Chapter 1

A Rainstorm…
A Goodbye Party…Crossing Over

¿Es usted norteamericana?
Si, soy norteamericana.

We are rolling across the republic to the soft droning of my wife’s Spanish language drills on the car’s CD player. My wife answers with the same exaggerated singsong lilt as the woman on the disc, and it is starting to grate on me. Certainly it is a credit to Thia that she is using our five days of driving to the border as a time to begin learning the language, but it has something of the same effect on me that songs tallying bottles of beer used to have when returning from camp. It is Election Day, and it is pouring sheets here in Ohio as autumn lightning crackles down onto the plains. When we pull off the highway to fill up, I see lines of people outside a school building, holding umbrellas or turning their collars up, waiting to vote. Thia and I have cast absentee ballots in our Connecticut town before leaving — as it happens, I was in the college class between the two presidential candidates — but if there is any astral, or political, sign in our departure, it is not of our making.

The election results unfold for us in a motel in Ohio, where it continues to pour. We wonder, in passing, what effect the lashing rain might have on the voter turnout here. Thia and I resume our drive the next morning, and the weather clears. She puts on her Spanish drills again (yes, she is a norteamericana, but I cannot think of a time in Mexico in the next two years when we’ll be called that), and we strike a time-sharing compromise: I am finally able to tune into my newest toy, a satellite radio. With 120 channels, it turns a long drive into a continuous sampling of music, news, and sports — Mozart, classic rock, crooners of the thirties, Debussy, even a twenty-four-hour Elvis channel, plus NPR and the talk shows, all thrashing out the election results. Although we are on our way to simplify our lives, it will not be without some of our society’s more useful technology. Mine is the first generation since the rise of the Internet and the technology boom to try out the expatriate life. We may not need our TV — we have not brought along a set — but we do want our laptops, our DVD players, our iPods, our Wi-Fi cards.

Our car is a midsize used Japanese SUV I bought recently on eBay. It is hardly a smart choice of car, since it is not serviced in Mexico, and it is not particularly economical or environmentally friendly. But it is a strong, rugged beast, and we didn’t want to trade it in for a lesser breed; at least it is a four-wheel drive vehicle. Mexico, as we knew from a previous visit, offered ample opportunities to test a car’s constitution. The topes — vicious speed bumps that appear out of nowhere approaching towns and villages — were enough to require reinforced shocks, and any detours could involve streams, mud, and rocks. It also had enough cargo room for the stuff we were bringing for a first year’s stay in Mexico.

Thia decided suitcases would only be a nuisance to store in the apartment we would be renting, and a pain to pack in the car, so instead we filled sixteen large steel-reinforced plastic trash bags with our (all-summer) clothes, our laptops, a printer, a fan, our flippers, a multitude of CDs and books, a stereo, and a foldable bookcase. By afternoon of the next day, in Missouri, we switch off the satellite radio in favor of an audio book of Mark Twain readings. As we have planned our rambling route, we cross the big river not that far from Hannibal listening to excerpts from Life on the Mississippi. We are in no hurry to reach the Mexican border. We have traveled with our boys throughout the United States and in Europe, and always enjoyed the going as much as the getting there.

***

To easterners, Europe seems closer than Mexico. In the East, our superficial image of Mexico is shaped by what we read or see on television or when immigration issues are in the public eye: a poor country with good resorts, lousy water, spicy food, dangerous bandidos, a colorful history, and a hard-working people — a good number of whom might, at any moment, be poised at the Rio Grande, paying unscrupulous smugglers their life’s savings to ferry them across to do America’s lowest-paid work. When we get exercised about illegal immigration, as we do every few years, we notice the Mexicans in our midst, laboring in our fields and our cities. But we do not trouble ourselves to know much beyond the clichés about Mexico, or about the Mexicans who remain and reside in their own country. In the East we are exposed to a less nuanced image of Mexico than are residents of California or the Southwest. But it’s safe to say that a mix of apprehension and condescension toward our southern neighbor seems to be pervasively, reflexively American. Sorry, North American.

In our family, there was a different tradition. It may not have been in our blood — we’re pretty much Irish-French — but living in Mexico for a time was part of our family history. My paternal grandfather lived and worked in Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, at the turn of the last century. My father, a mining equipment salesman, was transferred to Mexico City in 1952, and we spent seven years there, leaving when I was twelve. I forgot much of my Spanish and did not return to Mexico until I was an adult.

Though I passed some formative years there, Mexico faded from my mind. My family moved to Europe — I met my future wife’s family there — but I went to high school and college in the States and worked in America’s big cities. I retained a warm feeling for the years I spent in Mexico City, which was then a balmy city of a few million. It seemed to me, young as I was, a fabled, romantic time of my life. But later, as time went on, I became no less susceptible than other Americans to the drumbeat of press reports about Mexico’s unstable finances, poverty-stricken citizenry, and crime in the border cities, to say nothing of the effects of drinking the tap water.

In fact, after we announced our decision to our larger circle of friends, it was surprising how many had their own personal horror stories to relate, and how eagerly they told them. Just before we left, there was a good-bye party for us in New York at our in-laws’ apartment. Our friends came to wish us well. One, a svelte, smart New York City judge and an experienced world traveler, told us she had visited Mexico only once and had been shipped home feet first, retching. A soft-spoken sister-in-law was uncharacteristically agitated when she talked about a friend who had once been stopped by police in Mexico and taken off to jail on spurious charges. A couple of friends from the suburbs mentioned kidnappings in Mexico City and the rash of stories about violence in the border cities.

At the party, after we cut the celebratory cake that was bought for us, several of my male friends put their arm around my shoulder. “You dog,” said a lifelong buddy. “We’re so goddamn envious.”

“You’re paving the way,” said another friend and fellow writer. “You’re going to live the dream.” That is what they were saying. But by the way they squeezed my shoulder, kneading it sympathetically, I knew it was more than happiness or even a touch of envy they felt for us — they were wishing us luck, as if they feared we would need it.

***

After a final Stateside lunch on San Antonio’s voguish riverfront, we are in Laredo, Texas, approaching the border. Thia and I rehearse our plans. The guidebooks and websites have advised us what we can legally take across the border. Among other things, we are declaring only the ten books and twenty CDs we are allowed under a tourist visa, and have written a list to that effect, translating it into formal Spanish on Google’s language site.

We are taking a risk by failing to declare the fifty CDs and the sixty or so books we are actually carrying. We will be applying for a tourist visa even though we intend to stay for at least a year, and will wait to get a resident visa at our destination in Mexico. That will eventually allow us to bring over a virtually unlimited number of household goods, but for now we have to make do with what tourists do. We are resigned to what may happen if the Mexican border police give us the notorious red light, which randomly singles out travelers for a major inspection. We know we face duty and a possible fine if our international music- and book-smuggling operation is uncovered.

In downtown Laredo, we pick up our Mexican insurance papers; American insurance is not valid in Mexico. Nasty stories about uninsured accidents in Mexico are a cottage industry online, not least because so many Mexican drivers do not themselves carry insurance — or driver’s licenses, for that matter. In Mexico, we hear, with a legal system in part based on the Napoleonic code, guilt is sometimes assumed and innocence must be proved. If papers are not in order, or there are any discrepancies at the scene of a fender bender, it is not unknown for the police to escort both drivers to a jail until it can be sorted out. We head for the international border. In the middle of the bridge spanning the Rio Grande, we pass into Mexico.

American customs is uninterested in those of us leaving, while at the Mexican booth, an unsmiling man in uniform peers in at us and nods us through. It’s a false positive, we know. The real customs stop is twelve miles down the highway, through a “free trade zone,” in which U.S. residents can make casual day trips with a minimum of red tape. Those of us going further face the gauntlet. It is an instructive experience to cross the border by car, unlike flying into a Mexican airport, where you encounter only gradual changes amid the familiar glass and chrome of the arrivals building. In a car, you are immersed in the new culture instantly. On the streets of Nuevo Laredo, the potholed pavement, littered sidewalks, dilapidated buildings, horizontal traffic lights, and a swelter of unfamiliar signage hit us at once. An old gentleman in a straw hat pulls out in front of us, on the seat of a cart made from a car frame, urging his donkey forward in traffic. The sidewalk action, all bustle and glances, has an edgy cast. In the year to come, there will be stories about gang killings and kidnappings in this lawless border city, and even now I know I want us to do our business and be gone.

We have to get our visas and car papers. Given the millions of vehicles that pass this way, the signs for the Mexican car-permit office are remarkably casual and makeshift. When we find the office, there are lines, and documents to be stamped, and permits to be paid for — in Mexican pesos, not with credit cards. Outside of major hotels and restaurants, we know this is still largely a cash society. This is my first test of patience for the pace of bureaucratic life in Mexico. The American mind begins immediately to make comparisons: God, this is inefficient; in the States we’d streamline this — conveniently forgetting long mornings of waiting in line at a New York City Department of Motor Vehicles. I have to make a conscious effort to adjust — they do it differently here, relax! — so I don’t start out irritated and annoyed.

Our documents are stamped, then stamped again, and then again. About ninety minutes later, we are on the highway toward the twelve-mile customs station, where the green or red light awaits. We are exhilarated to be headed somewhere we will be calling home, but with a glance at each other, Thia and I know we are feeling the same thing. It is something we would not have admitted to our friends back East: a touch of dread about leaving behind the safe harbor of U.S. laws and norms, knowing that this time in our journey south we are driving deeper, past the point of easy return, to a place that can feel more perilous and alien than most countries we have visited. It’s been said that there may be no two bordering countries in the world more different from each other than the United States and Mexico. Mexican author Carlos Fuentes has written that Mexico is far more “intricate and challenging to the North American mind than anything in Europe; a country at times more foreign than anything in Asia.”

Still, I remind myself that despite the press clippings and State Department warnings, the overall crime rate in Mexico, at least as compiled by a recent United Nations survey, is ranked at less than a quarter that of the United States. Because public mistrust of the police in Mexico results in crimes being underreported, probably drastically, it’s hard to get a true sense of it. But even if the reported figures are tripled or quadrupled, there is a statistical case to be made that in many parts of the country, for many of its 107 million citizens and resident expatriates, Mexico is at least as safe to live in as the United States. It is reassuring to think so.

Approaching the customs checkpoint, we slow down to pass through the lights. Up ahead, a red flash, and a car pulls over to the side and is approached by customs agents. Then a green, a green, and us — green! The very first thing I think after feeling relief is an ungrateful, Damn, what was I worried about?; we could have taken the desktop computer (only a laptop is permitted), and maybe even that old air conditioner we had in the attic in Connecticut. Well, maybe not. We hear later from red-lighted travelers who were delayed for hours while every bag was inspected, with imaginative duties imposed on anything that looked even vaguely new.

The crossing, as I reflect on it, has its disturbing ironies. Here are we, persons born to privilege, now prospective immigrants headed in one direction over a border river that countless desperate immigrants look to cross the other way. We are worried about carrying too many CDs and getting fined; they are, many of them, fearful of being caught, arrested, turned back, robbed, in some cases dying from desert exposure. But something comes back to me: for all the furor about Mexican illegal aliens, which will grow more strident in the months to come, I have also read about Mexican immigrants working in the States who say they ultimately prefer the way of life in Mexico and intend to return here when they have saved enough. Although there’s an economic reason I am emigrating to their country, I am also hoping to embrace the life and culture they say they miss.

So we are, at last, on our way. Our destination is a stretch of beach villages two days’ drive away, about halfway down Mexico’s Pacific Coast. We felt it important to settle in the middle part of the country, beyond the reach of the hustle and aggression of the border cities, and outside the periphery of tension and congestion that is Mexico City. We have been to the gentler central and interior parts of the country, and have a sense of how life is lived there.

Still, it is not that we have a dreamy notion of living alone in a rural village or necessarily of living in a more “authentic” Mexico. There are expatriates who seek that out, but we were not looking for a primitive, locals-only retreat. The villages that caught our interest are more prosperous, and more inhabited by Americans, than most. Yes, we want the Mexican experience; yes, we want to engage with a culture that is new to us. But we are going to make a home and do not want to forgo all modern comforts or English-speaking comradeship.

Besides, it seems more interesting to us to engage with a community that is dealing with change, not pastorally preserved in the past. As Mexicans come north to seek a better living, Americans will be heading south in greater numbers to seek a better life. That dynamic — between a purely Mexican tradition and the wave of modernism ushered in by television, tourists, and retirees — will be an increasingly common scenario played out in Mexican towns and villages.

This, at least, is what I found when I took an assignment a year earlier to write about Americans retiring in central Mexico. It was then that I rediscovered my childhood affection for the country and its people. During that trip, I came to feel that the overarching characteristics of Mexicans — amiability, generosity, creativity, honesty, joy in living — were most evident in these smaller towns. As for the Americans, I interviewed a wide range of gringo retirees, in various states of work, repose, and merriment, from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta.

It was at the end of the trip that, unexpectedly, we arrived at the funky, dusty village that would grab our hearts: Sayulita. We would not have got there, or done any of it, if I had not first had the rug pulled out from under me. Sometimes you need a shove to discover where you want to go next.