Last updated on August 29, 2020
Our home culture shapes the fabric of our understanding of the world. If we are raised in one country, we have one leading culture creating the schema for how we interpret everything from love to family to community. I grew up in the US, and no amount of travel will change that single fact. The views I bring to my travels were nurtured in an environment very different from many of the places I visit.
From this perspective, however, I can look at those differences and see them as that—more than chalking it up to a novelty and moving on, during my travels I look for the cultural patterns beneath the surface to understand and how they shape our lives. My life, of course, but also the everyday lives of people all over the world. There are niggling differences in some cases, and sweeping, deep differences in others. Many times this goes beyond location, religion, and race. It comes down to community.
By and large the overarching themes among cultures are similar. We all eat, we want education for the next generation, and research shows that even in the poorest of countries we crave a job that offers dignity and fulfillment. The nuances of getting there however—and how we achieve these things inside of societies—differ. Sometimes the differences do rest within religion, and many are often due to natural resources and wealth disparities too; things outside of the control of many people. There’s a lot that can be attributed to the developing aspect of these countries. But some differences are cultural and deep within the nature of how people choose to live and create the foundation of their lives.
To this end, once I left home for the first time, I began to find many economies built around a different foundation than what I had always known. Although mega stores exist all over the world now, in many places the towns operate under what I like to call single-purpose economies. That’s the best I can come up with to describe the fact that in many places I have visited, including my current home in San Pancho, Mexico, a single, weekly shopping trip to Target is not only unheard of, but it’s not desired either.
Stereotypes and generalizations are misleading, and so I don’t mean to paint too broad of a brush stroke here by intimating that no one likes the culture of multi-purpose mega-stores that expanded outward from the U.S. These stores play a needed role back home, and a similar role in other communities all over the world. Here in my tiny beach town, however, specialized shops and services continue to flourish far past their counterparts in most of the U.S., where corporations and chain stores have mostly beat the mom-and-pop shops into oblivion.
Now in some parts of small-town America still, and even the huge urban centers, there are micro-economies built around shops, businesses, and people with very niche jobs. Here in Mexico though, and it is not isolated to my small town, the single-purpose shops have stood out these past weeks in stark relief to the life I joined when I was back home last year. While Walmart is a monthly run for many Mexican families (and expats too!), life here is still mostly fueled by a network of niche shops that sell (and excel in) something.
Still not quite sure what I mean? Well, an average week sees me heading to the tortillería for freshly cooked tortillas—any variety imaginable on offer and I tend to purchase a stack of fresh tortillas, as well as a bag of deep-fried corn chips for my guacamole. Tortillas is all they sell; nothing else. Just tortillas.
Then the lavandería is a short bike ride away and returns freshly washed and pressed clothing. I don’t visit the carnicería, but the carnivores in town alternate the general meat-aria with the pollería—home of fresh chicken cut to order in any way shape or size you could desire for your dinner.
Each shop serves a purpose, and through that specialization they serve this tiny town in a way the large superstores 40 minutes away never could. Back home I walk into a Target and walk out with my weekly groceries, prescriptions, and a new outfit if I choose. It’s convenient, to be sure. But what is lost in the convenience? I ask myself if I am, perhaps, romanticizing this notion. In the states, I am well and pleased to head to a single super market, conduct my business, and head home—as an American I tend to accept the bubbles we have created.
But here, romantic or not, I like it. And the locals perpetuate this system perhaps for the very same reason I love it too: It fosters community, connectedness, and a sense of independence mostly lost in the States. Even in the most connected of neighborhoods, with friendly faces and that aspect of community, I see us often operating as little islands in our commerce. This behavior has removed us not only from relating to each other, but often with the building blocks of life, our food.
I can rarely pinpoint why precisely I so resonate with life outside the United States, but this idea here—of interdependence—holds a piece of the reason. Mexico is but one of the countries where the niche shops and the single-purpose economy creates a system of communicating and interacting with others. Throughout Asia, India, and Europe even, there are more opportunities for connecting to a single person — their story and history — as you go about your own life.
In shopping for fruits and veggies from the produce trucks weaving through town, I meet the sons of farmers nearby. Weekly markets bring in vegetables from a bit farther afield, more variety but still a friendly face to share their story. I have lived in this small Mexican town for six weeks and already the fried chicken vendor (who I never eat from because we have already established she doesn’t offer vegetarian food) smiles and waves as my bicycle zips along the road.
The root of this idea began years ago because this type of economy is present in most places I visit, including many areas of Europe. But it struck me this past week because I see the way it fosters friendships and community in a way I often miss when I go home. I have friends back home, just as I have them here in town, but those more grounded friendships are simply the foundation of enjoying this community. I equally love the network of friendly faces and shop owners who make up this town—and that is not something I have back home.
This economy of specialized skills and shops, if nothing else, allows me to integrate more immediately into each placed I visit, it opens the world up a bit because people live their lives more openly. I’ve talked about my love for the sidewalk cafe culture in Bosnia and community spaces in Cuba, and this plays into that same idea.
The desire to create a community where you know your neighbors enough to leave your front door wide open, or you pass by you actually stop for a chat. Arriving in a new city over-and-over again — as I have done these past few years — sounds adventure-filled, but it can be a lonely business as you settle in, look around and spread the tentative web of friendships. Within two weeks of arriving here, however, the shop owners pegged me as a regular face, and with that status has come a familiarity that breeds idle chit-chat, lazy conversations, and a refreshing friendliness.
This same thing was often the case in Chiang Mai, Thailand, although the language barrier often prevented anything more than recognition and smiles in many cases. Here however, with Spanish easily on hand, I have people who ask after my day, children chase me down to say hello, and shop owners wave as I pedal past.
Back home, in our rush for convenience, I fear we are missing the whole point. I have been taking the advice of everyone who commented on my post about life and uncertainty earlier this month, and I am relaxing. Sunsets on the beach, whale watching with friends, and days spent exploring and photographing my town, meeting people, talking, and sometimes just letting the tiny shops and smiling locals pull me deeper into this charming beachside community in Mexico.