Well, I’ve been here nine months now and I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on what life is like for me here. So here are my thoughts about that.
The Village of Ajijic:
First off, let’s handle the pronunciation thing. With the exception of the “J” in Jack Daniels, “j’s” are pronounced in Spanish like an “h”. In fact, I don’t know why they even bother to use that stupid letter – except maybe to make gringos look foolish trying to pronounce it. Anyway the village I live in is pronounced “Ah-hee-heek”. Work on that for a while and then you can continue on with this narrative.
Ajijic is located in state of Jalisco on the north shore of Lake Chapala at 5000 feet in Sierra Madre Occidental Mountain Range. Its original Indian name was Axixic, which means “Place where water is born”. In 1531 it was renamed Ajijic by the Spaniards. A chapel that was built here, destroyed by a hurricane and then rebuilt later in that century is still in use today. Originally a sleepy fishing village, it was discovered by European artists and intellectuals in the 1920’s and today has become the home to the largest English speaking expatriate community in the world.
The following video will show you what the area looks like. Note the narrow cobblestone streets in Ajijic that are shared by both cars and riders on horseback alike: http://www.youtube youtube.com/watch?v=dZviW6DzSWQ
Temperatures during the summer have been different from what I was used to in Colorado.
We are at roughly the same longitude as Colorado, but in the Central Time Zone. With daylight savings time, that means that “high noon” for the sun is around 2 pm.
Typically during the summer, the day starts out in the upper 60’s and it then hits the low 70’s about noon. By 3:00 it may hit 80 and then it peaks out in the upper 80’s very late in the day – around 5:30 or so.
Hence, I prefer to walk into the village or do other outdoor activities before noon. It can be humid here during the rainy season. Nothing like it is back east or in the southern states, but more along the lines of Colorado on a humid day – 40 or 50%.
It never gets “muggy”, but if you are doing heavy physical activity, you will work up a sweat even when it is only in the 70’s. As I am writing this, it is 2:30 pm and the outside temperature is 74.1 degrees.
I am looking forward to the next six months. This means gorgeous, sunny days with midday temperatures in the upper 60’s. Kind of like six months of spring. (Eat your heart out gringo.)
There are a ton of restaurants here – so many that you could literally eat at different one every day for a month or more.
The prices are about a quarter to maybe a third of what you’d pay in the states.
Meals start out around 50 pesos ($3.75 USD) and top out at around 200 pesos at the hoity-toity places. Typically, dinner and a drink will run around $10 USD or less.
One of my favorites, Ajijic Tango has a lunch special for 55 pesos. Here is a link to a partial list of the eateries. (I can think of a half dozen or so that I like that are not listed here.)
Thank God for Walmart and Soriana. Walmart is about a mile from my house, and Soriana, which is the home grown Mexican equivalent, is about 10 miles away in Chapala.
The Walmart is about the size of the old smaller ones in the states, but does have a complete food market.
It also has everything from computers and flat screen tv’s to tires and washing machines.
They bake their own bread and have a first class butcher shop with terrific cuts of meat.
But, there are also things I was used to in the States that you won’t find here.
Being single, back in Colorado I used to stock up on Lien Cuisine and Health Choice frozen entrees. No such animals here. They have a small, very limited stock of frozen items. Also, you won’t find low fat, reduced calorie ice cream or frozen yogurt. At least not yet. But I was pleasantly surprise to find reduced calorie thousand island salad dressing recently. I had been making my own with catsup, low fat mayo, pickle relish and Worcestershire sauce.
(Since writing the above paragraph, I have found light Caesar dressing and vanilla/strawberry frozen yogurt.)
There are also a couple of smaller, independent supermarkets that carry a lot of imported (from the US) goods. But, you have to be careful and watch the prices. For example, Del Monte Picante sauce is made in Mexico and costs about 15 pesos for a medium sized jar. Pace Picante is imported and costs about 70 pesos (over $5 USD).
Henche in Mexico:
When you live in the States, it is easy to think of Mexico as being an appendage of the US.
You tend to assume they make tequila, pottery and hand woven baskets and not much else. Not so — a surprisingly full line of goods are made (henche) right here.
Imported goods, of course, are available, but tend to be expensive. For one thing, there is a 16% IVA (value added tax) charged on all retail goods which is added to the cost of imports, which along with shipping, adds up.
You also have to learn to be inventive. For instance, I wanted to buy some drink coasters but couldn’t find any. So, I ended up buying 4” decorative ceramic tiles and putting self-sticking felt pads (from were else – Walmart) on the bottoms.
Another example was solving the ant problem with my hummingbird feeder. Even though it was hanging from a second floor balcony, the little buggers were climbing down the rope to it and drowning in it by the dozens. You can buy an “ant moat” in the States, but no such thing is to be found around here. A plastic dish, a wooden knob and a couple of screw eye hooks and the problem was solved.
Note the following on the Mexican economy from Wikipedia: “Mexico has one of the world’s largest economies, and is considered both a regional power and middle power. In addition, Mexico was the first Latin American member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD (since 1994), and a firmly established upper-middle income country. Mexico is considered a newly industrialized country and an emerging power. It has the thirteenth largest nominal GDP and the eleventh largest by purchasing power parity.”
Mexicans are generally a gentle, peaceful people. They are very friendly and I’d say a lot happier, on average, than those in the US.
But, there is one glaring exception (at least for some of them) — when they get behind the wheel of a car. Watch out. When turning onto the Carretera (the main highway) from a side street, you are taking your life in your hands if you are dumb enough to assume a green light gives you the right of way. A stop light is really just a suggestion and it is not unusual for them to run a red light and even pull around someone stopped at the light to run it. Coming into town, the Carretera has a dedicated bike lane on the right side. If traffic is backed up, it is typical to see one or more idiots pull into the bike lane and pass on the right. Total insanity. But you do learn to live with it by driving defensively. You just have to assume that people will do dumb, stupid things and always expect such.
There are definitely several different classes here. There are the very poor – and when I say poor we talking about real poverty here. There is no real poverty in the US with the welfare society we have now. What with Section 8 Free Housing, Food Stamps, Earned Income Tax Credit and dozens of other handouts and freebies, the impoverished in the US have a higher standard of living than the middle class in most of the rest of the world. But enough of my soap box ranting.
The poor here live in some real squalor and have little or no chance of ever bettering themselves.
Then there is the middle class of working people that live a decent life, but without much in the way of material goods.
Finally, there are the wealthy – and I mean wealthy. I have been in one part of Guadalajara full of high rise multistory condos and even seen competing Mercedes Benz dealerships on the opposite sides of the freeway.
Well so far I’ve mastered the following words and/or phrases in Spanish: cerveza fria, tequila, uno mas por favor, con permiso and bano. At that rate, I figure I will have a rudimentary ability to converse in Spanish somewhere around the year 3811.
The truth of the matter is that there is absolutely no pressure or need to learn Spanish here. We have the largest English speaking, expat community in the world which I have heard estimated at somewhere between 7000 and 25,000 depending on the time of year.
That means most of the businesses have bilingual employees and the restaurants, for instance, have both English and Spanish menus. On the few occasions where I have run into language problems, Google Translate has come to the rescue. I used it recently to compose a phrase in Spanish so I could tell the local village officials that the street lamp in front of my house was not working and needed to be repaired.
Typical of what you may run across is the couple that runs the little convenience store near my house (they are on about every block). He doesn’t speak a word of English, but his wife lived in California for a number of years and probably speaks better English than I do.
We also have an English language phone book, complete with yellow pages. The long and short of it is that most expats don’t learn Spanish and get along quite nicely.
In my case, I have always been critical of Latinos who come to the States and don’t learn English. Given that, I do intent to learn Spanish, but it will take determination and discipline to do so. Only time will tell if I’m up to the task.
With the exception of the drug cartels and gangs, crimes against people such as rape and robbery are pretty low.
However, given the poverty here, property crimes can be a problem. For instance, you don’t park your car in town – particularly at night – with anything of value visible inside. If you’re going to leave a laptop computer or other valuables on the car seat you are providing a very tempting target and will probably be relieved of the item in question as well as having to pay the cost to replace a “busted out” window.
You, of course, have heard all the stories about the drug cartels and the violence along the border. Some of that violence is starting to spill over to here in the state of Jalisco.
In the last 4 years, murders are up 125%, but it is of note that 593 of 879 murders last year were gang on gang or gang-police related. So far, that means if you’re not going to get involved in drugs or the drug business, you probably don’t have anything to worry about.
Overall, the average yearly murder rate in Mexico is 18 per 100,000 including all the gang/drug cartel related ones.
In contrast the rate in Washington D.C. is 22 per 100,000 and many countries including Venezuela, Guatemala, Belize, Colombia, Brazil and Panama had higher murder rates than Mexico last year.
Access to Travel:
The Guadalajara International Airport is just 30 minutes away and provides nonstop air service to many US cites and other countries.
Recreation and Entertainment:
Well if you want to snow ski you are SOL. But, there are a lot of other activities available.
We have 2 Country Clubs and of course the lake offers boating and fishing.
There are 2 little theater companies that produce plays in English and we have an auditorium that offers musical productions. The auditorium is some 30 years old and is a little out of date, but there is currently an initiative to update the air conditioning, sound system & acoustics, etc. Hopefully the improvements will be completed within the next year.
Perhaps the highlight of the year is the Scotiabank Northern Lights Music Festival that takes place in February and/or March. Here’s a link to their webpage that has a 10 minute video that will tell you about it:
I went to most of their performances for 2011 season and they were wonderful. We’ve also had everything from the Moscow Ballet to an Elvis impersonator perform there.
There are also a four-plex and a six-plex movie theater in town. I haven’t been in the four-plex, but the six-plex is state of the art with 3-D and surround sound. Surprisingly, about three quarters of the movies are in English with Spanish subtitles. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a movie with 3-D Spanish subtitles.
We also have the Lake Chapala Society with something like 3000 members. They offer everything from the weekly computer club I attend to health screenings and social functions. In conjunction with Cruz Rojas (Red Cross) they offer bus trips for shopping in Guadalajara, trips to the zoo, etc. Here’s a link to their home page: http://lakechapalasociety.com/
There are several clubs that have live music that ranges from traditional Mexican to US style pop and rock. We even have our own local rock star, Bryan James who is the son of an expat couple. Here’s his band’s website: http://www.bryanjamesband.com
I brought a 32 inch flat screen TV with me when I came down here. You can certainly buy them here, but they tend to be more expensive.
Many expats subscribe to Dish Network or the Canadian satellite provider, Shaw Direct. But, they are expensive and you have to spend several hundred dollars to buy a receiver and giant dish antenna. In my case, the house has Mexican Telecable that works and I’m not having to pay for it. They have 70 some channels including 18 that are either in English or have an English SAP (Separate Audio Program). Included are CNN and the 3 major network affiliates out of New York City.
But, my primary source of TV is via the internet. I have a ROKU player that hooks up to the TV via an HDMI cable and connects to my TelMex wireless router. That gives me streaming HD video from the likes of Netflix and Hulu, to mention just 2 of dozens of services. There are copyright restrictions that are supposed to keep those services from working outside of the US, but I subscribe to a service for $4.99 per month that fools them into thinking I am in the US. Hulu, which is $7.99 per month, has both movies and hundreds of TV shows. Everything from “Father Knows Best” to the current “Tonight Show” broadcasts.
Day to Day Life:
Living here comprises pretty much the same things as it did in Colorado – just with a different flavor. Many things, like going to the Veterinarian or Dentist are pretty much like what you’d find in the States.
My day starts out with a walk down to the gym for my morning workout. (I leave the car parked most of the time.) Then there is shopping in the village, maybe a hike and of course various household chores like doing the laundry and gardening.
Speaking of laundry, my sister, Mary, asked me one day how we did that. Regretfully I truthfully told her the house had a washer and dryer. If I’d been a little faster thinking on my feet, I would have told her we go down to the lake with a washboard and bar of soap.
What can I say? There at least a one to one ratio of realtors to expats. They are under every rock and hiding behind every bush. Typically, they are females in their 60’s, named Trudi or Sandi, and moved here after they were run out of Dallas, Des Moines or perhaps Toronto.
They wear a kilo or more (we do the metric thing down here) of makeup, sport oversized designer glasses and speak with a gushing intonation. (Did I mention the 10 inch miniature Eiffel Tower earrings?) If you stepped out into the street and said you wanted to buy a house, you would probably be run down in a matter of seconds by a whole herd of them.
Hopefully, the Federales can exterminate them along with the drug cartels, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Seriously, housing here is extremely affordable compared to Colorado. Like the states, there has been a slump in prices over the last few years, but foreclosures are not an issue. (Most transactions are done in cash and financing is hard to find.)
There are an awful lot of places on the market and prices start at under $100,000 USD. $300K or $400K will get you a palace complete with a pool and guest house.
In my case, I’m paying $800 a month rent for a 3 bedroom, 3 bath house with a gated courtyard. That’s about what you’d have to pay for a small 1 bedroom apartment in Boulder.
So, that’s about it. What else can I say? I’m at home here. It’s also lunchtime and I’m about to head out to Ajijic Tango and get a Pepito Arrachera for lunch. (For 55 pesos it comes with French fries and a salad, but I’ll let you Google “Pepito” and “Arrachera” to figure out what it is.)
Down here, Cuervo Gold is considered a run of the mill, cheap ass tequila.
You can buy a liter of it for under $10 and is sits on the store shelves amidst dozens of similar offerings.
However, there are some really good sipping tequilas that are aged and cost $30 or $40 a bottle. The difference is truly like night and day – like that between say Early Times and a rare, single malt scotch.
I always thought there was a patent or copyright or some such on Halloween and that the US held a monopoly on it. Well, I was wrong. I walked into WalMart the other day and here’s what a mere $1450 pesos will get you:
Now I’m not sure if the kids do the trick-or-treat thing here, but I guessing I’d better be prepared.
I thought I might get tortilla chips and guacamole dip. I’ll wrap individually dipped chips in plastic wrap and then put them in the freezer. That should do it and honor both the spirit of Halloween and the traditional Mexican thing. (I thought about mini smothered burritos, but decided they just would be too messy for the kid’s bags.)
The Cost of Energy:
I don’t know where you stand on all this “New Energy Economy” and green stuff, but it seems pretty obvious to me that if we continue to prevent the development of our own vast oil and natural gas resources and continue to float the boat of wind and solar power that are ridiculously expensive and require massive government subsidies, that the day is fast approaching when the average family’s energy bill will be $1000 a month.
Down here, I am happy to report, I spend less than $100 USD a month. I put maybe 200 or 300 pesos of gas in the Honda, pay maybe 350 pesos for LP gas for the stove, dryer and hot water heater.
Electricity can be either dirt cheap or outrageously expensive – depending on how much you use. Rates start out at about half of what you are paying and when you use less than 250 KWh per month the government subsidizes most of the bill. I fall in that category – even with the air conditioner – and my last bill for 2 months was a mere 225 pesos (under $10 USD per month).
It is a different story for high consumption users. They pay a rate of about twice what you do and get no subsidy. The result is that people that have a hot tub, pool, pressurized/purified water systems, etc. can end up with bill that is several hundred dollars a month.
Keep in mind, there are virtually no heating costs down here since we have no furnaces to feed. While it can get down into the 40’s on rare occasions, that happens about as often as you see 20 below zero.
Practically everyone down here has one glued to their hip.
I am probably the only person in the whole state of Jalisco that doesn’t carry one around. Perhaps it’s because I used to be in that business and can’t stand the damn things. I have never sent anyone a text message and I have no desire to talk to you if you call me while I am having a peaceful lunch at an open air café near the beach, hiking or perusing the goods at WalMart.
I do have a cell phone in the car for use in an emergency (such as an encounter with a 200 lb Mexican woman in a Chevy Suburban) but other than that, you can leave a message on my answering machine at home and I’ll call you back when I get around to it. Ain’t nothin’ that’s that important — no how. (God help me – I sound like Andy Rooney don’t I.)
Ties to the US:
Speaking of phones, thanks to VOIP I am able to keep my old Boulder phone number and have it connected to a phone in the house along with the local Mexican land line.
I also have a post office box with a Laredo, Texas address. For 1100 pesos a year, all mail sent to the PO Box in Laredo is couriered to a box here in Ajijic. That way I can get my magazines from the US and Netflix DVD’s (for the movies that aren’t streamed).
I can also buy stuff in the US on line and have it shipped to me via the PO Box. But that can be a little costly – I have to pay a 50% tariff of the value of the item to cover duty and transportation.
Of course if I have someone I know ship me something and I supply the invoice that goes in the box……. You get the picture.
Buying Veggies at the Street Market:
Wednesday is market day and we have a street market that runs for several blocks down one of the side streets off of the Carratera.
There you will find everything from Mexican Rolexes, pottery and leather goods to farm fresh vegetables. Last week I bought a carrot, a cucumber, 2 apples, 3 tomatoes, a green pepper and a 3 head pack of romaine lettuce – all for 50 pesos (less than 4 bucks US).
They recommend that everything (veggies) that you buy be disinfected as a precaution and I do so by soaking them for 15 minutes in water with 8 drops of iodine per liter. In retrospect, I think I would do so in the US if I still lived there.
They grow strawberries, blackberries and raspberries on the south side of the lake. Here in town you can buy a quart container of them for as low as 20 pesos.
I’ve also heard if you drive around the lake to the fields were they grow them you can get a bucket of them for that price.
Sleeping and Naps:
Since I don’t have to get up and go to work anymore, I get 9 or more hours of sleep a night.
But even with that, it’s not unusual for me to take an afternoon nap. And that is a real luxury!
Heche in Mexico:
There is one sordid aspect to this whole made in Mexico thing: toilet seats. Yea, you heard me, freakin’ toilet seats.
The things they pass off down here as the interface between the porcelain throne and your posterior are either made out of this ridiculously thin plastic or squishy vinyl. In either case the thickness ends up being about that of the Monday morning edition of the Denver Post.
With that close proximity, the end result, to be quite blunt, is that parts of the male anatomy sometimes tend to get wet. I can only speculate on why this problem has not been resolved – perhaps it’s because the whole Mexican machismo thing is grossly overrated and it’s only we gringos that have this as an issue.
Now I thought about asking some of the locals about this, but I couldn’t think of a polite way (in any language) to ask someone if their cojones were of sufficient size to get dunked when they are sitting on the commode.
Come to think of it, that would also explain why there are virtually no male African-American expatriates down here.
In any case, if you ever come to visit, I beseech you to take pity on me and bring me a good ol’ USA (made in China) toilet seat (standard size – not elongated and dark green or even bone white please).
We’ve often heard the old adage that most of the communication we have with others is non-verbal. You can also use nonverbal means to get around that language barrier. That has certainly been borne out for me down here.
There is a kid named Diego that works the desk and provides personal training at the gym I go to. He speaks a little English, but not much more than I speak Spanish. Yet, he has been able to relate to me that he has a brother who is a cook in Colorado and that he has flown to Denver on vacation.
More to the point, watching Diego interact with his customers gives me a real feeling of who he is as a person. He is a truly nice human being, cares about others and is one of those people who light up a room. You don’t need verbal language to get that.
Another anecdote is a bartender at one of my favorite restaurants. His name is Tavio and he doesn’t understand much English past “gin and tonic” or “scotch and soda”.
One day I stopped in for a drink and the place was virtually deserted. Tavio was amusing himself by trying to balance 3 entwined forks on a toothpick – without much success, I might add. Anyway I wanted to convey the expression “idle hands are the devil’s tool” to him. It took me several minutes to do that and required the help of a French lady, but we all got a good laugh out of it.
Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I hope you enjoyed it!