Finding myself at home in an unexpected place
On holiday in Mexico, I rediscovered the thrill I felt on moving to New York in 1984
‘When the sun rose in Ajijic on the first day of my 55th year, its light filling our hotel room, I could hear once again my grandmother tell my mother, who also told me, to “follow the sun”.’
“I am a blind woman finding her way home by a map of a tune.
When the song that is in me is the song I hear from the world I’ll be home.
It’s not written down and I don’t remember the words.
I know when I hear it, I’ll have made it myself. I’ll be home.”
~ Paula Meehan, Irish poet
Vibrant, foreign, and far away, Mexico was once nothing more than a James Taylor song on my first radio. It was too far beyond my reach to present an alternative to the Northern Ireland of my childhood, a grey and divided place, its capital city, Belfast, a "no-go" area in the 1970s.
The United States or Canada presented a more accessible option, and to escape the rain, unemployment, and the Troubles, I turned to America, to its music and movies, and I devoted most of my time in school to planning my exit strategy. Instead of Spanish, I opted for French, and when a summer job opportunity presented itself in New York, I seized it.
Equipped only with a backpack and a paperback on how to ‘do’ America, I arrived at John F. Kennedy airport in the summer of 1984. With the bravado we attribute to youth and not knowing any better, I sauntered through Customs and Immigration. The officer who stamped my passport greeted me to the New World with an impatient, “Keep on rollin’, lady”, confirming what I probably already knew - that I was too slow for the big city and the big country that had been the stuff of my dreams for a decade.
Apprehensive and alone, I spent my first night in New York in the YMCA on Times Square and 42nd Street. This was long before the area had been spruced up and transformed into the glittering intersection we know today. Still with one foot in Belfast, when I ventured out that hot summer night, I stood for too long in the doorway of a drug store. With my backpack held open, I waited expectantly for someone to search it for explosives. So ingrained was this habit, the girl from Northern Ireland had forgotten she was on a New York city sidewalk.
Within the weeks that followed, the initial culture shock gave way to an enchantment that remains within me. Just three hours away by train, I discovered Saratoga Springs and a series of concerts celebrating the 15th anniversary of Woodstock. Saratoga, the place in “You’re So Vain”, where “your horse naturally won”, according to Carly Simon who was married to the man who had sung about Mexico on my radio back in Belfast. Undaunted, I hitch-hiked my way to hear him perform, which he did - with Randy Newman. And of course, he sang “Mexico”.
I would later find out that the song came to James Taylor while he was taking a break during the recording of the Gorilla album. As he remembers: “I went down to spend a long weekend in Mexico with some friends in Puerto Vallarta, and while I was down there, this thing just … sometimes you go some place, you know?”
Yes, James. Thirty years later, I know.
A cross country trip from New York would bring me to the desert southwest, tantalisingly closer to Mexico. I settled in Phoenix, a sprawling metropolis connected by streets with Spanish names - Via de Ventura, Calle Guadalupe, Casa Blanca Drive - and when I bought the house I still live in today, I planted a jacaranda tree that explodes with purple blossoms.
In the blazing days of summer, when my friends would escape to those beautiful Mexican beaches that slope into the Sea of Cortez, I opted instead for Morro Bay on the central coast of California, with its misty morning fog and colorful wall murals; or I would go back to a Belfast that now shimmers as a cosmopolitan city in Game of Thrones country. Mexico eluded me - but not this year.
In spring 2018, we found ourselves at Mi Patio, a neighborhood Mexican restaurant in the middle of Phoenix. Before long, we had befriended the stranger at the bar. Affable and interesting, he joined our conversation about Van Morrison and Northern Ireland - each synonymous with “home” for me. He even sang the first line of “Celtic Heartbeat” - “Oh won’t you stay, stay a while with your own ones.” What were the chances of hearing that in a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix?
And then he pivoted, mentioning a little place he knew we hadn’t heard of but that we should definitely visit. He spelled it out. A-j-i-j-i-c. Something about the way those letters fell from his lips compelled me to ask more. To help us place it on an imaginary map, he said it was close to Guadalajara, on the shores of Mexico’s, Lake Chapala. He told us Ajijic was a place we would love. It was a magical place with a perfect climate and a welcoming international community, expats like me.
April, he said, might be a good time to visit. So, by the end of the evening, we had a new friend and a plan in place. We would visit Mexico to mark my 55th birthday, and we would be his guests at The Hotel Casa Blanca in Ajijic.
Feeling at home
When we arrived on my birthday, far from the country that made me, I was struck by how much I felt at home. Walking the cobblestoned streets of Ajijic, my feet were on familiar territory - my heart, too, hope burning as it had done in the summer of 1984. Catching a glimpse of the man I love buying roses on a street festooned with papel picado, I knew I was home.
Together, we ventured to the plaza for a birthday drink. A jocular Canadian spied us and invited us to his table, and within minutes, he was asking us when we would be back. He found out we were celebrating, so he presented me with a candle and led the people around him in a chorus of “Happy Birthday”. On the plaza, the only sounds were those of strangers singing, children playing, and church bells ringing out in what felt like gratitude for the day that was coming to a close. Seated at my birthday table, I wept, undone by the wandering spirit that I thought had left me. I have missed her.
Contemplating the first step into a new journey, a new country, I remind myself not to be afraid of taking what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk” - to emigrate. Having spent more than half my life in Arizona, far from Northern Ireland, I know well the unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a visceral longing for “ home”, perhaps even for the things that sent me away in the first place. I am called back to my childhood and to a time with my grandmother, who died when I was just six years old. Hers was my first experience with death. With her, I experienced for the first time, complete and unconditional love.
When the sun rose in Ajijic on the first day of my 55th year, its light filling our hotel room, I could hear once again my grandmother tell my mother, who also told me, to “follow the sun”. And, standing in the morning light, I knew I was home - with my own ones.
Originally from Co Antrim, Yvonne Watterson emigrated to the US in 1988 and settled in Arizona where she works in education. She is director of education innovation at the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and has been recognised for her work in school reform and her activism on immigration. She blogs at Considering the Lilies . . . and Lessons from the Field.