In the early summer of 2015, I made a decision that would, all drama aside, change my life forever. The previous year, I had chosen to leave a high paying nonprofit CEO position (that proverbial dream job), believing that I was destined to be hired post haste by another organization that would prove to be a better fit in mission and structure. It’s funny how delusions of grandeur can affect even the brightest of us at certain times of our life. For me, the world was my oyster, my oeuvre and the possibility of all good things.
But the year that followed turned out to be a whirlwind of missed or dead-end opportunities. If anything, countless meetings, interviews, coffees, cocktails, phone interviews, Skype calls, drop-offs, emails and texts later, I was nowhere near securing the position for which I felt would test my skills, experience and temperament. The financial overhead I had established for my life was steep and the monthly drain was painful. I had bought the home of my dreams overlooking Puget Sound on Three Tree Point, south of Seattle, but it only made sense if I had the income to sustain it all. I was going through investments, savings and retirement accounts and realized full well that I had to make a decision. Fish or cut bait. Love it or leave it. Put up or shut up. Get a job or shuck everything and escape.
On a day in June, I called my sister who lived in the area. I told her I was leaving. She thought I was going on a trip, so she responded in kind, “Great, when will be back?”
“I’m not sure I’m coming back,” I responded. “Ever.”
After weeks of agonising and obsessive rumination, often in the middle of the night, I had made the decision to put my home on the market, adopt out my beloved rescue dog Buddy, and to sell just about everything I owned in an estate sale or private auction. Radical? Irresponsible? Just nuts? Not to me. But to lifelong friends and some family, those were common reactions to my news. I had been researching an expat lifestyle and was intrigued at the freedom it offered. Was it freedom I was seeking, or an escape from what had turned out to be a crash and burn scenario for my heretofore highly successful career? More rumination.
Once listed, my home sold in three days, with eight offers, all a minimum of 100K over the asking price. It finally sold to a younger couple in an all-cash offer, for 155K over asking. They wanted a quick closing and I felt no need to delay. I hired two companies to sell my things and identified what items and artwork I would either give to family members or keep in my sister’s garage for the foreseeable future. I found a kind and grateful, mildly disabled woman north of town to adopt Buddy, the most loving and sweetest canine companion ever born. My plan was moving forward, no turning back.
On August 21, 2015, the very day my house sale closed, I caught a shuttle from Seattle to Vancouver with two loaded suitcases. In essence, the clothes and essentials I needed to start a bright new life as an expat, a word most of my friends and family had not yet heard of. I had decided on Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand as my initial residence. Online, I had identified an American couple who had moved there from the Eastern U.S. two years earlier who had a website called Tieland to Thailand. Cute title. They offered an online session via Skype to people like me who were considering making the move. I was able to take them to dinner in my first week in Chiang Mai and will forever be grateful for their honest input and helpful suggestions.
I flew Air China from Vancouver to Beijing and onto Chiang Mai. Business class was comfortable but hardly comparable to other major international carriers. I spent the first two weeks in a hotel recommended by my advisors before moving into a high rise condo near the river off Chang Klan Rd. It was by all accounts, a modern, upscale building, secured by armed guards and staffed round the clock. It had a huge pool, well-equipped exercise room and a killer sauna. I say killer because I almost expired a couple of times prior to learning how long I could spend in it before becoming seriously dehydrated. But I become a devotee of the sauna experienced and never felt so good in my life. The perfect denouement after a long day of sightseeing.
My condo was a duplex affair with a living room, kitchen and bath on the first floor and a bedroom and bath on the upper level. It was on the corner, but most windows faced west with a balcony overlooking the city and the venerated Wat Doi Suthep (temple) on the hill in the distance. My place was leased as furnished, but that would be a misnomer by western standards. There was no oven, just a small stovetop and microwave. There was no dishwasher, but there was a clothes washer, sans dryer which I never understood. That, of course, necessitated getting a wood contraption that unfolded on the patio on which to hang wet clothing. The furniture was minimal and the bed was akin to one might encounter in a prison in the American south. The hardest most uncomfortable mattress ever, but apparently quite the norm for much of Asia.
Interestingly, the electronics provided were first rate and once I had WiFi and cable set up, I was connected in all the virtual realities. Of course the place was fully air-conditioned. Chiang Mai is considered in the “rose of the north” and the relatively cool part of the country. But warmth and humidity were still frequent visitors during the majority of months.
I have written extensively about my time in Thailand and my travels to other Asian countries in my blog, New Nations: The Expat Experience. I am working on a photo journal now in an attempt to use all the pictures that went unpublished in my blog updates.
Spending six months in Thailand was life changing. It is simply impossible to capture all of the people, experiences, food, culture, architecture and geography I saw during my time there. I am an observer and there were days I would leave mid-morning, take off walking and not return for hours. Of course, legs trembling with exhaustion and self-pledges never to repeat such a trek again. But I did. Repeatedly, to greater satisfaction and glee each time. The pool and sauna were my rewards! And how can you not be charmed by the beauty and politeness of the Thai people? To this day, I am tempted to greet people with hands brought together and against the chest, bowing slightly with a smile and a hearty “Sawadee ka”, the ancient and lovely Thai greeting.
Every day I woke up asking myself the same question. “What the f**k are you doing here, Steve and where are you going?” I was a gay man of, ahem, a certain age. I had sold out, dropped out, packed a couple bags and fled the U.S. with thoughts of never returning again. Had I lost it? Was I having a breakdown but didn’t want to accept it? Was this just wanderlust that I should have gotten about of my system decades earlier? Who knows? Honestly, I’d like to say that I was being introspective and strategic in my decisions, but that was not the case. I was burned out, disillusioned, unfulfilled and lonely and I needed to see what else was out there. I don’t do well without stimulation. I need to see and do and try and experience and feel something every day or I’m not happy. I have discovered that about myself more and more, but that’s another story.
Living in the condo, the big daily social interaction was late afternoons at the pool. A small crowd always gathered around 4 or 5 to talk about their latest “visa runs” to Myanmar or Laos to get their tourist visa renewed (you had to cross a border to another country and return in order to get an extension for 6 months as a tourist), day trips to visit an historic site or temple or a new restaurant that someone had discovered in town. It was all so convivial, interesting and fun to me and I looked forward to it. I met people from the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, the U.K., France and China primarily. It was a mixed bag of ages, backgrounds, career paths, ethnicities and orientations. For the most part, everyone was engaging and friendly, with the exception of one German couple staying there for a month. They were among the rudest, loudest, boorish and unthoughtful people I met as an expat. We were all so relieved when they left. Auf Wiedersehen, dear ones.
Around month 4 or 5, I realised that Asia might not be a great match for me as a long-term expat destination. I refused to drive, as the streets seemed crazy to me, so I was left with songthaews (trucks with benches in back) and tuk-tuks (sort of like a golf cart/motorcycle — look it up) to get around. They were fun to ride in, but flagging them down on a hot, steamy day on a busy street was not always convenient or appealing. And then there was that night I met friends at a restaurant and the tuk-tuk driver was drunk, confused and erratic. I ended up in a dark alley screaming for him to stop. Expat luck, I guess, but I ended up only a block from the restaurant. Communicating was the ultimate challenge for this non-Thai speaker, so I had to learn which bat (temple) was closest to my destination. Those were always known to the drivers, so it helped (usually) in directing them.
Although I experimented and loved much of Thai cuisine, I admit that the charm for me was limited. I blame it on the prevalence of fish sauce in just about everything! Chiang Mai is a cosmopolitan city, though, so there were always interesting and often unusual international options to choose from. In addition, there were a couple of grocery stores that catered to western tastes, for a price. They tended to be used most often by those from English-speaking countries, especially who were missing things like beef, bread and butter, green salads etc. I found myself missing it all.
As my lease drew to a close in Chiang Mai, I decided to relocate back to somewhere in the Americas. I had researched further-flung expat faves like Cape Town, Prague and Medellin, but decided that Mexico offered the best mix of culture, food, language and location. I started researching places with at least a viable expat population, and both San Miguel de Allende and the towns along the northern shore of Lake Chapala popped up most often. After reaching out to people who lived in each location, I made the decision to make Ajijic, a village south of Guadalajara in Jalisco, my new home for the moment. The plan was settled!
I arrived in Ajijic in late January 2016. I had flown back from Chiang Mai via Beijing and after three days there, continued on to Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle. Then there were visits to Los Angeles and San Diego before catching a flight to Mexico City for a few days prior to final arriving in my new home of Ajijic. Hola Mexico!
Once in Ajijic, I settled for two weeks in a small B & B, the Hotel Casa Blanca, in the village about a block off the lake. It gave me the time to scope out long-term rentals and to walk for miles up and down the Malecon and on the cobblestone streets, ducking into shops and trying a couple of the multitude of restaurants. Ajijic is a charming town some have referred to as a fishing village. Not sure where that came from as there is little fishing in what is a murky and shallow freshwater lake, the largest in Mexico. It has little fresh water input, however, and is replenished by the annual rains, leaving it to shrink and expand sometimes dozens of feet annually.
To be honest, I’m not exactly a B & B kind of guy. This one I chose, well run as it was, was noisy and felt more like a boarding house with rooms opening onto shared patios. There was no air conditioning, so warm days were endured with open windows, noisy fans and the constant sound of people in neighboring rooms going about their business. There are few if any modern hotels in Ajijic, but unlike me, many people seem to love the more intimate B & B experience. The staff was wonderful though, and the fresh continental breakfast on the open terrace a treat.
I ended up renting a charming home in an area called Villa Nova above the Carreterra, the main drag through town. The new owners were a couple from the U.S., although she has dual U.S./Mexican citizenship. They had bought it for a song but were finding, as do most people who buy in Mexico, that standards for construction are often conflicted. In addition, the weather at 5,000 feet high Ajijc ranges from hot and dry to steamy and wet. Those variations can take a toll on any level of construction and roofing. As with most of the homes there, there was no air-conditioning, although many expats are installing ductless units now to provide relief from the hotter summer months.
Living in Ajijc was honestly just plain fun. I liken my time there to 7 months at an adult summer camp. There was an active social scene, a huge, established expat organization with a campus along the lakefront, two English language live theatres, clubs, interest groups, farmers markets, special events, and a ton of inexpensive and relatively good restaurants. There is a large group of Canadians who come for 3-5 months and who tend to socialise amongst themselves. Then there are the rest, a huge U.S. contingent as expected, with a smattering of Europeans to boot. I bought a small car, the most stripped down Nissan Versa sedan you can imagine, but it gave me complete freedom to take off at will, run errands and live a normal life. The food choices were abundant, with various vendors, stores and open markets which provided anything I might need.
Walking was still my preferred and most available exercise option and I did it often. The cobblestone streets are not conducive to car tyres or most sneakers, but a pair of rubber clogs I had bought in Thailand did the trick just fine.
Here’s my expat take on living in Mexico. It is a difficult country on many levels. None of this is news to people who have read firsthand stories of life there, but I had to experience it for myself. And yet, there has been way too much written about the negatives of the country and not enough about the magic that exists there. For the expats that live there full or part-time, they understand what I mean. They understand that to know a country, you have to spend time exploring. Most of them take advantage of this by doing short-term excursions, often by car. Another thing that’s unique to Mexico is their marvellous bus system. There’s a bus for everyone, including high-end coaches with wi-fi, videos, snacks and plush individual seating. When my outbound flight to Puerto Vallarta was cancelled, several of us shared a van over to the bus station and caught the next one leaving for P.V. It was clean, quiet and delightful to watch the Jalisco countryside for the 4-5 hour trip through huge picture windows.
As my house lease in Villa Nova was coming to an end, I had a difficult decision to make. Was I prepared to commit to spending the rest of my life living in a flawed but fascinating country like Mexico, or was I being drawn to return to the U.S.? Was the wanderlust out of my system or did I want to try a third country as a potential long-term refuge? I spend days making mental and physical lists of those things I found most appealing in each and woke up nightly to ruminate (are we seeing a pattern here?) and debate, hoping for a clear sign to emerge.
In the end, it came down to finances. Those who are most successful in moving to Mexico have invested in real estate there. They’ve bought homes, often renovated them and furnished them with a mix of furniture shipped down from their homes elsewhere, mixed with the artwork and decorative items so abundant in the area. Almost all these people pay cash for their properties. And although homes are cheaper there, to get into something in good shape or to update an older existing property, you need to look at the $200,000-250,000 range, minimum. Sure, you can get into something for much less, but it will not be up to a standard you might want. Keep in mind, for this amount, you will be getting into a lovely, modern home that would be considerably pricier in most of the U.S. or Canada.
Many of the couples (and some singles) I met, long-term straight and gay alike, bought either larger condos or older homes that they had renovated. Many are on the hillside overlooking the lake and are on a par with any upscale home you’d find anywhere. Once you get what you want, you find that maintenance is a fraction of what it is elsewhere. As long as you have access to a healthy monthly income, you’re all set. Healthcare is always a priority. Some opt for one of the available plans in Mexico. Others are tied to U.S. carriers, pay out of pocket for meds and doctor visits while in Mexico, yet return to the U.S. for specialists or any required procedures.
For me, however, allocating that amount of cash for a home purchase from my accessible accounts was not an option. I simply didn’t have that much in liquid funds to invest. If I was going to own a home again, I needed to finance it. And I knew that in the U.S., with a healthy amount down, I would have no trouble doing so. The bulk of my resources were tied up in retirement funds and I was not about to touch those.
If I had to sum it up, I would say that although I loved the Mexico experience, I missed much of my U.S. life. I missed the cleanliness and the order. I missed the conveniences and food. I missed the media and the big grocery stores. I was over the packs of hungry, stray dogs on every street, often appearing stressed from the heat, the lack of water, food and medical attention. I also found that the magical Mexican culture can be a loud one. A certain level of constant noise just seems to be the norm. When there was a celebration in the neighbourhood, party goers were up until 1-2 a.m. at least with the festivities. Fireworks and noise makers were constantly incorporated into each and every possible occasion, whether a religious holiday, local festivities or national celebrations. Mexican people love a good party, so any excuse will do. The firecrackers they use, however, are like grenades in noise level. These are the same dangerous Cherry Bombs that were banned in the U.S. in the 60’s. They often went up and down the streets setting them off, which made me feel at times I was in a war zone. And those poor dogs must have been terrified. Every year, dozens of Mexicans are killed or maimed due to fireworks. Explosions in fireworks factories, often off the grid and privately owned, are frequent.
By mid-summer, I had made the decision to leave Mexico and return to the U.S. the following fall. Although I finally understood the allure of the expat lifestyle, I learned even more about my own need for a sense of order, home and familiarity. I wanted an American life again. I wanted a home, a car and a Safeway. I wanted clean, well-manicured streets without packs of stray dogs. I wanted quiet evenings and neighbours that respected boundaries.
In August 2016, I flew up to the U.S. and visited family and friends in Seattle. I took four days to fly down to Tucson, Arizona in the true American old west. It was a city I had lived in for much of my high school and college years, and I knew it was both laidback and affordable. In those four days, I bought a car and made offers on one house and two condos, losing out on all of them, either because my offer wasn’t accepted, or the units had sold the day after I had seen them. On my last day there, I found a townhouse that was part of a small complex of 16 units, built in 1976, designed, coincidentally, by famed Mexican architect Juan Worner Baz. I made an offer which was quickly countered. I accepted the counter and because I was prequalified for a loan, it was a done deal. My new home was on the Spanish-named Placita Posada Real. Southern Arizona is steeped in Mexican culture, food and traditions, as it was among the last pieces of land added to the continental United States via the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.
From Tucson, I flew back to Seattle for a few days, then returned to Ajijic via Guadalajara, the closest airport. I sent the next 5 weeks seeing the friends I had made and scheduled another visit to one of my new fave cities of the world, Mexico City, a quick plane ride away. So much to see. So cosmopolitan. So many gorgeous buildings, cathedrals and public monuments. Such amazing food. Mexico City is not to be missed in anyone’s foray to that country. And there are a dozen more “must-see” towns for those who want to get to know Mexico. The spirit of adventure is an expat norm, right? Why else would we leave our native country to move to a new land?
I arrived in Arizona in late September 2016 and moved into my new home the following month. It has been 19 months since I returned to the U.S. and settled (“nested”) in Tucson. Do I have regrets about the decisions I made? Not really. They were all made with the best info I could gather at the time, coupled with my own instincts and needs. Tucson may seem tepid compared to the places I have lived or visited in my adult life, but it is an easy place, with the most non-pretentious group of people I’ve ever met. I mean, it’s the anti-California experience in many ways. It may not be chic, hip or happening in a big city way, but it’s easy. And for now, it works. I have my sanctuary. My order. My peace and to a point, my tranquility.
To sum it up, I loved living as an expat. I loved seeing and learning new things each and every day I lived abroad. I enjoyed the people I met, both locals of the countries I visited, as well as the dozens of expats from a myriad of countries I encountered. It was the fabled once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I am still processing ways in which I can document it for others. Writing about it is a start.
Would I ever consider trying it again? Probably not. I took a radical approach by selling everything I owned and creating a whole new life from scratch. I had the resources to take off and try it. Many will never have that luxury, nor the motivation. What I may do is look at ways to live part-time internationally, either via a home-swap programme or leasing my place out 2-3 months a year. It may sate my need for adventure, yet maintain my apparent need for security and peace.
For anyone who might be thinking of living as an expat, my suggestion will always and forever be the same. If you have an opportunity to live for months or years or a lifetime in a foreign country, do it. Of course, do your homework and take the time to understand the challenges and opportunities you will face. You think it’s easy? It’s not. It takes physical and mental strength, focus and determination, curiosity and research. It takes a “go with the flow” mentality with a street smart sensitivity to your surroundings. It takes preparation and planning and a willingness to risk more than you ever thought possible. But do it – and your life will forever be enriched. I promise.
For all of us who reach a certain age (and that could be 50, 60 or beyond), there is the bigger question to answer. “Who am I and what do I want to do with the rest of my life?” In the end, whether you live in Tucson, Chiang Mai, Ajijic or Namibia, that’s a question we all need to address. And as my life goes on, it becomes the hardest one of all. But I am so thankful I was able to do what I did. And I am even amazed to realise that the changes in me are ongoing. Not a day goes by without a flashback of a conversation, a meal, interaction or experience. It provides an endless escape and an ongoing inspiration.
I lived as an expat. Although I’m still trying to make sense of it all, I wouldn’t change a thing. If we can all say that as we enter the later stages of our lives, we will have lived a good life. But, as they say, the journey continues.
Robert Stephen (Steve) Browning first wrote for Expat Essentials in 2015 as he set out on his expat journey. In this new blog, he reflects on his experiences living abroad after his return to live in the US. You can read more in Steve’s blog New Nations: The Expat Experience.