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.
Summer is coming to an end here in the Lake Chapala area, and that means fiestas. It started Saturday, Sept. 14, with Regata de Globos. This is a celebration unique to Ajijic that dates to the 1960s. You can read all about it by clicking the link.
Regata de Globos is held at the soccer field down the hill from our house. Leslie and I got there a little after 3 p.m. and joined other members of CASA — Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic — at the organization’s tent with lots of snacks plus beer and wine. CASA sponsored one of the globos, hiring a group of locals to make it and launch it. Lots of businesses and organizations do that. Here’s a two-minute video of the launch:
Not all the globos soared into the sky, though. Several ended like this one:
Launches went on into the night. We left the field about 6 p.m., but we could see some of them from our patio — too far away to take a photo, though. Each globo has a small flame at the bottom that keeps the inside air hot and keeps the globo aloft. After dark, you can see the flame, even from a distance. We watched one of them sail east toward Chapala, and it looked like an alien spacecraft!
The bigger celebration, though, was Monday, Sept.16: Mexican Independence Day — also known as Diez y seis de Septiembre. There were parades in Ajijic and other Lakeside villages. Diez y seis is always preceded by the Grito de Dolores, a call to arms by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. The Grito began the Mexican War of Independence in 1810. Hidalgo, a Catholic priest, is considered the father of Mexican independence. Unlike George Washington, though, Hidalgo was martyred early in the struggle for freedom from Spain. Every year on Sept. 15, the Mexican president re-creates the Grito and rings the same bell Father Hidalgo rang. Governors and mayors around the nation do the same.
Next up are the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration, followed by several other fiestas. In Ajijic, the most important is Fiesta de San Andrésnear the end of November. Saint Andrew is Ajijic’s patron saint.
In the last post I told you a pair of barn swallows (golodrinas in Spanish) had built a nest on the wall of our house, just outside the sliding glass door from the master bedroom to the patio. Well, the four hatchlings have learned to fly and are spending their days checking out the neighborhood. They still come back to the nest at night, though.
I shot a brief video that shows the kids chilling on the backs of our patio chairs, and suddenly one of the adults swoops in. We have lots of swallows in this area, and it’s fun to watch them — usually during breakfast — dart and dive through the air. Here’s the video:
BREAKING NEWS: Sort of. If you’re Facebook friends with Leslie you already know she took third place in judging at this month’s meeting of the Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic — better known as CASA. The theme was Southern or Louisiana dishes, and Leslie made New Orleans red beans and rice using a favorite recipe from her long-time friend Deanne Faucheux, who lives in New Orleans now. We were happy that our good friend Carol — a Kentucky native — won first place in the dessert category for her Derby Pie. I had some — yeah, it was a winner!
CASA members are required to present a dish at a monthly meeting at least four times a year. This was Leslie’s fourth entry and her fourth award. Three of those were from the judges — most of whom are local chefs or restaurant owners — and a fourth was a People’s Choice Award. Not a bad record so far!
Next month’s theme is Méxicano food, and Leslie is already researching recipes for pre-Colombian dishes, which should be an interesting twist. The idea comes from a special meal we enjoyed several years ago at Topolobampo, a Rick Bayless restaurant in Chicago. I’ll let you know how that turns out.
That’s all the excitement for now. August can be a boring month in this part of México because there are no fiestas en Agosto. That changes in September with Diez y Seis de Septiembre and other festivals. More on that next time.
The title of today’s post uses the Spanish word hogar (home) rather than casa (house) because Leslie and I are gradually trying to turn this house in México into our home. We spent three weeks in San Diego recently, and it felt great to come back to familiar surroundings instead of moving on to another new city or country. We did that for a little over two years as “vagabonds.” Now we’re settling in. And we like it.
We’re fairly confident the leaks in the roof have been fixed — for now, at least. We haven’t had a torrential downpour like those that brought this problem to light in the first place, but one is coming! There are still a number of “issues” with this place but now we have Eddie, the best handyman in México, on our side. Eddie spent many years in the U.S. and is fully bilingual. In addition to fixing a toilet and other repairs, he hung up most of our art work for us. Builders don’t use lumber and drywall here, they put up brick walls and cover the brick with concrete — for interior as well as exterior walls. Bricks and concrete cost less than lumber and drywall here, and no wood in the house means fewer termite problems.
Hanging artwork here is not as simple as nailing a hook in the wall. We marked spots where we wanted to hang something, and Eddie drilled a hole in that spot. Then he inserted an anchor into the hole and put a screw into the anchor, left it sticking out a bit, and hung the picture on the screw. Having our art on the walls makes the place seem more comfortable — more familiar. Eddie admired some of them, as did Salvador, our bottled-water delivery guy.
And here’s a surprise. We have roommates! Sort of. A pair of barn swallows has built a nest on the wall of the house, just outside the master bedroom. We’ve seen at least three baby birds in the nest, but there may be four. There are lots of swallows in this area right now. Leslie and I enjoy watching them dart and dive around as we have a meal on our patio. Lots of hummingbirds here, too, but they tend to be camera-shy.
As promised, here are some photos of how the house is turning out, all full-size so you can see better:
Finally, in the last post I left out something important. With the rainy season comes higher humidities and lower temperatures. You may recall that when we moved into this house three months ago, temperatures were high (90° F.-plus) but low humidity and a nice breeze off the lake made it more comfortable. In rainy season it still gets into the low 80s during the day, low 60s at night. But now the humidity can be as high as 70 percent. We still think this is a nearly perfect climate. After all, it has never snowed here!
A few weeks ago I posted about the beginning of rainy season here in the Lake Chapala area. It’s mostly a good thing, but not so much when there are cracks in your roof. Leslie and I returned from three weeks in San Diego to find the roof of this brand new house had leaked and damaged one of our rugs. Then we experienced two nights of torrential rain that forced us to put towels down to soak up the rain and prevent further damage.
The good news is the damaged rug is not one of the prized oriental rugs, and the leak did not extend into the living room. The bricks in the boveda ceiling got wet, and still show dampness nearly two weeks later. But a leak in the living room could’ve been much worse. We think it’s fixed now.
And we have rosemary, thyme and basil planted in neat containers on the terrace, but they seem to be dying. The owner of the local garden store — who gets rave reviews from our friends — said “too much water.” Not much we can do about the amount of lluvia (rain) God sends us, so we may have to replant those herbs.
The rain comes mostly at night, although I got slightly damp last week walking home from my Spanish class at 11 a.m.! And the storms really light up the night sky. Here’s what it looks like from our back door, looking south across Lake Chapala:
On the positive side, nobody waters their lawns at this time of year. Rain comes almost every night — sometimes in torrents, sometimes in soft showers, and often at 3 a.m.!
This is when things get really, really green. When you look north out our front door, you see part of the Sierra de San Juan Cosalá mountain range. When we moved in, there was nothing but brown on the mountains. Now, it’s lush and green, and it will stay that way until the end of the year.