Life and Death Decisions – Lena and Brian

A major motivation for moving to Sayulita was access to amazing beaches. Our favorite and the quietest is called Playa de Los Muertos, which translates to {Beach of the Dead}. This has nothing to do with anything bad happening at the beach itself, but rather that the entrance is located adjacent to a cemetery. At four years old, death is a concept Bug is beginning to contemplate. The first time we walked to the beach, he burst into tears after learning that dead people laid within the elevated concrete graves. He now loves riding in the golf cart over the jungle dirt track, but he’s still is a little unsure about the interred neighbors we pass on the way to the playa. We have offered to stop and explore the colorfully decorated site, but both boys are hesitant. Bug verbalizes his fears of death. He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to live to be 100. He is afraid of shadows that could be ghosts. But he does want to walk like a skeleton someday. I wonder if this has anything to do with Héctor in the movie Coco?

Charro {cowboy} on a dancing horse in the Día De Los Muertos parade.

Celebrating Día De Los Muertos showed the kids a different approach to death. Leading up to the three day festival, we did watch Coco again (it was too scary this summer) and found many similarities in Sayulita. They loved all the skeleton statues and painted faces. They loved the alebrije {spirit animal} crouched on top of an ambulance in the parade. And the dancing horses (except when mommy dropped a piece of candy that got squished by a hoof. Oops.) They loved the marigold-covered tunnel in the plaza that represented crossing over, which was shown as a bridge in the movie. They loved the curlicues on charro costumes, booming tubas and engraved guitars. They loved the street food and energetic playmates zipping around the mayhem.

Reactions to death vary greatly across cultures – from stark, solemn funerals in the US to the celebratory Famadihana {turning the bones} in Madagascar where ancestors remains are exhumed. In Mexico, Día De Los Muertos is a multi-day festival for remembering and celebrating deceased loves ones. Although adjacent to Halloween, it is fundamentally very different. We encountered devoutly Catholic Mexicans who were offended by the ghoulishness and dark tone of Halloween. Outside religion, many villagers in Sayulita rightfully defend the indigenous cultural roots and sacredness of Día de Los Muertos. Nonetheless, scary costumes and trick-or-treating have seeped into Mexico and skulls have become quite kitsch in the U.S. as a result of global popular culture and transmigration across the northern border. The international school in Sayulita is very careful to honor both traditions.

Our own cultural tradition for Halloween with a twist – pumpkins carved as a vampire, spider, alien, and cyclops.

As a hub for expat culture, the biggest Halloween event is at the school. This was the first year our kids really understood Halloween and the whole costume thing. We spent time leading up to the event discussing all the pretending. They practiced wearing costumes and needed reassurance that friendly faces hid behind scary masks. We watched videos of face painting to see how people could look like monsters. We were proud of Bug that he agreed to wear a costume this year because last year he completely refused. Brian was even able to take them through the haunted house put on by the secondary students, although they still talk about how frightening it was. After ample treats and games, the party ended in time to head to the plaza to launch the Día de Los Muertos Festival. Along the way, children stopped at local businesses to trick-or-treat, but it was very low key (fine with us, less candy). Also, instead of spiderwebs, witches and bats, Sayulita was decorated in colorful Ojos de Dios {Eyes of God}, papel picado {colorful flags}, and elaborate alters called ofrendas. The only shared decoration was skeletons. But even the skeletons in Mexico have more personality with distinctive shapes, elaborate outfits, and detailed biographies.

A key aspect of the festival was the ofrendas built around the plaza, at businesses and in private homes. The tiered shrines displayed photos, clothes and favorite foods of the deceased, and they were decorated with Catholic symbols, marigolds, skulls, and candles. The children’s school built one for a teacher who died several year ago. It was a moving experience to participate in that, even in our very small way of placing marigolds.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react.”

Charles R. Swindoll

Mexicans choose celebration. Of course they are devastated when their loved ones die. All humans feel that. But they choose not to make it taboo. The choose to remember. They choose to let the dead live again through laughter and memories. They remember people in their entirety, which includes and surpasses the moment of death. It was an honor to share in that experience this year.

Blending of indigenous and Catholic belies, as a priest offered blessings at the end of the symbolic tunnel.

For us and our current situation, losing a job is so small. But the lesson is the same. Do we choose to mourn the broken dream? Or do we choose to celebrate everything we’ve gained along this journey? The bigger picture needs time to reveal itself, but we are working on putting the pieces together in a new way and moving forward. The humor and cheekiness of this holiday speaks to our dry sarcasm. Death is painful? Dress up as a skeleton. Life sucks? Go to the beach.

“Todos somos calaveras.” {We are all skeletons.}

José Guadalupe Posada

Celebrating Halloween and then Dia De Los Muertos validated so much about being expats and raising third culture kids (TCKs). We value the traditions that belong to our own culture – the small ways of understanding what it means to be “American” (which is a contentious term in Latin America anyhow because members of both continents consider themselves American) – while simultaneously embracing our identity as global citizens. We immerse ourselves in other cultures to develop empathy, connect with people who appear different but fundamentally aren’t, and ultimately learn more deeply about who we are and why. There are so many perspectives and exploring them truly enriches our lives.

Change Of Course – Lena and Brian

We have spent the last decade intentionally building our careers as international educators. Gaining experiences with various curriculum, developing departments and programs, and financing professional development opportunities. The goal has always been to land a stable position at an established school that shares our pedagogical beliefs. We would grow as professionals and our children would receive a fantastic education in a nurturing community. This past winter, we shelled out thousands of dollars to fly to London for a week and engage in the highly competitive meat market/job fair for international educators. The investment worked in our favor, as we walked away with our dream jobs. Champagne on the flight home. Months of excitement and preparing our kids for the upcoming transition. 

Ready for interviews. Would you hire us?

It would be an understatement to say that wrapping up the school year, packing up our lives, and managing all the paperwork of moving to a new country were stressful. Once we arrived “home” in the US, where we planned to visit family for the summer, we were finally able to relax. Although we had no news about our pending visas, we were not concerned. We’d heard stories about them being approved at the last minute. It had never crossed our minds that we wouldn’t be hopping on a plane in a few short weeks to put down roots in our new country, settle into our new jobs, and enroll our children in their new school.

Until we got the email. Our visas were not going to be approved. Not just ours but the majority of the other new hires, as well. The school was releasing us from our contracts. We were in a state of shock. How could this be happening? What were we going to do now? Were there any jobs still available at the end of July? Or ones that were a good fit for us professionally, financially, and as a family? We had many deep discussions about our path forward. We had wanted to settle somewhere for the long term. Four moves in ten years had taken its toll, and we truly wanted the boys to have a community of relatively settled third culture kids. 

The idea of taking a year off had been circulating through our lives for quite some time. Several colleagues with families had recently begun or were planning to embark on carefully budgeted and well planned gap years. However, we had decided that this wasn’t right for us. Our life was already full of adventure and travel. Of course, life often gives you exactly what you have not asked for. The idea of moving to Mexico came up early in our decision-making, but was always the second option. We spent the week after losing our contracts scrambling to find last-minute jobs. 

Finally, a solid prospect came through. But we both had doubts. As the kids played happily with their grandparents, we stepped outside to clear our heads. We decided to walk through the city in silence. For two blocks, we convinced ourselves that we were accepting the job offer and allowed all the thoughts and feelings to bubble up. For the next two blocks we convinced ourselves that we were halting the job search and moving to Mexico. Finding ourselves at a bar, we ducked in to reflect over a pint or two. Still not talking, Lena wrote down her reflections on the exercise. Then Brian had his go. As we drained the second pint, we arrived at the realization that although we had chosen not to pursue a year off, it was actually the best option.

We left China with 13 suitcases and a shipment of 63 boxes. Then we walked in the door of Lena’s parents house to find a mountain of Amazon and Zappos orders – winter parkas and snow boots – that we had meticulously chosen for our new job in northern Europe. Once we decided to head to tropical Mexico with as little stuff as possible, the excess was shoved into suitcases that Lena’s family graciously agreed to store for us. Then we worked for days sorting, deciding and purging our China detritus and got down to 3 suitcases (and a couple small backpacks). With a limited budget, we bought our flights with airline miles that we had been saving for years and began our transition from a fancy life of excess to a much simpler life focusing on what truly matters – experiences and each other.