What coming back to Mexico taught me

When we left Mexico over a year ago, I was so excited to see new places and be in a part of the world I hadn’t visited. We loved Mexico and Central America, but we loved South America even more.  When we decided to return to Mexico for an interesting business venture, it was with mixed feelings.  I learned some interesting things in the process.

The first thing I learned, or re-learned, is to follow my gut.  Everything within me told me not to return to Cozumel yet.  Even when we flipped coins, we kept getting the message to finish South America and head to Europe afterward.  But the possibility was so intriguing, I just couldn’t resist.  The business ended up not happening which meant an additional expense to come to Mexico was for naught.  However, since I learned, and re-learned, some valuable things it wasn’t a total waste.  Still, I should’ve listened.

You know how they say you can never really go back?  That’s true on different levels.  When I returned to Quito after 17 years, it had tripled in size and become a much more modern city.  My former neighborhood was now a large, wonderful park and uber chic mall.  But I loved Quito even more this time, even though I missed sharing my bus seat with chickens and seeing people hanging on the outside of the bus, their arms looped through open windows because there was no room inside.  And the showers we had were no longer “suicide boxes” which sent an arm-numbing current through you if you accidentally bumped the wrong spot while bathing.  Not only that, but I had hot water for the whole shower, not just the first 1-2 minutes.  I can live with that kind of progress.

Cozumel is where we began our new life.  We spent most of our time here living next to a beach in a home with two dogs and a couple who became extended family.  I did my advanced open water and rescue diver certifications here, including my first night dive.  Because of this, I think we both had more romantic views of the island.  Coming back and seeing it through different eyes. . . well, it’s no longer on our list of places we would live more long term.

I discovered I have no desire to be a typical expat, especially not the version we often encountered.  While once in a while it is nice to get together with fellow gringos, I’m not interested in only supporting gringo-owned businesses or places that exist mostly for the tourists.  When I ask for food recommendations, I hope to be sent to good local places where locals may be found.  As customers.  Obviously, if I’m asking for a great sushi place in Mexico, that requires different expectations.  I also don’t live in a country just to try to re-create my native land in a new location.  I wouldn’t plan on living in a non-English country and get irritated because few people speak my tongue.  Additionally, I wouldn’t expect to live somewhere for years and make little to no effort to learn the language.  We’re planning on initially spending only a few days in Portugal, and I’m studying Portuguese.  I just don’t get it.

This was the first time I really focused on the sounds of an area.  In other places there were little things like smells and fun accents that added to my experience of a place, but living in typical neighborhoods in Cozumel introduced me to getting to know the sounds of a place. We’ve been gone from Cozumel only a day so far and I already miss the clapping of the panadero.

I never really knew just how much I don’t enjoy routine.  It’s no secret I love adventure and exploring.  Duh!  But, I didn’t realize just how much routine can really get to me.  It’s probably much more enhanced now that my life is full of change and new experiences.  I like having some chill-at-home days, but doing that consistently over a long period of time with no real exploring just doesn’t work well for me.  I am well suited for a nomadic life for sure, as is Tigger.  After a month, he was ready to move on.  I need consistent injections of new experiences or I start feeling depressed.

While housesitting was something I figured sounded good in theory, I discovered I really enjoy it.  We’ve had a long time with no pets, and it is so much fun living in a neighborhood with locals and having some pets to take care of.  Housesitting not only gives us a chance to live more like locals, and saves us a lot of money, but it also helps us get our pet fix without having to deal with the challenges of moving animals across borders.

I knew I wasn’t a resort kind of a guy, but I hadn’t realized just how much I don’t enjoy them.  We’re currently splurging by staying in a hotel that costs $41 per night.  Normally our daily budget is $30 total, including food and everything else.  We ordered room service and felt really spoiled.  We tried an all-inclusive, and while I enjoyed having free alcohol and not having to worry about a food budget, I just didn’t enjoy the overall experience.  I can understand why some people really like that route, especially if you’re on a holiday from work or something, but it just isn’t for me.

I love being able to begin a sentence with “Was it in Honduras or Ecuador (or another set of places). . .?”  Not in an elitist way.  A big part of becoming a nomadic family was to get more living into my life.  When a memory begins with that phrase, or “Remember when we were in [insert country] and . . . ” it feels like my mission to live life more fully and to show Tigger the world and experience it with him is being successful.

I really need to be challenged more.  I knew that, though. Kind of. But being in Mexico for the umpteenth time (3rd with my child), after having spent the last 1-1/2 years in Latin America . .. . well, it’s all so familiar.  We already knew much of the island, most of the places, are familiar with the culture, etc.  After a couple of months, I was almost climbing the walls.  Part of what I love about travel is being exposed to new things, new culture, new foods, new, new, new.  Being in the same ‘ol place, doing the same ‘ol thing in the same ‘ol spots just lacks too much spontaneity and interest for me.  One of the things I love about the nomadic life is being in an area long enough to really absorb all of its intricacies, but then being able to just up and go when you feel it’s time.  Even changing cities can be enough to restart the engines usually, but Mexico has just become way too easy for me.

Before we began, I wondered if subtle life lessons would truly get absorbed by my child organically, or if I’d some day have to point them out.  Quietly, I hoped they would be absorbed through osmosis.  One day we were walking, and Tigger made a couple of interesting cultural observations about materialism.  Needless to say, I was quite thrilled when he followed up with:  Look at Mexicans.  They’re poor and many have almost nothing, but they’re f**king happy!

If nothing else positive had happened during our whole journey thus far, that one moment would’ve been more than worth anything we had to endure.  It was even better, and will mean more to him, that the observation came from him and not from something I suggested or intimated.  He’s developing a lifetime of values and memories that simply can’t be replaced.  What more could I ask for?

We are truly living our motto:  Live without regrets!

What do you do to live life more fully? What lessons and messages do you hope your children through their experiences?

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  1. My partner and I have been traveling through Mexico for over 10 months now and we usually try to avoid really touristy – ex-pat areas but we’ve been living in largest ex-pat community in Mexico for the past few months in order to have access to services we can’t get anywhere else and for short-term business reasons. Not only are we turned off by the higher cost of living in ex-pat areas but we’ve also sensed a tension in these areas from locals toward ex-pats that we haven’t feel in smaller villages/towns that we pass through. We speculate it is due to things you mentioned above (ex-pats coming in to start/take away businesses from locals, their desire to create home-like community instead of embracing the country’s culture, etc). One of the biggest turn offs for me when we pass through these areas is the sense of entitlement from some (not all) ex-pats. Some examples that stand out for me: an ex-pat neighbor who had been living in Mexico for two years couldn’t speak ANY Spanish & when local folks couldn’t understand him he would get testy and annoyed with them via raised voice and rude gestures; and another short-term neighbor of ours who bragged about how she hadn’t cleaned her own toilet or mopped a floor in over 10 years and then when on to brag about how little she paid the locals who did do the dirty work. Ick. Ick. Ick. Makes me sick to my stomach.

    However, every local person I’ve asked about how they feel about ex-pats and how they’ve affected their community say that ex-pats create a better economic environment for them and that makes them glad for their presence. And some ex-pats I’ve met truly do embrace the culture of the country they’re living in and make beneficial contributions to the community, form strong relationships with their neighbors (which are usually locals) and are there out of a sincere love for and desire to become a part of the community/culture.

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    • We met with the same tension in Cozumel. The lack of typical friendliness, the lack of desire to really mingle, etc., was so strongly obvious. It seemed like they were just completely over the expats. Understandable. Then you go to smaller towns like Valladolid and get to see some of the REAL Mexican culture. Whenever we go somewhere, I typically try to avoid expat communities. Have met some wonderful people, but it just changes things too much for me.

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  2. Loved reading this Talon. I totally agree with the reasson why you travel. I do know people who like to travel but who prefer the expat life. They can only take so much local culture and then that’s it. To each his own. There are different types of people travelling for different reasons.

    We chose to travel and live the same way as you. total immersion with no english speakers in sight. It makes the experience so much more real and forces you to think outside the box. Some people just don’t like being uncomfortable or the challenge i guess.

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    • It really made me challenge how I view myself in terms of long-term traveler or expat without a permanent home.

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  3. To live my life more fully I try to live without judging other people – it wastes too much time and energy. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand why some choose to live the ‘expat’ life – as long as they are happy.

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    • I’m not judging anyone. Just acknowledging I don’t understand a group of people’s way of life or thinking. I’m sure there are many that don’t get mine. We’re all different, and I think that’s wonderful. I’m also acknowledging that particular version of expat life doesn’t work for me. Great that it works for them, though.

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  4. Love your reflections on life in Mexico, and I agree…we couldn’t live on an island long. It would especially drive Jared nuts…he MUST go somewhere…and fairly often! I keep trying to get him to slow down…hahahaa!!

    I love Tigger’s observation…it’s exactly the lesson my kids have reflected on…and I hope it sticks forever!

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    • I guess it just depends on the island. We were on a much smaller island for 8 months and loved it, but I was diving almost daily, which makes a difference. 🙂

      I hope it sticks forever, too!

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  5. I hear you! We lived the expat life for 12 years in various countries and, while we were teaching in American schools so were in constant contact with other Americans, we wanted to live in a normal neighborhood. While in Egypt, we lived on campus and it was a real effort to get out and into the real culture. I did it, but not as much as I would have liked. When we first moved to Ethiopia, we lived on campus for a year, then insisted on a house out in a normal neighborhood! We loved it out there!

    I can totally understand expats staying in their own circle as it’s so much easier. And when you’re working full time you don’t have time for a lot of things – just like when I’m working full time in the USA. My life ends up revolving around work and since work is expats, well… it happens.

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    • It’s very interesting. Obviously, in some countries you have to live in expat compounds and such. In Cuenca, I was amazed at the number of retired people who were moving down there and demanding basically every convenience they had back home and not wanting to pay for that. People who made no effort to learn the language, constantly complained about the culture, etc. If you aren’t being forced to live there, move on! And if you feel the need to re-create your home country elsewhere, perhaps you should stay in your home country. Part of the fun of living in other countries is the fact that it isn’t like home!

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  6. “I discovered I have no desire to be a typical expat…While once in a while it is nice to get together with fellow gringos, I’m not interested in only supporting gringo-owned businesses or places that exist mostly for the tourists. ”

    First of all, I seriously doubt that there’s any such thing as a “typical expat”. But that said…

    I do oh so agree with you when you say: ” I also don’t live in a country just to try to re-create my native land in a new location. ”

    I KNOW – what’s with THAT???

    I’ve been living here in Vietnam now for nearly a full year, and I can count on my left hand the number of tet-a-tets I’ve had with fellow expats. Sure it’s nice to chat over a rare burger ‘n fries or an icy margarita once in a great while, but why on earth someone would go to the trouble to move half way ’round the globe – only to hang out with folks who talk/look/eat like them, and wall themselves up in a bubble of all-things-like-at-home – is utterly bewildering to me.

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    • Typical expat in terms of my own encounters so far. Although, from what I’ve read and heard from others, it seems my experiences of at least US expats thus far are quite common encounters with others.

      I’m glad I’m not the only who is bewildered by it. It’s downright confusing to me. Ditto for people who move to a foreign country and choose to live in essentially expat communities. Sure, an occasional get-together is nice, but I want my neighbors to be mostly locals. I want to learn as much about the culture as I can, learn to make their favorite native dishes, and so on. I find it so confusing.

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  7. Talon,
    Nice Article. Love the lessons that you expressed here, especially relearning to use your gut. I remember the conversations in Ecuador about you not feeling it was necessarily the correct move but there was the business opportunity. It’s too bad that part of it did not work out.
    Also interesting to me is being able to submerse in culture. Of course you know, the boys and I spent a month in Ecuador over the summer. My choice in home locations made it very difficult to immerse with culture. We did a bit because in a small village there are no grino shops or restaurants. I loved that month but vowed to make our next experience, in a different country, more about the people and culture.
    Anyway, it is all part of the experience. What a blessing that Stevie is learning what true happiness means!!
    May your travels to Spain and Europe bring many more lessons and amazing times!!

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    • Guess the important part is I learned from it, and no one suffered. Just a hit to the bank account.

      I think Olon was a great place for such a great endeavor. And now you’re big, bad travelers so can handle something else with confidence. And besides, you guys being there when we were meant we all got to meet and get connected, so . . .

      I look forward to reading about your adventures as well! Funny, because we were talking about you guys yesterday with a friend. Were your ears burning? 🙂

      Yes, I love that he gets it! Gotta bask in any parenting success we get, eh? LOL

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