Sitting with my wife and dogs on the white sand beach in the shade of our private, palm-thatched enclosure open to the sea, I scanned the horizon. Clear, flat, translucent water alternating in countless shades of turquoise extended first to where several very small islands beckoned a few hundred yards offshore, then to the endless horizon. It was a gentle 80 degrees and there was a slight breeze. Only one other family, about 50 yards away, shared this paradise on the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, which we had paid the equivalent of $3 to enter. Lazily considering the events of the last month, my thoughts were interrupted by a man who rode up in a dune buggy asking if we wanted to buy some shrimp for lunch, for about $2.
How did we get to this place?
If you’re a Baby Boomer raised in the U.S. or Canada, there’s a pretty good chance you and I have a lot in common. Most likely, growing up, we shared the same general outlook on life, watched The Beverly Hillbillies, played outside and ate sugary breakfast cereals. With some variation, we progressed through common experiences at school, jobs, marriage(s) and perhaps kids, and most of us went on to live fairly normative lives to where we are now—middle-aged.
About two years ago, my wife and I stopped traveling this well-trod path and instead ventured forth onto one quite different. We sold our home in Arizona, sold, gave away or put into storage all our household goods that wouldn’t fit into a large, white van, and with our two dogs, embarked on a drive through Mexico, living for about six weeks each at several of the most popular expat areas.
Here’s why we did it. Perhaps some of our reasons resonate with you.
To Have Experiences Before It Was Too Late
I have always had at least a vague idea of what I wanted to experience in life, but hadn’t yet. You probably have your own list swimming around in your head, too. Your list may include a house on the beach, working for a meaningful charity, learning to play jazz piano, painting or sailing. Everyone’s list is different.
For me, as I reached middle-age, it became increasingly clear that, if I waited too long, I may never be able to do many of the things on my list. My personal awakening came into sharper focus as my sports-related injuries kept piling up and it became impossible to deny that, physically, an increasing number of activities were being closed to me forever.
At the same time, like you, I had friends our age who had suffered some pretty bad illnesses that would keep them from ever doing some of the things on their list. A few had even died. These friends had waited too long. One day too late is one day too late. The last thing I wanted was to one day look back and regret never doing the things I wanted to but no longer could. As some of my friends’ experiences displayed in stark relief, life can be completely unforgiving in that way.
To Test If We Could Achieve A Lower Cost Of Living
Some of us have done so well financially that money is absolutely no issue. For the remaining 97.5% of us (a percentage I just picked out of the air), even those of us upper-middle class, this is not the case. If you’re in this overall 97.5%, like me, you may welcome the possibility of what I was led to believe could be achieved by living in Mexico— “twice the lifestyle at half the cost.”
Was this just a fantasy cooked up by unscrupulous marketers, or was it possible? If it were possible, achieving it would create an inflection point that would radically alter the trajectory of my wife and my lives for the better. How could we not want to know the answer?
To Get Out Of The Bubble
As we get into our 50s, 60s, and beyond, it is pretty natural to get grooved in, doing routine things, having routine thoughts and routine experiences with the same people, and as a group coming to basically the same conclusions directing our routine lives.
Has it ever occurred to you that you may be wrong, or at least that there are other valid and maybe even better ways to live and experience life? For example, many of the people we would meet in Mexico would have had very different experiences than my wife and me, live in a different culture, and come to different conclusions and values. I wanted to test my conclusions against a different reality, all in the hopes of broadening my understanding, becoming a better person, and perhaps even gaining some wisdom.
Doing so would be much easier on the road, in a different country, experiencing different things, among people of sometimes radically different socio-economic status, for example, people we would meet living in a Mexican fishing village who had one-tenth the disposable income as us. How could we not emerge from this experience better than when we started?
To Have Fun, An Adventure, Gain New Competencies, Experience New And Unpredictable Things
Going on a cruise can be fine, taking the tour to a well-known tourist destination can be OK, and enjoying a break at an all-inclusive resort can be pretty awesome for the week you indulge, but what gets your senses really awakened and what you remember the longest afterward is experiencing something different. And what was even better about our adventure was the element of unpredictability– we didn’t know what those different things we would experience would be.
We did not plan to intentionally rough it. What plan we did have was to spend up to a year staying in as many varied climates, geographies and living conditions as possible that Baby Boomers like us would potentially enjoy, spending roughly six weeks in each place.
Knowing only extremely rudimentary Spanish, we planned to cross the California border into Baja, drive to a small village between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, take the ferry to near Puerto Vallarta, then into the highlands to the well-known expat locales of Lake Chapala (Ajijic) and San Miguel de Allende, down to the Yucatan to Merida and Quintana Roo (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, etc.) all the way to the border with Belize. From there, we would decide what to do next.
How could we not have a great time? About 95% of our trip was to places we had never been to and we would put ourselves into situations that would require moderately difficult but not life-threatening decisions and behavior that would require us to learn new skills. While we assumed it would be a bit stressful at times, we fully expected to master what we needed to… and with that mastery, gain new competence and confidence.
Because It’s Better Than The Alternative
Comparing our plan to a typical vacation, where we would fly in (expensive), pay $250 per night, leave in six days, have only tourist experiences and then fly out (expensive again), in contrast, we would drive (cheaper and much more interesting), stay at or near the same fabulous places for around $50 per night, but have the time to relax, immerse, and really get to know the people and places where we were staying and then mosey inexpensively onto the next adventure.
Be honest. Will your next year in the place you’re in now be much different than your previous year? If we stayed in Arizona, ours wouldn’t have been, either. We didn’t need another re-do, especially given that doing so would consume yet another year of our lives.
We also figured, “What was the worst that could happen?” If it didn’t work out, we could always come back. And if we did come back, how could we not be more interesting, well-rounded, well-adjusted, happier people afterward?
After finishing our shrimp on that Baja beach, my mind drifted back just a few weeks earlier, when, with the van fully packed and the dogs inside, my wife and I climbed into our vehicle, put it into reverse, and backed out of the driveway of what was just then our old home in Arizona. Coming to a full stop in the street, we had taken one last look at our otherwise predictable life. Then, shifting into drive, we went forward to start our semi-planned adventure.
(You can read our full series of adventures here.)
So now you have our reasons. Perhaps some make sense to you. If so, you’ll be interested to know how it all turned out. I’ll share that with you in the next series of articles.
I relate the experiences of my wife, dogs, and me living abroad.
I created BestPlacesInTheWorldToRetire.com because I couldn’t find what I wanted—credible information from a diverse group of knowledgeable people about retiring abroad. Several years later, our site has more than 600 contributors, 10,000 answers, 300 stories, two eBooks and six research studies, all about life abroad. In 2016, my wife and I decided to try living abroad ourselves; selling, giving away, or putting into storage anything that wouldn’t fit into a large, white van, in which we and our two dogs toured the best-known expat areas in Mexico, staying in vacation homes along the way, all while knowing very little Spanish. More recently, I created Best Mexico Movers. It is from this background and perspective that I write for you about life and retirement abroad. I hope you enjoy it.