There are very few things that I cannot go without. In fact that list has actually continued to get smaller the longer we live outside the United States. But there are a few things that I consider my lifeblood and right at the top of the list? Coffee. Okay, maybe wine too, but without my coffee not only am I miserable but everyone around me is as well. When traveling I always make sure to scout out where my source of coffee is going to be the next morning. So once we had gotten most of the pertinent information out of the way about the responsibilities of our current house sit assignment I asked the home owners the most important question I could think of. Do you have a coffee maker or should I bring my own? Their answer? “You can’t use a coffee maker here in Xcalak.” Since we had already accepted the assignment I think my heart literally stopped for a minute (you’ll have to ask Jason for sure, he was the one trying to revive me). I’m sorry, what? No coffee? I mean I don’t think wine has yet made inroads as an appropriate morning beverage option so what was I going to do? Well, the home owners didn’t say no coffee, they just said no coffee makers. I would soon find my way to the world of french press coffee (yes, I know I am very late to the party) and it was the introduction to my education about off-the-grid living.

I know we’ve mentioned having to depend on rainwater but until we moved here I truly had no idea how the weather can effect almost every single thing we can and cannot do. There is electricity in the town of Xcalak but the power lines do not extend down the road to where we live. That means we rely solely on solar energy. Since this part of Mexico is a pretty hot and sunny climate the sun that we receive is sufficient most of the time. But, there is a (supposedly) rainy season here and when the solar panels aren’t able to absorb as much sunlight as we need we do have a generator to rely on as backup.

Solar Panels in Xcalak
Our rather impressive array of rooftop solar panels.

While our solar setup is pretty great, there are certain things that we’ve had to make adjustments for. Of course you should conserve energy whenever possible, but here we take it to a very diligent level. We have to be sure to always turn off unnecessary ceiling fans, lights and other plugged in devices anytime we leave a room. And besides my precious coffee maker we quickly learned that there is also a long list of things that we simply cannot use here. Actually, we could use them, but our power supply would be shot pretty quickly. The majority of items that are on the banned list are typically items that have a heating element which is a huge drain on the system. For example:

Microwaves – No problem, right? Just cook everything? While great in theory, sometimes a girl just wants to warm up a piece of bread or a tortilla or some leftovers. Back to the gas stove you go to light it with a lighter, wait a few minutes to heat up and inevitably dirty more dishes which you are going to have to wash by hand after you are done. After awhile you start to think that cold beans and rice aren’t that bad after all.

Slow Cookers – We rediscovered the joy of the crock pot while living in Playa del Carmen when it was so hot outside the thought of turning on the stove to add more heat to the apartment was unfathomable. And so we started dumping things in the crock pot, letting it simmer all day and it would be ready by dinner time (you can seriously cook just about anything in those things). If possible, it’s even hotter here in Xcalak, but a slow cooker will nuke your solar energy supply in no time and so into storage it went.

Off-the-Grid Living
Hello old friend, maybe we’ll meet again one day.

Hair Dryers and Curling Irons – Okay, to be honest I actually gave both of these up a long time ago. The thought of blasting hot air at my head when the heat index is over 100 degrees is ludicrous and with humidity often hovering around 90% the idea of a “hairstyle” is pretty laughable.

Off-the-grid living in Xcalak
How I’m styling my hair these days. Currently the dogs are better groomed than I am.

What I’ve found is that almost anything that was created to make life faster and more convenient are things we cannot use here. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, we just have to recognize that things are slower and we have to take more time to do them, except for showering.

Showering is another one of those things that we have had to make adjustments for when living off-the-grid, albeit in the opposite direction. There is no city water here, we rely on rainwater for everything from showering to washing our dishes to washing our clothes to flushing our toilets. Water from our roofs are filtered into cisterns which collect and hold the rainwater long term. We fill up a large holding tank on our roof called a tinaco about once a week that gives us our water in our house. It’s an incredibly efficient system – provided you have the rain. Parts of Mexico have experienced a drought this year so our rainy season has been less about rain and more about complaining about the lack of rain. Which meant as the water in our cisterns dwindled so did the amount of time we could spend in the shower. As much as we tried to conserve, our cisterns reached such a low level that we eventually had to have water delivered. And of course just a few days later here came the rain. We are at a much more comfortable spot with our water supply these days and we feel okay stretching our showers from 30 seconds to a luxurious 3 minutes.

Water conservation in Xcalak
If you shower outdoors in a rain storm you can take all the time you want.

In addition to no water service, there is also no trash service here. No trash or recycling bins that we can put out on the corner before we go to bed that are magically empty in the morning.  There is one guy who will collect some of the trash from people on the road and take to the dump. The dump is about 4 miles outside town but we live far enough in the other direction that he just won’t come down the road this far to collect from us. We can load up our garbage into our car and take it ourselves to the dump, all the while keeping our fingers crossed that this time they are going to be open. Since every time we’ve made the 40 minute drive there they have not been open, well, we don’t do that anymore. Plus, have we mentioned it’s really, really hot here? Do you have any idea how quickly food rots in those kind of conditions? And did I mention that we can’t flush toilet paper here (as is true in a large part of Mexico)? We need to get rid of our trash pretty quickly and so we do what almost everyone else on the road does. Burn baby, burn!

Trash burning in Xcalak
Nothing like the sweet smell of burning toilet paper.

Whether by choice or by necessity, off-the-grid living is not for everyone. Relying completely on mother nature for your basic needs can be hard, challenging and unpredictable, but it can always be rewarding and fulfilling. The awareness and education we’ve gotten here has been incredible. I think about how our environmental impact has changed drastically in the last few months and I also think about long term changes we can make in our lives, even when we eventually leave Xcalak. Less microwave usage and lights, more french press coffee for me. Although seriously if we want to make a difference, can we at least consider a wine for breakfast movement?