Packing up the last boxes in the kitchen of my California home I caught myself looking around at the empty walls. It was an odd feeling and I could sense that this move was not like anything I had ever done before...
Life on foreign soil was nothing new to this old Gringo as I had taken advantage of many opportunities through the years to explore living and working abroad. So why was this time different I asked myself? The question stayed on my mind as I finished packing and loaded the few remaining boxes that I had carefully labeled onto the truck. That was done and I checked off the box on my list of things to do. With an engineering background I had become accustomed to always doing my homework and planning everything down to the very last detail. This move to Baja California, Mexico was no different. I had been able to find a company that would rent me a truck that I could take into Mexico and I ended up with something so big it almost scared me. Friends had helped me load the large and heavy furniture earlier in the day and now the house was empty.
After closing and locking the truck doors I went back in for one last look. Standing alone in what had been my living room for many years I watched the late afternoon sun cast its light across the bare floors and I could see the distinctive marks on the carpet where my furniture had been so carefully arranged. My steps echoed down the hallway as I peered into empty rooms now devoid of all sound and color. This empty house had been my home but now seemed unknown to me in some strange way. I had kept a small radio turned on in the background while packing that last day but now even it was gone, sealed into the very last box I taped shut and now aboard the truck awaiting our departure. The silence that now filled the house seemed to change the very character of the place. With all of my furniture, artwork, plants, rugs, music and a lifetime of precious junk carefully fitted into the back of a moving van, it felt as if my life and memories invested into this house seemed to have packed themselves up as well. Not wanting to give into the nostalgic moment I took the checklist from the bare kitchen counter and made one last look into cabinet drawers to be sure that nothing had been forgotten. Locking the front door behind me for the last time I tried to focus on the new chapter that was beginning in my life. Loading Dakota (my yellow Lab) into the cab of the truck I found myself wondering what was waiting ahead for us?
Working in some distant destinations like Buenos Aires, San Miguel de Tucuman, Caracas, Mexico City and Singapore I had developed an innate ability to adapt to life far from home and learn the local ways and customs to the point that it had become almost part of my very nature. So why did this move to the Baja California peninsula, only a few hundred miles to the south strike such a sensitive nerve within me? Trying to figure out how to back this enormous truck down my driveway without destroying half of the cars in the neighborhood (shouldn't they at least give us a driving test before turning us loose with such a huge thing?) with my car in tow behind was a particularly delicate maneuver that I somehow managed to pull off, although to this day I still don't quite know how. Letting the clutch out in first gear the truck lurched forward and I watched the house I had long called home slip slowly away. Having lived and worked halfway around the planet at times I always had one thing to fall back on. There was always one geographical constant in my life - my home back in California. Now I was taking everything I owned; every last plate, bowl, chair, book, CD, lamp, pillow, photo and collected memory in an oversized moving truck to a small 3 bedroom house in a seaside community in Mexico. As I shifted trying to find third gear I knew in my heart that there was no turning back now.
Heading down the 405 freeway I wondered even out loud at times about my decision. Friends and family had become accustomed to my wandering gypsy ways but they also sensed that there was something different about this move and a few even seemed to get emotional about it. I reminded them that I would be only a days drive away, but they were right. This move was different and even Dakota sensed it. Like most large dogs she loves to ride in the front seat and I was hoping that I could at least count on her vote of support but once the truck started moving forward she curled up on a blanket on the cab floor. I wasn't sure if her big brown eyes staring up at me were wondering if I had really thought this through or asking if I had the slightest clue of how to drive this big old truck. Either way she was of no help tonight.
Being the analytical one that I am I spent the next hour of driving going over all the planning and pre-move details in my head. One by one I went down the mental checklist. Everything was covered I assured myself. I had even measured all of the rooms in the house to make sure that my furniture would fit using a CAD drafting program to lay out the room arrangements. I reached down into my notebook next to me to make sure I had remembered to bring the printed room layout pages with me. I had arranged for a moving crew to meet me at the house the next morning with enough people and equipment to unload the truck and help me get everything into the house. I made sure the utilities were on, had already contracted a woman to help with the housekeeping and notified friends, family and business contacts of my new address and phone number. I had everything taken care of. STOP WORRYING, I kept telling myself...
About that time my daughter Olivia called me on my cell phone to see where I was at and to tell me that she already missed me. I think that she was just checking up on me as she probably knew that her dad had no clue on how to drive this monster truck some rental company had the poor judgment to entrust to me. Right about then I was starting to wonder why I hadn't considered contracting one of those cross border moving companies available. Accepting that it was obviously way too late to change anything now I focused my attention on trying to keep this thing inside my lane and avoid running over some small compact car that I couldn't see in the side mirrors that seemed to be 20 feet above the road. One thing for sure, I had gained new respect for truckers who drive these things for a living. I made a date with Olivia on the phone for her to take the Amtrak down next week. I would pick her up at the train station in San Diego and I was already planning things for us to do together once we crossed the border going south.
It was dark now and as I passed San Clemente I was able to catch my first good look at the ocean. The moonlight was glimmering across the Pacific and suddenly I was reminded of why I had made the decision to make the move in the first place. Growing up in Southern California I had learned to walk the fine line between the teasing lure of its miles of coastline and the knowledge that I could never actually afford to live close enough to enjoy the view. My earning power grew every year but was far outpaced by skyrocketing coastal property values California was famous for. I figured it was just one of life's cruel jokes on an average joe like me. My professional life had reached the point where I was able to control more of my time and the vast majority of it was spent in front of a computer screen. While checking my email one morning over coffee I realized that the answer was right in front of me. High speed internet allowed me the luxury to work almost anywhere and I knew my productivity had to increase living near the beach. At least I knew for sure that I could never find a nicer work environment. I had spent many vacations enjoying the northern Baja Pacific coastal areas and the affordable property values, close proximity to Califoria and its perfect year round weather made my decision a quick and easy one. The only question at that point was why I hadn't thought of it sooner. I was moving to Mexico and needed to find where along the Baja peninsula I would stake my claim.
And so I began the process. I started my checklist.
Gearing down as I exited the off ramp in San Diego I took out my map and was able to find the rental yard where I would drop off the truck the next day. Part of my plan was to leave my vehicle in tow parked at the drop off location so I would have something to drive back to the house. Finding the rental yard office I could see that every parking space in front was filled with rental trucks, vans and trailers. With no other alternative I unhooked my vehicle and parked it in the street. It looked OK and the area was well lit so I locked it up and got back up into the truck to continue my journey. Back on the freeway now, signs began to appear notifying me of the approaching international border. I knew that the San Ysidro crossing into Mexico was near.
Right about then I was feeling pretty good about my decision to make the move south and was even losing some of the fear of this multi axled beast beneath me. Part of my planning included crossing the border late at night so as to avoid having to drive this massive truck through Tijuana traffic. A few hours of driving was not enough to prepare me for such a task and so I thought this would be the perfect time. You can imagine my surprise when the Mexican customs agents at the San Ysidro border crossing rushed out, arms waving to stop me. Large trucks were required to cross at Otay Mesa and the truck crossing was now closed until the following morning.
That wasn't on my checklist.
The customs agents were kind enough to open a gate leading out west through the old commercial crossing area and helped me to maneuver the truck around and back out into San Ysidro on the USA side of the border. I had to find a place for us to spend the night. It was almost midnight when we found a motel that accepted dogs and where I could park the truck. Setting my alarm for 4:00 AM, I figured that we could get to the Otay border early and be the first in line. First in line is first to cross I figured. I was used to operating on little sleep and something that I must admit that I even liked to wear as some sort of badge of honor or something. I had even calculated how many extra years of life I was going to be able to enjoy out of bed by sleeping fewer hours per day. With Dakota already snoring loudly on her blanket next to the bed I turned out the light and quickly went to sleep.
It seemed like only minutes later that the alarm clock was going off. I peered out of the corner of one eye to make sure that the clock wasn't wrong and debated whether or not to hit the snooze button. Pulling the covers back I set my feet on the floor and turned the light on. Dakota covered her head with one paw and groaned. I understood what she was feeling. I was almost tempted to climb back into bed myself but then I remembered the checklist that I had worked so carefully to plan and prepare for. Time was ticking and we needed to hit the road.
Arriving at the Otay truck crossing before 4:30 AM we quickly discovered that we were not the first in line. We weren't even in the first fifty but the good news is that by mid morning we were pulling up to the house and I was thinking how nice it would be to just go lie down on any floor in the house and pass out. I was tired but I also needed to get the truck dropped off by the end of the day back in San Diego. There was a lot to unload and the clock was running. It was then that I remembered that the moving crew was supposed to be there by 8:00 that morning and looking at my watch I could see that it was now past 10:30. I had spoken with the crew foreman a few days before to confirm the job, the address and the time. Thinking back I recalled that his phone number was on a business card. I looked through my wallet, notebook, and up and down my checklist. No business card and no phone number. I couldn't even remember his name. A very uncomfortable feeling quickly took over me. Most people would call it panic!
Surely they had already come and gone when they saw no truck, I told myself. I knew that there was no way I would be able to unload the truck myself and the house had two sets of stairs that would have to be negotiated. I was in trouble, my heart began to race and I felt myself break out into a cold sweat that late fall morning. Looking around the neighborhood I could see a Señora sweeping the sidewalk in front of her home and some small children riding their bikes down the street. An elderly gentleman sat watching me in silence from his front porch and nodded his head with a smile as I looked his way. He must have been amused at this dumb Gringo standing there with his dog trying to figure out how he was going to unload an entire truckload of furniture by himself. The cold sweat was turning into large beads now running down my temples. I was all by myself in Mexico with a big problem on my hands. My checklist, so carefully prepared was of no help right now.
Walking over to the elderly man on his porch I asked him in my best Spanish if he had seen any workers at my house earlier. I explained that I was expecting some men to help me unload the truck. He said that he might have seen someone there earlier. Or maybe that was yesterday, he added. Maybe it was the guy reading the electric meter. He wasn't sure. I had no idea what to do or who to call for help. It was a cool morning yet my shirt was glued to my back from the perspiration right about then. I was beginning to feel ill and it must have shown.
The old man offered me a chair and said that I should sit down and have some fresh squeezed juice. I felt like I was in a desperate situation and he wanted for me to sit with him on his porch and drink orange juice! He definitely didn't understand my precarious predicament and the last thing I wanted to do was waste more time than I had already lost that day! I continued to argue but the old man ignored my protests, guiding me by the arm to the chair he pushed forward and where he insisted that I sit down. Having little strength left to fight I relented and took the chair for a moment. I told myself that I would give in for a minute or two just to be polite. Then I would excuse myself to get back to the real problem of how I was going to unload that truck and get everything into the house. There were more pressing matters at hand and no time to lose, I reminded myself.
Sitting down in the soft cushioned chair and allowing my muscles to relax for a moment did feel good, I had to admit. The hard springs in the seat of the truck had left my posterior numb and the vibration of the truck's diesel engine still had my teeth chattering a bit. Sitting back in the chair I allowed myself for the first time since arriving that morning to look out and take in the fantastic ocean view before us. The cool ocean breeze that crossed his porch felt so soothing right then and you could even hear the sound of the crashing waves on the distant beach below. With each sip of the cold juice I felt my pulse start to slow and my blood pressure begin to drop.
My breathing regulated down to a more measured pace and it was then that I allowed myself to open up and share with this kind old man the story of my move to Mexico. He listened and we laughed together as he shared some of his own experiences when moving his family here from Jalisco. His wife stepped out onto the porch and asked me when I had eaten my last meal. Thinking about it for a moment I remembered eating a hamburger that a friend had brought by the day before while packing. I also had some peanuts on the drive down last night I added. The Señora became so upset that she was scolding me after realizing that 24 hours had gone by since my last meal. She insisted that she would prepare something for me to eat immediately and before I could even tell her not to bother she was gone inside the house.
I shrugged my shoulders and commented to the old man that it was no big deal to me. I was used to going a day without eating at times and even operating on little sleep while working on a pressing project. I told him that it seems to have become part of the "American Way of Life" for many of my colleagues north of the border. The old man listened to my reasoning and justification in silence, all the time rocking in his chair and staring out over the sea. Smiling, he then turned to me and put his hand on my arm. He hesitated for a moment, as if searching for the right words and then told me that I had come to Mexico for a reason. Everything happens for a reason he told me and life had brought me to Mexico because there was something I needed to learn.
I had no clue as to what this kind old man was trying to tell me nor could I comprehend how true his words would become. I was too caught up worrying about that truck full of furniture sitting there. Dakota and I shared that meal on the front porch and then thanking my new friends for their hospitality I walked back to the house to figure out what I was going to do. It was now getting close to noon and the truck wasn't going to unload itself. I needed to have it back across the border before 6:00PM or have to pay a hefty penalty. That wasn't in my plan or on my checklist. Seeing no other option I began to unload what I could from the truck. Boxes, chairs, lamps, pillows and whatever I could carry. I hadn't even gotten through a quarter of the truck and looking at my watch it was now 1:30 and I still had so much left to go. Setting down a box of dishes in the kitchen I felt myself beginning to feel desperate, knowing that I could never finish this by myself and without a clue as to what I was going to do.
It was at that moment that I was reminded of something my mom would say, "It is always darkest before the dawn" as I heard voices outside the front door. I let out a sigh a relief thinking that the movers had come back and would help me finish unloading the truck. Running outside I felt the air go out from my sails as I was to find only the elderly couple who had graciously offered me their front porch and lunch just a few hours before. They asked how things were going and I showed them the small extent of my progress. They surely saw the despair in my eyes and then asked if I would be upset that they had already called their grandson telling him to bring a few of his college friends over to help a neighbor.
Within a short while I had nearly a dozen young men helping me to unload the truck and move everything into the house. I had a hard time keeping up with them just to direct the traffic and tell them where everything should go. I was still trying to follow my checklist and CAD drawings of room layouts but it reached the point that just getting the truck unloaded and everything safely into the house was an achievement I could live with. Within an hour the truck was empty. It would have been almost perfect except for the fact that with all of my analysis and planning I had neglected to measure the space for the refrigerator. It was an inch too short.
The Señora tried to wash some cups and asked me if I had water in my pila. What was a "pila", I asked? So much for checklists and perfect planning.
The boys were now sitting on the back of the truck and on the front curb drinking juice brought down by the Señora. I offered them each twenty dollars for their hard work. They had practically saved my life (OK, a slight exaggeration) and it was a bargain in my eyes. The old man quickly stepped forward and pushed my hand full of cash away. He reminded me that I was a neighbor and that neighbors help their neighbors. The more I insisted the harder the look on the old man grew and I accepted that it was an argument that I would not win that afternoon.
I then offered to throw a barbecue for everyone once I was settled in. That offer was quickly and enthusiastically accepted and we all shook hands on it. Making my way back towards the border the truck was much lighter and easier to drive. I felt as if the trucks cargo was a load taken off my shoulders and I even turned on the radio to a local station, my left elbow hanging out the open window and humming to the ballads that played. A feeling of being almost light hearted came over me. I don't even remember the traffic and somehow I avoided running anyone over with the huge truck as I made my way to the Otay crossing that afternoon. Heading back towards the rental yard I could only think about getting back home and putting some order to the house. There was still so much to do but I also knew that I felt so very tired. At least I would find the box with the wine and pour a glass to celebrate, I thought to myself.
I felt a small relief to get the responsibility of the truck off my hands as well as some sense of pride over the fact that I had managed to get through the entire ordeal in one piece. My move to Mexico was done. Climbing into my own vehicle I was about to turn on the ignition when I could see something under the front wiper.
A parking ticket.
Normally, that might have been something that would have upset me but at this point I just stuck it into the overhead visor without giving it another thought. After what I had been through for the last 24 hours it seemed so trivial at that moment and instead I just turned on the same Mexican radio station that I had been listening to in the truck. Making my way back down through afternoon traffic and driving south across the border I felt something different as I crossed into Mexico this time. I was no longer coming as a visitor or as a tourist. I was coming in as a resident. I now belong here. Mexico was now my home and in the weeks and months that followed I would come to understand what an important and changing impact on my life that would be.
Driving down the toll road I could see the late afternoon sun behind the Coronado Islands and I pressed forward, wanting to witness my first sunset from my new home. Once back in the house and in my kitchen I began tearing through the boxes until a bottle of Merlot, a wine glass and corkscrew were found. While searching through the boxes I also found the small radio I had listened to while packing the day before. Stepping over boxes to make my way down into the living room I saw the checklist on the kitchen counter with a few items that still remained unchecked.
I wadded it up and threw it into one of the open boxes. I was tired of checklists.
I pushed an overstuffed chair and ottoman in the living room to face west out towards the back in full view of the quickly approaching sunset. I poured a glass of wine and turned on the old radio I had placed up above the fireplace. I set my feet up on the big ottoman and let the moment sink in. The ocean view was spectacular and closing my eyes I could hear the wise words of the old man, my neighbor and new friend, reminding me that life had brought me to Mexico. There is a reason why I came here. I wasn't sure what it was that I was supposed to learn, but whatever it was I remember that it was feeling pretty good right at that moment.
My moving to Mexico experience became one that I would remember well in the years that followed and taught me to accept that not everything in life can be planned and that you can over-analyze things at times. I now revel in the "sabor" of three good meals a day, preferably shared with family, friends and loved ones. I have found the wisdom in learning to let go of the "small stuff" and not stress over things that days later I could hardly remember anyway. I make time to share with those closest to my heart, even if only to sit out on the porch and enjoy a cool afternoon breeze or a classic Baja Pacific sunset, always with music in the background and a glass of wine or spirits when possible. I have also discovered the true and blissful joy in a good night's sleep and I have surrendered myself, body and soul to this wonderful place, culture and lifestyle on the Baja California peninsula. Today I embrace the "reason" life brought me here to Mexico and cherish every single day as a new adventure waiting to be discovered. I feel that time has turned back the clock and granted me new life, feeling at least ten years younger today than when I first moved here. At this point in my life I couldn't imagine living anywhere else on this planet.
I had no idea what I had gotten myself into nor could I have imagined what the future could possibly hold that first day, sitting in my overstuffed chair while taking in my first Baja sunset from "home." Dakota and I would quickly discover how large a circle of friends and family we were blessed with as our guest bedroom was frequently "reserved." I had to keep a calendar so as not to "over-book" the room. Many of our house guests discovered for themselves what brought me here in the first place and have since staked their own claim here in northern Baja. As neighbors now, our friendships have taken on a new and even deeper meaning.
My daughter Olivia developed a special love for Mexico and on her frequent trips down we would share many fun and special adventures together discovering what a special place this truly is. Tomorrow is only the promise of what might be and life gave us no warning that her days on this earth would be cut short. In the five years now since she left us I still thank God for the wonderful memories I cherish with her and the time we spent together in Mexico. I cannot walk along the beach below our home now without seeing Olivia and Dakota run out into the surf. It's a memory burned deep into my heart. When the emotions seem too much and overcome me at times Cristina is now there by my side to offer her hand, love and support. She is the most beautiful reason I was to learn and discover in my move to Mexico.
Life has its reasons and I remember with great detail how it seemed almost magical as I watched the late afternoon sunlight dance across the shimmering water below that first day in my new home. The house was still a mess with everything out of order and needing to be put away. I finally accepted that those were tasks that I could worry about later. "Mañana," I whispered to myself. For that moment all that seemed important was sharing that very special moment with a good glass of wine, a comfortable chair and Marco Antonio Solis playing in the background across the airwaves. It became immediately obvious to me why so many are drawn to this special place. I let myself succumb to the moment, slowly drifting off into a deep sleep, knowing only that my life was changing. It was changing forever. Mexico was now my home and I was here to stay, anxious to discover what life was preparing for me on the road ahead. It felt like a healing hand on my shoulder; this old Gringo still had much to learn.
I believe that life has a reason for all of us. One thing is for sure, it's probably not to be found anywhere on a checklist...