Monterrey, Mexico Report of what it's like to live there - 01/14/08

Personal Experiences from Monterrey, Mexico

Monterrey, Mexico 01/14/08

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. I've lived in Bethlehem, Palestine, and in Quito (Ecuador).

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2. How long have you lived here?

About 8 months.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

The author is affiliated with the U.S. Consulate.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

Travelling by land, Monterrey is about two and a half hours from Laredo, TX, and about three hours from McAllen, TX. Unless you're familiar with rural Mexican roads, it is probably best to bite the bullet and pay for the toll raod-- at least for your first trip. The toll roads along either route are very similar to the U.S. interstate highway system in terms of quality and safety. After a flurry of gas stations near the border, the next fuel stop will be approximately 100km into the trip to Monterrey. It is important to remember that there is only one gasoline distributor in the country, Pemex, and there will be no price posted at the road. The prices are all the same for fuel. When first switching to Pemex fuel, don't freak out. Your car will run a little funny until the engine's computer gets adjusted. If I travel to the border, I avoid buying fuel in Texas-- it makes the car run funny again!

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

U.S. Government housing is in San Pedro Garza Garcia, an affluent suburb of Monterrey. As previously written by others, one to two person households should expect a very nice apartment or small townhouse (there are a couple of detached houses in the pool for 1/2s, but these are the exception). For larger families at the standard/entry level, larger townhouses are pretty much the rule. Mid-level and senior housing is typically detached houses. Housing is large, yards are small, and almost no one has a bath tub.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Imported items can be expensive, while domestically produced items can be reasonable or even a bargain. Members of the diplomatic corps can be refunded the IVA tax they pay in purchases, which makes some things even more of a bargain. Dairy tends to be expensive, dry goods similar to U.S. prices, and meats can be quite cheap. As a rule the more processed the item, the more expensive it will seem. Even still, there are some things you just won't find on this side of the river but are easy to get in Texas: tomato paste, many diet sodas, those little goldfish crackers, most spices and ethnic items-- the list goes on. Then again, a trip to Texas once in a while is a guilty little pleasure that even the locals enjoy.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

You name it, you'll find it here, almost certainly. Even Taco Bell is giving it another try here. That said, the local palate is a bit narrow and limited-- non-Mexican cuisine won't be the best you've ever had, and the range of flavors here might grow tiresome after a while. The selection of spices in grocery stores here, as an illustration, is very limited.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

There are ATMs all over the place. Most charge an out-of-network fee of $7.25 (that's seven and a quarter pesos, about US$0.66 at the current exchange rate.) While you can use your card in many large international stores, there are a surprising number of places that only accept Mexican issued credit cards. Liverpool, an upscale department store, is one surprising example. That said, there's almost always an ATM within a few minutes walk. Outside the city, expect to carry cash unless you have evidence to the contrary.

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4. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There is a non-denominational evangelical service at Union Church, an Episcopal parish called Holy Family, and a Catholic parish in the chapel at the south end of the Fatima church building. The three English language parishes work together well in projects of common interest, such as vacation bible school and outreach/social justice.

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Sidewalks are extremely rough and treacherous, even for someone without movement issues-- badly broken cement of varying widths, sudden significant changes in height, a general lack of ramps at corners, and a curb height that seems completely random. Holes abound in both sidewalks and roads. While there are handicapped parking spots at many of the more modern shopping areas, none are van accessible and most are little more than a generously sized spot close to the door. The use of metal bumps set in roadways and parking lots will pose an added difficulty for wheelchairs. Not all multi-level buildings have elevators, and many of those that do are not wheelchair accessible elevators (narrow doors, small cars that do not allow the chair to turn).

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Sometimes you just aren't sure, so you just charge ahead right down the middle. Seriously, the traffic here is the hardest thing to get used to. Drivers are aggressive and inconsiderate. Using a turn signal is a sign of weakness that other drivers will often exploit. (Signalling a lane change is usually a formula for failure, believe it or not.) Road signs are oten missing or of low quality (impossible to see at night, poorly placed, sometimes even completely incorrect). Even one-way streets are typically not clearly marked.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are cheap. From U.S. Government housing to work, US$3 to US$4 is a typical one-way fare. Given the price of parking, US$2.50 a day or more, and fuel and insurance, it is cheaper to car pool or taxi to work. (Do not count on a parking space at the Consulate unless you have been specifically told that one will be provided you, typically mid-level and up).

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3. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

High speed internet is available from Intercable and from TelMex. TelMex DSL service is approx US$35 a month for 1 Mb down, 128k up. That's enough to run VOIP most of the time. Latency time is good and the bandwidth hasn't been oversold. If you want faster DSL, TelMex sells a top-of-the-line package for about US$100 a month that has unlimited local and national calls, voice mail, and all the features. With that package high speed internet is included, and the speed is doubled. We make a lot of local calls, and this was actually a cheaper option for us.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Most cell service here is GSM, and an unlocked phone from the US can be placed in service quite quickly. There are several cell options, with TelCel (first cousin of TelMex, the local phone monopoly) being the easiest and most popular option. TelCel is GSM, so an unlocked phone only needs a new SIM card to come to life. Prepaid service is the only realistic option for most foreigners, unless you have a Mexican issued credit card and a bit of luck. For about US$15, you can purchase a new SIM card for the prepaid service. You can purchase credit at any grocery or convenience store, with in the form of a card with a scratch off bar, or by simply giving the cashier your telephone number. (The cash register reports the purchase to TelCel almost instantly-- and no nasty card with tiny numbers to deal with.) In theory it is also possible to add time at select ATM machines, although I haven't tried. Nextel phones can work in Mexico, or be purchased locally. Their service is no cheaper here than in the U.S., but is another option. Forget about a Sprint phone, at the present time. Roaming coverage is no more than spotty.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

There are a variety of calling card options, although VOIP (Vonage, Lingo, Skype, others) are the most popular choice at present. Having a U.S. number makes life so easy for family and friends back in the U.S. Most U.S. government housing has a PBX system in the house. Most PBX systems don't have instructions as to the features. Many of the systems in the housing pool do not pass caller ID or other modern features to the extension phones. If you're going to us a VOIP box and like seeing caller ID, consider bringing a two-line cordless phone system with you, and just put the other phones in the closet.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

It is difficult, very difficult, but not impossible.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Work at the Consulate is shirt and tie suggested for the men.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Unhealthy. I have had more sinus and allergy symptoms in eight months than I had in the previous eight years. Colds are frequent and tend to linger.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

There is no violence directed intentionally at Americans at the present time, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time is never a good thing. This is a big city; like anywhere, there are always petty crimes of opportunity. (If you wouldn't leave your laptop computer sitting on the seat of your car in Chicago, you shouldn't expect to be able to do it here). We feel as safe here as any large city.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are several schools to choose from-- don{t let the materials at the OBC fool you into thinking everyone goes to ASFM. Instituto San Roberto (www.sanroberto.edu.mx) is currently a highly popular choice for elementary school kids. Values and ethics are part of the curriculum, and is part of the school's daily life. The American Institute of Monterrey (www.aim-net.mx) is another option used by some families at the Consulate. AIM also focuses on morals and values in its program, quite effectively.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

While our experience is that the schools here will go to great lengths to help any student, there are few resources or specialized programs for those not fluent in Spanish.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Both AIM and San Roberto offer preschool programs, although they are a bit pricey. Instituto Pedregal is a reasonably priced program with a great preschooler's-fantasy campus and a solid academic program (www.pedregal.edu.mx).

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

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3. Morale among expats:

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

In the big picture, this not a good city for families/singles/couples. It is a GREAT city! Come expecting a large modern Latin American city, and you won't be disappointed.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Co-workers and friends have made only compliments. This is a large, modern city.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

As in so much of Latin America, something that departs from the group mean is noticed, and often discussed with a nonsophisticated bluntness. At its root is often an innocent curiosity. If stares and poorly worded questions upset you, this might not be the best place. Society here is highly stratified along economic and ethnic lines. As a foreigner, you can be free from the prejudices that trap your neighbors, and have contact along the whole spectrum local society if you choose.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, But we've never not put money into savings/investments. It's all about your priorities. Saving money here is pretty easy, but that's probably just us.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

This wasn't our first choice. We considered it much too nice of a city. (Strange but true.)

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Polite and friendly driving style.

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3. But don't forget your:

tour will end way too soon. There is so much fun to be had here!

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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7. Do you have any other comments?

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