Living Here, Not There

Oaxaca, where I live, is a very transient community. Of the Americans living here, many visit for a few months a year or less, then move back in the summer to enjoy the heat, humidity, and dementia of U.S. culture. Snowbirds, we call them. They come from Canada too.

The transiency of this place also affects Oaxacanians. Over the past twelve years I’ve been here, two of my best Mexican friends decamped to the U.S. and it’s been hard to replace them. Some go there to work and support their local families. Others give up on the basically tourist economy. The pull of family draws others, gringo and Mexican.

For Americans, learning Spanish may just be too big a challenge. Some feel (rightly) that they will never really identify with Mexican culture and mores. Asking gringos why they choose to give up on living here—and how long they might stay—elicits many responses: Mexican culture doesn’t work for them; it’s too remote here, too different; they love the beach but it’s too hot in summertime; medical care is too erratic.

Some can’t stand the frequent bloqueos, where aggrieved social groups halt traffic on major thoroughfares for hours. Or the contrasts between poverty and wealth that abound. Living well here requires at least a modicum of wealth and a sense of history.

But the big draws are the rate of exchange (it’s cheap to live here), the food, and the climate. These can mean a lot. The small talk in my group usually covers all of the above, though conversation with the many resident foodies can get a little tedious—for instance, babbling on about the newest restaurant or the grand molé at Le Catedral.

Personal responses to living here vary considerably. One resident couple I know splits up frequently because she likes her time in the U.S. and he enjoys more time here. Another has a house at the beach but they also want to spend half time at the house in Arizona they are building. Another couple will be moving back to Virginia for better medical care and a more congenial social atmosphere.

Twelve years ago I decided to change my life, live more cheaply, and flee American politics and culture, with which I had been too involved. I told friends I was broke and needed a total change. I’ve explained some of the causes behind my move in a post here last July entitled “Expats Exposed.” Take a look if you are curious about my motivations.

My move here accomplished all I had hoped for. After living in many places in the U.S. and traveling abroad in my younger days, I can’t conceive of a better place to flop and face the bizarre, often desperate world we live in.

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.