Tim Leffel chucked his music business career and took three trips around the world with his now-wife in the mid-90s. He taught English in Turkey and Korea and began a career as a travel writer. He settled down to have a child and wrote the popular budget travel guide The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He went on to found Perceptive Travel and the Practical Travel Gear Blog. Three books later and his daughter turning 10, the family put everything in storage last June, sold both cars, and moved to Guanajuato, in central Mexico. Here’s a week-in-the-life of an expat travel writer, blogger, and publisher—during the Mexican Bicentennial celebration week.
Day One: Friday
5:30 pm: Isn’t this really when the good memories usually get going? I mix myself a Paloma (tequila and grapefruit soda) in my Mexican apartment and go up onto the roof deck to take in the view. We have a nearly 360-degree view of the city and mountains. We’re at 6,500 feet, so the weather is pretty close to perfect most of the time. We pay $800 a month for two adjoining two-bedroom apartments and this massive roof deck. It’s furnished and that includes utilities and Wi-Fi. This way I have a separate office and we’ve got plenty of crash space for our steady stream of visitors.
6:30 pm: I leave to walk down a couple hundred stairs to salsa classes offered free by Escuela Mexica, where the three of us have been taking Spanish lessons on and off for months. Salsa is not very complicated, so I don’t feel like a complete idiot doing this, as I probably would trying the tango.
8:00 pm: We have a meal afterwards with the other students, who hail from the U.S., Japan, England, and Scotland. This time of year, the dozen of us are probably 10% of the whole collection of foreigners in this city.
Day Two: Saturday
8:10 am: I roll out of bed and make some coffee, plus breakfast for myself and my daughter; my wife is at the gym. When you’re self-employed it’s hard to draw a clear line between work time and play time, so I try not to do any writing or e-mail on Saturdays at all. I goof off with my daughter and take care of some chores.
2:30 pm: My family meets Tony Cohan’s family for lunch in gorgeous San Fernando Plaza so we can sit outside, watch the world go by, and let our daughters run around. Tony is a novelist and the author of On Mexican Time and Mexican Days, both taking place in San Miguel de Allende. But now he lives here in Guanajuato. We order the special—a meal for two that’s $10—and a round of Micheladas. (These are basically spicy beer bloody marys with a salted glass and are highly addictive.)
4:20 pm: After a long, leisurely lunch—it’s the Mexican way—my wife goes to get a pedicure and I take my daughter on a bank run and shopping errands trip. There’s an ATM right by where we had lunch, but we walk 15 minutes across town instead to visit a bank that doesn’t charge a service fee. Hey, it’s only saving me about $2, but multiply that by a year of withdrawals and it adds up. Besides, all the exercise here (we don’t have a car) is keeping the gut down. We both have to go to the bathroom at that point and have to pay 4 pesos each for a public restroom. There goes 8 of the 25 pesos I saved by walking.
5:00 pm: We spend the walk back searching for two things. First, my daughter lost her sunglasses, so after several fruitless stops she finds some pink ones with plastic rhinestones that she loves. They’re less than $3, so I’m happy. Then we spend a shade over a buck on a hacky sack: she actually needs it for her school. I love a school that requires their kids to buy a hacky sack.
5:35 pm: We hike up the mountain to our apartment, passing the famous kissing alley that’s filled with Mexican tourists. We huff and puff our way home, then my daughter spends hours playing with her two friends in the neighborhood. Neither speaks any English, so this friendship is doing wonders for her language skills.
9:30 pm: After a few rounds of Uno and putting my daughter to bed, I spend most of the evening reading the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. We don’t have a TV here, so I read more.
Day Three: Sunday
7:10 am: It’s just starting to get light, but a drum and bugle corps is parading down the streets at full volume. Ah, Mexico!
8:45 am: After breakfast, I fire up the computer and do some writing until lunch time. For the past decade, my strict avoidance of anything church-related has done wonders for my writing output. On Sunday mornings there are no distractions, so I can crank on things that need undivided attention. Today I complete two hotel reviews and a Monday blog post.
12:30 pm: After checking out some kids with masks dancing in the neighborhood—it’s a local saints’ day we learn—we head down to the center. We have lunch at the main market (for $9 for all three of us) and wander around town. My daughter gets her 40-peso allowance each Sunday. By Sunday night it’s usually gone. She then spends the next six days deciding what she’s going to do with the next round. Our efforts to instill some financial management skills are going nowhere. Perhaps when the objects of her desire get more expensive than cheap jewelry, erasers, and stickers…
5:00 pm: We meet up with a few friends and head to a barbeque hosted by the owners of a bar with a big roof deck. For 60 pesos each we chow down on grilled steak, pork, and chicken accompanied by all kinds of side dishes. We drink Dos Equis looking out at a historic church and all is right with the world. When we leave a cab driver won’t let five of us get in the same car to head to the center. So we grab the next cab, whose driver doesn’t mind. The first cabbie proceeds down the same route in front of us, but with no passengers.
Day Four: Monday
7:45 am: After coffee and breakfast, I walk my daughter down the hill to her bus stop. After the bus arrives, I have to walk 10 minutes back up the same steep hill to return home. A daily morning workout.
8:40 am: I leave to go to my Spanish classes, which I’ve been taking off and on since July. This week I have two hours a day of grammar and conversation. I’m still not nearly as fluent as I want to be—trying to make a living (in English) at the same time I’m studying doesn’t help—but I’m getting better each week.
11:00 am: I hike up 235 steps to the Pipila statue that overlooks Guanajuato and then down the road and up a steep ramp to my apartment. Another morning workout. My legs are very strong these days.
11:15 am: I start my workday for real. I write, I blog, I interface with freelancers who write for me, and take care of business. I make a few phone calls by Skype, including one with a honeymoon magazine journalist who wants to interview me about Mexican beaches and another who wants to talk about the cheapest cities in Europe.
3:00 pm: My wife meets the daughter at the bus stop and they take a taxi to the pediatrician’s office for a follow-up from a throat infection the week before. This specialist in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods costs us just a shade over $30 and that includes follow-up visits. There’s not much need for expensive health insurance in Mexico. (Once we consulted a doctor next to a pharmacy and it was 25 pesos—$2).
Day Five: Tuesday
7:30 am: To the bus stop, back up to the apartment, a few quick e-mails, then off to Spanish classes.
2:30 pm: I see an article online saying the shops are not allowed to sell alcohol on Wednesday through Friday, so on the way to pick up my daughter I hit the store and buy a bottle of rum and a bottle of tequila for the upcoming festivities. Both are under $10, despite the tequila being really good 100% agave reposado. I will dream of these days later when I’m back home.
6:00 pm: We attend a free lecture at our Spanish school on the start of the Mexican independence movement and what we are celebrating over the next few days. Dinner afterwards at a local restaurant.
Day Six: Wednesday
7:00 am: No school for the little one today, so I get some work done while she sleeps. Our maid Juanita arrives before I head off to class and starts making our apartment look better. We pay her around $11.50 a week and she thoroughly cleans the place, including doing whatever dishes are lying around or in the sink. This is a huge advantage of the expat life: not having to sweep, dust, or mop.
11:00 am: Classes finished, I go run some errands. I hit the ATM and then buy an extension cord at one shop and coffee from a place that gets the good stuff from the highlands near Veracruz. (The other good Mexican coffee comes from Chiapas.)
1:15 pm: Some friends who have been studying at our language school arrive with their bags. They’re coming to stay with us for a couple nights because they got kicked out of their hotel: it was all booked in advance for the bicentennial and anyone that didn’t have reservations had to go.
5:30 pm: We all go up to the roof and start drinking tequila with a spicy sangrita chaser I’ve whipped up. We’re using pretty hand-blown Mexican glasses for one and talavera pottery ones for the other, which makes it even better. A bit later we feast on chicken fajitas with fresh guacamole. The tasty chicken came from a butcher shop a block away; no shrink-wrap required.
9:00 pm: We all head down to the Alhondiga, the historic fortress building (originally a grainery) where the first big battle of the war of independence took place. Throngs of people are here and it’s a big party. Bands are playing on a stage and a massive Mexican flag is flying overhead. When it gets close to 11 pm, there’s an impressive projection light show on the side of the Alhondiga that goes through different aspects of Mexican history leading up to independence. At the end it turns into a Mexican flag and the crown goes wild with their noise-makers. The governor then says a few words and rings a bell. After that all the fireworks go off, both the ones in the sky and then the spinning firecracker and sparkler ones by the stage. It’s quite a spectacle. We head back home around midnight after making our way through the huge crowd to one of the alleys leading up to our apartment.
Day Seven: Thursday
9:50 am: My family and the friends head down to a parade that’s happening in the center of town. I have to be content looking at the photos later because I’ve got a previously scheduled conference call at 11. I take the call on my balcony, looking out at the mountains but occasionally hearing crowing roosters.
12:00 noon: I head down to join family and friends in the center. There’s not all that much going on, so we mostly wander around, check out the people dressed up for the holiday, and then eat a big fried fish lunch for $3 each.
3:00 pm on: A bit of work, uploading photos, laundry, dinner, bed.
Day Eight: Friday
7:50 am: We take a taxi to the local bus station and board a bus to Morelia, another historic city one state over. Our bus has reclining seats, a drink and snack, and a movie. Traveling by bus is very pleasant in Mexico. After arrival it’s the thrill of exploring a totally new city, wandering around and snapping photos like the other tourists—who are 99% Mexican. Life is good.