Chapter One We hadn’t planned on moving to Mexico. The fact is we hadn’t planned on moving anywhere. And we certainly hadn’t planned on buying a house we had never seen over the internet in a town we had never heard of in a country we had never visited. But in a period of two week’s time that’s exactly what we did.
Friends and relatives were in a state of shock when we announced we were moving to Mexico. Like us, they were unaware we were considering moving. As if that shock wasn’t enough, they needed to be picked up off the floor when we told them we had wired a sizeable sum of money to a realtor in Mexico to purchase a home - sight unseen.
Not normally impulsive people, within hours we had made the most impulsive decision of our lives. And this was no spur of the moment let’s buy that sexy little sports car decision. This was a potentially life changing one.
Our new found impulsiveness may have resulted from an unfortunate series of events that began when John’s 22-year-old daughter, Cindy, came from Australia to live with us. Her mother had been experiencing some discipline problems with Cindy and thought our rural Downeast Maine location coupled with John’s influence would have a positive effect on her.
After a couple weeks of settling into our little farmhouse in Penobscot, Maine, Cindy decided to go to the movies in Belfast. When she didn’t return home that night we reported the situation to the sheriff’s department who began searching for her. We worried that Cindy, unfamiliar with the roads in our area, may have gotten lost somewhere or had been involved in an auto accident. According to the sheriff, no auto accidents had been reported between Penobscot and Belfast that night. He told us to stay by the phone and promised to call us with updates regarding their search. As the hours passed with no word about Cindy we became sick with worry. This was, undoubtedly, one of the worst nights of our lives. There would be no sleep this night, just unrelenting and heart-pounding anxiety while we sat by the phone willing it to ring.
About 8:00 the next morning the sheriff’s department called to inform us they had found Cindy, unconscious, in her car. We rushed to Waldo County Hospital in Belfast to find this beautiful young woman lying unconscious and convulsing on a gurney in the emergency room. Doctors told us it was a suicide attempt and they were not sure if she would pull through. Her beautiful face was stained with black charcoal, residue from having her stomach pumped. Suicide attempt! We couldn’t get our heads around that. John and I were overcome with emotions we could not describe. We felt helplessness, devastated, confused and numb with fear. We had no idea Cindy had problems that could result in such a horrendous act. How could this be happening?
The sheriff who found Cindy had been returning home early that cold winter morning when he saw her car parked near the water’s edge at Swan Lake, a few miles from Belfast. The doors were locked, the motor was running and the radio was blasting. He broke the window to gain entry to the car and found several empty packages of over-the-counter sleeping pills and an empty bottle of prescription anti-depressants lying next to her. We were unaware that she suffered from depression and had been taking anti-depressants, and we certainly had no indication that she was suicidal. In addition to all the other emotions we were experiencing, we felt angry as we wondered why we had not been made aware of Cindy’s situation.
Cindy remained in the hospital for several days until the seizures stopped and she was considered stable. She was then transferred and admitted to Acadia Hospital in Bangor. Several weeks later she was discharged from Acadia with a diagnosis of depression.
Back at home we babysat her like mother hens, chauffering her between appointments with her psychiatrist, psychologist and our internist. We observed her every move and would not let her out of our sight. Her behavior was now obviously unusual. Her hands shook uncontrollably, she sweated profusely, cried easily, and vacillated between episodes of crying and irrational angry outbursts. John and I took turns holding her, comforting her and offering words of encouragement. One of us was always with her and she was not permitted to drive or to leave the house alone. She could offer us no explanation about why she or her mother had not told us about her depression.
After a couple of months Cindy appeared to be responding well to her new medications and her therapy sessions with the psychologist. Her emotional condition seemed greatly improved and the doctors said it was now safe for her to be allowed to drive and to go out alone for short periods of time.
It was a Thursday afternoon when Cindy borrowed our car to go shopping in the nearby town of Ellsworth. John and I had a heart to heart talk with her about trusting that she would not make another suicide attempt. She looked at us, her enormous aqua eyes fixed on ours. She reached out and took my hand and promised that she would never attempt such a thing again. “I’m so sorry,” she said, with tears welling up in her eyes. We set a three hour time limit for her shopping trip.
The curfew came and went and Cindy had not returned home. John and I were wild with fear, once again experiencing that horrible gut-wrenching anxiety one feels when they suspect their child is in danger. We called the sheriff’s department and they sprang to attention and set out searching for her. The care and compassion they showed us was beyond anything we could have expected. We felt fortunate to be living in a small rural community where this type of personal attention was the norm.
The hours passed as we paced nervously. The temperature outdoors dipped and it began to snow. Just before midnight we received a call from one of the sheriffs reporting that our car had been found on a private dirt road in the woods far from our home. Cindy was not in the car. Footsteps in the snow led from the car, through the woods and down to the ocean’s edge where the footsteps disappeared.
The fact that the footsteps ended at the water’s edge, sent shivers up our spines, but the sheriff was not convinced Cindy had disappeared in the ocean. Concerned that she would not survive a snowy winter night in the woods, he called in several search dogs. Undaunted by the freezing temperatures, blowing snow or the darkness of night, the dogs and their handlers, equipped with huge searchlights, spread out into the dense coastal woods. The sheriff had also requested assistance from the U.S. Coastguard, but the snowy, windy conditions made it impossible for their helicopters to fly. After several more hours of searching the woods to no avail, the sheriff decided to call in a dog handler from Canada with her German Shepherd dog. He said this was one of the top search dogs in the country. “If your daughter’s out there, this dog will find her,” he said.
Unfortunately, the stormy conditions had grounded planes and the handler had to make the three hour drive over icy roads from Canada to Maine. The Canadian dog and his handler finally arrived while the other dogs continued searching, always leading back to the water’s edge. Meanwhile, the handler let her enormous German shepherd dog out of the truck and led him to our car to pick up Cindy’s scent. After sniffing inside our car the dog immediately headed into the woods and down to the ocean. He stopped abruptly at the water’s edge and stood there sniffing the sandy beach for a few minutes, then he just stood there, looking out at the ocean. Our hearts stopped. No! We just could not believe Cindy had succumbed to the arms of this angry, frigid ocean. The dog then began sniffing the air. He lowered enormous head and resumed sniffing the rocky beach, making his way up along the shore, turning away from the ocean and heading deep into the piney woods.
John and I sat in our car, shivering and hoping. Fearing the worst, there were no more words left to speak. We couldn’t believe this was happening again. About two hours later the sheriff tapped on the window of our car and told us the Canadian dog had found Cindy. She was heavily medicated and suffering from hypothermia, lying in a gravel pit deep in the woods several miles away. But she was alive!
Cindy was taken to the emergency room at Blue Hill Hospital and was later transported for a second admission to Acadia Hospital. During this stay at Acadia, it was discovered that Cindy had a drug addiction and had been in withdrawal since her arrival in the U.S. During the coming months we would be deeply entrenched in getting her the help she needed. Cindy’s mother arrived from Australia, adding more stress and anxiety to the mix.
After her discharge from Acadia, John and I sleep-walked through the ensuing days and weeks. We took turns keeping a close eye on Cindy, taking turns driving her to her appointments. A social worker assigned to her case also kept close tabs on her. We carefully managed the administration of bottles of prescription medications, often having to check her mouth to be sure she had swallowed them.
Cindy seemed to be doing well, but as soon as she was given some freedom she was back to using drugs. Through the hospital out-patient groups in Bangor, Cindy had now connected with a group of undesirable young people in that area. She ran off and married a boyfriend we had never heard of and moved into the home where he lived with his mother, herself a drug abuser. Cindy’s social worker called us to report that her drug addiction had progressed from using pills to heroin.
With the social worker’s help, John fetched his daughter from her boyfriend’s house and brought her home. The next day John and Cindy were on a plane on their way to to a private drug rehabilitation facility. She remained at the rehab facility for the next year and, by all reports, was doing well. After leaving the facility, she decided to return to Australia.
The ups and downs of these experiences coupled with the collision of past and present lives and wives all under the same roof in our home left us emotionally exhausted. The situation had taken a toll on us. John became depressed, and I was plagued with an array of severe and mysterious aches, pains and fatigue. Although she was not my biological child, I loved Cindy dearly. From our first meeting we felt like old souls and shared a close bond. Having nearly lost Cindy twice to suicide attempts and now losing her to Australia was too much for us. These losses left me with a feeling of deep, unrelenting pain and emptiness inside that could not be filled. In addition to the emotional toll, the cost of a year in a private drug rehabilitation facility had delivered a huge one-two punch to our bank account. But we agreed, it would all be worthwhile if Cindy could remain drug-free and go on to live a happy life.
Our once happy little farmhouse never felt the same after this terrifying roller coaster ride. Unsettled feelings and a morose pall hung over our house and surely contributed to our desire to get away from it all. An unusually brutal Maine winter also added fuel to our already smoldering fire of unrest. It was only mid-winter and we already had three feet of snow piled up outside. We had endured twenty one long, dark, days of snow storms, unrelenting wind and soul numbing sleet. It seemed like the perfect time for a change.
At first, moving out of the country was just a fun idea that John and I batted back and forth like a tennis ball to ward off boredom during the long dark days of winter. We offered up suggestions about where we might live; the south of France, Italy, or maybe Spain. We imagined ourselves basking in the sun in some sunny foreign country while learning a new language and sipping exotic cocktails. We had read the many articles in magazines about baby boomer retirees fleeing in droves to enjoy the last chapters of their lives in the sunny climes of other countries. Well, we were baby boomers, and we were retired, and, with Cindy back in Australia, there was nothing preventing us from making such a move. Besides, it was the middle of winter in Maine. That alone was a good enough reason to get out Dodge.
During one of our where would you live if you could live anywhere, discussions, we decided that Italy would be the perfect destination for us. Ah, the villas, the sun, the vineyards, the olive groves, and all that breath-taking ancient architecture. Oh, and the food. How we loved Italian food. Who wouldn’t want to move to Italy? Yes, we could see ourselves simmering pasta sauce over the stove in the kitchen of our charming 200-year-old stone house overlooking the beautiful Italian countryside. Unfortunately, that balloon was quickly burst when we discovered the inflated euro and the deflated dollar had made Italy unaffordable for us.
While our brief fantasy about moving to Italy died a quick and untimely death, a new plan was born just as quickly. A friend who had a long-time love affair with Mexico convinced us to consider that country. We Googled all the information we could find about the major hot spots; Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cabos, San Miguel and Sayulita, a charming looking little fishing village near Puerto Vallarta. They all looked lovely and enticing and claimed to have perfect sunny, warm year-round weather. And real estate prices were certainly right. But I soon discovered that the Pacific coast of Mexico can be unbearably hot and humid in the summer, and I was not a fan of hot and humid.
Like a snowball rolling down a hill, our daydreams and fantasies began gaining momentum. Without even realizing it, our fantasies were quickly morphing into reality as I wandered around various websites hop-scotching from one Mexican town to another. Venturing away from the Pacific coast, I ended up in a chat room about Lake Chapala, Mexico, an area that boasts the largest lake in the country. I was impressed with the descriptions of the quaint little towns and villages surrounding the lake and the claims that it was one of three places in the world with perfect year round spring-like weather with no humidity and temperatures in the 70’s. Locals described the area as the land of eternal spring. We were hooked. One thing led to another and quicker than we could say buenos dias I was back on the computer scanning the various realtors’ websites for available homes.
Within minutes I came upon a listing for a “beautiful Mediterranean-style villa at a price we could afford. The pictures of the house were breath-taking. A huge walled courtyard overflowed with lush exotic flowering trees dripping in pink and purple petals. Tall palms and cypress trees surrounded the home. A spectacular pool and cabana graced the court yard. The grass resembled a thick mat of emerald velvet. Curving paths led to the main house with its multi-domed rooftop. There were huge arched doorways and a romantic looking story book turret. The pictures of the home’s interior were even more spectacular than the exterior. There were white marble floors everywhere, enormous domed (boveda) brick ceilings, gold gilded pillars, five bathrooms with marble tubs that spouted water from huge lions’ heads. Not only was the house drop dead gorgeous, it was priced right. I couldn’t imagine finding a house like that for less than $1,000,000 in the U.S. Thanks to a stroke of much needed good luck we had just the right amount of money saved up from the sale of another house to purchase the villa in Mexico.
The next thing I knew I was back on the computer clicking my way through twenty or more photos of the villa and printing them out for John to see. With each click on a new photo I tumbled more deeply into love.
Thank you for visiting my blog.I hope you will sign up to follow.
This blog includes excerpts from my book, Mexico Sight Unseen. It's a memoir about my husband and my impulsive decision to buy a house we had never seen over the internet, in a town we had never heard of, in a country we had never visited.
It's about our many experiences, beginning with our decision to move to Mexico, our long trip from Maine to Mexico with five dogs and a cat in the car, and about the experience of living in a foreign country and trying to adjust to a different culture while not speaking the language. The events are factual and often peppered with humor.
Mexico Sight Unseen is about the romance and beauty that is Mexico as well as the ugly underbelly of a county that is still evolving. Stay tuned and check back often as there are a lot of interesting and amusing bumps along the way.
All material included in this blog is the intellectual property of the author, Ruth Howell, has been copyrighted and registered with the Writer's Guild of America, and may not be reproduced in any form.
Please feel free to add your comments, critiques or questions. And more importantly, enjoy the trip. Ruth