I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center.
- Kurt Vonnegut
There's a sense of anticipation, of heightened expectation driving to my house. Situated on a rocky spine that resembles a dragon's tail, the little ranchito I rent is near the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Pacific. Almost vertical cliffs give way to roiling seas in the Bahia de Todo Santos on one side, and steep canyons yield to a tiny layer cake village on the other. Every time I make the drive to my place, I feel like I did when I was a kid driving to Provincetown, the last foothold on Cape Cod, holding my breath waiting to reach the edge of the world, only a little sliver of land between me and some far off unknown, an entire ocean between. The promise of adventure and mystery has always held me in its thrall, and here in Baja, it's no different. Next stop: China. If that doesn't give you a shivering appreciation for smallness and grandeur at once, nothing will.
To say that the geography here is stunning doesn't do it justice. The Baja peninsula remains some of the most gorgeous, raw terrain in North America, in many places like it was 50, 100, or even 300 years ago, save for a few paved roads and the advent of electricity. The gap between old and new Mexico is narrowing, which is a shame in many ways because it hasn't always been beneficial to the people here (a topic for an entire book, much less another blog post). But in the places where the country retains its former natural glory, nothing is more breathtaking.
I Could Be Anywhere...
Crepuscular fog banks race in from the ocean on both sides of the peninsula, like two lovers running to embrace after a long time apart. The clouds swirl and envelope the house, battening the sound of the birds and the seals barking on the rocks below. It could be stage fog from a machine in a play about London, so thick and viscid is it. When the bruma engulfs the desert meadow before me, and all I can hear is the steady drip, drip, drip of the mist from my metal roof, I could be in the foothills of the Himalayas, a coffee plantation in Ecuador, or the slopes of Mt. Kenya, as in the photo above, a tricky lookalike for the vista from my deck. I could be anywhere.
Anywhere is good sometimes. Like many people who land here from other places, I didn't entirely choose Mexico; it was more like a refuge from a storm (read about the cost of living in Baja, below). As I mentioned in my blog intro post, I was going through a reversal of fortune, and the churning waves of the economy snatched me up, chewed me to a bloody pulp, and spit me out on the sands of Baja. Maybe it was folly, or perhaps God or the Universe chose it for me, to give me the experiences I needed to write.
Sometimes when things are falling apart they may actually be falling into place.
- Author Unknown
Whatever the reason, there is sometimes a serious game of "let's pretend" going on in my head, where I imagine for a bit that I'm in one of the aforementioned exotic locales, or on an island in the Aegean or a cozy apartment in Montmartre. The anywhere-but-here diversion has been with me since childhood. I recently learned that when taken to extremes, this activity is called "maladaptive daydreaming." And here I thought it was just being a writer (cough).
Life in Baja can be an ordeal sometimes, and those of us who aren't on the Disney tour appreciate the ability to go somewhere else in our imaginations for a while. Coffee and escape. Coupled with my ability to tell a good tale and a more recent addiction to Pinterest, my daydreaming has been not only a survival mechanism but a way to fashion a sort of silk purse from the sow's ear of my lot. Some people say that you can't achieve anything great without envisioning it first, so perhaps my mental creativity has been the precursor to positive changes in my life.
The Cost of Living in Baja Will Astound You
One of the most frequent questions I get from non-expats is "Why Mexico?" While the anywhereness of the landscape is a nice bonus for a fantasist, it was the low cost of living which initially drew me here, and that's probably the most common reason two million American expats reside in Mexico, especially retirees who can't make ends meet on meager fixed incomes. My two-bedroom, two-bath house--complete with washer/dryer, fenced yard, horse stall, and fireplace--is only $475 US a month. I couldn't live in a garage in the barrio across the border for that.
All of the places I've rented since moving to Mexico have been super cheap, ranging in price from $400 to $800. Each place has had at least two bedrooms, and two were right on the beach (which has its own pluses and minuses). If you're willing to live in smaller digs or a little further from the water, like in the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja's unexpected gem of a wine region, you can pay as little as $150 per month in rent. (You can rent an HGTV-style palace or buy an enormous house here too, if that's your desire, although if you find yourself relishing this blog, I suspect it won't be.)
Utilities here are also cheap; I typically spend less than $20 each month for electricity and about $30 for high-speed wifi, which includes a free land line. My other expenses include:
- $20/month water
- $30/month propane for stove, hot water, and dryer
- $7/month unlimited mobile phone service
- $35/month entertainment (Netflix, streaming content, etc.)
- $20/month gasoline (working from home is a boon)
- $25/month trash collection (trash is a big issue here)
- $400/month food/eating out/pet supplies (although I've survived on much, much less)
- $170/month expat health insurance (catastrophic plan)
- $125/year Mexican car insurance
- $20/month estimated miscellaneous expenses
I don't go out much, although that's a bargain if I want to, and I don't have a TV, which cuts down on both cable and electricity costs and frees me up for other activities.
Labor in many sectors is notoriously inexpensive in Mexico. Construction, automotive repairs, dental work, plastic surgery, and spa/salon treatments are a particularly good deal in Baja. This part of the country has also become a mecca for alternative health treatments, like experimental cancer remedies and stem cell therapy, and these come with a low price tag too.
Baja represents not only a chance to retire affordably, but an opportunity for writers, artists, and entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and for people in more lucrative employment to either live like kings or sock money away for the future. There are tens of thousands of foreigners living in Mexico who enjoy a fine quality of life here while still living below the US poverty level. You can be the equivalent of poor in the States without being a starving artist.
If you're tired of a keeping-up-with-the-Jones's lifestyle or are sick of the looks you get every time you pull your beater Volvo into a gas station to fill up (SoCal, I'm lookin' at you), here's another great reason to explore living south of the border. About half of Mexico lives in poverty, so even if you're feeling poor by US or other first world standards, know that you're still pretty comfortable when compared to third world citizens. Walmart and Costco are where the rich Mexican folk go to shop near me in Ensenada.
We must talk about POVERTY because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.
- Dorothy Day
While there is a gap between the upper and lower classes that becomes more noticeable the longer you live in Baja, you probably won't experience the embarrassment or poverty shaming you might elsewhere if your means are slim here. No one will look at you funny if you ask for 100 pesos (about five bucks) of fuel at the pump. If you're stuck waiting until payday to buy firewood or replace a worn tire, you may well hear, "No problem, just pay me next week," once you become a regular, as I have. Nothing breeds compassion for insolvency, or should anyway, like experiencing your own financial peccadilloes.
Standing in line at the grocery store, you may witness one customer paying for the one in front of him, who has emptied his threadbare pockets of change and is still short of cash. There is a tacit pay-it-forward philosophy here, and the recipient of a bailout at the Calimax is likely to repeat the favor for someone else when he is in a position to do so. Poverty is sadly the norm here rather than the exception, and there is less inclination than in the States to try to cover up one's hardships with shiny leased cars and unfurnished McMansions.
Moving to Baja is Expat 101
Relocating to Baja California Norte is the perfect way to dip your toes in the pool of expatriate living. With the city of San Diego just on the other side of the border, you can easily keep your American health insurance, shop in your regular stores, and fly out of a major US airport when traveling. If there's a problem with your bank account, you're not stuck in some Latin American backwater unable to take care of it in person.
You can even live in Baja and work in the US (I did that for several years) or send your kids to private school there. Commuting and crossing the border are worthy of their own article, but it's doable, especially if you have a SENTRI pass giving you prescreened, rapid passage into the US to avoid this:
Yeah, that's the line at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing to get back into the US from Mexico. The front of the line. (We'll talk about that later.)
Baja's location makes the physical act of moving abroad from the US easier than most other places (you can import a reasonable amount of household goods and furniture), and in Baja, unlike mainland Mexico, you can drive a US-plated vehicle as long as it's insured in Mexico. Your dog or cat can accompany you with just basic shots and a veterinary health certificate. If you decide Baja's not for you, returning home isn't as arduous as leaving countries further afield.
Starting at the shallow end of the expat pool is a smart idea if you're thinking about moving somewhere more alien, like India or Thailand. Living in Baja can let you see how you fare with language barriers, masses of people, scarcity, a challenging infrastructure, and a culture that is more tolerant of noise and fewer personal boundaries. Do the border crossing at Tecate in stupifying 110+ degree heat with no air conditioning in your car, so your open windows are an invitation to vendors selling spiced mangos and to small children missing limbs, begging for coins when they should be in school. You'll swear you're in Mumbai or Rio. If it's discomfiting to you, maybe a resort community like Cabo would better suit you.
Looking for more reasons to consider a move to Baja? How about these:
- ability to learn Spanish by immersion
- nature lover's paradise--watch shorebirds, whales, and dolphins to your heart's content
- opportunity to enjoy authentic Mexican food and culture and to experience those "only in Mexico" moments
- abundance of outdoor sports, like fishing, surfing, and hiking
- inexpensive locally grown produce and fresh seafood
- low cost of keeping horses and miles of beautiful trails
- hundreds of gorgeous and free beaches, where you can bring your dog and enjoy alcohol without penalty
- warm climate for year-round outdoor exercise and gardening (without the lawn maintenance)
- different political climate (your neighbors aren't likely to be proponents of "the wall")
- minimal, casual wardrobe sufficient (say goodbye to those exorbitant dry cleaning bills and prune your closet)
Living Simply Is the Best Revenge
Don't shrug off the opportunity to pare down your life by moving to Baja. Are you the master of your current home, or does your house run you?
My old house in Wisconsin seems like a castle compared to the cozier places I've lived in since moving to Mexico. I was a slave to that house. Every week during the summer the lawn needed to be mowed. There was weeding and hedge trimming and watering. In the fall, the flower beds had to be mulched, the leaves raked, and the thousands of walnuts collected and put in a mound for the squirrels. And the snow shoveling! Nearly half the year is winter in Wisconsin. As much as I appreciated the change of seasons, and I still do miss them, I almost never had a weekend free.
There was always something that needed repairing--usually related to the harsh winters, like a broken furnace or loose shingles on the roof. If you've ever had ice damming, you'll understand how lovely it is to live in a place that never reaches freezing except in the mountains.
Indoors, I was equally tyrannized by the dust bunnies created by my forced air heating, I was always vacuuming, dusting, wiping, scrubbing, or repainting something. I'd get one bathroom updated, and the kitchen would need work. I never had the wherewithal or the time to get everything done at once. Maintaining my little late Victorian farmhouse had become a Sisyphean task akin to painting the Eiffel tower. All the things I wanted to do, like write a book, fell by the wayside.
Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.
- Leo Babauta
Moving to Baja forced, er... gave me the opportunity to get rid of most of my belongings and figure out what I really needed and appreciated. Just about everything in my house now has been carefully curated to reflect who I am and what I want to remember from my past. The big generic dining room set I argued with my ex about buying? Gone. The computer armoire and the entertainment center? Bye bye.
Sure, there are a few things that in retrospect I would like to have kept, and I'll write about grieving and loss in an upcoming post, but for the most part, I'm happy with one set of dishes, a few nice wine glasses, and plenty of bookshelves for my collection (which I also whittled down considerably). The houses I've rented have come with furniture I've needed, and I've filled in with a few chests and lamps from my old life and fun stuff from the secundas (flea markets) here in Mexico. I'm a firm believer that you need to leave a vacuum open in your life where you want new things to enter your experience.
Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.
- Mary Oliver
So, in the interest of keeping a bit of space free in my life, I've decided not to enable comments for my blog because I don't want the chore of having to moderate discussions, no matter how nice they may be. (Weebly no longer allows bloggers to disable their comments, so you'll see "0 Comments" next to all my posts.) To maintain my efficiency and still offer attention to readers, I'm setting up a Q & A service over on Patreon, so stay tuned, and I'll let you know when it's available.
Now, what are you going to do with that extra time that would have been spent leaving a comment here? Hopefully, you'll use it to investigate some far-flung locale you've always dreamed of visiting or at least how to get rid of some stuff in your life (physical or metaphysical) that's no longer serving you. A new you, the real you, might be just around the bend.