It was New Year’s Eve. A light but steady rain was falling and my wife Diane and I were on our way to a friend’s party. We never made it.
We got as far as the town square in the small village of San Vicente on Ecuador’s northern coast when our car ran out of gas. I pulled to the side of the rutted, muddy road among a huge crush of writhing, smiling people as sultry Latin rhythms shook the windows of the car.
I could see that the local women had removed their ubiquitous high heels to dance in the mud while their short party dresses absorbed the rain and humidity of the night. Hair which had taken so much time to prepare was now rain-slicked and falling out of place and eye makeup, carefully applied earlier in the day, had disappeared or was running in rivulets down wet cheeks. They seemed completely unconcerned, however.
We were a few miles from our friend’s house and the gas station was closed. Diane was smiling from ear to ear. She was taking it all in.
“Relax”, she said as she removed her shoes. “There’s nothing to do but join the party and dance!”
That attitude right there, the one that allows you to enjoy the spontaneity of an unplanned soggy adventure…the one that compels you to join hundreds of locals, dancing in the rain on a muddy street in a tiny, South American village on New Year’s Eve is the same attitude that encourages you to hike over the next ridge without knowing what’s on the other side.
It’s that attitude that has provided an incredible retirement for us.
That particular New Year’s celebration was a few years ago. We now live on the Riviera Maya, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. We rent a great condo on the beach and are enjoying our life overseas for much less money than a similar lifestyle would cost in the States.
But the life of an expat isn’t for everyone. You must be a little bit of an adventurer, prepared to eat unfamiliar food in unfamiliar places while trying to communicate using interpretive dance and mime until you learn the language. You’ll need to learn local customs and try to figure out the numerous holidays that seemingly close businesses on a whim or the cultural priority that places Tia Marta’s (Aunt Martha’s) birthday higher than keeping the hardware store open for the full day when you need a new valve for your kitchen sink.
And when you screw up in a restaurant and your meal shows up looking and tasting nothing like you expected, do your best to eat it with a smile. After all, it is very likely exactly what you ordered. Once I accidentally ordered a bowl of melted cheese for lunch. Although Diane tried to assist me, I stubbornly insisted that I had ordered correctly. When lunch was delivered, Diane’s plate was filled with fresh, delicious, wonderful food and I got a cereal bowl filled with melted cheese which solidified in minutes. (Fortunately, my Spanish has improved since then, as has my willingness to accept Diane’s help when ordering in Spanish.)
As we are about to complete our fourth year living outside the U.S., we’ve had a ton of experiences and shared adventures that would never have been possible living in the States.
We’ve been asked if we ever plan on returning to the States to live. It’s not in our plan because we truly enjoy our life here. Cancun is a modern city with all the conveniences one could want including large malls, over 700 restaurants, modern theaters and museums and, of course, an amazing Caribbean beach that extends south for about 80 miles.
We have seven hospitals in the area, a stable electrical grid, and fast, fiber optic internet connections. If I want something a bit more adventurous, a short drive will take me away from touristy Cancun into completely different areas where the culture is much more indigenous and speaking Spanish or Yucatec Mayan is the norm.
The truth is that the expat community across the globe is a pretty cool club; I like to think of them as my tribe. They’re made up of a relatively small (but growing) number of people.
Regardless of where on the planet we are, we understand that the experiences gained by a life overseas can’t be acquired in any other way. It’s not a vacation or a trip. It’s not an all-inclusive resort or a back-to-nature retreat (all fun, of course). It’s living, day-to-day, in another culture— different food, different language, new smells, new sights and customs that are likely to be much different than back home. In a word, it’s an adventure. Every sunrise brings new challenges and every sunset offers a new perspective.
I wouldn’t change my life one bit. If you’d like to practice your interpretive dance and mime skills, you might enjoy my tribe. Membership is now open.
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