From Philadelphia to Mexico: Tales of an expat mum

Expat interviews
  • expat family in Mexico
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Published on 2021-10-22 at 10:00 by Veedushi
Originally from Philadelphia, Sara has quite an interesting story to tell. On travelling to Mexico for the first time when she was 18, she immediately fell in love with the country. Today, she lives in Veracruz with her multicultural family. From an English teacher before the pandemic, she converted into a publisher and is enjoying being an entrepreneurr.

Can you please introduce yourself?

We are a travelling family, currently located in Veracruz, Mexico. Previously, I was a travelling single mom to my older daughter. Today, my family is a blended, bilingual, multicultural one. My daughters were born in El Salvador and Mexico and are nearly 2 and 5 years old. My partner was born in Mexico, and I grew up in the United States. 

Currently, I dedicate myself to helping others share their travel stories as a ghostwriter and publisher for solo and multi-author books focused exclusively on travel stories. 

My partner is a paralytic Polio survivor who has a physical disability as a result and now has Post Polio Syndrome. So, we work hard to raise awareness for his condition, as well as the issue of accessibility for tourism-related businesses in Mexico. 

What brought you to Mexico? For how long have you been there?

The first time I came to Mexico was when I was 18 years old. My ex-boyfriend took me to Cancun to celebrate my birthday. We did all of the tourist activities, Coco Bongo, an all-inclusive hotel, the whole 9 yards and more. It was the most incredible vacation I had ever been on. You have to imagine this was after a lifetime of being poor and visiting the Jersey Shore once a year. 

All of a sudden, I have a VIP table at Coco Bongos; I am being pushed into the air by two dolphins, driving a boat through the jungle in Mexico… and everyone is so friendly! It was like nothing that I had ever experienced before. Hotel owners in New Jersey will call the cops if you have the TV past 10 P.M. and keep your money. There I was, 18 years old, and they let me play bartender the whole night. 

During the day, I was topless on the beach, bathing in the clearest water that I had ever seen in my life. ¨I can see my feet! I don't need to wear swimmy shoes!¨ I yelled to my boyfriend. Swimmy shoes are standard at the Jersey shore because you aren't sure if you stepped on a sea shell or a crab that is going to pinch you. There is also the always terrifying possibility that a shark is about to bite you because you can't see more than 4 inches into the Atlantic Ocean. 

The impact of that first experience stayed with me. I couldn't go back to normal US vacations anymore. I distinctly remember my ex-boyfriend, after we went with his brother and sister in law to Florida, saying that he felt bad because they had no idea what a vacation was actually like. We were comparing everything to the Mexico trip. This made us feel like we had stumbled across a secret of some sort that we had to let other people in on. For a few years after that, I was visiting Cancun and doing the all-inclusive style of travel. 

Then, when I was in university, I took a Mexican history and culture course that included a trip to Mexico City and Cuernavaca. The idea was to take Spanish language and cultural immersion classes while in the country. For the first time, I was travelling to Mexico and not just going on a vacation. That changed my entire perspective, on not only travel but also on Mexico. 

I started asking everyone who would talk to me in Cuernavaca how much they paid for rent. $100, $160, $200?!? It didn't seem possible for it to be so cheap to live in this paradise. At the time, my mortgage was $1,300 alone, and I was making $15 an hour before taxes. Mexico was the goal. I just didn't know how to make it happen. 

What made you want to leave your home country?

Have you ever thought about giving everything up and running away to another country? I never did, to be honest. I never considered even visiting another country, let alone going to live there. It was not on my horizon. For a long time, I believed I would get married, have two kids, and buy a house as soon as possible. I would spend the rest of my life in the same small town that I grew up in. And, I didn't know that there was anything wrong with that. It was the only world I knew. 

Travelling to Mexico when I was 18 brought me into a different world. It created possibilities that I was not aware of. It is kind of like Pandora's box. Once I had that experience, I couldn't look back. The best way that I can explain what made me want to leave the United States is that I ONLY thought about giving everything up and running away to Mexico. 

It wasn't just a bad day that I was having or some type of luck. What I was looking for was something different. I wasn't even sure what it was. I just knew that I was missing a piece to my puzzle, and I had a gut instinct that I would find the piece in Mexico. 

The idea of moving to Mexico was completely pushed forward by the fact that I was working not 1 but 2 jobs and going to the university full-time online. I developed a pretty severe caffeinated drink addiction to stay awake long enough to email a half-assed assignment and not fail my college courses. At the end of the day, or I should say at the end of the pay period, I never had any money to show for the 60-80 hours I was working each week. Add on another 20 for studying, easy. 

It was not a sustainable lifestyle without 2 to 3 Red Bull, Monster, Rock Star, whatever was on sale at the convenience store when I ran in on the way to work per day. I would have gone for a more extreme option, just buy cocaine to be able to work more hours, but remember that I had no money left over at the end of the day after my rent, groceries, gasoline, health insurance, etc. I couldn't even drug myself to be able to get out of the financial hole that simply existing required. 

The worst part about using energy drinks constantly is when you crash. I felt like shit all the time. I was broke. I had to work and do homework for my courses. I was miserable all the time. And, for what? I had nothing to show for it except credit card debt. One thing led to another, and I took my little bit of tax return in 2010 and never looked back. 

Is this your first experience overseas?

Before I moved abroad, I had travelled to a few different countries like Mexico, Bermuda, and Guatemala. At the time, I only knew that I wanted to travel more, to feel the same way that I felt on those amazing trips. 

Did you find it hard to adapt to Mexico? What were the main challenges that you've had, and how did you overcome them?

I didn't find it hard to adapt to Mexico at all. This is probably because I was spending a lot of time with Mexican friends in the US, just trying to feel a bit more connected to the country and language. If anything, I felt a level of comfort that I had not felt in the United States. It's very important to note that I already had a conversational/intermediate Spanish level at this point. Part of me wanting to move to a Spanish-speaking country was to be able to become truly fluent and advanced in the language. In the US, I had hit a plateau and was not getting any better. Had I not spoken Spanish already, I do not believe my moving abroad experience would have been as easy and positive as it was.

However, I cannot deny that there are always little cultural aspects that can be frustrating. Even after 12 years, I still get annoyed with "Mexican time". There is a more flexible concept of time here, and people don't see it as rude to show up 30 minutes or even hours late for business and personal meetings. Being on time, early actually, for me, has always been about respect for the other person's time. It took me some time to not feel offended when people showed up late.

From an English teacher, you are now the owner of a publishing company. How would you explain this change of career?

COVID. When Covid struck, I was one of the highest-earning language teachers on a popular online platform, giving group classes to students from all over the US. The students that I had prior to COVID were homeschoolers, truly interested in learning languages, whose parents were alternative and understanding, to say the least. 

I had grown up with the idea that homeschoolers were spoiled and anti-social. I was completely ignorant. Teaching them was the best experience I ever had as an instructor. So much so that I did not take maternity leave when either of my girls were born. I loved teaching. 

Then, one day, COVID happened. My job, which I had been doing since 2014, was on fire. It was in demand for the first time in my life. Parents would pay anything to get their children into a class, any class, because they didn't know what else to do. 

Overnight, my sweet, mature, motivated students were replaced with angry, confused, defiant ones from public schools that had shut down in-person classes. Parents would scream at me during the Zoom calls because they weren't used to the technology. Dads would walk across the camera in their underwear. Moms would pipe in with a glass of wine in their hands. 

For the first time in my life, I started to dread my job. I didn't want to teach like this. I have two advanced degrees in Instructional Design and Curriculum and Instruction, and this was not what online courses were supposed to be. 

I was making $10,000 a month working part-time. My best month was $17K as a teacher. But, after the live classes ended, there was so much more. COVID meant thousands of emails from parents every week that I could not keep up with even if I worked 24 hours a day. The platform I worked on would take 2-3 months to respond to parents, so they started to leave horrible reviews on my profile about the wait time. It would take another month of me pushing for the platform to remove those reviews. I ignored everyone's advice. I walked away. It was the best decision of my life. I had already been self-publishing my own bilingual books at this point and had found a lot of success. 

When I discovered that people pay for ghostwriting and publishing services, I was shocked. It would never have occurred to me to get into this type of work. Having gone through the experience that I did, not enjoying my work for the first time, I wanted to make sure that I did it correctly. That is what led to my decision to focus on travel. Being able to use all of the skills that I obtained as a teacher for over ten years is icing on the cake. 

Before, I was making good money. I have always been able to do that easily. But now, I have been able to monetize my travels and create a stable and in-demand career for myself, which I am passionate about. Part of publishing others stories is giving them the opportunity to monetize their own experiences. I know what a difference that will make in the lives of the authors I work with because it was me just a short time ago. 

What does the life of an expat entrepreneur in Mexico look like?

Since I became a naturalized Mexican citizen, I try not to use the term expat. I like to say immigrant… The problem is that algorithms favour the word expat. But, it is important for me to state that I am an immigrant in Mexico. I go to the immigration office (or used to anyway), not the expat office. 

How does my life look…? I spend a lot of time at the beach and in the pool. It's so freaking hot here; how could you not? But, it's not a big party like people imagine. My friends and family from back home always say "I wish I had your life! You are always at the beach!", but they don't know that 95% of the time, I am still working. Sometimes, I am in the ocean taking online courses. Other times, I am catching up on communication. When I feel good, I want to work more. 

Maybe it is an Aquarius thing, but I get inspired to work in places where there is water. I have always lived within a couple of blocks from the beach in Mexico for that reason. A typical week means working about 20 hours. It has been a priority of mine to spend more quality time with my family and to turn off the devices at night and on the weekends. 

Usually, I work Monday, Wednesday and Thursday for about 6 hours, and half a day on Friday, an hour or 2 on Sunday. Since COVID, I have enjoyed working overnight because it is much quieter, more effective, and the internet signal has been reliable. Luckily, because of my partner's medical condition, we have the flexibility to be able to adjust as needed to accommodate whatever he needs. 

Is there any advice you would like to give to anyone who's looking to move to Mexico and start a business or work remotely there?

Mexico is an excellent choice for working remotely for several reasons. 

  1. Taxes - They don't tax foreign earned income. If you are from the US, that means many online business owners only have to pay the 15% self-employment tax. You also do not have to purchase mandatory health insurance because you are a non-resident. 

  2. Visas - You don't need a work visa as a remote worker (if your income isn't earned in Mexico), and they give you a generous 6-month visa upon arrival. Getting temporary residency is possible in a matter of a few hours if you have 6 months of proven income. 

  3. Variety - Mexico has many tropical beach destinations. But, many expats don't realize that Mexico actually has a climate and landscape for every type of traveller. For example, apart from the gorgeous, white-sand beaches, you can find deserts, volcanos, and mountains. A good portion of the country is located higher above sea level and has much cooler temperatures. 

Did the pandemic have an impact on your professional and social life?

Mexico is not a country or culture that can pull off social distancing. Too many generations live under one roof, so socializing with the people who you live with can often mean 10-15 others. At least 5 of them are coming and going from different workplaces each day. No one in our family practised social distancing, ever. This was even worse because my father in law passed away in March of 2020 after being ill for a long time. 

That meant at the height of the strictest quarantine, my partner flew to Veracruz for a huge family funeral. There were hugs and kisses, and hundreds of people came to pay their respects. This continued for months after the fact as well. It took me three months to convince my mother in law, who is diabetic, hypertensive, obese, and has a history of heart attack, among other health issues, to come live with us in the Riviera Maya. 

Even though everyone thought I was crazy, I don't regret the extra precautions that we took during the early stages of COVID. If something had happened to my mother in law, especially after the death of my father in law, I couldn't even imagine the effect on our family. But, on the other hand, my mother in law never socially distanced. She did the complete opposite at every turn. She has all the risk factors as well. And, she never got COVID. Maybe she was right, and I was overreacting? It's possible, although I will never admit that to her. 

As for my social life, well, I miss leaving the house. Most of my friends here locally worked as English teachers, so they have been struggling since COVID, when the schools all closed down. Even if you can find someone with a tiny bit of spending money, who is in the mood to go out, then you still have people who are not willing to risk it because they live with elderly family members. And who can blame them? It often seems like a "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. 

What are your views on the way Mexico dealt with the pandemic? What are the current restrictions in place?

My opinion is that the Mexican government should have taken a firm stance one way or another. They were too wishy-washy, which confused us all. My partner ended up with COVID after they lightened the restrictions in October 2020. We saw an opportunity and high-tailed it to Cancun for a vacation. 

I remember saying to him, "If this COVID thing actually existed… it would be here… I mean, look around… They have all these precautions in place to make us feel better… But look closer. No one ever sanitizes the chairs, even though we all pull them out. Hundreds of people are picking the same spoon at the buffet every hour."

A week later, his symptoms started. One of the things that really stuck out to me was that he sweated so much from his fever. Too much. The whole bed was soaked from his sweat. I ended up sleeping on the couch because of it. It actually got to a point where I was scared for him. I started to look up later effects of polio because of how sick he was. That is when I discovered the damage that polio does to the lungs, but also that there was Post Polio Syndrome, which I had never heard of before. 

After three weeks, I had to force him to go to the hospital in Playa del Carmen. He went and promptly came right back. They said that he was probably improving from COVID, so there was no need to give him a test. He would go to 2 more hospitals, both in Playa del Carmen and Veracruz. It was always the same story about the tests. Just last month, my brother in law was getting oxygen at home because he doesn't trust the hospitals here. It was touch and go for about a week, but he did pull through in the end. 

To this day, the only friends and family that we know who have been tested positive are those that live in Mexico City and Mexico state. 

If you had to go through your move all over again, is there anything you would have done differently?

In retrospect, I should have sold my car and other possessions to have a larger safety net when I moved. I wasn't sure if it would work out, so I left my pre-owned car, a Volkswagen Jetta, to my brother, and all of the furniture, appliances, etc., from my home. 

If I had taken the time to sell everything, I would have had $5-8K to put away. I didn't fully understand the time it would take to interview, find a job, start working, and finally receive a paycheck. This took me about three months. 

Normally, it wouldn't be a big deal, but when you move to a new country with a suitcase, you need to buy everything all over again, put down a deposit, and pay your rent. Those costs added up very quickly, especially for appliances and electronics, which were much more expensive in Mexico than what I was used to in the US. 

What do you like the most about Mexico and the least?

I love so many things about Mexico, but the most impressive to me is that children are accepted everywhere you go. I came back to Mexico in 2017 as a single mom with my older daughter. The support that I received every step of the way, from employees at the airport to neighbours and teachers at school, is simply wow! 

It made being a single parent abroad, with absolutely no support system, much easier than I had ever thought it would be. Even now, as I am writing this, I am explaining to my partner that in the US, no one brings children out to eat at nice restaurants. Having children present ruins the dining experience for others. You have to get a babysitter, which is expensive because people are annoyed at the simple existence of the tiny humans, let alone when they make noise. He doesn't believe me! 

Here in Mexico, it is normal to see children until midnight at restaurants with their parents. You can bring them everywhere that you go. 

What do I like the least about Mexico? I am not here to paint any destination as being perfect. There are many things that I complain about when it comes to my adopted country. My partner has declined to comment on this one. But, the one thing that sticks out to me, as a former teacher, parent, and partner here, is the general acceptance of all things not right.

Let me explain. 

When any one of many things happens, I hear over and over again from friends and family, "This is Mexico. What do you expect?" To which I always respond, "I expect more. I expect something better. Why don´t you?" I should probably change up that answer because it ever invokes any passion or change anyway. People just shrug it off. 

One time, just two years ago, my partner opened a bank account with an international bank at my request. The money that he deposited, $5K pesos, just disappeared. So he is going back and forth to the bank, and they keep saying to come back next week, that they will check into it, to give them more time, etc. etc. Three months go by. Meanwhile, we live directly behind the bank. I gave birth to our daughter. My postpartum hormones must have been driving me, though. My partner got the run around yet again. So, I took a walk over to the bank to get my $5K pesos back. 

"But, señora, the account is in your husband´s name. I can't speak to you about it," the bank representative explained. "I don't care what name is on the account. That is my money. I am not leaving until it appears." My partner wasn't happy after 2 hours when I put them on Facebook live. But, there were five bank employees and 0 customers for 2 hours. No one wanted to help us. I had to be a Karen. Again, I blame the hormones. But, the funny thing is that the next day we had the missing $5K pesos in our hands after over three months of back and forth. We never received an explanation as to where the money had gone, nor an apology from the bank. 

Situations like this bother me because they happen all the time. Yet, it is not the US Customer service doesn't exist here in the same way that we are used to it. So, when people get screwed over, they just shrug it off. The bank is one example, but it spills into every aspect of life here. 

My father in law worked 40 years under the table. He should have had medical coverage, vacation and sick time, and a pension, among other benefits. Access to medical care would have changed the trajectory of my partner's life since he was never vaccinated for anything and caught paralytic polio at 13 months old. But, it gets exhausting at times when you are the only one who makes that connection. 

Is there anything that you miss from your home country?

Food! I miss certain foods, like Philadelphia Cheesesteaks and Taco Bell. When I go to countries outside Mexico, I eat a lot of Taco Bell. I always try to use copycat recipes to recreate food from back home. Some things are hits, and others are like Instagram fails. But, I had some recent luck with creating my own taco seasoning and soft pretzels. 

I have only travelled back to the US a handful of times in the last 12 years, and every time I go, it is stressful. We just end up running from place to place, sitting in traffic, and eating fast food in the car. Now, I don't even bother to go back. It is too expensive for an experience that is not enjoyable for my family or me. 

What are your plans for the future?

Professionally, I am going to help people change the world by sharing their travel experiences in books. 

Right now, I am ghostwriting a book from a Vietnamese woman who was a war refugee at age 4. She believes she ended up in Thailand because no one actually had a map, living in the jungle for six months before escaping on a boat to the United States. 

Now, she has a lot of health issues due to agent orange poisoning. Her story is dark, powerful, and inspiring while also heartbreaking at the same time. I feel privileged that she has entrusted me to ghostwrite and publish it. 

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