Beware the Expat’s Suitcase
Returning to Mexico after visiting family in Hawaii, I was not surprised to see the slip of paper indicating that TSA had inspected my luggage. But it did make me wonder what they thought. Among other odd items, my carry-on-sized suitcase held a piano stool. Part of my strategy of moving to a new country one suitcase at a time.
It’s not just me. A friend of mine recently returned from Florida with brass plumbing fixtures in her luggage. Expats are like that. We don’t waste precious space on mundane things like clothing. Stateside visits are opportunities to stock up on those items from home that we miss.
Can’t You Get the Same Stuff Everywhere?
What with globalization and all, isn’t everything available everywhere? Yes and no. I live in a relatively small city (around 150,000 inhabitants) that is nestled in the mountains. Roads are narrow, windy and frequently underground. So there aren’t any triple-tractor-trailers bring in loads of goods. Reaching the convenience of a Big Box store (Costco, Home Depot, etc.) means going to a larger city about an hour away. I don’t have a car, so this doesn’t happen often. It’s just as easy to pick things up when I’m visiting family in the US.
Language and culture can also be challenging. Asking for something means knowing the word for it (or at least being able to describe it), and presumes that your new culture deals with the problem the same way your old one did. I once brought fireplace bellows down for a friend. She hadn’t seen any here in Mexico, and was considering having some made. Imagining her explaining that she wanted a leather and wood apparatus to help her blow… well, it just seemed like a better idea to throw them in my suitcase.
Then there’s the cost/quality ratio. Some big life items – housing, education, health care – are relatively more affordable here in Mexico. But stuff, the kind of stuff George Carlin talks about - costs as much as it does in the US and is often of poorer quality. I know what you’re thinking. Don’t we all get the same cheap crap made by some poor exploited worker in China? Yes, but I’m convinced that the best of that cheap crap gets sent to first world countries and the worst of it to other places. In my experience, the same product, of the same brand, will likely cost as much and be of poorer quality if I buy it in Mexico. A sort of global, commercial discrimination on the part of the manufacturers.
What Makes the Cut?
So, aside from freak items like bellows, what makes the cut? Often enough, it’s something from the kitchen. My most important US item is lemon juice. I’m sure lemons could grow quite well in Mexico, but they are not part of the cuisine and I can rarely find them. Limes are ubiquitous, small and sweet. But when my recipe calls for lemon juice, I need sour, not sweet. Frijoles, beans, are also abundant. White beans, black beans, Peruvian beans. But no red kidney beans. A friend had her sister send some down from Gringolandia so she could make chilly. After many attempts to make cornbread from masa (the corn-based dough which is used for tortillas), even going so far as taking fresh corn to a mill and asking them to grind it in a courser texture, another friend carried down cornmeal. So there you go. We bring corn and beans to Mexico.
Among non-edible items, nothing is more precious than books. A good portion of my suitcase represents a successful trip to the used book store or literature I’ve managed to inherit. Books in English might as well be bars of gold.
So that’s how I pack. I’m planning a visit to see my father in February. There’s a band saw collecting dust in his garage. Maybe I’ll relieve him of it…