Coming to Oaxaca

Three days after I arrived here in September 2009, I was with my new Mexican friends celebrating Independence Day in the Zocalo. So were roughly a thousand others, and we were so densely packed that the crowd’s movement moved you. Some pinche ladrón lifted my wallet, containing a lot of cash, recently retrieved from an ATM, and all my credit cards, driver’s license, etc. Not quite the welcome I had looked for.

I had flown in from the U.S. at night, looking apprehensively out the plane’s window at the sparse lights of an unfamiliar city surrounded by mountain darkness and thinking, “Now it begins. What am I into?” I felt a mix of excitement and anxiety, being launched on one of the great gambles of my life. With only a few prior friends in Oaxaca, I had little money and no Spanish. My father would have said, “John, you’re just not prepared.”

Somehow I had the confidence to move on and change my life. As reported last week, there were many things pushing me to make this move. I knew the anxiety was normal though it was nonetheless powerful for that. Slowly I began to adapt to living in Oaxaca, finding the city’s life vital and energizing, its complications more or less predictable, its people more welcoming than I expected.

I rented a fine house near the Plaza de la Danza, which later proved to be kind of a disaster. But I settled in and got to know the neighborhood, the markets and shops, a couple of neighbors.

The first big problem was Customs. I had shipped all my possessions—about 2,000 pounds worth, including a large music collection and stereo equipment—by making a deal with FedEx. But, unknown to me, the stuff got held up in Toluca, and I finally hired a customs broker to get it released and delivered, after much agita and tsuris.

The typical irritations one encounters in Mexico when dealing with its bureaucracies—the ubiquitous paperwork and rubber stamps, the impenetrable processes—require patience and understanding. When you first encounter the system, as in shopping for healthcare, you may think you’re living in Mozambique. Yet Mexico is not by any means a third-world country.

You develop patience by growing to understand the culture, by making friends (both gringos and Mexicans), trying to learn Spanish, and finally by learning to relax and enjoy the extraordinary benefits of the place: the low cost of living, the glorious climate, the food, the welcoming people. One reason I found I could adapt was because I had lived and worked in so many different U.S. locales.

The problems of being an expat in Mexico can be intimidating. Some of the pros and cons are described here. The rewards you’ll find will depend on your personality, your aims and goals in life and, mostly, on your attitudes toward change. Finally, I think it’s kind of a crapshoot for everybody. The winners will learn how to play the game.

5 Replies to “Coming to Oaxaca”

  1. This is really great, John, and thank you. We’re feeling a bit lost here lately, probably for the same reasons many do, and unsure of what our future looks like should we ever be able to retire (many years of work ahead of us). To that end, we’ve had conversations about the expat experience.

  2. I sure agree with, “The rewards you’ll find will depend …. mostly on your attitudes toward change.” John, I laughed out loud when I read what you imagined your father would have said to you upon your arrival. To those words I add, “You’re doing great, Goods.”

  3. Mike, as noted, it’s mostly about how you can deal with change. Becoming an expat broadens your life in so many ways. Bryan, you would have liked my father, unless you happened to be his son.

  4. Mr. Goods, good read a always. We entered into Oaxaca after three days on the road and it was with anxious trepidation on “what had we gotten ourselves into” thankfully we had met you the year before and that helped ease the changes that we encountered over the year we were there. Will be back again one day!

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