Originally published in Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad, Seal Press, 2002
Before and After Mexico
By Gina Hyams
“While life yet lasts, laughter and molasses.”
— traditional Mexican saying
January 1997. My husband, Dave, and I were deliriously happy-giddy with the reality that we were officially unemployed, homeless, and about to blow our life savings by boarding Taesa flight 572 (Oakland-Zacatecas-Morelia) with one-way tickets, one two-year-old, three suitcases, a bag of books, a laptop, a pink teddy bear, a diaper bag and three saxophones. The only plan for our new life in Mexico was that Dave would play jazz, I’d finally have a go at writing, and our daughter Annalena would chase lizards.
We sold nearly everything we owned to finance this escape. Our Tahitian-green Honda Civic named Uma, Macintosh computers, Navajo rugs, 50s reclining beauty-parlor chair, Bang & Olufsen stereo system, reading lamps made of twigs, goose-down comforter, garlic peeler and Weber grill: all sold to the highest bidder. People described our liquidation as “the flea market of the gods.” Estranged friends descended like vultures to paw through our belongings.
Everything was gone. Dave’s beloved collection of obscure R & B Christmas albums: gone. The books of French literary criticism I never actually read in college: gone. Annalena’s primary-colored plastic educational toys: gone. The five bottles of extra fancy grade A pure Vermont maple syrup, four of which I bought because I never could remember if we had any, and brunch with friends was an ideal I perennially aspired to mid-supermarket-aisle: Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.
The abstract notion of lightening the load was more cathartic than the excruciating book-by-book process. I had to keep reminding myself that each item sold translated into that much more time I wouldn’t have to spend in a gray cubicle. A neighbor squabbled when I refused his pitiful offer for Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook. He didn’t understand that this was no ordinary garage sale, that we weren’t getting rid of these things because we didn’t like them. They were our only assets and we were exchanging them for a new life.
It’s not that our old life was without its pleasures, but we were bone tired. Dave was the managing director of a Shakespeare festival and I was the assistant to a vice president of marketing at a software company (back in the glory days of corporate-sponsored staff-bonding ski trips and free Snapple lemonade for all high-tech workers). I was too lowly a peon to get stock options, but my boss was a nice guy who thanked me daily for my competence. Having spent my twenties toiling in employee-morale disaster zones at supposedly progressive political and arts organizations, the software company’s esprit de corps and catered lunches had been a revelation.
Quitting was Dave’s idea. He was thirty-nine and barreling his way to an ulcer from the stress of managing the theater’s never-ending backstage dramas, while juggling the demands of fatherhood, husbandhood and gigs with his experimental jazz ensemble. He was seeing both a therapist and a career counselor, trying to figure out a way to make money that might also make him happy, or at least happier. Architect? Therapist? Jazz history professor? Vice president of something? Bookstore owner? Record-shop clerk? Hander-outer of putters at a mini-golf course?
None of these ideas stuck. More than a new profession, he needed a break-time to catch his breath, find his bearings, rekindle his spirit. He needed a lot more than a two-week vacation. While stuck in Bay Bridge traffic one Thursday night, the solution came to him. With desperate clarity, he bounded in the door and swooped Annalena up into his arms.
“Honey, I’ve figured it out. We don’t have to buy a house. We can quit our jobs, sell everything and become expatriates instead.”
We had habitually entertained fantasies of life abroad while on vacation, but this time Dave was serious. My first impulse was to dig in my heels: “But I finally like my job.”
“I thought you wanted to be a writer. Think about it. We’re not tied down to a mortgage. I haven’t embarked on a new career. We only have one child and she’s not in school yet. This is our window of opportunity.”
He made it sound so reasonable. I was thirty-one and had been coasting on my “creative potential” since college. This move felt like put-up-or-shut-up time, like my artistic bluff had been called. My work at the software company was pleasant, but it was meaningless. I needed to sit still long enough to find out if I had anything to say as a writer. I also yearned to see our little girl during daylight hours.
We contemplated relocating to Holland, Spain, Italy or France, but settled on Mexico, where we’d vacationed three times, because we loved the mariachi bands and the brilliant colors, because families were revered there and because rents were cheap. And we were, indeed, a family with limited resources-$23,732.45 after the sale, to be exact. We thought it would be enough money to carry us for a year, maybe two.
When the last of our furniture was carted away, Dave and I sat on the hardwood floor and surveyed the empty space. There was no remaining evidence of our personalities. We no longer had proof that we were intelligent people of distinguished, if modest, accomplishment and quirky good taste.
The closer we came to our departure date, the less coherent I was when people asked, “Why Morelia?” Nobody’d heard of this inland city. I tried to sound rational, explaining that we thought coastal resorts were well and good for vacations, but that at heart we weren’t beach people and we didn’t want to live surrounded by tourists. The guidebooks intriguingly described the state of Michoacán as the “Switzerland of Mexico,” the “Hills of China of Mexico,” and the “Land that Time Forgot.” We specifically chose the capital city of Morelia because we were suckers for colonial architecture and cobblestones, and, with its universities, music conservatory and nearby crafts villages, it just seemed like the place for us.
Of course, we’d never been there, we didn’t know anybody there, and we didn’t speak Spanish.
We ended up spending the first of what would turn into four years in Mexico in Pátzcuaro, a Purépecha Indian town on a mountain lake about an hour’s drive south of Morelia. The capital itself had felt too sprawling and cosmopolitan, too similar to California. There was a gourmet grocery where we could buy imported coffee Häagen-Dazs, and that felt like cheating. We wanted to live in the Land that Time Forgot, and in Pátzcuaro there wasn’t even coffee-to-go.
We lived on a nameless cobblestone road in a little adobe house that had no telephone, no washing machine, no microwave and no television. The kitchen counter was a glorious, crazy quilt of Talavera tiles decorated with bananas and jalapeño peppers, and the bathroom walls were painted azul añil, a deep ultramarine blue believed to ward off evil spirits. Two stone angels, carved in the nearby village of Tzintzuntzan, held up the mantel above the fireplace in the living-room. We bought wood from an eighty-three-year-old campesinonamed Don Ambrosio who delivered it by burro. Stoking the fire, I felt like a pioneer bride.
Dave planted a stand of calla lilies and hung a hammock in the backyard. We learned how to finesse the water and gas tanks and (after our first miserable round of amoebas) to soak vegetables vigilantly in a disinfectant solution. Just walking to the post office was an adventure because we invariably stumbled on one fiesta or another-boys blasting fireworks at dawn in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a mariachi band serenading a bride and groom on the church steps, children bashing a piñata strung up in the middle of the street, a drunken brass band careening through town in celebration of a win by their favorite soccer team.
Wandering through Pátzcuaro’s outdoor market was a visual feast. Block after block was filled with the reddest tomatoes I’d ever seen, alongside pyramids of huge, ripe avocados, juicy cactus paddles, mangoes carved into flower shapes, baskets overflowing with dried chilies and pumpkin seeds, platters of chicken heads, candied sweet potatoes swarming with bees and more cow parts than I’d ever imagined. Enormous bouquets of tuberoses could be had for a song. I’d dare myself to go back by the butcher stalls to look at the ghostly tripe, pig snouts on hooks and glistening entrails. My legs would nearly buckle, the sensual overload was so confounding. When Dave wasn’t around, I enjoyed a flirty dance with Juan, my favorite fruit seller. “A su servicio, mi reina (At your service, my queen),” he’d grin as he dug for the sweetest strawberries.
For people who had so recently shed our material trappings and piously sworn to “never accumulate that much stuff again,” we had a hell of a lot of fun accumulating new stuff. There was such palpable pleasure in being surrounded by things that were hecho a mano (made by hand). We drank fresh-squeezed tangerine juice out of hand-blown glass goblets, wore hand-knitted wool sweaters and slept under a hand-loomed magenta bedspread. We brushed our teeth with purified water decanted from an earthenware pitcher. Annalena played with miniature toy frogs made of straw and she chased not only lizards, but dragonflies, ladybugs, grasshoppers, butterflies, pigeons and all manner of mangy street dogs as well.
We made friends with Lupita, who sold roast chickens in the market. She always gave Annalena a little cajeta(goat’s milk caramel) cookie and advised Dave and me to make more babies. Mexicans rarely asked what we did for a living. They were more curious about the size of our family and, though ours was small, the fact that we were a family seemed to normalize us. Annalena, with her blueberry eyes and impeccable Spanish accent, became our goodwill ambassador. No matter how dusty-poor or remote the village, people made a fuss over her. ¡Qué linda! (How pretty!), they’d exclaim. She was preciosa (precious), una princesa (a princess), una muñeca viviente (a living doll). By the time she was three, Annalena would answer, “No soy una muñeca. Soy un mono. (I’m not a doll. I’m a monkey).” She also took to telling anyone who asked that she had forty-nine brothers and sisters.
The view from my writing desk was one-third twisting cobblestone roads and red-tiled rooftops and two-thirds sky. When I sat down to work on my novel, it seemed ludicrous to try and invent a plot when the surrealism of everyday life in Mexico felt so compelling. I found myself trying to describe the sky outside my window- surging and cleaving clouds, thunder and lightning, cotton-candy sunsets and a profusion of shooting stars. The constant drama of that sky seemed a testament to celestial will, grace and fury, an explanation of why there are so many believers in this part of the world. Instead of poetry, I wrote letters home.
Sent via e-mail, these monthly dispatches to friends and family took on a life of their own. My loved ones forwarded the letters to their loved ones, who in turn often asked to be added to my mailing list. What began as a list of thirty grew to nearly three hundred recipients. A fledgling writer couldn’t ask for a greater gift. Knowing that there was an audience eager to read my words helped me develop confidence and discipline.
Through the letters, I began to discover my voice and core literary themes (death, lies and room service). Eventually I found work as a guidebook correspondent and published three books about Mexico—one about Day of the Dead and the other two about the architecture and interior decor of Mexican inns and homes. Dave also thrived creatively. He practiced playing his horns several hours a day and found work with an art-rock band from Mexico City, as well as jazz gigs at various resorts.
We loved living in Mexico, but ultimately tired of being outsiders. The downside of a culture rooted in family clans is that friends aren’t as integral. Annalena’s classmates rarely invited her home to play because there they played with their cousins. We had genuinely warm, but stubbornly superficial relationships with our neighbors. While it was possible for us to feel gloriously swept away by the splendor of saint’s day celebrations, these holidays would never belong to us. And because most of the expatriates we met were either cantina-hopping college students or cocktail party- hopping retirees, we didn’t fit in with the foreigners either.
After four years away, it was time to engage again with our own tribe; to let Annalena get to know her own cousins; to taste Black Diamond cheddar, sushi and real maple syrup; and to hear the thunk of the SundayNew York Times on our doorstep. We returned to a Victorian house in Oakland and made dates to meet old friends for lattes at our favorite cafés. Annalena learned about the wonders of drinking fountains and central heating. Dave got another arts administration job and my old boss at the software company hired me part-time to write brochure copy. Our community welcomed us back with open arms.
But we’ve been home five months now, and I’m not sure we belong in California anymore either. We’re struggling to reconcile the Mexican sky that now fills our hearts with the daily grind of a more or less upwardly mobile life. I find myself willfully spacing out, trying to slow down the pace, trying to hold onto the sense that time is simply time, not money. Perhaps we’ve become permanent expatriates-neither fish nor fowl, forever lost no matter our location. But this fluidity also means that we’re now like mermaids and centaurs—magic creatures who always know there’s another way.