The expat life: Going south of the border

The Hillers family - Bo, Ann, Redding, Nacho (the dog), Sam and Mason, traveled from Baltimore to Mexico's San Miguel de Allende for a two-year sabbatical that has turned into four years.
The Hillers family - Bo, Ann, Redding, Nacho (the dog), Sam and Mason, traveled from Baltimore to Mexico's San Miguel de Allende for a two-year sabbatical that has turned into four years. (Ann Hillers Photo)

In June 2009, my husband Sam and I slammed down the hatchback of our Honda CRV, the interior bulging with containers of Legos and books, school supplies and board games, and a box of shoes, a tin of Old Bay in the glove compartment. On the roof was a plastic carrier with as much clothing as we could stuff into it: the necessities of five soon-to-be expatriates.

Everything else was in the basement of our Lutherville home, with a new family moving in at the end of the month. Our mission: to give our three children a taste of life in a foreign country, where the language, food, and culture would be vastly different from suburban Baltimore.

Our destination: San Miguel de Allende, 2,556 miles away in the state of Guanajuato, the heartland of central Mexico.

The seeds for this trip south of the border germinated long before my husband and I met, when both of our families were expats themselves. My family lived in Shiraz, Iran, where my father, a physician, set up a medical teaching school for the shah's university. Sam, his mom, and sister were in Jerusalem, his archaeologist father translating Semitic languages on tablets he unearthed at a dig.

We were smitten with travel early. I became an international tour guide, taking groups to more than 60 countries. Sam roamed the European continent and Greece in a VW bug and was scheduled to fly to Prague as an air courier when we began dating. Instead, he joined one of my tours to Australia and Indonesia, and here we hatched a plan to start a family and show them a world where simple experiences can bring such joy: eating steamed ginger crabs on a beach in Bali, riding a bike at dawn to the Taj Mahal, finding an antique wooden ship model in a dusty market in Jakarta.

We had three boys in quick succession, bought a house in Baltimore County, and got to work raising our family. My husband was a history teacher at Boys' Latin School and I worked as a director for The Oxford Club, a publisher of financial, travel and lifestyle newsletters. Our neighborhood was one where kids played outside and moms met for happy hour on Fridays, and our immediate families were within four miles. So what made us leave behind the familiarity and ease?

Maybe it was the carpool line. Maybe it was organized sports — football practice for first-graders starting in August and three lacrosse tournaments a weekend. Maybe it was over-the-top kids' birthday parties. More likely it was the knowledge that the flames of our life candles are brief. Why not spread their light far and wide? Why not see how the challenges of two years in a different country would shape us? Our boys were young, adaptable and still happy to be with mom and dad, wherever that might be.

The planning for a family sabbatical is quite easy if you accept that a carful of material possessions is all you really need. The execution is not much more difficult. In one scouting trip to San Miguel during spring break we found a place to live, enrolled the boys in a bilingual school and set up a service to receive our mail from the States. With three months to go, there was time to get Mexican auto insurance, apply for visas and pack that car.

San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende has been drawing travelers like us for nearly 100 years. North Americans, originally artists and writers, started coming in the 1930s, when Chicago expat Stirling Dickinson established the first art school here. When the GI Bill of Rights funded education for veterans of World War II, many arrived in San Miguel to study painting, sculpture, and photography, drawn by the town's affordability; its climate (it's at 6,400 feet above sea level so it has warm, dry days nearly year-round); its beautiful architecture and cobblestone streets; and a pace of life that has nothing to do with "manana," but everything to do with Mexicans' value system: family and God are more important than money and time.

Almost European in feel, San Miguel has no stoplights, no stop signs, no neon and, with the exception of one Starbucks, no chains. Vaqueros ride their horses through town and donkeys deliver firewood door to door. Mariachis in black suits and silver sombreros serenade visitors in the main square under the shade of manicured laurel trees. In the historic center, all homes are painted shades of terra cotta, ocher and coffee. And because San Miguel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, this inherent colonial beauty can remain unchanged.

In addition to retirees who seek out its lively cultural scene and snowbirds escaping colder climes, younger folks have been arriving in San Miguel in the last decade or so — in no small part because of the Internet and its ability to keep them connected. Dozens of expat families call San Miguel home, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, but more are coming from farther afield: Bali, London, Germany, Sweden.

Our San Miguel friends include a grant writer for educational interests in California; a consultant to the international nonprofit Heifer International; a point-of-sale computer programmer for restaurants; a modern-dance instructor; a writer for the Swedish dairy council; a designer of Mexican oilcloth bags; restaurateurs from Chicago; a manager of IBM's IT division; a mathematics textbook editor; exporters of Mexican furniture from Chattanooga, Tenn.; and a fabric designer who collaborates with her husband, a publisher of craft and quilting books. My husband teaches English at Victoria Robbins School.

We — and more importantly, our kids — have learned that there are many less traditional ways to raise a family and make a living. The motivation of many expat families is often the same: find a slower lifestyle, acquire a second language, become a bicultural citizen of the world and foster a love of exploration in our children. But San Miguel happens to also be an extraordinary place to be an adult, with art galleries, theater, live music and fine dining, all within walking distance.

A new life

With this oasis on our horizon, Sam and I pulled out of our driveway to begin the sojourn south. Our boys, then ages 5, 7 and 9, would be flying down with friends a week later. By noon of our first day on the road, we were deep into Virginia. By nightfall we were at a Best Western in Nashville, Tenn., far from the music scene, close by the highway. The next day we had barbecue in Memphis, then spent 13 hours driving across Texas, the 20,000 songs on Sam's iPod keeping us company while I jotted down how far we had traveled, the mileage between destinations, when we stopped for gas, as if somehow this would come in handy on our return trip two years later.

To celebrate our safe passage to the border, we splurged on a beachfront hotel on South Padre Island, had fish tacos by the ocean and walked on the sand at sunset for our last night in the United States. In the morning we were ready to cross into Matamoros, Mexico, nervous about the customs agents, and what lay ahead.

On TV, CNN had nothing but horror stories about violence at the border. And news of the drug cartels was overwhelmingly fierce, seeming to justify my mother's concern for our safety when we crossed the border and drove a full day through the empty Mexican countryside. To add to the angst, the swine flu had broken out a month earlier, traced to a child in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Friends wondered if, and why, we were still going. But too much was in place to turn back, and our dream of living outside the States was tantalizingly close.

Our two-year sabbatical is now on Year 4, mainly because we have found a place that strengthened our children in unexpected ways. Most surprising is the amount of freedom they have and how self-reliant it has made them. Crime in San Miguel — especially directed toward children — is probably the least of our concerns. Our town of 100,000 is more like a village. Folks walk everywhere; the streets are alive with people. My boys have developed confidence and maturity, and gained an independence unheard of in suburban Baltimore.

On Saturdays they attend a free science club at the local library. It's about a mile from our house, uphill then down, past storefronts with pinatas or Lucha libre wrestling masks, bakeries, cheese shops, and houses with pots of cactus and flowering plants perched precariously close to the roof's edge. Though sometimes they complain about the walk, their reward for going every week is a pocketful of coins to get nieves, a deliciously fresh ice cream in mint, grapefruit, strawberry, or beso de angel (angel's kiss). At $1 a cup it's an inexpensive ritual that they have come to love stopping for on their way home.

If they are craving simple Mexican food for dinner, the boys go out the back door to a taco cart called Diana's, sit at one of the iron stools at the curb, and order in perfect Spanish their favorite street food, gringas — a melted concoction of string cheese, pulled pork and onions folded into a grilled tortilla. With bellies full, they head back home, sidestepping the street dogs that nose around for scraps.

They know, even if they can't express it, that their life is San Miguel could not be duplicated in the States: the simplicity of their days, the lack of scheduling, the amount of time we spend together.

Home and home

Sam and I waited 18 months before returning for a visit to Baltimore, fearing the pull of the States and the draw of the cousins and the grandparents and the friends we had left behind. Would the kids revolt at having to return to Mexico? Would we feel conflicted about the decision we made to leave? The day we returned I wrote:

"Returning to Mexico, after three weeks in the States — $227 for an afternoon at the aquarium, days driving in a minivan on York Road, 19-degree weather the morning we left — was a tonic for my soul. There was a deliciously familiar sense of arrival as soon as we left the Mexico City airport and steamed along Highway 57 northwest to San Miguel. Instead of the normal Oxford-blue skies, this January day there were fat clouds nearly on the ground, the color of dirty water, but ringed by a silver band with the mountains rising behind them. The countryside was flat and dry, but the campesinos were out in the fields, their horse-drawn drays parked along the road, boys on bikes carrying loads of bundled sticks, women with pyramids of mangoes and avocados sitting on little wooden chairs along the shoulder.

We pulled into San Miguel at dusk, the gold and red tinsel banners exclaiming "Feliz Ano Nuevo" stretched across the main road, shiny and shivering slightly. A cowboy on a Clydesdale sauntered uphill, his best gaucho shirt pressed, his black pants creased, his hat and boots new and stiff. The air outside was absolutely ambient, neither cold, nor hot, nor humid, nor wet.

We opened the front door and stood in the patio. Overhead, the black grackles circled and flew in and out of the three palm trees in our yard. Trucks clattered beyond our wall, out of sight, and even a few roosters made their presence known. A mother and father over our back wall, out in the alley, were singing to their child. A full moon was shining on the pots of bright orange flowers on my neighbor's roof. Mason was building with his Legos before he even went to the bathroom, and the other boys were running around in the yard with our new dog, Nacho. A sense of such utter completeness hung in that still air that I knew I was home."

If and when we are no longer expatriates, and return to our beloved United States of America, Mexico will always be here for us. She will welcome us back with open arms and a "Bienvenidos."

Ann Hillers is a freelance writer. She can be reached at