Counting down the days

Colleagues and friends must have been so weary of hearing the tale of our impending retirement in Mexico. For the next four years, it seemed like everyone we met wanted to know how we made the decision, when we we going, why, etc. I started a day count at work when the number fell under 1000, and dutifully could recite the new total to anyone who asked.

We developed a plan for how to conduct the move. At the time, we owned and were living in a 2200 sq ft townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia. We still had several rooms of excess furniture and even clothes and things left behind by our daughters as they graduated from college, got jobs, moved away, got married, and started having children of their own. We also had all the memorabilia a couple collects in 30+ years of marriage and establishing various homes. And we knew that the furniture, which was mostly European, would not fit in in our new casa, and would be prohibitively expensive to ship. We had to give many of the furniture pieces away.  While it was well-made and imported, the company that ran an estate sale for us told us it was “big brown stuff” that no one wanted, even for bargain prices.

We decided to sell our townhouse at the two year out point, to get out of the volatile DC housing market and to eliminate any further maintenance requirements. We found a nice apartment in Arlington, which reduced our commute, had a parking garage, walkable neighborhood restaurants, and zero maintenance (they even replaced the light bulbs). That move was a great opportunity to start the overall downsizing process.

We took turns opening boxes, reviewing the contents, and asking the hard question: what do I need this for? In many cases, we identified things we had not used in years, but we had kept “just in case.” We also had many items of memorabilia, which we had to ask “what are we going to do with this in Mexico?” At first, we put many such things back in the box, unwilling to make the break. But with each subsequent review, it became easier to say “adios.” Our toughest question always was: “what do I intend to do with this, and what will my kids do with this when I’m gone?” There were several things that had obvious answers to both questions, so they were “keepers.” There were a few which the first answer was “I don’t know” but the second was obvious, so they were kept, too. Many things got put in the charity or trash piles.

By the time it came to move out of the apartment, we had culled the items to ship to Mexico down to a single international shipping unit (7’x 7’x 4′, as I recall), along with a single carload we would drive down.

And when I say one carload, this is the car!

Now just to execute the plan!

All Systems “GO!”

While we waited on our return flight out of Houston, we called our financial advisor and explained we needed some TLC.  We needed to know how to rustle up more than we had planned for the log cabin, because we were considering buying a house in Mexico, where they (at the time) did not use mortgages. Since we were funding new construction, we had a full year to come up with the cost.  So we asked our advisor to determine IF we could pull that off, and how.  Second, we asked him to re-run our retirement plan, based on the different cost-of-living (full time and only) in Mexico.  We sent him cost of living documents provided by Focus, and told him we had about a week to make a decision.

The next week was a muddle of getting back to work while wondering how the “Mexican retirement” issue would play out.  Finally our advisor called us back and scheduled a weekend meeting.  He told us first “yes,” we could put together the money to secure the house over the course of the next year.  It would not be easy, and we would have to do some juggling, but it was doable.  Next he addressed the cost-of-living data; he told us that it was way too low, and he didn’t trust it, so he ran the numbers twice: once with the numbers we gave him, and a second time at triple those numbers. He said “either way, it all works.  Further, we can accelerate your retirement. You can skip the 10 years working as a contractor and simply retire at age 56.” Judy started to tear up, and I was shocked.  I had just bought back 10 years of time!

We executed the offer paperwork and bought our retirement casa in Mexico.

Explaining this sudden change in plans to our extended family and grown children was NOT easy.  They had not gone through the process we had, done the research, visited, run the data.  Additionally, when we left for our first visit, they expected my wife Judy to be the voice of reason pulling us back from the ledge.  Instead, we returned and she was more convinced than I had been. So we had to patiently explain and re-explain that:

  • No, we weren’t renouncing our citizenship; we still pay US taxes, and vote in US elections.
  • While drug violence is a problem, it is concentrated along the border, along certain trafficking routes and in big cities, and is generally avoidable.
  • Health care was excellent, and in fact many grandparents host their grandkids for dental vacations to get braces at cents on the dollar.
  • We lived only minutes away from an international airport, with easy connections to anywhere in the US.
  • Since we were not working anymore, we were free to come visit for as long as they could stand having us, without having to de-conflict three or four work schedules.
  • The weather was great year round, so we could welcome visits any time they cared to come.
  • Yes, you could get by Lakeside without learning Spanish, but why would you want to? We planned to do immersion language training once we moved there.

Our family members’ responses ran the gamut from implied concern to outright “are you nuts?” Over time, most simply admitted they just couldn’t fathom making such a move, but wished us well.

Around the end of 2012, the house was completed and we visited, with my father in tow, to take possession.  We really enjoyed having Dad along, and he was able to report back on how nice the weather, the people, and the food were.

Casa Neary, freshly built

So here we were, owning a vacant home in the quaint Mexican village of Ajijic, but still working in Washington DC and waiting for the calendar to roll over a few more times, to 2016.

What did we just do?

Our Focus in Mexico days were all similar: the presentations started after a late breakfast in the hotel.  Each presentation was led by a local expert on some subject of interest to an expat (tax implications, property ownership, immigration laws, culture, health care, insurance, driving, etc.).  There was plenty of time for breaks and to have individual discussions with the presenters, to ask those “only me” type questions everyone has. The net effect was very even-handed; this was in no way a sales pitch.  Speakers talked about the nitty-gritty aspects of moving to Mexico, and were very clear about the positive and negative aspects.  Some examples:

  • While the cost of living is generally less than in the US or Canada, if you insist on buying only the same products you had NOB (north of the border), you’ll quickly find your costs escalate.
  • Electricity is fairly cheap, but you’re expected to use relatively little; exceed the norms, and your rate can quickly triple and hold at the higher cost for an extended period.  This is especially troublesome for Americans used to leaving all their lights and appliances “on.”
  • Buying or renting a house among the locals can save you a ton, but then you need to understand the challenge of dicey on-the-street parking  or frequent festivals (which can involve loud bands and fireworks into the wee hours).

We broke for a leisurely lunch at different local restaurants, then returned for more presentations, some free time or siesta in the afternoon, and then got together for dinner and/or something cultural in the evening.  Anyway, the net effect was to show that expat life in Mexico is not for everyone, but it was not as exotic as one might surmise, and to provide some tips on how to succeed.  There wasn’t anything magic about the presentations, and you could find all the information provided on your own: but here it was, gift-wrapped and presented to you with ample opportunity to digest and interact.  Probably the best aspect of the Focus program was the network of instant friends and relationships it fostered.

The views weren’t bad, either

By the third day, the weather, friendliness, good food and wine was having the desired effect on Judy.  As we sat in a presentation about opportunities to volunteer and do charity work locally, the speaker mentioned a local orphanage run by nuns, which always needed volunteers to come and hold babies.  Judy leaned over and whispered in my ear “That’s it, I’m in.”

The last day of the program included an optional tour of different houses for sale/rent in the area, to show what your dollar would purchase.  It turned out that both Judy and I had been eying the same hacienda-style model in a new, gated community just outside Ajijic.  We had agreed, half jokingly, before we left on the trip that WE WOULD NOT BUY ANY PROPERTY while we were in Mexico.  And here we were, seriously teetering on the edge of doing so.

If you lived here, you’d be home now

We did draw up the papers to purchase, but put the actual offer on hold until we could consult our financial advisor back home. And we might have to tell the kids, too!

Focusing on Mexico

It all started innocently enough:  “Honey, what would you think about retiring outside the US?”

“Sure, where?”


“Mexico, as in narcos-chopping-off-heads Mexico? Count me out.”

I would retreat for several days and try another approach:

“Dear, I found a place to retire with nearly perfect Spring-like weather year round!”

“Spring-like as in warm but not hot, not too humid? Where?”

“Lake Chapala. A bunch of Americans and Canadians already live there.”

“But where is it?”

“Umm, uhh, Mexico”

(Silence) “Seriously, what is it with you and Mexico?”

“I keep researching this place, and no matter what I look into, it comes up positive.”

(Long silence)

And so it went.  Judy conceded that I had convinced her that security was not an issue, based on the fact that I worked that issue for a living and had a good handle on it.  I mentioned the low cost of living, and she asked what about health care?  I told her about the good, US-trained and English-speaking doctors, and she wondered how we would get back to visit the grandkids.  I showed her the reasonable airfare to/from Guadalajara International airport, which was only 40 minutes away from the lake; she countered with our lack of Spanish.

It was close to the time to shop more seriously for the vacation log cabin, so I tried one last gambit: I told Judy we shouldn’t buy the cabin until we settled the “where do we ultimately retire?” question.   The Focus on Mexico site I mentioned had a week-long familiarization trip at a reasonable rate. They would put you up in a local hotel, give presentations about being an expat, and introduce you around the community. I asked Judy if she would go on such a trip; she agreed, if only to shut me up about Mexico.  It was scheduled for January, 2012, so we could experience the so-called Spring weather for ourselves. I opined that if nothing else, it was a nice little vacation. Judy committed to go, and I agreed that if we both didn’t love it, Mexico was off the board.

We had an uneventful series of flights through Houston to Guad (as the expats call it), and were picked up by the Focus team and driven toward the Lake.  As we drove down the highway, the Focus team leader pointed out of the van window and said “look, there is the lake.” Just off the side of the highway was a dumpy little lake that looked more like an overgrown drainage pond.  As my blood pressure spiked, I heard the team leader burst out laughing saying that is was just a joke, the real lake was over the mountain.  As we crested the mountain pass, a beautiful vista of a long, thin lake spread out in the valley beneath us. You could see a series of mountains which seemed to hem the lake in on all sides; the mountains make the lake look smaller, but it is really almost 15 miles wide and over 50 miles long. You can get a sense of the vista by looking at the header picture to my blog, which shows the view as one lands at the airport.

Notice the English language signs, too

We arrived in the town of Ajijic (pronounced “Ah-Hee-HEEK”) and checked into the Real Chapala, our hotel for the stay. Ajijic is a picturesque little fishing village nestled on the north shore between the lake and the mountains.  If it hadn’t been discovered and rediscovered by expat artists and US army veterans back in the 1930s-1960s, no one would have ever heard of it beyond Guadalajara.  On one hand, the expats support art shops, nice restaurants, and a Walmart (no kidding).  On the other hand, it’s a 10,000 person Mexican village where burros might be grazing in your backyard.  Our first note of difference was the Focus team leader reminding us to use the large bottled water dispenser in out hotel room, even for teeth-brushing, since the hotel’s municipal water supply was not considered potable.

On Sunday, the Focus team took us on a tour of Guadalajara, and we got back in time for a nice little welcoming dinner where we got to know our colleagues in the program and the program staff.  That evening was the first time we could catch our breath and just talk alone.  I asked Judy to join me on a stroll through the cobblestone streets of La Floresta, the residential area surrounding the hotel.  The weather had been clear and warm, almost 60 F, but now the sun was setting and it was dropping into the 50’s for the night.

The romantic (if you don’t trip) cobblestones of La Floresta

As we walked, I prompted Judy what she thought so far.  She said “I’m just not feeling it.” Half in jest, I responded: “What didn’t you like?  Was it the inexpensive meals and drinks?  The pleasant weather? The friendly people?” Judy shook her head, “ I just don’t feel a sense of community yet.” “Well, that’s fair,” I added, “but we’ve only been on the ground for 24 hours.  Let’s see what the rest of the week brings.”

A Brief Introduction

As you may have surmised from the title of my blog, my name is Pat. Patrick, actually, but I go by any of the derivations of that name, including (soon) Patricio, as I intend to become an expatriate, or expat for short. This blog will record my experiences in becoming and enjoying the life of an American expatriate in Mexico.

The term expat is somewhat confusing. It simply means a person living outside his or her nation of citizenship. Some expats leave their homelands due to politics; several liberals and Hollywood types have declared they will leave the United States due to Donald Trump’s election to President. This type of protest-expat gets a lot of publicity, although they rarely follow through on the threat. So some people think expats must be running away from something. Other people think the word is ex-patriot, and believe it means one who is no longer a patriot or supporter of his or her nation. Finally, for many people, the notion of living outside of the culture you grew up in is just crazy. In reality, expats have a variety of reasons for being expats, and I’ll try to highlight a few by interviewing local expats from time to time.

I will at times segue into politics, religion, sports, or just general opining, because that’s what we all do, expats included. When I do, I’ll try to alert my readers with an appropriate heading, so those only interested in one type of post can ignore the others.

My journey to becoming an expat began, like so many others, by accident. Back in 2011, my wife (Judy) and I were preparing to buy a vacation house in the woods somewhere outside Washington, DC. I was about 5 years away from being eligible to retire from my government job, and we looked forward to continuing to stay in the DC area where I planned to work for the government as a contactor. We figured we had another fifteen years in the DC area before really retiring to somewhere warm and sunny like the US Southwest. We had plenty of time to figure out the final retirement location.

The vacation home, probably a log cabin in western Maryland, would be a weekend retreat, and a place where our two grown daughters, sons-in-law, and three grandkids could gather. For those unfamiliar with the DC area, there is a distinct cultural divide between Virginia on the south side of the Potomac river, and DC and Maryland on the north side. We had lived in Northern Virginia for thirty years, so the prospect of buying a house in Maryland felt like moving to a foreign country.

While beginning my research on the vacation home, I ran across a “click-bait” headline for “the 5 best climates in the world.” Now I have traveled a lot in my life, so I was curious what this article had listed as great climates, and I clicked on the link. That mouse click started my journey to becoming an expat.

A headline came up claiming these results for the world’s best climate were from the National Geographic Society. That was not true, although I only determined that much later. You can search the NGS website and archives and you will find no such article. Anyway, the first-place finisher was somewhere in Kenya, where living near the equator but high in the mountains made for a uniquely great climate. “Right,” I thought, I had never been there, but I wasn’t impressed. Second place was someplace called Lake Chapala, Mexico. Now I had been to Mexico: Cancun and Cozumel, great beach climates, but unbearable in the summer. The article described Chapala as Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, high in the Sierra Madre Mountains near Guadalajara. It said the weather was perennially spring-like, and the area hosted a number of American and Canadian expats. Mexico? Springlike? I closed the window on this obviously ridiculous article and went back to log cabin hunting.

But the description kept haunting me. See, my wife and I knew we wanted eventually to retire somewhere warm. I grew up in northern Indiana (South Bend), and the track of my life has been gradually southward and away from the snow. But we aren’t really beach types, and we don’t like high humidity. That’s why the Arizona/New Mexico area seemed about right, but we had lived near Fort Huachuca long ago, and it still got pretty cold. So perennial Spring was just too tempting to ignore. And the mention of expats meant there should be some way to verify the description. I started with a simple Google search for “expats” and “lake chapala.”

There was a wealth of resources: the Lake Chapala Society (LCS), a webboard owned by a local real estate company, several blogs, and something called Focus on Mexico which seemed to be a cross between a chamber of commerce site and a relocation service. Soon I was diving into the data available, and annoying the heck out of my wife. But that’s a story for another day.