Tourist Mexico or Real Mexico

 

As I have been talking so much about Mexico, I thought I would take the opportunity discuss the difference between Tourist Mexico and Real Mexico. When most Americans think of Mexico, what they picture is Tourist Mexico. Tourist Mexico comprises the many locations such as Cancun, Cozumel, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallerta and others which were developed specifically to entice cold weather visitors from North America and Europe.  My family has visited Tourist Mexico many times, as have many Americans.  But Tourist Mexico is not Real Mexico.  Tourist Mexico is to Real Mexico as Disney World is to the United States. Disney World is a fun place to visit, but if a foreign visitor thought it was America, they would be shocked when they got to Detroit, or Austin, or Peoria.

The place where Judy and I live is not Tourist Mexico. If you lived in those locations (say, Playa del Carmen) your life might be more like tourist Mexico then real Mexico.  Let’s see what the differences are:

Cuisine

Mexican cuisine is quite varied, with each region having specialties.  Mexican cuisine and French cuisine are the only two cuisines recognized by UNESCO as unique cultural heritages for the entire world. However, when you are in Tourist Mexico, you will most likely find a version of Tex-Mex, the food that passes generically for Mexican food north of the border.  It is more Texas than Tejas: heavy on spicy sauces, lots of beef, thick cheese. Burritos on the menu are a dead giveaway.  The emphasis is on quantity. Real Mexican cuisine tends more toward beans, queso fresco, fresh vegetables, and homemade tortillas.  If there is meat, its often chicken or pork, or whole fish. The emphasis is on quality and freshness. Tourist Mexico may serve up fresh ingredients, too, and if you look beyond the tourist menu, you can find authentic dishes.

Climate

Tourist Mexico has some of the best beach weather on the planet.  Its real, its tropical, and its magnificent.  Warm sun, soft sand: exactly what so many tourists come to experience.  Yet Real Mexico has an incredibly varied climate.  The Sierra Madre ranges runs the length of the country, providing wonderful vistas and active volcanos! There are extensive deserts, tropical rain forests, a Mediterranean coastal climate, and high temperate plateaus (like the one I live on). If you want the big city, Guadalajara checks in at over 4 million, and Mexico City at a whopping 21 million (biggest in the western hemisphere).

People

Here is where you will see the least change between Tourist Mexico and Real Mexico.  What every visitor notices is just how friendly the Mexican people are. Now you would think the Mexican people working in tourist resorts are paid to be friendly, but the amazing thing is they would be that friendly anyway!  Real Mexico is a lot like small town America 50 years ago: people greet each other on the street, and if someone needs help, someone else will offer it. Nearly all expats living in Real Mexico have a story of how some Mexican went way out of their way to be helpful.

Money

Depending on where you’re from, you might find Tourist Mexico to be much less expensive than home; even if you come from a less expensive place in the States, you’ll probably notice some deals just because of the dollar-peso exchange rate.  Here’s the good news: Real Mexico is way less expensive than Tourist Mexico. In those areas where Tourists frequent, you will be able to use credit cards or dollars for your purchases, but you’ll get a poor exchange rate (consider it a convenience fee).  In Real Mexico, many stores and restaurants do not accept credit cards, and cash business is in Pesos only.  But the prices are often ridiculously low, especially for the labor involved in any product.

Culture

One last, big, area of difference.  Tourist Mexico has evolved to handle Gringo culture.  Things are done faster, portions are larger, deals are Gigante!  Real Mexico is very different: things are slower, and manana culture (“tomorrow, if ever”) prevails.  Portions are normal, and while bartering is a possibility, you don’t take advantage of the seller, because they too are making a living.

In Real Mexico:

A religious parade might break out at any time…
horses merge with horsepower (she just put away her smartphone, btw)

And in Tourist Mexico:

Are those golden arches? Look closely and you might see some Spanish!
Always more FOR SALE, but beware the HECHO EN CHINA label

I am not criticizing Tourist Mexico, just suggesting that if you only know Tourist Mexico, you should give Real Mexico a try.  And yes, those are my pale feet on the beach in Tourist Mexico:

I never said I didn’t like it!

Home, Sweet Casa

We woke up quite refreshed from our first day’s drive in Mexico and feeling pretty good about ourselves.  Yes, we only had intermittent Waze access, but Google maps seemed to work ok and coincided with the written instructions we had from other expats, and the drive was uneventful.  We had a great breakfast at the hotel, and only about six hours of driving to “home”…or so we thought.

Fitting Last Meal, no?

Leaving Matehuala, all we had to do we re-enter the highway, drive south by southwest around the towns of San Luis Potosi and Lagos de Moreno, and we would soon be on the Macrolibramento (Outer Beltway) around Guadalajara and home to Ajijic. Since the previous day went so well, I let my guard down and as we approached the first bypass for San Luis Potosi, where we had to make a decision.  Google maps showed us going around to the north, but our written instructions were very clear: take the southern bypass labelled “Guadalajara.”  We came upon the exit at speed (about 80 kmh) and I said to my navigator (Judy), “I’m going with the digital directions; at least they are ‘live.'” With that we headed along the northern route. I thought about the line from the Steely Dan song “My Old School,” “Ohhh, no, Guadalajara won’t do!”

At first, we seemed to be on another bypass, and I thought, “hey that worked out well.”  But next we were on an a I-395-like highway right through the middle of SLP.  Still not too bad, and we cleared the city with only about 30 extra minutes of drive time.  Then we found the road changing from an divided highway down to a four lane local street and

Long way down

finally a two lane country road. Better still, one side of the road was a cliff straight up, and the other (our side) a cliff straight down.  The Mexicans say “Vaya Con Dios” or “Go with God,” and they mean it, because there was no shoulder and no guardrail.  Even my dog stood up in his tiny back seat space and began to pant in my ear.

“Umm, Dad, is this the right way?”

The road swerved along a series of ridges for 30 kilometers or so; in many places the switchbacks were so severe you were headed back in the opposite direction every hundred meters. We survived it and breathed a sigh of relief when we finally rejoined the Cuota (toll road) to which the other bypass lead. Now we were an hour behind schedule.

I committed to following the written instructions, and luckily Waze began working and confirmed our choices. We made it around Lagos de Moreno and headed onto a Carretera (main highway) toward Guadalajara.  We had about 150 kilometers of high desert plateau to drive through, straight as an arrow and no towns, so it seemed like we could set the cruise control and “go.”  But we had another Mexican moment coming: all of a sudden, all the traffic on our side of the four lane, divided highway was collapsing into the single, left lane.  Up ahead, we came upon a car with flashing emergency lights driving slowly in the right lane, and then we passed a group of bicyclists following a flatbed truck with a religious shrine to the Virgin Mary on display in the back.

What the %(#*@?
Bike Pilgrims, of course!

Seems today was the day of a bicycle pilgrimage south of Lagos de Moreno, and every mile or so for the next hour, we passed another set of pilgrims gamely riding bicycles up and down the same mountain road we were driving. Only in Mexico.

This too passed and we were finally approaching Guadalajara’s outer beltway, which is a toll road and still under construction. We started down our exit and came to a small toll booth. As we pulled up, I asked the young lady “Cuando?” (how much) but she responded with a “no” and a stream of Espanol that immediately exceeded my limited capabilities.  So we sat there at the exit, with a restraining arm between us and the road home, and looked at one another and thought, “what now?” Judy asked if the the girl spoke English, but no, she didn’t.  Luckily, no one was behind us, but we were stuck.  The girl spoke again, and Judy heard “Chapala” and correctly guessed she was asking us where we were going.  We cheerily shouted “Lake Chapala” and like a magic password, she raised the arm and let us through. Why does the Mexican government pay to have someone asking people where they are going on a limited access, toll road?  Quien sabe?!

We left the toll road, drove up the pass over Sierra San Juan Cosala and arrived at our house, 90 minutes behind schedule. Bu then again, what’s a schedule? “Schedule, we don’t need no stinking schedule.”

 

 

 

Crossing that border (when I come to it)

The actual move process began on Friday, January 27th, when my dear wife and I had our appointments with the Mexican consulate in Washington DC to apply for our visas.  You say you’ve never had to get a visa to visit Mexico? Well let me explain.

Mexico has three different kinds of visitor visas.  The first and easiest is Tourist, which allows you to stay in Mexico for up to 180 days, and its approval is automatic for US citizens.  You do pay a small fee (I think around $35 USD) which is included in the price of your airfare or cruise cost if you travel either of those ways.  The second is Temporal, which is designed for longer stays (1-4 years), costs around $170 USD, and requires you to show some form of secure resources (income or investments).  The third is Permanente, which costs around $250 USD and requires proof of even greater financial resources.

I was applying for Temporal and Judy for Permanente for reasons of the different rights which apply to each.  We had read horror stories from current expats who told of Mexican officials refusing to grant status “just because” or asking detailed questions and requiring extra proof. Well, the DC consulate was not at all like that.  We arrived early for our “appointments” and there was no one else there. The young

Anna, very helpful at the DC consulate

lady behind the counter glanced at our paperwork, took it, told us to have a seat and we’d be done shortly! We had to be photographed, fingerprinted, and pay a small application fee, but we were both out of the building in under 30 minutes with our approval to cross the border.

Stuffed FJ

On Saturday we started a round of goodbyes with friends and family, and then packed out the FJ.  As it turns out, we still had about one and a quarter FJ loads, but only one FJ.  We hastily repacked, decided on what we could leave behind until we come back to the States next August, and tried to get some sleep.

Come 6:00 AM on Sunday the 29th, we gunned the FJ down the southwest route via Chattanooga to Tuscaloosa, Alabama for our first night. We experienced heavy fog and light snow, maybe for the last time. We continued a torrid highway pace via Baton Rouge to stay the second night in San Antonio, Texas.

Day three (Tuesday) was the big enchilada: get up early and drive to cross the border at Nuevo Laredo. Just as we crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande, our Waze app conked out.  Waze is absolutely the best way to get directions and real time traffic info, and we really needed it as we crossed the border because we had to go to a specific building and get our visa stamped and find out if our car was approved for entry. Lucky for us, the Mexican government must have gotten tired of gringos wandering around Nuevo Laredo lost, for there were good signs leading us straight to the admin building.

The parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived at 10:30.  We had no lines and no trouble as we got our visas stamped, paid an entry fee, and got TIP approval to (finally) bring the FJ into Mexico.  All very smooth. We left the building and headed on the bypass around Nuevo Laredo, knowing there was one more customs stop about 20 kms down the road.  This too proved to be nothing more than a large facility where all traffic was routed into a single lane, passing by a bored-looking young man in a booth waving us on!

So all that worry about the car’s paperwork, the dog’s paperwork, our paperwork: for naught.  We rolled on through the Mexican countryside on their Cuota (toll roads) to the small town of Matehuala, where we had hotel reservations for the night.  As Judy & I sat down (with our dog at our feet) for dinner at the hotel restaurant, we knew how Andy Dufresne must have felt when he saw Zihuatanejo!

“We’re not in Kansas anymore”

Hiccups

In rereading the last several posts, I don’t want to engage in rose-colored glasses history. There were several times things went wrong along the way, and could have derailed the whole process. Here are a few of those, to even out the story.

My employer, the US Government, required me to report all my dealings with foreigners. It never occurred to me this might include buying a foreign property.  I had already put the money down on the house before asking for permission.  So I submitted the request, said a prayer, and it came back approved. Similarly, I changed property managers and failed to notice my new manager was Canadian (who asks such questions, right?), so I had to go back and make another official report on that, too.

About two and a half years out, I wondered why my dear wife Judy wasn’t starting to sort things out so we could sell our townhouse and move to an apartment.  Finally, I sat down and asked her about it point blank; she indicated she knew it had to get done, but it was emotionally too hard to start, so she kept putting it off. It was difficult to sort through a life’s collection of stuff, and preparing to move is never easy.  That set us back about six months, and we ended up dealing with simultaneous rent and mortgage payments for several months, so we could get our house sold and get exactly the apartment we wanted.

About a year out, as I surveyed what we wanted to bring/ship to Mexico, I got the bright idea to do a trial run to Lake Chapala and take a load down in my Toyota FJ truck. I thought it would be a good practice trip, and give us an extra load of carrying capacity for the overall move.  Now if you’re driving your car more than about 25 miles over the Mexican border, the Mexican government requires you to get a visa for your automobile.  It costs about $400 US dollars, and you are reimbursed this cost when you drive back into the US.  In effect, the payment is a bond to ensure you don’t take your car to Mexico and sell it there. [It all goes back to NAFTA.  Americans will recall the “giant sucking sound” people in the US were afraid of: that US jobs would go to Mexico (many did!).  Mexico was worried that entrepreneurial Americans would start driving their cars across the border and swamp the Mexican auto sales market, so they put this restriction in place.] You can get this visa, known as TIP for Temporary Importation Permit, when you cross the border, or you can apply online. Trying to save time, I dutifully went to the online site and applied for my visa in advance, and I received it in the mail a few weeks later. It all went so smoothly, I should have sensed trouble!

You see my employer, the US Government, decided it was too dangerous for any federal employees to drive across the border, so they disapproved my trip. I was irritated, but it was only a practice run and single carload, so who cares?  But what do I do about my auto visa?   I looked online, and the websites were unclear about what to do. It was still two months before I was supposed to travel, so I figured I would send the visa back to the office which issued it and ask for a refund.  They responded a month later with a very nice, very long letter full of the most untranslatable Spanish bureaucratese.  After much Google translate review, I determined that they insisted I had to prove my car was not already in Mexico. You see, in their minds, I could have already driven the car to Mexico and sold it!  I could prove I did not do so by presenting my car at the border for them to inspect, or by sending them a notarized, apostilled letter from my local police department.

Meanwhile, my dear wife had found an online form to request a TIP cancellation, so I tried sending it along with a copy of my current car registration; I figured, well, it’s a government document, it shows my car is in the US, and I had it both notarized and apostilled. Most people know what a notary does, but may be unfamiliar with apostille.  It serves as a second check of authenticity, and is recognized outside of a given country.  In my case, the Commonwealth government in Richmond had to apostille my notarized documents. By the way, explaining to a notary what this was all about was entertaining to say the least. I guess the Commonwealth office was used to it by now, because I just mailed them the material and they returned it to me.  

About another month went by, and I received a second long letter full of references to Mexican Federal law and explaining why my attempt to send them my registration was insufficient. I was NOT driving to the border and crossing it just to turn around and drive back: that would have cost more than the 400 dollars I was trying to recoup.  But the second letter had a surprise in it: they also mentioned that if I did not resolve this matter to their satisfaction, they would place my car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, on their list to prohibit me from ever bringing it into Mexico.  AGHH! My car was now in danger of being placed on the Mexican automobile equivalent of the TSA No Fly list! I wonder if the list is called “No-Va”?

Anyway, being as how this was the SUV I planned to use for our one-load move to Mexico, things had gotten very serious, very fast. I contacted the Arlington County Police’s public outreach office and scheduled an appointment.  A very polite Sergeant agreed to meet with me, and I told her my sad tale of woe.  As I recounted the various letters, notaries, apostilles and Google translations, I could almost hear Arlo Guthrie describing the “27, 8×10, color glossy photos full of circles and arrows with a paragraph on the back of each one” from the classic tune “Alice’s Restaurant.”  Luckily, there was no Officer Obee in sight, and the Sergeant dashed off and signed a letter testifying that on that date, my car was safely in the good ole US of A.  After the customary notarization and apostille, I fired another volley off to Mexico City.  

Several months past, and I received a large envelope from the Distrito Federal, or DF, which was the name of the Mexican Capital region much as the District of Columbia is for the US (they just changed the name to La Ciudad de Mexico, or CDMX). In it was another bureaucratic masterpiece, which took two pages to say “OK.”  Attached was a quite stunning, multi-color Cancelation document which dwarfed the original TIP.  Included in the letter was a warning that whenever I tried to enter Mexico with my FJ in the future, I would have to show this document to prove my car was not ‘on the list.’

I never found any reference to a rebate, and friends have since told me there is a separate process to get the money back: I will probably just consider it a donation to the bureaucratic gods. How will the story end?  Will my car be confiscated and sent to Guantanamo? Will I transfer my carload to donkey and set out across the Sierra Madre? I will let you know in my next post.

My alternative?

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.”

“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.