I Just Want To Go Home – Lena and Brian

“I just want to go home!” Bug sobbed recently as we cuddled his sad little body. We looked at each other over his head, not knowing how to respond. Which home did he mean? Was it China, Mexico, the US, or perhaps even Mozambique?

It had been a difficult decision to return to the US and leave our new life in Sayulita once the pandemic finally reached Mexico. We were just starting to deepen connections and melt into the contours of our lives. However, the truth is the life we loved ended with the quarantine. Before official mandates in Mexico, we chose to social-distance alongside our families in California and Arizona, so the kids had not been to school or played with friends for many weeks. We weren’t going to restaurants or running into friends around town.

Although Sayulita did not officially have any COVID19 cases at that time and the Mexican government was slow to implement social distancing measures, our town was thankfully locked down by The Gavilanes Vigilantes, a group of local citizens who somewhat officially maintain the peace. Energy was positive but uncertain. We were helping to feed families in need and financially support local businesses. We bonded with other isolated expat families through WhatsApp groups. And we escaped to the jungle for magical hikes to secluded beaches. However, the reality of the pandemic began to feel more real as beaches were closed, state checkpoints were set up between Nayarit and Jalisco, international borders closed, and flights were canceled. We started to become concerned about how and when we would be able to get home and onward to Uzbekistan. When the virus first appeared, we watched our international teaching friends get stranded in Asia. With the long game in mind, we knew we could not get stuck in Mexico. We’d already lost one job this year and couldn’t afford to lose another.

Our original plan had been to drive home because we had accumulated stuff and needed a car in the US. But both the states of Nayarit and Sinaloa had closed hotels, and we were concerned about safety. Although we wanted to avoid flying – especially because the airport in Puerto Vallarta had recently been flooded with tourists and expats rushing to get home before travel restrictions – we were running out of time. Within a week, we sold our car, golf cart, kitchen appliances, camping gear, and donated tons of toys and clothes. It was a mad dash to pack and catch the only remaining flight to Phoenix (which was canceled the following week). 

Masked and doused in hand sanitizer, we boarded a nearly empty flight. Including the four of us, there was a grand total of 9 passengers on the plane. We were nervous about entering the US after all the hype, but there were no lines at Customs, no questions, no temperature checks, no interview about quarantine. The airport was dark and deserted, and we wandered around a bit looking for the parking garage where Brian’s mom had left us her car. Due to health concerns in Brian’s family, there really wasn’t any point staying in Phoenix because we couldn’t interact with anyone even after our initial quarantine. Since his family wouldn’t be leaving their homes any time in the near future, they very generously lent us a car. 

Upon finding the car and hidden key, we had our first wardrobe change and began the Tetris game of cramming our stuff – including two huge carseats – into the tiny vehicle. It took an hour. Then we found the SIM cards Mimi had left for us and spent twenty minutes on the phone with T-Mobile so we could be in communication and access maps while driving to San Francisco. When it was finally time to get on the road, Bug and Noodle were extremely unpleased with us. It only slightly had something to do with us breaking Noodle’s toy guitar during the luggage transition. Thankfully, Mimi had packed us a kit, so we pumped the kids full of peanut butter sandwiches and gold fish. Welcome to America. 

Despite the risk of staying in a hotel, we knew the kids couldn’t do the drive in one push. We decided to break up the twelve hours to San Francisco with a stopover in Palm Springs. Not the fashionable getaway one might imagine. A very short stay limited to the car and the hotel room. So after another wardrobe change, we brandished Bug and Noodle with disinfectant wipes (thanks again to Mimi’s kit) and set them loose. Of course Lena was right behind double wiping door knobs, toilet handles and remote controls. But we couldn’t wipe the sheets or the couch. Everything we touched felt like a potential exposure and we were on edge.

Driving through the Sierras the next morning was a special reprieve as they were covered in colorful swaths of wildflowers and capped with snow. Although far away on peaks, the kids were excited to to see snow for the first time and inundated us with questions about the “snow gear” they would need to climb to the summits. Little did they know that their parents had been fantasizing about a long term plan to section hike the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail, a through hike from Mexico to Canada that paralleled some of our driving route) as a family someday. Similar to those hiking in the mountains alongside us, we survived the road trip on junk food and stopped occasionally to run around in fields and attend to nature calls outside the confines of public toilets. As the roads were empty except for trucks fulfilling the frenzy of online orders (which we would shortly contribute to), we made excellent time.

Our next stop on the Thomsper Displaced Tour of 2019-2020 was Lena’s sister’s house in San Francisco. She was not there as her clan was riding out the shelter-in-place restrictions in the isolated winter wonderland of Montana. This meant we had their house to ourselves for a month. The space was kid-friendly, well-stocked and full of natural light. It was also wonderful to just leave the back door open for the kids to run free in the fenced backyard while we were strictly quarantining for our first 14 days back. Socially distanced stoop visits worked well for Lena and Bug’s birthday parties, as we sat at the top of the stairs and guests stayed at the bottom. And we regularly took advantage of urban hikes and open green spaces throughout the city. 

Sadly, we had to relocate again when Tía and family returned. It was decided that two families with four toddlers and one on the way (not ours!) was just a tad too much. It was bittersweet to move 45 minutes away from family and our stoop visits, but we are quickly adjusting to dreamy suburban life in Marin County. After some adjustments to make the space more kid-friendly and copious cuddles as the boys acclimated to yet another home that wasn’t theirs, they have grown to love deer sightings in the large backyard, bike riding on the quiet streets, and hiking through the magical forests that surround us. Treks into town for gelato are also a plus.

This year has been quite the ride. Failed move to Moscow. Scrambling to figure out where we were going to spend our year on not off. Locking down and relocating internationally during a global pandemic. Staying in two different houses once we returned to the US. And waiting to find out when we will be able to get to Uzbekistan. We have learned and relearned about the importance of resilience and focusing on the blessings in the present. But we have also realized how desperately our children are needing a place to call “home.” This is the endless dilemma of the expat life.

The Art of Starting Over – Lena and Brian

As international educators, we are well-versed in moving to new countries and starting a life from scratch. The idea of packing our bags and flying off into the unknown is nothing new. In truth, we were once addicted to it. However, it takes a huge physical and emotional toll to transition, and we were looking forward to putting down roots until the kids finished elementary school.

Moving to Mexico has been a dream of Lena’s for decades. But this was bittersweet. It wasn’t a move we had planned. We weren’t heading to new jobs. No one was waiting for us. No principal picking us up from the airport or new colleagues checking to see if we needed anything. No welcome picnic or tour of our new city. And certainly no settling in allowance. 

We arrived in Sayulita in an emotional fog with some vague expectations and a lot of questions. Where would we live? Would we be able to enroll the kids in school? How would we get ourselves around town or into the city? When would we start making friends?

The nervousness of not having answers was tempered slightly by the fact that we are familiar with Mexico. Lena spent summers during university conducting anthropological research and backpacking around the country. We even got married down the highway in Puerto Vallarta. Our challenges were softened by her ability to speak (rusty) Spanish and, as she says, Brian’s willingness to “learn with enthusiasm.” With minimal language distance, positive feedback from native speakers, and the immediate need to set up our life – this felt way more surmountable than previous experiences learning to communicate (with varying degrees of effectiveness) in Arabic, Vietnamese or Mandarin. 

Essential needs were narrowed down to the top three: a house, a school, and transportation. Further down on the list were food and friends (true sustenance). Eating was not an issue, as we could buy amazing street food, tortillas hot off the press, and fresh fruits and veggies for unbelievably cheap prices. And we knew friendships would develop once we were more settled. 

First step: House 

During our furious 48 hours of research prior to moving to Mexico, we uncovered a fascinating subculture of nomad families who trek around the world with admirable success. But we were hesitant. First, we were still uncertain about our budget. And second, during previous moves, the kids struggled much more than we anticipated. We had been bouncing around the US for weeks, sleeping on family members’ couches and living out of suitcases. Although we wanted to explore this amazing country, we knew that establishing a “home” was important. 

Most international schools either provide housing or a stipend, and some even assist with the search. Therefore, our first independent challenge was finding a last minute, long term rental in a tourist-centered beach town. We arrived during the “off season” when many businesses were closed and home owners were away. Nor could we locate any actual community bulletin boards. Plenty of short term rentals could be found through websites like AirBnB and SayulitaLife, but renting one of those for a year would have been prohibitively expensive. 

Our two-pronged strategy involved word-of-mouth and Facebook. Every time we met someone new on the street, at a restaurant, or in the park, we mentioned that we were looking for a place. Also, we got some leads by posting a plea on the community Facebook page. Unfortunately, we soon realized that Sayulita was going to be way more expensive than we initially thought. After looking at some very small and dark apartments in our price range, we bumped up our budget and got lucky. A single family house with a verdant garden, mountain views, and most importantly air conditioning in the bedrooms. It is round with a thatched roof, which reminds us of places we stayed in southern Africa. And it even has a name! Although a bit of a fixer upper, we hadn’t seen anything nearly as spacious or bright.

Signing a year lease was slightly scary, but it also released so much stress about immediate plans. Our luck and choice were reaffirmed after meeting several other recently-arrived expat families who couldn’t find long term places and will have to move around throughout the year. The trauma of our recent packing-and-moving spectacles is too raw. If we hadn’t found our house, we probably would have scrapped Sayulita and settled somewhere else.

Second step: School

School was a huge factor in our decision-making. We looked at a few other expat-friendly locations (San Miguel de Allende and Merida) but were not impressed by the schools. We also stumbled into the idea of unschooling and world schooling during our research blitz. Very intriguing but perhaps not what our toddlers needed. Definitely a tabled discussion for a future adventure. Despite debates about the institution, we felt strongly that Bug and Noodle needed to be in an actual school. And it needed to be a school that we believed in.

We shelled out tons of money in China for them to attend school and weren’t about to let go of that principle now. Creating protégées is not the motivation. What drives our conviction is the importance of socialization and the power of play. The kids needed to interact with peers, develop social-emotional skills, and engage in a stimulating environment. Plus, they were desperate for a routine. And mommy and daddy were desperate for time to quietly sit in a restaurant, swim without stress, and actually get some work done. Essentially, we all just needed space and time to grow beyond our tight-knit unit.

Another blessing of this year ON not off is that we can explore a completely different type of school than is our norm. As mentioned previously, we were excited about Costa Verde International School. The very small, low-stress, highly active vibe is exactly what we need. Bug and Noodle have 9 students in their joint 3-4 year old class. Their teachers are wonderfully child-centered in their approach. We have no doubt that they truly know our children as individuals and strive to meet their social-emotional, psychological, intellectual and linguistic needs. Moreover, the curriculum and community population is inclusively bilingual and 40% of the students are locals on scholarship. This is a place that is deeply committed to its community in terms of culture, language, and the environment. The sustainability focus is so compelling because this is something we are consciously modeling and always improving on as teachers and parents.

Third step: Transportation

Summers in Sayulita are beyond hot and humid. We walked around town for the first few weeks, but finally hit our limit on shlepping withering children and sweating through three outfits each day. The most popular mode of transportation is golf cart. However, rental prices average around $50USD per day. Crazy expensive. After finding our house, which is located at the top of a steep hill, we decided to blow a huge portion of our annual budget buying a golf cart. We ended up finding an advertisement for Riviera Golf Carts, which builds custom carts meant to handle the hills and cobblestones here. While the price was steep, we ran the numbers and it worked out to less than half the weekly rental amount if we spread the cost over the year. And it’s electric, so we are proud to be environmentally friendly!

We were feeling confident in our decision until we needed to rent a car to get to Puerto Vallarta (golf carts can’t go on the highway). We found a highly rated, superbly honest rental company in nearby Bucerias called Gecko Car Rental. The owner, Adam, mentioned he was selling low mileage 2014 cars for the exact same price we just paid for the golf cart. We’ve come back to that missed opportunity while riding the local bus over potholes for 45 minutes into the city or cramming Costco loot into an expensive taxi. But a car in Sayulita, where spend the vast majority of our time, is not necessary. The town is tiny, parking is limited, and cleaning sand off golf cart vinyl is super easy.

The wrap up

The list was complete. We were officially Sayuleros. Easy peasy. Just don’t arrive in a New York state of mind. We have cut our teeth in countries where there is no urgency to get things done and communication is indirect at best. Inshallah {God Willing} was often heard in the Middle East and basically means that the deadline is loose. Vietnamese has many shades of yes, and yes can actually mean no. Amanhã {tomorrow} in Mozambique and the cognate mañana {tomorrow} in Mexico mean that something might happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. This as a fact we know intellectually. But it was a shock to the system after living in a massively entrepreneurial Chinese megacity that evolved at lightning speed. 

While trying to sort our lives in Sayulita, emails would dangle without response for days…or forever. When searching for a house or trying to get the kids into school, delays and evasive responses caused anxiety. We wanted to know what our life would be like, and we wanted to know now. Hot tip: phone calls, WhatsApp or showing up in person are most effective. It’s not that people don’t care. They do. Actually, many people have been extremely friendly and helpful. It’s just that the sense of time and the order of priorities are different. Families are more important than mobile phones. And people tend to trust that everything will work out in the end. Two lessons that have been very good for us to embrace.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about the golf cart remodel, the joys of our charming house, making friends, and all the delicious food!