Leslie and I are finally getting the renovation started on our house — six months later than planned. We hoped to have all the work done in April and May before we moved in. Because of the quarantine, our homeowner’s association did not allow workers into the neighborhood. Later, when that was allowed, we decided it was not a good idea to have people we don’t know coming into our house. We’re taking extra precautions during this pandemic.
Also, as we’ve lived in our new home, our small project grew bigger. The original plan was to get the washer and dryer out of the kitchen to gain more storage and counter space. We planned to get stackable machines and squeeze them into a space in the master bedroom closet, then update the kitchen cabinets with new doors and buy new appliances.
Over the last four-plus months we’ve started thinking bigger, especially after we found a few issues in the master bath. Now we’re adding a new master bathroom onto the front of the house, reworking and improving the closet and other storage, and putting side-by-side laundry units where the bathroom is now. We will also get a new linen closet and utility closet, neither of which exist now. And we’re gutting the 12-year-old kitchen down to the walls. All new cabinetry, all new appliances, more storage and more counter space.
In fact, the kitchen is already gutted and the bathroom will be gone in a few days. Everything was removed carefully by Fernando, who works as a gardener for at least two of our neighbors. Fernando is building a house for his family in Chapala on a shoestring budget, and he can use all the cabinets and appliances from our house.
We feel fortunate to have hired Juan Alera and his daughter Cristina as our architects. Juan has done home building and renovation for years in the Lakeside area. Cristina studied architecture at the university in Guadalajara (where one of her professors was her father) and for a year at a university in France. She speaks English and French in addition to her native Spanish.
Construction begins Oct. 19. Juan says it will take two months, but we’re allowing for three just in case. And since now we have no kitchen and no master bath, and things are about to get very dusty and dirty, we’ve moved out for the rest of this year. Again, we’re very fortunate to have rented a home right here in our neighborhood, just two streets down the hill. It will be easy to go back and get things we need, and to check on construction progress. We hope to be back in our house before Christmas.
Leslie and I are finally home. After two years of being vagabonds in Europe and The Americas, and 18 months of renting apartments and homes in the Lake Chapala area, we have moved into our house in Ajijic, Jalisco, México.
We have a lot of work to do. First, a complete kitchen remodel. It’s a bit small, so we’re moving the laundry to a space in the master bedroom closet that we don’t really need for clothes. We’ll get a new stackable pair for that location, then move the refrigerator into where the laundry is now. That will open up room for more cabinets and counter space. There’s painting to be done (way too much purple right now) and new plants to add in the garden, and maybe a facelift for the front. But all of that will have to wait until we believe it’s safe to have contractors working in and around the house.
As for the pandemic, our little corner of paradise is no longer virus-free. As of Monday, July 6, there are 32 confirmed and 10 suspected cases in the Chapala municipality (similar to a county in the U.S.), which includes Ajijic. There have been two deaths. The good news is no new cases have been reported to the government in the past few days. There are roughly 50,000 people in the Chapala municipality.
The state government has loosened restrictions somewhat, but face masks are required in grocery stores, banks and other local businesses. Restaurants are allowed to serve dine-in customers as along as there’s adequate separation. We’re still getting food delivered to our house, though.
We’re debating whether to start in-person church services again in August at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, but it sounds like most of our members are fine with waiting until later in the year. We’ve been doing a Morning Prayer service — Episcopalians will understand that — every Sunday morning on Zoom, and it’s getting better every week. We have anywhere from 30 to 40 people signing in, some from the U.S. and Canada.
The church is not wasting this time, though. We’ve already had big mirrors removed from the north wall of the sanctuary and the whole sanctuary painted. Instead of pews, we have moveable chairs, and until today they had brown upholstery that looked worn on most. Now they’re all a nice dark blue. We got 175 chairs recovered for 300 pesos each. That’s less than $15 USD each.
It’s rainy season here, so heavy thunderstorms roll through almost every night. If they hit before bedtime, we get to see the light show. If it’s 2 a.m., like many nights, then we roll over and go back to sleep.
Leslie and I will be moving to our permanent home just a few days from now. You’ll get to see it soon!
But first, an update on the coronavirus here in our little corner of México. Officially, there are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Lakeside community (as of 19 May). Good news: Our favorite liquor stores are open again, as is the dry cleaners. But we’re still doing church via Zoom, and we still can’t get our hair done — or for Leslie, get nails done. Soon, we hope.
Grocery stores are mostly open, but going there is not a very good idea. And you definitely don’t want to go to Guadalajara (where Costco and Home Depot are). So some of the locals with entrepreneurial spirit are offering food delivery. They bring groceries right to our door and Leslie can disinfect them as needed. Our new friend and taxi driver Paulino shops for us at Costco in Guadalajara. No problem getting toilet paper. And when the liquor stores in Ajijic were closed, Paulino could get wine from Costco — our favorite Apothic Red. Gracias, Paulino!
Locally, one food delivery group is called “Bogo (buy one, get one) Box.” If you buy a box of vegetables from them, they donate a similar box to a local family. We like that. The virus has hit this area hard, economically at least. Operation Feed, a local charity that gets food to the needy, has seen its client base more than double recently.
Also, Leslie’s Mexican friend Hana has started a food delivery service. We’re getting things we never heard of before, all grown locally. Have you ever seen a “watermelon radish”? We’ve got ’em, and they’re terrific on salads. We have a big salad for lunch just about every day. No, they don’t taste like watermelon — they just look like watermelon. They taste like a radish. Very crunchy. They’re colorful and huge, just like regular radishes here. Local radishes at the tianguis (street market) can be as big as golf balls!
I may have said before that one of the few downsides to our local paradise is the condition of the Lakeside streets. But over the past few months, the Jalisco (state) government has pumped lots of money into restructuring the carretera, which is the primary east-west Lakeside road. It’s been fully resurfaced and the bicicleta (or ciclopista) (bike lane) has been upgraded to the point that I’m thinking of buying a bike!
Before, the road was full of potholes and the bike/pedestrian lane was not well marked and potentially dangerous. The road has been resurfaced with asphalt from Chapala west to Jocotepec, and the bike lane now has a concrete barrier to protect bike riders and pedestrians. There are also street lights, new plants and crosswalks that didn’t exist a few months ago. Gracias, Gobernador Alfaro (thank you, Governor Alfaro).
Of course, most streets in the village are still cobblestone. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.
At times like these we have to laugh to keep from crying! I’ve seen lots of great stuff on Leslie’s Facebook account, and on a variety of websites I frequent. Since we’re here in México, this is probably the best, and most accurate:
I heard this week from the CEO of US Global Mail, the Houston company that handles what little snail mail we get in the States. I’ve done a few commercials for them here in the past because their service is great. Now they’re helping in the current situation, even for people in the States.
“Earlier this week we made an announcement that we would be offering our virtual mailbox for free, to all seniors and people with underlying health conditions for two months,” Daniel Spyralatos wrote in an email. “This will ensure that people with weaker immune systems avoid crowded post offices but still access mail, critical medications and goods without leaving their home.”
This is just a quick post to let you know Leslie and I are just fine. We think we’re very safe here in México, and we’re actually worried about our friends in the U.S. and Europe because of the coronavirus.
As of this writing, there are 316 cases of the virus in all of México and only 27 in the state of Jalisco, which includes Guadalajara with nearly 1.5 million people and Puerto Vallarta with over 200,000. It also includes the Lake Chapala area where we have made our home with hundreds of other ex-pats. Of those 27 Jalisco cases, 10 were in a group of people who went on a ski trip to Vail, Colorado, and contracted the virus there. So far, only two people have died from the coronavirus in México.
We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. We know those low numbers will go up, and maybe soon. In Jalisco, schools are closed, concerts and plays have been cancelled, and churches have suspended all activities. Even our bank will only allow five people in at one time. The governor has asked non-essential businesses to close for a week. Even the weekly outdoor market, the tianguis, has shut down. My Spanish class is now being conducted via Skype. Many restaurants are offering take-out orders, and one of our favorite places will even bring your order right to your car.
Our community, Riviera Alta, has suspended weekly social hours and closed all common facilities (pool, library, gym, tennis court) for a week. We have a number of high-risk folks here. Some are merely among the “elderly” group and a few have compromised immune systems. Some of our Canadian friends have already gone back north
My old buddy Jerry — back in our Army Reserve days — used to remind me of the ancient curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” Now I have a better understanding of that line.
Leslie and I wish you continued good health — now and when we are once again living in uninteresting times. We’ll keep in touch!
Sorry it’s been so long since the last post. There hasn’t been much to write about lately and Leslie and I have both been down with head colds. Now we’ve recovered and there is big news to write about.
We have bought a house! It’s going to be a difficult move — the new house is two streets down the hill. Yes, our new home is right here in Riviera Alta, the Ajijic neighborhood we have come to love. It’s a two-bedroom, two-bath house with a great view and a “bonus” room with full bath on the lower level. We’ll probably use it for storage at first, but now we’ll have extra room for multiple visitors.
After looking at several homes for sale, here in Riviera Alta and in other areas, Leslie and I decided this place could be our long-term Mexican home. It’s fully furnished, so we’ll need to decide how to blend our furniture in with what our friends Donna and Jim already have. For example, our dining room furniture, which Leslie had long before she met me, will go to some lucky person. The table in our new digs is a huge round table that was made for the space it’s in. It seats eight. Leslie says the chairs need to be recovered, though, because the fabric is not really our style.
The house needs a small renovation: moving the washer and dryer out of the kitchen and adding more counter and cabinet space in the kitchen, as well as a new stove and a new dishwasher. We hope to get that done before we move in. Donna and Jim are moving out April 13, and our lease runs through the end of May. We should be able to make it work.
In other news, we’ve managed to survive the depths of winter here in the Lake Chapala area. It lasted nearly three weeks. For a few days, the daytime high struggled to get up to 60° F. Overnight lows were in the upper 40s. I actually wore a sweater a few times when we went out for dinner or to a concert. Our friends in the Chicago area are saying terrible things about us right now — I understand that. Sorry. But climate is one of the big reasons we’re here.
We were delighted with a visit from Leslie’s sister Laura. Leslie and I were both still coughing and sneezing, and our energy levels prevented us from taking Laura everywhere we wanted to. But we hope she’ll be back. We think she was impressed with the array of flowers in this area — especially here in Riviera Alta where the bougainvillea covers retaining walls with a riot of color. She enjoyed walking on the málecon and shopping in the village.
We did trick Laura just a bit, though. We all had dinner at one of our favorite local spots, Teocintle Maiz, the top-rated restaurant in Ajijic according to Trip Advisor. Laura thought she would pay for dinner, to thank us for hosting her in our home. But many Lakeside restaurants are cash-only. And they don’t take dollars, either. So I whipped out the pesos and paid the bill. Even better, I told her what the bill was in U.S. dollars — a little over $50 for three people, including wine. Another reason we live here.
That’s all for now. Watch this space, though, for details on the big move!
We’ll have this view of Lake Chapala after we move:
This is the second Christmas in México for Leslie and me, and this year is much busier than last. We’ve already had the Riviera Alta neighborhood Christmas party and the annual Carol Sing and Pot Luckat St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. We’re joining other families for Christmas dinner at the home of neighbors Barbara and John, and dropping into at least one “open house.”
We also enjoyed the CASA — Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic— Christmas party. Leslie presented in the “appetizer” category: Polenta Bites with Mushrooms. She overcame some problems with the polenta and won first place! Her presentation was very good, but the consensus was that the taste of the mushrooms was maravilloso (mara-vee-YOH-so, marvelous)!
And I’m not trying to brag here because my part in this is very small, but the St. Andrew’s choir has been hitting it out of the park the last few weeks. We did “Ave Maria” by William Gomez (a native of Gibraltar) a few weeks ago — in Spanish. Click on the link to hear a small choir (like ours). If you’re interested, go to this video to see the words at the bottom of the screen. Our friend Judy had people in tears with her soaring mezzo-soprano solo. We’ve worked hard on the Christmas Eve anthem: “There Is No Rose” by Philip Stopford. The chorus in that video performed a cappella, and we will too.
Here in México, Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, is more important than Christmas Day. Families usually go to church for the Misa de Gallo (ME-sah day GAHY-oh), a late-night mass celebrating the Messiah’s birth. Family is very important to Méxicanos, especially on Nochebuena. A big family dinner may include tamales, pozole (poh-ZOH-ley, a hearty corn-based soup) or roasted chicken for most. Richer families may be able to afford a Spanish stew of dried cod and potatoes called bacalao a la vizcaina (bahk-ah-LAHO a la veez-cah-EEN-ah), or a dish called revoltijo (rev-ol-TEE-ho) that combines wild greens with dried shrimp fritters in a rich mole sauce. There’s more, like traditional turkey (pavo) with a rich stuffing based on ground meat or sausage, but I’m getting hungry!
Family members often exchange gifts on Nochebuena and the niños try to bust open a piñata. These are special piñatas with seven points, representing the seven deadly sins. The person trying to break the piñata is usually blindfolded to represent blind faith as a way to combat evil. Here’s a short video I took during the Christmas party at Olé México, where I’m taking Spanish classes:
The festivities often go into the wee hours — sometimes until dawn — with music playing constantly. That means Christmas Day is usually quiet, since most are still sleeping.
What are you thankful for? Leslie and I are thankful we live in Ajijic, Jalisco, México. The climate is nearly perfect, almost everything costs less than in the U.S., and we’ve made great friends here among the locals and the ex-pat community. But before we talk about Thanksgiving, let’s briefly address something a lot of you are thinking about: Safety.
We don’t know what happened when nine people in a convoy of black SUVs were killed recently in a remote area just across the border from Douglas, Ariz. Some say cartel gunmen mistook them for a rival cartel. Others don’t buy that, saying they were targeted because their farms were over-using scarce water resources, hurting local subsistence farmers. We may never know. Leslie and I are glad that since that incident, only one person has asked us, “Are you safe there?” I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt — I believe he was being facetious. Mostly.
The short answer is that we feel safer here than we did in the U.S. Sure, there’s violence in this country, just like in the States. But it’s almost all between rival drug cartels. The difference here is that innocent bystanders rarely become victims. Granted, we live in a small-town environment. That kind of thing may happen in big cities like Guadalajara but not to the extent it does in Chicago, for example, where you can get killed by a stray bullet while driving on the Eisenhower Expressway! See articles in the Chicago Tribune at least once or twice a week — like the woman with six grandchildren who had just parked her car in front of her house when a bullet struck her in the face. Almost never happens in México.
Bottom line: None of the ex-pats in this beautiful community fear violence of any kind. The cartels leave you alone unless you mess with them. And if they start shooting, it’s generally far away from populated areas — and they hit what they aim at, unlike Chicago gang members who don’t shoot straight.
The Lake Chapala area is blessed to have thousands of ex-pats, mostly from the U.S. and Canada. While those of us from the U.S. celebrate Thanksgiving near the end of November, Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October. So Lakeside celebrates two Thanksgivings!
St. Andrew’s Anglican Church has an annual Harvest Comida (ko-ME-dah, Spanish for “food”) about halfway between the two Thanksgiving celebrations. It’s the biggest event of the year for the Social & Hospitality Committee, and Leslie is a member of that group. In fact, she was co-chair of this year’s event, along with our Canadian friend Sylvia. More than 80 people enjoyed roast turkey with all the trimmings, courtesy of Chef Pedro at Ajijic’s Go Bistro, one of our favorite restaurants. Dessert was a variety of pies made by the members of the S&H Committee. Leslie’s pumpkin pie went fast, as did her mincemeat pie.
Another recent event was the annual Feria Maestros del Arte, sponsored by the Ajijic Society of the Arts. This is an opportunity for artisans from all over México — some of them from indigenous tribes — to show and sell their creations. We took a long look at the huaraches — a type of pre-Colombian sandal. Maybe next year. We also considered some small carved animal figures, but we don’t have a good place to display them. Maybe next year. I finally settled on a cotton short-sleeved shirt with a Mayan warrior embroidered in relatively subdued colors.
Leslie and I also attended the Garden Guild show at a beautiful hacienda just a short walk from where we used to live in the village. From the outside, it’s just a brick wall with a door in it. But walk through that door and you find a sprawling home with a nice pool and a very well-equipped kitchen. It’s been used as a bed & breakfast in the past. There’s even a chapel!
Our friend and neighbor Margaret is an active Garden Guild member. She has given us cuttings from her garden to jump-start ours, and she developed a rough plan for making our back yard look better. We enjoyed seeing her floral arrangement and those of other Garden Guild members.
The Garden Guild’s community service project over the past year has been replacing foot bridges at three spots on Ajijic’s malecon. When we lived in the village, I went for a jog on the malecon every morning. Those bridges were the only treacherous part of the run, and now all three bridges have been fully replaced. I don’t jog there anymore, but I really appreciate the Garden Guild’s efforts.
Next time, more on why Leslie and I are enjoying our life in México.
Before we talk about Dia de los Muertos, I need to brag a bit on Leslie and her volunteer work with Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic — CASA. Every year, CASA auctions off a special themed dinner, prepared by CASA members, for eight people. Proceeds benefit Niños Incapacitados,which helps local disadvantaged children with medical issues. The person who won this year’s auction donated 70,000 pesos, or roughly $3,600 USD, for a very good cause.
This year’s theme was the menu for the last first-class dinner on the Titanic — the meal served on the night the ship sank. Eleven courses, all paired with wine. Leslie was asked to help another chef create one dish, a vegetable terrine in aspic. Because the other person had unavoidable issues, Leslie ended up making the dish herself. It got rave reviews! She also volunteered to be a server. CASA tried to be as authentic as possible with elegant place settings and flowers. But servers on the Titanic were men, so the eight serving ladies (one server per diner) wore tuxedo shirts with bow ties and added drawn-on mustaches!
Dinner was at the stately home of our friends Carol and David (also CASA members), with a sweeping view of Lake Chapala. The diners got into the act too, wearing Titanic-era clothing. Two of the men were even decked out in kilts with full regalia! And they raved about the dinner. To see the full menu, click on this link to the article in the Guadalajara Reporter (it’s in English!).
I hope you watched the movie Coco to learn how important Dia de los Muertos is in México. Check out these two links to learn more: Mexperience newsletter offers general information, while Lakeside Guidehas photos of last year’s celebration here in Ajijic. The main day was Nov. 2 with events in Ajijic as well as nearby communities Chapala and Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos (better known simply as isht-lah-wah-KAHN). Leslie was recovering from the big dinner (eight hours on her feet) and I just didn’t feel well, so we didn’t see the Ajijic parade or go on the cemetery tour as planned. Fortunately, I have some great photos and videos (some of which are at the end of this post) provided by three friends from my Spanish class — James, Lynn and Pamela. Gracias!
Finally, Ajijic’s malecon (boardwalk), was the setting for Lakeside’s part in “Thrill The World,” the annual world-wide dance event. It’s not related to Dia de los Muertos at all, but it is held on the Saturday before Halloween every year. Dancers, made up as zombies, collected money from sponsors to perform to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on Saturday, Oct. 26. Proceeds benefit Cruz Roja, the local Red Cross group.
Leslie and I arrived in the Lake Chapala area of México on Nov. 1, 2018, and we’re about to celebrate our one-year anniversary here. We enjoy a great climate, excellent health care, terrific restaurants, lots of ways to stay active and involved, and a low cost-of-living. The guest room is ready, so come see us! Nuestra casa es su casa!
We’re staying pretty busy. I’ve joined the choir at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, and Leslie is co-chair of this year’s Harvest Comida, a dinner that celebrates Thanksgiving — both the U.S. (November) and Canadian (October) versions. It’s one of the church’s most popular events.
Our garden is thriving, as long as I keep an eye out for leaf cutter ants. These nasty creatures come out at night and slice up the plants in our yard and our neighbors’. If I could find the nest, our grounds crew could wipe it out. But the nest seems to be in a rock wall that’s covered with bougainvillea so it’s nearly impossible to reach. I dust with powder regularly and that helps. While we were in San Diego for three weeks in the summer, these ants cleaned almost every leaf off the plants we put out just a few weeks earlier. Won’t let that happen again.
Day of the Dead is coming soon — a very important holiday in México. It’s definitely not the same as Halloween in the U.S. Dia de los Muertos is actually on two days, Nov. 1 and 2. Most gringos simply say, “If you want to understand this celebration, just watch the movie Coco.” Here’s a link to an article on the Ajijic News website, with details about Dia de los Muertos and other celebrations in October and November.
More on this celebration in the next post.
We still get lots of questions about how things work here for ex-pats. One of the most-asked questions is, “How do you get your mail?” Frankly, we don’t get much anymore. People we still deal with in the U.S. (doctors, financial advisors, etc.) communicate electronically. Leslie’s birthday was earlier this month, and a few people asked how to send a birthday card. Answer: Electronically! And most of you used email, text, Facebook or online greeting card services — thank you!
Since we sold our house in the U.S. over three years ago and started this journey we have used U.S. Global Mail to handle what little actual mail we receive. I’ve mentioned them before but it’s worth repeating — if you plan to relocate overseas or do extensive foreign travel, you should sign up for U.S. Global Mail. You can do that by clicking on one of the two previous links. Check out their website first, but when you’re ready to sign up please use one of these links so USGM will know I sent you to them.
Our mail goes to a Houston address. USGM emails me when we have mail and I can see a picture of it through my account on their website. I usually direct them to either throw it away or send it to me. If I’m not sure what it is, I ask them to open it and scan it. Most things get tossed. For important things, such as new credit/debit cards, USGM gives me many delivery options — FedEx, DHL, UPS and other carriers. I can see how much the delivery will cost, how long it will take to reach me and if I can track the shipment online. It’s not cheap, but it’s dramatically less than having a friend or relative take it to a FedEx office and ship it. Plus, I’m not imposing on anybody to do that for me. I’m paying a professional service I trust and depend upon. I highly recommend USGM.
We also get questions about health care, home ownership and safety. I’ll deal with those topics in later posts.