In 2009, the pharmaceutical company I worked for got bought out, and about 20,000 people lost their jobs as a result. I was one of those made redundant, and the timing was unfortunate, as the bottom was falling out of the economy then. Jobs were scarce, salaries were low, and I only half-heartedly wanted to rejoin corporate America.
After an agonizing year of trying to save my sinking financial ship, I decided to make a complete 180 in my life. I sold or gave away most of my belongings, packed up what was left in a trailer, and moved to Baja California, Mexico. That’s the short version, which makes it sound pretty easy, although it definitely was not. But my subconscious was pushing me to make a transition that, while seemingly impossible in the short term, was actually going to land me in better place in the long run. Living in Baja was a way to stay afloat in the meantime.
The first five years were pretty harrowing, and I’m writing a book about it to try to shorten the learning curve for other women who might want to make the same jump I did. Life has finally leveled off the last year or so, and I’ve actually achieved two of my life-long dreams: living on the ocean and working for myself from home.
Like many expats living in Mexico (and I suspect like many Mexicans living in the US), I have a love-hate relationship with my host country. Will I stay here for the rest of my days? Probably not, but for the time being it’s still better for me than living in the States. Here’s a look at both sides of the coin and what it’s like being a single female expat in Baja.
The Biggest Surprises
I had lived abroad twice prior to moving to Mexico–in the Netherlands and in French Canada– but I was still shocked at how exhausting it is to just exist in a foreign country. Culture shock is really the brain trying to frantically rewire itself to make sense of a new environment, but until those neural connections are formed, every day is like whatever huge brain drain you can imagine—first day on a new job, university finals, or learning to drive a car. Not only was I in a new place I had only visited once, I didn’t speak Spanish (I spoke decent French and rudimentary Italian). Every encounter outside my front door meant gearing myself up for a potential ordeal if I got lost or if my limited vocabulary failed me.
I had vacationed in other parts of Mexico many times, but I was unprepared for the extent to which Mexico is a third world country. I don’t think this can be appreciated in tourist destinations here, where the rich are sequestered from the rest of the country, more than half of whom live in abject poverty.
While warnings about violent crime are overblown for most of Mexico (there are a few pockets where the warnings are worth heeding), poverty is entwined with petty crime, from simply overcharging foreigners to smash-and-grab car burglaries.
The third world economy and poverty in Mexico also make the country ripe for government corruption, which is perceived as on the rise at present. I don’t go out much at night here, not so much out of a fear of rape or murder, but out of a concern that if my car breaks down (or hits a cow in the middle of the road), I won’t be able to trust the police if they come to assist me.
As much as there have been attempts to clean up law enforcement departments here, morditas (bribes) are still expected by many officers. I’ve been hit up for a bribe by a cop near the border, and a friend was actually robbed of hundreds of dollars by corrupt cops in a nearby resort town (she got her money back after letting a few highly placed individuals know about what happened).
Poverty and corruption can’t be separated from the narco trade in Mexico, which is omnipresent if you look closely enough, and particularly heavy in border regions near the US. The entire system creates a sort of ennui and hopelessness in the general public, which corrupt politicians and the extremely wealthy feed on. With the peso worth nearly half what it was on the dollar six years ago, Mexico’s economy is struggling, which pushes poverty and corruption even further, and so the cycle continues.
The desire to appear affluent is an interesting phenomenon in Baja. While driving expensive vehicles and living beyond one’s means is certainly common in the US and elsewhere, in Mexico an additional element of social status is looking more European. Many people here, especially women, attempt to look more of Spanish origin, hiding their roots to indigenous peoples by dying their hair blond and avoiding the sun to keep their skin lighter. Even though media and advertising are being called on the carpet for capitalizing on this stereotyping, I still have Mexican girlfriends who won’t go to the beach with me because they don’t want to get a tan.
The Greatest Challenges
As you would expect, poverty in Mexico has far-reaching effects on the country’s infrastructure. Paved roads are often patched with sand (or built improperly to begin with), guardrails are few, and there is little enforcement of traffic violations that affect safety.
Many towns in Baja have no public water system, including the one I live in. Some communities desalinate ocean water and pipe it into homes, while others use what I have at the house I rent: a pila, or cistern into which water is pumped from a tanker truck as needed. This water is fine for bathing and dishes, but it’s not meant for drinking, so I fill five-gallon jugs with filtered water at the local market when I do my shopping.
Electricity here in northern Baja is generally stable and the utility is responsive, but there is still no way to pay your bill online, The electric company delivers a bill by hand, by the because the federal mail system is practically nonexistent. I then take cash to a kiosk at the electric company office, or pay via one of the area mini markets that act as brokers for local utilities. The good news is that for an American, the cost of electricity is cheap, which is a boon since homes here have no central heating, and the temperature drops into the 30s during winter.
I also paid my Internet this way for many years, until ironically, this year the provider at last started offering online payment for wifi. Since moving further south in Baja Norte, I had to wait nearly a year to get wifi; Telnor, the area’s main Internet and land line phone provider ran out of lines, so I had to wait for one to become available. Meanwhile, I used satellite Internet from a mobile phone provider at an exorbitant cost, which nixed any kind of streaming like Netflix or Youtube and blocked VOIP services such as Skpe.
After purchasing two American international mobile phone plans that were either too expensive (more than my rent per month!) or didn’t work, I finally settled on an Internet phone service that operates via wifi and gives me a US phone number, supplemented by a dirt-cheap Mexican mobile with unlimited service on both sides of the border. And my inexpensive monthly Internet fee includes a free land line for local calls, a nice bonus.
My stove and hot water boiler are both powered by propane. Piped gas like in the States is virtually unheard of here. It’s a bit of a pain to run out of propane without notice (there’s no gauge on the tanks) and to have to wait for delivery of a new tank. But having propane is blessing when the power goes out during a winter storm. My water pump won’t work, but at least I can cook.
Probably my greatest challenge since moving to Baja has been dealing with banking. Some American banks don’t like to see transactions from Mexico on your account, even if you warn them first and make a note in your account. And due to rampant fraud, other banks have decided within the last few years to suspend ATM transactions in Mexico and only allow point-of-sale transactions south of the border.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you realize that Mexico is still largely a cash economy. I can pay for groceries and home goods with a credit or debit card, but most other expenses require cash (pesos and dollars are accepted in Baja). The first time I had a bank snafu, I found out the hard way how unprepared I was. I was living further north in Baja at the time, and had a hankering for some American food, so I crossed the border to do some shopping in California for the afternoon. I figured I’d get some cash in the States, where the ATM fee would be lower, so when I crossed into San Ysidro, my gas tank and my wallet were both empty.
I stopped to gas up and went to the ATM to get cash. After three tries with my debit card not working, I called the bank. They had canceled my card without notifying me, due to “suspicious” charges on the account from Mexico. In my effort to live a simpler life, I had gotten rid of my credit cards, so my debit card was my only way of paying for things—silly and idealistic, in retrospect. I wound up scraping together $2.74 in change from the floor of my car, put exactly that amount in my tank, and drove back to Baja, sans groceries, sure that I was riding on fumes the last few miles.
I had to wire money to a fellow expat’s account until I could get another account with a debit card that would work in Mexico. That debit card was ultimately canceled after being compromised in a major store data breach, so I got another one, which soon also stopped allowing me to get cash in Mexico. The next card I got? You guessed it—about six months later no more non-US transactions.
I now have several cards, including prepaid ones, one of which works at ATMs, but in the interim, I’ve had to go to the States to get money. Fifty bucks in gas or a $35 bus ticket is a hefty ATM fee, and this tactic wouldn’t even be possible if I lived any further from the border. I’m not sure what I’ll do if another account disallows Mexican ATM transactions. Getting an account with a Mexican bank isn’t really feasible or advisable at this juncture, but it would be something I’d consider if I decided to live here permanently.
Other challenges that I have had to weather include:
- The treatment of animals here is difficult to see. In many poorer areas in Baja, animals are considered more like livestock than pets, and spaying and neutering is often ignored or resisted. There are too many stray animals, and there are too few rescue organizations. I came to Mexico with one dog and now have four, having rescued two that were living in the trash outside of the place I was renting, and having had another left on my doorstep. Ocean mammals don’t fare much better, with many of them succumbing to injuries (accidental or otherwise) incurred by getting too close to the tuna ranches that dot the marine landscape here.
- Noise is a problem here for people who like quieter environments. I’ve moved several times since coming to Mexico because of loud noise that wasn’t there at the time I signed the lease. Booming car stereos, fireworks—even the grocery store is an assault on your hearing. I knew Latin American culture had a higher tolerance for noise than I was used to, but I was unprepared for how high.
- Shopping for items beyond food and basic home goods is tough. We have Walmart, Costco, and Home Depot here in Baja, which I have to admit makes life easier, although I don’t know if have driven out smaller competing businesses. I still buy clothing in the States or online, as the selection here is fairly poor, and electronics are astronomically priced.
- Waiting in line at the border used to be the bane of my existence. When I was spending more time massaging horses (and working side gigs like dog sitting and tutoring to supplement my practice), I commuted to the US nearly every day. The border between Tijuana and California is the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, and lines can be crazy long. An average wait for me was between one and three hours, and the longest I’ve ever waited was five hours. Imagine sitting at a toll booth in States that long and having to build it into your daily commute! When Coco, my abandoned puppy, joined my pack, it was time to do less horse work and more writing, and I don’t miss the drive in the least.
- Dating is a mixed bag of tricks for gringas here. On the one hand, being different is nice, and many men like the idea of going out with an American woman. Mexican men are handsome and charming, but their Don Juan stereotype has some basis and is tied to Mexican machismo culture. Many Latino men like flirting, but they may have a string of girlfriends or even a wife at home. Dalliances are much more tolerated in Mexico than in the States, and it can take a while to find out what someone’s real story is. It’s also a stigma to be single in this part of Mexico (so my male Mexican friends tell me), so truly available guys don’t stay on the market for long.
- It’s not always easy being a full-time worker in a “Cheeseburger in Paradise” retirement area. Most of my expat friends are already getting Social Security, and they don’t always understand when I’m on a deadline and can’t start cocktail hour at 3:00 (frankly, work is sometimes a good excuse, since I’m not much of a party animal). I think if I lived in Mexico City or Guanajuato, I’d meet more expats my own age, and more Mexicans who have things in common with me too. Most of my Mexican friends here work even longer hours than I do. I definitely don’t have the social life I had in the States, which can be helpful for a writer but leaves me a little bored sometimes.
- The plumbing—don’t get me started! There isn’t building code enforcement here like there is in the US, Canada, and Europe, so a lot of homes and their plumbing systems are cobbled together by amateur builders. Right now, my kitchen sink isn’t draining properly (due to roots from the fig tree in my garden, I suspect), and my landlady has been saying “mañana” (tomorrow) for a week. I have come to accept the mañana culture, but situations like this can lead to one of those touchy cultural misunderstandings. She may be saying “tomorrow” because she doesn’t have the money to fix the drain right now, but if I call a plumber to work on it, it might make her look bad to the community.
The Best Benefits
By far the greatest benefit to living in Mexico for me has been the low cost of living here. As mentioned above, my utilities are considerably less than they would be in the States. My rent is $650 per month for a three-bedroom house on the ocean. It’s not fancy, but my landlords are kind and often bring me homemade Mexican dinners and baked goods. I can do whatever I want to improve the place, without asking permission about paint colors or window treatments. At none of the places I’ve rented here have I had to fill out an application, undergo a credit check, or put down more than a month’s deposit. And just try finding a landlord in the States who will take four dogs!
Many expats think my rent is insanely steep, but this is the trap of people here, who get used to everything being so inexpensive that they start expecting things almost for free. My computer repair guy, who makes house calls for $30 and often fixes things on the spot, has stopped working for expat clients who think his prices are too high. At some point, I feel you have to give something back to the locals who make it possible to live here for such a bargain.
I enjoy the multigenerational culture here, where family members of all ages hang out together. You don’t see many nursing homes in Baja because elderly people stay with their families for their final years.
The beaches in Mexico are federal property and therefore open to everyone. Rules are relaxed, and you can enjoy a beer or a bottle of wine in the sand, or walk your dogs without incurring a fine. Many of the beaches are empty during most of the year, and the coastline is ruggedly beautiful, with the desert running right to the edge of the sea. Year-round hiking, horseback riding, surfing, and fishing are possible, and the climate allows wine production in the Valle de Guadalupe to rival California’s Central Coast.
In spite of the poor national postal system, as an expat it’s easy to get mail in this part of Mexico. I rent a box here with a US address, and pay an annual fee to a local service to go to the States twice a week to pick up mail at that address.
Decent healthcare is generally available in Baja Norte, although they don’t accept American health insurance, and you have to pay the bill in full before discharge. I’m not sure what they do if you don’t have enough money to pay, due to escalating costs during your stay, or having incurred catastrophic injuries. I have an American friend with a vacation home here who had a heart attack while out on a jet ski. He was very satisfied with his angiogram, stent placement, and post-procedure care, but his wife had 24 hours of nail biting waiting to get money to “bail him out.” While their fee was a large sum to pay, the overall cost of his myocardial infarction was much less than it would have been in the US.
Clearly, it’s a lot easier in many ways to live as an American in Mexico than as an average Mexican citizen, especially if your salary is paid in US dollars. But despite the many financial advantages of US citizenship, here’s a final surprise for you: most people in Mexico have no desire to migrate to the United States. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, since the recent recession, more Mexicans have returned home than have moved to the States. They feel life is no better north of the border than it is here, all things considered, and in spite of the challenges of being an expat in Mexico, I’d have to agree.