I am currently staying at, “La Nuestra”, a comfortable bed and breakfast with 4 guest rooms, a private swimming pool and an outdoor breakfast area complete with microwave and fridge, which has a rather interesting story. It is co-owned by two women, Andie Grater and Nancy Gray, who are both originally from the United States.
Originally from Brooklyn, Andie had lived in Atlanta for 20 years and become an expert in advertising production and management while Nancy, on the other hand, had been involved in the screen printing business. Nancy represented several American companies in the Latin American market and spent quite a bit of time in Latin America, including Cuernavaca, and this was the beginning to their Mexican adventure.
Andie’s comments shed light on the decision to relocate to a foreign country and the inevitable issues of culture shock and psychological adjustment that go along with the move to a strange land. Her story will also illustrate coping mechanisms and the fact that the human spirit will indeed adjust over time.
As Nancy had been spending more and more time in Mexico, Andie and Nancy were starting to think it might actually be nice to live somewhere else. Cuernavaca might be a good destination since it was close enough to easily go back and forth. Andie had attended a Spanish course at the Cetlalic Alternative Language School and had a chance to meet a lot of people from Cuernavaca’s local gay community and Cuernavaca increasingly looked like an interesting destination.
Both women thought that it might be a good idea to move to Cuernavaca, a goal they decided to accomplish in the New Millennium. So Andie decided to give up her job in advertising which was made easier by the after-effects of 911 which had severely affected the advertising industry.
Andie worked for a month with the previous owner of Villa San Marcos to gain some practical experience running a bed and breakfast. So the women put their furniture into storage in Atlanta and after their arrival in Cuernavaca they first lived in a furnished apartment. They later moved into an unfurnished condo, a rather bare place, which Andie describes as “graduate student living”. Andie admitted that as you get older these types of transitions get just a little harder.
Prior to their purchase, their B&B had been empty for five years. Once they acquired the property, they invested another year of renovations into La Nuestra. Building a clientele from scratch is always an issue for new entrepreneurs and Andie indicated that their clients mostly find them through the Internet and through word of mouth. In addition, Andie sent many news releases to independent booksellers and feminist book stores to request that the information about their B&B be put on their bulletin boards.
As new B&B owners, Andie and Nancy also decided to advertise on three web sites, two sites about Mexico and one site dedicated to gay travelers. Andie stressed, however, that their target market is not only the gay community, but people from all walks of life. Travellers come from the United States (California, Minnesota, and various places in the north), but also from Canada. In addition, they also host many weekend guests from Mexico City. Many of their guests don’t even move when they come here, they just relax in the beautiful garden by the pool and say this place feels just like home.
I asked Andie to elaborate on this process of cultural transition which they went through after they first relocated to Mexico. At first they felt excited, the place was new, they were learning the language, and there was this general feeling of newness that made everything so interesting.
But as the newness wore off, feelings of culture shock started to settle in. Andie experienced frustrations as she had to adjust to the Mexican concepts of time and reliability. Adjusting to the much more relaxed concept of time was difficult, especially since Andie had been living her life in Atlanta with a strict agenda. The unreliability of workmen and repair people was also a frequent source of frustrations. Andie told me a few stories of her renovation project and mentioned that workers might show up a day later or sometimes not at all.
On the other hand she was impressed by the easy-going attitude of local Mexican people and commented that they are very helpful when you make an effort to speak Spanish. Traffic can also be quite bad in this city. On the issue of cultural adjustment Andie said, that one of her friends commented on how great it must be to live in this new place while Andie admitted that many times this adjustment phase was really tough on her, especially at the beginning. She was missing her friends, her culture, her familiar environment.
Now things are much better. Andie runs an organization called the Newcomers Club which is an association of recent, mostly English-speaking residents, of Cuernavaca. The club had been in existence for 15 years, but had not been very active. Andie became president about four years ago, and the club now has around 170 members, ranging in age all the way from their forties and up. The oldest member is 91 years old.
The Cuernavaca Newcomers Club has a number of functions:
– It welcomes new English-speaking residents and helps them find their way
– It publishes a service directory every 2 years
– It provides a buddy system
– The club hosts a variety of social events throughout the year
– Speakers are invited to the club’s meetings and speak on various topics of interest, such as ecology, globalization, alternative health, investments and many more.
– The club is involved in a variety of charity projects as well.
The Newcomers Club holds two big social events a year: a cocktail party in September and a holiday party around Christmas time. Evening events include guitar concerts, talks on topics of interest and a “studio crawl” where the group visits different artists’ studios around town. An increasing number of social events will be held over the summer months as well, which used to be a quieter time.
One of the Newcomers Club’s most important involvements is in philanthropy. At Christmas members are encouraged to adopt a family in collaboration with the Episcopal Church. The club itself is non-denominational, but the church provides a list of 15 of the most needy families. Then, with the help of donations, the club purchases boxes of basic items that are given away to these needy families.
The Newcomers Club is also involved with a Mexican Charity called “Caminamos Juntos” which was founded by Susan Smith, a Canadian woman. Caminamos Juntos para la Salud y el Desarollo dedicates itself to helping one specific Mexican village in the state of Guerrero. This village has many problems: the water supply contains a toxic level of arsenic, there is a lot of poverty and alcohol abuse. Every month Caminamos Juntos asks for different supplies, e.g. in September the charity requests school supplies, in December it requests blankets, and at Christmas the charity request non-battery operated toys.
Andie indicated that the average age of newcomers to Cuernavaca is in their 50s. She added that dollars go a lot further in Cuernavaca than they would in Florida or the Caribbean.
In addition to volunteering with the Newcomers Club, Andie also donates her time to a local library called the Guild House. She volunteers four Friday mornings a months, two in the library, two with the Newcomers Club. Together with her work as a B&B owner at La Nuestra this keeps her busy.
Nowadays she still goes to back home to the United States about 4 to 5 times a year. Nancy and Andie still have a small apartment in Atlanta where they stay when they go home. Andie and I had a great conversation about her travel experiences in Israel and Spain, and about Latin machismo which also manifests itself on the road (a woman cutting a man off on the road will definitely incur his wrath, while the opposite is just considered normal).
I am one of these people who thinks that one day in my life I’ll probably try to spend 2 or 3 months of the year in a warm place, and Andie’s experience in Cuernavaca has given me some valuable insights about the decision-making process, the cultural adjustment phase, and the rewards of getting involved in a local volunteer organization.