"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Artists move from Peshastin move to Mexico

By on June 27, 2018 in Articles with 0 Comments

Bill Rietveldt and his wife, Cindy, offer a toast from their garden in Mérida.

By Cindy Rietveldt

How did we get to here?

The short answer would be that on Monday, March 12, we loaded our cat and dog into our old reliable minivan, drove for nine days, and then pulled up in front of our new home in Mérida, Mexico where we unlocked the front door, walked in, and all four of us began to settle in to our new lives.

But, of course it’s a much longer story with many parts and short stories that led us to make the decisions that brought us to this city of close to one million people on the Yucatan Peninsula that we had not even heard of until seven years ago.

This was not the first time we had made a drastic life-changing move.

The first one was in 1971 when I was 19 and Billy was 21. We had met in high school and married a week after I graduated, in June of 1970. A year later we were living in our little one-bedroom apartment with our new baby and we looked around and asked ourselves; “How did we get to here?”

So, we loaded our six-week-old son, our two dogs and our cat into an old Volkswagen van and headed west with $250 to our names. Really. But this WAS 1971, gas was cheap, and we made it to Portland. We lived there for 15 years.

Our next couple of moves were not such great distances. We were in Seattle for three years and then lived on Vashon Island for seven more before moving east of the mountains where Billy worked first as the director of the Museum and Pioneer Village in Cashmere.

We bought a house in Peshastin with a large basement, where I worked, and a clumsy garage that housed Billy’s art supplies and tools.  We shopped a lot. For 22 years more things went in the door of that house than ever came out. And we were comfortable.

Allie rides in Bill’s lap during the long drive to Mérida.

And then Saundra Isabella Valencia invited a number of the artists she had met while working as director of Icicle Creek Center for the Arts in Leavenworth to visit her in her home in Mérida, Mexico.

Bella hoped her restored house could become a bed and breakfast for artists looking to get to know the Yucatan and we were to be her guinea pigs. Six of us took her up on it and in late November of 2011 we all flew to Mérida for two weeks.

We were all intrigued. Was there a lot of art? Yes, we were promised world-class museums with free admission and numerous galleries to visit.

Would there be many things to do? We were told there would be multiple dance events each week in the city parks and streets, ruins and cenotes to tour, beaches on the Gulf of Mexico just a municipal bus ride away and opportunities to see tropical birds and other wildlife on expertly guided trips to nature reserves.

And we all had a wonderful time! We all danced, enjoying the opportunity to be outdoors for evenings of Latin music. We ate great food. Billy and I walked the crumbly streets and fell completely in love with the city.

On one of our outings we met a woman from New England who was in Mérida for two weeks of an intensive language and culture program at a school called “Habla.” When we were back in Peshastin we did our research and returned the following winter for two weeks of Spanish study there ourselves.

Why? We told ourselves and our instructors that it was for the experience and the opportunity to learn to better communicate with the Spanish speakers in our community in Washington. The reality was that we came home, got busy, and retained little of the Spanish we had learned. But we were more hooked on Mérida than ever.

We came back again and again, visiting more of the Yucatan Peninsula and exploring more of this city each time.

Should we move here? Why should we move at all?

That remained the biggest question. We loved our friends and the Wenatchee Valley, and we could visit our son and his family in the Seattle area easily and frequently.

Cindy and Bill Rietveldt with their giant raven puppet from the September 2016 issue of The Good Life. They made giant puppets for Salmon Festivals at the fish hatchery in Leavenworth and for the Wenatchee Valley Museum to use in the Apple Blossom Festival parades.

We still enjoyed our cozy colorful Peshastin home, but we’d fallen out of love with the work entailed to maintain it and we were no longer inspired to vegetable garden.

Billy retired from his job as Curator of Exhibits at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and both he and I wanted our own good studio space.

We could do a big expensive remodel; our lot was large enough to add the studios we both wanted. But we also liked the idea of being able to travel. If we depleted our savings by reworking our existing home, travel would be hard to justify. And we would still have all that yardwork.

We did look for another place to buy. Nothing suited our needs for space and privacy or affordable price. Moving is hard work and we didn’t want to do it again in a few years if we felt the need to be near stores and medical facilities. Prospects for the style of life we wanted looked grim — in the Northwest. But what about Mérida?

Mérida was established over 400 years ago when the conquering Spanish demolished the ancient stone structures they found and enslaved the local population, forcing them to build a new city on top of the ruins using materials from their old one.

Much of what they built still stands and you can tell these earliest buildings by the immense size of the stones versus the small amount of mortar between them.

Years of prosperity in the state of Yucatan, brought on by the worldwide need for the rope made from the henequen grown here, meant that people who enjoyed great wealth would build large ornate high-ceilinged homes and mansions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Added to this combination are the mid-century middle class houses, frequently with spaces to accommodate cars off the narrow streets and backed by patio areas and, often, with smaller “casitas” that housed the domestic help.

The henequen industry went bust, moneyed people left the region and a large amount of the inner city fell into disrepair.

But it remained the Yucatan’s largest city and cultural hub. A number of years ago foreigners, many from the United States and Canada, began to buy and restore the crumbling buildings.

So, we decided to make one trip here solely for the purpose of looking at houses. Billy contacted a highly recommended real estate agent and I made the reservations.

Two weeks before our scheduled February departure last year Billy had a heart attack and required bypass surgery. When he felt well again he was even less inspired by home repair and yard work. We did our Mérida house hunt in late August and early September.

We were looking for something located within walking distance of the city’s cultural center that didn’t require months, or even years, of repair work and, most of all, had workspaces for both of us.

We looked at 15 homes that had appeared to be possibilities from the photographs we had seen on the internet. Only one came close. It had probably been built in the 1950s and had a large sunny room at the very front that had been used for an office or small business, a perfect studio for Billy.

There were two bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms — friends and family could come to visit. And, best of all, behind the house was a humble but very usable casita with its own covered patio and three rooms plus a bathroom. A perfect studio for me.

We revisited the house with our agent. We returned on foot a couple of times during the day and at night to check out the neighborhood. The house was on a quiet residential block.

It wasn’t a house from one of the city’s more inspired eras of architecture, but it had large rooms and was very airy and comfortable.

But I wasn’t feeling well. I blamed it on a combination of something I’d eaten and the intense summer heat. Maybe Mérida wasn’t such a good idea after all. We went home without buying anything.

It was hard, after planning and plotting for so long, to let our dream die. At this point we had thought of ourselves as people still capable of making life-altering decisions and realized we wanted to experience how such a move would change us.

Neither of us talked about it very much but we weren’t very happy.

One Friday in late October I finally asked Billy, “Are you still thinking about that house?” He was.

We started to talk about Mérida again. By Monday Billy was contacting the real estate agent and beginning to negotiate the purchase. We started telling people what we were doing — to a great mixture of reactions. Some were envious, but many were incredulous that two relatively old people without a working ability in Spanish between them would be planning to sell their home and move to a Mexican city more than 3,000 miles away.

We felt like kids again.

Sort of. I still wasn’t feeling very well. The short story is that I was misdiagnosed with a scary cancer. I did need surgery but I did not have any serious problems.

However, Billy and I had both had frightening health issues within a year and we felt even more urgency about making changes in the way we were living than we had before.

The holidays came and went, and our Leavenworth real estate agent encouraged us to put our home up for sale. We did. And the first person who came to look at it decided to buy. Suddenly, after slogging along with indecision and health problems for almost a year we had to move fast.

We spent a month in chaos seriously getting rid of just about everything we owned. A month is not enough time to advertise and wait patiently for the right people to come along to buy your things. A month is barely enough time to rally everyone you know to come by and take just about anything they want.

Well, not quite everything. We filled a giant dumpster — twice. And Billy carefully, lovingly, packed 27 boxes full of artwork, tools and kitchen equipment while I found a shipping company who said they could hold them until our paperwork in Mexico was completed and our possessions could enter the country. (If they arrive one day it will be included in a follow-up story.)

Because we have two pets —a beautiful tortoiseshell cat named Allie and a mutt named Gladys — we decided to drive.

We took our aging minivan to a mechanic and had it declared capable of surviving a 3,600-mile drive.

The large seat that fit across the very back joined the contents of the dumpster and we packed the car with clothes, pet food, dog and cat crates (we had heard that dogs frequently needed to be crated at the border), a litter box, our favorite coffee mugs and cereal bowls and my beloved sculpture stand. It’s made of cast iron, weighs a ton, is completely adjustable and supports as much clay as we’ve ever needed to make a giant puppet head. This is the only piece of “furniture” we brought with us.

By the time dear friends Martha Flores, Rod Daut and Chris Radar threw us a going away party we had a hard time finding anything in the house to wear. We were moving to a hot humid city, remember? We’d saved only enough cold weather clothing to last us through the part of our drive when we would need them.

That party! Twenty-three years in the beautiful Wenatchee Valley with so many people we love and still we were leaving. We knew how we had gotten to “here” but there was no way to easily explain to the friends who were saying they were going to miss us. We miss them too.

Our departure on March 12 was largely “symbolic,” we didn’t pull out of the driveway until 4 in the afternoon. But the sun was shining down on us and we made it all the way to Pendleton and the first of our “pet friendly” hotels.

We took photographs out of the windows of the car and made copious notes because it felt like the ride itself was going to be one of our great life adventures.

A lot of it was beautiful, a little of it was tedious. But, all and all, things went relatively smoothly.

On our fifth day of travel, we crossed into Mexico at the Santa Teresa border crossing west of El Paso. It was just a little out of our way, but we’d read that it was uncrowded and the easiest place to enter Mexico.

And we were so ready. We had every bit of documentation in hand, including health certificates from our Leavenworth vet for Gladys and Allie. It was a piece of cake.

I started the process for my permanent residency status, Billy came through on a tourist visa because it’s the only way he could bring in the car, and nobody bothered about the pets except to tell us that Gladys was just so cute.

Between Chihuahua and Leon, we looked at our mileage and realized we were over halfway to Mérida. Two days later, between Aguascalientes and Puebla our van crossed the 200,000-mile threshold on its odometer.

We were driving through a lush green landscape of hand-tended agriculture. We saw horses pulling carts and plows and drove through mile after mile of nut trees.

I write this, and it reads as though what we were seeing was somehow primitive when it was exactly the opposite. These fields and orchards are the result of an enormous amount of work done by very skilled laborers while there is not a piece of sophisticated equipment to be seen.

We crossed magnificent mountains. Between Puebla and Villahermosa the main crop became sugarcane, miles and miles of sugarcane.

Our last day found us driving back north along a sparsely inhabited coastline. We rode through Ciudad del Carmen and skirted Campeche as we headed inland.

On March 22 — Billy’s 68th birthday by the way — we pulled up in front of our new home in Mérida, Mexico where we unlocked the front door, walked in, and all four of us began to settle into our new lives.

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