The Flight of the Snowbirds

Today we’ll look at some of the different species of expats making their homes in the Lake Chapala microclimate.

The largest single group are the Snowbirds. These seasonal creatures spend the colder winter months under the bright Jalisco sun, then return North of the Border (NOB) in Spring when the US or Canada becomes more habitable. Snowbirds almost always own a home NOB, which gives them an anchor back to a community there, generally the place they grew up or where they worked as adults. This anchor home comes with all the considerable costs and maintenance of property ownership NOB. As a result, many Snowbirds rent around lakeside, often signing leases for 5-6 months for fully furnished apartments or homes. Some Snowbirds do buy homes lakeside, for the satisfaction of having their own places, the certainty of knowing where they’ll stay, as a hedge for eventually moving full time to Mexico, and because recurring costs (taxes, maintenance) are so low. Snowbirds begin to trickle into the region in October, with a full fledged migration underway by November. Those coming from the coldest areas NOB generally arrive earliest. Snowbird migration doubles 0r triples the size of the local expat population.

The next largest group are the Residentes, an invasive species which has taken up a permanent presence around Lake Chapala. I should have put quotes around “permanent” in the preceding sentence, because this group has several sub-species. There are Residentes who simply put down roots here and stay.  Most buy a home, but there are some who permanently rent and thus move around the various local communities.  There are Residentes who own a home here but use it a base for further travel, either to areas NOB or elsewhere around the globe. There are a few Snowbirds who also practice this non-seasonal, omni-directional migration. The cost-of-living savings available to the Residentes enables different lifestyle patterns. For example, Residentes with means use the saved resources to enable more and better travel; there are also Residentes who make ends meet in a way that would be impossible NOB. Some of these Residentes get by fairly well on a single Social Security check, which would be problematic at best in the US or Canada.

The final and smallest group are the Sunbirds, also known as Sweatbirds or Shadebirds. These rare birds leave the warmer stateside locations (think Florida or Texas) when they get too beastly hot and humid and make for lakeside. Since they visit for a shorter period, they are more likely to rent, but some do own homes. We have only come across two or three of this rarely seen species in our time here.

I bring all this up because the Snowbird migration has begun at Lake Chapala. Traffic (yes, we call it that, even though it’s not much) gets lighter, restaurants don’t require reservations, and the number of volunteers suddenly drops. Our good friends Tom and Linda are Snowbirds from Pennsylvania, and we had a nice farewell dinner at Adelita’s (a great local ribs place) for them. We have visited here at all different times of year, but this is the first time we have been here during a migration, so it will be interesting watching the change occur.

We’ll miss our friends, and we wish them Vaya con Dios. and Hasta Pronto!

I hope you have enjoyed this study of the migratory habits of Lake Chapala expats. In honor of all the various birds, here’s a tune which seems most appropriate:


Crime and Violence

Most everyone’s first reaction when they learn you live in Mexico is “do you feel safe?” There is simply no debating the fact of the amount of violence generated by the drug cartels in Mexico.  The vast majority of the violence is directed by cartels against other cartels, with the second highest amount between the government police/security officers and the cartels. There are still numbers of innocent civilians who either get caught in the crossfire or are victims of violent criminal attacks.

Media north of the border play up the stories for several reasons.  First, there is no local element to offend: that is, cover violence in Chicago and some Chicagoans will take offense; cover violence in Mexico and who is going to get upset? Second, the more theatrical violence (e.g., decapitations) makes better copy.  Third, it reinforces an existing stereotype, namely, “look at those crazy, violent people south of the border!” Truth be told if there was no violence, there would be no story.

So what brings this topic up for me today?  Here’s a good example of how violence really plays out within the expat community.

There was a large shoot-out this past Thursday just down the road near a dusty little village called el Molino.  About 30 kilometers (~20 miles) from where we live, regional police went looking for an officer who was reported missing. They received gunfire from a van and several vehicles on a dirt road, and returned fire, killing five. Some assailants escaped on a motorcycle, leading to additional police activity in the area.

Our experience? We were driving through our village of Ajijic in the noontime traffic when a fleet of police trucks came barreling through the small carretera. Later we could hear some more police sirens heading in the same direction, as our house is just a few blocks off the main drag.

Imagine a bunch of gun-jeeps and SUVs with flashing lights barreling through here.

We checked the local online boards, where several posters were asking “what was going on?” and others were opining about “bad things west of town.” More news from Twitter sources and local media indicated some of the basic facts I related above, although it sounded more like police shot bystanders in those accounts.

By Friday morning, there were several accurate accounts, including coverage in the local english-language newspaper, the Guadalajara Reporter. Still no mention of whether the original “missing officer” was found, hurt or unharmed, or whether that part of the story was even correct.

So we saw some police, we heard even more, and we read some online concerns.  Yes, there was a shooting down the road.  It’s even a road we use when going to the local Costco, although the gun-fight happened off a side dirt road. I recall living in the DC suburbs, driving around with my wife and saying “hey, isn’t this where that shooting/stabbing/mugging happened?” In that respect, it is not very different.

Could we have been involved in the violence? Yes, if we had wandered off on a dirt road in a notoriously lawless area. Does the violence sometimes find its way into more populated, otherwise safe areas? You betcha. There is a huge difference between knowing the odds and taking precautions on one hand, and living in fear on the other.  That applies to Mexico, New Mexico, and anywhere else.

Could not hear the sirens from the club…

Just a day at the Mall

So here’s a story meant to show just how much can be the same when living as an expat.

I grew up in small town Indiana in the 1960s and 1970s, just as shopping malls were killing off main street and local stores.  Malls were the cool place to go and hang out. When you were too young to drive, you bummed a ride from friends, or if desperate, went with your parents, taking care NEVER to be seen with your parents while you were at the mall.

As I grew up and started a family of my own, malls became a useful place to one-stop shop, but they were only efficient in terms of time, not price, and seemed to attract a growing number of the wrong types (kids like me years before, but now I was a parent and didn’t want my kids associating with those kids :).

Anyway, I found myself in Guadalajara today, because we needed to shop for a variety of housewares and wanted a little more variety, if not the best price.  And we found the Galerias Mall, which looked like something right out of Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Can’t mention the Tysons experience without traffic…
Apparently, “merge lane” does not translate into Spanish

Huge parking garage, check.  Anchor stores (Sears, Liverpool), check. Food court, along with two Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Crispy Kreme, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, check. Kiosks hawking Sun Glass Hut, cell phones and toys, lots of glass and marble, several high end couture stores, check.

Central atrium, before the crowds

We arrived around 11:00 and the mall was pretty empty, but by 1:00 the restaurants and shops were doing brisk business.  Clearly, this was no “ghost mall.” I am uncertain how I feel about this aspect of American culture exported elsewhere. It did feel a little like a time machine trip to 1975. We did find the housewares we needed, but I much prefer shopping in the small stores and tianguis in Mexico.

I just hope my Dad didn’t see me there.

Bienvenidos a Mexico


Everybody who lives or works in Mexico has a mañana story.  Now we have one, too. Here it is, but first a word of explanation. Even those who don’t speak Spanish have heard of the word “mañana” which literally means “tomorrow” en Español. Except no one ever uses mañana to mean a literal time expectation; they use it to mean “not now” or “sometime” or even “maybe.” More importantly, the concept connotes a flexible approach to time in general, which one has to accept south of the border.

We were scheduled to have some workmen install Murphy beds in our guest bedrooms. They were due to be with us Monday through Thursday. So we asked when would they arrive, since we needed to be home to let them in, review what they were going to do, etc.  The company rep told us they would arrive between 11:30 and 12:30. So they rolled up around 1:30 pm, and we were not too surprised. Before they left Monday evening, we asked when they would come mañana. At 10:00, they said, and we said good, as we told them we had an important appointment at 11:30, so we had to leave by 11:15.

Tuesday comes, but the workmen don’t, and we leave the house at 11:20 with a message taped to the front door telling them to come in, since we are gone. We don’t like it, but what else can we do?  We get back and find they have complied with our note and our working inside.  When they finish for the day, we once again ask “what time tomorrow?”  We have no appointments, but we want to be there when they arrive and we have several odd chores we want to do.  So we explain it does not really matter, we just want to know when.  They say 10:30.

So on Wednesday morning, they arrive around 11:00, which forces us to modify our plans, but at least we were there when they arrived. Again we ask upon their departure, what time tomorrow? 10:30…right!

Thursday…so, by now you already know.  They arrive a little after 11:00, but its the last day, so whatever.  Except that evening at 5:00 (they always left on time at 5:00), they explained the installations were not done, so they would be back on Friday at (drum roll)…10:30.

So at 11:15 on Friday they promptly arrive, and finish the work around 3:00, when a company rep is stopping by to make sure the customers (us) are happy with the final product.

Partly this is the well-established Mexican cultural inability to say “no” or to tell someone bad news.  They don’t want to disappoint us by saying they can’t be there at a certain time, so they simply commit to any time we ask, but don’t intend to meet that commitment, and rarely do.

Partly this is the flip side of the aspect of being centered in the moment, which I mentioned earlier. If you live in the moment, you realize that there is much beyond your control, and so you get used to going with the flow and not getting upset over inefficiency or delay.

One of the things which distinguishes successful expats from those who leave in frustration is the ability to recognize the Mañana culture, experience it without getting too upset, and accepting it is not necessarily wrong, just different.

While they took quite a bit of time, the workmanship was excellent. Here are the photos of our two guest bedrooms, one of which will be my office and other Judy’s sewing room.

Office with the bed down, …
and with the bed up.
same, bed down.
Sewing room, bed up…

What is it you say you do here?

You’ll recall the famous quote from the movie Office Space, which really involves answering that age-old question “why do we pay you?” Retirees, and especially expat retirees get a version of that same question, which roughly goes like this: “what do you do all day?” Well, every day is different, but here is a collage of photos showing some of the things that fill up my time.

Since we’re in the tropics, daylight hours don’t vary nearly as much as up north, so we’re often up before the sun at 7:00 am. I tried to load an MP4 file here, but it just wouldn’t take (probably too slow an upload speed…one drawback from being in a developing country). Still here’s a shot of mi casa at dawn, while I’m walking the dog.  You’ll just have to imagine the birdsong and roosters.  Or visit.


Breakfast can be as hearty as fresh local coffee, bacon and eggs, or simply a local banana with some yogurt.



Most days include some exercise. We stretch up on our rooftop mirador; Judy does kettle bells on the terraza, while I do a quick trip down the carretera to my gym.

We almost always need to “go into town.” This day, we had immigration photos taken at a shop, and stopped by the local grocery to pick up a few items.

You may have noticed we eat out often. Partly, its just so inexpensive. Partly, it helps the local economy: we live in a tourist zone with many restaurants that depend on steady customers to make ends meet. Mostly, its a social thing: here we are having brunch with our friends from Church. Its a Chinese restaurant called Min Wah, so of course we’re having a Mexican breakfast.


We’ve adopted the siesta as an afternoon ritual.  This is my dog showing how it is done. Note how he has mastered the “pillow” technique. While Tucker was snoozing, Judy and I attended a fund-raiser for Villa Infantil, the local orphanage, run by the Catholic Sisters of the Congregration of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Joseph (put that on a t-shirt!).


Evenings are a chance to catch up on reading or watching some stateside TV.

An expat friend of mine once described a week of retired life here as “six Saturdays and a Sunday.” Days do seem to run together and have more similarity than the stark difference between work days and weekends/holidays back in the working world. Sometimes I even find time to write a blog entry! 😮