Moving to Mexico: What to pack for a year abroad

“What to pack for a year abroad” was one of the phrases crowding my Google search last summer, and after a couple of months I can share some reflections on how our packing has held up to day-to-day life in another country. photo 2(1)As I posted last month, the thing I’ve missed the most is this elderly gentleman who unfortunately must stay behind with my parents. Right now I’m finishing up a fall visit home to see him. Here he is wearing a cutoff toddler t-shirt. It started as a way to keep him from licking a sore, but my mom noticed he enjoyed being dressed and bought a few more. Isn’t his neck roll adorable? Oh Sam. I’m not looking forward to telling him goodbye again.

P1080028Others who move internationally sometimes do so with financial help from the military or their employer, which makes it possible to ship furniture, housewares, etc. In this case any shipping costs would have come out of our pocket, so we found a furnished apartment through airbnb and were limited to one carry-on and two checked bags each (approximately 300 lbs. for the two of us). Above is what it all looked like at the ticket counter:

Both of us started with essentials/basics. This was not much different than what you’d pack for a long vacation. The one wrinkle was that I was 5 months pregnant and not sure what size I’d be in month 7 or 8, but the fact that I wouldn’t be working in Mexico (and could therefore resort to t-shirts and sweats if needed) helped. For this category I packed:
– 4 pairs of shoes (2 sandals, 1 converse, 1 running)
– underwear/socks/swimsuit
– 6 stretchy skirts/dresses
– 3 sweaters
– 12 tank/shortsleeve shirts
– 5 pairs of pants (2 jeans, 1 khaki, 1 legging, 1 yoga)
– toiletries/vitamins
– hair straightener
– laptop
– ipod
– camera
– passport/credit cards/copies of medical records

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Next we focused on items that make a place feel like home. While it’s true that Mexico, like most countries, has all kinds of retailers and all kinds of options for making a furnished apartment liveable, I wanted the place to have some familiar everyday objects in it. I also didn’t want to be taking taxis and buses all over town, buying things that could have fit in our suitcases. So we started sorting the contents of our Boston apartment and asking: Do we use this item nearly every day? Is having it around worth the space and weight it will take up in our luggage? Here’s what made the cut:
– fitted sheets, mattress pad, pillow
– lightweight down comforter with cover
– 3 multipurpose tapestries (wall decoration, tablecloth, etc.)
– 3 kitchen towels
– 1 wall calendar
– 4 reusable cloth shopping bags
– a handful of hangers
– espresso pot/coffee grinder/5 lbs. of our favorite coffee
– my favorite mug
– my favorite big mason jar (that I use for drinking)
–  3 good knives (1 butcher, 1 paring, 1 serrated)
– small cast iron skillet
– kitchen shears
– 1 favorite metal spatula
**right before leaving we made a giant photo collage poster of our pets at Walgreens and I think it was the best $30 we spent making the place feel like home. We hung it up in the kitchen.**

And finally, we thought about leisure and hobbies. Most hobbies are specialized enough that it will be hard to recreate them in another place without some advanced planning. R. enjoys working out, but obviously his free weights couldn’t make the trip, so he invested in some high-quality resistance bands. In my case, it was all about the fiber and knitting. A friend was kind enough to lend me her portable spinning wheel for the year, and in addition to that I brought:
– 5 packs of fiber to spin
– 1 knitting noddy
– yarn stash for 1 sweater, 1 blanket, 2 cowls, 1 shawl
– knitting needles/yarn gauge/knitting notebook
– measuring tape
– 1 small quilt, pieced and pinned
– quilting needles/thread
– a Kindle (for easy access to plenty of reading material)fiber

So…how’d we do?
All in all, pretty well. Both of us had visited the area before, so we had a sense for the weather and the sort of things that are available at major stores. For example, R. knew that nobody in Mexico carries shoes for his giant feet so he’d need to pack a year’s worth of footwear. And I knew that cast iron pans just can’t be found in Puebla, so if I wanted one for my morning eggs it was worth the poundage to pack one.

If you’re not able to scout your new home ahead of time, I recommend searching the chatboards of your particular country on this expat site. Most have a thread about items that are difficult for Americans to find and/or things that expats wish they had packed. I’d read on the Mexico chatboard that people were disappointed in the selection (and prices) of bedding, so I decided to basically pack up all but our mattress. I’m so glad we did this. It meant that the very day we moved in to our apartment we could make up the bed just like we had it in Boston, and with the cool evening temperatures it’s been great having a down comforter.

What do we wish we’d packed?
Besides Samson and the cats? Well, I don’t think we could have fit anything more in our overstuffed suitcases, but there are certainly things I’m excited to pick up this week in Ohio. We also keep a little running list of things family members who visit can bring. Most are food related, and I think that just comes from getting tired of local flavor profiles and/or craving random items from home that we can’t find in Mexico. Among the things I’m bringing back are:
– 2 boxes of Trader Joe’s pumpkin pancake mix
– real maple syrup
– 1 jar molassas (for molassas cookies and for adding it to white sugar to make brown sugar, which you just can’t find)
– 2 packages Sour Patch Kids
– 1 bag peanut butter M&Ms
– Asian spice packets for stir-fry and fried rice
– 2 bottles Asian marinade
– A bigger cast iron pan (I just really don’t like the pots and pans in Mexico…they’re all aluminum or non-stick and nothing is very heavy)
– more yarn
– baby clothes…but that’s the start of an entirely different post about “minimalism and infant care” that I’ll write sometime in the spring…

Other posts in this series
At home in Cholula
Moving to Mexico: Transporting a pet to another country

A week in Oaxaca

Hierve El AguaOur week in Oaxaca was more a trip for me than for R’s research. Oaxaca has affordable intensive language schools and a strong fiber arts economy. I took advantage of both, and then together we capitalized on some unexpected Oaxaca perks, including strong coffee and really good french chocolate croissants (evidently we’re a little tired of tacos and mole), and some excellent mountain-top swimming at Hierve El Agua. Hierve El AguaLanguage school was that type of mental discomfort that you know is good for you. I think there’s like a graph-able enjoyment/pain curve that goes with tackling a big new skill. It shows up when teaching people to knit. In the very beginning you feel child-like joy (“I can list a whole bunch of nouns!” or “I’m actually knitting a washcloth!”) and that’s eventually replaced with equal parts determination and frustration once you learn just how far the road extends into the distance. Language school taught me a lot, but it also placed me squarely on the road where I got to see how far I am from Passably Mediocre.

Thankfully there was fiber stuff (plus those chocolate croissants) to help soothe the pain. I took a tour from a local nonprofit that gives microloans to women, and was able to visit the home workshops of local weavers. They hand-card the wool, handspin it, hand-dye it with indigo or plants, and then turn it into rugs and shawls on these big wooden floor looms. Obviously I asked all kinds of nerdy-fiber-loving questions during the Q & A sessions. R had the camera that day for a site visit, so I had to pull this photo off the internet, but it’s a good representation of what I got to see. teotitlan-magic-oaxaca-weaver

I bought one rug on the tour, although if I’d had more pesos I would’ve bought a few. This one was more expensive than others its size, but that’s because the pattern lines are more intricate. And I loved all of the undyed colors of wool. UntitledLater on the street in Oaxaca I bought a second rug, similar to the first in pattern but with this great dark green color and some reddish browns. The green, I was told, is from dyeing with alfalfa. UntitledYou will notice that a certain apartment cat is using the new rug for napping. Fantasmon is most definitely our adopted Mexican cat now…jumping in and out of the kitchen window as she pleases and meowing for scraps of chicken. She’s using as a pillow my latest knitting project, a big squishy cotton/wool blanket that’s almost done except for the attached i-cord border. Here’s a link to ravelry with the details. big squishy baby blanket Attached i-cord edge for baby blanket

“Is that for the baby?”

This is what nice ladies on buses have asked me for the past month. When I responded I was knitting a sweater for myself, not the baby, their eager smiles faded a little. Perhaps in disappointment at a missed opportunity to ooh/ahh over itty bitty baby knits? Or disapproval over the decision to spend pregnancy days knitting for me?

UntitledEhh, well, the sweater is all blocked and seamed now. And I LOVE it. No finished pictures yet, but that’s because my intended photography day was ruined by a horrible morning at Immigration. I’d been warned about Mexican bureaucracy, but this has reached new levels. I was only able to eat ice cream and take a nap. Photos of the finished sweater soon.

I will now make inquisitive Mexican ladies much happier with the next two projects: a baby quilt AND a baby blanket.
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The quilt is what I started in Boston. I learned about the baby right as I was running out of crafting time to expand on the above, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make something small and stroller-sized. I pinned the layers in Ohio and brought it to Mexico, then stalled over the stitch pattern. After an inspiring craft-themed gchat with an old friend some ideas started rolling, and that night I got out of bed in the wee hours to sketch this:

quilt finalIt’s like a fractal mix of radial and concentric. Kind of art deco?

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The blanket is the Purl Bee Fluffy Brioche blanket, knit up in 10.5 with some chunky light gray cotton/wool that I bought in bulk at a WEBS sale. After the fussy cables and smaller needles of the cardigan, it’s so fun to breeze along on a big chunky knit project.

But lest the Mexican ladies get too excited, when I went online to find the blanket pattern I couldn’t help but notice Purl Bee’s new City Cape pattern. Hmm…very tempting.

Monstrous piles of alpaca fiber

Shearing Alpacas
This is a fun one that I just didn’t post at the time. In July we visited Oregon and while there, helped my in-laws shear their two alpacas.  Sal and Pepe had been growing their coats for over a year, so as my title suggests, the day ended with ginormous piles of alpaca fiber. Enough to make any spinner drool. I was SO excited to not only see this process happen, but help with it.

Here’s Sal and Pepe, getting a little nervous about being herded into a smaller pen. The goats were curious as well…what was about to happen to their fearless pair of leaders?
Shearing Alpacas
Shearing Alpacas
We started with shots of sedative from the local vet. The previous shearing was sans sedative, and according to R., Sal and Pepe do not take kindly to shearing while sober. Pepe really fought the sedative this time, but eventually even he nodded off. We laid each in turn on the shearing table, restrained their legs against errant kicks, and got to work. None of us have much shearing experience but thanks to a few youtube tutorials the night before, I think we did a pretty solid job.
Shearing Alpacas
Shearing Alpacas

Underneath all that fiber was a very petite pair of alpacas!

Shearing Alpacas
Shearing Alpacas

The goats eventually lost interest and started climbing on farm machinery.
Shearing Alpacas

I worked at skirting for most of the afternoon. The place I send fiber for processing, like most mills, charges a steep fee if they have to skirt your fiber for you. I wasn’t sure how clean was “clean enough” so I just kept clipping. Even after all the waste – due to skirting and perhaps inexpert clipping on our part – there was nearly 7 pounds of fiber per alpaca.
Shearing Alpacas
Shearing Alpacas

The next morning I walked into UPS holding these bags and they helped me smush them up and ship them off to Mill Creek Fiber Works. I like a little bit of wool mixed in with my alpaca, so Sal is mixed with 30% merino and Pepe with 30% pygora. The mill owner, Kate, is awesome. She rushed the order and got it to me in Ohio in time for our move to Mexico.

Including everything – shipping, wool additions, blending – the final roving cost works out to about $21/lb. Not cheap, but still less than half of what it costs to buy alpaca roving retail. Of course, I am not the one paying for the care of these alpacas either…if I were it might make the DIY cost equal to retail. I’m very thankful to have in-laws who raise alpacas and don’t have need for the fiber…as if I needed any more proof that I married the right person.

And now for the picture I promised – monstrous piles:

PicMonkey Collage

It appears that fall is coming…

My pinterest feed has erupted in boots/sweater wardrobe combos and baking. SO MUCH BAKING.

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Baking in a temporary apartment is totally do-able, which is what R. reminds me of every time I vocalize my desire (i.e. whine) for a homemade chocolate chip cookie. But it requires investment. Not only ingredients – flour, baking powder, baking soda – but at least a cookie sheet and some foil. Having just packed up our Boston apartment and systematically parceled off the pantry’s contents, I’m reluctant to rebuild the stockpile.

Mmmm but then again….

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I might just have to get over it and do some baking. For now I get my fix from the Pumpkin Lattes at Starbucks. I feel compelled to apologize for being the expat seeking out Starbucks abroad…but that was only after giving many local cafes a taste. The lattes and cappuccinos elsewhere are just as pricey and very weak. Blech. Like a hot glass of whole milk.

Here’s a progress shot of my Stonecutter’s cardigan. I’m getting ready to split for the front/back. Soon I can be sitting on the roof drinking a fall-smelling latte and wearing a sweater. P1080564

Moving to Mexico: Transporting a pet to another country

Regular readers (of the knitting variety) may want to skip this post, as it contains more detail on the regulations of transporting pets and flying dogs in airplanes than the average person could possibly be interested in. However, if you are a Samson fan, I have interspersed pleasant portraits of him throughout that you can scroll for. Here…I’ll give you a nice one just to start us off, and to show new visitors exactly who it is we spent months trying to bring to Mexico.

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The cats probably deserve a sidebar here. We miss Teddy and Edith terribly, but from the beginning we didn’t plan to relocate them. We couldn’t be sure how safe it would be to let them roam Cholula (cars? stray dogs? a populace unfriendly to naive gringo cats?) and reducing them to apartment living at this point would be painful. Plus, they’re young and healthy. We felt like they’d be happiest with my parents, and after nine months we can all reunite.

Samson was a different story, as I think dogs just generally care more about being with their owners. He’s also really old – 14 or 15 – meaning that nine months with my parents becomes a more uncertain time frame. And he loves some of the daily features of life in Mexico – sun, warmth, smells, accessible trash – so we thought it could be a nice retirement.

P1070995While we ultimately arranged to fly Sam to Mexico, our first plan was actually to drive there. We wanted the convenience of a car, especially once we found out about the baby, but also so R. could easily visit remote research sites (renting a car in Mexico is surprisingly expensive, due to mandatory international insurance, and long-term lease options don’t exist). I started pouring over maps and reading expat forums on the best places to cross, and researching the regulations on importing and insuring a car in Mexico. It’s a lot more complicated than driving to Baja for a two week vacation.

But over several months, the plan to make a 37-hour road trip to Mexico slowly fell apart. First, the federal government, which sponsors R’s grant, wouldn’t allow driving due to travel advisories at the border. When pushed they relented, saying we would have to sign a waiver acknowledging we were doing so against their safety recommendations. We were still committed, assuring ourselves that thousands of people cross the border every day, and that as long as we traveled big toll highways during daylight hours, we’d be fine. Then R’s advisor, a well-seasoned world traveler, said he’d heard from fellow academics that driving into Mexico isn’t anything like what it used to be, and that those who have done it for decades are no longer willing after experiencing things like illegal cartel checkpoints on the highway. Ouch. The final nail was learning that because we don’t own our car outright – because we make payments to the bank – we’d never be able to get the bank to agree to insuring the car for a year in Mexico.

And with that, I returned this spring to googling “How to fly your dog to Mexico.” Here’s what I can offer…

Be careful with the googling
Samson is too big to fit under a seat, which was all the more distressing because most of the initial search hits are news stories about dogs and cats that died horrible deaths in the cargo holds. Yes, it happens. But not nearly as much as search results suggest. To offset the salacious news articles, I suggest:
– Talking with your vet. Or a few vets. Mine works frequently with clients who fly large pets in cargo. She has also flown her own golden retrievers cross-country.
– Reviewing statistics. This article and this one were especially helpful.
– Checking out Pet Relocation, a company that does just that for (I thought) a hefty fee. Seeing their blog of pets successfully flown round the world helped give me perspective. All the pugs flying to Singapore reminded me we just had to get Sammy to the next country over.

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The costs add up. So does the bureaucracy.
United is not my favorite airline for human passengers, but they do have one of the best records for transporting animals under their Petsafe program. They also service Mexico.  This blog post was, by FAR, the most helpful and accurate in describing the steps involved in flying your dog. The flight, the cargo fee, the vet certifications…I was doing great until I got to #4 – Find a customs broker. This required calling a long list of Mexican phone numbers to try and find a customs broker who would meet Samson at the airport and be responsible for getting him through, all for nearly $700. I was pregnant, facing a long to-do list that included closing things up at work for a year, packing up the house, researching insurance and birth options in Mexico…I broke down and contacted Pet Relocation, whose fee suddenly started to look quite reasonable.

It’s hard not to fantasize about being independently wealthy
That’s because there are times when a shit-ton of money can solve a problem, and this is one of them. Me? I would’ve chartered a private jet so Sam wouldn’t have to fly cargo. Or maybe ordered up a yacht and we could’ve all happily sailed to Veracruz before getting in a rented towncar for the drive to Cholula. Ugh. I hate to confess how many times I returned to this fantasy.

No amount of research and planning will answer the truly difficult questions
Am I doing this for the dog, or me? Am I more okay with risking that he’ll not survive the flight, or that the end of his life will come and I won’t be there? Should I even be going to Mexico, as compared to carrying on with work/apt/pets/baby in the States and making visits? And so on. No one knows the answers. The best you can do is surround yourself with supportive friends and family who, even if they disagree with your decisions, understand that they’re difficult. We were very fortunate in this regard.

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The best-laid plans…
After all the arrangements – the vet appointment, the Pet Relocation fee, getting Sam used to a kennel, finding a pet-friendly Mexican apartment – I woke up two days before our flight and found Samson immobile on the bed. He was breathing, but too fast and too shallow. He couldn’t walk.

We rushed him to the vet and found out that his gallbladder was all sludged up and there were two small tumors on his spleen. The vet was optimistic that medication would clear up the gallbladder, said that there wasn’t a way to tell if the tumors were benign (without surgery), and warned against Samson flying…definitely for a while, maybe for good.

We cried. A lot. We paid a fee to delay our flights for a few days and talked through what it would look like for Sam to stay with my parents. The events of the morning had shown me just how hard it would be to handle the same situation in Mexico given our lack of a car and my lack of language skills. What if R. were out doing research? Could I get Sam to the vet…would a cab even take him? We both thought that maybe this was all a sign that our old dog wasn’t as prepared for international travel as we’d hoped. So we spent the remaining days with him, we gave him lots of pets and hugs, and we told him he had to live at least a month…long enough to get our visas settled so that we could be allowed to come back and visit.

Samson’s vet appointment last week went well. It’s always uncertain with a dog his age, but with luck he’ll last the next nine months. I hope. I know he’s getting the best care and love with my parents. But…it’s hard. I’ve dreamed about him. I caught a sweatshirt on the couch out of the corner of my eye the other day and for a second thought it was him.

Photo on 5-8-12 at 12Our last week in Ohio, before Sam got sick, I was visiting my grandparents. My grandpa asked how much it cost to fly Sam to Mexico. When I refused to tell him, he guessed it probably cost “$25 or $50…at least,” and then asked did I really think it was worth all the hassle and money? I replied that Samson is that dog, the one I’ll compare all other dogs to. And what do I work every day for if not to spend money on trying to get him to Mexico to be with me? My grandpa – a 92-year old non-nonsense midwestern farmer – softened. Then he got a little choked up himself. Last month their little old chihuahua passed away, and he said that he still looks for her next to the table or beside the bed, and sometimes he thinks he can feel her brush his pant leg. “Those dogs. They become like family. I understand.”

So if you are trying to move heaven and earth to bring a family member across international borders, I understand. I really do. And so does my grandpa (provided we let him think it’s not much more than $50). I wish for you good luck and supportive friends. Oh, and if you happen to be a long-distance trucker who regularly runs a route between the midwest and the state of Puebla, I have a little black and tan friend who I’d pay a pretty penny for if he could ride in your cab. He would only require a good classic country music station and some beef jerky sticks from the truckstops.

A little Saturday knitting

Mexico is cooler than I expected. We’re pretty far south, but the high elevation equates to cool breezy nights and warm dry days. In other words, not too hot for handknits. Awesome. I’m currently working on the Stonecutter’s Cardigan by Amy Christoffers, where I get to try saddle sleeves for the first time.

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Our apartment complex has three floors and a shared rooftop, and on the first day the landlord gave us our pick of a few different open units. We took our time checking them out and ultimately went with something on the second floor with its own little balcony. It was a good choice. The apartment is really basic, but it is furnished. And the landlord is letting us repaint the interior however we’d like (I’m going with an all-in-this-is-Mexico kind of color scheme).

Soon I’ll start writing a weekly series about the logistics of moving here, beginning with what it takes to move pets to Mexico. You’ll notice that there’s been no mention of Samson here, which has unfortunately been one of the hardest things about the move. We were all set to have him join us, but at the last minute it didn’t work out. Attempting to fill the pet void is Fantasmon, the landlord’s cat, who has taken a liking to us and often naps on our couch when the balcony door is open.

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And if cats aren’t your thing, I’ll leave you with a different local highlight – molcajete combinados from around the corner. It’s an assortment of seasoned, grilled meats with all the fixings (onion, salsa, cilantro, tortillas) to make little tacos. Incredible. We’re going back tonight before watching the Oregon Ducks play Michigan State. 

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