A note on the cost of living

The amount of money I am being paid here seems to me like a funny joke, and I of course didn’t come to Mexico to become rich. It is a frustrating experience, however, not only to spend my savings to support myself here (while working my butt off from 9-5 each day), but also to witness the experience of the average Mexicans.

I am paid $4,800 pesos per month (the Mexicans use the same symbol, $, as we do to signify pesos), which seems to be average for an intern in Mexico. That equals $428 US per month, whereas as an intern in Minnesota last year I was earning about $2,500 per month (these figure are after taxes). In Mexico I am earning 17 % of what I earned in the US.

In Michigan people said to me, ‘Well, the prices are lower down there, aren’t they?’ I believed this to be so at the time, but distressingly in Monterrey the prices are not much lower than in the US.

For example let’s consider a typical night out (prices in US dollars, assuming 11.25 pesos / dollar):

Mexico US
Movie tickets 4 6.50
Gasoline (1 gallon) 2.26 1.80
Dinner: tacos - 3.55 a hamburger = 8
2 beers - 4.44 6
Total 14.25 22.30

Mexican prices from my own experience and :
US prices from my experience.

That puts the cost of the mexican night out at 63% that of the US night out. So my personal experience here is that I earn 80% less and spend 63% of what I would spend there!

There are mitigating factors. First we must acknowledge that what I am earning as an intern is not representative of the difference in wages between the two countries. In North America interns are paid well because they don’t usually live with their parents, have to move to a different city, own cars, etc. In Europe interns are often not paid anything as all! The Mexicans typically live with their families until they get married, and for this reason they can survive on lower wages and therefore they are paid lower wages.

However looking at official figures from the CIA world factbook, it looks like my situation is, on the whole, representative of the difference in the cost of life between the US and Mexico.

Mexican GDP per capita: $9,000
US GDP Per capita: $37,800
Mexican GDP is 23% of the American GDP.

CIA world factbook

So to sum things up - if your costs were to decline proportionally with your earnings, it wouldn’t matter at all. But when your earnings drop dramatically while costs remain about the same, that just sucks! It translates into less economic freedom: you can’t do as many things, you can’t buy as much stuff, you can’t make as many trips … which makes it harder for you to become educated or dress well…


A new start

My friend Theron Tingstad (see the Just So Stories entry) has encouraged me to write more. He says that it will allow people to follow along with my experiences here in Mexico and to understand why I’m here.

People at home ‘not understanding’ is in fact is one of the big frustrations when you spend time in another country. My exchange in Switzerland was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life, but when I returned to Michigan, the new ideas and ways of living that the trip generated just didn’t seem to interest my friends and family very much.

C.S. Lewis once wrote to a small girl who had asked how to write:

…instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was delightful,” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will
you do my job for me.”

- From “Letter of 26 June 1956″ C.S. Lewis Letters to Children. New York: MacMillan, 1985. pp.63-64

So, let me show you what I mean by ‘friends and family … weren’t interested.’

I loved the European way of socializing. In Switzerland it seemed that a cup of coffee or a bottle of wine could trigger hours of truly stimulating conversation - one of those core events when you seem to set foot on a higher plane of life, if only for a moment and you feel - this is what life is about, being here, now, with these people and communicating. These conversations are like when you read a truly good book and lose all sense of time, and when you finish it you feel like someone waking from a dream or splashing up from underwater.

In any case I became very fond of the tiny, tiny coffee cups, saucers, and spoons and the intimate ceremony of making coffee in an italian macchina di caffè with the burner on low, snatching the coffee away just as the water boils, and, each time the same way, pouring in the spoonful of sugar and watching it dissolve, it that hypnotic way, as the conversation slowly warmed up to speed.

So I purchased an Italian coffee machine and a set of tiny, tiny coffee cups, saucers, and spoons, and tried to replicate the experience with my friends in Houghton, MI. My attempt to reproduce the ‘european feeling’ in the US was a complete failure. To start off, my friends good-naturedly ribbed me about the dainty tableware. Americans are practical and use cups to drink from, not to create atmosphere. I realized that in the US we are incapable of that lavish, decadent use of time which the Europeans have down pat. My friends stood and watched while I prepared the coffee machine, checked their watches as the water heated, and once the coffee was poured, downed it in two big gulps and dashed off to do their homework. I was left in the kitchen with a coffee pot to clean and an unsatisfied desire to just have a really good talk with someone, anyone.

Then there was the christening party of our house in Houghton. I came back from Switzerland and moved directly in with four dear friends from the dormitories, so we were excited to invite everyone over to appreciate our new pad. I looked forward to sitting down with everyone and, civilly, pulling the cork on a bottle of wine and finding out their hopes, dreams, and the like. That was la mode in Switzerland, and I really enjoyed it. But Americans are raised in a very different ‘tradition.’

Since drinking is not legal until the citizen turns twenty-one, our social lives typically begin in fugitive style, drunken binges in the woods or in a house temporarily vacated by vacationing parents. Only in the most progressive of families would the parents introduce the children to alcohol or chaperone parties with alcohol, since providing drinks to minors is quite illegal and severely persecuted.

So I, after a year of comparatively civilized drinking in Lausanne, was shocked back into American reality when the guests to our party pooled, like children at an 8th grade dance, into separate groups of males and females, until, after half an hour of rapid imbibing, the social lubrication of the alcohol roared into effect and awkward silence was replaced by shouts, roars, keg-stands, and inevitably, vomiting. By one thirty everyone had stumbled off to bed. Conversation did not figure a major role in the evening.

So to come to a point (of which the lack of, in my stories, is frequently criticized), hopefully you, dear reader, can appreciate that things are different in foreign countries, and when you spend time abroad you grow to love those differences, and then, upon your return, you miss them, and it is quite hard to communicate what exactly it is that you miss, or why. That causes a lonely feeling which only time can dispel. I doubt my ability as a writer to communicate these cultural differences, but I have always wanted to give it a try.


Just So Stories

I have just discovered that my good friend, Theron Tingstad of Lausanne, Switzerland fame, is in Cario, Egypt right now studying Arabic. No surprise to those of us who have followed his exploits in the past.

Go Theron! Continue the Michigan boy Hemingway tradition!

For the rest of you, follow his adventures at Just So Stories.


First post

Once again the task of writing something which masses of people will find interesting.

First, to introduce myself. I am Kevin Trowbridge.

*handshake* Hello, nice to meet you.

I am a 24 year old white American male engineer, currently in the midst of a 6-month ‘intercambio’ (exchange) in Monterrey, Mexico, working for the steel giant Hyslamex. I have managed to hang onto my old dream of becoming an international master of the universe / citizen of the world a la Einstein type - and this seemed to be a logical next step after graduating from college this Spring. So far my time here has not disappointed.

This blog is intended mostly for friends and family, but I will not hesitate to foray into more technical / opinions of the world type content which the general public might find to be interesting.