Judy Dykstra-Brown grew up in tiny Murdo, South Dakota, a speck along Interstate 90, and dreamed of the day she could see the world. After years of adventures, her world now is the expat life along Lake Chapala, just south of Guadalajara.
Dykstra-Brown, 70, was raised on a ranch where her dad grew wheat and her mom tended to her and her two sisters. After high school she headed west to the University of Wyoming where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English.
In her junior year, though, she got to scratch her travel itch when she set sail during the fall semester on the ship where Chapman College operated its World Campus Afloat program.
“The Suez canal was closed so instead of going to Europe,” Dykstra-Brown said, “we went around the coast of Africa. I got hooked on travel and all I wanted to do then was go back to school for my master’s degree so I could teach abroad.”
In 1971 she received a M.A. in creative writing with an emphasis on curriculum and instruction from the University of Wyoming and immediately applied for teaching positions overseas.
Most of the schools she was interested in required at least two years of teaching experience, but she discovered that Australia needed teachers and they were willing to hire her with no experience.
“I did my training in Sydney,” she said, “and then was sent to Wollongong, New South Wales, which is about an hour drive south of Sydney on the coast. I taught first through fifth form, which is the equivalent of seventh grade through senior year in high school.”
After a year and a half, Dykstra-Brown and her Australian roommate decided to travel to Germany for teaching jobs and set out by road for northern Australia, enroute to Timor by plane and then on to Sri Lanka. But it was monsoon season, where anything can happen and most often does.
“So we ended up having this big adventure because planes could not take off from Timor and the airline we were booked on went out of business,” she said. “We rented a World War II barge and sailed around the tip of the island to where we thought trucks could take us the rest of the way, but bridges were washed out and we ended up trekking 12 miles through the jungle barefoot because my shoes were stolen. Did I mention that I was bitten by a venomous Adder and nearly died? I lost 20 pounds before we finally made it to an airport and then on to Bali, Indonesia.”
But the adventure continued.
“From Bali we flew to Jakarta and then made our way to Singapore,” she said, “where I worked for a while before moving on to Sri Lanka and then Dar es Salam, Tanzania and finally to Ethiopia. I stayed in Ethiopia for a year and a half, which included the time I was being held by my captors.”
Dykstra-Brown was a victim of kidnapping in Ethiopia and had to remain there to testify against her captors. While waiting for the trial to reach its conclusion, she fell in love with a man and got a job teaching in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“The romance did not work out,” she told us. “I was there for the whole year leading up to the revolution in that country and had my farewell party the night of the coup.”
Needing a little less adventure for a while, Dykstra-Brown returned to Wyoming and taught at Cheyenne’s Central High School for seven years before moving on again, this time to “Surf City” Huntington Beach, California.
“I had a college friend who was living there, so in 1981 I moved farther west,” she said. “I taught writing for a while and then in 1983 I went back to school at UCLA and took classes in writing, film production and poetry.”
That led to jobs with a Hollywood talent agency, public relations work for Bob Hope and eventually to the love of her life.
“I got into poetry about that time in a big way,” she said. “One evening I was at a poetry reading at a coffeehouse in Santa Monica and Bob was on stage. I decided then that he was the man I would marry.”
They tied the knot in 1987 and then headed north to Boulder Creek, a rural village high in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley where they would spend the next 15 years.
Instead of teaching, she became a silver smith and he sculpted, among other things. The couple traveled to arts and crafts shows throughout the west and eventually owned as many as seven studios.
“I had watched him wearing down,” Dykstra-Brown said, “and knew that it was time to slow down. He was 16 years older than me and at age 70 I knew it was time to retire.”
A doctor friend of hers had recommended San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, so the couple rented a house there for eight weeks in 2001 and loved it. But they also wanted to check out Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacán and the Lake Chapala area just south of Guadalajara.
“We came over a hill and saw Lake Chapala and Bob said ‘Oh, Jude, this is where I want to live. I don’t want to be in San Miguel.’”
They found a designer home to purchase in the Raquet Club area of San Juan Cosala, which borders Ajijic and Jocotepec, but just three weeks after they moved in, Bob died of pancreatic cancer.
“Bob always liked the planning part,” she said. “He got to find the house and plan it out but I wish he could have lived at least a year down here.”
Dykstra-Brown is an accomplished author and based her first book, “Lessons from a Grief Diary,” on the diary she and her husband kept during his illness. She also captured her life growing up on the wind swept plains of South Dakota in her free-verse book, “Prairie Moths.” She also joined with other lake-area women authors to publish “Border Crossers and Boundary Breakers,” their take on Mexico life as expats.
Her blog – judydykstra-brown.com – is a well-read look into her life and living in Mexico. She just completed her 2,000th blog entry.
Besides writing, Dykstra-Brown has expressed her creativity through jewelry and papermaking but now focuses mainly on mixed media, like retablos – Mexican folk art of devotional paintings using iconography from traditional Catholic Church art.
“I have done a lot of different things, Mexican folk legends, Mexican saints and even memorial pieces for friends and relatives who have died,” she said.
Besides the weather (the Lake Chapala area is consistently ranked as having one of the best climates in the world), Dykstra-Brown loves the many activities provided to expats by the Lake Chapala Society.
“I think a big part of the charm of this area is the society because it provides a way to meet other expats through its cultural center,” she said. “I think it is the only place in Mexico that offers this. The center is constantly in use from morning until night. We have dance groups, yoga groups, film society and many other affinity groups. The consulate also comes here to do passports and you can get free health, hearing and vision check-ups.”
Although Dykstra-Brown and her husband bought a home on their first visit to the Lake Chapala area, she recommends a different approach for those thinking of relocating.
“Do exactly what I did not do,” she said. “Rent a place for a while and try to live in several different places to see which you like best. For example, Mexican neighborhoods can be noisy, especially those in the villages. Get to know the area you are in. One friend bought a dream house but learned the hard way that the guy next door raised fighting cocks, which crow 24 hours a day. It nearly drove them crazy. You don’t know those things until you have stayed in a place for a while.”