Book Review: Why We Left

616zADxrq6LBook Review: Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, Collected essays of 27 women happily living in Mexico
© 2019 by Janet Blaser
Available on Kindle and in paperback
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The 27 women contributing to this volume clearly communicate the numerous and varied reasons they left the USA, as the title suggests, focusing primarily on how they made the transition and have forged new lives in a culture and language so very different from their own. I eagerly looked forward to relishing the reading of this book, but it is even richer than I imagined. It contains loads of tips on relocating to Mexico, the advantages and challenges these women encounter in this new land, and what these immigrants have learned by living in their adopted homes.

The volume is comprised of unique and interesting voices whose stories are completely different from one another and yet, on a profound level, very much the same. Amazing to me is that despite huge differences in histories, circumstances and reasons for leaving, every one of the contributors is happy she made the move and feels more connected to herself than ever before.

So, why did these US American women leave? Quite a few were sick of consumerism gone wild, the over-consumption and waste. Some of them were bored or frustrated. Several were tired of the never-ending, senseless murders at concerts, in schools and movie theaters. You’ll read about economic refugees who can’t afford to continue living in the USA, as well as women who are well off yet choose to escape their seemingly perfect lives. Some of the authors were weary of the rat race; that they didn’t have time for family and friends; that they’d come home from vacation to an overflowing, stress-filled in-box. A few fled financial ruin, divorce, or the death of loved ones. A couple moved after serious illness “woke them up” to the fact that life is short and they should live their dreams while they still can. Some mention escaping the rhetoric of intolerance and hatred.

The stories you read in these pages are real and revelatory, not promotional. You learn of a friend who dies in a hospital in Mexico who shouldn’t have, and another who gets state-of-the-art, personalized care for pennies to the dollar. Both are the “real” Mexico, the land of paradox, home of the world’s most comfortable hammocks and most uncomfortable chairs, the land where people greet crisis with both stoicism and joy. The reader will get terrific advice on how to choose where to live, how to prepare for the move, what to pack and what to leave behind, which is the best and most affordable health insurance, where to bank most easily and save fees, how to get the best health care, raising children and dating in Mexico. You’ll learn that wherever you go, there you are; moving abroad will exacerbate—not solve—relationship troubles, family problems or self-esteem issues.

The women who have written these pages are single, widowed, divorced, raising children and taking care of elderly parents. They live in every region of Mexico, with varied income levels, in big cities, small towns and even completely off the grid. Some of them made the decision to move strategically, with careful, step-by-step planning; others fell in love with Mexico and spontaneously made the decision to move. They make ends meet by telecommuting, starting businesses, working a job, housesitting or collecting a pension or social security. Many came to Mexico the first time on holiday, on a cruise or sabbatical. We learn about women who rent their homes, buy them or live in homes on wheels.

Common themes include how emotional and time-consuming it can be to cull through a lifetime accumulation of “stuff” to make the move—that we identify with our belongings more than we realize, and that the reality of US American life necessitates a lot of shredding. Many of these women speak about how their friends and family think they are crazy for moving to Mexico, and refuse to visit them—out of fear, primarily. Most every American woman in this volume speaks to the challenge of learning a new culture and a new language, as well as the fact that living in a foreign language and culture keeps one’s brain agile and active.

A couple of the authors experienced natural disasters while living in Mexico, and advise of the challenging lack of official government response or help. They caution those who would move here that the country is noisy: parties, laughter, music and fireworks, at all hours of the day and night. The daily bureaucracy can be oppressive; paying bills, banking, it can take weeks to accomplish basic things. There is a huge dichotomy between rich and poor in Mexico, they counsel, and huge differences in male-female dynamics. Some of the women warn about scorpions, mosquitos, street dogs, spiders and iguanas, about the difficulty of leaving family behind. Quite a few of these women, despite the challenges, have become integral members of and even leaders in their communities; all of them speak to deep connections and relationships.

They tell us that Mexico has taught them to smile more, to relax more easily, to be more patient. They say they are thinner and healthier here, eating whole foods rather than processed, and walking more, swimming, hiking, biking and golfing. Many of them take painting or writing classes and volunteer in their new hometowns. They write of a broad variety of friends, local and international, from a variety of backgrounds, who are passionate about life. They tell the reader of the resilience one gains by living abroad, the sense of wonder one feels, that they learn something new every day. These women report learning not to make assumptions, to go with the flow. They report that they’ve become more empathetic, accepting and less judgmental— they experience a freedom in Mexico that they do not in the USA. They admire the culture, history and art in their new home, but most of all Mexico’s hardworking, creative people. They have learned to be more humble, less materialistic, to slow down and not feel so entitled. Many of them report that they now experience culture shock when they go north, back “home.”

The women authors of this book appreciate the proximity of their new homes to their birthplaces in the USA: easier to see children and grandchildren, to care for aging parents, to meet dear lifelong friends. They are grateful for the affordability of their new home, be it the price of housing, food, travel or healthcare. Despite mass media reports to the contrary, the women in this volume report feeling safer living in Mexico than they did in the USA. They find Mexican people generally gentle, kind, happy, helpful and honest. They take pride in raising multilingual, multicultural kids here and to having opportunities they would never have at home. They cite the environmental beauty of Mexico, and, of course, the fact that the winters are far less cold. Many of the women write about the value of their friendships in Mexico and treasure the fact that family and community connection are still huge priorities in life. Several women mention they love all the outdoor living and the deep roots and tradition.

If you are thinking about moving overseas—to Mexico or anywhere else on the planet—this book can be an immense help, whatever your gender. It is living proof that risk has its rewards. If you’ve already made the move, it’ll provide good context for the journey you’ve made, and aid in making sense of your own experience. It’s not a volume to read all in one sitting, but, rather, to sit with when you have time to enjoy and reflect on what you are reading.

Tickets (really) Available Online!

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Yes! It’s true! Really! This time it works! As of this past Monday we can buy tickets to CULTURA Mazatlán events in the Angela Peralta theater online!

Mazatlán is blessed with world-class cultural events—my beloved opera, classic and modern dance, theater, music—but until now domestic and international tourists have been frustrated by an inability to purchase tickets in advance of their travel to Mazatlán. Residents have also been frustrated. Those who live outside the Centro Histórico have for years been handicapped—we fight traffic and torn-up roads only to get to the theater to find the box office isn’t open. Good tickets get sold out before we can get any, or we have to impose on friends who live downtown to get them for us. Even those who live downtown can struggle.

Our prayers have fortunately been answered. Even though for years it’s been announced that people can buy online, the system never worked. Lic. Raul Rico and his staff wanted to farm out the work, but the municipality said they wanted to do it in-house. They never did. Finally, however, the IT people at the municipio have come through! So far, the online purchase does not work for events in Casa Hass and elsewhere, but I’m told that will come soon. Fingers crossed.

The process for purchasing tickets online is as follow:

  1. Begin at the calendar/cartelera: http://www.culturamazatlan.mx/calendario.php  Sadly this page is currently only in Spanish. Cultura has been looking for months for English-language assistance…
  2. Click on the event of interest to you, and you will see (in Spanish) the date, time and location at the top of the pop-up window. Below it will appear intended audience, ticket prices and a summary of the event. On the upper right you will see an aqua blue box that reads Comprar boletos (buy tickets).
  3. Once you click on Comprar boletos, on the next page you will need to select the time of the performance you wish, and then click Continuar sin registrarme, or “Continue without registering.” Alternatively you can enter your “Yo + Cultura” card information to track your purchase for goodies.
  4. Once you finish there, the system will take you to a map of the venue. As you mouse over the seats available the ticket prices appear. Click on the desired seats, and click on Confirmar tu compra or “Confirm your purchase.”
  5. You’ll be taken to a confirmation page where, if everything is ok, you’ll click Realiza tu pago or “Enter your payment.”
  6. The next page will ask you for your email (correo electrónico) and cell phone number. This is great, because you’ll get a confirmation email for your purchase, and they will send the tickets themselves to your cell phone!  So, be sure to enter the numbers correctly and double- and triple-check them. That way, you can print them out, or you can just have a virtual copy on your phone to show at the door and save a tree.
  7. On the final page you’ll enter your payment information:
    1. Cardholder name (Nombre del titular)
    2. Card number (Número de tarjeta). Supposedly any credit or debit card except American Express will work.
    3. Expiration date (month/year)—Vigencia (mes/año)
    4. Security code (Código de seguridad/CVV2)

I trust you are as excited about this news as I am. Kudos to the city, and to the folks at Cultura, for getting this done. It’s obviously the new administration who will get the advantage of all their hard work—what a wonderful parting gift—but the biggest winners should be all of us who enjoy our Cultura events!

Of Friends and Transitions

Living overseas seems to bring with it a mobile and transitory lifestyle of a caliber foreign to those who steward the home traditions. We become accustomed to a series of pronounced and frequent life transitions. In Tokyo foreign friends would transfer to assignments in other exotic locations every three to five years. It makes it nice for traveling, a privilege to be able to stay with friends around the world, but their departures leave huge holes in our lives. In Mazatlán there seems to be a frequent seven to ten year cycle to expat life, with beloved friends moving to the interior of the country or back home, closer to grandkids, so they can be an integral part of those children’s lives.

Transitions are a normal part of life; I know this. Life is comprised of cycles; I know and believe this from the depths of my heart. Yet dealing constructively with transitions is the reason I made a career as an interculturalist oh so many decades ago. I am not good at them. They hurt. Things change. They can even change for the better, open new doors and windows for which we’ll forever be grateful. But, they involve change nonetheless. Someone “moves our cheese.”

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Our friend Janet Blaser

Right now I’m dealing with the wonderful new cycle of a dear friend who has done so very much for Mazatlán during her life here—astoundingly so, in my opinion. I admire her greatly and love her dearly. Janet Blaser started and has run M! Magazine, that terrific English-language monthly we are fortunate to have seasonally. As part of that endeavor, she’s thrown some of the best parties the expat community has had over the past decade, in some of the most unique venues in town. Janet also was the visionary and founder of the Farmer’s Market, our local organic produce market, which has played a crucial role in transforming the reality of food and restaurant offerings in Mazatlán. She pretty much single-handedly organized our Women’s March Mazatlán last January, bringing together nearly 500 locals and expats so that we could be “on the map” and have our voices heard with the rest of the world as Trump took office. Personally, she’s always ready with an alternative viewpoint, a contradictory opinion, the inside scoop on goings-on around town, and a good belly laugh. I will miss that.

She is so ready for her new life cycle. She’s rented a darling home with a killer view in Nayarit (the state south of Sinaloa), and has it fully furnished in her mind. She has a two-minute walk to a quiet and incredibly scenic little beach; it’s going to rock. She’s already made her first new friends, who share her passions for organic, sustainable living and surfing. She is excited about the new projects she’ll now have time and energy to work on, which will take her new places mentally, emotionally and physically. All is good. I’m thrilled for her. It’s full of growth and wisdom; it’s right. Click on any photo to view it larger or see a slideshow.

And she is doing it right. With a month before she actually moves, Janet has already cleaned many things out, packed up a bunch of stuff, and advertised for a garage sale. This way her apartment reminds her on a daily basis of the excitement of her new life, and helps her deal with the reality of the shift. She’s smart and wise. Damn her. 😉

What a gift to be that type of person, one who leaves a place better than when she entered it. A new owner is now the custodian of M!; the growers themselves are now in charge of the organic market. Good karma for beginning a new cycle.

Godspeed, my dear. We will be visiting you very soon. Know you will be missed, by so many, in deep ways. And know we are all rooting for your joy. Thank you for moving my cheese, even though I hate it. Life is change, it is a journey, it’s all about transition. Darn it.

Focus on Responsible Tourism

Three cruise lines, new air connections, 12,000 rooms in 180 hotels… We greet hundreds of thousands of national and international visitors each year in Mazatlán. Any chance I’ve gotten over the past eight years I’ve tried to encourage travelers to get beyond the stereotypical but wonderful beer and beaches to experience a bit of the “real Mexico,” be it a visit to a small town, witnessing the shrimp or mango harvest, or admiring the Mayo-Yoreme traditions.

Recently, however, I’ve been working with a colleague in Milan, Maura di Mauro, on a project, and she cautioned me about how the culture of Mursi villagers in Ethiopia was changing due to tourism. Thanks to an influx of camera-toting tourists willing to pay for photos, the villagers increasingly exaggerate their traditional practices and even falsely embellish them, to make them more attractive to visitors. Lord knows I’ve witnessed this sort of thing happening in and around Mazatlán. She also told me about Chinese tourists descending en masse on a small village in The Netherlands. Many of the Dutch residents welcome the added economic boost such international tourism provides, but they have also experienced downsides to such tourism and, again, changes to their culture. We in Mazatlán sure experience the ups and the downs of tourism, and know how important it is to our economy.

Maura said there were documentaries about both of these topics, made by the same Dutch cinematographer. She got me excited and I can not WAIT to view the two films!

The first documentary Maura told me about is called Framing the Other” by Ilja Kok and Willem Timmers  (25 min, English and Mursi with English subtitles).

The Mursi tribe lives in the basin of the Omo River in the south of the east African state of Ethiopia. The women are known for placing large plates in their lower lips and wearing enormous, richly decorated earrings. Every year hundreds of Western tourists come to see the unusually adorned natives; posing for camera-toting visitors has become the main source of income for the Mursi. To make more money, they embellish their “costumes” and finery in such a manner that less of their original authentic culture remains. The film contrasts the views of Mursi women and those of Dutch tourists preparing for a meeting. This humorous and at the same time chilling film shows the destructive impact tourism has on traditional communities. A preview is below:

 

The second film is called Ni Hao Holland: The Chinese are coming” by Willem Timmers (25 min, Mandarin and Dutch with English subtitles).

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It is a documentary about Chinese tourists and their quest for the authentic Dutch experience. Cherry, the main character, has long dreamt of swapping her home city Beijing for the Dutch village Giethoorn. She has heard and read a lot about this mythical place. The day arrives that she and her friend hop on the plane in search of adventure. In the meantime, entrepreneurs from Giethoorn work hard behind the scenes to cater to this “Holland experience.” They want to make the most of the fast-growing flow of Chinese tourists to their village. How is this authenticity created by some and experienced by others? A preview follows:

 

While I’ve yet to watch either of these movies, it sure sounds like there’s a lot to think about for tourism in Mazatlán and Sinaloa. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Seeing Stars

starHappy New Year, and may 2017 bring you health, joy and many of your dreams! It is the time of year when many people around the world focus on much-awaited stars, including the star signaling the Prophet Muhammed’s (PBUH) birth, the Star of Bethlehem at Christmas, and the Star of David during Hanukkah.

December is also the time of year for stars of the not-so-desired variety. When I lived at 10,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado, we were blessed to regularly see the full Milky Way in all its glory, but we also had the unwanted joy of windshield “stars” (estrellas, as they are called here in Mazatlán—very apropos, as that’s exactly the shape of new windshield chips) each winter. The Colorado highway maintenance workers laid cinders on the snowy roads to provide us traction, and those tiny but mighty lava stones were murder on windshields. Nearly everyone on the road experienced a “starred” windshield at least once per season.

Though windshield “stars” were common in Colorado, I love that we have lived here in Mazatlán NINE YEARS and have never gotten one; at least not until earlier this week. Like I said, it seems to be the time of year for stars…

It also seems to be the time of year for our poor car to have trouble. First someone stole our motorized side-view mirror, then after we delivered the chickens and clothes on Christmas Eve a lady rear-ended us, and finally (we hope!), on the way back from picking up a friend at the airport, a rock flew into our windshield, creating a big, ugly, star-shaped crack. Friends attribute our bad auto luck to Mercury’s retrograde.

Thanks to Colorado mountain living, I am very familiar with the need to have “stars” fixed promptly, to prevent them from growing and necessitating replacement of the entire windshield. Our first Mazatlán window chip was very bad, so we knew we had to act quickly to get it repaired.

In Colorado, we luckily had special windshield insurance with only a $100 deductible, but repairing or replacing the windshield meant losing your car for the day while they worked on it.

Did we use insurance here in Mazatlán? Of course not. Did we lose our car for the day? Psshhht. We just headed over to Avenida de la Marina, across from Memín, to ask José Arzamendi to fix our windshield. He did so while we waited—the process took only 10-15 minutes. José used minimal tools that he took out of the trunk of his car. He worked with care and attention to detail, and repairing our star cost us 350 pesos. I’m confident we could have negotiated that price, but, hey, it is a holiday week and no one likes to feel like a Scrooge. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Nearly every neighborhood in Mazatlán has their own José Arzamendi. Estrella-fixers work with minimal tools and space, and seem to be able to make a living for themselves. José also takes out the cloudiness on car headlights, again with minimal tools he brings out from his trunk; his small business even has a website!

In addition to estrella-fixers there are so many great, affordable services available here in Mazatlán, whether it’s house calls when you need a doctor, the pharmacy delivering needed medicines, a caterer bringing you a special dessert or a favorite restaurant delivering lunch to your door. Just one more reason we are blessed to call this port “home.”

Thank you very much for joining us on this journey through a star-filled life, whether it’s stars we hope and pray for, or stars that we’d rather have pass us by. As we close out 2016, I trust you will be able to let go of those things that have not served you well, and fully embrace all the blessings and opportunities that 2017 will bring our way. May the Year of the Rooster wake us up fully to all the joy around us.