Thought I’d give a little history on my expatriation from the U.S. fifteen years ago. Instead of dwelling on the political reasons for my departure, although the rising totalitarian state that was formalized with the Patriot Act played a big part, as did going to war based on lies in Iraq, I will stick to the less controversial details.
I would suggest you listen to this tune while considering my tale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ha1GT2tW9dc
I sold my company at the tender age of 40, and was looking around for greener climes. My short list was Melbourne, Australia, and Cabo San Lucas – both of which I was more than familiar with due to numerous trips. I settled on Cabo in sort of a provisional fashion: I would try it for six months and see how I liked it. I’d spent tons of long weekends there, and my longest stint had been 10 days, which didn’t seem at all too long at the time, so I packed up my car and pointed it south (I was living in So Cal) with little forethought and a sense of adventure.
People ask me what it’s like to move to a foreign country like Mexico. Well, it’s different, and not so different. Baja, especially, holds its challenges, and 15 years ago it was a dusty little cantina town built on a fishing port where Americans came to misbehave – in other words, the modern equivalent of the Wild West. There were almost no rules, and the change in the sense of freedom was immediately apparent in a good way. The biggest thing to get used to was consumer goods – Costco had just opened, there was no Walmart, and availability of products you could pick up in the U.S. was spotty, at best. As an example, if you saw a case of diet 7 Up, you bought it – it would be gone by the next day, and then it could be months before 20 more appeared on the shelves. Thankfully, or sadly, depending on your perspective, that’s all changed, and with three big box stores and six supermarket chains now here, as well as Office Depot and Office Max, the consumer goods paucity is a thing of the past.
The language wasn’t so much of an issue as one might imagine, mainly because most in the tourist areas of Baja speak some, or fluent, English. They have to – their main business being catering to Americans and Canadians. Took me many years to get relatively decent with the lingo, and it’s still arguable exactly how proficient I actually am.
Starting a business here was orders of magnitude easier than in the U.S. After a couple of years of boredom, I started my custom home design and construction firm, and had it open in a day. Got a bank account, filled out some paperwork establishing the corp, hired an accountant, and that was it. In the U.S., especially California, that would have taken a bunch of attorneys a significant amount of time. The lesson was that in Mexico, it’s actually pretty easy to be an entrepreneur. No guarantee you’ll make any money at it, but starting an enterprise was ridiculously straightforward.
Getting permanent residency was also a snap. There’s a guy who, for a few hundred dollars, handles all the paperwork, and my total involvement was getting photos taken and spending a few hours at Immigration so I could sign things.
A question that often comes up is, “Do you miss the old country?” Not really. I see all the Gringos I can stomach whenever I go out, and most of the rich from my neck of the woods in the states keep their big boats here, jetting down on their Gulfstreams for long weekends, so I get as much of the red faced American alpha male as I can tolerate.
On the plus side, the restaurants off the beaten path are fantastic, and costs for pretty much everything except power and gas run about 30% less than the U.S. On mainland, it’s more like 40-45% less in the really good areas, way cheaper in the not so great, but why go there?
I pay an effective 5% on my Mexican earnings (legally), and I can live a six figure American lifestyle on about a third of that and still have money left over at the end of the day. Same cars (due to the currency, cars are 30% cheaper), bigger house (a third to half the price), ocean view, friendly neighbors, and year-round sun. And don’t forget the cold beer, friendly natives, and of course, tequila.
Health care is ridiculously cheap – $30 for an ER visit, $100 for broken bones including the cast and X-ray. Buddy cut his leg open surfing, cost $125 to stitch it up, including a shot of antibiotic and the ER doctor’s time. He did the same in California a year later, the bill came to $4500. Same fix, but they code it as a surgery because of the stitches. Madness in a place with the most expensive health care in the world. Property tax on a million dollar home might run $500. A full time maid to cook, clean, and walk dogs runs $350 per month. A gardener, $50-$100. You can quickly see how the savings add up.
Crime is a serious problem if you’re selling drugs in the barrio, and the murder rate in Baja has gone from maybe 5 per year for the area when I moved here (about 250K people), to hundreds due to a territory war being waged for the retail distribution rights. Those being killed are the street level dealers who make a few hundred bucks a week – a dealer in his twenties is selling in disputed areas, and his rival pops a cap in his ass. Exactly the same as in East L.A. or Compton or Santa Ana, only it’s more intense due to the money involved – throw a 1000% margin product at an area where the average person makes $400 a month, and you’ll find lots of idiots willing to kill for the trafficking rights. The good news is those being killed are those that needed killing. The bad news is it makes the stats look terrible, and it slows tourism – which I don’t care about other than celebrating that it’s easier to find a parking spot. But I keep an eye on the associated crime that accompanies the trade: an increase in robberies and muggings and theft. So far, no problems, but it’s a shame that it has changed so radically. Then again, it will eventually settle out, and calm down. These things tend to move in cycles.
I’ve been spending more time on mainland lately, and am considering splitting my time between here and there, mainly to spend my summer months in cooler temperatures than Baja. We shall see how that plays out. With air fares around $75 RT from Cabo to mainland Mexico, it’s not a deal killer.
It’s not paradise. I mean, it kind of is, with beaches and endless summer and an idyllic lifestyle. But you have to avoid dangerous areas, and resist the temptation to drive drunk – which is the single biggest killer of Gringos in Baja, incidentally, and I’m not making that up.
Inevitably, I’m asked by Americans, “Why are so many Mexicans trying to get into the U.S. if it’s so awesome there?” The answer is twofold: first, since 2008, the number leaving the U.S. and returning to Mexico has been larger than the number trying to sneak in, so the question is based on almost a decade old assumption. And second, because the bottom 10-20% who have no choice but to be the $350 per month maid or gardener would prefer to make ten times that in the U.S. What Americans see are the poorest of the poor seeking a better life, not the vast majority of those living in Mexico. Oh, and many who are trying to sneak in aren’t Mexican – they’re Guatemalan and El Salvadorian and Honduran trying to flee the nightmares the U.S. government has turned those countries into so American companies can continue to milk cheap labor there, since the 1950’s.
The big question I get asked by the curious and the doubtful, is, 15 years later, would I do it again? Absolutely. I’ve now spent over a quarter of my life outside the U.S., and don’t miss it much. On mainland, they have all the Chili’s and Cheesecake Factories and PF Chang’s you can want, as well as all the first world amenities (first class hospitals, shopping to rival Rodeo Drive, etc.), so when I want that, it’s not far away. I don’t feel like I’ve missed much living outside the country, and in many ways I’m far more relaxed due to the slower cultural pace here. Net net, it’s been hugely positive, and my only regret is not doing it sooner.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Now go buy my crap so I can continue working my fingers to nubs in the Mexican sun. My new one, A Girl Apart, ain’t bad, and it’s been garnering good reviews, so you could do worse than to try it. Just saying.