The window washer who taught me happiness

A one-day trip to Mexico during the holiday weekend ended up being more of an eye opener than I expected.

I visited Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. A border community in Arizona that in recent years has swelled up to more than 70,000 residents. It is home to many shops, nightclubs, restaurants, a theater and small manufacturing companies.

Tourists often visit, parking on the American side and making the short walk to local mom and pop shops. The culture is vibrant, the people friendly.

Like many Mexican communities, especially those on the borders, or “fronteras”, it is a complex city of rich and poor, powerful and corrupt, happy and hungry.

I headed straight to a restaurant and ate a delicious seafood meal. The prices were lower than expected; the people were as friendly and humble as anticipated.

A walk to the plaza and a stop for ice cream opened my eyes to the complicated picture that is the frontera Mexican community. Streets are mostly unpaved and the cars bustling by are hanging on by a thread.

Most people seem of modest means. Window washers, car attendants, gardeners. There are street side vendors. Some selling flowers, other cold treats. They all have one thing in common, a great big smile.

Much has been written about American’s millennial generation. I’m at the early end of that age group, so I can be included in the criticism. Millennials are thought to be needy. They want things their way. The perfect job with the perfect pay.

The people of the fronteras communities would be in shock. And still, the smile on their faces, the friendly conversations, the willingness to help a stranger, had me thinking that happiness is relative.

On the drive back to the American side, we had a long wait as cars moved slowly making their way through the port-of-entry. Young and old, some disabled, vendors made their way up and down the line of travelers.

One particular window washer was telling jokes. He didn’t walk slowly or with pain. His clothes were dirty; shoes almost worn away. Still he was filled with happiness and a joy for life.

For a moment, I felt guilty about complaining under my breath to friends about how slow the line was moving. Then I realized that a window washer in a frontera community, making just a few bucks a day was richer than I was in my air-conditioned car.

Happiness is relative and can be found by looking in the right places.

Originally published at on June 1, 2016.

People are interesting things. I write about them and what makes them interesting.

People are interesting things. I write about them and what makes them interesting.