Why be a pilgrim?

So why do people walk the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain? There are as many reasons as there are pilgrims, but they can be organized in several logical categories.

Like pilgrims from the Middle Ages to the present, the largest category would be religious/spiritual.  Originally this would have been a primarily Catholic endeavor, as Catholics were encouraged to go on pilgrimage to various shrines, including Santiago, where the bones of St James were allegedly discovered. Now there is an equal number of “spiritual, not religious” types who go on pilgrimage to re-center their minds, disconnect from the electronic chatter of modern life, or strip life to the bare essentials and engage more honestly with other people. This last point is a common refrain from peregrinos (pilgrims): on the camino, you have only what you need, so you eliminate the artifice of modern society and have more meaningful relationships with your fellow pilgrims.

Another large group is seeking simple self-improvement. They want to lose weight, quit smoking or kick some other bad habit, get in shape, or simplify one’s life. There are some similarities here to the first group, but without any specific spiritual content. Smaller sets of pilgrims are on vacation, after a personal accomplishment, or do it just because it is there.

For whatever reasons pilgrims have, the numbers have been consistently increasing. Last year over 300,000 walked the Camino Frances, with the frequency diagram displaying a familiar normal distribution (I promised no math, but this is statistics) centered on the Summer months.

The trend continued to >300,000 in 2017
This counts “completions” with most taking 30-45 days

To receive the official completion certificate, or Compostela, you need only complete the last 100 kilometers of the Camino Frances. When you arrive in Santiago, they ask whether you walked for religious/spiritual reasons or for other reasons.  If the former, you receive a Latin script Compostela attesting to your accomplishment; if the latter, your certificado is in Spanish. If you wish, for a few Euros you can also receive a certificate of distance which attests to the actual time and distance hiked.

Whatever one’s motivation, one theme among peregrinos is consistent: how well pilgrims treat one another, and how well pilgrims are treated by their Spanish hosts. Out on the camino, people share with and care for each other. The small towns, some of which only survive by association with the camino, provide a warm welcome. Stories abound of services provided or help rendered by anonymous pilgrims to those in need.  Likewise, there are numerous tales of pilgrims finding “no room at the inn” and being taken to stay in local’s homes. There are exceptions, but crime or simple boorish behavior stand out mostly as exceptions to the rule of good behavior.

This is the magic of the camino, and what really brings many pilgrims to come back and walk the camino over and over.

As for me, I am walking in thanksgiving. From early on when my wife Judy and I considered walking the camino, I saw it as a way of saying “thank you” to God for good health, a great family, a satisfying career, and all the other blessings I have received. We’ll spend time every day giving thanks, looking to help others (or maybe accepting help from others–that’s a blessing too) and praying. If you have a prayer request, let me know!

Why not be an expat?

As I pass the first anniversary of life as an expat, I am tempted to review the good and bad aspects of it. If you read my blog, you already know I find the balance tilted to the positive side. However, I have noted several times that expat life is not for everyone. So what are the reasons that would make expat life–especially expat life in Mexico–disagreeable for the average American?

The top reason on my list would be healthcare. It is at the top not because one cannot find quality doctors and hospitals: in Mexico, you can. Rather, it tops the list because healthcare is so critically important to one’s physical and financial well-being that if you have any doubt about your situation in either case (financial- or health-wise), you must question whether you’re expat material. If you don’t have portable health insurance, won’t qualify for another nation’s healthcare, don’t have money to buy insurance locally or in reserve to cover health emergencies, expat life may not be for you.

Likewise, if you have serious health problems, you want to think twice about expat life. Medical culture, like all culture, varies in every country. Figuring out what your doctor really means, regardless of whatever he or she says (and in what language), is difficult enough when you are familiar with the culture. Levels of care vary, not because one system is more or less caring, but because different systems have different views on what is appropriate. Any friction in healthcare is major friction, because it is literally a matter of life or death. Failing health (coupled with an inability to cover escalating costs) is the leading reason expats return home.

Second on the list is family matters. How close and frequent are your relationships with your immediate or extended family? If you live in the same town as your extended family, and you get together several times a week and are always available to one another, you may find expat life to be too disconnecting. One must be very honest about this issue. If I was still working (which would have been necessary were I not an expat), I would be limited in the time I could spend with my grandchildren. Expat life freed up my time, which enables more and better time with them. However, my family has always been all over the map (literally), and even my closest grandchild was a solid hour away from my last home near DC. Here in Mexico, I am a four hour plane ride away from them, but my calendar is clear, so I can drop by pretty easily (like we did over the MLK holiday this year). In the meantime, we skype on a regular basis. I am blessed that my immediate family has few (almost none, really) health or personal issues. If you need that close daily family interaction, or have family members who need your personal attention, expat life may be a bridge too far.

Next would be your flexibility. There are a few hardy souls who thrive in the absence of any routine; you usually see them on adventure TV shows. Most of us need some level of routine, or certainty, to be comfortable.  As an expat, you are inherently out of your comfort zone. Can you adapt to it? It comes in all shapes and sizes: when I go the local Walmart (familiar), they may be no potato chip brands or flavors I recognize.  A left turn signal can mean almost anything. Russet potatoes are difficult to find. You should say “buenos dias” to people you pass on the street, and that changes to “buenos tardes” at noon and “buenas noches” after dark. Shrimp cocktail is a form of cold, spicy soup. Asking for directions is asking for trouble. Butter contains no salt, and there is no caramel. Mañana means sometime.

None of these points is important, but collectively they represent a lot of turbulence. As an expat, there are times when you start to think you are building a routine, and then you’re hit with several changes all at once.  If you aren’t flexible enough to change with such challenges, you may find expat life unsettling.

Someone’s villa grande is just around the bend

How do you feel when you are confronted with abject poverty? Poverty exists side-by-side with wealth in Mexico. Begging is not considered a sign of poor character: some people are just worse off, and they beg to make ends meet. If you go out where there are groups of people (like the market, a shopping center, a soccer match) you will run into people begging, children selling fruit or junk or trinkets, or perhaps a handicapped person offering to wash your car. If you say no, they leave you alone. No one gets angry about their entreaties. If you give them some money, they will be very grateful; around the corner will be more of the same. You have to pick and choose where you drop your coins, and saying no is never fun. If this scene pulls too hard on your heartstrings, maybe you’re not an expat.

Closely related to the poverty issue is, surprisingly, pets (especially in Mexico). I have heard more than one expat lament the way dogs are treated here: some folks become so upset they return home.  Dogs are just a useful appliance here; they are not pets in the North American concept (I rarely even see cats here). One sees roof-dogs which live out in the hot tropical sun with the sole purpose of alerting owners if anyone approaches the property. Street dogs are common, lazing alongside the roads, many limping from a close encounter of the vehicular kind.  Seeing a dog’s body in the road is not at all unusual. As long as a dog performs a useful task, they are given some minimal shelter and food; if they dont, they are set loose. Local governments wait until they get complaints about dog packs, then they set out poison to eliminate the problem. As a lifelong dog owner, it is heartbreaking, but I also realize many Mexicans do not have the resources to spend on pets as luxury items. If sad dog stories are too much for you, you’ll need to toughen up to be an expat.

These are the top five facets of expat life which make it something not everyone can embrace (in my opinion). As an expat, I can attest to the fact that many confront these situations and negotiate them successfully to become expats. Some expats choose to be snowbirds, spending colder months down here and warmer months back home.  This helps address the expat challenges I mentioned, but also adds the cost of maintaining two residences.

As I said at the beginning, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. With more and more baby boomers retiring every day, we are seeing a significant increase in new arrivals lakeside. I hope they are considering the challenges I have discussed above; if not they face more than a little disappointment.

Rules for Social Media

When I first started blogging and reading social media. I was shocked by much of what I saw. I originally wrote this post at that time, but then I shelved it, sensing that maybe my experience was not widely shared. Since that time, things have gotten worse, and I have ample evidence from friends and acquaintances that many feel the same way.  Here is what I wrote:

There is a meme with a long pedigree, going back to at least 1835, that cites the three questions, or three gates, or the rule of three.  Sometimes it is attributed to Socrates, sometimes Buddha or a Sufi mystic, the Quakers or a nineteenth century poet named Beth Day.

Three things to consider before spreading gossip, exchanging info, or even speaking:

  1. Is what you are going to say true, to the best of your ability?
  2. Is what you are going to say good, either good news or something good about another?
  3. Is what you are about to say essential to those who will hear it, and if not essential, at least useful?

A post which fails the first test is a lie or propaganda. One which passes the first and fails the second test is just an unwelcome, inconvenient truth; something which passes the first two but not the third is simply information, if irrelevant. One can see how any post which failed all three tests is malicious gossip, and therefore should not be shared. There is wisdom in applying these rules, especially with respect to information about other people.

I’d like to propose an adaptation of these rules for social media:

  1. Have you verified what you want to post is true? This is a subtle change, but it removes the passive nature of the original with an active requirement. Just because you like it, or saw it in the Times or on a website is NOT good enough.  Newspapers print retractions everyday, and first reports are often proven wrong.  If you cite a media source, have you checked competitors? Did you check Snopes? If your source is partisan, have you sought an opposing view? If you quote someone famous, did you Google it? If it refers to a court decision, did you read the actual finding? Think this is overdoing it? How do YOU like to be on the receiving end of an endless stream of partisan screeds, troll-tweets and fake news? Don’t add to it; be value-added by checking the truth!
  2. If it is true, have you questioned your motives? Ask “why am I posting this?” To antagonize someone? To score a point on the internet scoreboard? Will this cause someone to think, or just react? If the only response you seek is “Wow, you’re right!”, you may be virtue-signalling. If you are, you are also contributing to the social media echo chamber. Just don’t.
  3. It was true, and your intentions are as pure as the driven snow.  Great, now ask yourself “what good will come to those who read this?” Not good for you, mind you. Will they be better educated about an issue? Will they understand some little known aspect or nuance? Will they encounter an unexpected argument or a compelling case? Or it this a tired rehash or a polemic?

That’s it. The internet did not suspend the rules of civilized discourse–it just seems so. Simply because someone (even the President) violates them, that does not mean we abandon them altogether. If you think otherwise, where does it stop? By all means argue for your cause, and oppose hatred and bigotry where you find it, but do so with love and wisdom. The worst abuses have come from those who were certain they were on the right side of history.

Social media needs some rules. It is great for cat & dog pics, news on family, and finding old friends. It is not so good for informed discussion and adult discourse. Let’s make it better.

PS. This post was not directed at any of my good friends or their recent posts. Given the state of social media in general, I could post this ANY time.

Getting Registered

Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to complete some of those little administrative tasks with which we are all familiar, and which are just as important for an expat.

First, I had to renew my car’s registration. This proved fairly easy and cost only $500 MXP ($ 25 USD) since I got a 10% discount for paying right away. Such discounts are common in Mexico, including on things like speeding tickets and property taxes. One small complication with the process was that the Mexican government now demands you provide an RFC # when registering/renewing your car. RFC stands for Registro Federal de Contribuyentes.  It is a way for the government to better track people for tax purposes; you need an RFC for most major transactions (buying/selling cars, houses, etc.).  This is especially important in Mexico, where so much business is done “off the books” to avoid taxes. You can get an RFC number online through a fairly easy process; once you have it, it stays with you as long as you are a resident. I have one last administrative requirement for my automobile: sometime before April, I’ll need to take the car in for an emissions inspection.

Finally, I completed the transition from Residente Temporal to Residente Permanente.  I paid a fee and filled out the documents attesting to my resident address and my retirement income. The last step was to get fingerprinted (again), and now I too (along with my dear wife) have an official green card issued by the Mexican government.  What does it mean? I  never have to update or renew my status–hence the term permanente.  I use the “Mexicanos” lines when entering or leaving the country instead of using the “foreigners” lines. What else? I must pay taxes if I make any income in Mexico (which was always the case, but I won’t be making any income, so whatever). I am eligible for Mexican health care (Seguro Popular or IMSS), and I can apply for a Mexican capital gains tax exemption if I ever sell my casa. I can’t vote here, and I can no longer own a foreign-plated vehicle in Mexico. That’s the deal.

The biggest advantage with Resident Permanente is not having to renew your status or pay anything ever again.  While the Mexican federal government sometimes changes the rules and charges for tourists and temporary residents, it leaves permanentes alone.  Some expats go all the way to getting Mexican citizenship, but as far as I can see that only lets you vote. I’m sick enough of politics in my home country to not want to engage in it here!

A Camino Day (Proposed)

Some of you may be wondering what that 800 kilometer hike across northern Spain will look like. From a geographic perspective, it starts in the Pyrenees mountains, crosses the Basque country and heads into the meseta or Spanish plains, and ends in Galicia. Much of it crosses fertile cropland, including vineyards, with about three mountain ranges. Along the way we’ll pass through numerous small villages along with the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León, and Santiago de Compostela. Some of the way is roadside, some farm trails, some traditional hiking routes. But what does an average day look like? Based on the preparatory research I have done, here is what pilgrims tell me.

The pilgrim’s day starts early, perhaps 6 am, especially if you stay at an albergue or hostel.  Most albergues insist everyone leaves by 8 am so they can clean for the next night’s pilgrims; yes, you can only stay one night in each albergue. Breakfast may be available at or near the albergue, or at least some coffee. Most pilgrims want to get on the road before the heat of the day, and many albergues are first-come, first-served, so there can be a little bit of an Oklahoma landrush in the morning to get an early start. One of the banes of pilgrims in the the albergues is the rustling sound of other pilgrims, which may start as early as 4 am, as they try to get packed and depart.

Tortilla de papas, almost always available
The humble but delicious bocadillo

Whenever the time comes, breakfast is probably continental, such as a pastry with coffee. Lunch is often a sandwich called a bocadillo, which is some form of ham on french bread. Some push lunch back until 1-3 pm, perhaps coinciding with arriving at the next stop’s albergue, but others keep a lunch break around noon. Most pilgrims hope to get in to their next albergue or inn sometime in the afternoon.  After check-in, you find your bed/room, unload, shower and switch into your casual dinner outfit, and wash your hiking gear from that day. Next comes some quiet time to siesta (my favorite), read, catch up on social media, buy some trail food for the next day, or fix any physical issues (blisters?).

Some towns have a pilgrim’s mass at night, and many restaurants will serve a pilgrims menu of three courses (soup/pasta, meat, dessert) and vino de casa for a nominal fee (E10). After socializing with fellow pilgrims, most retire early for the evening. This might mean sleep, but it might not, as the cacophony of snoring, people rustling in their backpacks, and the usual comings-and-goings can make sleep a challenge. Some pilgrims only stay in albergues; others only use hotels and private rooms.

Wake up and do it all over again. For 30-45 days.

Now of course there are the many hours of time spent walking, which can also be an opportunity for prayer, sight-seeing, introspection, or meeting one’s fellow pilgrims. That gets to the “why” of the Camino, and I will return in a future post to answer it.