Our next story for Enchanted Serendipity’s Expat Series has been written by Meri.
When my husband, Jim, and I sold our 8-acre hobby farm in western Colorado in 2008 and moved our family aboard our sailboat moored in Mexico, we didn’t know we’d morphed into permanent expats.
We never expected traveling parts of the world would change our feelings about returning to our old life in America. We hoped our children, Tim and Carolyne, would benefit from learning new languages, adapting to other cultures and learning to live with less.
We bought the sailboat in Long Beach in 2006 and sailed it south to Ensenada, Mexico to avoid paying California’s stick-it-to-you taxes.
The 2-day drive to Marina Puerto Salina from our rural homestead in the San Juan mountains took us through red rock spires in the Four Corners, opulent green and purple vineyards passing Tecate and straight to our favorite roadside restaurante for scrumptious tortilla soup topped with velvety avocado and hardy cilantro. Jim ran an internet provider business with competent employees, making it easy for us to slip away for several weeks at a time throughout the year.
We’d sleep on the boat at night and polish our sailing techniques during daytime. Tim and Carolyne learned how to catch and clean halibut, mahi mahi and yellow fin tuna.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could travel the world like this?” Jim said one starry night in the cockpit.
I emptied the blender contents into his salt-rimmed margarita glass with a plastic smile, hoping the tequila’s effects clouded his query.
I savored Mexico’s family oriented culture as much as its spicy cuisine. But, my heart remained rooted in my vegetable garden and orchard back home. Our Rhode Island red hens, the Fuji apples, organic zucchini and tomatoes… the country girl in me overflowed. But when my health conscious mother-in-law died prematurely and unexpectedly in 2008, my sense of urgency revved. Jagged remnants of my own mother’s sudden death a decade earlier hounded my psyche.
“If you want to fulfill your dream of sailing the world,” I told Jim, “we should do it now.”
A Mexico Expat Life Begins!
We sold the house, the business and everything else that wouldn’t fit in a 5×10 storage locker. Debt free and unburdened from most our material things, we moved aboard our sailboat despite the warnings from some family and friends.
“You couldn’t pay me to live in Mexico after watching the news.”
“Don’t you care about your children’s future?”
“There’s nuthin’ better than the good ole’ U.S. of A.”
Thereafter, we kept plans secret. The less our loved ones knew, the less we’d have to listen to their well-meaning, but narrow, opinions.
On Thanksgiving Day 2008, we cast the dock lines and sailed south around the Baja Peninsula and into the Sea of Cortez. Then, we whooshed over to Mexico’s mainland.
Carolyne wrote in her journal:
“We discovered neon carnivals, the air ripe with the scent of sweet cotton candy and cinnamon from deep-fried churros. We explored magotes, spotting lazy crocodiles basking on logs with their mouths agape. We walked down the tourist infested beaches, vendors constantly calling attention to their wool serapes, woven bracelets and straw sombreros. I favored the peddlers with their candy-jammed wheelbarrows, the swirls of bright colors like a kaleidoscope.”
New Country, New Language: It Makes All The Difference!
I spoke some Spanish, making traveling easier. One time, we entered a family owned restaurant in Mazatlan in a non-touristy neighborhood. We’d discovered the most economical, delicious, regional foods were where the locals ate. The owner acted resentful, ushering us to our table without a word, a smile or eye contact.
“She must not like gringos,” I whispered to Jim after she left.
When I placed our order with the waitress in Spanish, the owner’s eyebrows jumped. She ran to our table chatting excitedly.
“Lo siento. No entiendo Inglés,” she said. Apologizing, she told us she didn’t understand English.
Doors, hearts and opportunities opened all over the country, we discovered; merely attempting to communicate in Spanish.
Building A Life In Mexico
For the next handful of years, we traveled the sandy shores of Mexico and parts of Central America. We trekked inland, too. We munched chile chapulines (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca, heard the shrieks of howler monkeys exploring the Mayan ruins in Palenque, immersed ourselves in a Spanish language school in Guatemala and made 16.3 knots crossing a treacherous sandbar in El Salvador through rough seas. Never once were we in fear for our lives. (Well, I wet my pants a little when we crossed the sandbar!)
In 2012, we settled in La Paz, Mexico. Tim was nearing adulthood and we needed to focus on his future. I found a job making sail repairs for a one-eyed, surly sailmaker (a job in which I had no experience, but remains one of my favorite endeavors). Tim waited tables and Carolyne attended an all-Spanish speaking, public school.
Jim made repairs to the boat and updated his income producing websites. To break up the monotony of living aboard long-term at anchor, we offered our house-sitting services.
Our social life buzzed. We participated in local theatre, volunteered at animal shelters and made ourselves useful at fundraisers. But ultimately, Tim returned to the U.S. for college. That changed everything.
French Polynesia: A New Expat Life
One crew member down and tired of living aboard (but going nowhere), it was time to sail somewhere we’d never ventured or sell the boat. So in 2014, we made the “puddle jump” and crossed the Pacific Ocean to French Polynesia. Our 23-day passage riding the waves to the South Pacific landed us in the Marquesas.
After visiting multiple French Polynesian islands and atolls in the Tuamotus, Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, we sailed to American Samoa where I taught math and history for a year to 18 rambunctious middle-school-boys, and 4 unfortunate girls.
Getting a job working in Pago Pago was a right-place-right-time truism. I’d met a man on a jet ski while waiting at the dock to pick up Carolyne. A fifteen minute conversation led to scribbling an application. Two days later, decked out in a navy and turquoise puletasi (Samoan dress), I faced twenty-two smiling, wide-eyed students.
We cried leaving our friends in American Samoa a year later, especially Carolyne who attended school there and blew goodbye kisses to her first boyfriend. But, sailing to Tonga and spending a year in Fiji we met new people and started another new chapter.
Our sailing adventure ends in July.
Carolyne turns 17 this year and it’s time to focus on her future.
What Comes Next: A Permanent Move
We plan to return to Mexico and establish permanent residency there, where living and working is easy and affordable. Mexican healthcare is excellent and major medical insurance costs our family $170 annually. It’s close to the U.S., so if a family emergency arises it’s convenient to return home.
It’s not that we don’t love the U.S.A. – we do. But, we’ve discovered more affordable places to live with happy, carefree people. We see the world as ever-changing, now more than before.
Perhaps it’s due to our travels or perhaps it’s due to an anemic world economy. Whichever, we see an opportunity in Mexico to work a little and live a lot. And our children? Both speak Spanish, are adaptable to change and, hopefully, have learned the key to freedom is living big within their means.
Meri Faulkner travels with her husband and teenage daughter aboard their 41’ sailboat, Hotspur, which you can see photos of here. You can also follow their adventures on their blog Hotspur41 and can connect with Meri on Facebook and Twitter.
Enjoyed this story? Check out Katie’s piece about living in Italy and Thailand!