Gone to Mexico
Longtime Chicoan ditches the North State for her dream life in Puerto Vallarta
The easy thing is to call it a “midlife crisis.” But it wasn't so much a crisis—just a deep longing I finally responded to three years ago when I uprooted and moved to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
For years I'd felt stuck in a cycle—working jobs I wasn't suited for to pay for the car to get there and the clothes to play the part. I lived for rare vacations to tropical beaches, places where my body and soul felt at ease. Each time I headed back to Chico, it was with a certainty in my bones: I would be back at the ocean—and not just to visit, but rather to live life—somewhere, somehow.
When I shared my dream with friends, most of them nodded and smiled with raised eyebrows—kind of like patting the head of a child with an overactive imagination.
The impetus to quit dreaming and actually go for it came during a chat with “Yoga Jim” Salber at Peet’s Coffee in Chico back in 2013. Salber had long been a favorite yoga teacher and inspiration, and, at age 70, he continued to impress me with his vibrancy. It was right before my 50th birthday, which I was dreading.
“No, no, 50 is when things really begin, when you can really start living your dreams …” Salber told me.
Something clicked. I’d been to Puerto Vallarta—or PV—for brief jaunts for decades, always stretching my stay as long as possible. I envied those I met who’d moved there from other countries. These people can’t all be richer and smarter than I am, I thought. There must be a way.
So, knowing a couple of friends who lived in PV—mostly through Facebook connections—I packed up my Chihuahua, Snickers, bought a one-way ticket, and off we went to Mexico.The payoff
No matter the exact reason I moved—I’m still not quite sure myself—the payoff has been an overflowing of amazing opportunities and experiences. Politeness is huge there, as is the feeling of genuine caring, among strangers and friends.
In PV, I fell in with a group of entertainers—actors, musicians, writers and other talented folk—with diverse experiences and backgrounds. They’re what makes the region’s entertainment offerings so vibrant. I’ve gotten interesting work: acting, modeling, directing, writing and hosting a weekly karaoke night. Earlier this summer, a new Mexico City-based soap opera, Despertar Contigo, filmed for a few weeks in Puerto Vallarta. Through connections with talent scouts, several of my friends and I got work as actors and extras on the shoots. The title means “To wake up with you.” It premiered Aug. 8 on Canal de las Estrellas, which translates as the Stars Channel.
The highlight of my four days on the set was being in a scene at a sports bar where actor David Guilmette and I pretended to celebrate our anniversary. In other scenes, I’m eating a sandwich at a beachfront restaurant, walking across a hospital lobby, and dragging a suitcase through the PV airport.
In real life, I live in an apartment in a spacious ceramics gallery that bursts with art supplies, sculptures and creative energy. I became friends with the artist and owner a couple of years ago. She rented me the apartment this summer, while she’s teaching workshops and traveling in the United States. It’s a block from The Boutique Dinner Theatre, where I work.
A typical day begins with a yoga or Zumba class, then meetings, rehearsals, maybe an audition, and work on the computer. Often, I yield to a spontaneous message from a friend, drop what I’m doing and head to the beach. At night, I usually go listen to live music or see a play to enjoy and support the talented people I’ve gotten to know.
My PV friends and I have a saying: “Why doesn’t everyone do this?” It’s when the situation is just too good—ordering fresh tacos for 10 pesos (about 60 cents) from a street vendor, dancing with strangers to free mariachi music, pausing for a dramatic sunset that washes the sky with neon.
There are fewer laws and rules to deal with on a daily basis here. You have to mess up pretty badly to get in any kind of trouble. Jay-walking is a nonissue. Almost anywhere, you can wave your gay pride flag, smoke, drink, dance like no one is watching—and no one gets in your face about it.
Moreover, the tropical climate just suits me. The ample sunshine is better for my joints, circulation and skin. I can swim in the ocean year-round. Lots of people look much younger and report improved health.
Sure, there have been low points. Anyone who’s survived “Montezuma’s revenge” can empathize. I despise the mosquitoes and other flying creatures that constantly bite me. The scariest thing I’ve lived through in Mexico was Hurricane Patricia, last October. Friends and I played Scrabble, thinking we all might be literally washed away overnight. We quietly watched CNN report “the worst hurricane in the world” headed for PV.
Our frightened loved ones jammed our email inboxes with messages. Thankfully, the storm passed us by.A small world
Visitors to Mexican tourist towns quickly become familiar with the friendly, outgoing vendors who are seemingly everywhere. To get tourists to shop in their stores, or lure them into the infamous timeshare presentations, the barkers get creative in engaging people who walk by. It’s easy to pinpoint the tourists by their vacation apparel and unskilled Spanish. And most often, these U.S., Canadian and European visitors can be spotted by their pasty or newly sunburned skin.
One of the vendors’ favorite ploys is finding out where these peso-toting foreigners are from, and engaging in conversations about their faraway hometowns. Several times, barkers I’ve encountered have claimed to know where Chico is, and several said they had been there. When one said his sister lived on Orange Street and went to college in Chico, I halfway believed him. More likely, many towns have an Orange Street with a campus nearby.
One of my favorite conversations with a Mexican, about Chico, was when I was at death’s door in a Mexican emergency room. For several days I’d been holed up, near the toilet, in my apartment with my little dog. When the entire inside of my mouth turned black, I decided to get help.
It was too early in the morning for regular doctors’ offices to be open, and I was exhausted, dizzy and just plain scared. I dragged myself to what I call the Starbucks Hospital. Its lobby is shared with a tidy, familiar kiosk, the only good-old American Starbucks on the south side of town where I live, fondly called the Zona Romantica.
A good-natured receptionist came out from behind her desk, sat next to me, reassuringly asked me questions, and filled out my intake forms—only two pages’ worth! Within 10 minutes, I was seated in the office of a young doctor who seemed every patient’s dream. He was kind, knowledgeable and spoke English.
“Oh, you’re from Chico,” he said in an easy way that reminded me of the barkers. “I have some cousins who live in Chico!”
Don’t tell me he’s got a timeshare presentation, too, I thought in my dehydrated haze.
Then, as though I was back to my normal weight with my Chico Chamber of Commerce name tag on, I recognized my voice saying, “Really? You should visit sometime. It’s a beautiful place.”
I suddenly wondered if my lips were also turning black.
The doctor frowned and said he would never do that. His cousins were on his father’s side, and his father had died when he was a boy. He said he’d never met any of these relatives, and, frankly, didn’t want to. He named several other towns in the Sacramento Valley where his extended family also lived.
When I asked why he didn’t want to meet them, he said they were cholos. I took that to mean gangster-types, to which he agreed. “Sí. They drive around in those trucks with the big tires. They have gang tattoos everywhere, even on their faces,” the clean-cut doctor said soberly. “The worst is, they use their mugshots—the real ones they got getting booked into jail—as their profile pictures on Facebook.”
Not wanting to laugh, and not knowing what to say, I changed the subject back to my bowel problems. He wrote me a prescription, and I had the medicines in my hand at the pharmacy down the street in 10 minutes. The whole encounter with the medical system there happened with no hassles and almost no waiting. And, even with no health insurance, the cost of the emergency visit was about $30 U.S. The cost of the two prescription medications came to about the same, which left me pleasantly surprised and very grateful.Que no es auténtico
Incomprehensibly, thousands of visitors spend their hard-earned paychecks to come to Mexico each year, and they never actually see it.
I’m referring to the folks who opt for the ease of all-inclusive, gated resorts. These places take care of their guests’ needs: food, entertainment, shopping and sleeping. They satisfy their cultural curiosities with weekly themed “Mexican fiesta” nights, bringing in musicians and dancers for the recreated spectacle representing Mexico. The hardest decision resort-dwellers have to make all week is what drink to order.
They may feel safer, but they also miss out on so much of the culture and experience of auténtico (authentic) Mexico.
Then there are the “snowbirds”—the residents of other countries who live in PV for the winter months.
Despite their mangled Spanish and impatience with less-than-instant service, many English-speaking visitors bring good values with them. Some are shamelessly wealthy but put their money where their mouths are. Many start nonprofits, attend fundraisers, donate generously and volunteer. They choose organizations that help local children, animals or other groups in need. It’s not all overstuffed trust-funders plopping themselves day after day on bar stools to watch the same sporting events they’ve watched all their lives—although it’s easy to find many of those good-natured folks, too.Walk, walk, walk
There are so many great things about living in PV. One of them is not needing to drive. “Lose the car, take the Chihuahua” is my motto. I’ve never been fond of driving nor riding in vehicles. I grew up in L.A., carsick in the backseat. As an adult, I’ve become less agreeable with a lifestyle that requires me to have a car. I don’t like polluting or being a contributor to society’s addiction to foreign oil.
Welcome to Puerto Vallarta, where it’s easy to get by without a gas-guzzler. Groceries, laundromats, inexpensive restaurants, veterinarians and everything else I need is within walking distance. Bus transportation costs 7.5 pesos, less than 5 cents, and takes me anywhere around town and the outlying areas. Taxis are inexpensive, especially when you’re traveling with a group and can share the fare. I’m no longer concerned with gas, insurance, registration, parking, maintenance, vandalism, theft or accidents—either being caught up in one, or causing one and getting sued.
Walking has forced me to slow down and take in the sights, sounds and smells. Then, there’s Snickers. Turns out, going places with an adorable Chihuahua opens doors to interact with all kinds of people. Dogs are welcome in Puerto Vallarta, almost anywhere except Starbucks. Store and office employees seldom look twice when you walk in with or carry a dog.
In fact, the funniest incident of all my time in PV wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been walking my dog on the streets. Snickers stepped in freshly discarded chewing gum one day, and he became frantic when he couldn’t scrape it off his tiny front paw. I sat on the curb to pick it off, and my groceries spilled into the street. A boy of about 7 saw our predicament and quickly offered to help. Within seconds, all three of us were covered in webs of sticky, warm, neon-blue gum, which got messier the more we tugged on it.
The boy didn’t stop his extrication efforts until Snickers was free and calmed down. He collected and rebagged my groceries before disappearing. With the help of a shopkeeper, I tracked the boy down at a nearby Internet café, and gave him a propina (tip) and another gracías for helping us. Whoever brought him up taught him to stop and help others when you can, I thought. I love how children in PV treat their elders. It’s not uncommon to see a young boy with an elderly woman on one arm, carrying her purse on his other shoulder.
By the way, Snickers is a rescue from the Tijuana area. I adopted the 7-pounder in 2008 from a nonprofit formerly operating in Chico by Kathy Klages. Snickers is therefore an authentic Mexican Chihuahua and seems to truly enjoy the warmer climate. Conveniently, in Spanish, Snickers translates to the name the popular candy bar. “He’s sweet and a little nutty,” I tell people. “Ah, Snickers, como el chocolate! (like the chocolate!),” they say. Children and neighbors don’t remember my name, but we don’t pass without hearing choruses of “Hola, Snickers!” each day.Kind of like Chico
A lot of things are different in my new home, yet I often find similarities between social problems in Puerto Vallarta and Chico. Case in point: Semana Santa and St. Patrick’s Day.
I’d been warned about Semana Santa in PV—translated as Holy Week—the week before Easter (it can also refer to the weeks before and after Easter). It’s the holiday when untold thousands of Mexican citizens flock to the beautiful beach community. A friend who manages a beachfront restaurant described Semana Santa as “the worst two weeks of my life.”
I received warning after warning about the holiday: Anyone with common sense gets out of town for Semana Santa. The streets and buses are packed with out-of-control rude and drunk people trashing the town. Ten thousand additional police officers are called in. Vans packed with families invade, leaving no parking. They bring their own stoves and cook in the streets, sleep in vans or on the streets, and only the ocean knows where they perform their bathroom functions. It’s the only time of the year camping on the beach is allowed. Most who come bring their own groceries, and don’t spend any money at local businesses. Stock up on food so you don’t have to go out, and because grocery stores run out of supplies. Several people drown every year, mostly due to intoxication. Gangs and drugs are rampant.
And my favorite admonition: “Don’t go anywhere near the beach at night.”
Of course, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
As promised, the streets were flooded with people of all ages. Everyone I saw was smiling and laughing, and seemed to be having a great time. Three and sometimes four generations of families held hands while strolling El Malecón, a walkway along the ocean. Teenagers strutted about in fashionably dressed posses, many pairing off into twos to make out. A dramatic diva gave a spectacular free concert in the plaza. Even the dogs seemed happily wired from all the activity. Then again, I didn’t have to clean up the notorious litter left behind the next day, nor was I out after 11 p.m. to witness the reported crime and debauchery.
But I wondered, Why shouldn’t Mexicans get to enjoy their country’s beaches for vacation? If they can’t pay the high tourist prices for restaurants and hotels, should they be expected to just stay home?
The situation reminded me of problems Chico had long ago with Pioneer Days, and, in more recent years, with holidays such as Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. Similarly, Chico’s quaint downtown used to overflow with out-of-town revelers on those holidays.
Unlike in Chico, however, police and city leaders in PV don’t try to shut down the entire town and celebrations. Living here has been a reminder that, no matter where you go, if you’re a guest in another town or country, it’s OK to enjoy yourself, but you also need to treat the place—and the locals who call it home—with respect.‘Go for it!’
When I visited Chico a few weeks ago, while working on my computer at Peet’s, a woman noticed the PV emblem on my dress.
“My husband and I have been going there for 30 years,” she shared.
She has seen a show at The Boutique Dinner Theatre and we know some of the same people. We exchanged information and vowed to keep in touch. Often, I meet people with Chico connections. Not long ago, I chatted it up with a man in a Chico State fraternity shirt, and realized I was his age when Chico became my new home.
Also during my August visit to Chico, I ran into three separate women I’m Facebook friends with. “I’m so excited for what you’re doing,” they each said. “I don’t think I could do it, but I love that you’re doing it.”
Moving there alone was brave, they said, but it was also foolhardy and life-changing.
Recently a friend was facing a significant birthday—one that ends in “0.” I gave her the advice I had given myself, blending in a few “Salber-isms.” “Don’t fear this passage. Treat it as an opportunity to rid yourself of toxic patterns that are keeping you from your true self. Don’t wait to follow your passions, even though friends and family may disapprove. Whatever ‘it’ is for you, go for it!”
For me, these days, it’s the return visits to the United States that take getting used to. Prices are so high in comparison. Paper money is all one color. The roads are smooth, and the eggs are refrigerated. I have to remember I can flush toilet paper. That’s something you don’t do in most places in PV, due to both the delicate plumbing, and the difficulty in getting a plumber to show up, should a problem—ahem—arise. In fact, in PV, any day you have a working toilet is a good day.
I do miss Chico. It makes me happy to see my California friends and family, and despite myself, I cry in the airport when it’s time to say goodbye. I’m also sad for relationships that didn’t survive my transition. None of us can be in two places at once, and it’s a painful price to pay when you cherish two cities, and have to choose one.
But I love it when I return to PV and see a friend on the streets who will kiss me on both cheeks, as is the custom. Instead of offering me a “Welcome back,” he or she will now squeeze my arms, and exclaim, “Welcome home.”