Between all the fears and conspiracies around COVID, general political lunacy, and social media psychosis, some friends have asked us what it’s like living in our new house in the central high desert of Mexico. A few folks have asked to see some photos and get a home-based report from this world removed. I worry a little about doing stuff like this because it can so easily sound like we got ours and we don’t care at all about anyone else. When I see it in others, I despise that kind of arrogance. In Mexico, you can almost throw a rock between extreme well to do and extreme poverty. It’s humbling to know there are so many people in this world without a thing, who are simply trying to survive, and we know full well the difference between being fortunate, or simply falling into an abyss, is often a very slim margin, and sometimes there is no margin at all. One second you are and the next second you aren’t. Too often we humans can delude ourselves with our presumed entitlement to one circumstance as opposed to another, simply because we worked hard to get it, or because we were born entitled to it. The real truth is sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t. Deb and I are very lucky to find ourselves in this situation, in this country, at this moment in time. For some unresolved reason, it fell together instead of falling apart, and I don’t know why. I don’t have those kinds of answers. So,,,, I’ll momentarily shake off the heritage of my Midwestern guilt about our good fortune here, and I’ll spin a story about our new house - just like nothing was out of place anywhere else in the world. We remain humble and thankful for the gifts.
It’s working on a year and a half since we signed papers and for the first time stepped into our new home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. July 23rd was our first anniversary in the house. Deb and I spoke about this moving-to-a-new house-in-a-new-country process at dinner a couple of nights ago, and we both agree it must have happened to someone else because there is no way in hell it could have happened to us.
At this point, spring chickens we’re not. I see the two of us more as crockpot birds - heavily marinated, slow-cooked, and maybe even a little over-cooked and dry. The reality of becoming seniors has been in the rear-view mirror and over the horizon for many years. Nothing comes quick or easy at this point, so getting our heads around actually making the decision to move from the Seattle area, then selling the house, packing, shipping furniture, and driving the dog and us to the Texas border town of Laredo was hard enough, but then came the border crossing, the pre-conditioned fears about the cartel, immigration issues, car permits, dog issues, food, health care, and rental house problems. All that was already too much, and then the process of simply learning how to live day to day in central Mexico pretty much ate up whatever was left of us. Then to finally finish this self-imposed forced march, we had to buy a house. Looking back to where we started, the odds of any solid success we could celebrate a year or so later seemed, at best, slim to none.
Doing a lot of homework ahead of time, trusting we could do it, and making the first step every single morning proved critical to dodging all the obstacles from Gig Harbor, WA to San Miguel. After a year, as ducks lined up in a row go, this many ducks lined up would reach from Mexico to Mars, and the last time that happened was never. But when we weren’t looking, or maybe when we were asleep, in the middle of the night, apparently something happened with a whole hell of a lot of ducks because we woke up the next day and found we now live in Mexico - in our house. It’s not what we would have guessed, but as flocks of duck’s do fly south, we’ll take it.
It would make for a better new house story if there were some intense battles, hidden ambushes, and miraculous rites of passage, but actually, the opposite is true. I suppose you can put yourself in a position to be lucky, and I like to think we tried to make that happen when we could, but even so, dumb luck was hard at work here as well. Once we got started, I think this was the fourth house we saw. At most, house hunting took two hours, maybe three. Even the legal/paperwork process of buying/owning the house was nothing compared to what it’s like in the US. Many of us know what a nightmare it can be to buy a house in the States, but as frustrating as Mexico can be on many logistical fronts, buying a house is actually not one of them. It’s too long a story for this note, but if you ever find yourself moving to Mexico, quit worrying about actually buying the house you find. The buying part is stupid easy. On the other hand, paying the electric and water bill will be a birthing process, and the kid will come out feet first. More on those issues another time.
After spending most of our lives in the northwest US, surrounded by real mountains, ocean, a ridiculous amount of thematic variations on the color green, a deluge of rain, and way too much sheetrock, the Mexican high desert country is another world. San Miguel de Allende began in the 1500s and grew with both indigenous Mexican and Spanish influences. After WWll, the GI Bill brought the first ex-pat artists. On the urban architectural side, a significant number of the houses, including ours, continue to reflect that old-world Spanish Colonial legacy. We chose the city because of the large percentage of ex-pats, the high desert climate, the art, the culture, and the friendly nature of those who live here. Our house is in a neighborhood (Los Frailes), which sits on the western edge of the central Mexican city of maybe 200,000 - 20,000 of them being ex-pats from the US, Canada, and Europe.
I remember following our real estate agent into this house for the first time. The impact of the visual stood me straight up - three steps in and two steps back to steady myself. Everywhere I looked it felt like my fantasy view of what a Mexican home was supposed to feel like. There were warm desert colors, boveda ceilings, arched walkways, back-lit inset alcoves, open areas to sit, burnt rust-red tile, sweeping windows, garden areas, a spacious patio, and a kitchen out of an illustrated Mexican cookbook. At this point, we thought we didn’t deserve this, but then again, we didn’t care. We were home.
The structure of the house is solid. Mexicans don’t build much with wood because the high desert doesn’t have a lot of wood. They build by hand with concrete and brick, and they build things to last. The house appeared small enough to be manageable for two seniors, but at two stories and around 2,500 square feet of actual living space, the dog-legged L shape appeared open and much larger, like a little hacienda for two people and a dog (now a cat as well and a canary). For most of my life, I’ve lived in small spaces like duplexes, dormitories, fraternity houses, barracks, foxholes, tents, apartments, log cabins, and small houses surrounded by bigger houses. Here I could spread out a bit, stretch my legs, maybe even take a nap. Now there’s a senior moment’s thought.
Arched, north-facing, French-door-style windows let a lofted wash of soft light into the living and dining rooms all day long, but there was also some darkness in the house, and darkness in the shadowed areas attracted me. Mexico is a BRIGHT country. The sun is harsh, with a honed edge. Bright is everywhere, and in San Miguel, bright is a great part of the scene. But like both Deb and our Australian Shepherd Atticus, I can easily slip into a solitary mood. I value knowing, if necessary, I can find a dark corner to hideout. If at any moment the brightness is too much, the layers of shadows in the house provide the right measure of escape.
Deb and I walked through the house and checked the details. Every room felt like it had a reason. In San Miguel a lot of the houses can have a Mediterranean feel, and here, the patio and small pool felt almost like we were in Florence. The garden courtyard invited us to grab a cocktail or a glass of wine, sit down and relax near a Cyprus, in the shade of a young olive tree. In the kitchen, I could imagine pasilla chilies roasting, chicken tortilla soup on a low simmer, and achiote shrimp on the grill. I could hear the future sounds of laughter, cocktails being poured, and conversation, all blended into the smooth consistency of dinners with new friends in a new home.
Across the street, there’s a small city park with cactus, maguey, bougainvillea, and tall jacaranda trees that bloom purple in the Spring. The neighborhood is intimate, quiet, and Mexican - as we walked around, it felt right. As we know, some life-altering decisions take time, while others resolve quickly. We both instantly felt this was home. This was a place we could settle into for the remainder of our lives. For ex-pats, there are no mortgages to deal with. You either buy the house outright or you rent. We bought it. On July 23rd, 2019, we moved in.
Recently, I asked myself what I especially like about this house, as opposed to other places I’ve lived. The answer is right on the surface - It’s the clearly defined layers that blend together to create a depth, which helps define a clear sense of space and place. Depending on the time of year, the light radiates and bounces back and forth around the rooms. I can sit in one place over a period of time and watch the light move through the room, or I can stand in one location and see the foreground, mid-distances, and background all in one fluid glance. When I’m standing in the kitchen the layers are intimate. I can see from vegetables on a cutting board in front of me, over the bar, through the dining room, past three arched walkways, into the foyer, and out the front door to the cobblestone street and the fountain in the park. When I’m on the rooftop patio, now the layers become expansive. After sunset, I can see over the top of a 3-ounce glass of mezcal resting on the table in front of me, past the tops of the blooming purple jacaranda trees, through the park, beyond the neighbor’s house party with the Mariachi band playing in the patio, and from there, I can continue to see due west 665 kilometers toward Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast, and finally, all the way to Jupiter, the first star on the horizon of a clear warm Mexican evening. I don’t know how far it is to forever, but from the roof, I’m guessing it’s well within sight.
In these days of COVID 19 quarantine, the house feels like a sanctuary or an oasis, in the way a sanctuary is a place of safety and rest, and in the way an oasis is a place to quench a harsh thirst from a long hard journey. The Spanish called sanctuary "querencia" - a place from which strength of character is derived. Deb and I tread lightly for fear our sanctuary might not be real, and of course, it’s not real at all. It’s just a moment. Our moment. We’re resident caretakers for the good folks, somewhere in the world, who, right this second, without knowing it, are preparing to someday follow us to this home in Mexico. We tread lightly here out of consideration for the past, present, and future. It would be foolish to act otherwise.
For us, to be this incredibly fortunate with our home is truly humbling. As a consequence of good fortune, a new homeowner in Mexico needs to be respectful and subdued. Respectful behavior is a serious part of this culture that goes back thousands of years, and as permanent resident ex-pats, learning from the history and respecting the culture is the only reasonable option.
In amazement, I look back at this journey of ours and our exploration of what’s next. For both of us, the experience and this house are the conclusion of one story, and the beginning of a whole new odyssey. One thing remains certain. We’re home in San Miguel.