Living in a Free Country

I get mail saying, Fred, what’s with this expat thing? Sounds interesting. But what do you do all day? What is it like down there in Guadalahorror, or whatever strange and doubtless hazardous oddly-diseased third-world fleshpot you infest? Who do you hang with? Can you breathe the air? Do they have food in Mexico? Girls? Come on, spit it.

(I also get mail telling me that I’m boring and stop talking about this stuff. This is irrational. Other people think I’m boring? How about me? I’ve been with me uninterruptedly for decades. Every morning I wake up and there I am. There’s no escape. Maybe a little sympathy?)

Anyway, until recently I lived in Ajijic, once a picturesque village on Lake Chapala with wild burros and a Mexican feel, now a dismal traffic jam and breeding ground for malls, though still on Lake Chapala. Ajijic has more gringos than America has Mexicans. (You may not believe me. I don’t either. But I’m probably close.)

Wanting to live in Mexico, I moved to Guad with Violeta, who constitutes for me the chief evidence that the human race may at times inadvertently be worthwhile. She is a bright and extraordinarily decent woman of Jewish extraction out of 1493, though her family have been Catholic for five centuries. In the city we found a place near Fort Terror. This is the US consulate, which looks like Dugout Doug’s bunker in The Fall of Corregidor. Nobody else’s does. If I were a country I think I’d try being agreeable. But I’m not a country.

We have a three-bedroom place with lots of light for $380, which is a bunch because it’s close to the Main Redoubt. The neighborhood is hagridden with bars, restaurants, and bookstores. It’s tough. Some have stuff in English and you can find anything you want in Spanish, which is the national language except in Ajijic. Gold’s Gym is several blocks up Vallarta. A few blocks in the other direction on Lopez Cotilla is the Expiatorio, a vast solemn church with hotdog stands outside for late-night grazing.

What do expats do? Well, I’m not sure. Lots of them wake up, incite the computer, and take the world’s temperature. I do, for example. Guad has 512 kbps broadband for about $40 a month, more if you want it. Computers are the connection to the planetary ganglia for lots of us, useful for news, banking, email, research, and stealing music. I use mine for VOIP telephone, as do many folk. I recently got the BBC Shakespeare on DVD and watch it on my laptop. Better living through circuitry.

Expatting is for people who used to be called self-sufficient, though now they seem to be “inner-directed.” Alternatively is it for drunks. The self-sufficient never have enough time; the drunks are plagued by too much. The former occupy themselves in the aforementioned ways, or ride, build dune-buggies, take up photography, fly ultralights, whatever. The latter spend their time perched on bar stools. They are not bad people, most of them seldom actually drunk, but the bar becomes the center of social life. It is especially common among single men.

Mostly I guess Violeta and I don’t do much. We read, listen to music, dance in the living room, go to the mildly pretentious open-walled bistro sort of joint nearby for a beer and a complicated cheese plate we like. I write so that misguided editors will send me money. She teaches Spanish to Americans; she doesn’t speak English, which means they have a chance of learning. She’s for serious students.

Travel always appeals. I just returned from Argentina, a magnificent country. Violeta recently got her passport, which takes a day here. I’d like to take her to Washington to meet friends, but I’m not going to have her groped by the Border Nazis, so we’ll probably go to Italy instead.

One night a few weeks back we went to Jocotopec, also on Lake Chapala, for the fiesta for the town’s patron saint. Every town in Mexico has a plaza, which doesn’t yet mean a place where corporate has sited a Wal-Mart, with a central gazebo that serves as a bandstand, and benches, and trees with the trunks painted white so caterpillars won’t eat them.

Every few weeks Mexicans remember some reason for having a fiesta. The whole ever-lovin’ town turns out — everybody, babies on dad’s head, grandmothers barely able to walk, and everyone between. Several bands consisting entirely of brass instruments (well, almost) try to override each other in competitive cacophony. A hundred puestos, little stands, pop up to sell tacos, enchiladas, trinkets, clothes, beer, plates, shoes. It’s like a Superbowl riot without the organization. Crossing the plaza is a twenty-minute operation. You can’t hear over the racket. A cahuamba, which looks like maybe a 32-ounce beer, is a tad under a dollar.

Then they burn the fireworks, which Mexicans flat love. These are on wickerwork towers a couple of storeys high. There is a tremendous swooshing and hissing and a hellish glow and everybody has a splendid time. It would all be illegal in the US — the beer, the fireworks, the free-lance skyrockets, a religious festival, and especially having a good time. Violeta thinks it’s normal. As a recovering Northern European, I’m just delighted.

Guad is not a particularly international city, though occasionally you bump into furners. The Alliance Francaise is around the corner and I think about doing French conversation. My college French left me able to grind my way through de Tocqueville but unable to ask for a glass of water. The French have a short-man’s complex. I recently ran into a Frenchman who lectured me on the prowess of the Napoleonic armies, their last winning team. (“Cry havoc, and let slip the Frogs of yore,” I thought.) (Ok, ok.) Still, it’s a pleasant place to live.

Violeta has a daughter of thirteen, Natalia. The child combines a fine mind with the personality of the Wehrmacht in the course of a bad hangover. This is normal for girls in adolescence. In a country where few read, she does little else. The kid would read the Brooklyn phone book in Arabic. I found that she liked Tolkien but couldn’t afford the books. I bought the Spanish translation, which is excellent, and left it on the dining-room table. Thirty seconds later, it was gone. So was Natalia.

Any child who eats dinner with a book in front of her face while groping at her plate with a fork is my kind of kid.

That’s all I’ve got to report.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.