YL: When did you move to the Yucatan and from where did you move?
Byron: My wife Rebecca and I bought our house in Valladolid in 2008. However, the house needed substantial renovations. Rebecca retired from her elementary teaching position, came to Valladolid, rented a small apartment, and essentially became a construction supervisor. She knew very little Spanish, but soon picked up construction Spanish and learned to swear in Mayan. By 2010, the house was progressing nicely and was suitable to live in. I resigned my position as a Professor in the Department of Geography at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, and arrived on the scene in October of 2010.
YL: Why did you move?
Byron: We moved to Valladolid because it was my “dream retirement” location. I brought a group of students to Valladolid on a Study Abroad Program in 1978 and fell in love with the city. Over the years I returned with more study abroad students approximately every two years. Our groups usually had 30 to 35 students and it was exciting for me to show them the place I talked about frequently in my classes. Many of those students now return to Valladolid to show their children where they cultivated their interest in Mexico.
YL: Why did you choose the city you now live in over other places in the world?
Byron: During my teaching career, I visited 55 countries on five different continents, so I was certainly aware of other choices. When my students asked me which country of the 55 that I had visited was my favorite, I never hesitated. I always said, Mexico! Most of my university students from Texas said that they knew Mexico from their visits to border towns like Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Acuña, and Ciudad Juarez, and did not understand why Mexico ranked number one on my list. I always told them that they did not know Mexico, if their experiences had been limited to the border towns. I moved to Mexico and specifically Valladolid because of the Maya culture that still prevails, the rich Spanish colonial history, the food, the music, and above all, the people.
YL: Did you buy a house right away or rent first? Do you think you made the right decision?
Byron: My wife made the decision on which house to buy. Our very dear friend, Mario Escalante at the Hotel El Meson del Marques, called us and told us that there was a house on the market in a nice neighborhood. Rebecca flew down, checked it out and bought it. I never saw the house until a few months later. She is far more creative than I am and I trusted her judgment regarding the potential this house possessed. We both think that individuals contemplating taking up residence in Valladolid would be well advised if they rented initially, to make sure they were comfortable with the culture. Rental rates are fair, and it would provide them with adequate time to search for their own dream home.
YL: Are you doing now what you intended to do when you moved here? If not, why not?
Byron:I believe we are doing much of what we intended to do regarding our decision to move to Mexico. We make frequent trips to Isla Mujeres to fish with our long-term captain. He is very knowledgeable regarding where the fish are located and we have never been “skunked” on one of his trips. Both Rebecca and I are very competitive and always challenge each other for the first fish, the most fish, and the biggest fish. I hate to admit it, but she usually wins. We also like to go to the Maya Riviera to relax, and we take two or three-day road trips to Maya sites we have not visited.
YL: What are the most interesting things about living here for you?
Byron: For me the most interesting aspect of living here is to observe the confluence of two entirely different cultures, Maya and Spanish. As a university professor for 42 years, I engaged in a fair amount of research and writing. Valladolid and the surrounding area is a treasure trove of potential research activities. I do not believe that I planned on continuing to conduct research, but the opportunities were so numerous, I could not help myself. It was a real treat to connect with Ellen Fields at Yucatan Living and submit articles and photos for her to work on with her editing magic.
YL: What do you absolutely love about living here?
Byron: The climate is a big factor. I hate cold weather with a passion and from late October to the end of March, this location is a climatic paradise to me. Mild daytime temperatures cool evenings for great sleeping, and lots of sunshine. Summers are pretty hot and humid, but I have always adjusted better to heat and humidity than to frigid temperatures with ice and snow.
YL: What do you miss from your “former life”?
Byron: I think what I miss most about my former life is punctuality. My German heritage has instilled in me a strong responsibility to honor the time of an appointment. In the German community where I grew up, they joked, “that if a German knew what the precise time of his death was, he would arrive ten minutes early, rather than be late. I am aware that this is a cultural characteristic, but I doubt that I will ever really adjust to the lack of punctuality.
YL: What don’t you miss from your “former life”?
Byron: Of all the things that I do not miss about my former life, the item at the top of the list is high property taxes. Our property taxes in Texas were atrocious, but our property taxes in Valladolid are more than fair.
YL: What is your favorite local food?
Byron: Asking what my favorite food is, is like asking an alcoholic what his favorite booze is. The variety of good food here is exceptional, as my girth will document. The fresh fruit and vegetables available at our large central market are superb and a selection of choices is available throughout the year. Right now I am foundering on mangoes. As far as specific dishes, I love Yucatecan pork, especially cochinita pibil and poc chuc.
YL: What is your favorite time of year here and why?
Byron: My favorite time of the year in Valladolid is late fall and winter. During this time of the year, the vertical rays of the sun are less intense and temperatures drop. More importantly, it is the dry season and the relative humidity declines substantially. Also, there are lots of festivals and cultural opportunities to take advantage of in this season.
YL: Where do you take guests who visit you here to show them something really special?
Byron: We kind of have a routine we follow, especially with first time visitors. Ek Balam and Chichen Itza are our choices for local Maya ruins. Our preference is Ek Balam because it is more intimate, has fewer tourists crowding onto the site, and allows visitors to climb to the top of the Acropolis pyramid (96 feet tall) for a spectacular view of the site and the countryside. A really fun adventure is a visit to the Mayapan Distillery for a tour and tasting of Valladolid’s very own agave azul product. It has a unique tequila flavor, but cannot be called tequila because of Mexican law, so it was named Mayapan. The San Roque Museum is well worth a visit and contains a nice mixture of Maya and colonial period items on display. It is located next to the Heroes Park, where three heroes of the 1910 Mexican Revolution are interred. They were blindfolded and shot by a firing squad of federal soldiers a few feet from where their permanent resting places are located.
YL: The last time you went out to dinner, where did you go and why?
Byron: We have some excellent restaurants in Valladolid. I do not remember exactly which one we dined in last, but we have some favorites that we regularly patronize. It is hard to top the regional Yucatecan menu items at the restaurant in the lovely central garden of the Hotel El Meson del Marques. Breakfast is a delightful experience at Xoco Loco in the palapa at Casa Hamaca. The best pizza in our opinion can be found at Casa Italia, and the lasagna is to die for at Restaurante San Juan. For pure elegance and exquisite cuisine it is hard to top the coconut shrimp served on a slice of grilled pineapple with either a mango or tamarind sauce at Taberna de Los Frailes.
YL: How is the city where you live different for residents than it is for tourists?
Byron: I believe it is different for residents because we have become familiar with the pulse and flow of activity in the city. We know where interesting shops and restaurants are located and we have found excellent health care doctors and expert dental services. Most of us, especially those who are residentes permanantes, are proud to claim that we are Vallisoletanos.
YL: Do you have friends from the local community or do you pretty much hang with the expat crowd?
Byron: We have made many friends and acquaintances in the local community including the city’s last three mayors. The friendship extends across the Maya/Spanish heritage communities. We have been testigoes for Maya and Spanish ancestry weddings, attended several quinceañeras, baptisms, and a Maya Hetz mek ceremony. We hang out with the expat crowd at meetings, dinners, and lectures at the Valladolid English Library (VEL) on the grounds of Casa Hamaca, whose gregarious owner, Denis Larsen always makes everyone feel welcome.
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?
Byron: I spend a significant amount of time doing research, photography, and writing. In the states I received payments for book contracts, royalties, articles and photos. Fortunately, we do not have to make a living here because of retirement investments my wife and I made when we had full-time jobs in the states.
YL: Are your work habits different here?
Byron: My work habits are different here. I am more laid back and things that need to be done get placed on the back burner more frequently. This is especially true when my wife goes to the States without me. Not too much gets done until she is two or three days from the date of her return. Then, I have to regain my old work ethic and hustle to make it look like I was Mr. Homemaker for three or four weeks. When friends ask me what I do with my time during retirement, I tell them, “I really do not know what I do, but it takes me all day to do it.”
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?
Byron: I did not speak Spanish very well when I moved here. I did study some Spanish for a few weeks in San Miguel de Allende. I hate conjugating verbs, especially the irregular verbs. However, I think I can communicate in an acceptable fashion if pressed. With Spanish, I have found that a few drinks improve my Spanish more than studying the language.
YL: What interesting Spanish word or saying have you learned lately? What does it mean and how did you learn it?
Byron: I think one of the more recent concepts I have learned in Spanish is, “lo siento,” or I am sorry. I still do not know how to say that in English.
YL: Are you a Mexican citizen? Do you plan to become one?
Byron: Several of the expats we know in the community are gaining Mexican citizenship or planning to do so. We have so many rights and privileges as residentes permanantes, that I do not feel citizenship is necessary. Besides, at my age, I do not wish to study and take any more exams.
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?
Byron: Latin American geography was my regional specialty when I was a university professor, so I travelled extensively in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean Basin. However, Mexico always held the greatest interest for me. So far, I have visited 27 of Mexico’s 31 states and the Federal District. There are so many places that hold special memories but one of the most dramatic occurred near Saltillo. On a whim, we turned off the main highway, drove a few miles and then entered a tunnel one and one-half miles long. When we emerged from the tunnel, an absolutely spectacular panorama unfolded before us. It was the old silver mining town of Real de Catorce. We spent a day and a half soaking up the ambiance of this truly unique place, including a church, which was a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics.
YL: How are you treated by Mexicans? Do you feel resented or welcome?
Byron: We have been especially well treated by Mexicans. They show us respect, integrate us into their family’s social activities and always make us feel welcome. A perfect example occurred this past Friday. During the 1980s, I always took my study abroad students to Hacienda Holoctun, just outside of Merida, to visit an operating henequen mill. The mill supervisor and his brother ran the operation and lived in the old Casa Principal. Eduardo, the main supervisor always had his wife make fresh tortillas for the students over an open fire. The students were fascinated while watching the masa turn into a hand-made tortilla. The mill closed more than 25 years ago and the machinery collapsed along with the building, which housed it. I was curious as to what had happened, so my two Canadian friends and I pulled into Holoctun. After checking out the total destruction of the mill we went to the Casa Principal and knocked on the door. Eduardo’s wife came to the door with a smile a mile wide. The sight of her after all of those years melted my heart and long hugs with her and her adult daughter brought back so many warm memories. We talked for thirty minutes and she made me promise to bring Rebecca to see her on our next trip to Merida. The Mexican people have always made us feel welcome.
YL: How do you feel about the economic prospects of Mexico? Of the Yucatan?
Byron: I worry about the economic prospects of both Mexico and the United States. Government officials in both countries have placed their economies at risk because of large debt accumulation. The United States is even worse than Mexico, and if the United States falls into economic decline it will drag Mexico down with it, in my opinion. I do feel more optimistic about the economic future of the Yucatan. As long as airfares from flights originating in the United States or Western Europe remain affordable, the economic development of tourism should continue to grow.
YL: What are some changes you are hoping for in the city in which you live? Do you see any progress towards these changes?
Byron: Name a city where street repair is not a problem and I would guess you live in Shangri-La. We have that problem, but the city government is close to completing a major street project on Calle 40, which enters the center of the city from the south. I would love to see the city pass noise restrictions on motorcycles and scooters. Many of these numerous machines assault the sense of hearing beyond belief and it is a major nuisance.
YL: What are your plans for the future here?
Byron: In the future, I will most likely continue to be actively engaged in research, writing and photography. In June, I will assist a young professor of Global Studies and Cultural geography from Middle Tennessee State University with a group of study abroad students, including providing some class lectures on Cuba and the differences between Maya and Inca cultures. My wife and I hope to continue to explore the Yucatan Peninsula, do some fishing and enjoy the aspects of Valladolid that make it so special.
YL: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give someone buying property and/or planning a move to the Yucatan?
Byron: I would advise potential candidates that might move to the Yucatan to come and live here in rental property for six months to a year, in order to make sure it is the “right place” for them. If they decide to buy, hire a construction engineer to examine the property before the purchase is completed.
YL: If you could say something to all the people of Mexico, what would you say?
Byron: If I could say something to all of the people of Mexico, it would be, “Thank you for making me feel like a special guest in your beautiful country.”
Byron Augustin is a regular contributor to Yucatan Living. You can read many of his articles in our Valladolid Living section.