New Year, New Plans

Wow, it’s officially 2023! Happy New Year! 🎊 I absolutely love this time of year – it’s full of new beginnings, exciting plans, and fresh calendars! However, as per usual, I’ve already written quite a bit in my 2023 calendar because we, of course, have a few trips planned, and this year, we actually have another international move on the docket. So, if you’re interested in some of the ‘where’s, ‘when’s, and ‘why’s of our 2023 whereabouts, here’s what I know so far:

Moving to Canada

We’re finally headed to the far north! After receiving our permanent residencies last summer, we have officially decided to make the move and relocate to Canada later this year. It’s turning out to be quite the memorable move for us because at first, we thought it would be happening in late 2019 or early 2020, and then after the pandemic, we thought it might not be the right move for us at all, so now that we’re looking at apartments in Ottawa (again), it feels a little surreal. But before we get to the move, there are some things we’re planning to do here in Mexico first.

Wrapping up our time in Mexico

Moving to Mexico was easily one of the best decisions we ever made, and we have had an absolutely amazing time here. In fact, our love for Guadalajara and its people and culture was one of the biggest obstacles in deciding whether or not this would be the right time to move. I always feel so torn during our transition periods, because I’m never ready to leave behind the homes we’ve created, but at the same time, I can’t wait for all the excitement and novelty of a new place to call home. It’s complicated. But with this particular re-location, the good news is I have no doubt we’ll be back, hopefully often, because this time, we’re staying on the same continent!

Of course, we know at some point we will have to say adiós, but for now, we plan on fully savoring our last few months in Mexico. We’re already doing our best to check off all the lists we made when we arrived: all the places we still want to travel to, all the restaurants we still want to eat at, and all the things we still want to do or be a part of. In fact, I think next month, I’ll break down our Mexico bucket list and share some of the things we’ve been able to do and see these past 2+ years. I’m extremely grateful for each and every one of these experiences, and I do hope to make Mexico proud with one last fiesta before we go (featuring a limo, another piñata, and some of our best friends) – stay tuned!

On top of saying goodbye to the friends we’ve made and the culture we’ve grown to love, I’ll also be switching language focuses (again). I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying Spanish over the last few years, and while I’m always quick to poke fun at it or complain (as any student would), I’m going to miss it immensely. Therefore, in an effort to ensure my Spanish reaches its current potential and perhaps actually sticks with me a bit longer than my Polish or Mandarin did, I’m planning to take the DELE (a Spanish proficiency exam) in April. I’m hoping to pull off a B2 (upper intermediate level) and potentially work with Spanish in the future, so ¡deséame suerte! But also wish me luck when I switch back to le français because I have a feeling I’m going to need it.

Flying then Driving

So, it looks like we’re going to have a really fun first few months of the year, but what about the actual move? Well, it’s a lot. Right now, we’re planning to fly up to Canada in late April/early May to secure our apartment and maybe take care of a few other logistics like paperwork and furniture acquisition, but our big move will be at the end of May. Over Memorial Day week, we’re packing everything up (including the dog and all her personal effects) and driving the 44 hours from Guadalajara, Mexico up to Ottawa, Canada. It was a 33-hour drive when we originally came down from Orlando, so how bad could an extra 11 hours be?

For our second cross-continental drive, we’ve planned for several stops along the way: those for resting, those for working, and those for visiting family. We’re also planning on taking more luggage up with us on the initial fly-up, so the car doesn’t have to be quite as packed as last time…although it probably still will be. Since we’ll have two border crossings this time around, we’ve budgeted a bit of extra time around the first and last legs of the trip to hopefully side-step any unforeseen issues. Fingers crossed! And before we know it (hopefully on June 3rd), we’ll officially be residing in Canada.  

Then What?

After we arrive, I have virtually no set plans. We’ll most likely not be renting a fully-furnished place this time, so I imagine we’ll spend a few weeks unpacking, re-furnishing, and getting set up in our new place. We, very specifically, chose to move in the summer months, which should give us plenty of time to prepare for winter. Neither one of us owns a pair of boots anymore, so that’s something we’ll need to take care of. I also wanted Jenn to be able to acclimate to the severe shift in climates as gently as possible – we’re going to get her a heated blanket to help the cause.

And once we’re all set up and feeling comfy in the Great White North, I’ll be making my Canada bucket list and hopefully arranging for people to come visit! One of the best things about living in Mexico was how short a flight it was for visitors. We had a record number of family and friends come down, and I hope that trend will continue while we’re in Canada (hint, hint).

Clearly, we have a lot to look forward to this year, so here’s to another 365 days of new adventures!

Holiday Season in Mexico

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! 🎶 Which is my musical way of stating the obvious: another holiday season is here! And this year, I thought I’d really get myself into the spirit by chronicling all the upcoming días festivos that I have to look forward to. Interestingly, seven years ago, I wrote something quite similar about celebrating Christmas in Poland, and after reading that post again, I was amazed at just how many parallels there happen to be, particularly in the number of holidays celebrated on either side of the big day. So, if you find yourself in need of more holidays/international celebrations, here’s what Christmastime looks like en México:  

Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe

The first true holiday of the festive season falls on December 12th, but like any other Christmas-celebrating country, the decorations and festivities really start well before December. In fact, since Thanksgiving isn’t really a thing south of the border, there aren’t as many quarrels about when to start decorating; anything after Día de Muertos (November 2nd) is fair game. Of course, one of the first and most ubiquitous Christmas decorations you’re likely to see are the nochebuenas (or poinsettias). Nochebuenas are indigenous to Mexico and Guatemala and were used for wintertime celebrations even before Christmas was celebrated in the Americas. Actually, a lot of Mexico’s holidays tend to be a mix of customs from various indigenous groups (such as the Aztecs or Mayans) as well as from the colonists/Christians of Spain. And a great example of this is Día de la Virgin de Guadalupe.

La Virgen de Guadalupe is another name for the Virgin Mary, and she just so happens to be the patron saint of Mexico. On Día de la Virgin de Guadalupe there is a huge pilgrimage in her honor to a site of great importance in Mexican history. However, it’s really only the truly devout who partake in this annual event. For most Mexicans, this day is known first and foremost as the official mark of the holiday season, and it often kicks off the fiestas in the form of food, drinks, and posadas. I, personally, have come to associate the word “posada” with “party”, but it actually means “inn”, a nod to the nativity story. In practice though, posadas are very much like the Christmas parties we have in the US. There are generally posadas for every peer group: family, friends, co-workers, etc. and no matter who you’re celebrating with, you’ll likely see piñatas, eat buñuelos (a fried dough treat), and drink ponche (a warm, fruity beverage). Mmm!  

Noche Buena y Navidad

Next up is Christmas Eve or Noche Buena (not to be confused with nochebuenas the plants or Noche Buenas the beers haha). As a Catholic-majority country, church services are really common on Christmas Eve, including a very special midnight mass, also known as the Rooster’s Mass (it got this name because it is said that the crow of a rooster announced the birth of Christ). After mass, a feast is expected, and yes, that could be in the wee hours of the morning, which is why Christmas Day is seen as a rest and recovery sort of day. Of course, some people end up skipping church on Noche Buena, but the big family meal is rarely missed. Similar to our Thanksgiving, turkey or ham are common center pieces although the more traditional option would be bacalao, an olive and codfish dish. I’ll probably skip that one this year…

Another interesting thing about Christmas Eve night has to do with the all the nativity scenes. Nativity scenes (or Nacimientos) in general are extremely popular here. Like extremely. They feature in the décor of restaurants, banks, apartment buildings, malls, city squares, etc. Some are literally larger than life-sized and some are incredibly creative (we saw one this year made entirely out of poinsettias), but despite all the variety out there, they all have one thing in common: the baby Jesus is missing. That is, he is missing until Christmas Eve night. I absolutely love this detail and can’t believe how everyone pulls this off. Do they set an alarm to remember? Where do they keep the waiting babies? Who gets the placement privilege at the local mall? So many questions!

Día de los Santos Innocentes

Onto my least favorite of the wintertime holidays…Día de los Santos Innocentes is Mexico’s version of April Fool’s Day. It occurs every year on December 28th and started out as a day in which you could borrow something from someone without having to give it back, a sort of “finders keepers” day. However, over time, it has evolved to include all sorts of pranks pulled by family members, friends, and even news outlets. Basically, don’t trust anything you see or hear on this day, and definitely don’t lend anyone anything you might want back.

Noche Vieja y Año Nuevo

The next set of holidays on the list are, of course, New Years Eve and New Years Day. Celebrated much the same around the world, with food, fireworks, and late-night fun, there are a few Mexican traditions that stood out to me last year. The first being the 12 grapes you eat as the clock strikes midnight. The idea is that you make a wish for each grape (12 representing the 12 months of the New Year), and if you can get ‘em all down be the time the clock is done chiming, your wishes will come true. After trying this last year, I have to say that it is definitely harder than it sounds! Fireworks are another super common tradition, but not just at midnight. In fact, fireworks can be heard pretty much all December and well into January – another vestige of indigenous practices and a popular way of celebrating anything and everything in Mexico.

Día de los Reyes y Candelaria

Finally, we come to the last two holidays of the season Día de los Reyes (January 6th) and Candelaria (February 2nd). Día de los Reyes or Day of the Kings (often known as Three Kings Day or Epiphany in the US) is a holiday that is probably more exciting as a child. It’s another day where kids can expect presents, this time from the Wise Men. And while adults might not get any presents, everyone does get to partake in the sharing of the rosca de reyes. A rosca is a ring-shaped pastry that has a hidden figurine of the baby Jesus somewhere inside. Usually, you eat the rosca with family or friends, and whoever gets the baby, then has to buy the tamales the following month on Candelaria. Roscas come in all different shapes and sizes these days (in fact, we got a rosca of tacos last year in addition to a more traditional pastry), but no matter what kind of rosca you eat, just remember to bite carefully! Also, I advise you to order your tamales for Candelaria days in advance – a mistake I won’t make again!

Wow! So many festivities to look forward to in next two months! Honestly, celebrating the local holidays is one of my favorite parts of living abroad, especially because we get to take these customs with us and celebrate them wherever we end up in the future! And now you can too! ¡Felices fiestas a tod@s!

Most Memorable Meals

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about memorable meals of years past. Tucker and I have been extremely fortunate with all the incredible food we’ve been able to enjoy around the world, but what exactly is it that makes a meal memorable? The quality of the food? The location, the company, something else? I was curious, so I decided to delve a bit deeper by asking Tucker to reminisce with me about the meals we’ve shared over the years. In particular, the ones that, even years later, still stand out among the rest and why that might be the case. Here’s what we came up with:

Thanksgiving Feast: Crater Edition (Ecuador)

Likely because this was a recent experience, and it has a connection to the upcoming holiday, the first meal to pop into our heads was the Thanksgiving dinner we had after hiking the Quilotoa Crater in Ecuador. There are so many reasons this meal stands out in our minds. First, we had just hiked several miles into and out of an incredible caldera at elevation in the rain, so to say we were hungry would be a massive understatement. Then there’s the fact that all the hikers ate together in pretty much the only little restaurant open there, which made for a very festive meal. And finally, the food itself was incredible. I had a perfectly grilled steak with chimichurri and ají, boiled potatoes, corn on the cob – just an impeccable holiday meal; Tucker had a whole seasoned and grilled fish with homestyle fries and a plethora of interesting sauces, and, of course, we shared several ice-cold, local brews. It was absolutely perfect and extremely well-earned.

Weird Valentine’s Day Tradition (HK)

The next thing we thought of has actually become a sort of strange tradition over the years. Since we first moved abroad in 2015, we’ve spent the vast majority of holidays away from family, friends, and all that was once so familiar. Usually this means we get to learn new ways of celebrating the holidays, but sometimes we just miss all that familiarity and ease. Cue the international (yet super American) restaurant chain: Outback Steakhouse. One year, we were in Hong Kong over Valentine’s Day, and we happened to see an Outback in a mall there. We joked at how lame it would be to go to an Outback while in one of the best food cities in the world…alas, the molten chocolate lava cake called to us. We’ve now celebrated Valentine’s Day at an Outback in four different countries.  

Odd Finds at Anatewka (Poland)

Sometimes what makes a meal memorable are the surprises that take place there. For this, Anatewka, an amazing Jewish restaurant in Łódź, immediately comes to mind. Anatewka packed in the surprises for us starting with our bowl of czernina, which we later found out was duck blood soup. The surprises kept coming when we got complimentary shots at the end of the meal (for digestion, of course). And as if that wasn’t enough to keep us guessing (and definitely ensuring our return), we were each gifted a tiny clay figure holding a grosz or the equivalent of a Polish penny. We were absolutely not expecting any of the little treats we got that night, and even though I won’t be ordering czernina again anytime soon, our dining experience at Anatewka was without a doubt both surprising and, indeed, memorable.

Simple yet Spectacular: St. Hubert’s (Quebec)

Surprises can definitely make us remember a meal, but the next meal that we kept thinking (and talking) about really had no discernible reason other than the fact that the food we had was incredibly simple and delicious. On our month-long initial expedition to Ottawa (and the surrounding area) in 2019, we happened to eat at a place called Rôtisserie St-Hubert’s. It’s a fairly nondescript restaurant, clearly a chain, with nothing particularly showy or remarkable on the menu, but what it lacks in flair, it seriously makes up for in homey goodness. Roasted chicken is what St-Hubert’s does, and they do it better than anywhere. It really brought to mind the qualities often associated with French cooking: fresh, buttery, light, and uncomplicated. Simply put, it was the kind of meal that just hit the spot. Of course, this was also the meal where, much to my chagrin, I first learned what clamato juice is, but even the surprise of finding seafood in my drink couldn’t detract from the rustic deliciousness that was this particular meal.

Once in a Lifetime Experience: Dining in the Dark (Malaysia)

Another meal that will obviously live in infamy (according to us anyway) is our experience at Dining in the Dark. If you’ve done one of these events, then it will likely be on your list as well because not only is the food extremely delicious and exciting, but the challenge and subsequent glimpse into a different way of living is eye-opening (see what I did there). For those who don’t know, Dining in the Dark allows you to experience a meal in complete and startling darkness. The servers are all visually-impaired and help you navigate what is a surprisingly scary and difficult set of tasks: everything from finding your chair and sitting down to re-finding your glass or fork somewhere on the table. For me, having my attention drawn to all these little things I took for granted was the most memorable part, but there are other aspects that made this meal stand out. Namely, our complete failure at guessing what we were eating. At one point we had a dish of steamed egg, mushroom, and tofu, and we guessed it to be “savory bread pudding”. What?!

Our First Foray into Fancy Food (Disney’s Remy)

Fun fact: Tucker absolutely loves tasting menus and fine dining because it allows him to try a greater number of usually quite unique dishes, which is all he ever wants in life. And for that reason, another meal on our list has to be Remy, a fine-dining restaurant on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship. Remy offers an eight-course menu of super fancy dishes, which at the time we had never had before. This experience was like stepping into another life. The dress code, the cheese cart, the flowers given to me at the end of the meal – it was all very different to anything we’d ever done. And then there was the experimental quality to the food. We had “tomato essence,” which was a completely clear liquid served in a champagne flute that tasted exactly like you just bit into a vine-ripened, heirloom tomato. There was also the “tomato soup cube”, which is pretty much as described, and countless other curiosities that have definitely kept us talking over the years. Honestly memorable in so many ways!

Making It Our Own: Cooking Class (Thailand)

Another meal that stands out is one we happened to make ourselves. Because we went to Thailand as part of a large group, there were lots of things that stand out about our time there, and one thing in particular was our first (and quite possibly only) cooking class. I personally loathe cooking, so I’m not sure I was really looking forward to this one or that I was very comfortable throughout the experience…but in the end, like everyone else, I was extremely proud of the dish that I made (and the certificate we all received lol). My pad thai was honestly delicious and Tucker’s khao soi was even better! Plus, the process of doing everything ourselves (from shopping in the market to grinding down the various chilis we needed) really gave me even more appreciation for all the chefs of the world. Thankfully this one turned out to be memorable for all the right reasons and not because I ended up burning myself or someone else!

Being Set on Fire (China)

Speaking of burning…the next meal that without doubt must be on our list was the time we almost died. Of spiciness. Tucker and I actually love spicy food, and usually we handle any level of spiciness pretty well. However, Chongqing and Chengdu take spiciness almost beyond human capacity. One of the most renowned dishes of Chongqing is the infamous nine square hot pot, which, of course, we had to try. Unlike the hot pots we were used to, with the nine square, there is only one flavor: spicy. We weren’t really concerned though because when we ordered and chose our spice level, we played it safe with the 1 chili pepper rating (they went up to 5). Turns out, there was no “safe”. Everything was extremely spicy, the meat, the noodles, the hot pot, the sauces…and it was all compounding! I’m not sure we’ve ever sweated that much in a restaurant or drank that many beers that quickly. The craziest thing was, despite our watering eyes, it tasted so good! I would definitely do it all again.

Just What We Needed at the Time (Sweden)

As it turns out, even the timing of a meal can be what ends up making it memorable. On one of our worst travel mistakes to date, we failed to set an important alarm, waking up after only a couple of hours of sleep with only 16 minutes to make it to the bus that would take us to the airport in time for our very early flight. Needless to say, we had a very panicky, rushed morning with no shower or breakfast, and when we arrived in Stockholm, all our thoughts were on a nice shower, a snack, and a bed. Unfortunately, our hostel said we’d have to wait until after 3 to check in. So we, dirty, tired, hungover, and by this point, very hangry travelers, set off to wander aimlessly around the city for the next 7 hours. Obviously, our first stop would have to be food, but finding a place to eat at this time of day was actually a little tricky. Luckily, we finally stumbled upon a restaurant that served their whole menu of Swedish favorites all day, and we happily chowed down. Now Swedish meatballs and plankstek will forever be remembered as our most rejuvenating meal.

A Whole Lot of Whimsy (Mexico)

And last but not least, a happy dose of serendipity mixed with whimsy in the form of dinosaur quesadillas. As you can imagine, a lot of the ads I get have to do with Mexico, travel, and food (hmm, I wonder why). Well, one night last year I saw a little video ad about a restaurant in Mexico that served dinoquesadillas, and I thought to myself, “aww, that’s cute, but I bet it’s nowhere near us.” And I was right. The restaurant was in Saltillo about 440 miles (705km) from Guadalajara. Oh well, no dinoquesadillas are worth that long of a drive! However, it turned out that a few months later we randomly had to make a return trip to the border through none other than Saltillo. Through a crazy coincidence, we ended up in the really cool city of Saltillo, and, of course, we went to the kitschy little restaurant for some dinoquesadillas. A great example of what I call travel fate.

So, it seems there are actually a great many reasons a meal might stand the test of time in our minds. Could be great food, surprising circumstances, or even when exactly you get said meal. I think for me, the common thread is really when something is just a little bit outside the norm, when there’s something that stands out as “different”. Maybe we should all run with that idea and get a little weird this Thursday – I’m definitely willing to give it a try! Happy (almost) Thanksgiving! ¡Buen provecho! 😉

Día de Muertos (and Halloween)

Another spooky season is upon us, which, of course, has me reflecting on last year’s festivities, and since last year was our first full year in Mexico, I remember having a lot of questions regarding two very colorful (yet slightly morbid) holidays that happen to take place in the same fun-filled week. Thankfully, we had a brilliant education last year, and now I’m ready to share all that I learned! So, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering how Halloween and Día de Muertos are celebrated south of the border, well, you’re in for a treat (see what I did there?) because this post is about to get frightening(ly in-depth). Mwahaha!

Halloween in Mexico

So, first off, whenever we would ask locals about Halloween in Mexico, they’d typically tell us that it’s not really celebrated…but I beg to disagree. Grocery stores start selling costumes and decorations in September, many restaurants have jack-o-lanterns and spiders welcoming their guests, and last year on Halloween (and several days on either side of it) I witnessed creepy clowns, Squid Game contestants, and many other characters walking down the street. There are also Halloween-themed events advertised for both kids and adults all month long, so whether it’s gimmicky or not, I sense a bit of a celebration. Of course, we’ve also been told that the closer you get to the US border, the more Halloween-y it will feel. Places like Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, and Tijuana have the most going on, but even down here in GDL, the global holiday influence is still felt. However, I also can’t deny that there is a lot more buzz around the infamous Day of the Dead, and rightly so.

Día de Muertos

With such a sinister sounding name, it’s easy to connect the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween to this particular holiday, but in reality, Día de Muertos seems to have more in common with the All Saints’ Day we experienced in Poland or with China’s Tomb Sweeping Day. The holiday’s purpose is to honor family members who have since passed, much like other memorial holidays around the world. In fact, Día de Muertos is partially connected to Catholicism, thus the same date as All Saints’ Day; however, there’s also an indigenous twist in Mexico’s version of remembrance. Origins and comparisons aside, the first thing that really confused me was actually the name itself. I was constantly hearing and seeing both Día de Muertos and Día de los Muertos…so which should I be using?! Apparently, no importa, both are used, both are correct. It’s a pick your own poison sort of thing.

The next thing we learned was that Día de Muertos is actually días, plural. The holiday consists of two very important days/celebrations, one on November first and one on November second (of course, like other holidays, the celebrating really stretches throughout the whole week), but the significance of these two days is really interesting. November first is the day when the spirits and souls of innocents (or children) are remembered and honored. This day was a bit quieter and included a lot more white flowers (as opposed to the usual gold) and decorations especially for kids. For example, one of the tombs we saw had an array of toy cars and candy set out. The next day, November second, is the big day, the day when all the other ancestors are to be remembered and celebrated, with even more flowers and special treats, of course.

So how does one celebrate Día de Muertos?

Well, like every other major holiday, there are lots of regional differences and personal preferences at play, but a few of the more traditional elements include cleaning and decorating the tombs/graves of your ancestors, making an ofrenda (or alter) in your home for more recently lost family members, and having a party to celebrate the circle of life in general. Last year, Tucker and I visited two cemeteries to see some of the tomb cleaning and decorating for ourselves, and we were absolutely amazed! Even in a large, modern city (which usually has fewer traditionalists) and even with some of the oldest cemeteries (whose descendants might also be gone at this point), not to mention a pandemic to contend with, people really went all out! Famous Jaliscienses (people from Jalisco) had the most going on with elaborate flower carpets, rows and rows of candles, and a huge amount of papel picado (the colorful paper flags), but due to the ongoing Covid battle, former nurses and doctors were also highly celebrated, as were all the other lucky souls who still have devoted family members living in the city.

The tombs are often set up much the same as the alters at home. Flowers are a must, specifically cempasúchiles (marigolds) because their bright color and strong scent help guide spirits back for the night. This is the indigenous twist I was mentioning earlier: the ancient belief was that only on this night and only if your family put up an alter for you could your spirit come back to Earth and enjoy the party. This is also why the alters are often adorned with the favorite foods, drinks, and other preferences of those who have passed – something for them to enjoy on their journey. Sometimes it’s real food and drink left out (which is usually eaten by the living family members at some point), but sometimes the alters are decorated with figurines of all the ancestors’ favorites, which you can find at pop-up markets all month long: tiny plates of tacos el pastor, little bottles of tequila, itty-bitty cigarettes, etc. If someone loved it, you can find it in miniature. Sugar skulls with the names of those who have passed are also common for the ofrendas, but today, kids often want their own names put on them, further emphasizing that this celebration is for both those who are gone and those who remain.

While the decorations and alters might be the most eye-catching parts of Día de Muertos celebrations, the most memorable part, for me, was the party atmosphere. There is nothing creepy or sad about this particular holiday. It is all joy; music is everywhere, families hugging, kids playing, even in the cemeteries themselves. And once the alters and ancestors are taken care of, more partying takes place in the form of parades, mariachi performances, and snacks for all (including the infamous pan de muerto, a sweet bread in the shape of crossbones). Sometimes in pictures, Día de Muertos can look like an homage to death with all the skeletons and tombs, but in reality, it is a celebration of life and family, and it’s something I’m very much looking forward to celebrating in person once again.

Road Trips en México

Our time in Mexico has been unique for several reasons (global pandemic anyone?), but honestly, one of the most notable differences is the fact that this is our first time living abroad with a car. While it seems like such a small thing, it has definitely changed many aspects of our day-to-day life here and has (very fortunately) allowed us to explore Mexico in a new and exciting way. Yay road trips!  

Of course, at first, we found the thought of driving our car down to Guadalajara a bit daunting (not to mention keeping up with basic maintenance and handling any issues that cropped up totalmente en español), but after almost two years, I feel like we’ve now got a pretty good idea of what to expect on Mexico’s roadways. So, for this month’s post, I thought I’d share some of the things I wish we had known from the beginning, things that might help anyone else who is planning to drive around Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

7,500 miles and counting!

Rules of the road:

First up, I have to mention some of the different (and sometimes unwritten) rules of the road here in Mexico. When we were first preparing to drive across the border, the main thing everyone kept saying was, “don’t drive at night”. It turns out that most of Mexico’s highways, especially those cross-crossing deserts and jungles, don’t have street lights, so it is really difficult (read: impossible) to see anything that might be in the road (be it half a tire, a pothole, an animal of some sort, whatever). We experienced just how crazy this type of driving can be on one early morning drive from Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta…not a very far drive, but jungle-y, hairpin turns and surprise speedbumps in the pitch-black darkness was not fun at all.

Another thing we learned on the fly was utilizing the phantom third lane. Since a lot of Mexico’s tollways are two-lane roads, which happen to have tons of semis and other big, slow trucks, drivers have come up with a solution, which I call the phantom third lane. Basically, everyone drives straddling the line that designates the shoulder, which creates a lot of space in the center of the road. People that need/want to pass can then use that middle “lane” to get around slower vehicles and then get back to the shoulder, so cars on the other side can have the same opportunity if needed. At first this scared the sh*t out of us, but now we love how efficient and consistent the process really is.

One last thing to mention about road rules in Mexico – pedestrians will be in the roads. In the cities, they’ll be there to clean your windshield, sell or replace your wipers, or entertain you with a bit of fire-dancing. In the countryside they’ll be crossing with a flock of sheep or flagging you down for some fresh fruit or nuts. And on the highways, they’ll be darting across to get to the bus stop or rest area, so be on the lookout for people crossing any and all roads at any and all times.

The roads themselves:

Now onto the types of roads. Immediately upon entering the highway system of Mexico, it becomes evident that there are two sets of roads: cuotas (tollways) and libres (freeways). The cuotas are often much newer, smoother, and in many instances straighter paths to wherever you may be heading, but they do come at a price. All along the tollways of Mexico there are casetas/plazas de cobro (toolbooths) which charge anywhere from 40-300 pesos (approximately $2-15USD). The tollbooths are very clearly marked, with prices listed for each vehicle type, and there are very rarely any issues, lines, etc. However, be prepared to pay in cash. Lots and lots of cash.

This is where a navigator comes in handy!

The good news is, it’s not only tolls that you’ll come across on the road. There is also a plethora of gas stations, rest stops, and roadside stands dotting Mexico’s highways. There are gas stations you’ll recognize (like Shell, BP, and Mobil) and some that are specific to Mexico (like the national chain Pemex). The major chains all have little convenience stores (usually Oxxos) and bathrooms, which are sometimes free and sometimes five pesos or 25 cents. One thing to be aware of, however, is that Mexico is like Oregon or New Jersey in that you can’t pump your own gas. When you pull up to the pump, someone will come over and ask which type and how much you want. They might also clean your windows and check your fluids for a tip.

In addition to the many places you can stop, go to the bathroom, and stretch your legs, Mexico also has several road safety services that you can use if needed. As you drive along, you’ll see emergency service numbers posted everywhere, which is super nice. You’ll also occasionally see the Green Angels themselves, which are roadside assistance vehicles that are supposedly bilingual and free. Thankfully we’ve not needed to use any of these services yet, but just that fact that they’re there makes me feel really good. Another interesting safety feature you can find along Mexican highways would be the water points, or places where you can get free, potable water if you ever run out. Desert driving has lots of potential hazards!

Why we do it:

With all the things that can go wrong on a road trip, especially one in an unforgiving and unknown environment, a lot of people wonder why we do it? Mexico has amazing long-distance bus services as well as super affordable domestic airlines, but no matter where you are, something about road trips just hits differently. Stopping when you want, snacking, blasting music, it’s all about the journey, right? Like most of North America, Mexico has an incredible diversity of things to see and do, and we wouldn’t have seen half of it if we hadn’t chosen to drive to so many places.

So, was there a steep learning curve? Sí. Was it worth every hard-earned lesson? ¡Absolutamente!

Our Trip to South South America

Summer is officially here, so where better to celebrate than South America, where it happens to be winter! Of course, escaping the heat wasn’t our main reason to take off to Argentina this month, but I won’t lie, we were very happy to be donning our coats in July. Such a surreal experience!

In reality, we had many reasons to head to the opposite side of the Americas. For one, when we booked this trip, Canada was still an unknown, and Buenos Aires was at the top of our list for places to go after Guadalajara. Therefore, a large part of this trip was a scouting mission. Would we like southern South America? Would we prefer Buenos Aires or the nearby Montevideo, Uruguay? Could we picture ourselves moving there? Lots of questions to be answered even if the potential move has been pushed a bit further down the line. So, once again, we took to the road (or sky in this case) for some more “research”, and here’s what we discovered:

Seasonal Switch

First off, packing coats, scarves, and gloves for a July vacation was really strange. Of course, we knew the southern hemisphere is always in the opposite season as the northern hemisphere, but experiencing that drastic switch overnight in the dead of summer/winter was still disorienting. As was the fact that the weather got colder as we went further south. I didn’t realize how ingrained “north = colder” was in my brain! We also found it really entertaining to be all bundled up on the 4th of July – I can only imagine how strange Christmas in Argentina would be for me!

Happy 4th of July!

Another surprising, geography-related experience was just how far south Buenos Aires is! Our flight from Mexico City was 9 hours. We could have crossed an ocean in that amount of time! However, I think the long flight is worth it to have four distinct seasons. It was lovely to have brown leaves crunching beneath our feet again. Slightly less lovely was the fact that Buenos Aires is an hour ahead of Eastern Time. In Mexico, we’re an hour behind, and apparently, we’ve gotten really used to our work days ending at 4pm.

Map courtesy of Aeromexico 🙂

Amazing Food

Fugazzetta

Next up on our list of discoveries was actually more of a confirmation. Near our apartment in Guadalajara, we have several Argentine restaurants, and they’re easily some of our favorites in the city. We were beyond excited to try some of our favorite dishes in their country of origin. Thankfully, Argentina did not disappoint! Of course, the steak and wine were incredible (and SO inexpensive!), but the provoleta, the empanadas, the huge number of sandwiches, the dulce de leche – omg. I was extremely impressed with all the international options we had as well. Italian, German, Korean, Asian-style pay-by-weight places, we were definitely able to branch out even in just 2 weeks.

I was also blown away by the café culture of Argentina. I knew that people in South America have an affinity for drinking mate (a tea-like drink) and, of course, as part of Latin America, coffee is popular as well, but what I didn’t expect was just how abundant and accommodating the cafés would be. Literally every block of downtown BA had at least one café, most of which had several floors offering comfortable places to sit, eat, drink, and chat to your heart’s content. And whether at a café or a restaurant, you absolutely must ask for the check because they’ll never hurry you out.    

So Much Nature

While the local food is always a priority for us when we travel, the memories that stick with us longer are often our forays into the surrounding nature, which is something that South America has in spades. We knew we wanted to take a few trips outside Buenos Aires while we were there, but deciding on where to go was so tricky! An overnight train to the Andes out west? A trek through the jungle to see the infamous Iguazu Falls? Or fully embrace winter with a flight down to Cape Horn? Of course, we went with the coldest option!

Thanks to Argentina’s budget airline, Flybondi (which is thankfully still operating post 2020), we were able to find cheap tickets down to Ushuaia. Ushuaia sits in the far south of Patagonia and is known as “the southernmost city in the world”. Here we were able to play in the snow, chill our craft beers on the window sill, and tour the icy Beagle Channel. As a geography nerd, the sheer fact that I was at the southern tip of the Americas, only about 1000km from Antarctica was enough for my bucket list, but the incredible mountains and pink morning skies just made it that much more beautiful.

Fantastic Cities

As amazing as it was to be surrounded by such diverse nature, we definitely spent the majority of our time in the two major capital cities: Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Turns out we could have used even more time because Buenos Aires is huge! That’s really the immediate impression I got from the city. It was a 45-minute ride from the airport to Retiro (a downtown neighborhood), and aside from the distance, the number of massive buildings, many of which were apartments, definitely stood out. Walking downtown, I was also amazed by how tall so many of the building are. Very old, very European-style architecture, but much taller than I seem to remember in Poland (or than what we find in Guadalajara). Luckily everything seemed to be bigger in Buenos Aires because there were also gigantic plazas and parks, wide sidewalks, and many-laned throughfares. It seemed like the kind of place you could live for years and still be discovering new points of interest.

Montevideo, on the other hand, was much smaller. Both in terms of the city’s size and the architecture. Although just a few hours away, across the Rio de la Plata, Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay and has an entirely different vibe. Of course, we were super interested in noting any and all differences (in the name of research) and couldn’t help comparing as we went along. To me, Montevideo felt a little like the quirky younger sibling of Buenos Aires. It was much more colorful with lots of street art and eclectic architecture throughout the old and new sections of the city. It also felt much more coastal with its huge rambla (promenade) and beaches. While a lot of the culinary traditions are similar between the two countries, Uruguay has a few of its own stand-outs as well, like the Chivito sandwich, which is now in Tucker’s top 5 sandwiches of all time.

I give you the Chivito

Spanish Differences

Another interesting experience on this trip (as well as on our trip last year to Ecuador) was the Spanish we were hearing and eventually using. The Spanish I’m learning is Mexican, and this is never more obvious than when we’re traveling in another Spanish-speaking country. Words like “alquilar” (to rent), “maní” (peanut), and “palta” (avocado) gave me pause because we regularly (read: only) use “rentar”, “cacajuate”, and “aguacate”. Just like learning to use “chulla vida” in Ecuador, it was really interesting to see which indigenous words Argentina and Uruguay have adopted and how these (and other) influences still serve to differentiate Spanish varieties around the globe.

However, it wasn’t just the vocabulary that caught our attention on this trip to South America. The first real conversation we had in Argentina was with the security guard in the building where we were staying. He gave us our keys and made sure we knew what to expect with entering, exiting, etc. Luckily, having a few Argentine teachers in the past helped prepare me for hearing things like “sha” and “shaves” instead of “ya” and “llaves”, but it was still much harder than I expected. The accent is SO different from what I’ve grown accustomed to, but it was surprisingly easy to pick up and start using ourselves. After just a few days we were saying “sho” (yo) and “para shevar” (para llevar) like everyone around us!  

So, What’s the Verdict?

Well, we loved it all! We could definitely see ourselves moving to either Buenos Aires or Montevideo in the future, and I would absolutely love to have a few years down there (at least!) to more thoroughly explore South America. Even though we might be going north before we make it back down south, I’m beyond thankful for the opportunity we had to get even a glimpse of such an amazing part of the world! Until next time! ¡Chau!

Pandora’s Paperwork-filled Box

This month’s post might be a little different than usual. Actually, at this point I’m not convinced this isn’t just a form of catharsis (if I write it all down, I can let it go, right? Right?) We’ll see what happens. In reality, I hope this will be more than just my venting about my last few months in paperwork hell. I would actually like for this to serve as a record in case I have to do some of these things again and perhaps also as a guide for anyone else that has to go through these incredibly tedious processes. So, all I can say is buckle up as I endeavor to take you on a journey of a thousand citas (or “appointments”).

Okay, you might at this point be wondering what the heck I’m even talking about in this post. To clarify (and to account for any absenteeism these last few months), Tucker and I have been absolutely elbow-deep in various administrative processes. It all started in January when Canadian immigration (which we applied for back in 2019) contacted us needing updated and additional documentation to continue their processing of our permanent residency status. They needed another “up-front medical exam” and a copy of my renewed passport.

Up-Front Medical Exam

While not the most complicated of our soon-to-be mountain of administrative tasks, getting a medical exam in a foreign country always comes with a few added challenges. For one, Canada requires the exams be performed by one of their IRCC-approved doctors, of which there are only 12 in Mexico. Super unfortunately, none of these twelve happened to be in Guadalajara. However, there was one clinic in Monterrey, which we knew we’d be driving through in February while on another paperwork errand. The next (and probably somewhat obvious) issue with medical exams abroad is the language barrier. I had to call and make our appointments in Spanish and, of course, all the background questions and instructions throughout the exam were also en español. I learned quite a few new words throughout this process (como altura, vejiga, aguja, y radiografía), and I even made a joke about Tucker needing a paleta after his scary, scary blood draw.

Happy to have an excuse to visit Monterrey, honestly

Passport Renewal

The next request from Canada was for my renewed passport information. This was a tricky one because they needed me to renew it 6 months before it expired! When you live abroad your passport is your main ID, so to change it before we renewed our Mexican residency would have been impossible. We also knew we’d be going back to the border in February, so for this one, I actually appealed to Canadian immigration and asked for an extension. I was somewhat successful.

I think they’re just as sick of me at this point…

Mexican Residency Renewal

Truly our 2nd home in GDL

Of course, we also knew that in February our Mexican residency status would also need to be renewed. Everyone who applies for temporary residency in Mexico is given one year at the start, and after those first 365 days, you have the option to renew for 1, 2, or 3 more years. Since getting our initial residency cards was a fairly straight-forward process, I (perhaps) naively thought the renewal process would be even easier. We’re already in the system, no?! However, a series of extremely unfortunate events had us going back and forth to the Immigration Bureau 5 times (often having to wait weeks in between citas due to the new Covid procedures, thanks a lot Omicron). Unfortunately, one of the main reasons for all of these trips was a confusion with my apellidos (“last names”).  

Reimbursement at SAT

In Spanish “apellido” refers to your family name or last name. In Mexico everyone has 2 apellidos – their paternal surname and their maternal surname. My name actually follows this structure pretty well, nombre: Danielle, apellido 1: Francuz, apellido 2: Rose. So, when the bank processed my payment that’s how the documents were filled out. However, in the eyes of the US (i.e. in my passport) and thus to the Immigration Bureau, I actually have 2 nombres: Danielle Francuz and 1 apellido: Rose. This discrepancy was a huge one in that I had to pay twice and later file for a reimbursement at yet a different office. I’ve now been to the SAT office (Mexico’s version of the IRS) twice to receive instructions and then my very own Mexican tax ID. I’m now in a “virtual line” for a third appointment where I will need to get my electronic signature before hopefully (finally) getting the reimbursement. Fingers crossed!

Import Permit Re-do

Of course, that wasn’t the only problem we had with the residency renewal…another issue came about because in order to straighten out the name debacle and successfully renew our residency cards within the new Covid procedures, we actually went past our initial residency cards’ expiration dates. Fortunately, the office assured us this wouldn’t be a problem with immigration because everyone was given leniency with the new digital cita process; however, very unfortunately, the Banjercito office (at the US-MX border), which issues import permits for foreign vehicles, did not have the same leniency in place. This meant that while we could remain in Mexico beyond our cards’ expiration dates, our car could not.

Flo, the trouble-maker

For this reason, we had to drive back to the border (before the expiration date) not exactly knowing what we would be able to do without the new residency cards to tie the permit to. Turns out there wasn’t anything we could do. You have to have either a tourist entry or a residency card to get an import permit (both of which were impossible for us as we were in limbo with cards on the verge of expiring and a scheduled appointment in another month). We also couldn’t just drive in Mexico without the permit and/or an expired permit because if we got caught, or when we came back to get a new permit, they could impound the car. Therefore, we opted for door number 3: drive the car across the border, store it for 6 weeks while we get our new residency cards, and fly up at a later date to re-do our permit and drive back down. OMG.

Police Certificates

If that wasn’t enough, while we were dealing with all the chaos of our Mexican residency renewal, Canada asked for MORE documents. With our updated location (i.e. Mexico) we needed to provide a police certificate verifying our legal/non-criminal status in yet another country (they already have these forms from us for the US, Poland, and China). However, completing the background check process in Mexico was yet another new experience for us, and it led us to another new office: the Fiscalía General Del Estado de Jalisco. Here, it took us a scouting mission, a few phone calls (en español), 3 citas, and a trip to another office (for a permission slip of all things) to finally get our fingerprints taken. Although, “fingerprints” is not really the right word. In Mexico, they take prints of your fingers, your palms, and the sides of your hands, it was actually really interesting. I’m also happy to say that I am officially NOT a criminal in Mexico. Tucker’s still waiting on his results…

Passport Renewal (for real this time)

Okay, so now it’s April. We’ve got our renewed residency cards (good until 2025), got our car with its rightful import permit back in GDL. Our appointment to try again for the reimbursement is pending, police certificates are in process, medical exams have been sent to Canada…time to renew my passport (still several months early, but what Canada wants, apparently, Canada gets). Much like all the other processes, this one took me 2 attempts. Forms, photos, payment methods, etc. everything the website says differs from the actual requirements in person, on the day. However, I have now successfully crossed this off my to-do list as well, and the new passport should be shipped sometime in the next 2-5 weeks. Praise be!  

And with that, I think we’re done, or at least very nearly. I do feel a little better getting all of this off my chest. I also feel extremely proud that we were able to juggle various forms of bureaucracy from three different countries all at once. Sometimes I think people see my travel photos and have the idea that Tucker and I are on a perpetual vacation, but I’m here to tell you it isn’t easy to live abroad. Of course, for me, it’s worth absolutely any amount of paperwork! This is my life now. 🙂  

One Year in Mexico – What Have We Learned?

What a year! And what a question! As usual, the time is flying by, and the number of stories, facts, and lessons we’ve accumulated are innumerable. However, I thought it might be fun to share a few of the things that have stuck out this past year as we’ve continued adapting to our new home in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The Lifestyle

One of the first things that is easily recognizable as soon as someone enters Mexico is its vibe. Totally unique and bursting with energy, Mexico (and Guadalajara in particular) had an immediate effect on our mentality. Moving from China back to the US with Canada on the horizon during a global pandemic definitely had us in a more serious mindset. Luckily, only a few days in Mexico had us feeling considerably more relaxed.

More than relaxed actually – tranquilo is the word. The week we arrived in Mexico, I remember walking through a park and watching a man literally stop to smells the flowers. My American go-go-go brain couldn’t compute at first. But that was really all it was. He stopped, smelled the flowers, and went back to his walk. It was the first of many muy tranquilo instances we’ve encountered this year. You can’t help but slow down and ease up, even in a major city like Guadalajara. I have to imagine this year has been significantly better for my blood pressure!  

In addition to feeling more relaxed, we’ve also been re-learning the concept of divertido (fun). One image that will forever be ingrained in my head is that of a man we saw in Ajijic riding a horse down the middle of a road while simultaneously browsing his phone and downing a cerveza. He was definitely having fun. But it’s not just the so-called magic towns that have fun. We live a block away from the party street of GDL, and we hear ALL the fun. I know for some that sounds like a nightmare (light sleepers beware), but for us, it feels like we’re having a party every weekend. Even if we’re just in our PJs watching TV at a comfortable distance.  

Another aspect of our new lives in Mexico has to be living in the moment (o espontáneamente). Sometimes it seems like either something is done right then or else it’ll be “ahorita” (which basically means never). A good example of this would be the “afiladores” or “knife sharpeners”. Every week from our apartment we can hear a whistle and a shout from the afiladores who walk the neighborhood announcing their presence so residents in need can grab their knives and run down for an impromptu sharpening. So far, I’ve yet to attempt this, but maybe ahortia…       

The Lessons 

Of course, adapting to the lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight. We’re basically still fumbling our way through life’s daily routines, making error after error as we go, but for me that’s where all the fun is. The laughs we get from the mistakes we make along with the little annoyances or oddities that give us a window into our own cultural confines definitely make all the ambiguity and confusion worth it.

¿Cajeta o galleta?

Most likely our biggest area of failure revolves around language (as it has in every one of our previous homes abroad). One that is still making us laugh actually occurred in the privacy of our own vehicle on the long drive down. The GPS kept saying we were headed toward Oeste, but neither of us had heard of that city or ever saw it on the map. Turns out “oeste” just means west in Spanish. How had we never learned the cardinal directions? Other language faux pas include my use of the word “cansada” rather than “casada” (“tired” instead of “married”) when asked my civil status, and Tucker’s continual struggle with the pronunciation of “galleta” versus “cajeta” (“cookie” or “caramel”) – for the record, I prefer cajeta.  

Another big lesson (mostly for Tucker) this year has been within the realm of driving. Driving in a foreign country is always challenging, but when you add increased frequency, the lessons just keep on coming. For example, we’ve just about reached our lifetime quota of driving through three-lane roundabouts. Still not always sure the best practices there, though. We’ve also realized that “yielding to flow” is not as easy as it sounds. But my personal favorite has been listening to forgotten 80s hits everywhere we go. The radio stations here absolutely love to play Rasputin, Take On Me, and the like.   

Glorieta de los Niños Héroes – pure chaos
Adiós Tony

Shopping in Mexico has also taught us a few lessons over the past year. We had previously learned that we might be expected to sticker our own produce before checking out (thanks Poland and China), but in Mexico, they thankfully do that at the registers. However, here it’s the bakery and cosmetics sections that are separate in most grocery stores, requiring separate check-outs/payments. We definitely lost a carrot cake in this learning process. Another fun grocery store occurrence is the covering up of any cartoon mascots on food products. There’s a law in Mexico that banned characters like Chester Cheeto and Tony the Tiger in an effort to combat childhood obesity and skewed marketing tactics. When we buy products imported from the US, there’s very often a huge sticker covering up some well-known faces.

Other Surprising Tidbits

In all honesty, every time I write a post like this, it’s hard to choose what to put in and what to save for in-person stories. I usually try to group our experiences in some way, but there are so many things we come across that are really in a world of their own. Things like…

Taco facts. Tacos are a way of life in Mexico, and we’ve learned a lot about how to rate, make, and eat a taco. First of all, two corn tortillas are a must for any self-respecting taco. We’ve heard rumors that in El Norte you can get flour tortillas, but I don’t know, it seems sort of sacrilegious now. Sadly, I also found out that putting crema on your tacos is totally fresa (uppity or snobbish). In fact, the purist tacos should have only 5 things: tortillas, meat, onion, cilantro, and lime. Of course, the final addition to any taco is a good salsa, but I could (and might seriously) write an entire post about salsa in Mexico. 

Another discovery in our early Mexico days was the constant morning cowbells. It reminded us of the “bring out your dead” scene of Monty Python, but in reality, it’s the call of the garbage collectors. There aren’t traditional bins in downtown GDL (and good thing too because the sidewalks are well-trafficked and the sun is warm), so instead of a weekly collection day, each morning the bells are rung, and if you have a full bin, you set your bag outside for collecting as they pass by.

Last but not least, I thought I’d end on a cultural tidbit that I’m not sure if I find cute or creepy. When children lose their teeth in the US, the Tooth Fairy visits their room while they sleep, taking the tooth and leaving some money (also somewhat of a mix between cute and creepy to be honest…). And kids here in Mexico experience a similar swap; however, it’s not a fairy that makes the trade. It’s the Ratón de los Dientes (or the Tooth Mouse). Makes me wonder if Mickey’s got a collection of teeth somewhere in the Kingdom.

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to during our first year in Mexico. Picking it all up as we go along and having a ton of fun in the process. We’re currently busy renewing our residencies for an additional 3 years, so I think the learning has only begun! ¡Deseanos suerte!

Hogar dulce hogar ❤

2021 Wrap-up

Another year is coming to an end…and although it wasn’t quite as crazy as 2020, it was close. For me and Tucker there were definitely some things that changed (drastically) and others that were oddly more consistent than ever before; all of which has me reflecting. So, here’s a look back at our 2021: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In an effort to cleanse ourselves from the craziness of the previous year, we started 2021 by burning everything we could find that said “2020” on it. It was extremely cathartic. As was our drive to Florida’s west coast for sunset followed by a drive to the east coast for the first sunrise of 2021. I enjoyed the dramatic ending of what was objectively one of the worst years in recent history. Although, unfortunately, a lot of what made 2020 so bad seemed to follow us into 2021, I was still extremely happy that I was able to use the New Year as an excuse to move on (mentally and physically as it turned out).

In February we finally said “au revoir” to Quebec (at least for now, accepting the long immigration pause as a bit more permanent than we had originally thought), and then we literally said “goodbye” to Orlando as we packed up and headed out for yet another (different) international move. This time we went south, moving to beautiful Guadalajara, Mexico! With all the new challenges, like obtaining residency, driving across the border, and settling in with a four-legged family member this time, we all felt completely refreshed. It’s amazing what having tangible plans and clear goals can do for your mentality, especially after a year of complete stagnation. I joke that Mexico became my therapist because I had seriously needed something to focus my energy on post-2020, and luckily, I found it.

In addition to giving us a new focus, Mexico has been an incredibly fun experience! In April, Tucker and I celebrated our birthdays with piñatas and cervezas before getting the best birthday presents ever: our vaccines! Getting vaccinated was another sort of turning point for us as we had severely limited our time outside the house prior to the vaccines. Having some sort of protection (in addition to our masks and other precautions) allowed us to begin exploring again. Since we brought our trusty steed (our Ford Focus) down to Mexico, we’ve actually been able to take several road trips thus far: visits to Puerto Vallarta, Aguascalientes, and Querétaro just to name a few.

Of course, we’ve also spent a good amount of the year simply adapting to life in Mexico. We’ve settled into our incredible neighborhood, and like I did with Orlando, I’ve essentially walked as far as I can in every possible direction to really get the feel for where we live (apparently this is my favorite pandemic-induced hobby: neighborhood walks). Another favorite pastime for me this year has been taking a plethora of Spanish classes. With the flexibility of my remote work schedule, I’ve made it a point to really work on my own language learning in 2021. I hope to continue this trend in the New Year as well. As for Tucker, he’s been paying a lot more attention to soccer as of late. We recently watched Atlas (our home team) win a championship, and we have plans to watch them play in person at some point. Fingers crossed!

Go Atlas!

While there have been many changes for us this year, one of the biggest things that hasn’t changed is work. This is the first time in many, many years that Tucker and I both started 2021 with the same jobs that we’re ending it with. Gotta love the remote work life! We’re also happy to report that our international family visits have continued as well without too much difficulty. As always, it has been such an amazing experience to share our new home with our most adventurous family members! During a lull in the variants, Tucker and I even got to continue our international travels by visiting an entirely new (to us) continent with our Thanksgiving trip to Ecuador. I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for that particular spur-of-the-moment decision. Maybe it’ll tide me over for a while…but probably not.

In contrast to all the triumphs, whether new or continued, we’ve also had a few unexpected hurdles this year. International apartment hunting amid a global pandemic was quite a challenge as was the procurement and installation of the most irritating dishwasher known to man. I also had to have a medical procedure done back in September, which not only tested our Spanish, but also our ability to lean into the unknown/ambiguous aspects of living abroad. Thankfully all went well, and I have only great things to say about the healthcare system of Mexico. Another difficulty arose a few months ago when a rogue highway rock hit and cracked our car’s windshield beyond repair. Dealing with car issues and insurance is never fun, but in a foreign country, in another language, it was torturous. However, as I kept reminding myself throughout the mishaps, this is exactly why we love living abroad: new challenges and endless lessons in patience.

As I write this, we’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the days between Christmas and New Year, which brings me to yet another one of the most exciting aspects of our year: celebrating all the holidays! Learning that Cinco de Mayo is mostly an American invention, reliving the events of “Coco” during Día de Muertos, and wishing everyone “Feliz Navidad” this month have all been incredible additions to our collective cultural knowledge. Now I can’t wait to eat my 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve and ring in what I hope will be an even more exciting and transformational year! Here’s to a próspero 2022!

Exploring Ecuador

Over Thanksgiving break this year, Tucker and I decided it was finally time to hit the international travel trail again! Aside from our move to Mexico last winter, we hadn’t been abroad for business or pleasure since 2019, so it was definitely an exciting prospect for us. For this particular trip, we decided on Ecuador, which meant that we’d not only be traversing a new country, but also a new continent since this was our first time to South America as well. Woohoo! Here’s my take on our latest journey:  

The Preparation

Of course, before venturing out, the first question we had to ask ourselves was where to go, which is not so easy in post-Covid times. Different countries have different restrictions and requirements for testing, vaccination, tourism, etc. We finally settled on Ecuador for several reasons. For one, I was happy that they require either a negative PCR test or a vaccination card for entry (a little regulation goes a long way). Two, we were also hoping to stick to the Spanish-speaking world (to continue our practice/immersion, of course). And three, I’ve always wanted to visit the equator – how cool is it to be able to stand in two different hemispheres at the same time!

…or sit on the line…

Once we decided on the location and made sure we had the necessary documents ready, we were able to start planning. The planning also turned out to be a little different than our pre-2020 travels. A lot of services and attractions have been permanently closed (including the postal system as we found out), and even those that remain open often require additional amounts of flexibility because everything is very much subject to change these days. This was really my first glimpse into just how hard the tourism industry has been hit over the last two years. Prices, schedules, options, procedures – a lot has changed, but with any luck, it’ll continue to bounce back and hopefully be stronger than ever. I know I’m beyond ready for that.

The Capital: Quito

Our first stop and home base for this trip was Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. If you weren’t already aware, Quito is one of (if not the) highest capital city in the world at 2,850 m (9,350 ft). I love the fact that the elevation meant chilly temperatures (even so close to the equator), but, unfortunately, my head doesn’t particularly like the pressure changes that also occur at elevation. The good news is I already knew about my sensitivity to high altitudes, and I was able to take Western medicine (Acetazolamide), drink the local coca tea, and share some traditional Chinese medicine with a fellow traveler all to avoid any unwelcome bouts of altitude sickness. I’m not exactly sure which one did the trick, but other than a mild headache, I was totally fine to climb stairs, hike volcanos, and do anything and everything else I wanted to do Ecuador. Another success!  

Aside from its elevation, Quito is also unique in that it is wedged between several Andean mountains and volcanoes. For this reason, although the city is about 40 km (25 mi) long, it’s only 5 km (3.1 miles) wide. It’s also extremely hilly, which made for many beautiful views all across the city as well as some of the most difficult driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. Imagine a 45-degree incline on slippery cobblestones in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a manual vehicle. I made sure to compliment the driving of every one of our taxi/Uber drivers- so impressive! Another amazing part of staying in Quito was the history. Quito has one of the least-altered and best-persevered historic centers in the Americas, and the plazas, churches, and neighborhoods were so much fun to explore. 

The Food/Restaurants

Pristiños y chocolate caliente con queso

Another really fun part of this trip was the fact that we were trying out a completely new type of cuisine. Neither Tucker or I could remember ever having Ecuadorian food, so everything was completely unknown. From the tostados (or toasted corn kernels) and ají (a spicy sauce served with every meal) to the most famous dishes from the highlands, we loved learning and sampling everything. Some of our favorites included empanadas de verde (empanadas made of plantains stuffed with cheese), locro de papa (creamy potato soup), and pristiños (fried dough with honey). Another infamous dish in this region (one that we actually opted to forgo) is cuy, or in English, guinea pig. Definitely new to us!  

While certain things (like rodents on the menu) made Ecuador seem very far from the US, other things made us feel like we’d gone north rather than south. For example, Ecuadorians use the US dollar as their currency, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the break from constantly converting in my head. Another similarity is that servers in Ecuador often take your credit card to a register in the back of the restaurant for payment. Not so strange for the average American, but after years in countries where that would never fly we found ourselves feeling a little concerned about identity theft. I mean, where’s the portable terminal? And why aren’t those commonplace everywhere?! It seems so bizarre to us now!  

The Nature

As amazing as Quito (and its restaurant scene) is, the nature is the real draw. Ecuador is home to the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos Islands. It has an incredible amount of biodiversity, and while we mostly stuck to the highlands (this time), we were absolutely blown away by what we saw. Our focus on this particular trip was definitely the volcanoes. Ecuador has the most volcanoes per square kilometer of any country, including some of the only volcanic glaciers on/near the equator. One of our favorite experiences in Ecuador was climbing Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the country. Not being very experienced or even prepared climbers, we only hiked to the refuge (at 4,860 m / 15,744 ft), which was difficult enough with the lack of oxygen, unstable terrain, and hail we experienced along the way. Still, I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat – so cool!

The other big hike we did was at the Quilotoa crater, about three hours from Cotopaxi. Quilotoa used to be a volcano, but after its last massive eruption in 1280, it is now classified as a caldera. Here we found ourselves climbing down rather than up as we made our way into the crater to get to the shores of the mineral lake that now fills the void. The hike down was absolutely breathtaking, but the hike back up was brutal: 1.7 km of steep, sandy paths (still at an elevation of over 3,914 m / 12,841 ft), and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it rained on us the whole way out. This was one of only a few trips where Tucker and I actually lost weight on vacation…despite all the good food. And speaking of food, my favorite part of this day might have actually been the meal we had after the hike – a Thanksgiving feast that will live in infamy.

The Random Facts We Gleaned

Since our buses out to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa were cancelled (because there weren’t enough people to warrant them), we actually got to tag along with a tour bus group instead. This meant that we got loads of information about Ecuador, the Andes, volcanoes, etc. – much more than I ever would have found on my own. For that reason, I have a plethora of other interesting facts to share about Ecuador. Here are some of my favorites:

-Ecuador was the first country to give constitutional rights to nature. In 2008, Ecuadorians voted to give its mountains, rivers, forests, air, and islands “legally enforceable rights to exist, flourish, and evolve”.

-One of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in this part of the world is Quechua, which is derived from the language used by the ancient Incan empire. Interestingly, Ecuadorians refer to the Peruvian dialect as Quechua while calling their own Quichua.

-Many place names and colloquial expressions in Ecuador combine Spanish and Quichua, such as the catchy “chulla vida”, which is the Ecuadorian version of “YOLO”.  

-Llamas and alpacas are both endemic to this part of South America and can be commonly seen alongside other livestock throughout the highlands. But how can you tell them apart? Well, alpacas are much shorter, have softer fur, and are typically less aggressive. Llamas are the ones to look out for!

-Another interesting fact about Ecuador is that it is home to the highest mountain in the world…sort of. The peak of Mount Chimborazo is actually the furthest from the center of the Earth (or the closest to the sun). Mount Everest is the highest if compared to sea level.

-Gravity is lower at the equator, which is why many rocket launch sites are located close to the equator. It’s also the reason it’s supposedly easier to balance an egg on a nail. #huevochallenge

-Ecuador is also the world’s largest exporter of bananas. Unsurprisingly, the bananas we had while there were extremely cheap and perfectly ripe.

Overall, it was truly an incredible trip. I feel so grateful that we were able to have this experience, and I sincerely hope it won’t be so long before our next big adventure!

¡Gracias por un buen viaje, Ecuador!