Border promotions, or the Mexico two-step

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Maggie Van Ostrand

A Balloon in Cactus

“You can become anything or anyone you like the day you cross the border,” they tell us when we arrive in Mexico. They’re right.

In Ajijic, a man wearing a U.S. Navy cap and respectfully referred to as “The Captain” by all, was actually never in the service. What he did is what so many others do when moving south of the border: he told his new friends he was a captain in the U.S. Navy and they had no reason to doubt him. Now he’s happy. So is everyone else. It’s a win-win situation.

Then there’s the woman expatriate who wanted to be a movie star all her life, but life had other plans. After she crossed the border, she, too, did the Mexico Two-Step, sometimes known as “border promotions.” She joined the Little Theatre, telling the director she had had experience in her hometown. She was a natural, and there was never a reason to think she had made it up. After all, dreams are a powerful impetus, and her lifelong ambition came true. Now she’s a real actress, and an talented one.

You can leave your past behind and become the person you always knew you were inside. I don’t mean the “inner child,” I mean the person you believe you should have been who got sidetracked by life’s little things, like marriage, children, work. You can do your own border promotion if you decide to travel or retire to Mexico. And I ought to know. I did it.

After several personal upheavals removed the last lingering reason to remain in California, I moved to Ajijic. Didn’t know anyone there, didn’t know anything about it, but I took the plunge anyway.

I met interesting and lovely people from all over the world at Lake Chapala Society, a wonderful fellowship that helps strangers to become friends, helps each other to learn new languages, and helps Mexican locals to help themselves. A woman named Tee asked if she could pass on to the editor of the local paper a true story I had relayed to her. Sure, I said, why not? Alex Grattan, the editor, called to say he had enjoyed the story, and would I write it up for his newspaper, Ojo del Lago? Sure, I said again, Why not?

It was the true story of a 1995 trip from Guadalajara back to Los Angeles where I visited my kids and filled a suitcase with dog treats, then unavailable in Ajijic, to take back. (During my absence, my dogs were being cared for by another new friend.) At the L.A. airport waiting to return, my carry-on bag was suddenly surrounded by big, hairy dogs and big, hairy cops. Who could have known this was the day the airport cops had drug inspections? You never saw anything like it: drug-seeking dogs, noses sniffing my suitcase, tails stuck straight out behind them — and they weren’t even Pointers. You’d think I was a one-woman drug cartel or a reckless gun-running moll.

This was before 9/11 and, judging by the large crowds which formed, it was very big deal to see someone dragged off for questioning by uniformed men with slobbering dogs. Fortunately, after I explained the contents which were duly examined, they became apologetic and released me. They didn’t even fine me for trying to bribe one of the drug-seeking dogs with a beef-basted dried pigs’ ear.

It was even friendlier at the Guadalajara airport when I got back, even though I got the red light, not the green. Can you imagine what those Mexican guards must have thought at the sight of my bag lying open exposing a dozen baked pigs’ ears? Grinning, they let me go; they kept the pigs’ ears.

Response to the published story was so encouraging that Alex invited me to be a monthly columnist. As the years passed and many columns accumulated, readers told me they cut out their favorite stories and put them on their refrigerators. They also suggested I expand to a larger readership so, in 2001, I sent a bunch of the clippings to some big time U.S. newspapers. Do you know how expensive it was to mail all those refrigerators?

I started calling my professional self Maggie instead of the old “Marge,” a nickname I never liked and, amazingly, soon became a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, published in the Boston Globe, as well as a bunch of other well-known newspapers and magazines. I now have a list of over 3,000 subscribers to my website column at There are a lot of columns on the site under the link called Samples. Or you can Google my name (the Maggie one), and find more stories on the internet.

In Mexico, I had the time, and was given the support and encouragement to reassess life, do what I love, and start all over. Like the “captain” became The Captain and the “actress” became The Actress, I, a storyteller, became The Writer.

If you’re ever going to achieve your dreams, Mexico and the border promotions idea, might be just right for you.

Published or Updated on: May 1, 2008 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2008
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