YL: When did you move to the Yucatan and from where did you move?
Joanna: I moved to Yucatan in 1976; previously, I lived in Vancouver, BC, Canada
YL: Why did you move?
Joanna: Ah-h-h-h... In 1976, I was employed as a customer service rep. for a Canadian airline. Part of my job was to escort familiarization trips to different destinations the airline flew to. Tourism was just beginning in Cuba and so I was assigned to take six groups of journalists, travel agents and other media types to Havana. After a week in Cuba, I was to go with the groups to Merida for three days. On my very first trip, I met the man who would become my husband. It was literally love at first sight. On my second trip to Yucatan, Jorge asked me to marry him. After the sixth three-day stay in Merida, I traveled back to Vancouver, quit my job… sold my car… let go of my apartment… gave away most of my earthly possessions and moved to Merida! In a nutshell, I did it for love.
YL: Why did you choose the city you now live in over other places in the world?
Answer: I didn’t choose Merida; it chose me.
YL: Did you buy a house right away or rent first? Do you think you made the right decision?
Answer: Jorge had recently finished having a three bedroom house built on a nice lot in Garcia Gineres. He hadn’t even moved in when he met me… When he showed me the house I would live in, he said, “I had this house built for you.” “But you didn’t even know me”, I countered. “No, but I knew I would meet you…” I moved into the house as soon as I had settled my affairs in Canada and we have lived there ever since.
YL: Are you doing now what you intended to do when you moved here? If not, why not?
Answer: Goodness no! Although my background was in Education, I had worked in Tourism for several years and I loved it. When I moved to Merida, I assumed I would get a position at a hotel or as a travel agent or maybe a guide… NOT! In those years, it was nearly impossible for foreigners to get a working visa; about the only option was teaching English. So that is what I did. After a few years, Jorge and I started our family and I didn’t work until my daughter was five years old. That is when we started our college, Tecnologia Turistica Total and we worked “double-time” there for 17 years. We no longer work so hard, but recently I started a new option at the college, Life Long Learning. This program offers courses (in English) and culture travel opportunities for Merida’s international community.
YL: What are the most interesting things about living here for you?
Answer: Where to begin? So many things about living in Merida are very interesting to me… But I would have to say the most interesting one is the opportunity to live a bi-cultural lifestyle and to have raised our children in this environment. It is amazing to me to see the impact this has had on our immediate family and on our extended families, here and in Canada.
YL: What do you absolutely love about living here?
Answer: I love the fact that here, I have been able to do so many different things with my life. I love the fact that I have gotten to know so many incredible people through my work and my social life. I love that I have seen so many wonderful places in this country and I have been enriched by it all.
YL: What do you miss from your "former life"?
Answer: I miss my family. The one sadness for me was not spending more time with them, especially when the children were small. Now, it is a different story… easier travel, lower telephone rates and the Internet keeps us close in a day-to-day way. I do NOT miss the “good old days” when my only means of regular contact was by mail.
YL: What don’t you miss from your "former life"?
Answer: I don’t miss the cold or the rain of the grey skies, although I will admit to a few moments of nostalgia when a norte blows in.
YL: What is your favorite local food?
Answer: Another hard question… I like nearly everything; I especially like the abundance of fruit all year ‘round.
YL: You say you love all the food here. Have you been able to learn how to cook some of the Yucatecan food?
Answer: By all means! Cooking is a big interest of mine. I love to cook and like most Yucatecan women, I have been making mucbil pollo for the past two days. When I first came to the Yucatan, I could not get many of the ingredients that I was used to cooking with. Even vegetables like celery were 'a find'! So I had to learn a whole new way of cooking. My mother-in-law is an excellent regional cook and she taught me a lot. As well, I found ways to substitute things I could get here for things I could not. In many instances, I found the substitutions were even tastier than the originals. For example, Christmas fruit cakes: there were no boxes of the candied fruit and peel I had always used. So I used figs, dates, almonds and candied ciricote. And I drizzled the cakes with Presidente brandy instead of the Navy rum I'd always used before. Now, even though I can get the traditional candied fruit, I prefer to use the 'substitute' ingredients.
YL: What is it like being part of a Yucatecan family? What traditions do they have that have become a part of your life that are not shared by your family in Canada?
Answer: What is it like being part of a Yucatecan family? This depends a lot on the family... some women who have moved here from other countries have found their Yucatecan families to be absolutely wonderful and others have had many, many difficulties. My personal experience has been a little of both, but with the wisdom of hindsight, I can see that many of the "issues" I had with my in-laws were due to my lack of sensitivity. If you come into a new family environment, you need to realize that you will have to adjust to the family's ways; they shouldn't have to 'break their necks' adjusting to yours. But by the same token, the family must also learn to be tolerant of your habits and have patience while you are adjusting to this new culture. For example, I didn't like certain foods in the beginning (beans, anything made with maize and a lot of other basic Yucatecan staples). The family thought I was very fussy. But gradually, I learned to eat the new foods and I introduced them to some of mine. Now, many of my recipes are part of their daily fare. We've all learned from one another!
I participate in all the special Yucatecan family traditions. I make an altar on the Days of the Dead. I go to novenas. I spend a lot of time visiting my mother-in-law. I made the big piñata birthday parties for my children when they were young and I executed a full-scale quinceaños party for my daughter when she turned fifteen. Almost every week, there is some festivity or another in Jorge's big extended family. I like most of the traditions, but in all these years, there are a few I have never come to enjoy, such as the temporada (going with the whole clan to Progreso to spend several weeks). Our family also celebrates Canadian holidays and many American ones as well. We have a rich holiday tradition.
YL: What is your favorite time of year here and why?
Answer: That’s an easy one… I like November to March. It is still nice and warm during the day but cooler at night. I don’t do too well in high humidity and so I really enjoy the respite from that. I also love to sleep without the AC.
YL: Where do you take guests who visit you here to show them something really special?
Answer: Coba. I think it is a very special place… I like the little “lakes” and walking through the village. The archaeological site is “other-world” and the accommodation is great – whether you choose to rough it (El Bocadito) or not (Villas Arquaeologicas) The birding is spectacular – I once saw seven toucans in a tree overhead!
YL: The last time you went out to dinner, where did you go and why?
Answer: The Hotel Lucia. Jorge and I enjoy going to “En el Corazon de Merida” on Saturday evenings. We usually sit outside and have a lovely meal while we listen to the music that is provided by at least three different groups as we dine.
YL: How is the city where you live different for residents than it is for tourists?
Answer: I am always asked by tourists, “Why don’t you have more of a tan?” The tourists don’t realize that most residents work or at least have a home to manage and they can’t be at the beach all day… Tourists don’t worry if they “act-out” – they figure no one knows them anyway. Residents have to be (or should be) conscience of the way they behave – they don’t want to offend the local population. Respect for the city’s traditions and lifestyle is very important to most of the people who have settled here.
YL: Do you have friends from the local community or do you pretty much hang with the expat crowd?
Answer: I have friends from many socio-economic groups and of many different nationalities… this is something I love about living here. However, there are a few women who live in Merida who are my best friends. Like myself, they came from elsewhere many years ago and made their lives in Merida. Along with my family, these women helped me adjust to life here; we have supported and helped one another through many good and bad times. These friends are the family I chose.
YL: Do your children live here? Have any other family members from your side of the family moved down here?
At present, my son Carlos (26) lives in Canada and my daughter Maggie (22) lives here. Both have been to school in Canada and here and are totally bilingual and bicultural. One of my sisters, who is also married to a man from Yucatan, owns a home here, but they live most of the year in Vancouver. My other sisters and brothers have all visited frequently as did my parents when they were still alive. My family loves it here. Once my sister said, "Joanna, our whole family has been enriched because you moved to Merida."
YL: If you are working or own a business, what is it like owning and running a business here or working here? How is it different from doing the same thing in your country of origin?
Answer: And we’re back to the hard questions… In some ways, it is easier to own a business here. Businesses can “walk before they run”; you can build up many different kinds of businesses with a much smaller initial investment than you’d need in most places. BUT the tramites – the processes and legal bureaucracy are never-ending and so petty. Dealing with this aspect is a l-o-n-g lesson in patience.
YL: Do you find it more or less difficult to make a living here than in your country of origin?
Answer: It is very difficult to make a good living here unless you have your own business, especially for young people just starting out. Without “a leg up”, it is really hard to get a position that will be satisfying and pay the bills.
YL: Are your work habits different here?
Answer: Yes, our college has morning (8AM – 1PM) and afternoon (4 – 8:30PM) programs, so if we need to be there for a full day, it is really long. But, this doesn’t happen often anymore. In fact we now have a lot of flexibility.
YL: Did you speak Spanish when you moved here? Where did you learn Spanish (if you did)? Is the language barrier a problem for you in your daily life?
Answer: Yes, I spoke Spanish (after a fashion) when I came to live here. I had lived in Peru for two years, teaching English at a school there. I learned Spanish while in South America but of course, it was nowhere near perfect. After nearly 32 years here, I am absolutely fluent in the language but I still have days when I can’t seem to manage stringing three Spanish words together! No matter how fluent you become, a second language is never as easy to use as your mother tongue. No, language is not a barrier in my work or other areas of my life.
YL: What interesting Spanish word or saying have you learned lately? What does it mean and how did you learn it?
Answer: I can’t really think of a Spanish word or phrase I’ve learned lately but I did have a really interesting experience with the Maya language last Sunday. Jorge and I went to a party held at the home of one of our maintenance men who lives in Tahmec. In fact, Don Jose invited our entire office staff and everyone went. It was a very cool party with wonderful food. There were handmade tortillas, pavo en relleno blanco and pavo en relleno negro – both these entrees were prepared in the traditional way by burying the pots underground on top of hot coals. We got to see our lunch as it rose from the ground!
The party venue included the entire house and surrounding property. There were A LOT of people! At one point, I found myself alone in a room with an extremely elderly lady who was watching TV from her hammock. When she saw me, she beamed a totally toothless smile, signaled that I should sit beside her and commenced speaking to me in Maya. I do not speak the language and as we swung to and fro, I tried to tell her this… She just kept talking and I eventually started nodding my head up-and-down or back-and-forth as I thought was appropriate. I finally spied our host and asked him to come in to the room and translate for me… “Oh don’t worry” Don Jose said, “this old grandmother is deaf!” She was still talking away so I kept up my nodding and added gestures to indicate I fully understood her… And you know what? Although the words were not comprehensible to me or even audible to her, we did have a lovely conversation about the fundamental things most women have in common: children, home and hearth. An open mind and heart will always compensate for a lack of language.
YL: Are you a Mexican citizen? Do you plan to become one?
Answer: Yes, I have dual Mexican and Canadian citizenship; I consider myself very lucky.
YL: Have you traveled much within Mexico? If so, where and what has been your favorite location to visit? What did you see there that you liked so much?
Answer: I have been to most states in Mexico except in the northern part. There are many places I have really loved but I think San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas is my very favorite. I love the strong Maya presence, being in the mountains, the cooler temperatures, the handcrafts and ceremonies.
YL: How are you treated by Mexicans? Do you feel resented or welcome?
Answer: I feel totally embraced by those who know me (and I know many people). Once in a while I encounter someone who has attitude but this is so infrequent, I don’t waste any sleep over it.
YL: How do you feel about the economic prospects of Mexico? Of the Yucatan?
Answer: These are not good at all for the vast majority of the population. Unemployment or under-employment is rampant and there are serious social issues that need to be addressed throughout the entire country. For those with money, Yucatan is the candy store… this is one of the few under-exploited areas of Mexico. The geographical position is prime and there is lots of water. Let’s hope that responsible stewardship increases before it is too late.
YL: What are some changes you are hoping for in the city in which you live? Do you see any progress towards these changes?
Answer: The infrastructure continues to grow and life in Merida continues to improve for those with means. But I do not believe this development is sustainable in a meaningful way. Until there is a more equal distribution of the wealth, there will be a lack of consumers and productivity will be hindered.
YL: What are your plans for the future here?
Answer: I will definitely stay here. You know, before I ever even dreamed of moving to Yucatan, a fortune teller read my palm and she told me, “You will be buried under a foreign flag”! At the time I was pretty spooked but maybe she was more clairvoyant than I realized? Hopefully, the prophesy is far from fulfillment and I will have many, many more happy years in Merida. I will continue to work at our college, managing the Life Long Learning program. My first book, which is about life in Yucatan is to be launched in January 2008. I am enjoying my term as Programming VP for the International Women’s Club and of course, I have my family and friends all around me… There’s a lot to look forward to!
YL: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give someone buying property and/or planning a move to the Yucatan?
Answer: Learn Spanish and get involved in this community!
YL: If you could say something to all the people of Mexico, what would you say?
Answer: As the famous Mexican singer Pedro Vargas used to say at the end of his concerts, “Muy agradecido… Muy agradecido… Muy agradecido!” - I am very grateful…
YL: If there is anything else you would like to add for our readers (people interested in or considering moving to the Yucatan, former Yucatecans, people planning to visit for an extended tour…), please add them here:
The following quotation is from the introduction to my book, “Tomando Agua de Pozo”. I think the words address this question quite well…
“Living in Yucatan is complex – solving one mystery presents another. Life here is a fragmented composite of the magical and the mundane, of fact and myth and more. To complicate matters, many situations seem to have solutions that are at odds with one another and attempting to determine what is valid and what is not, is folly. I think those who’ve successfully adjusted to a new life here simply sit back and let it unfold. They say there’s one constant: you’ll always be surprised!”
Joanna and her husband run a very successful travel school here in Merida, the Tecnología Turística Total. They have just started the new Lifelong Learning Center, with classes taught in English for the local expat community. Joanna now writes a blog, which can be found at joannavandergrachtderosado.wordpress.com