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3 Essentials You Need to Be an Expat

La Habana cafe in Mexico City was the former hangout of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara
La Habana cafe in Mexico City was the former hangout of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

I moved to Mexico eight years ago, in 2010. Eight years is a long time. It’s been long enough for me to learn Spanish, work as a translator, work as a teacher in two universities, travel all over Mexico and into Central and South America, watch the sunrise from the edge of an enormous extinct volcano, scuba dive in caves flooded with clear fresh water, hike and swim down an underground river, travel with a 12-piece guitar group, publish two guidebooks about Mexico, make friends, fall in love, and get married.

Yes, eight years is a long time. It’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere continuously—my family moved a few times when I was a kid. It’s four times as long as my two years in South Korea, my first experience as an expat. Those two years seemed like an eternity. South Korea was so different from Mexico: different faces, trees, smells, colors, buildings, cars—everything was different. The full moon at night looked different. The way the rain hit the sidewalk on a hot day sounded different. Even the air felt different.

Although it’s much closer to the United States than South Korea, Mexico is quite different as well. People think differently, move differently, and have different values and priorities than the people I grew up with. The land is different too: where I live, it’s dry rolling hills covered with huge magueys (a type of agave) and spotted with pine trees. A few hours’ drive in any direction and the land completely changes: thick humid jungle, or rocky mountain peaks, or an expanse of desert fading into the horizon like the ocean. And everywhere are the squat homes of unpainted cinderblocks or ancient adobe, even in the central areas of major cities.

Magueys in the mountains of central Mexico
Magueys in the mountains of central Mexico.

Much of what is wonderful about Mexico is what we’ve lost in my home country, the United States. In Mexico, I can’t remember the last time I ate something that came from a box. My wife and I have fresh fruit and vegetables every day, bought for cheap at a small shop around the corner from my apartment. Around another corner is the butcher shop, selling meat with no hormone injections and spicy hand-ground chorizo sausage. The chicken store next door sells free-range chicken cut up however you want it.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are available at shops and markets abroad
Fresh fruit and vegetables are available at shops and markets.
A big trompo of tacos al pastor in Mexico City
A big trompo of tacos al pastor in Mexico City.

Heath care is another surprising benefit to living here. Mexico has top-notch private medical facilities, in which the cost of non-life-threatening procedures is astoundingly lower than in the U.S. A still-cheaper option is a crowded public hospital, which can be used by all Mexicans (and foreigners working legally) for free as part of several socialized health care programs. At the very least, a visit to the dentist is worthwhile, even if you’re only on vacation. A cleaning in a fully modern clinic typically costs less than USD 30, and prices are similarly low for procedures that are more complicated.

Maguays
One of many government clinics in Mexico that offer excellent health care.

Differences are not always good, of course. Being an expat and living in a country such as Mexico has its challenges and requires adjustments. It may be stressful, confusing or frustrating, but at least it’s never boring.

There’s your first requirement for being an expat: accepting differences. To do so you must have an open mind.

1. An Open Mind

The first time I visited Mexico, long before I moved here, the police robbed me. It was 2001 in Ciudad Juárez, the hot concrete city in the desert across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Today, Ciudad Juárez is one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico and also the world. There are many reasons for the danger, mostly the drug trafficking which causes havoc in the U.S.-Mexico border regions.

But I went there before former president Felipe Calderón declared war on the Mexican drug cartels in 2006. In 2001, Ciudad Juárez was just regular-dangerous, with a manageable level of menace like any seedy border town.

After a week of camping in Texas, my friend and I walked across the footbridge over the river into Mexico for some tacos and beer, thinking we’d get a cheap hotel room later that night.

The sun set as we stumbled down a busy street of flashing neon, looking for the next bar. Two policemen approached on the sidewalk from the other direction. We had nothing to worry about; both of us were legal drinking age in Mexico.

Without a word, they put us in handcuffs and slammed us against a graffiti-covered wall. Rough hands emptied our pockets of wallets, keys, packs of cigarettes, and lighters. Straining to look over my shoulder, I saw a policeman open my wallet and take out all the cash. Same with my friend’s wallet. The other snapped the pocketknife off my friend’s keychain and threw it onto a rooftop. Still no words were spoken when they shoved our empty wallets and other possessions back into our pockets and removed the handcuffs.

With my terrible high-school Spanish I asked, don’t we need money to pay the toll at the border? One policeman walked away. The other placed exact change into my hand for two trips across the footbridge.

At the time, wandering through the dark streets of Ciudad Juárez with a few coins and a story, I never imagined that ten years later I’d be living in Mexico. Why would I move to a country where I’d been robbed by the police?

Well, first of all, although I’d only visited one small part of it, I understood that Mexico is a large and diverse country. At the time, I had no idea of the extent of its diversity in people, culture, and landscapes. I suppose that I knew it instinctively, despite studying absolutely nothing about my country’s southern neighbor in high school history and social studies classes.

Mural in Mexico City
Mural of Frida Kahlo in a Mexico City neighborhood.

Second, I understood that bad things can and do happen everywhere. Problems such as crime and corruption should not be forgiven or ignored—far from it. But it wouldn’t be right to condemn an entire country and culture based on one bad experience.

Third, and what’s most important, despite the bad experience of being robbed, my short first trip into Mexico gave me a sense of the exotic. It was barely a toe-dip into an ancient country of fascinating history (advanced pre-Hispanic civilizations, the physical and mental conquest by the Spanish through both violence and religion, a war of independence followed by a revolution), unique culture (bouncy banda music, town fairs of food and fireworks, all-night cemetery stays on the Day of the Dead) and friendly, welcoming people.

A cumbia band playing at a town fair in Mexico
A cumbia band playing at a town fair in Mexico.

I wanted to learn more about these things. I wanted to learn about things that I knew nothing about. I wanted more: more conversations filled with Mexican slang, more spicy food, more dark cantinas, more loud music, more action. And I didn’t need to travel to the other side of the world to get it, merely take a 4-hour flight from Detroit to Mexico City.

2. A Love of Traveling

Waterfall and swimming hole in Las Pozas, Huasteca Potosina
Waterfall and swimming hole in Las Pozas, Huasteca Potosina.

The best way to open your mind to the experiences of an expat is to travel. Indeed, traveling is the indispensable first step to becoming an expat, for several reasons.

The first reason is that, well, if you don’t love to travel, you won’t love living abroad. Taking a long flight, getting confused by a new currency, struggling with the language, figuring out what to eat, getting lost—these are the adventures of both the traveler and the expat.

And the expat must do even more: get legal permission to stay in the country, find an apartment, find a job, get health care, and adjust to living in a place where small differences may become major nuisances and, over time, major nuisances may become nothing more than the bland hum of background noise.

Second, the potential expat must love traveling because traveling is one of the best things about being an expat. For instance, if you decide to visit Mexico on vacation, you’ll probably go to a beach town full of tourists like Cancun, Puerto Vallarta or Los Cabos. And for good reason—those places are paradises. If you come to Mexico again, maybe you’ll go to a colonial city in the center of the country, somewhere full of culture and history with near-perfect weather. Another fine trip, but it may end up being a once-in-a-lifetime trip. There are so many other countries to explore, after all.

When you live in Mexico, however, you can travel every weekend. From just about anywhere you can get to a fancy beach resort, bungalows on an otherwise undeveloped beach, trails on towering mountains and volcanoes, colorful colonial towns, a steaming jungle, ancient pyramids, or world-class Mexico City, with its mix of historic neighborhoods and dynamic modernity.

An escape from the beach resorts at Playa Delfines in Cancun
An escape from the beach resorts at Playa Delfines in Cancun.

You can go to out-of-the-way places that most travelers haven’t heard of: the old silver-mining town of Taxco, with its white buildings shining on the side of steep mountain slopes; the surreal concrete structures in the jungle garden of Los Pozas; or the otherworldly church in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, where locals sit on the floor among pine needles and smoky candles, drinking soda and sacrificing chickens.

Living in Mexico means that these places are all a short bus ride, drive, or flight away. Buses go everywhere, domestic flights are cheap, and exploring by car is a promise of true adventure.

Besides, spending some time in Mexico is an essential part of planning to move to Mexico. You’ll never really know what a place is like until you’ve been there. Sure, online research is part of the process. But it’s a filtered, often unreliable part. Some aspects of living in Mexico are great, and some aren’t so great. Some are downright terrible. Your judgment about which is which—good or bad—and your reaction to these good or bad aspects may tell you more about yourself than it does about Mexico. The same goes for people writing about Mexico online, including me of course.

So, if you’re thinking about living in Mexico, travel here first. Don’t say that you don’t have enough time or money. You’ll need plenty of both to live here eventually.

Look into different places in Mexico and go to them. Soak up the atmosphere, eat authentic tacos, chat with locals, go to a soccer game, climb a mountain—in short, do whatever you want to do, but while you do it, picture yourself actually living there.

Hiking the Nevado de Toluca volcano, State of Mexico.
Hikers standing next to the lake in the crater of the extinct volcano
Hikers standing next to the lake in the crater of the extinct volcano.

Staying in a resort doesn’t count, although doing so can be fun, of course. But you need to visit places off the tourist track, and not only that, but stay in small local hotels, eat in small local restaurants, and get around on public transportation.

Look for “For Rent” (Se Renta) signs on houses and apartment buildings in a neighborhood where you’d like to live and call the numbers to get some prices. Get a hotel room nearby, take a trip to the grocery store, check out potential employers, things like that. Is the area safe? Can you walk around after dark? (In many parts of Mexico, probably not, unfortunately.)

Do the barking dogs drive you crazy? How about the early-morning noise from the trucks for metal recycling or propane-tank refills? Or the cries of the tamal guy, the whistles of the knife-sharpener guy, the rumbles of the car-with-no-muffler guy? How about the nightclub around the corner that blasts electronic music all night long, or the gym that blasts electronic music all day long, both in otherwise nondescript buildings?

How about the weather? Too hot, too cold (yes, it’s possible in Mexico), too much rain, too many bugs, or just right? How about the black river bubbling through the outskirts of town? Can you smell it when the wind’s just right?

And let’s not forget money. Unless you plan on working in Mexico, you’ll be spending your savings from back home. How much did you spend on that trip to the grocery store, on that meal at the fancy restaurant, on that meal at the cheap taquería? How much did you spend traveling around on buses and in the occasional taxi?

3. Money

We are now brought to our final and least romantic requirement for living abroad: money. Don’t believe anyone who tells you just to quit your job and go for it. You need money, and the more you have saved from back home, the better off you'll be.

The essentials for managing your money abroad
The essentials for managing your money abroad.

What’s the best way to save money? Don’t spend it. From now until you move abroad, don’t buy anything unless it’s a flight to the country you’re interested in and the food and hotel room once you’re there. Don’t buy new clothes, new electronics, new anything. If things go right, soon you’ll be stuffing all of your possessions into two bags anyway.

The good news is that foreign currency—especially U.S. dollars and Euros—go far in many countries, including Mexico, making everyday expenses seem cheap in comparison with back home. It won’t be the same when you start working and are paid in the local currency, however. When friends visit me in Mexico and comment on the affordability of the delicious dinner with lots of drinks, I think to myself, sure, but I’m earning pesos.

Living abroad is not a simple process. It requires a lot of planning, including financial planning. You must know how much you have and how much you’ll spend. Simply put, save as much as you can. And check the exchange rate.

Town fair at night in central Mexico
Town fair at night in central Mexico.

So I've described the three crucial things you need before you move abroad using my experience in Mexico as an example: an open mind, a love of traveling, and money. Without the first two, you don’t have a chance. They might seem easy or universal, but you’d be surprised by how many people aren’t actually open-minded or don’t truly love to travel. Those people are inevitably unhappy abroad.

Visa requirements and other formalities will come later. Get to know the place first, and at the same time, get to know yourself. If you want to live somewhere abroad, you’ll find a way.

Whichever country you choose, travel there first, and as much as possible. You’ll have a lot of fun while doing so, probably more fun than you would by just staying in a resort or sticking to tourist activities.

And if you don’t have fun on your exploratory trip, well, then you’ll know for sure that you shouldn’t move there.

Sunset in a new land
Sunset in a new land.

Details about Living in Mexico as an Expat
An Insider's Guide to Moving, Working, and Living Abroad in Mexico
Living in Mexico: The Why, Where, and How
Getting the Visa with Permission to Work in Mexico
How to Get Legal Non-working Residency in Mexico
How to Teach English in Mexico
Additional Resources
How to Manage Your Money Safely on the Road in Latin America
5 Routes and Regions for an Authentic Mexican Visit
My Top Tips for Travelers to Mexico
How to Get a Hotel in Mexico (or Anywhere)
Air Travel in Mexico
Bus Travel in Mexico
Driving in Mexico
The Ultimate Guide to Authentic Eating in Mexico
Enjoying the Exotic Fresh Fruit of Mexico
Crossing the Language Barrier in Mexico

Ted Campbell is a freelance writer, Spanish-English translator, and university teacher living in Mexico. He has written two guidebooks about Mexico, one for Cancun and the Mayan Riviera and another for San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque in Chiapas, both also available at Amazon.com. For stories of adventure, culture, music, food, and mountain biking, check out his blog No Hay Bronca.

For more of the many articles written for TransitionsAbroad.com, see his bio page.

 
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