 1836-1870; etc.

Posted by: Sarah | Feb 18, 2008 3:05:28 PM

More money on the bus. Yesterday I gave some money to beggar who was humming tunes and asking for money as he walked up and down the aisle. The beggar appeared to be moderately retarded. After I gave him some coins, he looked at them before sticking them in his pocket.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 21, 2008 5:07:08 PM