Nicola has the expat dream arrangement – living in an inexpensive country, yet working professionally and remotely for a company in Canada. As part of my series on expats who figured out how to work and live abroad I had to hear more. Her arrangement sounded ideal but what about the horror stories of what is going on in Mexico? Was this a localized problem that was being generalized across the country by US media or is this a daily reality of living in Mexico? Her answer may surprise you.
Here is a bit more of her story.
How did you end up in Mexico City?
My boyfriend is Mexican. We met in Australia. We decided to save up and travel around the world for six months and then go to live in Mexico for six months afterwards. Now we have been here for a year. Originally he found a job and I was studying Spanish. I then found a job on Craigslist. Teleworkingexpatsforhire.com was asking for virtual office administrators.
My background is in publicity and they needed help in publicity and PR. They are based in Canada. My Spanish is not at the level where I could work for a company in Mexico. It is a perfect arrangement. The company targets expats living in countries in similar time zones where the cost of living is less. They can pay us less, but we can still earn a decent salary for our cost of living. It is a win-win situation. They are a recruitment company that matches expats with people who need telecommuting help which is quite a majority of jobs these days. They pay 50% less for the same level of talent they would get in the States which is a benefit to the companies they work with.
You have been living in Mexico for a year. How would you say your Spanish is going?
It is such a long process to learn a language. I thought three months would do the trick. It takes years before you are fully comfortable and fluent. I have Spanish conversation down, but it is a long way from fluency. I have been studying a lot. I go to classes at the National University. It is one of the most well known language programs in Mexico City. I have been going from 9 am to 1 pm every day for ten months.
What do languages classes at the university cost?
It is about 300 US dollars for one semester.
Oh God that is cheap.
I know, right? You go for a minimum of three hours a day and then you have two electives with Mexican culture, dance or additional language comprehension. So it is more like four hours a day. It is so much more than I could ever get in Australia.
What is the cost of living in Mexico City? What would a decent one bedroom apartment in a decent area cost?
We live in a shared apartment. There are four of us in all. We live in the most expensive area in Mexico City. It is really gorgeous where we live with a lot of trees and parks. It is easy to get around on public transport. There is every kind of public transport you would need. We do not have to drive which is such a blessing in Mexico City. For this apartment we are paying 600 dollars a month for the two of us in Condesa. This area is not that cheap in comparison to other areas. If we moved out of this area it would be so much cheaper but paying this amount is worth it. This is a three bedroom apartment. It costs about 1300 US dollars a month for four people. Roma and the surrounding areas are quite nice to live in as well. If I moved two suburbs over it would probably be way cheaper and probably just as nice.
What do a few days of groceries cost in Mexico City?
You can go to the local market here. Mangos, guavas, papayas that would cost a fortune in Australia you can get for very cheap. You can get more than you could really carry for 10 or 11 US dollars.
I think there are a lot of people from the US who are tired of living there. Mexico would be a good option. Do you have any thoughts on how someone could move to Mexico?
If people had the kind of job that enabled them to telework then they could persuade their bosses in the US to pay them less money but allow them to work from a different country. That would be an appealing way to keep your job, work for slightly less than you would in the US and then come here. That is what the company I work for encourages people to do. They also match companies up with expats. We work with British expats living in Africa and Australian expats living in Southeast Asia. They also encourage people to convince their bosses to let them telework for perhaps just the summer and my company facilitates all of the connections. That would be an amazing way to move to Mexico. Otherwise people should get out there and take the chance. You can always go home when the money runs out and at the very least you learned a new language and come back with a bit more experience having had a nice break from it all.
How do you get legal residency and visas in Mexico?
I am on a tourist visa. Because I was studying I could have been on a student visa which would have meant that I could have been here for longer than six months. Otherwise you have to leave every six months and I think you can do that an unlimited number of times in Mexico. After the first six months I went to Canada to visit family and then I came back to Mexico. I could have then just applied for a student visa, but I found a really cheap flight to New York and when I come back I will get another visa for six months. Then I will get my act together and get a student visa. I think you have to pay about 100 dollars for it.
The problem is you have to go the immigration office and as you may guess the immigration office is not the most organized of places, which is why I have not bothered with the student visa thus far. With the work I am doing just over the Internet I do not need a visa. If you wanted to work in Mexico you would have to get a working visa. In Cancun they are very strict about working visas. I think in Mexico City they are more relaxed about it.
Is there an age limit to the Mexican student visa?
I do not think so because there are students of all ages at my school.
What about cultural differences between Mexico and Australia?
In Australia there is not a big difference between the haves and the have nots, and in Mexico there is a huge difference. The average daily wage is about four or five dollars in Mexico yet there are a lot of people making a lot more than that as well. That is quite different from Australia. The whole thing of having people at the top end of the scale having live in help can take a bit of getting used to from an Australian perspective.
The way the roads work takes a bit of getting used to as well. The level of organization is also something you take for granted in Australia. It is so unorganized here. In Australia the police are there to help you. In Australia, if you are in trouble you seek out a policeman. That is not necessarily the case in Mexico. They are not the most trustworthy in the society.
How would expats find housing in Mexico?
The majority of Mexicans find apartments by driving around and looking at signs in windows which is how most people find apartments, which is crazy. There is metroscubicos.com. It is for finding apartment for rent and for sale. There is another one compartodepa.com and craigslist.com.
How do expats meet people in Mexico City?
There is a very active group of expats called Internations. They have meetings every couple of weeks in bars and restaurants around here. I think a lot of people who come and do not know anyone meet people through the language schools.
In the US we hear a ton about the violence and the drug wars. What is the reality of what is going on there?
There are a lot of places in the north that I would not recommend people go to. Where we are we do not see any of what is going on in the north. There are a lot of people fleeing the north and moving to the south, so Mexico City is getting a bit more crowded. In Mexico City the drug wars do not affect our day to day lives. Maybe if we had a high profile it would be different. I think there are kidnappings that still happen. You see people from wealthy families driving around in armed caravans. It does happen, but I think it has been happening for awhile and it is not necessarily because of the drugs.
How do you feel your overall safety is Mexico City?
I do not feel unsafe in this neighborhood. I would not walk around at night. You have to remember not to take the general taxis. You have to call specific taxis. If you have a group of people you are probably fine with the general taxis. At night it is always better to take a safe taxi. But this does not have anything to do with the violence in the north. It is kind of a thing that happens in a country with a lot of poor and a lot of rich people. There are a lot of stories about taxis which is why people are encouraged to take the safe taxis.
How do you think your life is different from your family and peers in Australia?
Life here is less formal and more relaxed. Australia has so many rules and regulations where as Mexico is the other extreme. I like the general daily chaos on the streets here. There is always noise and color and things to look at and funny things going on. In the afternoon there is a three piece Mariachi band going down the street, sometimes it is a guy playing the xylophone. There is so much activity and amazing smells and great food at affordable prices.
In comparison, Australian streets seem so empty. I remember my boyfriend saying, ‘Where are all the people?’ Well, they are all inside watching the TV being boring. Australia has 22 million people on the continent and there are 22 million people in Mexico City.
What about particular frustrations of living in Mexico City?
The way some things just do not seem to work and run that well. If you go to a public toilet the plumbing is not great. The plumbing is not great in general. I made a reservation at a karaoke bar two weeks ahead of time and the night before my boyfriend asked me if I called again to confirm and I said, ‘Why would I have to call again?’ And sure enough we showed up and they had lost the reservation. That can be really frustrating.
Have you met any expats who teach English?
Yes, there are quite a few. You work a lot of hours at time for not a lot of money. You can get into teaching at a good school, but you need a TESL certificate which can cost quite a bit of money or you can go to a less nice school and get paid less. I was considering doing that before I found this job. I do not know the first thing about teaching English. I speak it. I just do not know how to speak it. I am really glad I found an alternative.
A TESL certificate costs several thousand dollars and you do not earn that much, so I was happy I could further my career, work from home and make a decent amount of money. It is a perfect scenario.
Is there anything that you wish you would have known prior to moving there?
I guess the only thing I should have known is that learning a language takes a long time. It will take a long time before you feel confident talking to a lot of people. It might be a lonely time for people. For me, I had my boyfriend, but if you came by yourself it could be a lonely time, but Mexicans are so lovely and willing to chat.