Moving to Mexico is Not Something I Regret

I have many regrets in my life. There was the time I ate gefilte fish. Then, in 1993, I purchased 100 copies of the Valiant Comics origin story, X-O Manowar #0, hoping to sell them at an incredible mark-up and get rich. I still have one hundred copies. More recently, I stayed up to download a copy of Taylor Swift’s Midnights (3am Edition) the night before a pickleball tournament. The list goes on. 

Fortunately, moving full-time to Mexico from the United States is not something I have had to look back on and ask myself, “Why?” In fact, this past January, my wife, Rebecca, and our two children happily celebrated the five-year anniversary of our move to San Miguel de Allende, a highlands pueblo in central Mexico.

San Miguel has been voted “World’s Best City,” “Best Small City in the World,” “Mexico’s Most Enchanting City,” and “City to Which You Are Most Likely to Come for a Weekend Visit and End up Buying a House.” But those laurel wreaths aren’t the reason we punched our ticket to San Miguel. Basically, we just wanted to get out of Dodge. In our case, Dodge was Alexandria, Virginia.

Rebecca and I lived and worked in the Washington DC metro area for 20 years. We both had jobs that paid well and that we liked. Well, my job as a tax attorney paid better than Rebecca’s gig running her own immigration law practice, but she liked her job an awful lot, and that’s worth something. We owned a nice house with an affordable mortgage in a part of town that had lawns and big, leafy trees, sidewalks and parks, and a Trader Joe’s within walking distance. We had kids that were likable enough, who got good grades in school, and who had well-adjusted friends who seemed like they had a bright future. We even had bicycles.

You could say we were living the dream. You could also say that the dream wasn’t our dream, but it was how someone else thought we should be living. Both statements were true, and it was a good life. But it was also a life that was slipping past like water under a bridge and we knew that, before long, we would be dead.

In order to stem the rising ennui, Rebecca and I hatched a plan. Now, when I say we hatched a plan, I mean Rebecca hatched a plan and I tentatively agreed. The plan was to drive a 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van from Virginia through Mexico and Central America over the course of one year, with our children, who were 13 and 10-years old at the time. Then we would drive back to Virginia and reinsert ourselves into our lives. Admittedly, Rebecca’s enthusiasm for adventure may have gotten the better of her, but we did it, and the trip was everything we hoped it would be.

We left Alexandria in August 2015, arrived in Panama in May 2016, and turned around and drove back. Along the way, we visited Mayan archeological sites, lazed around on deserted Pacific beaches, witnessed an arribata (mass nesting) of sea turtles, went sledding down a volcano, volunteered on a family-owned farm, watched a sloth urinate, traversed the Panama Canal on a catamaran, learned about sea anemones, saw dolphins, sharks, and manatees, spent a small fortune on ice cream, and met so many people who were living life on their own terms that we couldn’t help but be inspired. Rebecca and I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to have these experiences with our kids when they were at such an impressionable age. And because we didn’t have the ability to do laundry each weekend, we only had to change our clothes every couple of days.

The trip was also a few things that we hadn’t expected. Hot, I remember it was hot. And there was a smelly, gelatinous dead seal involved. But the biggest curveball that got thrown our way was that after spending our year off of the hamster wheel that we had been on – which, mind you, we had chosen to climb on and spin – we didn’t want to go back to that lifestyle. After experiencing the different cultures, seeing the different sights, and living the more laid-back lifestyle in Mexico and the other Central American countries, we wanted to avoid being pounded into dust by the grind we were living in the US.

But how could we do that? Actually, the question was, could we do that? And the answer is, yes, we could. And we did. In January 2018, about 18 months after we had returned to the US from our one-year overland trip, we moved full-time to Mexico. 

My travel memoir, “The Year We Ruined Our Lives: A Family Road Trip Through Mexico and Central America,” describes how we hatched the idea for and planned our year-long adventure, the experiences and impressions we had along the way, and how and why we eventually decided that, to be happy and healthy, we didn’t have to continue to pursue the American Dream. We learned that we could pursue our own dreams instead. And even though you know the end of the story, that we eventually chucked it all and moved to Mexico, you should buy the book anyway because, well, I have to admit, it’s well-written and it will make you laugh. And hopefully, it will make you take a hard look at whether you can make a change for the better in your life as well.

Like most lazy, day-dreaming teenage boys, I had always hoped to move to Mexico. But those long ago dreams were more about ducking responsibility for an easy life of surfing, drinking beer on the beach, and meeting girls. By the time I finally did move to Mexico, I was forty-eight years old. At my more mature age, my goals needed to be more realistic. Yes, beer could still be a part of my life, but surfing and party girls, not so much.

As we planned our exit from the US, I set myself four goals. First, I wanted to spend more time with my wife, Rebecca, and our kids. Second, I wanted to write more. Third, I hoped to improve my Spanish. Finally, I wanted to be more involved in philanthropic pursuits.

Goal One: Family Time

Spending more time together as a family, at a time in our lives when we were still a family unit, that is, before the kids had moved on with their own lives and left Rebecca and me as empty-nesters, was a big part of the reason we took our overland trip in the first place. Because of our work schedules and their extracurricular activities, Rebecca and I were struggling with how little quality time we spent with the kids. It felt like we only saw them at the dinner table and when we tucked them into bed. 

When we were on the road, we spent all day with them for a year. And rather than wanting to ditch them at the border (to be completely honest, the thought occurred once or twice), we realized we actually liked them. A lot. 

When we got back to Alexandria and went back to work and school, we soon fell back into the mile-a-minute pace of life that the US demanded. The more tranquillo lifestyle south of the border, which would continue to allow us to nurture the relationship we had built with our kids, factored heavily into why we decided to leave the US.

And it’s been great. I do spend more time with my kids, and at a time in their lives (they are now twenty and seventeen) when I feel like most kids are drifting away from their parents. I am there to make their breakfast each morning before they leave for school. I make and pack their lunches. I’m there to make their after-school snack and their dinner and wash their dishes. I also do their laundry. Essentially, I have much more time to be their personal maid, chauffeur, and chef. Though, you can hardly call what I do in the kitchen “the culinary arts.” It’s not that they are asking me to do these things, they are capable people after all, I just happen to have the time. 

Between chores, I’m free to binge watch “Bojack Horseman” with them, play pickleball with my son, and take leisurely walks with my daughter to talk about books we’ve read. And because I work on my own time, I don’t feel stressed that I have to be doing something else when I am spending time with them. And because neither Rebecca nor I leave the house each day for a full-time job, we spend much more time together as well. Despite this, we are still married. Success!

Goal Two: Write!

I’ve enjoyed blogging in the past (and people have told me that they’ve enjoyed reading my blog posts.) During my 40-hours-a-week, desk-job-life in the US, jotting down short burps of thought was about all I could manage. But leaving that life behind left me a lot of unaccounted for time, and I wanted to use that time to do something more permanent with regards to my writing. 

Writing and publishing “The Year We Ruined Our Lives” was a lot of fun. It was also hard work. Writing a draft, editing it, laying it out, and finally publishing it took almost three years and I doubt I would have been able to muster the energy to complete it if we had remained in the US and I had remained at my full-time job. With that project done, I’ve begun work on other creative writing pieces. I’ve also published articles on taxes and travel for magazines and online platforms. Case in point, here I am sitting at my computer typing an article! For money! So, again, I feel like I have met my second goal.

Goal Three: Improve my Spanish

My Spanish has actually gotten worse over the course of five years living in Mexico. I can still order from the menu, find my way around town, and have my basic needs met with my rudimentary ability to conjugate verbs in the present tense, but don’t ask me to explain what happened yesterday, or what my plans are for tomorrow. There’s a saying in San Miguel that all the gringos in town are living in the present. This is a good thing in theory, until you consider that it’s because many of us can’t conjugate verbs into the past or future tenses.

When my family first arrived in Mexico, I was diligent in taking lessons to improve my basic Spanish language skills. I envisioned that before long, I would be doing a stand-up comedy routine entirely in Spanish. I even purchased a book of Pablo Neruda poems without English language translations. 

But it hasn’t worked out the way I thought. It’s like the one thing on your to-do list that never seems to get checked off. When I was taking lessons, my old brain forgot everything new it learned about Spanish almost as soon as it learned it, and then I just got lazy. Even though there are plenty of places in San Miguel offering language classes for all different levels and at very reasonable prices, I haven’t attended since before the pandemic.

And even though we are ten hours from the US border, there are tens of thousands of native English speakers living here. I tend to run in that social circle. It hurts our collective heads to speak Spanish. And my Mexican friends speak better English than I speak Spanish. And even though they are patient with me and no one has ever laughed in my face as I try to roll my “R’s,” I’m reluctant to subject them to that painful experience. And even though the pace of life here is slower than in the US, no one wants to spend ten minutes waiting for me to tell them in Spanish that the park is on the other side of the bridge, when I can say it in less than five seconds in English. 

I know these are all excuses. Because Rebecca and the kids have much more advanced language skills than I do, I’m not forced to push myself. But I’m embarrassed by my poor Spanish and have a goal to do better going forward. It’s good to have goals.

Goal Four: Get Involved in Giving Back

We were always able to contribute financially to the charities that we believed in when we lived and worked in the US. But, because we had day jobs, we often weren’t able to get more involved than giving money. Now that we live in Mexico, we have less money and more time. That allows us to contribute in more personal ways. 

There are lots of US nonprofits operating in San Miguel. With my tax background, I’m able to prepare annual tax returns for several of them, free of charge. I’m also on the board of a local charity that supports families who have had a member deported from the US as they try to integrate into Mexico. 

Rebecca has put her passion for helping others into overdrive. She’s a board member of the Latin American Relief Fund, which finances a local migrant shelter; has provided free legal advice to persons seeking asylum in the US; and leads excursions to villages surrounding San Miguel, where participants learn about the history of the area, enjoy a lunch prepared by the women of the village, and can purchase products like soaps and lotions made by the community with locally sourced ingredients. I feel like Rebecca’s charitable works are part mine, because, you know, behind every great woman is a pretty decent guy supporting her great work. Anyway, I like to tell myself that.

One unanticipated benefit of our move was that we discovered new interests and talents to help pay for it all. We knew that the rent from our Alexandria house would cover most of our day-to-day expenses, and intended to supplement that income with income from other sources. I planned to do tax returns and Rebecca thought she might continue to do immigration work. While I have done some tax work, I also sell books and articles (as I’ve mentioned), and give pickleball lessons. Rebecca has stopped working directly with clients, but started a business offering language courses for professionals and organizing cultural tours. She also recently branched into public speaking gigs and gets paid to talk about immigration. Her work is profiled in the award-winning documentary, “LAS ABOGADAS: Attorneys on the Front Line of the Migrant Crisis.” Together, we make and sell kombucha. None of these “jobs” fattens our bank or investment accounts, but the money we pocket helps us to avoid depleting those accounts. We earn what I call “taco money.” And enjoying a plateful of tacos is something that I never regret.

Paul Carlino