Category Archives: Travel

Onward and the Revolution

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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.

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

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:

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.

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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!

On being new to Puerto Vallarta and playing the tour guide.

It’s always a little odd to move to a new place and start writing about great things to do locally when you know so many others have far more expertise on the topic than you. That being said, sometimes a fresh set of eyes adds a unique perspective and sometimes it is the newness and the fresh approach itself that brings value to a common topic in discussion. I know certainly after ten years in Southcentral Alaska I felt largely uninspired to write about a region which brought so much excitement to others, even though I was intimately familiar with it and had a great many things to say on the subject.
This time however, moving into Puerto Vallarta, I am determined not to be so close minded about these things. I know from the constant flow of questions I am asked from friends and family elsewhere that there is curiosity about this place and apparently they want to know what my take on it is. Ok then, I’ll share. I won’t be stingy with the things I’m learning, even though I’m far from an expert on these matters, and someday I’m sure I’ll look back and appreciate the fact that I took the time to write it down so I can fine tune and update the information as I learn more.
Most of the things I’ve been asked lately revolve largely around what it’s like to live here. What is the cost of living? Is the internet good? Are there other work options? Is it safe? Is there health care? What is there to do? What is the art scene like? What kind of cultural activities are there? Is it difficult to obtain a visa? Is it dog friendly, and is it easy to bring a pet into Mexico? Is there public transportation available? What should I bring and what should I leave? Should I change my cash to pesos before I come, or should I bring only a little money or a lot?
These are a few of the things I’ve been asked lately and hope to write about in the coming weeks, but what do you want to know about this corner of the world? Do you have concerns about this place or questions you have difficulty answering with resources you’ve found online? I’ve now hosted two friends from Alaska in the three months I’ve lived here (for comparison, I had one out of state guest visit me in ten years when I lived in Alaska,) and it was the first time either had ventured to Mexico. I hope they leave with a love for this place like the one I have, but I’d love to help allay the fears and concerns of other solo female travelers considering Mexico for the first time as well!

On why sometimes you should go forth and ignore good advice.

I spent ten years in Alaska. I moved there alone and I lived alone for four or five of those years. I worked behind both bars and desks alone. And for half of the ten years I lived there, I spent lots of time at home alone because even though I’d rather be out camping or fishing or adventuring, I couldn’t find anyone to go with me and I’d been scared off going it alone.
All the advice was the same, every single time. “Don’t go alone,” they’d say.
People have been telling me that in almost every situation my entire adult life, and I successfully ignored them most of that time. I think maybe it’s because my mom never told me that. She understood the desire to be out in the world and observe it on your own, without the clutter of companionship; without the restraint of addressing someone else’s pace or preoccupations or schedules. She told me about growing up in the country and spending full days rambling around the rural South on her own and she never discouraged me from doing the same when I became the echo of her youth, another lonesome-loving wild child of the Mississippi Delta.
I’d spend all day out on my own before I even hit double digits, dodging near-misses from snakes and coming face to face with alligator snapping turtles as big as the hood of a car. There were always scrapes and bruises and bumps to report when I’d roll into the kitchen at dinner time after a full day on the lam. It’s a wonder I was never injured, honestly, but Mom told me that she couldn’t worry about us all the time. She couldn’t protect us at every moment of every day, so she shared what guidance she could and let us loose on the world. I think her faith helped her—but I have another kind of faith. The kind where I’m just simply OK with whatever is to come as long as it comes when I’m living life to its fullest.
I never let fear stop me in Hawaii, driving from one end of old Molokai to another on an old beat up Honda Mule. I never let it stop me in Memphis, traversing neighborhoods at hours that would make decent folk go white with concern. I didn’t let it stop me my first summer in Alaska, in Denali, and I didn’t let it stop me in New York City after that.
Something happened during my second stay in Alaska, though. The long one. I don’t know what it was. I guess all the dire warnings finally caught up with my more sensible self. I didn’t feel so bullet proof in the world anymore. I let it all get to me and I sat around wasting time, waiting for someone to join me on an adventure because for the first time in my life the world had succeeded in making me afraid.
Sometimes I think that’s the only reason I stayed there so long. My “Alaska Bucket List” wasn’t dwindling. I worked weekends when most others worked week days and could never quite seem to coordinate to do anything with anyone else. I guess eventually I just got tired of waiting. I started collecting the things I’d need to enjoy the outdoors on my own instead of relying on someone else’s tent or stove. I started small with going to places I was familiar with, places I’d gone with groups in the past and had missed for too long. People still said “don’t go alone” but something funny happened—nothing.
And the same thing happened again and again and again. Nothing. I always came home safe, and perhaps more unscathed than I had as a child. I was always careful, I always educated myself on an area and took precautions and told people where I was going and when I should be back. Alaska is a particularly dangerous place by many measures. If things go wrong you bear a much greater risk of not being found in a timely manner—or at all, if they go really wrong. It’s happened many times before, and perhaps it was this collection of dire warnings and regular news stories of misadventures that kept me at home so often.
And it’s starting to happen again here in Mexico. Even after ignoring the pushback from all the people that warned me that I shouldn’t come here, that it was too dangerous, “especially alone.” I find myself surrounded by others who did the same, but now many of them are the very ones who regale me with horrifying anecdotes of A Million Ways to Die in Mexico.
I didn’t come here to post up in my apartment and watch the sunsets with a margarita…at least not every day. I came to keep living the life I love until I’m not living anymore, and if the former leads to the latter, so be it. I will still go on hikes, I will still camp, I will still kayak…and I will do all of it alone sometimes.
And because of that, I will still get disapproving looks when excitedly relating plans for some new adventure from the majority of people I share it with. My exuberance will be often met with some horrifying anecdote, and I will brush off my annoyance to thank them and adjust my preparations, if needed, to address whatever unlikely threat they warn of. I suspect now I will also be told “it’s not like it is in the States,” just like I was told “It’s not like it is in the Lower 48” when I was in Alaska.
I will be called reckless for this, but I will persist. I will be called irresponsible, but I will smile and usually go anyway. I am used to those kinds of judgements at this point, and I can’t help but notice such commandments to “be careful” fly more frequently in the face of women while men generally need not suffer the suggestion that they are incompetent—even when they are.
I’ll leave you with this: Thank you for your concern. If you have specific useful information pertinent to my plans, feel free to share. Vague comments and any advice to the tune of “be careful” is redundant and unhelpful. I am a grown woman, not a neophyte in need of your protection. I have spent some time in the outdoors and around the world. I am not unaware of the things that can go wrong, but I take the risks because I believe them to be worth it.
You should try it some time. It’s liberating.

On the unique challenges of thriving on lateral change

It can be bewildering to finally get what you want.
I’ve always been an obsessive person. I obsessively do just about everything I do, whether it is wallowing in my own misery, researching an interesting topic, dieting, or planning a trip. I’ve been planning on moving to Mexico since February of 2015. Since then, I took a lot of very big steps to get here (getting rid of all of my things, moving out of my house, buying an RV, saving money,) but ran into a series of infuriating road blocks that prevented success in achieving my goal until this past February, nearly two years to the date that the idea was formed and about a year and half later than I had hoped.
I’ve been here a touch over two months now and it feels “real,” finally. The shiny is wearing off and the reality of this new existence is setting in. My routine feels like a routine rather than a novelty, I barely hear the waves crashing outside my window, and the iguanas are more of a dog teasing annoyance than an enjoyable wildlife encounter. I get a lot of work done, but I spend a lot of time alone. Aside from the amazing view, my studio isn’t that much different from a concrete jail cell: sparse, functional, and isolating.
This is what I wanted, right? Two years, so much planning and preparation, so much worry, so much money. It was all for this. I made it.
Now what?
As you can possibly tell from my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about minimalism lately and this week I read Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki. It’s the latest in a spate of literature that has modernized a lot of ancient ideas about the joys of simplicity and owning less. I was taken by a number of notions and plan on sharing a couple of other posts loosely related to subject matter within its pages, but the first idea that really struck me is that happiness and joy are things that are best triggered and maintained by change.
Not really a novel concept. In fact, this is something my gut has always known and I’ve done quite a good job on acting on it throughout my life without the affirmation of scientific studies or any form of philosophy to influence me. I have always struggled with stasis but spent a good portion of my life trying to combat that instinct to seek change, to keep evolving, because change is not compatible with traditional notions of American success. In American culture the only change we are supposed to strive for is progressive change. We are always building on past accomplishments and “leveling up” in a beguiling form of progression. This kind of change calls for a foundation to be built on though. It is a kind of change that requires stability, and roots. We go to to school to get an education to start a great career and achieve financial success through promotions and building wealth. We start a relationship to get engaged, to get married, to have children, to have grand children. We get a home to decorate and fill with things and put our stamp on it and call it our own. All of these seem like change—they are changes. But because of the systemic progression they aren’t dramatic changes and I suspect that that is not only sufficient, but preferable to most.
I’ve always needed something…more. I think I thrive on lateral change. The whirlwind, totally uproot your life, fake your own death kind of change. Or, you know, quit your job, sell all your stuff and move to Mexico kind of change. I’ve always thrived on the kind of changes that take every damn thing I’ve got in me to accomplish, and when I accomplish them the novelty tends to wear off quickly and I find myself looking for the next “project” to stimulate joy and engage my senses and creative efforts.
Which brings me to now. That dreaded “now what” that follows success. It’s not a bad place to be, really. It means I accomplished a huge goal. But that accomplishment comes with the burden of choosing my next adventure, which is a distinct privilege I am grateful to have these days.
So bear with me as I sort through the options, because there really are so very many. So many business ventures that are calling my name, so many places I could go next. Sometimes your direction is obvious and others it is much less so, but honestly…figuring it out is half the thrill.