No matter how long one has been an expat living in Mexico, most of us first started as tourists. As a tourist, my interactions with the Mexican culture were sporadic and shallow in nature, but captivating enough to envisage a future asylum in this alluring country.
At that time as a seasoned tourist in Mexico, I was proud of my perfect diction. I would ask “Cerveza más fría?” “Cerveza fría más?” “Más cerveza fría!” Or “Dónde está cerveza fría?” This fine command of the language put me in high regard in the eyes of my wife and children.
Now, however, I realize that during my time as a tourist I learned very little which is now useful in my residential capacity. Learning the language is only one of two very important factors which contribute to a transcendent lifestyle for the average expat.
However, no matter how good your Spanish is, without cultural adjustment your life in Mexico cannot be as culturally rich is it might be. And usually the inability to achieve this elusive cultural adjustment is a direct result of preconceived cultural expectations, unaltered by the physical shift undertaken, and which, given the differences in surroundings, can in time override the pleasure centers of the brain and lead to severe psychological distress.
The transition from tourist to resident can sometimes be a winding path filled with incommodious topes which can hinder the cumbersome process of becoming a true expat. From local, state or federal government agencies with their superfluous imperatives, to a complex and sometimes downright illogical culture which has been shaped by 500 years of bloody turmoil and honed with an overabundance of religion and primal superstitions, nothing is easy or clear-cut about precipitating your expat life.
As a tourist, you view your time in Mexico as a great vacation: poolside margaritas, stunning old-world architecture, beautiful beaches, mystical Mesoamerican sites and so on, you get the idea. Remember? Most tourists know, on one level or another, that what they are enjoying about Mexico is somewhat removed from the life outside their all-inclusive compound.
It is most likely during that period of a tourist’s transition that the seed is planted deep within the folds of the gray matter: “I could live here.” Subsequent vacations to the varied locales of Mexico feed the seed and it grows into a recurring day dream — could it be possible for me (or us) to live in Mexico?
The 1964 film Night of the Iguana put Puerto Vallarta on the tourist map, and repeated visits by John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, John Huston and similar shining stars brought Mazatlán into the tourism spotlight in the late 50s. In fact, John Wayne was such a regular at the Belmar Hotel that there is an old wooden armchair which bears the carved initials JW and has been proudly displayed in the lobby for over 60 years.
Personally, I find it difficult to imagine John Wayne defacing a piece of furniture with his pocket knife. However, several years ago a Canadian man was so taken with the prospect that such a unique and valuable piece of Hollywood memorabilia was not chained to the concrete wall that he stole the chair. When this brazen theft became known, several of the aging Belmar Bohemians bemoaned the loss of this priceless artifact on one of the local internet forums.
After an absence of many months, the fabled chair miraculously reappeared in the Belmar’s lobby in the wee hours of the morning. But going back in time again, so much for the Hollywood crowd: none of them ever became residents.
A great number of Mexico’s tourists are Canadian. So what’s that all a boot? Could it be connected to the fact that unlike some states in the U.S. Canada does not have any provinces with mild winter weather? Regardless of where you live in the provinces, the winters have the potential to kill people. Quickly.
For many Canadians, the risk of frostbite or hypothermia is far greater than the risk of being gunned down by the narcos in Mexico. Many of the Canadians who winter here are quintessential snowbirds who stay in the tropics for several months at a time.
Snowbirds from the U.S., while sharing many traits with their confederates from the frozen north, frequently have as their ultimate commonality a desire never be labeled a tourist.
The transformation from tourist to roosting snowbird is a defining moment in the metamorphic process which leads to life as an expat. As a snowbird rather than a mere tourist, these people are living within the culture several months at a time. They deal with cumbersome and needlessly complex Mexican governmental requirements and procedures: they have learned how to stand in line, they are making slow progress with Spanish, they have learned where and how to shop, they have learned that many locals will be helpful and say yes whether yes is the correct answer or not, and many other things tourists will not grasp during their short visits.
There are a myriad of daily trials and tribulations which tend to buffet a snowbird about, as they search for the perfect life in Mexico.
When faced with the vexing tasks listed above, some of which require days to work through when the same issues could be handled in an hour “back home,” the snowbird is tested. Spending time in chaotic Mexican traffic, coming across spontaneous parades which make roads unusable with no notice, ditto spontaneous street parties, with the same result plus lots of noise, experiencing first-hand the effect of constantly changing immigration regulations, the seeming lack of logic in most things Mexican are just some of the many tests.
The snowbirds who are in Mexico only because it is cheap and warm (as opposed to those who have always yearned to travel to and live in a faraway and completely culturally different place or who have successfully completed the Acme Expat Immersion Therapy and Attitude Modification Program), are the ones who will be more likely to fail most of the daily tests. Frustration as well as exasperation is lurking around every corner and every day for those among us who believe that if Mexico would only make this change or that change, life here would be so much more amenable.
So already, the daily experiences of the snowbirds who have managed so far to maneuver nimbly and successfully through these tests have brought about some level of understanding of the culture. However the climatic stage of evolution, from tourist to expat, begins to unfold when the aspiring expat fully comprehends the adage: you can’t change Mexico, Mexico changes you — and that’s OK.
Only then will the hours or sometimes days it takes to register your car become a cultural adventure rather than a vexatious ordeal. Standing in line becomes a chance to practice your tentative Spanish skills. Scanning the abundant signs that pepper the buildings, while stalled in traffic, becomes an ad hoc opportunity to improve your Spanish comprehension, which is far preferable to capitulating to stress-induced annoyance. When life in Mexico becomes as comfortable as an old shoe, the assimilation process is well under way.
If you can find your way along such a channel, melding into the unique way of life in Mexico is a continuous process which slowly permeates your being until your cultural comfort zone is achieved. Being a gringo in paradise has twists and turns that are obvious and some that possess the enduring element of surprise. But no matter how your days slide by, if you are open-minded, each one will either teach you something or entertain you with an episode that will have you shaking your head in either disbelief or wonderment.
Tourism is a wonderful exercise for those experiencing it and for the city which encourages it. Because the time here is so enjoyable, it is to be expected that large numbers of those tourists are going to turn into stayers for longer periods.
The challenge of becoming an expat can be huge in scope, or just another interesting path in life’s continuing journey; it’s all about stepping away from the inflexible notions that drive our daily lives, and just diving in with an open mind. The culture is fine, you’ll like it.
The writer describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. He can be reached at email@example.com.