Saturday, December 31, 2016

Choosing Chacala

I wasn’t excited when Emilia Robinson, director of Chacalit, Chacala’s first Literary Festival, asked me to teach during my writing residency. Who wanted to take a writing class while they were chilling at the beach? Maybe some of the locals but I’d have to teach in English, and how many locals were bilingual? Would beach-adled minds be serious? I’d feared the class would be painfully small, six at most. Twelve attended my first class and only one was a Mexican local. Most were foreigners from the U.S. and Canada.

I was surprised at the size of Chacala’s expat community, proportionally at least as large as San Miguel’s. Hollywood has infused my notion of who hangs out in a small Mexican village, people who need to hide—hoodlums, druggies or errand heiresses (or heirs). None of the expats I met in Chacala fit this mold. They included a retired Canadian judge; a Mormon couple from Utah; a yoga instructor who had a traveling practice (Hawaii will be her next stop); and a real estate who’d come to Chacala for a quarter to sell local properties. Some were full-timers, others, part-timers who owned homes. I understood the retirees like David, who moved there from Seattle. David came more than three years ago and spearheads Chacalart, the visual art component of The Chacala Cultural Foundation. But young people who are still working and have families—why would they choose to live in a place where nothing happens. I spoke with some of them to learn why they’d chosen to move to Chacala.

Love brought Emilia Robinson—an Oxford grad who studied French and Italian language and literature—to Chacala. When she was 19, a volunteer project brought Emilia to Guadalajara to teach English. She met husband, Arturo, three days after she arrived. When Emilia returned to study for her degree, Arturo decided to check out London. He loved it, and stayed working primarily in food services. They toyed with opening a Mexican restaurant in Oxford after Emilia finished her degree, but discovered Chacala—the perfect beach town that only lacked one thing, a friendly place to get good coffee and decent wine. In 2007, she and Arturo opened a breakfast cafĂ© that evolved into Chac Mool, a beachfront restaurant that is open from dawn till past dusk. Now that Chac Mool is established and Emilia has two girls, she has relinquished on-site responsibilities and works from home.

Emilia also works to impact her community. Chacala will grow, she knows that, but feels that the present community is in a position to influence the direction of that development. She’s proud of Chacala’s efforts to improve the formal education of the local children. This tiny community has a Waldorf & Montessori School that offers scholarships to 90% of their students. And Emilia has been the motivating force behind Chacala’s Saturday market and has established Chacalit. “It is easier,” Emilia said, “to make a difference to a small town.” She thinks bringing musical, artistic and literary events to town enriches experiences for local people and visitors, including opportunities to perform and produce work. They also bring high quality artists to the area. Emilia feels the arts are empowering, sustainable and encourage diversity, qualities that can benefit her community.

Debbie Slobe described her family as “typical suburbanites.” Before they came to Chacala they lived in Louisville, Colorado, a city that multiple national publications rated as one of the top five places to live in the U.S. Debbie, a manager at a nonprofit PR agency, and husband Brian, a middle school science teacher, choose a place with good schools, safe neighborhoods and a sweet little downtown to raise their daughter. But that’s where typical ended. Both had lived and worked outside the U.S., and they planned to take an extended break from everyday life before retirement. The suburbanites I knew weren’t thinking like that, hadn’t lived in places like South Africa before they started families. The Slobe family isn’t my idea of typical.

It took four years to save for their year off. Debbie and Brian knew they wanted to spend their down time in Mexico—a place they’d both visited, a culture they both loved, a place where they could improve their Spanish. The cost of living was inexpensive enough to make a year off feasible and they’d learned, from previous trips, that Mexico was family friendly.

They considered Sayulita but it wasn’t for them—too expensive, too crowed and polluted. They weren’t sure where they would land until a friend recommended Chacala. Their friend loved the village when she stayed at Mar de Jade, Chacala’s yoga, wellness and vacation retreat center and told them about the town’s new Montessori school. They arrived last November. They should have gone home last month but have been so happy with their decision to relocate in this fishing village that their one-year sabbatical has morphed into two. To finance this additional year, Debbie has gone back to work again, part-time, through the Internet, as a freelance communications consultant.

Jen Barnett and husband Boe have not taken the beaten-path. They lived in Alaska for 15 years before relocating to Mexico. Jen discovered Chacala in 2002 when she brought a group of her homeschooled high school students from Alaska to Chacala for language, culture, & leadership studies. After the program was put on hold because of increasing safety concerns with travel to Mexico, she and Boe vacationed in Chacala as a reprieve from the harsh Alaskan winters when they could afford it. Mid-way through their Alaskan chapter, they started a microbrewery and restaurant with another business partner. It grew so rapidly that they quickly found themselves up to their eyeballs in a lifestyle they didn't enjoy. They bought a 1968 Airstream, sold everything that didn’t fit inside it and started to drive south in search of a new place to call home.

They wandered aimlessly for a year and a half before they headed to Chacala uncertain about which direction they wanted to take—someplace all too normal like New Mexico or move somewhere halfway around the world that would cut themselves further from convention. They didn’t do either; they stayed in Chacala. Their children, Enli (ten), and Parker (six), love life there and are almost bilingual. Previously homeschooled, they are attending school for the first time at the local Waldorf and Montessori School. Boe, a poet and writing teacher for homeschooled high school students, has secured enough work online to keep the family afloat. She and Boe are about to open a little artisanal brewery in Chacala that they hope to build slowly until it sustains them.

Kristina Kieffer and her husband Andy were living in San Francisco. Andy developed business software for various companies and Kristina had been a global project manager in the high tech industry. They were good at their work and it generated a ton of money, recognition, and the opportunity to work with smart people from many parts of the world. But it wasn’t a calling for either of them. Adventure was their calling, backpacking to far off lands. Andy developed a passion for surfing, Kristina’s joy came from her volunteer work assisting refugees adapt to their new U.S. lives.

When their daughters were born, Kristina became an at-home mom. The toxic combination of social isolation, boredom, grey San Francisco skies, and dwindling finances, she said, pushed her into post partum depression. They were walking down a beach in Puerto Vallarta, during a spur of the moment trip, when they decided to pull up stakes and start over. It was important to them that their children learn another language and culture so they decided on Mexico. They wanted a city because of schools, financial opportunities, and easy access to an airport that was close to the warm water surf Andy required. They decided on Guadalajara, a huge city only 3½ hours from the beach. Their work is variations of the kind of work they did in the States—Kristina teaches business English and coaches young professionals on their careers. Andy opened a tech investment fund that focuses on Mexican business problems.

There is a famous surf break just around the point in Chacala. The Kieffers came for a long weekend so Andy could check it out and ended up buying the house they’d rented. They love Guadalajara but it's huge and noisy and dirty. Their girls are 12 and 14 now and they expect to spend more time in Chacala as they get older. And activities of Chacala’s Cultural Foundation will only make the village more appealing. Kristina had only planned to spend the weekend in Chacala but extended her stay so that she could take the memoir workshop.

Emilia thinks the reason they are drawn to Chacala is the simplicity that comes with the old school way of life. Chacala’s current residents have decided that living simply does not have to mean devoid of culture. They have found ways to attract cultural happenings that generally are found in more populated cities to their village.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Writing in Chacala

It was cold when I left San Miguel, not really cold compared with Manhattan where I’d lived for 30 years, but too cold for unheated, concrete building. My spirit had contracted. I was elated when an opportunity to write at the beach fell in my lap.

A friend had been invited to participate in Chacalit, Chacala’s first Literary Festival that included a writing residency. She couldn’t go and recommended me. All I had to do was get there and they would take care of me for two weeks while I wrote. Heaven. My chi expanded when Maia Williams, a poet and co-director of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference, and I deplaned in Puerto Vallarta. The air was moist—no need to slather my skin with oil to counteract San Miguel’s dryness.

Children’s book author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh, the third residency writer arrived late with his wife Patty (a dancer who’d studied with my favorite dance company, Alvin Ailey), and their 18-month old daughter Vida. We each had separate living spaces in the family compound of organizer Emilia Robinson, a Brit whose husband was Mexican.

I was expecting our hosts to be older, stodgier, like the too-too proper Bermudians who invited me to perform my one-woman show on their island. But Emilia and her husband Arturo were an easy-going young couple. The night Maia and I arrived, their girls, Chloe and Ela, played under the palapa that sheltered the outdoor dining area while their dad grilled chicken for dinner. We got acquainted and shared a meal.

The next morning, I woke up just before dawn, watched the squirrel play in the tree as the sun rose, and worked for several hours revising my memoir. I was more focused than I’d been for weeks at home in San Miguel. I worked until we left for lunch at Emilia and Arturo’s restaurant in town. That afternoon I prepared for the memoir workshop I was scheduled to lead the following week. I’d taught playwriting and dramatic writing for more than 20 years but this would be my first memoir class. I wanted to be prepared. That was my pattern the first week. The second week, I taught two afternoons and spent the others developing a new project, a book I want to translate into a musical.

What was it about Chacala that incited creativity? First, it was a new environment and new always stimulates me whether I love it or hate it. Second it was surrounded by jungle. I’d never lived that close to nature—at night raccoons devoured any food we left on the counters of the outdoor kitchen. But there was a familiarity to Chacala—it made me think of my past. When I grew up in the 50s, children were allowed to run free. In Chacala parents could still let their children to do that. The palapa at Chac Mool was like hundreds of other palapas I’d sat under, having a meal or a drink, during my 30-year love affair with the Caribbean. It took me back to West Africa—the area around the restaurant could have been the business strip in the neighborhood where I stayed in Accra. But mostly it was the people—people who chose a lifestyle that a city girl like me could never fathom, to live in a place where nothing happens. There was an intimacy in this village of only 300 full-timers that made me feel as if I had become part of a community after two short weeks.

It was a productive time—I revised the first section of my memoir, finished a blog I’d been trying to write since Trump won the election, and sketched out a couple of scenes for the play.

Now I’m back to real life where shopping has to be done and food has to be cooked and houses have to be cleaned. I’m back to the distraction of friends and family in the height of the holiday season but carving out two or three houses most days when I reconnect with my Chacalit focus.