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Moving From Malaysia To Mexico

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast. Writer and editor Kirsten Raccuia is known for her Sand in My Curls blog, which until recently, was all about her expat life in Malaysia. We last spoke at the height of the global pandemic, when she and her husband were closing in on a decade in Penang. Fast-forward a couple of years, and they’re in a new country: Mexico. I’m chatting with Kirsten again to find out what factors influenced their decision to move, why Mexico, and what it was like packing up their life in Malaysia.

Kirsten, the last time we spoke there was, you know, really not much going on in the world.

Kirsten: Yeah, nothing at all. Just a little pandemic!

Carlie: Just a little pandemic.

Kirsten: Nothing at all. Changing worlds.

Carlie: And I don’t know if you would see it as a catalyst for what’s gone on in your life since, but I’m curious about how much it has changed your life. The last time we spoke, you were living and blogging from Penang in Malaysia. Where are you now?

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Kirsten: I’m in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and living and blogging here and writing and editing here. Yeah, it definitely was a catalyst for our move. We were in Malaysia for almost 9 years, or almost 10 years, and we absolutely loved it there, obviously, we wouldn’t have stayed that long. But after being trapped in Malaysia (which we were really for nearly two years with the pandemic and not being able to get home to family), we both, Mark and I, we just decided, like, we can’t be this far, like, literally the opposite end of the world from our families. Like my father-in-law is 93, my mom is 78. They’re healthy, but…thankfully.

And so we just realized that we…as much as we loved Malaysia, it wasn’t giving us all the things that we needed for ourselves and for being local…like where we were in the world. And so we decided we needed to stay somewhere closer. So, we planned to come back this way. We never planned for Puerto Vallarta, but it happened.

Carlie: I spoke to a lot of people during the pandemic who said the whole situation really made them reassess a lot of things. Some people had to wait to actually execute their plans until a certain point. Was that the same for yourselves? At what point did you decide “it’s time to leave” versus when you could actually leave?

Kirsten: We left before we actually could leave. So, when we left, they told us you definitely…well, you may not be able to be back…be allowed back in. So, we left knowing that. We just figured we’ll have to deal with it as it comes because we thought if we don’t leave now, we don’t know if it’ll happen. And yes, we’re legally there. We had the 10 year visa to be there, which we still have. And we were in the middle it, so we still had time to be there, but we thought, we don’t know if this is…how this is going to roll out.

So we thought just go and take the chance. And it was scary, but we thought, “oh, we’ll be back.” We just thought, “one day we’ll be back”. And so we left our stuff. We didn’t, like, close up our shop, we kept our apartment, we did everything. Luckily living there is so affordable and we thought, “oh, we will only be gone for like, you know, a month or two until we sort things out, see our family and then come back.”

But we ended up going to our family for a few months, then coming to Mexico for what was supposed to be a month and ended up six months. And then we went…when the doors opened back up and people were allowed back into Malaysia, we went back. And by that time we had already said, “we’re going stay on this side of the world.” So we actually went back and, like, sold our everything once again, sold our stuff, sold our car, sold our scooter, sold everything, and then came back here. So that was, kind of…we just, kind of, rolled with it and just hoped that it would work out the best way it did.

Carlie: What did you observe when you went back? I know when I leave our house to go on holiday, even just for a few weeks, I’m so paranoid that things won’t be the same and where I left them! Was your apartment untouched, unlooted…?

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s fairly super safe. So yeah, nothing was, nothing was harmed or looted or anything like that, thank God. But the whole…the vibe of the place was so different because, you know, there the social life was so diminished for everybody in the world. So, it was…the social life was gone. The people, like, getting together with friends had just been starting to come back.

So, like, people were still scared, you know? And after being in Mexico for six months where nobody’s wearing a mask and everybody’s outside and nothing, like, Covid exists here, but they’re like, “wait, we don’t, we’re not stopping our lives for it.” They never did in Mexico versus Malaysia where it was like, you’re locked inside, you know, we couldn’t go out together. My husband and I couldn’t, like, literally go to the grocery store, to the bank, to the pharmacy. We couldn’t walk out of our house together. We couldn’t walk outside on the beach.

So from going from one opposite to the other, it was quite mind blowing actually. We came back and we were like, “why is everybody wearing masks still?” You know, we just didn’t even register to us that that would be how life would be still in Malaysia. And while we were there (we were only there for about a month), but while we were there, things started really loosening up and everybody started kind of going back out and having normal life again. But it was a slower process there than it was here.

Carlie: Speaking of life and activity, we’ve got a little bit going on around you today in Mexico.

Kirsten: Our…this neighborhood that we moved into is a very local but still stuff…tons of stuff going on. There’s lots of expats, but it’s also very local. And so every morning we have the vaquero, which is the cowboy who comes down with his three horses. He drives down the street (he drives!), he rides them down the street and usually a bunch of dogs follow around barking.

And then there’s always roosters everywhere, just, like, crossing the street. And it’s…I live in a modern high-rise with a pool and a hot tub, like, I live in a fabulous place and all around me is modern. But then there’s these, like, little pockets of real life that go on that are, you know, traditional and rooted in history here. And it’s just, it makes us so happy to see the cowboy and his roosters and the dogs! So if you hear that, that’s what’s going on!

Carlie: And it sounds like you’ve got a bit of construction happening too.

Kirsten: Everywhere. It’s mayhem here. Like, I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place that has had more construction surrounding us, but it’s all of Puerto Vallarta. It’s not even like…I could go somewhere else and this town and find a spot. There’s…it’s not…it’s just booming here, which is incredible. Not great if you want to buy real estate, but it’s great if you’re selling. And it’s booming so much that we have I think 1, 2, 3 high-rises going on around us and the 5 block radius.

Carlie: And is it booming because there are expats looking to buy, foreigners looking to move to Mexico and buy in?

Kirsten: Yes. Most of the stuff that’s here is quite expensive. So, Puerto Vallarta is not the cheapest place in Mexico. There’s far cheaper places. But it is booming and it is so close, especially to the west coast of the United States and Canada…and there’s direct flights. So there’s so many Americans and Canadians here that are just buying up tons of property. Very different than in Penang, but still…just the neighbor driving through!

Carlie: Wow! Okay, so you get a concert out your window as well.

Kirsten: It’s boisterous here.

Carlie: Yeah, that’s a good word for it.

Kirsten: Yeah, Mexico is loud, like, everything about it is loud. So, people come here and they’re like, “oh, it’s so loud, it’s so crazy.” And it’s like, that is Mexico. People come by driving loud music, even, like, the bread delivery guy comes by blasting bread, like, announcement about his bread. And it’s like, oh, everyone runs down and gets their daily bread. So I mean, it is a country of happiness and loudness and people, like, either love it or hate it. We love it. I love it that it’s loud and crazy. I wouldn’t love it if my job was to be on calls all day long. But…

Carlie: You’d really need to build a soundproof room for that!

Kirsten: Yeah, my husband is, and he’s in the back room doing, he’s on calls all day, but he’s in the back room with the air conditioning going and quiet back there. Because everything’s built in cement, so once you get into the back of the…into the back where it’s quiet there, it’s actually quite quiet.

Carlie: I want to ask you about some of these elements that did attract you guys to Mexico. But first I want to rewind back to packing up your life in Malaysia. What did you find most difficult having spent a decade there?

Kirsten: Saying goodbye to the friends and family we created. I mean, it was…that was really the only thing that just broke me. I was…even talking about it now, just family that, you know, after being there for 9 years, you have every holiday with them, because you can’t go home for every holiday. So you create your Christmas holiday friends, your Thanksgiving holiday friends. Like, we had friends from around the world that learned what American Thanksgiving was, had never been to an American Thanksgiving.

So…because they were on that side of the world. So, you know, it was definitely the connections that we made that were so instrumental in our life there and for us being happy there. And that’s really, and looking back at it now, I miss our, like, our home, because we had a beautiful home. That was, like, ridiculously inexpensive for an ocean front condo with four bedrooms and or three bedrooms and four bathrooms. I mean, it was silly. But I miss…it’s family, it’s the family we created. That’s been the hardest thing.

Carlie: Logistically, was it simple enough to say, “okay, this needs to be sold, this needs to go with us. How are we getting it back to the States?”

Kirsten: Yeah, we had some help! Lots of help actually. We knew what we had to sell. We only went there with four suitcases and so that’s what we kind of wanted to come back with. But what we did was we decided…because when we traveled we bought art. So we buy masks from Bali and we bought, like, just paintings that we love. Because Mark and I very rarely agree on things when it comes to the house, but we agree on art, which is just a miracle.

So whenever we see like a cool mask in a…from a cool country, we buy it. And so we had that stuff that reminds us of our life there. So we said, “okay, we’re going to bring the four suitcases that we came with of clothes and whatever else. But that’s it. Like no other stuff, no kitchen stuff, nothing like that. No anything like that. But all of our art.” So, we went through that and figured out how we were going to…how are we going to do that?

So we…a friend of ours (who’s godsend) just said, “instead of packing in suitcases pack in like massive Rubbermaid Tupperware, things that lock”. I’m like, “can you do that? I never even thought about that.” She’s like, “I’ve traveled…” she’s traveled the world, moved across the world and only use those instead of suitcases. And it’s perfect because they’re hard sided. So we put all our art, we, like, unframed a lot of our art. We rolled things. We built a box for one of our…we had one big painting, we built a box.

So, I mean, it wasn’t hard in that sense to decide what to bring because we are very unattached to the stuff because we’ve already sold all of our stuff before. So, like, the stuff that we collected our kitchen stuff that I used every day, but just like (and I love to cook and love to bake and all that), so I…we did…none of that mattered. We just thought…

Carlie: Oh, that’s good because I get attached to, like, a garlic peeler, you know? Those lemon presses that you can like just press down and get the juice out. I still don’t know what happened to mine through a move and I’m still dirty about it.

Kirsten: I can send you one because they’re, like, Mexico is made for lemon squeezing, lime squeezing margaritas. I mean that is…I’m serious. They’re at every store. I can send you one if you need.

Carlie: That would be so cool!

Kirsten: Done!

Carlie: No, but yeah, like I really admire people that can be so detached from their things because I am having that constant battle of too much stuff in my life!

Kirsten: I feel like once we left America and sold all our stuff and we, like…our home in America was a beautiful condo that we put a lot of money into and had bought really nice furniture and when we sold it all, you know, we literally were like, “well there’s $400! Like, great!” So for us, we realized that buying like all the best things that we had to have because living in America, we felt that way and we wanted to spend the money that way.

Now we’re like, “we would never buy custom furniture. We would never do that.” We’re like, “IKEA’s great, just paint it, it’s perfect.” You know, like it’s a totally different mindset. And so now we are like, “eh, I’ll just, if I have to buy a new, you know, crockpot, I will instead of carrying it with me across the world.” So…and I knew that coming to Mexico is pretty easy because everything here…everything in America you can get here.

Carlie: Is there anything that you can get in Malaysia that you do bring with you because it’s so unique to that part of the world?

Kirsten: I actually brought food with me! Like spices.

Carlie: Not like a really cool wok or something?

Kirsten: Yeah, no. And Malaysia’s not known for…it’s known for a lot of things, but it’s not known for like, its amazing art or anything like that. I don’t…for me. So, yeah, we didn’t bring anything like that and we kind of said, “well what are we gonna bring home from Malaysia?” And it’s just, like, kind of, the art that we’ve, like, we have some cool earrings that we bought that were, that are actually from a tribe in Borneo and and they’re like weights.

They weight their ears down, so they pull their…stretch their ears. And so we bought those. We have them framed and like, so that’s kind of our, we brought back, but nothing other than food paste. And every time people go, I’m like, “bring me the green curry noodle!” So I have all the food stuff, yeah.

Carlie: And then your first stop was back in the USA. How long did you spend back in the States before Mexico started calling?

Kirsten: We were in the States…gosh, my timeline is so jumbled. We were in the States for a few months because we went home to my mom first and then we went to Mark’s dad in Connecticut. And I got COVID before I got a chance to go there. So I think we were in the States about 4 to 5 months.

And I…we knew that the beginning of the year we were going to go to Mexico, we thought we’ll stay until the end of the year in America and then we’ll go to Mexico in January. And we were literally planning for one month in Mexico, and then that didn’t happen, we stayed and here we are! So we ended up I think about 4 to 6…4 to 5 months I think in America. Which was shocking. Totally shocking.

Carlie: What was most shocking about it?

Kirsten: I think because it was still the tail end of COVID, not even the tail end. It was still in 2022. I don’t…I’m so confused with my timeline.

Carlie: What is time?

Kirsten: Yeah, right? We were locked in for so long. And then…so, I think the biggest thing was that I was…so, because Malaysia was so strict, I was quite nervous. Like, I didn’t want to go to a grocery store. I didn’t want to see people. I was quite nervous to…I didn’t see my mom for the first two weeks. I was too nervous. I saw her for dinner outside and I said, “I can’t, I have to stay away from you.”

So we stayed at a friend’s house who gave us, kind of, a retreat to, like, stay away from everybody, you know? And I just was so nervous about seeing people and being with people. And then finally after two weeks I was like, “this is crazy, I have to go. I mean, I’m home. I need to see my mom, you know, that’s why I’m here.” And so I think that was kind of a shock for me.

But I think that was for anybody who had gone from one extreme to the next with COVID. And I think just being back in America, it felt great being back in America. But because I didn’t know if we were going to stay or what we were doing in my whole…in my mind, I would go anywhere, but I don’t want to live in America. There’s just…there’s nothing wrong with America. I love being American. I love America, but I just feel like there’s a big world out there and I want to explore it.

So the best way for me to explore it is to go live in another country. I don’t if…tomorrow there was a great opportunity to go back to the States, we’d go back to the States. There’s nothing…I’m not a hater, I’m not a, like everyone’s like, “well, you should get rid of your passport.” I’m like, “why would I ever get rid of my passport? Why would I renounce my citizenship?” I believe being…I believe that I’m American. I’m born American. That’s who I am. So…but I like the opportunity that it affords me to be able to go and travel and be in other places. So…and I know how privileged that is. I get that.

And then, but it’s where we’re at. And I’m embracing it by being able to go and, like, spend money and live in another place and support other countries by doing that with my living somewhere else. So, you know, I think it’s important so that for people to know that, like, just because I left America doesn’t mean I’m not patriotic. That was, I got a lot of flack for that when we first left America about being unpatriotic and how can you leave America?

Carlie: Wow, that is…is that another…?

Kirsten: Cement truck.

Carlie: It’s a cement truck. Okay. I was like, “that’s a car with a big sub woofer.”

Kirsten: No, it’s a cement truck! Sorry.

Carlie: Had you been to Mexico before you went there with your husband?

Kirsten: Yeah, we had…it’s so close for us. So growing up, I had been here a few times and just throughout my life we had come here and we’d traveled, we’d rented a car and we’d spent some time on the other coast. But we had, we’d only been to Puerto Verta once or twice, maybe for like 10 days max. So it wasn’t,like screaming, “oh, we have to move to Puerto Vallarta.” We have a friend here and a guy that I was working for…actually he wasn’t a friend yet, but he was a man I was working for.

And he said, “you know, my next door neighbor has an apartment that’s empty and she’s always looking for somebody, kind of, to do, you know, long-term rentals there. So, a month, if you are looking for a month, I could ask her.” And we said, yeah, sure, why not? So, really it wasn’t like this big choice of “oh, we have to go to Puerto Vallarta”, but we just thought we don’t want to live in America. And when we did start talking about, like, looking at places in America, we looked at rents in a few places and we’re like sticker, total sticker shock coming from $600 of rent in this like magnificent 2300 square foot apartment to, you know, like a studio for twice that, you know, in not a good neighborhood.

Carlie: I think I have the same sticker shock when I look at prices in Australia right now. I’m like, “whoa!”

Kirsten: Well, stay where I’m at.

Carlie: Yeah, pretty much.

Kirsten: Yeah. So when we got here, we thought, “okay, we’ll just come for a month and it was available for a month.” So we thought, “okay, we’ll give it a whirl.” But it wasn’t this, like, Puerto Vallarta is screaming our name or “we have to move to Mexico”. It was just, that’s what happened.

Carlie: So, when did that change? When did you realize this was the next place that you’re meant to be?

Kirsten: What…I don’t know that I’ve actually realized that yet! I mean I know that it’s easy and so I struggle with that. I struggle with the fact that I think it’s too easy, that maybe we should go somewhere else a little bit more…not exotic.

Carlie: Challenging or…?

Kirsten: Yeah, a little more challenging in the sense of, you know, off the beaten path a little bit. Like, Mexico is full of Americans, which is great, but if you want to, you could be…I could never speak Spanish and I could never…living where I’m living now, I can…I don’t…I wouldn’t need to…I don’t need to speak Spanish. I could be surrounded by Americans all the time and never be around a Mexican person.

But that’s not why I would move anywhere in the world. So, it’s very Americanized, which is like…there’s a Home Depots, there’s Walmart, there’s Costco, there’s, you know, which is…it’s great when you are like, “where do I go to find something?” But you also have to dig a little bit to find the mom and pop shops, you know? So, it’s very different than Penang. And so it feels…that’s when I say it’s so easy, it’s like, “yeah, I can go to Home Depot and get what I need, you know, just like, and I could in Chicago.”

So for me that is a little bit something that I struggle with. Because I want…I like that there’s that convenience, but at the same time, it’s almost like I can be living in South Carolina, you know, except for the chickens and the cowboy! But for the most part I could be living in South Carolina, which, you know, it’s just a different feel.

Carlie: And outside of, you know, being able to go to Walmart or Home Depot if you want, what does your day-to-day look like now in Mexico?

Kirsten: It does look a lot similar to what it looked like in Penang. I spend most of my time behind my computer, writing and editing. I’m just doing it from a different location, really. So, we live in a apartment with like 13 units. It’s got a pool downstairs and a hot tub above on its rooftop deck. So it’s pretty fabulous. It’s 3 times the amount of money I was spending in Penang, but that’s still cheaper than America. And which isn’t…yeah, still cheaper than America.

But my day-to-day sitting, kind of sitting outside right now because it’s still coolish enough to work. And then the end of the day taking a walk…going to the beach because we’re about eight minute walk to the beach, or going to the taco stall around the corner. And that kind of thing. And right now we’re pretty focused on meeting new people because the last place we lived was a very Airbnb focused place. So, there was no community there. And here there’s, in this building, it’s quite a community and this neighborhood’s quite a community. So people you see on the street, everybody hangs out and talks and, you know. So we’re getting to meet new people.

And, and so the daily focus now is like, you know, networking, meeting new people just to find our tribe here. Because we didn’t…for the whole year we were here before we really were like, “but we’re leaving, but we’re leaving. Are we leaving? Are we staying? Are we going?” We didn’t have a definitive, like, “we were staying for sure”. So, we just never really put effort into making friends. But if you’re going to live somewhere, you need to have a tribe. So we’re looking for…we’re looking to do things like meeting new people and going to Facebook meetups and that kind of stuff. So

Carlie: I was going to ask, where are you finding tribes? So, you know, locals in Mexico use Facebook meetups?

Kirsten: There’s tons of groups here and it’s not really a meetup per se, but it’s different groups that are here. Like we just joined this Gen eXpats. So it’s Gen X, so it’s for Gen Xers, but it’s also for expats. But it’s not just expats. Like we went to this last meeting and there was plenty of Mexicans, which makes me happy.

And so…because I want to have both, I want to speak Spanish, I want to, you know, we’re taking Spanish classes so we want that. Like, we want to get involved in the community. So, you know, definitely Facebook is a thing and there’s tons of digital nomads here, like tons. So I think, you know, some of those groups are good, but because we’re kind of older than most digital nomads, we’ve been to a few like social networking stuff through the digital nomad groups and we’re like, “I’m grandma!”

Carlie: Everybody is a child!

Kirsten: Yeah, I’m grandma. I’m like, this is…you know, and so it’s not that you don’t have anything in common, but I literally could be grandma to some of them. So I thought this is…and my husband’s even older than me (not even older! “He’s so much older.” But he’s older.) So there’s…we felt like okay, maybe this isn’t our place, you know, so we’re trying it all right now!

Carlie: And what are you looking forward to doing in Mexico and especially in light of the Sand in My Curls blog that you’ve still got going on? I’m sure you’re always looking for new content.

Kirsten: Yes. Well, we took a trip to Tequila, which is only about five hours from here, which is, I didn’t even know.

Carlie: I thought it was just a drink!

Kirsten: It’s not…I was just going to say I didn’t even know that it was a place.

Carlie: I’ve never been to Mexico!

Kirsten: Yeah, I have been to Mexico and I did not know that Tequila was a place.

Carlie: That makes me feel better.

Kirsten: I thought tequila was a drink. Made in Mexico, that I knew but not…I had no idea. So it’s an adorable little town. And I will have a blog up soon about things there. I do…I just look forward to traveling here and getting to know Puerto Vallarta because it is a big city, but I look forward to traveling. There’s amazing hot springs in the center. There’s a, the monarch migration happens every January.

Yes, so that’s huge. I mean Mexico is massive so there’s so much here from coast to coast. It’s so varying. So, I think we’re going to buy a car here so we can do some traveling. Otherwise we have to buy plane tickets and all that stuff. So we want to be able to be a little bit freer. So we’re gonna get a car, which will give us some freedom here. So…

Carlie: The first time we spoke, I recall you saying that when you first were looking to move abroad, you were convinced that you would end up in Costa Rica.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Carlie: And Malaysia was a bit of a wild card surprise. And that’s where you went instead.

Kirsten: Right.

Carlie: Do you see Mexico as some kind of, like, not homecoming, but kind of return to possibly, you know, where your head was 10 years ago when you were thinking about life abroad?

Kirsten: I do think so, because I think at the time it was really important that we were close to our families. More so for me. Like, Mark had already moved away from his family when he was 17, so he hasn’t lived on the East Coast. So he sees them, you know, on holidays and stuff like that. So he was quite used to being away from them. But for me, small little family, you know, that I was together with every week. I still talk to my mom every day from here.

So, for us at the time when we were originally looking to move, it was about being close to family and being able to come and visit and be able, you know, going back and forth quickly. That changed when we went to Malaysia because we fell in love with it. So we were like, “screw all the things that we think we need. It doesn’t matter. Sorry family. I’m leaving across the world!” So yeah, it feels right to be on this side of the world.

I don’t know that Mexico is forever home. I’m sure it’s not forever home, because nothing…I don’t think anything’s forever home. I already always have a suitcase packed for the next place. And I’m a little bit of the grass is always greener, which is a terrible trait to have. But I do think that that…I don’t know that Costa Rica is going to ever happen for us, but I think it’s a place that we will explore one day, once we’ve done in Mexico. But we feel like being here in this time zone close to family and being able to pick up the phone and call them is huge. And being on this time zone is huge.

Carlie: I can really relate because my family’s in Australia, so we’re always eight or nine hours time difference. I’m calling them, they’re having dinner, getting ready for bed, they’re calling me and you know, it’s the opposite end of the day again. So just having…just being on a more similar time zone would just be mind blowing.

Kirsten: Yeah, it’s really lovely.

Carlie: And have you had visitors yet in Mexico?

Kirsten: Yeah, which was amazing because it wasn’t happening in Malaysia because it’s just so far. So we’ve already had groups. My mom’s been here for three weeks. We’ve already had, I don’t…1, 2, 3 different sets of friends come. So, you know, we’re thrilled with that. And one of the reasons we moved into the apartment we moved into is that we’d have a more space for visitors.

Carlie: Get that guest room ready!

Kirsten: That’s right! It’s ready. Almost…we move in next week!

Carlie: Kirsten, it’s been so lovely to catch up with you. 3 years since our last conversation and a different continent at the same time.

Kirsten: Yeah, absolutely. It has been lovely. Thank you so much.

Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you’ve got a move to Malaysia in mind, roll back through our podcast archives to my first chat with Kirsten which is packed full of great information for anyone new to the country. For anywhere else in the world, check out the destination guides at expatfocus.com, and we also have a monthly newsletter. And I’ll catch you next time!

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