I was annoyed. Random Mexicans kept popping up everywhere. Some wearing orange vests, some donning a badge looking like it was made by a stoned kid working at Kinkos, and others looking like just like beggars (hippies minus the attitude).
“No, no Turner. This is their job. It is part of the informal economy.” My dear Mexican friend and host in Mexico DF (Federal Disctrict aka Mexico City) helped point out the subtleties of the inner workings of the city’s economy.
“Informal economy? What the hell does that even mean? Some guy rolls out of bed in the morning and buys an orange worker vest and some parking cones and lays claim to 4 blocks of a free parking zone in the city and all of a sudden he is a budding parking attendant entrepreneur by stealing public domain?”
“More or less”
“And you trust him with your car keys?”
“More or less”
As a traveler who is used to people constantly pestering you for money I have developed a sort of “bitch shield”, not unlike a very attractive girl in a bar might have when a barrage of drunk men clumsy approach her to ask her where she from or “who cheats more, men or women?” But for me, I can feel it when people zero in on me – and my wallet – which triggers this six sense and an irritable 70 year old man awakens asking who the hell stole his newspaper. Many foreigners coming to Mexico do not “get it” and are annoyed by this melee of panderers. I sympathize because we associate this system as unnecessary and chalked full of hucksters and schemers.
Welcome to the Informal Economy.
Born from a lack of jobs to go around, governmental bureaucracy limiting access to jobs, and sheer survivalism, informal economies in many developing countries are actually larger – a lot larger – than the normal economy and exhibit more creative entrepreneurial spirit and drive than certain socialist European countries that shall not be named. For example – Mexico, a country of about 114 million, only 15% of the 35% economically active population works “officially”, meaning the rest hustle in the informal economy. Can it be annoying to always have to pay for free parking?Is it annoying to pay separately for the guy to bag your groceries in the market? Is it perplexing to have a guy covered in dirt from head to toe be the official store parking attendant who unnecessarily helps guide you into a parking spot that an 80 year old grannie could maneuver a boat into with ease? Yes on all counts. How about getting your windshield wiped down and tires scrubbed at every traffic light by an overly enthusiastic team of car cleaners working with a time clock (change of the street light)? Sure. Can it be maddening to be offered to buy everything from batteries to cotton candy while rested at stoplights? Of course. And do I really need to see people dress like clowns juggling flames on my way to dinner and children dressed up as Disney characters selling me Chiclets?
But then again… I hate bagging groceries, I appreciate my car not be keyed, stolen or peed on, I feel pimp with a glossy-bugless windshield, I enjoy costume parties and adorable Disney characters dancing in glee, but most, I fucking love having fresh cotton candy to accompany my beer when driving.
So in the end, accept, embrace and I daresay cherish this informal economy. It is more than helping to make the world go round; you are tipping for service you cheap bastard.