Archives for posts with tag: an expat in mexico

It’s been 2 years and 9 months since I started this blog.

After 475 posts and 232,172 words (about three medium size novels worth), I think that I’ve shared all there is I want to say about my transition from an engineer living in Washington, DC and working in the defense industry to that of an apprentice bag and sandal maker living these past three years down here in beautiful old Mexico.

As another fellow blogger ended her public writing, so shall I – and again – aptly borrowing from Douglas Adams:

“So long and thanks for all the fish.”

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I’ve been here 3 years now and there is still this wonderful freshness to the experience of being here.

And even though I’ve got this place totally dialed in, when I wake up in the morning it is still miraculously all new to me. For instance, I am finally living in a great place, with a great view, that is clean and private and consequently so very livable. But each morning when I step out onto the street there is no question that I am in one of the sweetest most undiscovered spots in all of Mexico.

I got up this morning just before light and brewed up a cup of strong Mexican coffee. Then took the stairs to the 5th floor rooftop, watered my plants and watched the tangerine sunrise over the broad expanse of valley to the east.

A Tangerine Sunrise

A Tangerine Sunrise

At 9:30 I put on a pair of running shorts, grabbed a t-shirt and a bandanna, then slipped on my running sandals parked at the bottom of the stairs before heading out the door. I picked up a bottle of water from the coffee shop across the street and then walked two blocks to catch the grey combi-bus for the 20 minute ride out into the valley.

The sun was hot but the air was cool and there was a light breeze that made my run especially pleasurable. The valley and environs sit about a mile above sea-level and the weather is consistently gorgeous just about every day.

Ran for an hour before catching the combi back into town. Sluiced off with the garden hose on the roof then changed into a pair of cargo shorts and a different pair of sandals before walking the three blocks to Beto’s Carnitas Fonda in the Mercado.

I had three pork tacos: a rib meat taco, a taco made from the crunchy cartilage of the ear, and a kidney taco. All the meat was cooked in freshly rendered lard in a big stainless steel pot over a gas grill. I dressed them each independently with chopped onions, cilantro, hot chilies, avocado sauce and picked onions and carrots.

Some Typical Mexican Condiments

Some Typical Mexican Condiments

A couple of other men sat down at the counter while I was eating and like always I enjoyed watching Beto make up their plates. Everyone likes their carnitas different. And everyone has their own special way to dress them up.

Luz, who woks in Katya’s Fonda, patted me on the arm as she walked by. Ramon (still working his own fonda at 83) came up from behind while I was paying and put his arm around my shoulder and said hello.

These people are all so happily alive and my life here is so simple and delightfully small but packed with a richness that I am joyfully thankful for every single day.

PS – Classically speaking, this isn’t one of those picturesquely charming Mexican towns. Architecturally the town is common. The buildings are utilitarian. The materials of construction are brick. Some walls painted. Some not. But marvelously there is still a beauty to be found in so many local houses and buildings with that worn down quality that can best be described as benign neglect. Where in places, left to time and the elements, eroded plaster partially covered by faded paint exposing crumbled earthen adobe walls.

Art or decay?

Art or decay?

The flight home was scheduled to depart at 2:45 pm and arrive in Guadalajara 3 hours later at 8:10 pm but a rainstorm in Las Vegas changed all that. We sat on the runway for 2 ½ hours watching the lightning and the rain pouring down before the tower called the plane back to the gate where we all deplaned for yet another hour. And that’s only the first part of the bad news.

But part 1 of the bad news was offset by part 1 of the good news and that is I got to sit next to a very bright and charming woman who made the time [almost] slip by. Her name is Julietta; she who possesses a face as pretty as her name.

And right off I learned that Julietta had just finished up vacationing in Las Vegas for 6 days with her one sister and youngest brother. And I learned she was a professional woman who worked in the passport office in the nearby state of Sinaloa.

Upon hearing that I lived in Michoacán she exclaimed, “It’s violent there!” I laughed and said, “You should talk. You live in Sinaloa.” I shook my head and waggled my finger at her. “You have some very bad men there.” To which she laughed, nodding in agreement. Sinaloa’s reputation in my opinion exceeds even that of Michoacan. Anyway, black humor…

She asked me when I got to Vegas and when I told her just yesterday, the conversation turned to how difficult the pursuance of a resident’s visa has been for me. She said that the simplest path would be for me to marry a Mexican woman. She said, “That’s a passport.” Oh, yeah.

Then she asked me if I had a girlfriend in Mexico. I briefly explained that the women that I had met hadn’t seen their way to fathom the benefits of the reciprocity of US citizenship. And I went on to say that a woman would have to be sufficiently young enough and with enough education to be able to leverage the benefits that would come with US citizenship. And passport. I could tell that I was speaking her language here.

I went on to explain my age, “But I am old. Fifty-nine.” She said after a moment more – scrutinizing my face – “You’re fine. You’re okay.”

I gave her one of my cards after she said that she had a couple of friends who might be interested in such an arrangement before going on to speak hypothetically that if she were to get remarried – she was a widow of 5 years – she would do so not for herself but for her 10 year old son.

Now she was speaking my language, as I have oft times been the persistent and chronic educational advisor to my own child.

I delighted in how savvy she was to unequivocally understand those opportunities that a US citizenship would bring to her son; both in educational and in career prospects. I shouldn’t leave out that Jullieta is an attorney as well as the daughter to a medical doctor so she grew up with those values.

She mildly shocked me when – still in the hypothetical mode mind you – she challenged me with, “So what is your offer?” I had to stop and think about that one. I finally was able to respond that I would help that certain hypothetical person’s son get started in the US, council him, aid in navigation, and in doing – help said same son pick a good university.

Now don’t get me wrong. Julietta wasn’t being some rude shark bitch in asking such a question. Rather she was merely being the truly responsible adult by not just seeing the endgame but also having that bold presence of mind to lead me in an unhesitant manner to a major consequence as she foresaw that particular eventuality.

Her question in all of its starkness reminded me of when my daughter came to me 8-9 years ago and asked if I was going to help pay for her university. “Well, yeah,” I said. And I knew that question was appropriate, but the abruptness – that future is here moment – was akin to getting a live hand grenade dropped in my lap.

Anyway, at some point she took a nap, and like the shivering sleepless wreck I was, wished I could have. She was stressed and tired from the travel delay and the seat between us was vacant so I pulled up armrest divider so that she could take advantage of that additional space. It wasn’t altogether altruistic as I certainly enjoyed the closer proximity to this specific attractive younger woman. And to end on this I must say that she was by far the nicest woman I’ve met thus far in Mexico. So I certainly hope to speak to her again. She has my contact info so if we do, it will be at her behest. (But honestly, isn’t that second step always the woman’s prerogative anyway?)

So the second part of the bad news is twofold: One, we – my cab driver buddy and I – would be driving in Mexico late at night. Bad. Very bad.

And two, we would be driving through hell’s gate at 2:30 in the morning. Bad. Super bad. Hell’s gate (my words) is the state border between Jalisco and Michoacán; a place where literally a couple/few hundred people have been murdered since ’08.

Anyway, got home at 3 am. Dead tired. But not dead.

Yet bouncing down the roads, wasted from lack of sleep but getting closer to home – Mexico was a fog but still much less foreign than Vegas.

It’s fiesta time again. And this is the biggest one of the year. The Fiesta Santiago Apostol. Nothing is done in half measures here. And yes, it’s a fiesta because St. James is the patron saint of the city. And it’s three long weeks of fiesta.

There have been activities in the plaza every single night since it started; programs that typically involves loud music. It started 11 days ago and ends August 4th. But today is the crescendo because July 25th is St. James Day celebrating the Apostle James or in Spanish, Santiago Apostol.

The city has been a madhouse of activity all day. People flocking in from everywhere: the states, outlying areas, and other parts of Mexico because Sahuayo throws one wild romp of a party on the 25th.

The central cathedral has been shooting off explosive rockets from their rooftop every 20 minutes. The rockets are so loud they set off car alarms. When the wind direction is right, I catch burning paper fragments on my rooftop.

The real party doesn’t start until after dark and won’t end until the very earliest, like four or five o’clock tomorrow morning. So imagine a procession of hundreds of men wearing costumes with tall ornate masks winding their way through the city, accompanied by music and laughing screaming kids; going on all night long.

2012 Fiesta Santiago Apostol

2012 Fiesta Santiago Apostol

I missed it last year because I was biking through the Michigan Great Lakes region. In 2012, I partied all night long with the best of them. But I was comfortable, surrounded by my neighbors on Victoria St.

This year I am staying home. Call it intuition but I believe there might be trouble out there on those streets for me tonight. I say that because of three important pieces of corroborating evidence.

First, I had a conversation with a policeman downtown a couple of days ago. I asked him if he was jazzed about the 25th. He looked at me through sad eyes and talked to me from his perspective, that of a cop and said, “Lots of drunks (I knew that already). Lots of fights, some stabbings, and sometimes murders.”

Secondly, I had my complete fill of murder yesterday. I also had a most sobering and thought provoking reconciliation with the associated dangers that can come from the most simple misunderstandings.

And third – and most conclusively –  on my way home from the Mercado this afternoon a guy stopped me and said, “Don’t get drunk tonight.”

I laughed it off saying, “Don’t you get drunk either”, thinking that was what lots of guys were saying to each other today knowing full well that they’d be out drinking on the streets until dawn. But this guy didn’t laugh back. He looked very serious when he said again, “Don’t get drunk tonight.”

And you know what? I won’t.

I don’t think I can do this anymore. Unless I get deported from Mexico, I think this could be my final stop.

I’ve got a great place to live in a great town surrounded by nice people. And I am finally at that point in my life where I can appreciate everything for what it is. As I’ve so often told my daughter, ‘the only thing better than being happy is knowing that you are happy.’

And just like possessions and other things like travel; I can finally say enough is enough.

I am writing this tired. Tired to the bone. So maybe I’ll feel different in the morning. But I doubt it. I struggled with this latest move. The fault is totally on me. Using two recycled plastic shopping bags as a moving vehicle is insane.

In spite of the minimalist that I’ve become over the years, I still managed to accumulate things. I am still managing a wardrobe of sandals, shorts (4 pair) and t-shirts (6 each). But through both fetish and development I’ve somehow acquired something like 40 pairs of sandals. That’s a whole lot of shopping bags my friend.

But I figured what the hell. Five blocks. How long can that take? Still, with the requisite kitchen stuff, assorted tools, boxes of leather parts, rolls of whole skins, two work tables, a full size computer workstation, books, and the other usual detritus; it took five times longer than I thought.

Five blocks. Five lousy blocks. Without question the shortest move in what turns out to be just the latest in a long history of moves.

So get this. As a child I moved something like fifteen times with my parents. Then it was a half dozen to a dozen independent moves – poverty does that – before it was off to university in Marquette where I lived first in the dorm, then a cabin, then two different houses before doing a 6 week tour of Europe before returning for a brief summer stay in Michigan – living out of my Chevy van on the beach before we were off to Texas.

In Texas it was two different apartments until we saved enough money to buy our first house.

Then California. Three houses.

And let’s feather in some business travel. Eighteen months of living out of a suitcase while on loan to Intel Sales and Marketing building out 25 new sales offices across the US and Canada. That meant 4 trips each to every major metropolitan area in the US where Intel had consolidated it sales and marketing enterprise. I was in and out of airports on the average of every three days where the flying time I think added up to something like 200,000 actual air miles.

Then they asked me to do Brazil. Then Mexico. Then Colombia. All requiring four trips each.

I was gone so often to so many weird places that my neighbor – a military air and sea rescue pilot – told me that I fit the perfect profile of a spy.

Next came Asia. In seven years I crossed the Pacific 46 times staying anywhere from a week or ten days to two months. Japan, Korea, both China’s, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Indonesia.

After months and months of living in a great hotel in Singapore, the company finally got me an apartment. And at some point I had hooked up with the manufacturing arm of Intel and they put me to work too. So there was all the inter-Asia travel on top of the trans-Pacific stuff.

And it was all so extreme that one time it took me almost three months to submit an expense report. Thirty-one thousand bucks and change. The expense report with accompanying receipts was as thick as the old Dallas phone book. When my boss saw it he looked across his desk, grimaced, and told me in no uncertain terms to never wait three months again. (I was told the women in the finance group passed it back and forth for a week like it was a hot potato before finally giving it to the new hire to process). Apart from the executive team, I would imagine that one expense report still stands as a record.

And so it was I finally burnt out. Then it was North Carolina for a long rest. One house, five years. Then Washington, DC. Two apartments downtown which was broken up by a one year house-sitting stint for a good buddy of mine at his suburban place just across the Potomac in Alexandria.

Now Mexico.

And if I can just keep myself from getting deported I think I am home to stay.

Sahuayo is without question the least pretty place that I have ever lived in my life. But thankfully pretty doesn’t matter to me much anymore.

Sahuayo is also a town without much culture. Jiquilpan, just 7 km. south of here, has tons more culture. Their public library has 10 giant murals painted by that seriously famous Mexican realist master, Jose Clemente Orozco. And their library actually has books (unlike ours).

But for better or worse I have come to love this town. Not the town so much as the people.

A typical day. I went to Mercado for lunch. I stopped outside and picked up a fresh squeezed orange/carrot juice from Alberto’s stand. He’s 73 years old and still works 7 days a week just like his two sisters. I then ducked inside for three tacos at Beto’s carnitas place.

One taco was chopped up crunchy pig’s ear (which by the way has now replaced gelatinous snout as my favorite). Another was pig spleen. And the other one was made from some of that always delectable rib meat. Like most fondas Beto keeps his condiments out on the counter so I put on the finishing touches by doctoring them up with avocado, onion, serrano chilis, and sliced radishes.

Beto’s is my favorite carnitas place in town. And there are dozens and dozens to choose from. Maybe because he only boils his pig parts in the finest and freshest rendered lard. That’s what he says anyway every time that I’ve complimented him. And I like the guy. He is an affable 40-something year old man with a bit of a pot belly who for reasons unknown to me has one extremely gorgeous wife.

While eating my tacos, Pancho stopped for a quick chat. Much more the aficionado, Pancho favors carnitas tacos from closeby El Chino’s but maintains that Chelis, out on the boulevard, makes better carnitas plates. In just a short exchange I learned that he kept his cantina open until 4 am. He was a bit haggard around the eyes – on his best days he looks a lot like the French actor, Jean Reno – but still managed to have a smile on his face in spite of the 100 hour work weeks he puts in. He shops in the Mercado every single day for the food that he serves at his cantina. What would take 15 minutes to buy in a modern grocery store takes him at least three times that given all the different stops and all the people he visits with along the way.

After Pancho left, Eva came round to give me a kiss. This is something she usually does which positively charms me to no end. Her father, Mario has a birria stand just around the corner from Beto’s and his adorable 4 year old daughter keeps him company most afternoons when she isn’t racing around the Mercado playing with two or three other little girls.

On my way out of the Mercado I got to visit for a few minutes with Jose, one of the fastest runners in all of central Mexico. Then I saw his equally fast running buddy, Manuel just a few minutes later. He tooted the horn on his scooter at me as he sped past, waving and smiling furiously.

On my way up the hill I stopped into the lavenderia and got to hold my six month old little buddy, Edgar for a few minutes. The ladies there look after him part of the day and probably don’t even get paid for it. His parents live upstairs in a beautiful apartment. Dad works. Mom is stay at home. And grandpa owns the building. I’ve come to notice that smiling little Edgar gets passed around like a football. And it’s become apparent that he likes getting held by the women more than me. Even at only six months he’s no dummy.

Little Edgar is a prime example of why people here are so socially oriented. Kids here aren’t kept locked up and fed electronica. Nope. Everyone here lives very outside, very social lives. Maybe the perfect climate is the enabler. I don’t know. What I do know is that I see a town full of laughing, playing little kids. Beautiful women and warm friendly men.

The last thing I saw before I closed my gate was my 90 year old neighbor talking to another old woman on the corner. And my neighbor had her hand gently resting on the other woman’s shoulder. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if those two women hadn’t known each other their whole lives.

It has actually brought tears to my eyes when one of these old women in my neighborhood has taken my hand in theirs and leaned up to give me a kiss on the cheek; smiling, radiating some unfathomable joy and happiness.

I can feel like crap from something I’ve seen in the news or a nasty I’ve gotten via email. But ten minutes out the door and on the street. A few handshakes. A pat or two on the shoulder. Some smiles. A kiss on the cheek. And here in Mexico I’m a happy man.

But as my friend, Pancho said to me yesterday, “No one is talking about it [anymore].”

So day before yesterday at 9:30 pm, two policemen were killed and one was seriously wounded in what should have been a routine traffic stop 8 blocks to the northwest from my house on the road leading out towards El Rincon. And I learned this morning that on that same Monday there were two other people killed in a gunfight a couple of kilometers south of town.

And to think it was just after the big shootout at Los Cruces – only something like 6-9 months ago – when everyone here finally thought the war was over. Maybe because that was the gun battle to end all gun battles.

The likes of which haven’t been seen since The Lincoln County War of 1878.

It took place 4 kilometers to the northeast from my house at the principal highway crossroads leading to Guadalajara. The battle started at 7 am and went on for 2 long hours. Needless to say it was witnessed by many (many) people. Everyone was involved: the Jalisco cartel, the Michoacan cartel, the Federales, the vigilantes, and at least one branch of the armed forces.

When it was all said and done, 25 men were dead on the scene and a large unreported number were wounded. The bad guys from Jalisco won and – as it turned out – peace reigned, but only briefly.

Why has the violence returned? Well, it seems the Jalisco bad guys (in public conversations here we don’t use the group names) weren’t content with their little victory over our bunch of bad guys here in northern Michoacan. Oh no, it seems they have a much larger plan for domination.

And why is this little city so important that so many people get murdered here? Maybe because it sits a mere 30 miles from the Jalisco state line and as such is one of the principal gateways into Michoacan. And the city itself I’ve also been told is contentious for private reasons.

When is the violence going to stop? The most logical and improbable solution would be to somehow magically curtail the consumption habits of its northern neighbor, the United States. The logic being, you can’t sell what nobody wants. But the fact is too many Americans need drugs to cope with their shitty jobs and their shitty lives.

So then there is the Medellin solution. That Colombian city reclaimed itself – booted out the drugs and the violence – by offering its people truly better alternatives. They made education more accessible. Improved public transit from the poor neighborhoods to better paying jobs in the city center. They even added libraries to low income areas. The Medellin solution is not as costly as one might think.

Malcom Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ noted that many street dealers in the US for example still lived at home with mom. Why? He ran the numbers and discovered that when every expense was accounted for, the average low level drug dealer wasn’t earning much more than minimum wage. And he discovered that the guy running the crew wasn’t much better off. It was only much further up in the food chain where the real money was being made.

So following Medellin’s example: providing access to better jobs, aiding with education, and improving infrastructure all generally add up to improving people’s day to day lives as well as aiding their long term futures. All in very mappable, measurable and pragmatic ways.

But maybe that makes too much sense. I say that because it seems that politicians don’t seem at all interested unless votes or special interest group dollars are at stake. Or funding enormous sums of money to build airplanes that can’t fly. On Capitol Hill and over at the Pentagon that’s all seriously important shit.

PS – That last statement calls to mind a thought. The US spends something like $600B on military intelligence and defense. Yet during 9/11, the once seemingly impregnable fortress of doom – the Pentagon – took a direct hit.

This ironically kind of proves out something the famous modern military strategist Colonel John Boyd had remarked on much earlier – late 80s or early ’90s – ‘that the Pentagon wasn’t in the business of defense so much as it was in the business of the procurement of large (and expensive) weapons systems.’

So here we have the US’s chief defense agency; thousands of admirals and generals all together holding more stars than the Milky Way galaxy, and they couldn’t as much manage to scrape together the where for all to even defend themselves.

And what could possibly have been on their plates more important than protecting the home base? Buying more drones? Maybe ordering up yet more of those marginally operational F-35s?

Whatever. It all resulted in such a complete break down of stewardship.

PPS – And how fittingly embarrassing to get bitch slapped by a bunch of guys who could only scrape but a few riyals together.

My opinion is this: One expat is fine. And perhaps two in any given place is okay. But three or more are poison.

Take me. I am the only expat in this small city of 60,000 in northern Michoacán. And it has been my observation that if you want to get along then you better learn to keep your grumbling at home, listen more than you speak, and make please and thank you your most spoken words. And I’ve learned that it doesn’t hurt to smile a lot. But here in Mexico that’s an easy thing to do.

Teasing small children, talking to old people, and taking a sincere interest in your neighbors also goes a long way. But then again this is Mexico and I’ve found these things surprisingly easy to do as well. And you can’t out smile any of them. And when you do smile you might find like I have that their graciousness knows no limit. Taken one step further, local people can’t get enough about how much you love their town.

But I am the only non-native here. So it’s made it easy for me to learn that to get along is to go along. You consciously need to make an effort to fit in; not stand out. But you quickly find that one hand washes the other; as in a sincere niceness and generosity of spirit are abundantly rewarded.

It has been my experience that expats – in groups greater than three – are generally guilty of committing 3 egregious sins.

First, to cop an attitude of I am special, look at me, I have all this money and back home I used to be a really damned important person. (If you travel enough you’ll soon discover that paradise is overpopulated with liars, scoundrels, and thieves who expatriated themselves for less than honorable reasons).

Second, the natives – when they aren’t being ignored – are there for color, amusement, or failing that – to merely wash your clothes and pick up your shit.

Third, many expats quickly ban together together in their misery to drink, brag and complain. They drink because they are bored. They brag to each other as to band aid over their previous mostly miserable lives. And they complain because they find nothing in this new place nearly as good as what they first imagined. Which combined with no. 1 and no. 2 further tends to poison paradise.

As a mostly misunderstood cliche has it, ‘no matter where you go, there you are.’ And an asshole in paradise is still an asshole.

PS – A comment yesterday pointed to the aphorism “The purpose of going somewhere is to be there.” Truly the best and quite possibly the only real good reason to travel. Thanks Bob.

I drink fresh squeezed juice here twice a day; half orange and half carrot juice. Pretty tasty stuff. Healthy too.

The first one I buy from Tere’ who lives just 3 doors down. It’s something like a 16 ouncer and costs 11 pesos or about 80 cents US.

I drink it on my way to the Mercado in the morning and it is big enough to last through breakfast.

The second cup of juice I buy after my run, just before lunch from my friend, Alberto who runs a juice and fruit stand in front of the Mercado with 2 of his sisters. All three of them are in their ’70s and even so they still work pretty damn hard. It takes strength to jam carrots into a grinder and cut and mash oranges into pulp all day long, seven days a week, 364 days a year.

Every three or four visits they make me drink down a third of my juice so that they can refill it. All for just 8 pesos, And they do it with a smile.

This afternoon I learned they have 5 other brothers and sisters. I told them I thought it was wonderful how so many Mexicans had big families.

The oldest sister had me laughing out loud when she said, “Our parents didn’t have a TV.”

I got both her and her sister laughing in return when I said, “That game (juego – ‘sex’) is always more fun than TV.”

PS – Yesterday afternoon a hummingbird flew into the house. I can only surmise that he was feeding on the aloe vera plant’s long stem of flowers – the only flowering plant on the third floor northern terrace – before then somehow making a wrong right turn through the open door.

I looked up from my workstation when I heard the thrumming of his wings as he hovered anxiously close by the south side set of windows. I was a bit panicky wondering how I was going to get the little bugger out of the house without him injuring himself. My first attempt – stupid as it was – was to try and get him to land on my finger but he wasn’t having none of that. It then took all of 20 seconds to get the key and open the southern door and he was gone.

PPS – Several times I have been out on the terrace laying in the hammock reading a book and I’ve heard the same surprisingly loud thrumming noise as some other hummingbird was hovering just inches behind my head.

Nature’s own tiny hovercrafts. Thinking about them always puts a smile on my face.

Viva Mexico!

My recent very well-traveled Italian houseguest said one thing that was astoundingly disingenuously honest: Never confuse your vacation spots with the places where you could live.

As for me, after two and a half years in Mexico, I will never come willingly back to the US. Only in chains, at gunpoint or in a box. Simple.

I appreciate living in a culture that has a grand history. A culture that revers the aged/experienced. A culture where little children can play unprotected.  A culture of friendliness.

I don’t vacation anymore…I live.