Tag Archives: living in Mexico

Everyday Life in the Campo, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Those of us who live here in Mexico probably do much the same things that you do every day. Food shop, clean house, exercise, visit friends, read, write, take naps, volunteer, etc. Most of the immigrants I know are retired and live here either part or full-time. We’re from Canada and the U.S.A. for the most part, but Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans are among us, too.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Living in Teotitlan del Valle is different from being a city dweller. This village of indigenous Zapotec people holds to a strong, powerful and ancient culture. Many work at weaving wool rugs. Some are musicians. Others are shopkeepers or run comedors. Some are bakers and butchers. A few sew clothing. Many are farmers. In times when there are fewer tourists, many weavers supplement their income by growing and harvesting food.

Plowing my neighbors corn field, a five-hour project

Plowing my neighbor’s corn field, five plus hours of labor

I live in the campo. Out beyond the hubbub of town, amid the traditional milpas of corn, beans and squash. I’m surrounded on three sides by maize fields. Some are tasseling now. Here, the tradition is to plow the furrows when the corn is waist-high to break the crust and allow rain to penetrate earth. This is living close to the soil. Organic. Honorable.

It’s rainy season. Green stretches for miles. Today I awakened to whistling. Out my window was a young man driving a team of bulls plowing the field next to the casita I live in.

Rene's Volkswagen van. Can you guess it's vintage?

Rene’s Volkswagen van. Can you guess it’s vintage?

I grew up in Los Angeles. Miles of freeways. Concrete. Tiny lots separated by six-foot block walls. School yards paved with asphalt. I remember scraped knees and elbows. The hum of car engines passing. We were all jammed together, a jam of humanity. Even more now. Gridlock. I think I’ve become a country girl.

The crop was planted in July. There wasn’t much rain in June and farmers worried about another year of drought. In my absence over the last five weeks, seems that weather has played catch up and everything is growing.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

The young man plowing the field rents out his services. His two bulls are tethered with a hand-hewn yoke that supports a wood plow. He guides the curved stick deep into the earth with one hand to keep the furrow straight. In the other, he holds a switch that gently prods the animals to keep on the straight and narrow. Farm machinery cannot do this job well enough.

A perfect day for plowing the fields.

A perfect day for plowing the fields. From my living room window.

This is his second day at it. Both days, he started at eight in the morning, ended around two o-clock in the afternoon, just before lunch. People work hard here. Five plus hours plowing the field with no break in the heat of the day. The monotony of walking back and forth. The patience of walking back and forth.

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

My friend, plumber and handy-man extraordinaire René asks me if I know what the greca (Greek key) symbol means that is woven on village rugs.  It’s the step-fret carved into the Mitla temple walls, I answer.

Grecas, Mitla archeological site

Grecas, Mitla archeological site, post-classical Monte Alban

Yes, and more, he says. The ancient Zapotecs believe the two interlocking hands that form the pre-Hispanic greca represent the serpent deity duality and the life-giving connection between earth and sky, water and fire.  

The transformation. Beige to red. Another symbol.

Rene executing the transformation. Beige to red. Symbol of change.

We are eating lunch and the thunder is rolling in. The sky darkens. Earth gives off the aroma of on-coming rain.  The just plowed field next door will soon drink its fill. René packs up his painting supplies. Paint does not do well with humidity.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design, Teotitlan del Valle

The exterior walls of the casita I live in are getting a makeover. The wasband liked beige. I’m in the mood for Oaxaca Red.

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

Norma Hawthorne’s 9 Tips for Living in Mexico Successfully (Mas o Menos)

Norma Hawthorne’s 9 Tips for Living in Mexico Successfully (choose your own priority order):
  1. Speak the language. Learn to speak the language. Try to learn to speak the language. Keep trying.  Hire a tutor.  Take a class.  Don’t give up and expect Spanish-speakers to understand you!  Otherwise, you will stay isolated within the gringo community.
  2. Before driving to Mexico, sell your high-performance vehicle in the U.S. and buy something simple that Mexican mechanics know how to repair, like a Ford, a Nissan, or a Honda.  I recently sold my 10-year old Saab 900s and bought a 2003 Honda CRV in preparation for my Oaxaca move.
  3. Visit many times (at least three or four) for at least several weeks at a time before you make the commitment to even rent in a particular location.  Stay with friends.  Talk to people.  Get the “lay of the land.”  Don’t let the romantic notion of living in Mexico — where it is warm, friendly and inexpensive — turn your head too quickly.
  4. Rent, don’t buy or build immediately.  Start out with several weeks in the winter.  Then, come in the off-season – during the rains or in the hot and dusty months.  Know what you are getting into regarding the climate.   It’s not pure blue sky and balmy days year ‘round.
  5. Create a base of friends and a support system before you make the move.  Get connected with local cultural organizations or volunteer groups.  For example, expats gather at the Oaxaca Lending Library for educational infrastructure, connection, and doing good in the world of Oaxaca.
  6. Expand your multicultural lifestyle and friendship circles – get to know the locals to appreciate and share history, culture, wisdom.  Understand that you are a guest in someone else’s country.  Treat all with respect and kindness.
  7. Understand that cultural competency means accepting things the way they are rather than trying to change them or make things “better” (in our own image of what is right).  Mexicans know what is best for them in their country — they have been living this way for thousands of years.  There is a lot we can learn from them without trying to “fix” it to suit U.S. standards.
  8. Stay open to adventure, to change, to the unpredictability of what each day might bring, to opportunity and who you might meet, what unusual delicacy you might taste, an impromptu invitation.
  9. Relax and enjoy yourself.  Saving money should not be your primary motivation for moving to Mexico.  It should be to expand your cultural competency, improve your language skills, and to stretch yourself through exploration and discovery.

Want to add your tips in the Comment section?

Expatriates in Mexico

Why do Americans and Canadians flock to Mexico?  Is there more than an economic incentive to making this decision?  What are the motivations and desires behind choosing to move to Mexico?  Were expectations met?  Was the vision of  a life imagined reality or romance?  These are some of the questions we will ask of several expatriates who make their home in the village of Teotitlan del Valle as one topic to explore during the documentary filmmaking workshop we are holding in the village starting January 31 (there are still three spaces open).

When I first visited Cuernavaca in the early 1970’s, I was vaguely aware of wealthy expatriate communities living there in gated communities.  Now, many retirees are choosing San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic on Lake Chapala near Guadalajara because of lifestyle and affordability.  These are isolated, gated communities, enclaves of expatriates who live separate and apart from the local people.

This is a different experience from the one I know in Teotitlan del Valle, where the few Estadounidenses residing there are fully integrated into the lifestyle and commerce of the village, living simply and sustainably in small homes or apartments on land or in family compounds owned by their Zapotec hosts.   They keep a low profile, walk softly, pay attention to local customs, participate in local observances, give English classes or Shiatsu massage in exchange for food or services, and are friends and good neighbors.  Most have come for the natural beauty, the peace and quiet, the call from a traditional culture that is family centered and respectful of the earth.  Their expatriate status does set them apart (it is difficult not to stand out when you are a 5’9″ anglo woman, for example) but this is not a deterrent.  These expats I know worked as social service or education professionals in the U.S. for many years, accumulated a small retirement fund, and determined that they could live a better quality life — for a longer period of time — by moving to Oaxaca.  They make one or two visits a year back to the U.S. to visit family and friends.  Most often, the family and friends come to Oaxaca to visit them, too.

It’s a relationship and a system that works well for a few.  There is a significant expat community in Oaxaca city.  I’m told that more than 300 people from countries outside of Mexico live there.  You will find expats who own restaurants, bed and breakfast lodges, who write and make music and create art.

The key to enjoyment and satisfaction for this life, I believe, is integrating where you have come from with where you have chosen to live now — exploring and adopting the culture and people of your new home and making it your own.