Think you are ready to move to Mexico? Test your knowledge.
Question: You are living in Mexico (somewhere you can hear the surf all day) and your computer starts behaving oddly. Blue screens. Tabs in Google Docs that shut rather than open when you click them, and finally your laptop freezes up entirely. You re-boot, nothing.
You (choose only one of the following):
a. Walk it right over to the Mexican equivalent of Best Buy and explain the problem or have a Mexican explain the problem for you.
b. Call Jesus, your computer guy, to come over and make it right.
c. Call your American friend, the one that knows about this stuff.
d. Try to fix it yourself, comfortable in the knowledge that if it’s really serious, you can always buy a new one. You can solve any problem if you throw enough money at it.
e. Pull out the extra laptop you brought because you had so much extra room in your suitcase when you left for your eight-month stay in a foreign country.
When you live in another country, your life depends more on technology than it does at home, if that is even possible. Skype, Facebook, Whatsapp, FaceTime, Netflix and entertainment and streaming help make being an expat feel more being someone with a very long commute to an exotic suburb than living in a foreign country.
Then one day, your lifeline goes blinky on you. Your lifeline doesn't work. You panic. Rightfully so because you are now embarking on a journey and a saga, a juncture where cultures collide, exposing the electronic beating heart of your cross-border existence.
Let’s start with the cultural observation that Mexicans approach fixing things differently in general.
They often (not always) take a band-aid approach to the mechanical that supposedly springs from fatalism that is part of the Mexican nature*. Tomorrow may never come, but we can make it work for today.
Even at home, turning your computer over to a stranger is scary. Knowing this cultural difference makes it downright terrifying.
In some ridiculous twist of logic, some expats will not have anything serviced, cars, teeth or computers, by someone who doesn’t speak English. Knowing this, expats who "like to tinker" put up computer repair shingles.
One look at their websites tells you that is a no-go. So you have a decision to make.
Stick with the Mexicans. They not only taught themselves how to repair computers, they learned how to do it with tools printed largely in English.
At home in Denver, my computer technician Vasif can fix hardware problems, software problems, internet connection problems, virus infections or security issues. He can even tell me why my printer isn't working (again).
In Mexico, different people fix different problems. You have to match the right computer technician with your problem.
Like wild turkeys in tall grass, you have to hunt down technicians who are also working as cab drivers, teenage sons of friends, and college students as well as people with store front repair services. This incidentally is common throughout the culture, a person having several widely different jobs; the cab driver/farmer, the therapist/administrative assistant, the attorney/language teacher.
Those with storefronts often have laissez-fare schedules. Did I say schedules? Don’t you have to keep those? Okay then, maybe not a schedule. They may answer their business phone. They may be there when you come with your laptop. They may have e-mail (but likely never look at it).
However, once you stalk and bring down your prey, they will come to your home smiling and gracious and charge a third of what you pay at home. Keep all of them on speed dial.
Most Mexican stores don’t carry much inventory. Same thing goes for the computer repair stores. Whatever part you need might take time, if you can find the part at all. When you do get your computer back, changing the language settings back to English may not be as simple as you think. It’s pretty scary when the setting instructions on how to reset them are in Spanish too.
Imagine what happens when you don’t have the right charger for a crucial piece of equipment?
For example, my town in Mexico is about the size of Richmond, Virginia and I cannot find a new charger made by Apple for my IPhone. I had to resort to off-brands. The charger boxes say the chargers I have bought are Apple compatible. My phone warns me otherwise.
If you're battery isn't charging, the first thing a service rep will ask is, "Are you using an after-market charger?" Clearly an accusation. Bring extras that are not after-market. Be aware that salt air in coastal cities will shorten the life of your electronics considerably.
Now let’s say your laptop problem is irreparable, The Mexican Solution is unappealing to you, or something cataclysmic has happened and you need a new laptop.
Four keys on my Hewlett Packard laptop keyboard went bad three months after the warranty ended. The wireless function also ceased to operate.
I calculated the cost of a trip to Arizona 11 hours away for a new laptop. Buying a new laptop in Culiacan, Mexico, two hours away was cheaper, so I caught a ride with a friend making a trip to the Costco there, where they had a fairly good selection.
That keyboards would, understandably, be in Spanish in Mexico somehow escaped me. At first, I was totally jazzed thinking I’d have a Spanish keyboard equipped with the letter “n” with a tilde and an upside down question mark.
My enthusiasm dampened considerably when I learned that Spanish keyboards don’t have the same functions as ours do. For example, shift+letter does not produce a capital letter. Number keys have three functions.
You have to learn how to type again and none of those instruction manuals Google pulls up are in English. I still haven’t learned how to do the upside question mark that would be so cool to have. When did you say that report was due?
My answer has been using two keyboards rather than buy a new laptop. I have cords everywhere: A Mexican Solution to call my very own.
Your technical problem solving skills will improve exponentially in Mexico. The bridge behind you has been burned down.
Remember the good old days when you had to call the eye-rolling, chain-smoking IT guy in your company when something went wrong? Happily, today we have been passed over to the capable hands of polite 12-year-olds on YouTube. No question is too dumb for Google either and you can pose it in total privacy.
As you know, Apple, Microsoft, and most other corporate selling-machines have totally abdicated responsibility for training us in how to use their products, leaving us with crowd- sourced forums - fire hoses of non-curated information that can take hours to scroll through.
Although taxing at times, you will become much more adept at diagnosing problems. I have a much better sense of which forum answers make the most sense (clue: the easiest ones) than I used to.
The smartest thing I ever did was leave my 20-old laptop here as a back up. Work still gets done while I chase people down or research a problem. Without my creaky old Toshiba, I would have missed weeks of productivity and thrown money at my computer problems like Croesus.
Americans replace their laptops every 3-5 years. When you come to Mexico, ask yourself, what would I do if I lost my laptop? Could I survive? Would it be a disaster, or could I get by with my phone and tablet (in other words, how important is typing to you?)
The answer to the question is # 5. If you are planning extended stays in Mexico or Latin America, leave the extra pair of dockers or paperback novels at home and bring the old laptop - your back-up beating heart.
*'Mexico and Mexicans, Cracking the Cultural Code" by Ned Crouch - an insightful look at cultural distinctions.
"Coming to Mexico as a Couple - You and Your Laptop" Ventanas Mexico, what you need to know about real-life "back-up."
Next up - The tips to maintaining your property in a coastal zone
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About the author:
Kerry Baker is a partner with Ventanas Mexico which provides insight and resources to those considering expat life in Mexico, including the newly-released, "If Only I Had a Place" on renting in Mexico, luxuriously for less.
She also authored the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web. Unique lesson plans from the best teaching sites on the web.