Onward and the Revolution

19787356_10155494315818827_7254089683585507343_o
Learning things about yourself is different as you get older. When you’re young you are learning these things for the first time, and you embrace is eagerly as if you have finally found the answers you were seeking in some conclusive fashion. It is truly self discovery, you are blazing trails into the unknown and shedding light on things that have never been seen before and it feels glorious.
As you get older, though, it seems to change. It shifts from self discovery to self revolution. We are re-shaping the things we thought we already knew about ourselves, and it’s a much slower process, I think. More difficult all around. We are trying to change the paths of things that have been flowing through us like relentless rivers in the bedrock for sometimes many years, and it’s daunting. It’s not the exciting, painless process it used to be…but rather tortured. It’s a struggle to accept these sometimes radical shifts in our self-perception.
This is all to say: I am discovering I might not be as nomadic as I thought, and it’s an unpleasant revelation.
This week I have been struggling with a dark cloud as my time here in my apartment between the mountain and the sea draws to a close. I have such an exciting itinerary planned for the next few months and then on to more exciting things in my business world…but I find I can’t enjoy these prospects properly because I am dreading leaving this place here. My home.
As I swept the flurry of termite wings off the balcony this morning and made my coffee, the notion crystallized. I have left tiny pieces of my heart in every place I ever lived. I loved them all, to varying degrees. I certainly miss a few more than others, though, and this one will be one that will stick in my craw with a pang of regret and loss for many years to come. I will miss my mornings out there on that tiny balcony, swatting mosquitoes away and watching the water for divers and dolphins. I will miss the cackle of the chacalacas and the noisy rush of water over the cliff after a hard afternoon monsoon.
I will miss the sunsets most of all. My daily dinner companion.
How could I love somewhere else more than this? I could count one hundred ways in which it’s lacking, but I’ve been here just long enough to accept its flaws the ways you come to accept the shortcomings of a lover. The seventy-two steep and lopsided stairs that leave me bathed in my own sweat by the time I reach the top; the land crabs clacking under the bed at all hours of the night; the tarantula guarding the stairs with some imagined ferocity; the long ride into town and those infernal late night waits for the last bus home…They all somehow endear me to this concrete box.
I suppose I’m just a sentimental sort. I spend a lot of time in my home and I develop a relationship with the places I inhabit. In a way, they inhabit me too, taking on personalities all their own and becoming, somehow, so much more than just a place to lay my head. I know this is not an unusual way to feel, but I am not sure it is common for those who have spent only six months in a place. I guess I fall hard and fast in this regard as well.
Today is soft and gray and cool. A welcome change from the muggy sunshine typical of the season. The butterflies are furiously grooming the pollen off of the flowering vines that have wrapped themselves through all the trees and the ants are busy sweeping up whatever carnage they can glean in the aftermath of last night’s storms.
I have laundry to do and errands to run and only one week left to be in love.

Fishing Mexico with a Handline

When I fished as I child I was generally handed a cane pole pre-baited and set up and sometimes already cast. The crappie, usually, would bite and I would pull it in and someone would take it off the hook and put it on the stringer and put another cricket on the line for me until I was big enough to learn the whole process myself.
Of course, as a Southern teenage girl more interested in listening to Muddy Waters than spending all my time around actual muddy waters, I lost touch with fishing. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of appeal to the culture I perceived to surround fishing down South. I associated it with a lot of things I spent the following years trying to separate from entirely which is too bad, because I kind f threw the baby out with the (muddy!) bath water for a while there.
When I moved to Alaska, fishing took on this new mystique for me. Suddenly it involved people who were interested in culture and conservation AND beer and camp fires! This was the REI version of fishing I never knew existed, and it turns out fishing cleans up really well. I wanted in, but I didn’t even know where to start. This was uncharted territory and my cane pole and crappie experience was laughably useless.
Consequently, fishing became one of those things I waited a long time to take up on my own because people always said they would take me, teach me, and they never did. I didn’t grow a set and buy my own stuff and start figuring it out on my own until, oh, maybe two years ago.
Today, I own a small collection of gear stuck in storage up North, mostly selected for various Alaskan salmon runs, costing perhaps $800 or so in total. This is an extremely modest collection as I mentally survey my friends and their respective kits. Fishing, like pretty much everything, can quickly become a total gear head hobby, and as a fisherman here in Mexico currently without the gear she’s become accustomed to, I have been frustrated.
Enter the handline.

Hand line spindle with old line and a rebar weight for practice casts.

I noticed a lot of people here along the Banderas coastline carrying around fresh catches and standing on the rocks or on the beach casting…but there was never a rod or reel of any configuration in sight. Finally up at Boca de Tomates I got close enough to watch a handline in action. It was a weird eureka moment—people have been successfully catching fish for millennia with extremely rudimentary tools and it’s a craft that is alive and well here on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
The locals here seem to prefer a small black spindle, about 8″ in diameter with a groove down the outside center formed by an up-turned lip on either side—one straight up and one angled out—to hold the line. The rigs I have inspected so far really only have three things in common—a length of heavy line, a weight, and one or more hooks. The tackle has been arranged in all the same arrays of configuration that you might see in other salt water fishing rigs, as have all other techniques.
To cast, a length is pulled from the spool and swung lasso-style above the head before releasing towards the water. (Apparently. With practice. At least Paul can show you how it’s done in the video below.) I had a lot of trouble coordinating this motion while holding the wheel just so to allow the line to spool off over the edge without gripping the whole thing in a death grip and stopping the line short. It is certainly something that takes a lot of practice and skill to achieve accuracy and distance and I particularly enjoy the extreme hands-on approach. My beginner casting was so poor that I spent most of my time on the beach spinning just the weight above my head in practice casts so I never got to experience a fish on, but the thought of bringing one in on such a simple rig is quite a thrilling prospect and now that I finally have my own handline all set up, you’ll probably be able to find me on the rocks most mornings.

Aside from the extremely intimate and organic feel this kind of fishing produces, there is another benefit—literally all you need to replicate it where ever you may find yourself is a length of heavy line and a hook. These rigs are often recreated using household objects and actual garbage (glass and plastic bottles, especially those that narrow a bit and have a good neck, are perfect,) and I have seen weights consisting of rocks, short bits of rebar, spark plugs, and yes, even traditional fishing weights all used. You can get fancy with your tackle if you want, but I’ve seen a lot of fish pulled in without it.
My current salvaged set up.

The funny thing is that suddenly…I’m not feeling that much urgency to get my gear down here. This has stirred up all kinds of funny Swiss Family Robinson, can-do make-do sorts of feelings. Somehow I feel inspired to master this most simple version of fishing—partially out of necessity and partially because the challenge is irresistible. Looking back, I find it funny that I eschewed those early days with bamboo poles and crickets in favor of expensive rigs, frequent frustration, and gear woes.
It is liberating to lose the excess in these things, too, it turns out.

A few of my favorite handline resources

Extreme Adulting Day 2: Clarity

Clarity is a funny thing. You can go through life doing things blindly without understanding why, or even realize that you are, until…wham. One day you’re confronted with proof positive that other people think the same way you do on certain matters.
It’s kind of an amazing thing.
Recently, I’ve read two books that have done that. These two confirmed to me that I was on the right path on matters I’ve felt compelled to invest myself in without really knowing why, or even realizing there was a subconscious method to my madness. Goodbye, Things and The 4 Hour Work Week are not necessarily groundbreaking reads…unless, that is, that these happen to cover issues that pluck a chord.

  • Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism was actually a quick and easy listen via Audible. It was really helpful in clarifying some of the ideas and philosophies behind minimalism that had already made it appealing to me and reaffirmed my interest in maintaining as few belongings as possible. One particularly memorable passage discussed the link between excess belongings and anxiety. The author, Fumio Sasaki, absolutely nailed the scene that would play out nearly every single day back in Alaska—waking up in the morning and feeling so overwhelmed by your to-do list, largely revolving around the various and sundry maintenance of “stuff”, that it became incapacitating and the day would be wasted under the weight of indecision. This happened to some degree every single day I had off. All of the days, in other words, that didn’t command a specific starting point to the day’s activities.
  • The 4-Hour Work Week has a long-established cult following and more or less is the authority, and perhaps the inventor of, ::dun, dun, dun:: lifestyle design. First published in 2007, Tim Ferriss uses the book to outline a lifestyle I’ve been kind-of sort-of striving to achieve without his guidance for quite some time. Most of the information in the book is nothing new to me, but I enjoy the anecdotes and the organization of the information. It, too, is reaffirming in that it assures me I’m not the only one who thinks it’s ridiculous to willingly work harder rather than smarter. Clearly I haven’t mastered any of his crazy money generation methods, but being confronted with the potential of a lifestyle I’m already largely living is…motivating. And confusing. It makes me question whether or not it’s actually something I want and whether or not I want it for the right reasons. (The answer to the former being boredom and the latter being no.) At any rate, his weekly e-mail, Five Bullet Friday, was also part of what inspired me to work on this—my bastardized version of bullet journaling. (It also reminded me that I used to do very similar things on Pulp Faction and it was awesome then, so why not.)

In Other Bullets:

  • Pesos Spent: $220 for mineral water and cheesy beefy quesadillas. $18 for bus fare. $238 total for dinner on the beach while Porkchop played. ($12.75 USD)
  • TV watched: Zero! I watched enough yesterday for the entire damn week.
  • Books Read: Also zero, but I’m putting together my Epic Mexico Summer Reading List, so stay tuned.
  • Homework Done: Not enough. Deadlines Sunday and Monday.
  • Spanish Studied: Argued with the bus driver about letting the dog on, and spoke only Spanish to my waiter. (It’s the small things.)
  • Pitches Sent: Officially, one. Several contacts were made for collaborations, and I researched several outlets for my work. Also made arrangements to write a band bio and press release for a very interesting up-and-coming Memphis act.
  • Beverages Consumed: Alcohol, zero; Caffeinated, lost count; Water, only about 60 ounces. (Sad.)
  • Weather: Chilly with a chance of rain? IE; 76 degrees, 6 mph winds, 85% humidity, overcast with the tails of Tropical Storm Beatriz churning our way across southern Mexico, but apparently little to no chance of getting rain from it.
  • Shared: The National Institutes of Health reveals a study that links autism to an increased incidence in heavy metals in baby teeth. The study covered a small sample size, but is particularly interesting because it utilized twins who would (presumably) have the same nutrition en utero at the stage in which some of the significant differences in heavy metal levels between autistic and non-autistic children were noted.
  • Shared: An 18-year old from Oaxaca was crowned men’s world champion surfer in France yesterday.
  • Shared: KFC reveals a pizza utilizing flattened fried chicken as a “crust”. Earlier I asserted that I was fine with this. That was before dinner. It is a natural next step from the “double down” thing of whatever that was in which they used two pieces of fried chicken breast in place of bread in a sandwich, but this is a food evolution that is just…not ok.

How to Move Abroad on a Whim (And Not Regret It)

There are a lot of variations on the idea that if you sit around waiting for everything to be perfect, or waiting for the right time, or even waiting for Mr. Right, you could wind up waiting forever. Don’t get stuck on waiting to move abroad if that’s what you really want. The truth is that things will probably never suit our idea of the “the perfect time” since life rarely cooperates, and the best we can hope for is a felicitous series of make it work moments that actually work.

Taking all of that into consideration, I’ve been thinking about a few guidelines to smooth the path for such a large transition as a move abroad. These are based on my own experiences and countless conversations with others who have successfully made the transition and lived to not regret it. They are very general and could be applied to a move to just about any country, in my opinion, but you may need to make some changes. (Visa requirements of other countries might make this list very different, for example.)

For reference, I personally decided to move to Mexico in mid- to late-December 2016, remotely signed my lease and put a deposit down on my apartment on January 1, and landed in Puerto Vallarta on February 10, 2017. So…being generous we’ll say it was a two month turn around. This may not be enough time for many, but for others who maintain relatively light existences, I believe this is adequate.

So, based on these factors my best advice for successfully Running Away to Mexico follows.

BYOJ (Bring your own job)

This is the number one thing that makes picking up and moving abroad possible. I always pause when people ask about what the job market is like around here because, honestly, I don’t know and it really shouldn’t matter. If you aren’t bringing a skill set that can’t be filled by a local or filling some other in-demand niche in the local work force, I kind of feel it’s unethical to head to another country and take work away from someone who’s already there that needs it.

Furthermore, in Mexico specifically it creates a lot of other problems for picking up and relocating on a whim. For example, instead of coming in on a tourist visa you’ll need a temporary residential visa, which requires considerably more time and paperwork, or you’ll need to locate an employer who will sponsor you and they can only do so if you fit the description I list above. (IE; nobody in the local work force can do the job you’re being hired for.) It is possible to find work under the table here, but again—ethics.

There are tons of options available for working remotely and finding your niche. Developing a career online totally frees you up from all of these pesky legal considerations and enables you to be much more mobile with virtually no cap to your salary.

Find a Launch Pad

Everyone has a different vision of paradise when imagining their ideal new home abroad, but I’d recommend suspending nirvana in favor of necessity for a moment. Your perfect paradise might be in some remote place with little to no “expat” community because, after all, you aren’t moving to another country to spend all your time with folks from home, but there are a lot of reasons to start off in a city or town with strong immigrant infrastructure, regardless of where you ultimately want to live.

Doing just that has been easy for me to get the hang of things here and feel comfortable because the local immigrant community has been extremely supportive in helping me learn the ropes. Furthermore, my clumsy Spanish is not a total roadblock in daily interactions (but I still have plenty of opportunities to practice,) it was relatively easy to find housing, and because of good public transportation I have had all the access to mobility that I need. All of these factors are important to help make a comfortable transition and keep you from feeling like you made a mistake and they are things that aren’t readily available in many smaller towns with fewer or no immigrants.

It might also be prudent to consider that if you are not yet ready to establish a residency visa, that you will need easy access to an affordable way to exit the country every six months. For me, Puerto Vallarta was perfect because they have affordable and fairly direct flights to most of the places I want to travel to in the U.S.

Divest Yourself of Earthly Belongings

Ok, that was cheesy but it’s totally true. Getting rid of all your stuff can be really hard and I’ve written entire posts on the subject before, but there is a certain sense of freedom that comes with owning very few things that you just can’t beat.

People are always asking what they should bring with them when they move here. I get it. You feel like a pioneer, you are heading into the unknown and you want all of your known creature comforts to accompany you. But the reality is that you probably don’t really need most of the stuff filling your house and your life, and those things that you do need be acquired here.

So get rid of everything that doesn’t fit into your suitcase allowance. Or, if you can afford it, put all of that stuff you just can’t quite let go of into storage and revisit it when you make a visa run in six months. If you’ve found yourself missing anything in particular, bring it back with you, but get rid of everything you haven’t needed or missed or already replaced.

People most often seem to ask about their kitchen stuff. For some reason folks are especially attached to kitchen stuff. Even I went so far as to mostly fill one of my totes with kitchen things, and I look back now and realize how silly it was. The only two items I brought that couldn’t be replaced here for a few pesos were my stovetop espresso maker and my cast iron skillet. Everything else was a waste of space. (Granted, I generally abhor small appliances but even if you’re a fan, you can probably find replacements here.)

Realistically, in order to make a big move like this and enjoy it you’re going to have to find some way to detach from all of the stuff we tend to accumulate. This is more than a physical process, it’s a mental one, too. It’s going to take some work to let go, and how much varies from person to person, but the better you accomplish this the more freedom you will have and the fewer regrets you will harbor.

The Nuts & Bolts

  • Forget the residency visa. For Americans and Canadians traveling to Mexico specifically, plan on coming in on a tourist visa and leaving for a vacation or a visit home in six months. This requires no additional paperwork before your trip, relieves the pressure of commitment, and gives you time to consider your options as well as time to emotionally separate from whatever you may have left at home. For U.S. citizens considering other countries, here is the list of visa requirements around the world.
  • Find your launch pad. Don’t be a stranger to Facebook. It has been the single best tool I can recommend for connecting with the immigrant and expat communities abroad. Search for groups for expats an immigrants in the town you are considering and make friends. This is helpful in every possible way, and if you get in there and ask questions and interact you might just be lucky enough to have a solid network of friends waiting for you when you land. You can also inquire about housing in the Facebook groups as offerings on AirBnB and Craigslist can be slim and overpriced.
  • Get rid of your stuff. When I moved out of my house and into my friend’s house in Anchorage, I grouped all of my belongings into very broad categories. Stuff to donate, stuff to trash, stuff to keep, and stuff to sell. I hate dealing with a lot of people and abhor hosting garage sales, so the “stuff to sell” wound up in two or three different lots on Facebook buy-sell-trade groups. They were auctioned off to the highest bidder, winner MUST take all, and if the winner didn’t show at the designated time with help to load and cash in hand, I was prepared to go to the next person on the list. This didn’t net the largest profit, but it resulted in the least amount of headache. After donating and trashing the rest, I found my “stuff to keep” pile getting smaller and smaller as well. Something about getting rid of stuff is addictive, and once you bite the bullet and start the process it gets much easier to whittle your belongings down to, say, a couple of suitcases and a couple of Rubbermade totes. (Which is what I brought, and later realized was far too much.)
  • Work remotely. This is a daunting topic because there is absolutely a glut of information out there. My best advice would be to consider your skill set and think about how that translates to the online economy. Many industries are now beginning to offer full- or part-time remote employment in everything from teaching to customer service and your usual coding and data entry, etc. Others have found that working for themselves is a better route and they choose to freelance as writers, designers, coders, marketers, and more. If you’ve somehow managed to get to this point without any skills at all that translate to online work (doubtful!) then the world is your oyster and I’d recommend looking into starting from scratch to learn coding or some other marketable skill that appeals your own interests. This is definitely a topic that deserves further and more detailed exploration, so I’ll be working on a piece about that in the coming weeks and update here as soon as it’s done.

A Few Personal Notes

Things that made it possible to drop everything and move quickly:

  • I had already divested of a large portion of my belongs and was renting a furnished room.
  • Not married and no kids.
  • I already had a couple of online marketing accounts to start me off for a steady source of remote income.
  • I had a very good bartending gig which allowed me to save a chunk of money in a short amount of time after I identified a goal.

Things that proved to be challenges:

  • Finding a place and traveling with my dog in cargo in February from Alaska to Mexico was nerve wracking.
  • I still had a lot of stuff to get rid of, including my truck, and other things I needed to put into storage.
  • I had managed to misplace my passport and with such a short amount of time and the rush on the passport offices at the time, I was worried about this. (Proved not to be a problem as I got my replacement back in less than a week with expediting it.)

Always remember that there truly is no time like the present. I don’t want to get all “inspirational poster” about things up in here, but if you have the privilege of being from a place like the U.S. or Canada, can wrap your head around working online and living light, and know how to play nice and make friends—the world is your oyster. Dropping everything and moving abroad doesn’t have to be a unachievable dream, even if you have a family. It just takes a little motivation and knowing where to start.
Good luck!

RELATED: Seaside in Puerto Vallarta for $800 Per Month

Extreme Adulting Day 1: Welcome to Sobriety

I started my sober month with a hangover because…well, of course I did.
Nothing coffee and chicken tacos couldn’t take care of, but I have to admit—there wasn’t a whole lot of adulting going on today. I mean, I binge watched the entire second season of UnREAL on Hulu.
Aside from that, I guess my big adulting accomplishment involved a lot of self-reflection on my relationship with drinking. I already talked about how I acknowledge the considerable negative impacts alcohol has on my life. Let’s delve a little further into that shit show, shall we?
My last name is Drinkard, in case you didn’t know. A name like that comes with certain expectations, it seems. Realistically, I’ve probably been an alcoholic since I was 18 or so. I definitely was by the third or fourth 21st birthday I had and by the time I got fired from my first job at Princess in Denali because I’d made myself so ill with alcohol that I couldn’t get out of bed to get to work for a week. It’s pretty much always been a central character in my adult life, which is odd because my family is mostly made up of non-drinkers and I wasn’t raised around that at all.
Maybe that’s what attracted me to it, in part. It was a part of an identity of my own, not just a part of my name. It helped me find a voice and an angle as I developed my first blog and came to be known as a party girl. And frankly, I did need it in my own ways—I was shy and alcohol helped me forget that. Sometimes too much so.
As an adult it has become a crutch for all kinds of things. It helped me forget about things that upset me and it helped quiet the constant noise and chatter in my mind. Actually it was the only thing that could put a stop to the hamster wheel of thought that kept me up all night creaking away the hours.
It certainly wasn’t a healthy way to self-medicate, but when I consider the things so many of my friends and aquiantances turned to as their own solutions, I feel lucky that I’m “just” a bit of a drunk. And since I’ve begun to acknowledge the unhealthy relationship I have with alcohol, I’ve been better at controlling its influence over me when it starts to be too much.
The problem is, however, that I suck at moderation. I have an addictive personality and it tends to manifest in all kinds of “all or nothing” sorts of ways, including drinking. So, when I need to get a handle on it and reel myself back in a bit, I’ve got to haul my ass back up onto the wagon for a while because “taking it easy” ain’t gonna happen. Abstinence, however, I can do.
I realized I was past due for this sober month earlier this week when I literally had to take a shot of tequila in order to work up the courage to send a big pitch out. It shouldn’t be like that. I don’t get to talk about being brave and finding your courage when I’m hobbling along propped up by the liquid version. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything “brave” while I was sober. I don’t think I applied to work in Alaska when I was sober. I don’t think I decided to go back to school when I was sober. I don’t think I booked my tickets to move to Mexico when I was sober.
And let’s face it—Mexico isn’t an easy place to be sober. Like Alaska, it seems like alcohol is a particularly large part of life here. Yesterday, for example, I met business contacts and discussed plans over drinks, as I usually do. I don’t think I’ve ever put a toe in the sand at the beach unless a margarita was involved and like a pony with a carrot dangling in front of it, a good beer or cocktail propels me through everything from errands to workouts. It will be interesting to experience these things without this weak reward mechanism and I’m looking forward to seeing if I replace it with something else, or if the activity itself becomes its own reward.
Who knows, maybe I’ll like Mexico when I’m sober. Maybe we’ll go more than a month.

June 1, 2017 Bullets

  • I don’t really understand bullet journaling, but I’m going to do it anyway because it’s supposed to have the power to change your damn life. I figure between bullet journaling and maybe an increase in my kale consumption, I should be good to go.
  • I had dinner last night up at this crazy weird restaurant called Las Carmelitas. Hands down the most stunning view of all of Puerto Vallarta I can imagine, but I was amused by a review I read today about how a lady felt totally creeped out by the place and many reviews lamented poor service and less than stellar food. I can see it, kind of. They have this beautiful place up a creepy one lane road at the top of a mountain. There was nobody there but a couple of staff and some chickens and goats. The place has this odd unfinished, isolated feel to it, but I personally thought the food was pretty good and I’d totally recommend it to anyone wanting a quiet place with a stunning view. Then again, I like weird shit.
  • Today was gloomy. The sky was overcast and the sea was choppy. I put a sweater on a bit ago. It was supposed to get hot in June, but June didn’t get the memo.
  • I don’t feel like I started this big month off very strong, but I did send a pitch out, I did practice my Spanish (for like ten minutes,) I talked to my awesome sister, and I got some studying done.
  • Also made plans to have my first booze-free beach day with my friend Robina tomorrow and she doesn’t know it, but she’s going to be my first business networking meeting for the month because her shop, La Sirena, is awesome and she’s an inspiration.
  • I also made my grocery shopping list. Ten ingredients, 30 days of food. Should be good.
  • What I’m thinking about: Two websites have hit my radar this week and I can’t stop turning them over in my head. What could I do with Patreon that would be worthwhile? Also really into Help a Reporter Out (HARO). There’s something to these two and I’m still working it out…but they’re both playing into my bigger picture.
  • What I’m watching: UnREAL. It’s such a sleeper. Everyone’s being all classy and cultured and watching the latest House of Cards, and here I am totally unable to get enough of of this trashy network drama about reality TV show production. You should check it out.
  • What I’m listening to: “Extremely Bad Man” by Shintaro Sakamoto

Ultimate Monthly Challenge: Extreme Adulting

Why is it that the best motivator is always being told “you can’t?” It’s been this way for me for as long as I can remember, and while certainly it’s got me in trouble, it has also been the single biggest catalyst for all the most interesting stuff that’s ever happened in my life.
The other day I broke away from the navel gazing on this little ol’ blog of mine and posted up something folks found useful…or at least interesting. At any rate, the whole bit on living here on $800 a month seemed to get an awful lot of attention and more than a few people’s panties in a twist. They say it can’t be done, over and over and over again. Of course there are plenty of us out there who know better and are actively doing just that, but a few good points were brought up. Primarily that my budget didn’t really account for any of the more irregular life expenses like health care, vet care for the doggo, incidental purchases for replacing clothing and such, and travel. All good points. Taking all that into account, I do admit that $1,000 usd per month vs. my aforementioned $800 would be more comfortable. (But hey, why stop there. $5,000 would be downright cozy.)
At any rate, for June I’ve decided to track every last peso to share and see if I can repeat my fabulous May on the cheap. I’m actually not going to set a budget, it will be what it will be, but I predict it will be under $800 without depriving myself at all.
That being said, there are a few other things going on in June as well. I always enjoy a good monthly challenge, but I haven’t tried one in a while. I’ve had a lot to think about lately, it’s resulted in quite a few goals that I was interested in pursuing. I decided to combine them all into my Ultimate Monthly Challenge—Extreme Adulting Edition.
So without further ado, here’s some of what I hope for that to entail in addition to the budget listed above:

  1. Sober Month. I pull a dry month periodically for both my mental and physical well-being. I find that it helps to remind myself that I can function just fine without the social lubricant I tend to begin to lean on after a while. I also find I tend to have more energy, have a sharper mind, lose a bunch of weight, and save a ton of money. Knowing all that, why would I drink at all? Eh. It tastes good and it’s fun and I’m an unapologetic hedonist. End of story.
  2. Summer Semester. I’m attempting 9 credit hours plus a Spanish course this short summer semester so I can have a reduced workload this fall for travel. It will be the most intense semester I’ve put myself through so far and while the material isn’t necessarily difficult, it will be time consuming and require a lot of discipline—something that isn’t necessarily my strong suit.
  3. More Work. I’m still learning the ropes of a new business I’m working to bootstrap, but in the meanwhile I need to make sure the money comes in instead of just going out. I am loving writing so much lately that I’m aiming to hit the freelance field hot and heavy again in the coming months and find steady and fulfilling gigs somewhere in between all this other stuff. For the challenge I am translating this to sending out one pitch every single day and spending time with someone I can learn something about work, writing, entrepreneurship or business from once a week.
  4. Personal Goals. I gots’em. When I go off the bottle I tend to ramp up the diet and exercise bit so there will be a lot of foodie and cooking posts, I imagine. (I’ll spare you all the minutia of my workouts.) I aim to start really pushing a few other things as well. Specifically, I’m wanting more time in and around the water. I’ve never spent much time in the sea itself (in a boat, yes, but not in the water,) and only this month have I realized how uncomfortable I am with it. That’s not cool, considering the sea is currently my closest neighbor. We need to be friends. Swimming and snorkeling are things I want to feel natural to me by the end of the summer. Spanish competency, of course, is also always on the list of self-improvement stuff.
  5. Journaling. This is where you come in, dear reader. I’ve been reading up on the bullet journal thing and while I get the appeal of a physical book full of paper and stuff, it’s just not for me. I’m a digital girl living in a digital world, and thus my bullet journal will be online. I’m still working out the exact contents of my digital bullets, but the aim is to record them here on FRR daily. Some of it will be to track progress on these aforementioned goals, but also to record my tastes in music, reading materials, and inspirations in general. (And I promise, they will be worth reading. I won’t subject you to boring shit.)

So, that’s it. That’s a sneak peek at next month in a nut shell. Classes started last week, but the rest of the list will wait ’til June 1.

Flying with Your Dog to Mexico: New Health Certificate Rules

There are probably a hundred reasons I could give for moving to Mexico, but one of them most definitely is that it was the easiest place on my list to bring my dog, Porkchop. Porkchop is a five year old brindle mutt weighing about 30 lbs. For most of his life he has been A Very Bad Dog, but after five years, several thousand dollars in professional training, extensive efforts to socialize and correct my bad parenting, and a couple of months of Prozac, he’s turned into a mostly pretty good guy and I’m extremely grateful for his company. He’s my “kid,” ya know? Obviously, leaving him behind in Alaska was NOT an option, but flying him to Portugal or Spain (original top destinations) seemed like an impossibility for a poorly crate trained dog that had never flown before.
Enter Mexico, stage left. Mexico seems to be one of the more dog friendly countries you can haul your pet to outside of the US (and easier than Hawaii.) They require little more paperwork than a standard health certificate, and if your vet is like mine that extra form shouldn’t cost much, if anything.
HOWEVER, there has been a shakeup in recent months, and Porkchop and I were “lucky” enough to experience the results of that first hand upon entering the country at Puerto Vallarta airport in early February.
A subtle line regarding endo- and ectoparasites has been causing some pet owners to be delayed at customs, often having to wait for a local vet to be called in to administer a wormer or parasite control of some sort before being allowed to leave. This can cause you and your pup (or cat) to be held up for extra HOURS (depending on who is available to make an airport call) and may cost a good deal of extra money.
There has been much debate in various forums as to whether this change is a NEW rule or simply a NEWLY ENFORCED rule. Either way, it’s important to note and clarify with your vet before boarding a plane with your pet.
This is what my certificate said:

This is what the OISA officer showed me as an example of what they wanted:

What the rules say

Per the Mexico equivalent of the USDA (SAGARPA-SENASICA,) these are the latest requirements to import dogs and cats as of November 2016 as run through Google Translator:

Upon entering Mexico …
You must contact the official SAGARPA-SENASICA personnel to make a  Certificate of import  of your pet, for this purpose, the official will perform a  physical and documentary inspection, to verify compliance with the following requirements:
1. Present a  Certificate of Good Health  in original and simple copy with the following elements:

  • Issued by an official veterinarian of the competent authority or if it is a particular one, on letterhead, with the number of the professional certificate printed or a photocopy of the same (or its equivalent).
  • Name and address of exporter (in country of origin or provenance) and importer (destination address in Mexico).
  • Date of application of the rabies vaccine and its validity (animals under 3 months of age are exempt).
  • That at the pre-trip inspection, the animal or animals were clinically healthy.
  • That the animal or animals have been dewormed internally and externally within the previous six months and are free of ectoparasites.
  • If you do not comply with the above, you must contact a Veterinarian (of your choice and for your account in Mexico), who will issue the health certificate and apply the corresponding treatment.

2. Your pet must enter a carrier or container, clean, without bed, without implements or accessories (toys, sweets, prizes or other objects, made with ingredients of ruminant origin), otherwise they will be removed for destruction. The carrier or container will receive preventive treatment by sprinkling by the official staff of SAGARPA-SENASICA; You can enter with your necklace, strap, etc.
3. You can enter the ration of the day of balanced food in bulk. We remind you that in Mexico we have this type of food that has the Registration and Authorization of SAGARPA-SENASICA.
4) If you send your pet documented as cargo, check the requirements on the airline of your choice and consider the need to use the services of a customs agent for release to Customs.

See the original here.
It does seem that OISA is less inclined to let things slide lately that they might have previously overlooked, so be sure all of your I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed. A few things that have hung people up recently include having a stamp or computer generated signature instead of required hand-signed original certificate and a lack of official letterhead and/or license number.
One excellent tip we found in discussion was to have your vet e-mail the pertinent certificate and information along with your flight information to the proper authorities at your destination airport to ensure it is acceptable and expedite the process on your arrival. (Be sure to still bring the original plus copies.)
In Puerto Vallarta, send that information to:

Contact: Amaro Venegas Castillion
oisapvallarta@hotmail.com or oisapuertovallarta@senasica.gob.mx

You can find contact information for other airports here.
Another good reminder is to have things to clean up after you pet within easy reach as sometimes the wait can be long and you must clear customs completely before taking your pet out to relieve itself.

Bottom Line

BE VERY SURE your certificate includes all possible details of all recent parasite treatments for internal and external parasites, including brand name and active ingredient. Bring receipts if you have them.
If you typically administer something like Frontline or Revolution at home, space it out in such a way as to allow your vet to administer a dose at your health certificate appointment as many vets will not put it on the certificate if they haven’t applied it themselves.
If your topical external parasite treatment does not include coverage for internal parasites (such as Revolution does,) ask your vet a dose of a mild wormer such as a pyrantel just to be on the safe side. This is a very gentle and inexpensive wormer that is commonly given to puppies and kittens and will satisfy the authorities and save you a $50+ additional vet fee at the airport.
 

Quick Links:

How to "live the dream" between the mountain and the sea.

The sea is exceptionally calm this morning when I walk onto the balcony to stretch. It’s just after eight but it’s so quiet and still and the sun is only just peaking up from the Sierra Madre at my back so, somehow, it feels much earlier.

A skin diver is scouring the rocks with a panga waiting nearby to receive his catch. All of this is unusual, since the divers are usually unaccompanied. Then again, I’ve never seen the water so calm on the rocks below my little apartment. He must be collecting quite a bounty this morning. I hear there are bands of red tide elsewhere in Banderas Bay the last few days, but it is clear as a bell here on the south side and I can see each mossy rock nestled into the sea bed like an emerald waiting to be mined.
I go inside to water the plants (those coleus are thirsty little things,) and get the coffee going, measuring a couple of tablespoons of some new “gourmet” Mexican coffee from Chiapas into the cup of my stovetop espresso maker. I haven’t tried this before, and I’m looking forward to it but trying to keep my expectations low. Even though Mexico has some world famous coffee growing regions, it is not especially known for having much of a high brow “coffee culture” and I assume all of those delicious beans must be shipped elsewhere because I have been hard pressed to find anything decent on the shelf amid the rows and rows of instant coffee crystals. Granted, I haven’t looked hard, but it is certainly not as easy to find good grinds in the grocery store as it is in the States.
Wandering back outside, the diver has moved on around the point with his companion boat but another panga has replaced them. This one hovers just offshore with a single driver manning it. He must be cleaning his own catch this morning, because the pelicans are swarming him.

A juvenile Pelecanus occidentalis in flight. They nest here year-round. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As sea birds go, I love the pelicans. None of the clatter and racket of gulls, which I am lucky not to have here, and no interest in your unattended lunch. They fly so near to the balcony on their daily migrations up and down the coastline that sometimes I think I could almost reach out and grab one. Somehow, they are exceptionally graceful in flight—and unexpected thing if you’ve ever watched one waddle around on land.
Ortalis wagleri, a near cousin of my own West Mexican Chachalacas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are other birds out this morning. I still don’t know all of them, but I’ve learned a few. The chachalacas are just now beginning to stir in the trees, preening and hopping from branch to branch as if they, too, are considering the day’s to-do list. Later they will decide, and announce the news to the whole neighborhood in the most horrendous cackle you’ve ever heard.
The hummingbirds are out, too. They’re flitting around some wispy yellow flowers on a tree I don’t know the name of. Maybe it’s some relative of the mimosa, with it’s soft fluttering pompoms. Whatever it is, both the hummingbirds and the chachalacas love them and while the hummingbird leaves no trace of its visit, the chachalacas will plow through rough shod, as boisterously as their conversation, and devour the buffet.
I’ve thought about moving into the city. I could find even cheaper rent, I’m told, and it would certainly be less isolating. I’m sure Porkchop would enjoy walks through town, catching up with all the pee-mail around. But I quite like it here. The biodiversity is amazing for a place so close to the city.
This narrow strip of cliffside jungle between the mountains and the sea has geckos and garrobos, more birds than I could ever hope to identify, coatimundi (or so I’m told,) at least a million species of butterflies and moth (only a slight exaggeration) and countless other insects both fascinating and not, periodic plagues of frogs, several kind of crabs inhabiting both land and sea, parrots nesting in hollowed-out termite hives, and boas and tarantulas (neither of which I’ve seen, but I’m oddly looking forward to it).
I love living in this crazy zoo and getting to know these odd neighbors, even when they invade as they did the other day—a swarm of minuscule ants swept through my house taking every last lingering crumb with them…and then were gone before I set in to figure out what to do about them.
A man told me yesterday that my life here didn’t constitute “living the dream” according to the status quo.
Well, sir. I beg to differ.
I’m not sure how much you’d actually have to pay me to put me in a sterile penthouse apartment separated from all of this but outfitted with the standard array of high-end human creature comforts, but it wouldn’t be cheap and I certainly wouldn’t actually pay anyone else for that life. I suppose it’s true, we all have different expectations of what we need and want out of life—what we require to make us “happy”—and I accept that not all would find the value in these simple pleasures.
Why do I find joy, for example, in flicking a gecko turd off the seat of my patio chair before settling in with my morning coffee?! Surely others would consider that a horrific inconvenience, but to me it’s a love note from a shiny little translucent thing that ate up all the mosquitos in the night.
Thank you, gecko.

Seaside in Puerto Vallarta for $800 per month.

I had started considering a move to Mexico long before the November 2016 election forced my hand. When I looked around where I lived in Alaska and any other place I wanted to live, I found one thing over and over again—life was expensive. It was expensive to such a degree that if I were to move anywhere I would enjoy being, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it much at all because I would work all the time just to make ends meet. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a good life to me.

I needed somewhere I could have a better quality of life at a more affordable price, and as much as I searched I couldn’t find my slice of paradise by the sea in the United States. So Porkchop and I moved South. South of the Border, to be precise. Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco in Mexico welcomed us with open arms and now three months in I’m settling into the place, making friends, and enjoying the quiet as the tourist season dies down for the summer.

A lot of people ask me how expensive it is to live here. I’d say as a general ball park average it is easily half as expensive as my last home in Anchorage without even trying to stick to a budget. With any effort at all, it could be considerably less.

A post on Facebook got me thinking about the details of all of that and how my budget and hers compared. She also lives in a beach town, but on the East coast in Progreso. She is also single, but has a baby instead of a dog. We both live in studio apartments, but hers is half the cost of mine. Somehow we still come out at the same $800 per month budget as a comfortable figure at which to live. We both agreed, as well, that a couple could easily live for approximately the same budget (Still under $1,000 per month) since the biggest chunk goes to rent and that wouldn’t increase. It’s also important to note that neither of us have listed health insurance for ourselves in our budgets and for similar reasons—we live below our means and pay out of pocket for the affordable care here as need arises. That being said, we admit the need to look into insurance for emergencies and are doing so.

Here’s my break down lately, and a few notes to help you figure out how things might fit into your own lifestyle and situation.

Housing

My rent is $400 per month for a small but new studio apartment directly fronting Banderas Bay with no one below me or crowding me from the sides. It is a simply appointed situation that includes basic furnishings and all utilities, including unlimited internet and cable. (The latter of which I don’t use as a TV wasn’t included and I don’t care to buy one.) I was specifically attracted to this place because it was sparsely furnished—most units are unfurnished or OVERLY furnished and generally not to my taste. I lucked out by finding this place on Craigslist, but it is very difficult to find good deals online. Anyone with the ability to post on Craigslist or other known English language site is instantly able to command a higher price because their listing reaches a wider audience, and the ones that don’t jack the price up get snapped up quickly. Best bet to pre-lease an affordable place is to track down local expat groups for the area and make friends. Puerto Vallarta: Everything You Want or Need to Know was my gateway to life in Vallarta, but similar groups seem to exist throughout Mexico with varying amounts of activity. You might find people “on the ground” willing to keep their eyes peeled for you, otherwise the best bet is an Air BNB or temp situation while you explore for yourself and call the numbers posted on the sides of promising buildings.

Admittedly, my place is small at about 200sf but I am a single girl and a minimalist so I’m quite comfortable in a studio about the size of a hotel room. There is just enough room to pull out an air mattress for a friend as I discovered this past week, but obviously, it’s tight quarters for more than one. My apartment is seven stories down a cliff to the water’s edge, and the stairs are my workout taking the dog for a walk each day! I have happily accepted these compromises for the view.

20170211_075554
The first photo I took from my balcony upon waking up early in the morning after my arrival the night before. At night I can see the lights of Banderas Bay from Yelapa in the South to Punta de Mita in the North with all of Vallarta sparkling in between.

A few things:

  1. The best rates for 6 month or, more often, 12-month leases. Short term leases tend to shoot up exponentially because they target the tourist market and you’re back into the $1000+ USD per month range.
  2. If living cheap is important to you, don’t expect all the bells and whistles. In fact, many people find a place they like at a price they like and expect to go in and paint and do repairs before moving in.
  3. The best prices will be unfurnished and without utilities. To me, it wasn’t worth dealing with these things so I am happy to pay a little more to only pay one bill per month.
  4. In Puerto Vallarta proper there are many things that can make rents low, so if you find an exceptionally good deal be sure to check around as to why. Street noise, loud music, barking dogs, fireworks and other noise issues are VERY common, but also keep in mind how a place might be in both the hot dry part of the year and the rainy muggy part of the year—not only the long pleasant winter months. Open air living is common, and so are bugs! Ceiling fans and air conditioners are important commodities that you will likely want to add if they are not present.
  5. Many places in the older and more picturesque parts of Vallarta have a LOT of hills and/or stairs. Depending of the severity of these factors, it can send the rent prices plummeting, but they often have the best views and are worth it if you’re up for the daily hike.
  6. How low can they go? I have seen studios the size of mine reportedly for rent for as low as $50 per month with no furnishings, utilities, or amenities included. I have also seen three bedroom houses for a couple of hundred dollars occasionally with the same caveats.

Transportation

Because I live South of Puerto Vallarta between the small towns of Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlan, I pay eight pesos each way to and from Old Town PV. I generally stick around that area and can take care of most of my weekly business there and so 50 pesos (less than $3) per week is a safe estimate for me. Buses in Puerto Vallarta are plentiful, affordable, and quite easy to get the hang of quickly but they can be in poor repair and are sometimes quite an adventure. Taxis, if needed, are another option and also generally plentiful and affordable. When I have an extra large grocery run or miss the last 11:00pm bus to Boca it will cost me up to 350 pesos to get back to my house, which is about $19 at current exchange rates and still not bad for a 30 minute plus cab ride.

Groceries

Honestly, this is the budget area I have tracked the least. My grocery estimate is about 500 pesos per week on average. (About $27.) This includes generally lots of fresh fruits and veggies, rice, tortillas, sweetened condensed milk and coffee, beans, chicken, cheese, salsa, eggs, etc. In other words, mostly whole foods which makes a big difference and drops the budget significantly. I love cooking and working with Mexican ingredients so this is no worry at all and often I feel I eat as well at home as when I go out.

Porkchop the Dog generally eats some dog-friendly variation of my own food since local brands of dog food seem to be very poor quality and the import stuff is expensive, and inconvenient. I think he is happy with this arrangement and seems exceptionally healthy lately. The food he used to eat is available here from Costco but because of my small space, bus transport, and many stairs, getting a 40lb bag of food around is not feasible, never mind the fact that it would become a major chunk of my grocery budget. He mostly gets a bit of rice and veggies before I add seasoning, plus a portion of whatever meat I have (he likes the parts I don’t like when I buy a whole chicken, for example,) and an egg. He’s only about 30lbs so not a huge eater but he seems to enjoy the variety and I think it’s probably better for him than eating the same dried up crunchy stuff every day anyway. It is also possible to make connections with a butcher shop or fish market for lots of good bits and pieces for a raw diet for a few pesos, but so far I have found it easier just to feed him what I eat. (One of those things where I could easily save more money with a little effort.)

I plan to track the grocery expenses more carefully in June and will update then, so stay tuned!

Entertainment

Obviously, based on the above my necessities are quite manageable at a modest $520 per month including housing, transportation, and groceries. If you’re going to have budget problems, you’ll have them on your entertainment spending. There are just so many things to do and each of them, though quite affordable, seems to add up quickly and the sky is the limit. There are ways to go out and enjoy things on a budget, however. A great meal from a street vendor will have you full to bursting for less than $3, and there is literally a happy hour somewhere in town going most any hour of the day. In fact, one of my favorite swanky places in town for a treat is Joe Jack’s Fish Shack right near my bus stop on Basilio Badillo and I’ll drop about $15 usd with tip for the most delicious serving of poke and fried wontons you’ve ever had and two-for-one mojitos to wash it down with. (Joe Jack’s also has delicious all you can eat fish and chips for under $12 on Fridays, and they’re a great example of how it is possible to eat at even the spendier places on a budget if you know where to look. More on that later!)

Aside from this potential for endless entertainment, my monthly bills in this category are at $15 for Netflix and Hulu and $80 for my AT&T phone with unlimited data and calls. (High because it also includes the payment for the phone itself.)

Recap

So, in case you weren’t keeping tabs, that’s $615 per month in regular expenses with $185 left over for entertainment to keep me on this modest budget of $800 USD per month.

While Puerto Vallarta is far from the cheapest city in Mexico, it suited my needs as an affordable coastal community with an international airport and enough English-speaking infrastructure to get me started while I learn Spanish.

It is also important to remember that you could always go cheaper if you must, as many locals do, but as I moved here in search of a better quality of life I was looking for a sweet spot between budget and lifestyle and I think I’ve found it. This is not bad for my own little place on the water with two sandy beaches within walking distance and a beautiful and vibrant cultural center a short bus ride down the road.

READ MORE:

Five free things to do every day to improve your Spanish.

I moved to Mexico without knowing any functional Spanish at all. Sure, fifteen years ago I took a semester as a freshman in high school…but that wasn’t helping me much. Now, as an International Studies major at the University of Alaska, I need to collect a lot of language credits in order to graduate but in the interim I still need to get around and be able to take care of business in my new life in Mexico.
Talking with my friend Samara the other day I realized that my vocabulary really isn’t that bad—I know a LOT of words and can follow a conversation fairly easily. But when it comes my turn to talk I’m stumbling all over myself and get tongue tied because conjugation and all the little bits and pieces that connect the words I know are still a mystery. This is incredibly frustrating for someone who is used to being able to express themselves easily in their first language, and I think that frustration in and of itself is my biggest stumbling block and my own worse enemy while I am still in the self-learning phase of this language education.
So clearly, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and trying to come up with ways to overcome this problem. After consulting with a couple of teachers and both native- and non-native Spanish speakers, here are a few tips that have my brain slowly making the switch. Maybe you’ll find them useful as well.

Five Free Ways to Improve Your Spanish

  1. Cartoons. Yes, specifically cartoons! I have discovered that Netflix has a great selection of cartoons in Spanish and I find it much easier to follow than other more mature shows I’ve tried because of the simplicity of the language. This is the least intense yet probably most useful way I’m learning simple conjugations and such. (I must admit I am particularly fond of The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show at the moment.) Obviously, Netflix is not free but many have some access to Spanish-language cartoons one way or another, so look around until you find something that doesn’t drive you batty.
  2. Duolingo. I’ve tried a few apps but Duolingo keeps me coming back. It’s not always perfect, but it’s free and repetitive and engaging enough to keep me going. I also like the feature which allows me to “compete” with friends and the reminders and incentives to practice daily are surprisingly effective.
  3. Read Something, Anything! A new friend who trains ESL teachers told me the other day to find something I’m interested in and read a bit each day. Not much, only maybe 15-30 minutes, and it should be a topic I’m really intrigued by and want to know about. He suggested a book, specifically. Others have suggested similar strategies with reading a news article that interests me each day. The consensus so far has been NOT to use any translator or dictionary as a crutch to get through it, but rather allow your brain to start working to process the context and inference of words as we go.
  4. Music. This one is easy, but is probably not the most effective. I love Latin music of all sorts and quickly find myself singing along to favorite songs. This isn’t really very useful for fine tuning anything about your Spanish skills, but I feel like it gets my brain engaged and the more exposure to the language the more likely I am to feel comfortable and not freeze up when I’m trying to find my words. Checking out live music events is especially engaging!
  5. Movies & TV. I feel like this is significantly different from watching children’s programs and cartoons, honestly. The language is so much more varied, and here’s the other kicker—you can watch in English or Spanish but either way you go be sure the subtitles are on and you’re paying attention. The more variety the better.

A couple of extras:

These aren’t free, but I’ve found them useful and promising, respectively.

  • Be a tourist. Showing my friend around Vallarta last week exposed me to a couple of situations in which all material was presented in both Spanish and English. A boat trip in which all announcements were made in Spanish first, and then English was especially enlightening and encouraging in reminding me that my vocabulary is improving as I could understand all that was said, and then confirm it when the English announcement was made.
  • Try Coursera. Coursera has a really intriguing online Spanish language course through UC Davis. I’m currently waiting to hear back from my home University as to whether or not they might accept credits through this program since they don’t offer many online language courses themselves, but it’s quite affordable and has good reviews. You can try it free for seven days and then it’s $733mxn ($39usd) per month for as long as you study. Obviously, the more time you devote to it the cheaper it is.
  • Find a teacher or class. There are so many great teachers around willing and ready to help you learn for super affordable prices! Again I would suggest asking around on your city or town’s local Facebook groups to find something that fits your schedule and budget nearby.

Recent studies have shown that repetition is key in learning new languages and both passively listening to something in the background (conversations, radio, music, TV, etc,) and actively listening and paying attention to the same content achieve similar results. So, go ahead! Turn the music up and leave the TV on, just make sure you’re listening and practicing and eventually it will come to you.
Beyond that, just make every effort to use what you do know at every opportunity. Most are patient and friendly and eager to help. I’ve learned more in my daily exchanges with waiters and bus drivers and Oxxo attendants than anywhere else…when I force myself to do it!