My eyes are slightly burning from the sunscreen dripping down off my sweating forehead and eyelids. Slight breezes tease me with moments of refreshment before another wave of heat consumes my skin.
I try to focus on allowing my body to adapt to the tropical heat as we pedal on through the state of Colima in the central coast of Mexico.
On the outskirts of an upcoming town we see a grass-roofed fruit stand on the side of the road with a sign declaring cold coconuts could be purchased for three pesos apiece. Needless to say there is no way that we aren’t going to stop for a snack break. We sit down at the bar and after a few chops of the machete we are sipping heaven from a straw. These Mexican folk really know how to do it when it comes to rejuvenating beverages.
As we suck down our cold coco water I notice that there is another coconut stand with the same sign about one hundred feet further down the road. I wonder about how neighborly relations might be between these two seemingly identical businesses as I scoop out the white slippery flesh of the coconut.
We call out our thanks to the machete man and the money lady and hop back on the bikes for another riding session. As we pedal past the other coco stand, we’re surprised to see a third one, with the same sign for three peso cocos and looking to be selling the same dried fruits and treats that the other two were selling, right next door. Interesting.
We keep pedaling into town and, upon turning the corner, see yet another. Followed by another. And another. By the time we get through town I’ve counted eight coco stands on the southbound side of the road, all selling the same product, within less than a mile of each other.
How could this be? With eight different roadside stands all trying to make money from the same flow of traffic, selling the exact same thing, why would anyone ever stop at the seventh stand? What is the incentive for anyone to give number six their business? How can these people make money? It doesn’t seem logical.
Upon reflection, I’m reminded of more examples of this same situation. Throughout Baja, as well as here in mainland Mexico, we’ve found many small towns with too many “mini supermercados,” little shops that sell the basic groceries for the town. The strange thing is that all these shops sell the exact same goods, and there always seems to be more shops than there should be, given the population of the town. Where there should be just one shop, there are three — all within sight of each other. How do these independent businesses, selling the exact same products, stay competitive with each other? If each store needs to make a living, but they are all filling the same niche, how does each business ensure that they can attract enough customers?
It seems obvious to me that those businesses with unique goods and services are going to be more successful than those that sell the exact same things as the place next door. For example, in many of the bigger towns of Mexico we find “tortillerias” specializing in tortillas, and “carnicerias”, the local fresh meat butchers. Yet in the smaller towns we only see carbon copies of the mini supermercados; no specialization, just trite monotony. I’m confused because it seems that it would be relatively easy, and would result in more money, if these stores made some small changes to create their own niches and be competitive with one another. But it isn’t happening.
Rather than assume that my university-manufactured knowledge of business and economics is superior to that of small town Mexicans, I think it’s more appropriate to assume that these people know something that I do not. Perhaps economic competition is not as important as our capitalist culture has trained me to think it is. Maybe there are other ways of distributing community resources, which is, in essence, the purpose of an economy after all.
Another day in Colima, we come across a group of about 30 people pulling in a set net on the beach. A variety of tropical fish flop around on the sand, but the quantities seem low. It’s nowhere near the Alaskan commercial harvests that I’ve seen, and yet it is being divided between thirty workers. And this isn’t just subsistence; most of these fish look to be going to market. How can so few fish support so many people?
Days later, in the state of Michoacán, I ride by another group of around 30 townsfolk passing a bucket brigade of rocks from the local riverbed to renovate the road into their town. It looks to be a great example of many hands making light work, but what are the costs of this project? Is everyone getting paid to do this? The budget for a rural road can’t be much, how do the workers support their families?
I don’t have the relevant information to answer these questions, but realize that I’m concerned with them because they seem to contradict a familiar mindset that I have noticed in my own culture.
Back home, I often see a clear distinction between “work” and “leisure.” Many of us separate our time between that which we want to be doing and that which we have to do in order to be able to afford it. For many, this means that time spent working is minimized as much as possible so that leisure is maximized. When I see so many people on a seemingly small project, like filling a road or catching a few fish or sitting around at a coco stand, I do not see the urgency that I am used to seeing in a worker. It throws me off. There seems to be less of a hurry to just get it done so that they can move on to what they really want to be doing. This is not to say that Mexican people are lazy workers nor that they do not enjoy their share of leisure time. Only that the leisure seems to be more integrated into work here, and that time efficiency is pursued less obsessively.
As these observations add up, I can’t help but wonder if “what makes economic sense” is more of a relative term than the absolute it’s often made out to be. Maybe a lot of these small town Mexicans are content to be living simply, and don’t necessarily see the value of complicating things just to try making a few more bucks. Perhaps the integrity of the community and a sense of parity are more important than who gets which piece of the pie.
We’re now in the state of Guerrero, and we’re running low on water so we agree to stop in the next town. As we pull into the local mini supermercado, we see another line up of identical road side stands, this time all selling the same coconut and tamarind sweets. At the first stand in the line up there are about 25 townsfolk all congregated for a meeting. The gathering ends as we are filling our water bottles, so I go talk to Valentin, a roadside stand operator that was attending. He tells me that it was the annual town work meeting in which all the business owners of the town were reviewing the contract they had agreed upon, a document that states how employment opportunities are managed and distributed. He confirms my suspicion that the agreement ensures each worker in town a fair income, “egualidad, mas o menos.” Not quite communism but certainly more socialistic than many capitalists would prefer.
It’s hard to measure these alternative values against our notion of the “standard of living”. It’s likely that many visitors from more technologically developed countries perceive these small town Mexicans to be living in poverty, unable to afford the luxuries that we are able to enjoy. But if the standard of living is measured not in material wealth, but in more abstract (but no less important) terms, such as happiness or health, the judgments may not be so valid. Comparing other cultures with one’s own standards is always tricky business.
I think what is really important is to acknowledge that these alternative concepts of economic organization are simply different solutions to the same problems that we all face. In this rapidly changing, globalized world it would benefit us all to continue asking questions about the purpose of an economy. Our answers to these questions have direct impacts on our lifestyles.
The uncertainty that results from questioning a system as complex as an economy influences me to remain open to unconventional techniques, fueling a desire to learn from those who are doing things differently, odd as they may seem on first impression. As we all try to navigate the problem of a finite world with a growing human population, perhaps we can look to small town Mexicans for a contribution to the solution.
• Kanaan Bausler is a member of A Trip South. Read more about their journey to the southern-most tip of South America at atripsouth.com.