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Now That Our Road Trip is Over, I Can Tell You What It Was Really Like to Live in Mexico for a Year

Chuck Bolotin - Best Places in the World to Retire This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.About Best Places i...
Jet Metier with blouse from Chiapas, MexicoMaybe my wife and I lead lives a lot like yours.
 
Or at least we did, until about a year ago.  That’s when we sold our comfortable home in Arizona, sold, gave away or put into storage about 90% of our “stuff,” packed the rest into a big white van, and along with our two dogs, spent a year traveling around Mexico.
 
Why did we do it?  For an adventure before we were too old to do it and to see if we liked anywhere along the way as a place to live.
 
A lot has happened to my wife and me in that year and it certainly seems like more than a year since we crossed the border in Mexicali.
 
Maybe you would like to hear about it, in case you’re considering having your own adventure abroad.
 
Before I share our observations, here’s a little about my wife, Jet Metier, and me. We were born in the middle of the Baby Boom, 1957.  We don’t have children at home any longer, but we do have the two dogs I mentioned earlier.  We had done a moderate amount of international traveling but never as adults had we lived in a foreign country.  Our Spanish was about on level with a B-student high schooler half way through first year Introduction to Spanish.
 
Chuck Bolotin with Pemex attendants in BajaWith that, here’s the highlights of what we’ve learned:
  • The foundation of your success or failure will be your attitude, especially at the very important beginning stages, when everything is most new, and there are the greatest challenges / opportunities. “There is no growth without pain;” in this case, the “pain” of having to do some things differently.  How will you respond?  Will this “pain” cause you to become irritated as you become more inward focused, or will it open for you new perspectives and growth?  Do you define “different” as “less than”, or do you approach differences with curiosity and seek to understand and gain from them?
If you’re open to it, being placed into unfamiliar circumstances and seeing things you’re not used to will make you more understanding of other people, challenge your pre-conceived ideas, broaden and deepen you as a person, and provide you with a hyper-charged opportunity for growth. 
 
  • The reality of Mexico was very different than what we thought it would be. Up until we crossed the border, the totality of our Mexican experiences were a few soirees across the border near San Diego to Tijuana / Ensenada, a vacation to Cabo San Lucas, a few Club Med experiences, and a two-hour cruise stop.  Here are just a few of the things that ran counter to what we thought we would find:
  • In general, the Mexicans you meet in Mexico after you leave the border areas are quite a bit different than the Mexicans you meet in LA, Tucson, etc.  The Mexicans in Mexico tend to be Celebrants at the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico with Jet Metier and Chuck Bolotinmore traditional, non-confrontational and even a bit passive, and they don’t really celebrate Cinco de Mayo!  As a group, Mexicans in Mexico are not at all scary, open, friendly people who like and admire Americans and Canadians.
  • Not even the food in Mexico was what I expected. When you think of Mexican food, what comes to mind?  If you’re like me, you envision hard shell tacos like you find at Taco Bell, burritos, maybe some enchiladas, and lots of chips. The reality is that Mexico is a big country, with lots of regional food differences.  What surprised me most is how many dishes they make Jet Metier with friend Jessica at San Juan Cosala restaurantinto something I would call “stew.”  I’m still waiting for my first enchilada and we’ve had perhaps four burritos in over a year, but it’s not for lack of trying.
  • Your housekeepers and to a lesser extent, your gardeners, are your guides.  (Almost all our house rentals included housekeepers and gardeners in the rental price, which is nice to the point of being luxurious.)  Alternatively benevolent mother, human Angie’s List, personal assistant and trusted guide, your housekeeper is not only intimately aware of how everything in the house works, but they are a great resource for answers on everyday living, such as “Where can I get the tear in these pants sewn?”, “How do we get more water for our outside container?”, “When do they have celebrations and shoot off the firecrackers?”, etc.
  • It is very difficult to pick good vacation / short term rentals without seeing them first and knowing the neighborhood.  Jet did many, many hours of research, a great job and several awesome houses in awesome locations, but even so, we still wound up with two bad choices that required evacuation, Rental rejectssome fast thinking and quick execution of “Plan B."
  • You really can be happy without that new, leased BMW.  I know this because in Mexico we saw happy people all the time, some of whom, by North of the Border standards, were materially quite poor.  How could this be?  What could be more important to happiness than material success?  It turns out that the answer to this question is very important, which is brought into focus easier when living amongst people who don’t have as much as you do and yet are happy.  In our North of the Border rush for “stuff," many of us could benefit from more of this perspective.
  • Chuck Bolotin at the podiatrist in AjijicCompared with Mexico, the healthcare system in the US is absurdly expensive and the doctors don’t spend enough time with you.  While Americans used to justifiably cite healthcare as a reason not to live in Mexico, now healthcare is a prime reason to live in Mexico. 
  • After living in Mexico for a year, I am even more grateful to have been born an American.  The reasons for this are too numerous to list here.  However, just from a financial standpoint, an American with an income in the middle of other Americans can come to Mexico and live like a king, while a Mexican with an income in the middle of other Mexicans obviously can’t come to the US and live well. Being born north of the Rio Grande is an unearned, very lucky gift.  Again, thank you, USA.
  • And thinking of that gift, you can be very proud of how, as a group Americans and Canadians behave X Batun cenote, Yucatan, Mexicoin Mexico.  The Ugly American is by and large a myth, as difficult to locate as Big Foot.  Any fair reading of American and Canadian expats (a reading which would of course exclude Americans who just hate the US and anything American) would recognize and appreciate American and Canadian expats in Mexico starting charities, treating others with respect, displaying kindness, etc.
  • While it is easy to get by in the expat areas of Mexico without knowing much Spanish or close to no Spanish at all, the more you know or can learn, the richer will be your experience and the lower will be your level of frustration.  Mexicans are extremely understanding of your poor Spanish and are Boy sitting amongst the watermelons in Ajijicflattered that you are trying, no matter how badly you botch the language.  (I speak from repeated personal experience.)
As an example, when you say to a Mexican that you are sorry you can’t speak Spanish well and that you’re trying to learn, most Mexicans will reply with a big smile, tell you that it’s great you’re learning, and they are trying to learn to speak English, too.  This equivalence is very nice on a human level, but remember, you’re in Mexico.  It really should be more incumbent for you to learn the language of Mexico than for Mexicans to learn English. You can do it and you don’t have to be perfect.  Knowing just a few words is much better than complete ignorance and you will get large grins and lots of appreciation in exchange.
  • Do it before you’re too old.  Not only because of the hand-eye coordination and cool nerves required for driving in many places (see above), but also because walking in Mexico can be more physically demanding. The streets can be cobblestone and not maintained well, the sidewalks can be uneven, and if you’re tall, there are lots of opportunities to bump your head.
  • After settling in, your stress level goes way down. Many of the reasons center around how much less expensive it is to live in Mexico.  (See How Living Abroad Can Reduce Your Stress.)  Here are just some of the North of the Border stressors that are reduced (many drastically) in Mexico:
  • Tacos being made in Lo de Marcos, MexicoQuality healthcare costs about 75% less, so you are less worried about going to the doctor or being wiped out financially by an illness.  I save about $1,000 per month (yes, you read that right) on health insurance, while doctor visits are around $30 each or less, out of pocket, without insurance.  Even going to the vet is much less expensive.  One of our dogs needed surgery to repair a ligament in her knee.  The cost here in Mexico was around $300, compared to around $2,000 in the US.  Think how much that would reduce your stress.  (See: My Personal Experience Comparing Healthcare in the US vs. Mexico.)
  • Jet Metier on the corner of a street in Ajijic, MexicoRepairs to your car cost about a third and body work is probably about one tenth the cost as in the US, so rather cursing, gritting my teeth and girding for a huge expense if I need a new timing belt or a repair to a dent the van, I just happily take in in, and later, it is delivered back to me, with perfectly done work and, when compared with the US, a very, very small bill.
  • Domestic services such as housekeeping, gardening and even painting (each about $2.50 to $3.00 an hour) and repairs (the same per hour or slightly more) are so inexpensive that you don’t have to do them yourself.  This not only leaves much more money in your pocket, but it also gifts you with something even more important-- time to do other things you 36 years added from not doing choresenjoy.  This can be a much bigger deal than you would think it to be, after you’ve lived it for a while.  It’s really quite nice.
  • Apples to apples, housing is about half or less the cost as in the US. This reduces a lot of stress and increases your enjoyment in that better / bigger house in a better location with better weather, view, etc., you’re living in, while at the same time putting the extra money you saved into the bank, so you can look forward to looking at your bank balance with joy, rather than trepidation.
  • Jet Metier at Playa TecaloteAnd while you’re enjoying yourself as a result of the items in the bullets above, if you’re into these types of things, you can easily afford some pampering to celebrate.  My wife Jet gets facials and pedicures for about a 75% discount or more compared to what they would cost in the US, while I get my haircuts for anywhere from $2.76 to about $6.
  • If you have a good relationship with your spouse or significant other, it will be much better and deeper, because you will have worked together and shared big, new experiences as a couple.  Jet Metier and Chuck Bolotin at Jocotepec house, MexicoHowever, if your relationship isn’t so great, you may want to consider not going (or at least not going together).
  • If you don’t get involved with drugs or smuggling, you are much safer from violence than common (and flat out wrong) knowledge.  We were never once afraid in any way for our safety, and evidently, the hundreds of single expat women in their 70s we met (none of whom were especially threatening looking themselves) weren’t afraid for their safety, either. 
  • Jet Metier on mirador with dogs in San Miguel de AllendeAs a group, the Mexican people are hardworking, warm, helpful, non-resentful people.  When you interact with them, witness their lives and how they interact with each other, how family helps out, and how they deal with what we would consider to be hardship, even though they may be different than you, you will come to admire them, and want the best for them.  Also, the country seems to be doing fairly well economically.  Housekeepers have cell phones, people look very well fed, there seem to be a good amount of middle class Mexicans and there are plenty of upper middle class and wealthy Mexicans.
To balance things out, here are some of the bad things I haven’t already mentioned:
  • Depending on where you are, the Internet may not be as good as you’re used to in the US.  (However, in some areas, it’s actually better.)
  • You will tend to see more stray dogs.
  • Chuck Bolotin in Caribbean in TulumWhen you go off the beaten path in expat areas, not everyone speaks English, so that could frustrate you.
If you do something along the lines of what we did, you’ll most likely be a better person than if you just stay home, for lots of reasons.  When you figure out you can be successful, you will feel very good about yourself.  You can test yourself in somewhat challenging but certainly not life threatening or extreme situations to “see what you’re made of” against a backup plan that, if it doesn’t work out, you can always go back.

Jet Metier at Dia de Muertos celebration in San Miguel de AllendeAlmost certainly, you’ll succeed in one way or another in everything, which will give you a big confidence boost that will carry over into other aspects of your life.  When you make it through, you’ll have great stories to tell and great memories to look back on.  You may not be “The Most Interesting Man / Woman in the World”, but you’ll be a lot more interesting and well-rounded than if you had stayed home and watched TV.

With the caveats above, doing what we did is probably a lot easier to do than you think.  After all, all those 70+ year old Americans and Canadians did it (many of whom know little or no Spanish), so how hard could it be?
 
The "Club"

This brings me to the concept of “The Club”, the intangible existence of which dawned on me when we were staying in La Ventana, at an out of the way fishing village about 45 minutes from La Paz, in Baja California Sur, only about a month into our trip.  We were talking with a big group of Americans who vacationed in Baja all the time and were clearly having a great time; fishing, boating, snorkeling in crystal clear waters, eating at fun restaurants, enjoying the weather and the breaches, etc., and they were doing it in safe surroundings at a small Jeyt Metier getting a massage in Mahahualfraction of what it would cost in the US.

How were they able to do this?

Because they knew something others did not: that done right, Mexico is fun, safe, accessible, etc., and very inexpensive.  If others knew about it, it would be crowded and expensive, but it was not, simply because others did not know about it.  As people who did know this, they benefitted; they were members of The Club.  After considering their experiences and perspective and comparing it with our own new experiences after crossing the border, it dawned on me that we had joined The Club, too.

So, there you have it.  Our adventure and year-plus abroad may or may not be for you, but at least now you know more about what to expect if you do embark on your own adventure.  As for us, given that the alternative was staying where we were, spending another year doing pretty much the same thing in pretty much the same place, the choice was obvious, and the results were great.

 
See links to all road trip stories below.  You are currently reading the one highlighted with the yellow background.
 
To see hundreds of questions answered by expats already living in Mexico, click here.
 
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Links to articles about what we learned on our Mexico road trip:
 
 
 
 
 
 
Links to Mexico Road Trip stories:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
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Posted in  My Life In Mexico
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