Semana Santa

Holy Week, as it is known NOB, is a whole different enchilada here en Mexico (pun intended). First off, the holiday comprises two weeks, Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Semana Pascua (Easter Week).  Second, it is the official vacation season in Mexico: schools close, the government shuts down, and Mexicans head to the coast or their favorite colonial cities in the mountains for a break.

To put it in an American perspective, Semana Santa is like Easter, Labor Day, and Spring Break combined. The emphasis on Holy Week may not surprise you, given that Mexico is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. But it is not only that; it is also the fact that Mexico is a Catholic country with a connection to a Latin (i.e., Spanish) heritage that helps to explain the importance of this week.

Party in the square, branches in the street
Esther & Judy enjoy the cuisine
Branches line the entire route

Semana Santa officially begins on Domingo de Ramos (literally, Sunday of Branches, aka Palm Sunday). Here in Ajijic, there is a festival in the town square starting at 4:00 pm and running into the evening. Volunteers provide all the goods for sale, do the cooking and cleaning, even provide the bands for entertainment.  We enjoyed the bands and the tostadas, pozole, and tamales, all home-made.  All the proceeds go to cover the expenses of the annual passion play, which are considerable. The highpoint of this day’s activity is a procession which starts at the end of town and proceeds past the square to the Church for a 7:00pm mass.  Townfolk line the procession route and cover the cobblestones with alfalfa; actors playing the parts of Jesus and the 12 apostles lead the procession through town and into Mass.

The next few days are quiet, leading up to Maundy Thursday, or Jueves Santo. After a re-enactment of the Last Supper, the crowds move up a steep hill overlooking the town for scenes from the garden of Gethsemane. This location will also serve as Golgotha on Good Friday (Viernes Santo). The night ends with Jesus’ arrest and a torchlit procession to take him back to the church square for his trial the next day.

The view from Golgotha/Gethsemane…
…looking closely, you can see three post holes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus taken by the mob with torches

The theatrical quality peaks on Good Friday morning.  Crews erect an impressive stage and backdrop, which is modified ingeniously between sets to portray the outside of Pilate’s Palace, Herod’s palace, and back to Pilate’s palace. A crowd of locals fill all the Passion play roles, from Roman guards to the Apostles, the Sanhedrin, and even human statues. The dialogue, costumes, and sets represent a significant commitment in terms of time and money, all done by volunteers.

Pilates palace with balcony and porticos
Now it’s Herod’s palace without same!
Jesus at trial
“Ecce homo!” (note the human statues behind Pilate)

Quality sound and light-systems and special effects complete the scene. The most surprising thing about all of this is it is staged by a small Mexican village, and it is only one of many Passion plays staged in our area (Lakeside)

and so it begins…

Locals consider it a high honor to be chosen to participate. The day concludes with a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), as Jesus carries his cross back up that steep hill for the crucifixion.

Sábado Santo (Holy Saturday) is the grand finale; the day is mostly quiet until the vigil mass of the Resurrection (with a re-enactment, naturally) in the early evening  and a large festival afterwards. The festival includes la quema de Judas, where Judas effigies (including fireworks) are set alight. Sometimes unpopular political figures are also burned/exploded, all in good fun.

Like many holidays in Mexico, Easter Sunday is quiet time to spend with the family, or to recover from the vigil parties. If you are ever in Mexico during Holy Week, do brave the sun and the crowds and enjoy a Passion play experience for yourself.

Hope you enjoyed this overview of Semana Santa, and Happy Easter all!

You have to find “the guy”

You don’t go on the internet to get something done in rural Mexico.  You certainly don’t look for advertising in a paper or on TV. I have never seen a Mexican phonebook.

No, when you want to get something done, you tell a friend, and they tell you about “the guy” they have to get it done. Now I know you’re thinking “that’s no different than in the States” and to some extent you’re right.  Back when we lived stateside, we had a go-to mechanic and a guy who did home repairs. But for most things, we could do a search, use Consumer Checkbook, the Better Business Bureau, even Yelp for good tips.

Mexico, at least rural Mexico, is very much a word of mouth society, and it works.  We have a “guy” for just about everything… even though many of them are “gals.”

Judy with Julia Vargas

Julia Vargas and her associate Francisco have guided us through the immigration and visa process, and we’ll work with them to get our Mexican drivers licenses next. Working with them, we avoided long lines, paperwork mistakes, and all the potential hassles one could encounter when dealing with any government bureaucracy.

Christina Peña is our interior designer, arranging for all the purchases to equip our new home, and even driving us to Guadalajara several times to visit the various carpenters, artists, plumbers, etc. we needed to see. We

Marcos with Christy and our new headboard

never would have found the places she took us to shop and outfit our home, and in some cases, if we had found them, we would not have been let in, as they don’t market their wares retail.

Marcos oversaw the building of our house, and we ask him back to consult when we make any changes. He has been responsible for many of the handyman services involved in complex installation.

Georgina Russell is our property manager, making sure our taxes and dues are paid on time, arranging for our gardener and house-keeper, and watching over the place all those years before we even moved here. She also advises us on maintenance issues and watches out for us in general.

We just met with Spencer Shulman, who serves as the middleman when dealing with all the new car dealerships in Guadalajara. New cars here are “set-price” but there is all the paperwork that goes with licensing, as well as the requirement to have all servicing done by the dealer, which his office can facilitate.

We’ve gotten tips on where to meet the “vegetable guy” for fresh produce from a local farmer, the “coffee guy” who comes to town a few days each week with newly harvested beans, and the “steak guy” who sells filet for a few dollars a pound.

When I needed a special type of masonry screw, I even got a tip for the “screw guy,” which could have lead to many different types of places, but eventually got me to a hardware store. 🙂

 

Tile over concrete on a brick skeleton: sturdy!

Some of these services are “pay-as-you-go” at the very low local labor rates. This replacement job on our shower (along with installing the aforementioned headboard) lasted several hours across two days and cost us about one hundred dollars.

Some of the more selective services are retainers, with a fee based on what you purchase or which services you use. Again, rates are very reasonable. Can you process your own visa? Yes. Can you buy furniture and art on your own? Yes. Could you replace your own shower? Yes. What you are buying in each case is local knowledge and expertise. You are paying someone to reduce the friction, either because they know how the shower was constructed, or they know how the immigration office works, or they know which woodworker makes the exact table you want.

All of these services work to make the challenge of becoming an expat that much easier. But they are also part of learning how things are done here, by “the guy” or “the gal.”

 

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

Mañana

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! 😮

Observations on Daily Life

So we’ve been here a few weeks and what have we noticed thus far? What’s new, what’s unexpected, what’s different, what’s surprising?

I think the top of the list is the different pace of life: much slower. You drive slower, you eat slower, and if you’re trying to speak Spanish, you talk slower. Its not just the difference between living in a big city (like Washington DC) and a small town.  I grew up in a small town, and even when we lived in the city, we visited several small towns every year.

People seem more present in the moment, and not in a great hurry to the next thing on their agenda. I have seen some locals walking glued to a smartphone, and even a few driving that way, but nowhere near the number back in the States. Drivers let other cars into line, pull right to let others pass on a narrow road, or even let someone cut a long queue by driving on the shoulder.  I think the concept is: if you’re in a big hurry, you must have a good reason, and the rest of us are just glad we are not in a hurry.

That “being in the moment” is not only a function of time, its also a function of simply being. Since people are present with one another, there seems to be a real attempt to have higher quality interactions with each other. For example, workers want to be good at what they do, and want you to recognize them for their quality.  So far, I have met several everyday workmen: delivering my furniture, gardening, installing or fixing appliances in my house.  They don’t have that “wish I was doing something else” look I was familiar with, and they seemed genuinely interested in whether I approved of how and what they were doing for me.

One example: we arranged for an electrician to fix our laundry room’s fluorescent lights, which were buzzing and blinking.  It gave the room the look of a creepy abandoned lab in a sci-fi movie.  When he came on Saturday, he realized I didn’t even have a ladder for him to use to get up at the light.  “No problemo,” he tells me, and leaves to find a ladder and return.  I hoped it was just an issue of bad bulbs, but when he returned, he showed me that the bulbs worked in some sockets and not in others, so it was the step-down transformer attached to the lights that needed to be replaced.  He suggested the fixtures were pretty old, and who wants fluorescent lights anyway, so he offered to go to the store and buy replacement lights for me.

On Monday he e-mails me photos of different options from the store.  We choose the same basic light, but he explains he can switch out the internals so the light works off a regular bulb: Great!  When he arrives Tuesday to install the lights, he realizes the new regular bulb won’t fit inside the old cover.  So he takes the lights back to his house where he has the tools to carve a hollow out of the plastic so it will fit. Then he returns to my place, installs the lights and sweeps the floor of the laundry room.

As he is about to leave, he asks if I smell gas. I say no, but he says he could smell it pretty strong, and he has been in my laundry room for several hours over several days. He asks for some dish soap, and he checks the gas connection and it bubbles, indicating a leak.  He borrows a wrench I have and tightens the connection and its fixed. No charge.

Now stateside, I would have been installing the lights (with much swearing), or if I contracted someone else to do it, there would have been teeth-gnashing about bulbs, the lights, etc.  Oh and don’t even think of fixing the gas leak!

It was not the most efficient process, obviously.  But the lights got replaced, everything works, and the electrician showed off some real “McGyver” skills. Everybody went home happy.

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!