Feria Maestros del Arte

Last weekend we attended the 16th annual Feria, a festival where artists from across Mexico are invited to Chapala, our neighboring town and political seat, to demonstrate their wares. The effort was begun by expats, and is pulled off by over 200 volunteers, who set up the tents, organize and staff the event.  The invited artists stay with volunteers, and otherwise pay nothing for the opportunity. Crowds come from all over Jalisco and other Mexican states.

The key to the even is the authenticity and the expertise of the artists.  Whether they work in leather or stone, textiles or clay, jewelry or wall art, they are chosen because they represent local artistic traditions, done in a classical sense. No chance you’ll run into a “Made in China” label or a mass-market imitation. Each artist sets up a small display where they can sell their efforts, on the grounds of the yacht club in Chapala.  There is an entrance fee which defers the administrative costs. Here’s a triptych from inside the event:

What most amazed us was the craftsmanship of the work. The art pieces we encountered were obviously the work of tens to hundreds of hours of work, and lovingly completed by artists dedicated to their craft.

Two señoras and a Méxica warrior

We bought some figurines, to which we will add some ballast so they can serve as door stops. We find that the airflow is so good through the casa that our doors are constantly slamming shut with the breeze, unless we doorstop them. We found a nice small basket we needed for use at the parish, and a copper pot which serves as a container for our wooden spoons. Finally, w gave in to the calavera tradition and purchased a small, ornamental skull, which was just too attractive to pass up.

Copper pot…
and basket









My favorite has to be this calavera, which just screams “Mexico!”:

A trip to the dentist

I can’t imagine anything less blog-worthy than a trip to the dentist, but then again, dental care is yet another topic of interest to the prospective expat, and one where the advantages of expat life loom large.

Seems very familiar

By our experience, much of the dental care provided in Mexico is similar to that in the States. There are dentists with small private practices and dental clinics with multiple dentists and hygienists. You make an appointment, see your dentist, and pay when you leave. The Mexican dentists we encountered spoke English, as did most of the administrative staff. A dental exam was free, while a cleaning ran about 200 pesos ($11 USD).

We’ve been to two local dentists. One did the exam and cleaning together, at the other they were considered separate items (you had to schedule the cleaning, too). They both had the same equipment as we experienced north of the border: ultrasonic cleaning, whitening, composite fillings, modern pain management treatments. Judy went in for a crown, and they completed the entire installation in one day, as they had a 3D printer available to make the crowns in the clinic.

Some hi-tech gadget…
that creates the 3D image of the crown work


I went in for a series of small cavities/fillings. The only different technique I encountered with Doctor Rodrigo was a dental dam, which he used to isolate the teeth while working on them.  This was new to me, but when I researched it, I found it was a technique invented in the US … in 1864!

The quality of the dental work was the same as in the States; the big difference was the cost. Judy’s crown was $3900 MXP ($205 USD), while my fillings were $440 MXP ($23 USD) each.  You can see why some Americans who live close to the border go to Mexico for their dental care, and why some expats have kids or grandkids who come to visit and get braces, teeth whitening, etc.

NOB or here in Mexico, there is one thing all visits to the dentist have in common: pain! No one has solved that challenge, yet.

Dia de Muertos

Few things put the differences in culture between the United States and Mexico in such stark relief as the contrast between Halloween and the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos). Both have a lineage to the Christian practice of praying for the dead, which dates back to the earliest days of the Church, but have evolved in such different directions as to make them unrecognizable.

Halloween in the States has mostly lost its religious ties. It is a single evening, October 31st. When I was a child, it had already become primarily a children’s holiday involving simple costumes (got a sheet? you’re a ghost), candy (please no fruit!), and sometimes mild anti-social behavior (I swear I have no idea how those pumpkins got smashed, Dad). It remains a children’s holiday today, along with neighbors banding together to put on elaborate haunted house displays and even displaying Halloween lights. But now it is also an adult holiday with big parties and extreme costumes venturing from the risque to the offensive. Some have suggested that the original Halloween was a Christian rip-off of the Celtic Samhain celebration, a harvest/new year event on November 1st. While this is unlikely (the date for the Christian holy day came from Germany, not Ireland), it is uncanny how comfortable a pagan Celt would be out for a night of American Halloween.

Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, has fully retained its original religious significance and developed its own festive spirit. I must admit that watching the festivities from the outside, I was struck by the unusual art, altars, and rituals. What’s with all the skeletons? Food for the dead? Candy skulls? It all seemed more Mexica (you know them as the Aztecs) than Christian.

While the Mexica peoples–like all ancient cultures–had festivals to honor the dead, most of what we see today is imported from the Spanish and then translated by modern Mexico to its own culture. The Spaniards introduced the Christian holy days for the departed to Mexico. November 1st is Dia de los Inocentes/Angelitos, dedicated to little children who have died; November 2nd is the Day of the Dead, where deceased family

An elaborate ofrenda

members are remembered and honored.  Families go to the Panteón (cemetery) and attend to the grave, sharing a meal of the loved one’s favorite snacks or leaving behind mementos of things they liked. Families will often also build an altar (ofrenda) at home or on their street with the same artifacts. Marigolds are often used as decoration. The notion is that the deceased come in spirit and visit with the living, enjoying those things they enjoyed in life.

The entire cemetery is decorated

Treats, photos, and a calavera

What about the skeletons? They do trace back to Mexica culture, and a general view of death as inevitable and something to mock, certainly not fear. Skeletons come in two sorts: calaveras and catrinas. Calaveras are fake skulls, often brightly painted or decorated, representing the dearly departed.  They can be edible–sugar and chocolate are popular–or made of durable materials like clay. In the 19th century, literary calaveras appeared; they are humorous poems about the living (especially the famous or politicians) reminding them they will one day be dead, like everyone else.

Another recent addition to the celebration started in the early 20th century. The famous Mexican lithographer José Guadalupe Posada made a print of a full length skeleton dressed in then-modern European finery, meant to mock wealthy Mexicans who put on airs. He called his skeleton the Calavera Catrina, and variations of his work have become synonymous with Dia de Muertos.

Catrinas of all types

So we heard no doorbells on Tuesday evening, but on Wednesday and Thursday we did see a procession to the Panteón, some altars, and many Mexicans fondly remembering their departed loved ones. In case you are wondering, the Mexicans we met welcomed us to take pictures, as they were quite proud of their efforts!

Feliz Dia de Muertos!

Back to the Villa

We made it back to the Villa Infantil, which I covered in an earlier post. The event was the October birthday bash, which honored three children ages 2, 3, and 3. This time, we got a better chance to play t-ball with the kids before lunch. I was amazed at how well these  kids throw and hit the wiffle ball, given that futbol (aka soccer) is the primary sport here. I did spot one dead giveaway: one of the the boys threw the wiffle ball right toward an older girl, who wasn’t watching. At the last minute, she looked up, saw the wiffle ball coming toward her head, then calmly stepped to the side, caught it with the top of her foot, and dropped it to the ground beside her. Only in Mexico!

Live action shot; since they hit the tee pretty well, we went with slow pitch

The birthday kids were so young, they weren’t quite sure what was going on; little Jorge (or was that Cristofer?) sat in Sister’s lap all during the cake and birthday song, looking like he feared for his life.  The bag of birthday presents brought out a big smile!

What happens next?
Mr. Potato head, always welcome!

Lunch was delicious chicken tacos with a side of carrot salad, before tres leches cake (delicious!).

Of course I asked for seconds

Andrea loved her new doll and baby carriage.

I took some panoramic shots of the villa, so you could see more of the well-kept grounds where the children and Sisters live. Once again, a few hours of nothing but happiness and fun. We get back so much more than we give!

Preparing for The Way

One blessing available in retirement is the ability to indulge new hobbies or interests. My wife and I wanted to travel, find a way to exercise together, and engage our interest in religious study and practice. A few years back, we ran across the Martin Sheen movie “The Way,” which introduced us to a concept which combined all three: the Camino de Santiago.

For those unfamiliar, the Camino (literally, “Way”) is an ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain, leading 800 kilometers (~500 miles) from the French border to the town of Santiago de Compostela. This route is also known as the Camino Frances or French Way, and it represents the final leg of many other pilgrim routes that led from all over Europe, all ending in either Rome or Santiago. The reason for a religious pilgrimage to Rome is obvious, but Santiago may seem an unlikely choice. Legend holds that the town was founded after the miraculous discovery of the bones of Saint James the Apostle in farm field under a starry sky (James being Iago in Spanish, with compo for field and stela for stars, hence Santiago de Compostela).

Pilgrimages in Spain started during the 9th century, then spread across Europe in the 11th century. Pilgrims carried only their clothes and bare necessities, and offered prayers and penance along the Way. Villages along the Way provided hospitality (literally hospitals) where pilgrims were given food, water, and shelter for free or a small donation. The number of pilgrims waxes and wanes, but over the last 30 years the numbers have exploded to over a quarter million every year! While the largest number of pilgrims walk the Way for religious reasons, it has become popular for exercise, dealing with a mid-life or personal crisis, or to get back to nature.

Judy & I will be making our pilgrimage next Spring. We’ll walk between 10-15 miles each day, eating local foods, carrying a backpack and staying at a variety of different pilgrim accommodations. While we were in the States recently, we went to REI and got fitted out in all the right gear, and got briefed by our good friends Caryn and Mary, who completed a pilgrimage this year.

Pack, poles, hat, shoes

Gear is incredibly important: when hiking such long distances “ounces are pounds, and pounds are pain” as the saying goes. Unlike camping, where durability is key, weight is all important on the Camino. The rule of thumb is to carry no more than 10% of your body weight, and that includes your pack, clothes, food, and water. So we bought ultra-lightweight gear. We have personally-fitted packs and hiking shoes one size too large (because your feet swell when you walk day after day after day). Among the secrets we’re learning are the wonders of merino wool socks (not hot, very cushiony), silk sock liners (prevent blisters), wicking clothes (wear one set, carry the other), and how to use hiking poles (very important when going downhill).

We have started training lakeside, where we have the advantage of already being over 5200 ft in elevation, which is higher than almost any spot on the Camino. This should give us an oxygen advantage, much like that you hear broadcasters talk about when sports teams travel to Denver. We’re up to about 9 miles a day with packs, sometimes along a flat route and sometimes with some elevation gain. We will gradually add elevation and back-to-back hiking days.

I’ll provide regular updates as we train, and expect to keep the blog up-to-date during our actual hike across Spain. Buen Camino!

Judy modeling her gear

I don’t think that word means what you think it means

So we’re safely back lakeside after our six week adventure NOB. In relaying to our many friends and family how we are doing down here, I often referred to how many Gringos there are lakeside, compared to the Mexican population. I noticed that several people winced when I used that word, as they perhaps had been led to believe it is a slur.

Then I noticed a Facebook discussion about the term Gringo, which repeated the contention it is a slur for Americans, and also dredged up several stories about how the term came to be.

Well, you know me and words, and if you don’t, just drop a “fulsome” or “impact” in conversation the next time you see me, then stand back when I go off. So let’s do some etymological research, shall we?

The common story about the term Gringo tells you it is a specific slur against Americans, evidenced by the signage “Gringo go home” which popped up in several Latin Americans countries in the 20th century, as the US intervened in them. This derivation ties the term to the US invasion of Mexico during the war of 1846-48. One version cites that the US troops wore green, and Mexicans yelled after them “Green go home” which became Gringo. This version fails for the simple reason the US Army wore blue, not green. A second explanation cites that US troops sang a popular song entitled “Green grow the lilacs” (note: there are several other such songs which make the same claim) as they marched through Mexico. Mexicans heard this and started referring to the invading troops as Grin-gros, but could not pronounce the second “r” so it became gringo. While Americans have trouble rolling an “r” as sometimes required in Spanish, Mexicans do not. Furthermore, there is no evidence the US Army used that song as a marching tune at the time. It was popular during the US civil war a few years later, but not during the war with Mexico. Both of these versions share the basis of the term with animosity toward the United States as an invading power, which aligns neatly with those 1950/60/70/80s signs I mentioned.

If these popular stories don’t stand up to scrutiny, what is the origin of the term? Most likely, you already know the answer, you just don’t realize that you know the answer. There is a phrase common to almost all western languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, etc.), a phrase we all use when we hear or see something we simply can not understand. Guessed it yet? How about “It’s all greek to me!”

A variation of this phrase exists in all those languages, and it is meant to convey incomprehensibility. Why? We have the Romans to thank for it. The common language of Rome was Latin, but educated Romans learned Greek and used it to signal their status. Greek is a fairly simple language, but it uses a different alphabet, which renders it especially challenging to the non-speaker. Many Romans who spoke only Latin could still run into Greek texts or speech, and be flummoxed by it, leading to the phrase “it’s all Greek to me.”

But wait, what does this have to do with Gringo, and where’s the proof? In etymology, hard proof is difficult to come by. But the corresponding phrase in Spanish is “hablar en greigo” which is literally “to speak in Greek” and means to be incomprehensible. And there is a Spanish Dictionary published in 1786 which cites the term “gringo” as used for foreigners who have difficulty speaking or understanding Spanish. There are several other citations for the same meaning of the term from the mid 19th century, none of which deal directly with Americans. While Americans started noticing be called Gringos after the war with Mexico, that was probably because they were encountering an existing term, not something created especially for them.

So the obvious and more recent usage of Gringo as an anti-American slur is not the full story.  Sure, someone could use it that way. My Spanish teacher here at lakeside put it this way: “in Mexico, its not the words you say, its how you say them.” She went on to add that Mexicans aren’t as hung up on formal Spanish, they like to use nicknames and diminutives (like the suffix -ita/ito), and they frequently say “please” (por favor). So if you want to call someone a Gringo, just make sure you’re smiling when you say it!

A Matter of Faith

The final leg of our Great American Road Trip included visits to New Hampshire and Maryland.  The former was for the ordination of my brother-in-law as a Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church; the latter for my niece’s Bat Mitzvah.

Newly-minted Deacon Rick Hilton, welcomed by the Bishop

The juxtaposition of these two family events got me to thinking about one thing you bring with you as an expat: your faith. As the famous philosopher Buckaroo Banzai once said, “wherever you go, there you are.” In the context of being an American expat, you bring your faith with you to the new environment, and it will almost certainly be an environment very different from the States.

Take Mexico, for example.  Mexico is an overwhelmingly Catholic country: 91% Catholic according to the 2010 census, making Mexico second only to Brazil worldwide for numbers of Catholics. Every Mexican town has a Catholic church in the main square, and that church is the center of town life. The festival for that church’s patron saint is a major party, and other saints have similar festivals which involve early morning bands, parades, parties, and day or week-long fireworks. Some churches broadcast daily prayers, like a rosary, over loudspeakers for the whole town to enjoy. So Mexico is noisily Catholic.

While Catholicism is prevalent in Mexico, it is not overwhelming. There are growing numbers of younger Mexicans who are culturally Catholic, but whose beliefs and practices more closely resemble the “Nones” NOB. The missing nine percent from the 2010 census belong to a variety of other Christian churches, which have proselytized in Mexico for years.  Most importantly, the Catholic church in Mexico has had a contentious relationship with the federal government in Mexico City, going all the way back to the Mexican War of Reform (1857-1860). During the revolution in the early 2oth century, the Church opposed the socialist groups which consolidated power, and the eventual winner, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) returned the favor by expropriating Church property and outlawing public displays of religion. By the 1920s, this led to the Cristeros rebellion, which was especially brutal. After this inconclusive conflict, both sides remained combative, but over time a gradual truce developed where the Church was left alone as long as it stayed out of politics. So Catholicism in Mexico may sometimes be out of sight, but rarely out of mind. Learning all this was quite enlightening to this Irish Catholic, and put the culture wars NOB in a different perspective, since the culture wars down in Mexico were real wars!

When choosing where to live as an expat, you’ll need to consider how your faith will fit in with your new country. Lakeside is unique for Mexico in terms of the number and diversity of faith offerings for expats. Having a faith community to welcome you can be a big boost psychologically, and can provide important assistance during the critical early transition period. Likewise, not understanding local religious practices can lead to a rocky start. I have heard more than one expat complain about the noisy Mexican patronal saint celebrations, expressing surprise at something that happens every year on the same date, usually with a big build-up in the weeks preceding!

Especially for Americans accustomed to faith being a personal or private matter, it can be a challenge adapting to other cultures where faith is something very public and shared! Not insurmountable, but still one more thing to consider in deciding to go the expat route.

A video with a side of politics

While we continue our travels across the US (currently in New Hampshire), we try to keep up with news from back home in Mexico. Judy found this embedded video on FaceBook. It is from some media source called CGTN America, of which I have never heard, but it captures some of the different aspects of life around Lake Chapala. It is 16 minutes long, but worth the watch.

What I think is unfair in the video are the several mentions of Americans arriving in Mexico because they disagree with the state of politics in the States. I don’t doubt some expats move abroad for such reasons, but if you are running from something rather than toward something, your expat experience is far likelier to fail.

The bottom line is there are, according to the US government, 10,000 baby-boomers retiring every day for the next 20 years! Most real estate markets in the States have recovered from the real estate bubble many years back, so retirees who need to sell their homes to pay for a retirement place can now do so. Mexico remains close at hand, inexpensive, and fairly welcoming. Thus we’ll see a continuing stream of newbies trying out the expat lifestyle.

Visiting the Shrine

When we still lived in the States, we made an annual visit to South Bend, Indiana, where the majority of my relatives live. I often described these visits as a “pilgrimage to the shrine,” since we always stopped at the University of Note Dame to take in the beautiful campus, tour the athletic facilities, and buy fan memorabilia at the bookstore.

On one hand, my fanatic support for the Fighting Irish (Notre Dame’s football team) is easily explained. I grew up in the 1960/70’s when the team was dominant, I lived about 3 miles (as the Leprechaun flies) from the Golden Dome, I was Irish Catholic by background, and the local nuns taught us to root for “our team.” Being a Notre Dame fan was an essential, positive part of my childhood.

Well, the connection went deeper than the obvious links. Being a Notre Dame fan was part of rooting for the underdog who overcomes the odds, backing the side that does things the right way, being part of some shared belief in good triumphing over evil.  Even when “the breaks went against the boys” in Rockne’s immortalized line, that too was a lesson that sometimes even Good comes up short.

But we all grow up, and leave behind childish things, don’t we? Yes, I went off to school and the Army, marriage and children, career and travel. I realized that other teams weren’t always evil, and some of the Irish players I formerly idolized were, shall we say, a wee bit unsavory. I ran into opposing fans who could not understand my devotion to a school I never attended, or harbored some deep resentment at a loss to the Irish. I even had to get used to not winning all the time, which seemed as remote a possibility as the actor who played the Gipper becoming President. While my passion for the Irish waxed and waned over the decades, it never failed to gel come late August, building to a fever pitch by the end of November.

So I find myself back on campus this year, but the feeling is very different. I muster little excitement for the impending season. The team is talented but underperforming, unable to put-away inferior opponents and easily overmatched by those more talented. The coach has the remarkable ability to turn purple at critical moments, and is unequaled at sharing the blame with others. The program is under the cloud of an academic cheating scandal. The stadium is ever-larger,

What’s that growth on the stadium?

as if size really did matter. Classroom and leisure facilities are built onto the stadium on three sides, ostensibly connoting a commitment to academics merged with athletics, but instead literally propping up the luxury suites. The overall architectural effect recalls a Communist planner given too many monuments and not enough plaza. The field is synthetic, since grass is apparently a non-native species in northern Indiana. A Jumbotron hovers over the House that Rockne Built; I am sure it will instruct Irish fans when to “get loud.”  Piped in inspirational music and smoke effects complete the scene. It looks like every other Ginormous State University stadium … except it isn’t.

The stadium does look good on the inside, but how long before they are hawking used cars on the ‘Tron?

Which is the point, after all. Change is inevitable, but the changes need to be consistent with something original, something organic, something profound. Notre Dame today presents an updated, Disneyfied college football experience. The emphasis is on appearances, which do not amplify an underlying reality so much as merchandize an existing, fading brand.

Concession tables set up inside the luxury boxes

Don’t get me wrong: I will always be a fan.  I will watch games this year, and probably get way-too-involved. But it is much harder to be passionate about a performance by the University of Notre Disney Competitive Generics. Just give me back the Fighting Irish.

The luxury suites rival Touchdown Jesus, which is never a good idea. How did that tower in Babel turn out?

Friends & Family

If you are going to live the expat life, you’ll be away from family and friends for months at a time. This is one of the negative aspects, but it also means you’ll on occasion travel back to visit. We are on one of those visits right now, after six months setting up our casa in Mexico. Is there anything better than seeing old friends, or getting together with your family, especially your grandkids?

The BrewDogs strike a pose

We recently spent a long weekend renewing friendships at a small reunion with my old “college classmates”. I use that term only the your familiarity, because I did not go to college, I went to West Point, which has a passing similarity to college, in the same way that a Sunday drive in the country is similar to the Indy 500. I like to say we did not matriculate, we were institutionalized.  Anyway, the Long Gray Line has a way of instilling lifelong friendships, so it was great to get together and share stories, learn of life’s twists and turns, and just talk. Because of our shared experiences, we all feel very comfortable around each other and easily fall back into an openness which belies the years apart.

Tunnels & Hills aplenty

As enjoyable as old, lifelong friends can be, nothing bests family, especially grandkids. Lately I have spent mornings constructing an awesome rollercoaster, taking a canoe trip down the Little Miami river, and having an epic water gun fight, all with my oldest grandson, Ian.

It is a simple joy, but simple pleasures are most often the best. It is hard to pack missed months together into a week or two, but we plan to take advantage of our newfound leisure time to visit more frequently. We are blessed in that Ian’s other set of grandparents live nearby, so even if we miss him, he does not lack for grandparental attention!

Next up, a mini-family reunion and a visit to “the Shrine.”