time in the life of an expat

time in the life of an expat

I am a writer and I am far from home. It’s a long story.

I’ve been living in a country that is not my own for nearly four years. How I got here is a story unto itself. The important thing is that I am here.

It started when I returned from my last trip abroad. My first day back to work was greeted with an informal 90-day notice: Your services are no longer required due to company cutbacks. I had that office job for nearly 10 years. Apparently, the recession was still making its rounds.

As the meaning of the words services no longer required became real, my body flooded with panic. My mind was quickly overloaded with random thoughts all crashing into one another. I was a single woman with a sole income and no family. What was I supposed to do? The decision I eventually made shocked even me.

time in the life of an expat

Thursday, July 9, 2009: It was only a six-hour flight but it felt longer. As the plane began to descend, I reassured myself I am fulfilling a lifelong dream and that everything will be fine. I’m not sure I believe me. Dressing in capris and a long-sleeved sweater no longer seem appropriate as the combination of excessive heat and humidity overwhelm me the instant I step foot onto the tarmac.

It is 9:15 p.m. and I have arrived at Terminal 3 of the Cancun International Airport. This is the city I have chosen to start a new life. Desperate to get to my private room at the hostel, I drag my lifeline of over-sized bags behind me. The cultural shock is immediate as I attempt to negotiate a taxi in a foreign language I have never spoken until this moment.

July 13, 2009: I am slowly settling into an old centrally located house. The entire yard is engulfed by a tall concrete wall that somehow adds an element of claustrophobia to a large open space. The overall feeling is what I would imagine of a prison. Remnants of peeling paint suggest the wall was once white, but now iron stained and gray, the cracked barrier stands topped with offending shards of glass intended to deter intruders.

All the houses share the same compound resemblance. Thick concrete walls standing like tired guards protecting the contents inside its nucleus. At the front of each compound are barred gates that allow access and a quick glimpse to its outside boundaries. On most houses, the iron gates match the bars welded to the home’s windows. Mine is one of them.

I question my ability to live this way, but remind myself the house is within my budget and offers a large back yard with a mature tree. In the back yard is also an underground cisterna. I have no idea what a cisterna is, but can see the huge concrete top has a long narrow crack that has been home to insects for many years.

Unpacking and furnishing my tiny one-bedroom house has kept me busy. I decided to paint the back kitchen wall fire engine red and one living room wall a bright lime green. Although the obnoxious color combination resembles a Mexican cantina, they add a culturally appropriate beginning to my new life.

Furniture shopping in a foreign language is far more exasperating than I imagined. Not only have I spent the past week pointing and nodding “si” to random items, I was also asked to draw a map to my house. Turns out that just an address is not sufficient for delivery. At least now I can say I know where I live.

After a morning of intense furniture unpacking, I realize the humid air is pushing 90 degrees. I head to the refrigerator for water. There isn’t any. Until now, I’ve been hunting and gathering from corner stores where chit chat is kept to a minimum. This helps deal with the language barrier.

I desperately need drinking water but do not know the protocol to flag down a water truck. Frustration is beginning to seep out of my overheated pores. How can something so simple be so difficult? I feel the urge to cry but resist. I hear a truck and head outside.

To my relief it’s water. I hold my dry plastic jug in the air and wave it at no one in particular. The approaching truck swerves toward me then stops as a man eagerly jumps out. I smile but avoid eye contact so as not to encourage conversation. I hand him a 100 bill of local currency. He sets down a full water jug and hands me change. I don’t know how to determine if I’ve been overcharged.

The trade-off for my handy central location is the vibrating club beats that ring throughout my neighborhood almost every night. At 5:00 a.m. the music stops. I head out at 6:30 for a morning run. Within minutes I’m greeted by under aged partygoers and over aged opportunists who cat-call “oye! weta!” as I make my way in the opposite direction. I don’t have a clue what they’re saying.

I am beginning to feel the onset of loneliness. It’s obvious I need to work. I have managed to pick up a few online writing gigs, but they are not enough to pay the bills. I am also limited by my lack of Internet access. Since I do not have Mexican credit history, I cannot qualify for an Internet account of my own. To get by, I’ve been using unencrypted wireless connections and various hotspots through my laptop. It’s a stressful way to earn a living. As my savings quickly shrink, financial stress starts to blanket my loneliness.

August 2009: My mind is simply not distracted enough. The effects of my cultural solitude arrive in massive waves. I crave a conversation in English as though it were a dependent drug withdrawn from my system. I suddenly feel anxious and decide to journal, but my loneliness goes beyond that of my pen. Instead, I head out for a capricious walk. I arrive home several hours later in a taxi with a puppy.

November 2009: I walk across the street toward the vibrating club beats and pull up a stool at a packed pub. I order a drink and find comfort as I blend into the anonymous crowd. It’s not long before the man next to me offers to buy drinks. At first I decline, but I eventually accept. I hear him mutter something in Spanish to the bartender. Within moments, a round appears as we begin to chat.

He offers to order me another drink but sees I’m still nursing the first one he bought. He has another and then another before he thanks me and says a polite good-bye. Once he leaves, I request the one-drink bar tab I started. The bartender hands me a bill for $72 USD. I look at him with raised brows. He explains in English, “your friend say you buy for both.”

February 2010: Someone once told me “if you can survive Cancun for a year, you’ll be fine.” I secretly have my doubts about the one-year rule and the likeliness of me ever being fine again. My mind is convulsing in thoughts that have no connection to one another. I’m tired of feeling lost and unsure of everything. I remind myself that perseverance is the only lifeline I have.

May 2010: I’ve been here nearly a year and need to find another place to live. This is my first rainy season and the old house leaks like a sieve. The drips in the kitchen do not bother me as much as the steady stream above my makeshift office.

I tolerate the water intrusions because the large yard is ideal for the two dogs I’ve adopted, however, I admit the central location is getting to me. I hear voices again and look out my living room window. On the other side of my barred barrier are two questionable characters exchanging repeated handshakes with a fully uniformed man. I let the blinds quietly collapse between my fingers as I wait another 30 minutes before heading out for my morning run.

December 2010: After exploiting the language skills of a local acquaintance, a moving truck is finally on its way. After a year and a half, the dogs and I are leaving the old sieve for a brand new house in the suburbs of Playa del Carmen, a town about an hour south of Cancun. The new house comes with the standard equipment of a few light bulbs and a single house key. I will find a local ferretería to buy toilet seats after the moving truck leaves. I will also need to buy material so I can fence the back yard.

April 2011: After spending several months touching up the new house, the dogs and I are finally settled. Our new home is ideal as we revel in having both a front and a back yard, one without an infected cisterna. This time our water tank is located neatly on the roof in an enclosed housing that is painted to blend in.

There are 30 cookie-cutter houses on each side of our street, most of which still stand unoccupied. Although the houses are identical in appearance, several of the residents who do already live here have outlined their front yards with various greenery and trees. What a tasteful way to create a boundary. Intensive gardening has become my new hobby.

Our quiet location in the suburbs means no vibrating club beats, while the private 24-hour security puts an end to questionable characters. Private security also eliminates the need for imprisoning concrete walls. The bright white glare that reflects off each freshly painted house is refreshing. So is opening my front door to the view of 30 manicured lawns.

I often enjoy our street’s private pool while the neighborhood dogs take advantage of the thickly treed park that marks its end. As the months pass by, the empty houses welcome new residents and become filled with life. I enjoy a morning coffee on my front patio greeting neighbors as they pass by with a kind, “Buenos dias Marlo”. Unlike Cancun, my neighbors here have acknowledged my existence, which means I have finally made some friends.

August 2012: The relentless heat is likely to blame for the slow construction process going on behind my new community. It’s during the morning runs when I sometimes hear “Oye! Weta!” shouted in my direction to which I reply with an intentionally uninviting face, “Oye! Baboso!” It ends their desire to comment further and leaves me smiling as I carry on to enjoy the tranquility of running through the jungle trails with my dogs.

June 2013: Work comes and goes, but it is less stressful now that I have my own Internet account. Over the past few years, I have been successful at creating a professional freelance writing portfolio, something I only dreamed about during what I’ve come to refer to as my “other life”. When I look back, it feels like an entire lifetime ago that I landed at Terminal 3 dragging my world behind me.

I am a writer and I am home.