I was unprepared for almost everything about our trip. When my boyfriend, Greg, and I landed at the San Jose airport in Mexico, I was shocked by the heat. Despite the motivation for our February trip largely being a break from Montana’s winter, stepping into 90 degree heat felt like stepping on to the sun. While the sudden warmth shocked my system, it wasn’t all that took me by surprise.
Moments after we walked outside Greg’s aunt Diane pulled up in her jeep. Visiting with Diane, and her husband Mark was the other motivation for our trip. For half the year they live in Los Barriles, where they are part of a large community of expats, drawn to the area by consistent wind along the Sea of Cortez, where they kiteboard.
We chucked our backpacks into the jeep, thankful for the air conditioning and the cooler of Pacfico that was waiting for us. As we bounced down the poorly maintained road up the coast to Los Barriles I found myself taken by the jagged mountains that rose out of the desert landscape. Bare, desert mountains. I had done little research before our trip about the area we would be visiting, knowing that we would spend most of it relaxing on a beach. I was surprised by the rugged landscape. I had been expecting the stereotypical landscape you see in movies of spring break. White sand beaches, palm trees, clear blue waters and resorts. What I found instead truly looked like a desert. Hardy bushes scattered throughout the sand. Rough brown peaks rising to a clear blue sky. As I struggled to get a good swig off my beer with the jolts of the road, I sensed that this trip wouldn’t be at all what I expected, but probably exactly what I needed.
Los Barriles, Mexico © Sally Finneran
At the end of December I had become unexpectedly unemployed. When Greg and I planned our trip to Mexico months prior I was looking forward to a week away from work, as well as a break from the cold dark winter. I had imagined sitting on a sunny beach, sipping a margarita where my phone wouldn’t ring with work calls. However, in February, as we boarded a plane for our vacation I was coming up on two months without work. I couldn’t imagine how I could be more relaxed, and I felt like I didn’t need to go on the trip. I was already, essentially, on a vacation. The main stress in my life was job hunting, and I felt like I didn’t deserve a break from doing nothing.
Generally in western society I’ve found people tend to define others by their employment. When meeting new people the first thing that’s often asked is, “What do you do?” The funny thing about that question is it could be answered so many ways. I do a lot of stuff. I hike. I fish. I camp. I write. I take photographs. I lead a Girl Scout troop. Those are all things that I love doing. Things that make me excited, and give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning — but none of them are what pay my bills. Yet, invariably when the question “What do you do?” is asked, the questioner isn’t inquiring about your hobbies or interests, but rather, your job. And somehow your answer defines you for that person. What you do for money, to this other person is your personal identity. There are certain answers to that question that elicit respect, and others that you can tell make this new person think less of you. We tend to define each other by our jobs and make assumptions about people based on how they make a living. It’s not right, but sometimes it isn’t wrong either. Up until recently, I’ve been guilty of forming opinions that way too.
Before we left for Baja I had come to dread conversations about my employment situation. Answering “what do you do?” with “I’m currently unemployed,” or “I’m between jobs right now,” inevitably led to looks of pity, a retelling of my recent job loss story and a reassurance that that they were sure, I would find something soon.
As we bumped along what passes as a highway in Baja, the topic of my unemployment inevitably came up as we all updated each other on our lives. However, unlike previous conversations about my work status there was no pity, but instead props. “Are you still a lady of leisure?” Diane asked me. Leisure. That one simple word reminded me that, at that moment, my time was my own, and it is okay for your time to be your own. The conversation moved past my unemployment quickly, and it became clear that Diane put more stock in the things I enjoy doing with my time. For the first time I had an inkling that the other things I do might matter more in life than work.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, that would be the attitude of everyone we met in Baja. For most, what we did for work was irrelevant. Instead, as we met the large community of expats that that live in Baja for part of the year, they wanted to know what we enjoyed doing. They wanted to hear about Montana and why we love living there. They were relaxed and happy. The pace of life was much slower, and though many of them had jobs they would return to in the states, that wasn’t a defining part of their lives, or their identity. Their work might come up in conversation, but in the same way you mention to a friend that you are going to need to mow your lawn. It’s an obligation, but ultimately an unimportant part of how you spend your time. Instead they would talk about the fish they saw while snorkeling, and how the wind was blowing. There were other things to talk about and more importantly, other things to do. The people of Baja figured out that what you do for work doesn’t really matter, but what you do in your life that makes you happy is.
Los Barriles, Mexico © Sally Finneran
I grew up surrounded by the notion that finding a job I loved was the thing that would make me happy. From what I could tell, that was the point of adulthood. It’s an idea that most of seem to have picked up at some point in our youth. In school there would be aptitude tests to determine which career would be the best fit. We would listen to speakers who promised that if you found a job you loved, you would never work a day in your life.
I spent years chasing that notion and was confused why I still found myself miserable and stressed out about work, despite being on a career path that I thought I would love. Slowly I began to realize that it was the other things in my life that truly made me happy. Teaching a younger generation of girls about the joy of friendship and the outdoors. Spending time on a cool clear stretch of Montana water with the man I love and our dog. Cracking open a beer after reeling in a native cutthroat. Sitting in my backyard, looking at the mountains. Backpacking into a remote wilderness. Driving where we see more deer than other cars. Sleeping under the stars. Exploring new places that I haven’t visited before. Those are things that make me happy. That make me feel alive. It’s in those moments where everything feels completely right. It’s those moments that make the bad ones and the challenges in life seem insignificant. If I were to claim to know the meaning of life, it would be that feeling. That feeling of being perfectly content in the moment.
On our last night in Baja we joined Diane and her friends to watch the sunset on the beach. As I soaked up my last bit of Mexico sun, and sipped on a margarita I felt content, and for the first time in months, happy. I was trying to figure out, how, I could take that feeling home with me. I knew I had discovered more than just the bliss of a vacation, but a new philosophy on life.
Los Barriles, Mexico © Sally Finneran
When we returned to Montana I renewed my job search with a new, and much clearer direction. I stopped looking for a job that could be a career, or a job with some sense of dignity attached to the title. Instead I began searching for a job that would allow me to live my non-work life to the fullest. One where I could count on having most weekends off so I could go on adventures. A job that couldn’t follow me home, so I could spend my evenings enjoying the company of those I love. Work that wouldn’t drain me mentally so I would still have the energy to do things that I would find fulfilling personally, like writing this essay.
With the help of a staffing agency I finally found something that fit the bill. My new job, at a wholesale plant nursery could not be called glamorous, or easy. The fresh callouses on my hands and seemingly permanent dirt in the creases of my knuckles are now the mark of my work as a laborer. The work is physically exhausting, and constant days outside have given me a new appreciation for mother nature’s constant mood swings, heavy duty rain pants, and wool undergarments. It is not a dream job, and though my new job title of “laborer” commands little respect, I find that doesn’t matter
As I have settled into the routine of work and life I have strived to keep the attitude I found in Baja with me. Everyday as I run around the nursery, dodging sprinklers and deep mud puddles, I try to look up at the mountains and appreciate the beauty of the place I have chose to call home. As I head out of town on the weekends, the man I love behind the wheel and our dog in the back seat, I appreciate the adventures we are about to have, the people I will share it with. And when someone asks me what I do, I tell them that I work at a wholesale plant nursery, but what I do, well that can’t be summed up in a job title.
Sally Finneran is a writer and photographer located in Kalispell, Montana. She has had photos and articles published in the Bigfork Eagle, Daily Inter Lake, Grand Rapids Press, San Antonio Express-News and the Montana Kaimin. Sally enjoys reading, crocheting, fishing and spending time outdoors with her dog Zula, and partner in crime Greg.