My husband Barry and I are blessed with three places we call home: the two-story apartment we rent in moist, coastal Eureka, the “Victorian seaport” on California’s North Coast; the 200-year-old adobe house we own in Guanajuato, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage city in Mexico’s Colonial Highlands; and our camper van, in which we spend so much time, we consider it our third home.
From these different perches, we get to enjoy not only different landscapes, but different climates, altitudes, languages, cultures, friends, cuisine, architecture, and history.
In Eureka, Barry and I paddle around Humboldt Bay, he in his kayak and me on my paddle board, watching the seals, our local sea lion who hangs out on one of the docks, and the egrets in the cypress trees. In Guanajuato, we explore the labyrinthine pedestrian callejones and hike on the trails above town; and in our van, we visit our favorite coastal areas, from Mendocino County to southern Oregon, or east to the Trinity Alps and the Marble Mountains Wilderness.
Although we don’t work full-time jobs, we aren’t exactly retired, either. We both write and teach on the subjects we love, which happily we can do anywhere. Barry is a science writer and opinion columnist, while I write and give talks on leadership, travel, the expat life, and wellness.
We love the variety, stimulation, contrasts, and beauty, but our lifestyle doesn’t just happen; it requires strategy and planning. Here’s what makes it succeed.
1. We Both Rent And Own
Homeownership is a lot of work, and we don’t want too much responsibility. One house is enough, so we rent our low-maintenance Eureka apartment and leave the work to our landlord. Fortunately, we can manage financially without subletting our apartment when we’re in Mexico, though we’ve had friends house sit from time to time. We do rent out our Mexican home when we’re away, which helps to cover expenses.
2. We’ve Created Systems To Handle Logistics
In both Eureka and Mexico, we pay most bills electronically out of our U.S. and Mexican bank accounts. In Mexico, the water bill has to be paid in person, so when I’m in town I walk over to the water office and pay the anticipo that covers the rest of the year. I pay the annual property tax in person, too.
For security, we have two locks in our Eureka apartment — one for the basement, which is mostly a storage space and garage, and one for upstairs, where we actually live. Our Guanajuato house is very secure, and we haven’t had any problems with theft. But even if a thief did manage to get in, what would he take? Lamps? The microwave? We don’t keep valuables there when we’re away.
3. We Hire Loyal, Reliable People To Help Us
And we build long-term relationships with them. In Guanajuato, our cleaner and plant whisperer, Lidia, sees issues as soon as they arise, and reports them to Mario, our bilingual rental manager. If there’s a problem in the house (and with an old home, maintenance issues do come up!), Mario will call Juan, our skilled and versatile on-call handyman. Mario pays Juan and Lidia from the retainer we give him. He also meets the guests who rent our home and gives them the keys.
Juan built us a couple of cupboards where we keep the foodstuffs, clothes, toiletries, printer, and anything else we don’t want to carry back and forth. Neither Juan nor Lidia has email, but we stay in touch when we’re out of town through WhatsApp.
We try to help our workers whenever we can. Last year, Lidia’s son-in-law and two grandchildren were in a serious car accident, and, along with her other house cleaning clients, we helped out financially with the medical bills. We recognize that by sheer luck, we were born into very different circumstances. We value her services enormously, and losing her would make our lives very difficult. At the beginning of Covid, when she reduced her client list, we were very grateful that she kept cleaning our home.
In Eureka, we’ve used the same car mechanic for 20 years. He’s moved shops more than once, but we maintain an independent relationship with him. Even though Barry is fairly handy with car repairs, we’d be lost without our mechanic helping us with our camper van.
4. We Build Strong Alliances With Our Neighbors And Friends
When there’s a problem and we aren’t there, our friends pitch in. For example, in Eureka one winter, during heavy winter rains, our neighbors moved our basement furniture to protect it. A friend who works in a bookstore a block away checks our mail once a week.
Recently Juan sent me a WhatsApp message asking for a loan to buy meds for his wife’s rheumatoid arthritis. Since, like most Mexican laborers, he doesn’t have a bank account or use Paypal, the only way to deliver cash to him is to have someone give it to him directly, so we asked Tom, a friend from Texas who lives full-time in Guanajuato and also knows Juan, to front him the money. We paid Tom a couple of weeks later when we flew to Mexico.
In Guanajuato, neighbor relations are particularly important because most houses are colindario, meaning connected — adobe row houses. During the rainy season, the thick walls absorb moisture and can cause leaks between houses, leading to tension with neighbors. To maintain good relations with our Mexican neighbor, a divorcee who lives alone, I’m careful to “court” her. I knock on her door the day after we’ve arrived to say hello, so she won’t be worried by unexpected noises, and let her know whenever we’ll be gone for any significant length of time. These simple acts generate goodwill.
Where to keep our van during the winter when we’re away has been an ongoing challenge. In the last five years, we’ve kept it in four places: a van/RV storage space that shut down; in the garage of an acquaintance who died; on the property of a friend who later decided he wanted to grow a garden; and currently on the property of friends.
5. It Keeps Us Flexible And Adaptable
And we recognize that our lifestyle is a work in progress and keeps evolving. Where we store our van is not the only thing that keeps changing. We’ve been through several rental managers, contractors, and house cleaners. Last year VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner), the home-rental agency where we had listed our home, pulled out of Guanajuato, so we chose to list our house on Tripadvisor and we may list it on Airbnb.
When we bought our home in Guanajuato in 2005, I was so smitten with our pedestrian-friendly, charming city that I felt ready to move there within the next hour! But since then, my business offering leadership training and coaching expanded. I found it deeply fulfilling and didn’t want to give it up. Plus we enjoy living near the ocean part of the year. Will we still love this lifestyle another 16 years from now? Who knows? We’re having too much fun to think about it.