Trading Maine for Mexico—And Growing as a Family

By Johanna Ernst

Why move to a bohemian surf town on the west coast of Mexico? Isn’t that something kids do right out of college? Not a forty-something couple with three daughters. The answer is equal parts wanderlust, midlife crisis and fear of apathy.

In the four years before deciding to move to the pueblo of Sayulita, we spent a weeklong family vacation here each April. We fell in love with the people, the culture, the food and the weather. So when the environmentally focused international school in town posted open teaching positions, Alex and I applied. We were both hired, and our three daughters were accepted with tuition remission.

It turns out that when you move to what was once your personal paradise for one blissful week at a time, there is nowhere to go but down. That’s not to say that we fell out of love with Sayulita. But raising a family and teaching full-time in Mexico is nothing like vacationing here. Have I mentioned that no one in our family speaks fluent Spanish? As a result, we unwittingly put ourselves on an extremely vertical learning curve.

It was mid-August when we arrived fresh off Rainy Lake. There are no words to describe the initial heat and humidity—not from a Mainer anyway. To the soundtrack of roosters, barking street dogs, loud music, car and moto horns, firecrackers and cannons (yes, cannons), we settled into our two-bedroom apartment.

I spent most of that first month second-guessing our move and my ability to parent, and missing all things familiar. But while I was reeling, I saw something different emerge in my daughters: grit.

We often ran out of drinking water because the agua truck made only unscheduled stops in our neighborhood, and often while we were at school. When this happened, we had to carry our five-gallon jug about a quarter mile uphill to a corner market, where we could exchange it for a new one filled with clean water.

The first time we hoofed a water run, I was expecting the girls—ages 5, 11 and 13—to groan and complain. After all, that’s what I wanted to do. Instead, our two oldest daughters smiled and said, “It will be just like portaging on a trip.” Lesson learned. If my daughters could be so resilient, then so could I. Recently, our water runs have turned into training sessions for upcoming portages, complete with fantasies about outperforming the counselors.

As the fall progressed, we settled into a school- surf-tacos routine, and the heat mercifully broke. Living in a state of disequilibrium became the norm. We hiked in the jungle, explored remote beaches and experienced a beauty we had never known as tourists.

Now, after five months in Sayulita, our lives are filled more with adventure and exploration than frustration. It’s still not easy, and I am constantly striving to remain flexible well beyond my comfort zone, but living here has definitely served as a pause button for our family. Our experiences are shaping us into a stronger, more resilient and better-connected family. The family gap year we envisioned should really be called a family growth year.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Alumni Newsletter.