Ahhhh La Paz, My Adopted Home – The Stories of Seven Expats in La Paz



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By Susan Fogel

Once, while waiting at the airport for a friend, a man came out of the arrival area, stopped, took a deep breath, and said, “Ahhhh, La Paz.” What a lovely thing to see and hear. He carried only a backpack and was so confident and comfortable, I knew that he was either a frequent visitor or an expat coming home. I made up a story for him while I waited for my friend.

When expats meet others for the first time, they ask questions about how long the other has been here, where they are from, and why they came. Everyone has a story. Some are as simple as, deciding to retire in La Paz. Or being recruited to a job or escaping a bitter divorce. Americans make up the largest contingency of foreigners living in Mexico, closely followed by Canadians. In my 17 years here, I have met Israelis, Germans, French, Italians, Chinese, Tamil, British, and a host of other nationalities. Here are the stories of some people that have lived here for as little as 2 ½ years and as many as 22 years.

While many of my Silicon Valley friends saw my move to La Paz as an adventure. Lei Hung Tam is an adventurer. She set out 35 years ago from Hong Kong with only a back pack and her family’s disapproval. Her course: to find happiness and the meaning of life. Now that is an adventure. She says that she was brought to La Paz 20 years ago by Destiny. Paolo Coehlo wrote in the Alchemist “…And when you want something all the universe conspires to help you achieve…” And Tam says she believes those words.

How about the words from A Chorus Line, “Can’t forget, won’t regret, what I did for love…” Mary Arreola did it for love 22 years ago. She moved from the Central Valley of California, and says she has no regrets. “…Within a few weeks of visiting, I met the love of my life…” That was May, by December she was living here full time. There were no cell phones back then and no landlines. Mary had to go to town to use a phone service to call home. Her mother said she felt like there had been a death in the family.

All but one of our “expats in focus” had visited Mexico and La Paz before. Jaya Shree, a new bride travelled from India to Belgium where her husband completed his PhD. They were invited to come to La Paz to work. And so they came. Learning the language and understanding the cuisine were challenges for her. Jaya told this story: “We were invited to join our landlords on Christmas Eve. They served banuelos and hot chocolate. We had no idea what either of these things were. So, we poured the chocolate on the Banuelos. What a laugh that was!” Jaya and her husband now make a mean carne asada and know all the best taco places in town. They are both fluent in Spanish, as well as English.

Kathy and Steve Perkins had their toes in the water for years visiting La Paz. They told all their friends back in San Diego that they would be retiring to La Paz. Living here for only 2½ years, Kathy has made many friends, volunteers at a school, and even accompanied some students to Guadalajara for a national spelling bee.

Sometimes, people visit other areas in Mexico with an eye to retirement. But they end up here because of the livability of the climate and easy access to the US. Gary Brasfield spent years traveling from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta. But he knew that he needed a place to live that was not so hot and oppressively humid most of the year. “…On my flights from San Francisco to Vallarta, the plane flew over La Paz and I could see it from the window and became curious.” So, he booked a flight to La Paz for a vacation “…and I loved it after only 24 hours…” Brasfield visited many times over the course of 5 years and finally retired here permanently. “I have now known La Paz for 21 years,” he says.

When we moved here, as did so many others, we had expectations of our new Mexican lives. Some of those expectations were unrealistic, others came about. Sometimes, the dream of a Mexican life of leisure, sun, and margaritas just doesn’t happen. And this is what happened for my friend Juan (not his real name). Born of a Mexican father and American mother, Juan is a part of both countries, or they are a part of him. “…My father worked and lived in La Paz, I came here for summers and liked it.” Escaping a bitter divorce where Juan gave up the house, car, business, and 401k, Juan came to try to recapture the joy, freedom, and peace that he felt here as a kid. “It just did not happen as I expected. After over a decade in La Paz, I plan on returning to the United States.” Juan says that he loves the friendly, generous Mexican people, but he just could not build a life here. Sometimes, the dream is just not achievable.

Hailing from what I call alternatively the “Frozen North” or the “Tundra”, Beverly Durvin came from Calgary, Alberta (Canada) to La Paz. She and her husband Rick have been here 8 years, counting the one year spent as snowbirds. Like so many people visiting coastal areas of Mexico, La Paz made their short list and is now their permanent home. Claiming that she came to live a life of leisure and play, Durvin did find an opportunity to open a business that serves expats, snowbirds, and Mexicans. If you know her, then you know that living a life of leisure would bore her.

And has it all been chips and salsa? Not really. There is a period of adjustment. And some people never adjust. Bev says her biggest disappointment was the lack of cut flowers. She solved that issue by growing her own.

Brasfield says, “As a single guy and not a party animal-bar hopper, life can get boring. But Guadalajara is only a $100 RT plane ride away.” Brasfield says he has considered moving to Guadalajara more times than not. But he can visit easily. And he is clear that he is not talking about Ajijic or Lake Chapala. He also says one should get a hobby to keep busy.

I have said and still say that Mexican banks make US banks look warm and fuzzy. And Perkins says her biggest challenge has been the banking system.

Tam says that the attitude of “no pasa nada” drives her crazy. Show up on time already! And that is something we all deal with. Another pet peeve of Tam (and many more people) is when someone arrives on the beach next to you with loud music, drinks a lot of beer, and leaves the cans behind.

Arreola says that she felt better the day she arrived, has no regrets, and has never considered returning. Everyone in this group has no home of their own in their Old Country. Almost everyone has considered leaving La Paz from time to time.

Durvin is happy, entranced by the landscape, and has no inclination of returning to Canada.

 

 

Perkins is too new here to feel ready to leave. And I must add that when most of the people mentioned here and me, too, there were so many goods and services lacking that it seemed we were deprived. A good beach day can change that feeling. And, of course, La Paz has grown and blossomed and has so much to offer.

Most everyone said that they decided to stay because it is a small city and peaceful and they have made friends. They all talk about the warmth, friendliness, and joy of the Mexican people.

Tam says: “…I am comfortable and happy in my life here. But if an opportunity appears and my heart says yeah, then I will not hesitate. I trust life and the unknown…”

Living here makes you find creative ways to endure the summer heat. Arreola cooks a turkey and invites friends to bring traditional Thanksgiving side dishes to celebrate and be thankful for Willis Carrier, inventor of the air conditioner.

Everyone has the same advice: leave behind your notions of life where you come from. This is Mexico, be open to the adventure. Learn the language. Get involved with the community. Be prepared for anything and everything. And one last thought from Arreola: Try to limit that pesky “Why” word in your vocabulary….it will only make you crazy. If you find “Why do they…. or Why don’t they…?” bubbling across your lips, just STOP….shrug your shoulders, smile, and order another Margarita!

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