By Carmen Poon
That was a while ago. Once again, my coil binder workbook has started whispering to me loudly enough that I can no longer ignore it. I have been quite busy over the last month with work and a houseguest, but I think a large part of my writer’s block has been fueled by a bout of melancholy. (A melancholy writer? I know, how stereotypical can I be?!)
I believe that my particular strain of the blues stems from springtime in Puerto Vallarta. For those who do not live here, that last comment probably seems a bit strange. Spring is supposed to be synonymous with change, rebirth and warmer temperatures. In Canada the snow begins to melt, temperatures get higher, then they suddenly get colder again and there’s a big dump of snow. Predictably, everyone gets depressed wondering if the winter will ever end, which it eventually does. Here in Puerto Vallarta it doesn’t snow, but the temperatures definitely begin to rise. There is a significant increase in heat and humidity which signals the exodus of a large portion of Puerto Vallarta’s residents.
Yeah, here in Vallarta, April and May are the “goodbye” months. A large part of the expat population goes back north for the warmer months. Parking is easier downtown and many businesses drastically reduce their schedules or shut their doors for the summer and early fall. Even many Mexicans leave the city in July and August. Being that Vallarta is a tourist town, many people naturally wait for low season and for their children to be out of school to be able to leave on holiday. As well, many of my husband’s cycling buddies leave to ride back in their home countries. Come July, several of my teaching friends will go off travelling to other parts of Mexico or return home to their families for an extended visit.
When I moved here I accepted the knowledge that I may not be able to return every year to visit family back home. I also knew that I would go through at least a couple of bouts of homesickness, but this time it sneaked up on me. Actually no, it didn’t just sneak up on me, it basically sucker punched me in the jaw.
During Semana Santa (Easter Week) we were very excited to have a houseguest. Molly, whom we’ve known for pretty much her entire life, is the eldest daughter of a long-time friend of ours. The first time that Clarence and I met Molly, she was wearing a diaper and was rapidly crawling across the kitchen floor at our friend’s house. It was our duty to make sure that she didn’t get into any baby mischief while our friend zipped outside to check on the steaks that she was barbecuing. As a teenager, she was the first non-family member, to babysit our son Ethan. She is now grown and no longer lives at home, so even before we moved to Mexico we obviously didn’t see her as often as we used to. Understandably, we were pretty excited to have her around for a whole week. Seeing her again was absolutely lovely. She has grown into an incredible person, with a sharp wit, an ear for foreign languages, and an astonishing encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture. When I dropped her off at the airport I was quite upset to see her go.
A few days later, I contacted other friends about a hike, which we had tentatively discussed. I knew that they too would be leaving Puerto Vallarta for the summer. As I talked with my friend Penelope, it became very evident that the social calendar for her and her hubby was chock-full of going away parties in April. Even though I didn’t know any of these people, it still bothered me. The city was a bucket of water with a constant leak.
As my week went on, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one feeling a bit blue. I talked with my ma on the phone and she admitted to me that she too was feeling the strain of the distance. She had totally supported our move to Mexico, saying it was indeed the right thing for our family, but she missed us and in particular missed watching her grandson grow and develop. Likewise, my friend Lara, who was maid of honour at my wedding, has mentioned more than once that she misses me now that I live in Mexico. Now before I go on, I should mention that Lara and I haven’t lived in the same province for many years. She had moved to Ontario long before I ever called to tell her that I had lost my mind and decided to move to Mexico. “This is ridiculous”, she told me, “but I’m going to miss you.” The day of our conversation we had been living on opposite sides of the country for more than eleven years! For some reason the feeling of separation is more acute, because I’m in another country. The physical distance is longer, but really what is the difference between a 3.5 hour plane ride and a 5 hour plane ride in the large scheme of things? (I know, I know. The difference is 1.5 hours! Come on, some of you were thinking it.)
One thing that I have noticed since moving to another country is that when I go back to Canada or when a good friend comes to Puerto Vallarta, we make a concerted effort to see each other even if it is only for a cup of coffee. It seems, that knowing we only have seven to fourteen days to get our visit in motivates us. Yep, there is nothing like a deadline to get you off your keister! Interestingly, I have some friends whom I have seen more often now that I live here! This is not a criticism of my friends. I was just as guilty of letting work schedules, school schedules, traffic, and just being plain tired get in the way of connecting with them as they were with me. Now that we have a finite amount of time it make us put an extra effort in that we didn’t always do when we lived in the same geographic region.
Yeah, feelings of being separated from your peeps is hard. But I’ve also found myself pining for certain places and things as well. Some days I miss the beautifully maintained parks in Canada. As a mother, I liked bringing my son to those gorgeous, groomed, green spaces with bright bubblegum coloured playground equipment that were everywhere in Calgary. When I came to Mexico, I had to adjust my expectations. There are some beautiful, groomed park spaces here, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Our home is a few metres from a local park. It is a relatively nice park, but it is a far cry from the manicured play spaces that I used to visit in Calgary. It has a basketball court and some old playground equipment. It also has trees that my son has climbed numerous times, sticks, large seed pods that explode delightfully when hit against a tree, leaves of all shapes and sizes, rocks, holes, hunks of concrete and at one point a dead cat in a hole that we helped bury. In other words, it’s a place of adventure and exploration. He thoroughly loves playing there with friends or with my husband and me.
I don’t know when it dawned on me, but one day I realized that this humble play space was probably waaaay more interesting than the sanitary controlled play spaces I sometimes miss. When I was growing up my favourite playground was the remains of the construction site in front of my home in a new housing development. All the kids played there. We rode our bicycles through the dirt piles, using found pieces of wood and bricks to make jumps for our bikes. We created forts using pieces of cinderblock, sticks and bushes, guarding our territory ferociously against intruders. A favourite spot for everyone was “The Tire”. In fact, having your fort near “The Tire” was quite prestigious. “The Tire” was a large equipment tire that had been left at the site, and over time, had partially filled with rainwater creating a wonderful little ecosystem. The water was delightful. It was a mix of dark green and grey-brown with patches of slimy algae. One of my favourite activities was running my hand along the inside wall of the wet tire and finding a large, slippery snail. What could be more satisfying than that? There was an actual playground in the neighbourhood and we played there too, but there was way less adventure to be had on a closely cropped green lawn with parent-approved playground equipment on it. Upon further reflection, I remembered that Ethan’s favourite park in Calgary wasn’t the pretty perfectly maintained ones, but rather a natural park, Fish Creek. And then I started to miss Fish Creek. What can I say? I was on a roll!
Fish Creek Park is a large provincial park located in the far south end of Calgary. It is an oasis of wilderness in an ever growing concrete landscape. Many Calgarians escape there to slow down, connect with nature, and centre themselves. When we lived in Calgary, we used to go there as a family and have adventures tromping around in the brush, wading through the creek and exploring. One day I looked at the humble park a few metres from my home here in Puerto Vallarta and I saw a likeness to those places that my son and I truly enjoyed north of the 49th parallel. It was completely perfect in its imperfection, providing Ethan an enriching experience similar those of my childhood. I don’t know why I had forgotten how wonderful dirt and rocks are!
Thinking about Fish Creek inevitably brings on thoughts of the mountains. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Alberta’s basic geography, the province is anchored on the west by the Rocky Mountains. From there, the Foothills billow up and down like a blanket being laid out for a picnic and then stretch out eastward to become the Canadian prairies. My father is a true outdoorsman who grew up in Waterton National Park (lucky turkey) and so, he often took my siblings and me hiking, fishing and camping all over Alberta and British Columbia. Of all the places he took me, my favourite spaces were the mountains.
I remember once commenting to an acquaintance here in Puerto Vallarta that I missed the mountains. The man stared at me in bemusement and then looking not unlike a game show host displaying the grand prize, opened his palm skyward and panned his arm in a semicircle indicating the mountains that literally surround Puerto Vallarta. I smiled at him and said that yes, he was right, there were indeed mountains around the city and they are beautiful, but they aren’t the same. They aren’t my mountains. How could I explain it to him? My mountains wear a white snowy toque, even in the warmth of summertime and are swathed in green, grey, and blue. They are big, pointed, jagged, rough, and breathtaking. Yep, as far as mountain ranges go, the Rocky Mountains are pretty damned flashy. And I miss them. You can glimpse them from almost anywhere in Calgary. For me, they were always there in the background. I always felt more grounded when I looked at them. And then I moved away.
Instead of sharp angular spires, the Sierra Madres are more rounded. They dress in dark greens, rich ochre reds, rusty orange and garlands of bright pink, red, orange and yellow flowers. They hint at my old mountains with fresh air, cool creeks and trees that remind me of lodge pole pines, yet I’m not completely at ease in them. I still get that incredible sense of calm walking or riding my bike there, but I don’t feel that I am truly “at home”. I think that it comes from a fear of the unknown. Back in Canada I had no apprehension about roaming around in the mountains, but here I am more cautious. Truthfully, I think it has more to do with familiarity than with greater danger. After all, in the Rockies I could come across a bear, moose, or a cougar, but this never stopped me from going hiking or camping there. Here in Mexico, I think that I am more scared about being bitten or stung by some exotic bug than I am of being attacked by a large predator. (My old fear of spiders and stinging insects has apparently not completely faded away, despite my best efforts!)
Still, little by little I am becoming braver in my explorations of the natural landscapes that surround my new home. Every few weeks I find a new route either on foot or on my bike and I get a taste of that feeling I used to have back in the Rockies, albeit with a bit of tropical flavour! Given time, I’m hoping that the Sierra Madres will also be “my” mountains.
Another thing that I miss is snow. I have now spent the last three winters in Mexico without seeing one snowflake. I am probably the envy of many a Canuck who has endured the bitter cold that is Canadian winter, but I’ve found myself feeling wistful about the white stuff. Let me make something very clear before I continue down this very slippery slope that I am currently on. (If any of my friends or family are reading this please resist the urge to disown me or possibly shoot me. Just keep reading guys!) To be clear, I do NOT miss temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius or even -20 Celsius. I do not miss scraping my car windows every morning, while my vehicle takes a half an hour to warm up. I do not miss driving on skating rinks that used to be roads in August. I do not miss that horrible feeling when you realize that your boots and/or mitts are not warm enough for the weather and you are left pounding your hands together and stomping your feet uselessly until a bus (that is often late because of the bad roads) finally arrives. I do not miss that sloppy, grey-brown, salt-laden slop that lies in wait for you at the curbside and then splashes all over you with every passing vehicle, soaking you in filthy street water and making you colder. I do not miss shoveling my side walk. And I DO NOT miss wind-chill factor or black ice!
No, what I miss are the crisp, white mornings when fluffy flakes squeak and crunch under your boots. I miss large, lacy frost hanging from bare trees like cold lingerie. I miss flying down a tobogganing hill with my son making a mental note to call my chiropractor once I get home. I miss making snowmen. I miss hiking in the mountains in the wintertime with their stark, pared down beauty. (See, there are the mountains again.) I miss swimming in outdoor hot springs with snowflakes falling to their doom in the hot water as my hair and eyelashes bejewel with ice crystals. I miss snuggling into a big fuzzy sweater and soft fluffy socks while drinking hot chocolate after coming in from the cold. I miss all of these things; I just don’t want it to be colder than -15 degrees Celsius! Having grown up in Canada, I know that when it comes to winter, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, because it would probably be frozen solid!
Nevertheless, I find myself locked in a bit of nostalgia these days. “This isn’t my first rodeo.” I’ve been away from “home” before and I know that this sentimentality that has struck me of late will eventually slip away. With each passing week, Mexico is becoming “home” and I have a great desire to explore more of this beautiful country in which I now live. Even with my sometimes gloomy mood lately I still have to laugh at myself. I know that if I had to move back to Canada tomorrow that I would miss the new friendships and amazing experiences that are blossoming right here and now in my life. Yes, I am fickle, no doubt, but I am also able to find beauty wherever my feet tread and my eyes gaze. For the moment, however, I think I am going to turn the air conditioner on high, make myself a hot chocolate and for a short time—wallow.
As I wrote this article I (of course) began thinking of the other things or places that I missed about living in Canada. This then led to thoughts about the things I would miss about living in Mexico should I ever leave. As a nod to my capricious nature I decided to share these lists with you! And you know what? It helped my mood! One thing that does concern me is the number of times FOOD appears on both lists! What’s that all about? Have you ever moved from one country to another? What would be on your lists? Feel free to share your lists with me. I would love to read them.
Things I miss about living in Calgary
Dishwashers. Most people don’t have a dishwasher here in Mexico. Even well off people often times don’t have one. Inconceivable!
Vietnamese food. This was one of our favourite types of cuisine when we lived in Canada. I especially loved creamy, nutty, spicy beef satay soup. Recently, Bonito Kitchen here in Puerto Vallarta has been helping me with my Vietnamese noodle cravings, but they haven’t had beef satay soup on the menu. Come on guys! You can do it!
Bubble baths and bathtubs in general. One of my favourite ways to pamper myself was with a bubble bath and a great book. Kind of hard to do in a shower!
Chinese vegetables and sauces. My husband is Chinese-Canadian and some of the Chinese dishes that he grew up on and that we regularly made back in Canada are impossible to make here, because those vegetables and sauces are not available in Puerto Vallarta and sometimes not in Mexico period. When returning from a short trip to the United States once I actually packed 7 large jars of black bean and garlic sauce in my suitcase! The women working for customs in Mexico City were fascinated by this as I described the flavour of this intense salty sauce to them.
Black licorice. Black licorice is one of my favourite candies and completely unheard of here in Vallarta.
Jarred butter chicken sauce. You can buy butter chicken at the producers market on weekends here in Vallarta and it is oh so tasty, but it isn’t cheap. To date, I have had two friends bring down jarred butter chicken sauce to ease our butter chicken withdrawal.
Rhubarb pie with flaky pastry. I have never seen rhubarb available here. If you know where I can get it, please message me! There are many wonderful things in Mexican cuisine, but flaky buttery pastry is not one of them. Many baked goods here in Vallarta are very heavy and dense. Some of the cookies melt in your mouth, but the pastry…meh.
Drinking water from the tap. You never know what a luxury it is until you no longer have it.
Autumn. I know I said that I hate the cold of winter, but I love the coolness of fall. Nothing beats cool crisp mornings followed by a warm afternoon. Luckily we got this kind of weather in January here in Puerto Vallarta. I actually had to wear a light sweater in the morning and I loved it!
Blackfoot Truck stop! This classic diner in south east Calgary is a landmark. We would regularly stop in after bike rides for French fries, milkshakes, pie and other foods that are wonderful for your soul if not for your waistline. They also have famous flapper pie and an awesome model train!
Things I would miss about living in Puerto Vallarta.
The beach. I love walking on the beach, looking for stones, shells and other treasures, swimming, body surfing, and playing in the sand. I am NEVER bored there and always feel peaceful and content once my feet hit the sand and stones.
Mexican eggs, milk, carrots and potatoes. I don’t know why, but they just taste better here.
Street tacos. When my Canadian friends say they went for tacos, I always tell them, “No you didn’t. Come visit us and we will take you for tacos!”
Agua de sabor. These flavoured waters are a staple in this hot climate. They are water based drinks that are naturally flavoured by fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds and are delicious! I really need to learn how to make my favourites.
Pacífico beer at any corner store! I love Pacífico, and back in Canada I would wince every time I had to pay imported beer prices to drink one. Here, I can grab one at the corner store for well under $2 Canadian (contented sigh).
Speaking Spanish regularly. I studied languages in university and the chance to actually use what I studied on a consistent basis is gratifying.
Cheap fruits and vegetables! I think almost any Canadian would appreciate cheap fruits and veggies.
Lime, lime and lime. I love that Mexican cuisine uses lime so liberally.
Finally having warm feet. In Canada my feet seemed to be perpetually cold, even in the summer time. Although it was fun to stick them on my husband and watch him jump from the shock of my size eight ice cubes!
Sassy Mexican fashion. I love the variety, colour, splashy patterns and the skyscraper high heels women wear here.
Having a housekeeper. In Canada there was no way I could have afforded a housekeeper, but here I can.
The vibrant colour of the city. I love the riotous mix of colour that you find in Mexico.
Puerto Vallarta’s vibe. Puerto Vallarta has a relaxed, informal, west coast vibe that sure beats the go go go panic of Calgary.
Year round cycling. I love being able to ride my bike year round. Exploring back roads is one of my favourite activities here in Vallarta.
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