Cheapest Destinations Blog is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Public Leisure and Valuing Free Time

“I love how the parks are always packed with people,” was my mother’s amazed comment when she visited me in Guanajuato this summer. Indeed the plazas large and small in Mexico—and much of the world outside the U.S.—really latch on to the word “public.” The areas are filled with people chatting face-to-face, hardly anyone talking on a cell phone or checking their messages unless they’re looking for their friend or relative they were supposed to meet….face to face.

I recently did a guest blog post on Free Pursuits about lessons learned from a tw0-month remote work experience. It was about my time this summer living for a month in a Mexican city and traveling for another month in the Yucatan and Belize. All the time I was trying to continue my usual work obligations. One of my points from that is when you really get into the groove of a foreign culture, especially one in Latin America, you then become way out of sync with the workaholic culture in the U.S.

It’s easy to get into the more healthy pace of a foreign culture with it’s 3-hour lunches, afternoon siestas, weekly festivals, and strolls at dusk. Unfortunately, some of the people you deal with back home have never known any of that and can’t even fathom the idea of not working 10-hour days and toting their crackberry the other times. In their 24/7 connected world, you’re a slacker if you don’t respond to e-mails within the hour.

Lesson learned: Be prepared for daily apologies and soothing of egos in your business dealings if you “go native.”

Travelojos blog had another interesting article: Public Leisure – Mexico’s Luxury That Eludes the U.S. The “luxury” in that title has nothing to do with fancy resorts and spa treatments, but rather the luxury of time. Here the more money we make, the less we seem to have of that luxury you can’t get back—free time. That’s one reason backpackers find life on the road for months or a year to be so exhilirating: no schedules, no obligations, nobody expecting you to check your voice mail or respond to their e-mail instantly. Many Mexicans move here and are amazed at how we spend our time, all work and no play. “What’s the point of the money if you don’t have any time?” they ask.

In one of my Spanish conversation classes this summer the teacher asked “What’s your favorite part of your city.” Some had answers about a great park, a symphony hall, or a hiking trail. For me it was mi barrio—my neighborhood—because it’s one of the few places in my city where residents can get everything they need by walking or biking. In 20 minutes I can walk to the bank, the post office, two grocery stores, three coffee shops, a dozen restaurants, eight bars, a pharmacy, and two liquor stores. My car sits in the driveway for days. How unAmerican! As a result, lots of people know lots of people in this neighborhood. We stop and talk, we have block parties, we invite each other over with only a day’s notice. Our kids walk to school together.

Unfortunately, this is an anomoly. In most places in this country it’s work, work, driving, work, and more driving. Cars, commutes, and streets with no sidewalks are a brutal combination.

One of the great things about traveling to cities in other countries is you can leave much of that auto-centered city planning and architecture behind. And you can get back the luxury of free time, of a lazy afternoon spent in a cafe or on a park bench. How much is that worth?

Happy Labor Day weekend.

Back on Tuesday.


Wednesday 9th of September 2009

Another great article, Tim.

So much of American culture has been reduced to how quickly the garage door closes, only to fire up the HDTV, logging into Facebook, running our games and Twittering nonsense.

And we wonder why we're fat, self-absorbed and ideologically far right of center.

Pass the Prozac. It's OK, it's not a pre-existing condition.

jim johnston

Saturday 5th of September 2009

Curiously, here in Mexico City where open green space is rare, many of the smaller parks are underused. Mexicans like crowds, so they all go the the same place--Chapultepec Park. You're right on about the time=money equation. It doesn't exist here--and my life is surely better for it. jim johnston, mexico city