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.
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.
Leslie and I have arrived in our new Ajijic home and we’ve had multiple challenges. But after a day of dealing with one problem after another, we can have a glass of wine on our patio and watch an amazing sunset. And since we moved in, we’ve eaten nearly every meal outside. Every day is a good day in Ajijic!
Our furniture and household goods arrived safely – a little late, but without any serious issues. Just a few scratches and scrapes here and there. We haven’t unwrapped all the artwork yet but it appears everything is intact. No broken frames or broken glass that we know of. We have a little less storage space than expected, and in the unpacking process we have (several times) said, “why did we bring this?”
But here’s the main thing: Since we began this vagabond journey at the beginning of October 2016, Leslie and I have slept in nearly 50 different beds — some good, some not so good. (Leslie says she gets credit for one extra bed because she was in the hospital in San Diego!) Now we have our king-sized memory foam mattress, the one from our home in Westmont, and we’re both very happy.
Every box we open reveals some item we haven’t seen in three years. It’s like Christmas in May! I’ll share inside photos next post. If you were ever in our Westmont home, things will look familiar!
There are frustrating things about the house, some of which are typical of Mexican building practices and some of which are simply due to the owner’s builder cutting corners and going with the cheapest stuff possible. We’ve been promised some upgrades over the next few months. Stay tuned for updates. Then there are other issues, like going a full week without wifi! That’s a long story, but it has a happy ending because we finally got a much better wifi than I originally thought was available.
Our home is in Ajijic’s Riviera Alta development. It’s a three-bedroom, three-bath home but relatively small and a bit more open than most traditional Mexican casas. We are at roughly 5,000 feet elevation. From the patio we have a view of Lake Chapala and the mountains on its southern shore. The house faces north, with a great view of the San Juan Cosalá Mountains. But this is fire season in the Lake Chapala area, and our views this week have been impaired by smoke. One day the smoke was so bad we could not see the other side of the lake.
This time of year, local farmers traditionally prepare for new planting by burning off last year’s crops from the fields. It hasn’t rained here since the end of January, and that was less than one-half inch. So it’s very dry, and sometimes the fire gets away from the farmer so we see smoke billowing up from just on the other side of the mountain, or on the other side of the lake. We’ve also heard that people camp up in the mountains and burn their trash rather than packing it out. That’s a problem too. Driving home one night, I saw flames on our side of the mountain — very high up. Apparently that’s the first time it’s happened in decades.
For several days we saw a helicopter with a huge bucket hanging about 30 or 40 feet below the skids. The chopper flies from the north over our house to Lake Chapala, dips down (too low for us to see), then comes back up with a bucket full of water and heads back north, which is where most of the fires are.
The fires began April 27. As of May 12, most are either out or controlled. Rainy season begins roughly in mid-June, and the mountains will become a gorgeous green. Right now, Leslie and I are learning that May is the hottest month in this area. Most gringos go back to Canada or the U.S. for several weeks to escape the heat. We may do some European travel next year, if only to avoid smoke from the fires.
Actually, the heat is not that bad. It gets into the upper 80s to near-90° F. during the day, but the humidity is low — sometimes as low as 10 to 20 percent. And there’s usually a nice breeze off the lake. At night, that breeze sometimes intensifies and the temperature drops to the upper 50s F. Right now, at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening, it’s 83° F. with 17 percent humidity. Perfect for dining alfresco and watching the hummingbirds and swallows.
Leslie saw this on a bumper sticker last week, and they are words to live by if you’re a retired ex-pat living in Mexico: Carpe mañana! Latin mixed with Spanish, but hey — that says it all.
No, we’re not going to put that bumper sticker on our “new” car, which is a 2013 Honda CR-V, black with beige leather interior. We opted for a used car because Leslie didn’t want to cry when we got our first “ding.” And if you’ve seen our photos of the narrow cobblestone Ajijic Centro streets in previous posts, you know it’s just a matter of time. Actually, the most dents and dings occur in the Wal-Mart and Super Lake parking lots. A photo was promised, so here it is.
Leslie and I survived Fat Tuesday, which is called Carnaval here in Mexico rather than Mardi Gras. There are small parades leading up to Shrove Tuesday — as it’s known in the Anglican tradition — and a big parade on that day with elaborate floats and people dressed in outlandish get-ups. Rather than throwing beads, people in the Ajijic parades douse the crowd with flour and smash confetti-filled eggs on people’s heads. Leslie and I are familiar with these cascarones (cask-ah-ROAN-ez) from our time in San Antonio, Texas. It’s been a week since Carnaval and you can still see confetti in Ajijic’s main street and main plaza.
Check this link to the Ajijic News website for details about Ajijic celebrations from New Year’s Day through Easter. Carnaval is about halfway down.
St. Andrew’s Anglican Church celebrates Shrove Tuesday each year with a pancake supper: pancakes, sausage links and applesauce served at 5 p.m. in the church garden. This year, I volunteered to flip pancakes while Leslie helped serve. She also contributed her famous raspberry sauce. The church kitchen has two stoves. With cast iron griddles attached to both, my friend John and I turned out enough pancakes to feed about 50 people — and the raspberry sauce was a huge hit. One of the Social & Hospitality Committee ladies claimed she saw at least one person licking their plate!
Finally, we’ve started the process to have our household goods moved here from the storage locker in Lisle, Ill. Move-in date for the house in Riviera Alta is May 1. More on that to come.
This first month in our new home has been fraught with illness and the pains of settling in. But Leslie and I have kicked our colds and are both healthy now. We’ve accomplished our biggest goal — getting the paperwork started for our permanent resident cards. Just two more steps to go. We hope to have our cards before Christmas.
This is a busy time in Ajijic — it’s party central until the end of the year. For example, recently we went to the annual Feria Maestros del Arte in nearby Chapala. It’s more than just an art show, it’s a celebration of more than 80 highly talented Mexican artists in a variety of fields: pottery, textiles, baskets, jewelry, etc. It’s a way for artisans to sell their work, but it also raises awareness about the nature of Mexican folk art. The artists use local materials in their art, using techniques that have been handed down through many generations. The Feria is about saving this art and helping the artisans.
Following Día de los Muertos is Día de Revolucion on Nov. 20. This celebrates the 1910 revolution that toppled Army general Porfirio Diaz and brought democracy to Mexico. We missed the parade. On Nov. 21, a fiesta began in honor of St. Andrew the Apostle, the city’s patron saint. We heard some of the late-night partying and wandered through a bazaar set up on the malecon (boardwalk). Then I happened upon some locals in the main square one afternoon where a band was playing (fairly well) and a guy was singing (pretty badly). There were several caballeros (people on horseback) watching. One man’s white horse was dancing to the music, but no humans were.
The San Andres Fiesta lasts until the end of the month. Every day there are bands playing, church bells ringing and cohetes (bottle rockets) going off at all hours to announce masses being held in local churches. There are several parades, too. We can hear band music at 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., as well as during the day. Streets around the main square are blocked by carnival rides and food stands. One of our new friends here told us that when November ends, then the locals start celebrating Christmas. These are apparently two very noisy months!
Leslie and I are trying to establish some routines in our new home. She’s already involved in the book group that meets monthly at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, and I plan to attend the monthly men’s group lunch later this week. We’re looking forward to a pot-luck dinner and Christmas carol singing event on Dec. 7. We had dinner with new friends Carol and David, and they invited us to join an already big group at their home for Thanksgiving dinner. There were nine in all, and the food was fantastic.
We’ve also signed up for the “Introduction to Lakeside” class offered by The Lake Chapala Society on Dec. 13. We attended the class last year when we were here for six weeks, but going through it again — now that we’re full-fledged LCS members — will get us updated on banking, health care, housing, traffic and other important topics.
Oh, and while the Chicago area endures its first big snowstorm of the season, Leslie and I enjoyed a glass of wine and some charcuterie on our patio yesterday while we watched the sunset wearing T-shirts. It was about 75° F. It’s not perfect, though. A few weeks ago the daytime highs were around 68° and unusually windy. The forecast for the coming week calls for some rain and a couple of days in the mid-60s. It’s in the low-50s around sunrise when I go out for my daily jog on the malecon, so I just toss on a sweatshirt and I’m fine.
The vagabond years are over. Leslie and I are headed for our new home — Ajijic, Mexico. As the temperatures dropped here in Chicago’s western suburbs over the past few weeks, we have enjoyed seeing the beautiful fall colors. However, we didn’t expect to see snow flurries. It’s a sure sign we stayed in the Frozen North too long!
We’ve been in the U.S. since mid-July, and we’ve accomplished a lot. For example, Leslie has excellent vision now, thanks to Dr. Lafayette’s cataract surgery, and she was able to spend quality time with her two sisters and daughter Stephanie. The best thing about being here so long is that we were able to have great breakfasts, lunches and dinners, some at old “favorite” places, with our many friends in the western suburbs. And we can both hit the road with excellent haircuts! Thanks, Traci!
We also enjoyed worshipping with our friends at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville, where Director of Music Dan Wagner has begun a monthly Evensong. If you like great choral music, you will love the Grace Evensong series. And we had a ball visiting The Morton Arboretum in Lisle to see the trolls. If you live in Chicagoland — or if you plan to visit here — you gotta go see the trolls! (See big photos below.) This terrific, slightly quirky, display of art will be at the Arboretum until the end of 2018 and possibly longer.
People who learn of our plans often ask, “When are you coming back?” We’ve been approved for Permanent Resident status in Mexico, so we don’t expect to come back! We may return to the U.S. for a two-week vacation next summer to see family and friends. We might also vacation in Europe. Realistically, though, we’ll remain at least one full year in Ajijic and evaluate after we’ve experienced all the seasons.
Many of you have asked if the blog will continue. Definitely, yes! And I hope you’ll continue to follow us. Leslie and I already have plans to join friends in Léon, Mexico, for an international hot-air balloon festival in mid-November, so we expect to have lots of things to tell you about during our first full year of non-vagabondness. (That may not be an actual word, but it’s really descriptive!) And, of course, all our friends have a standing invitation to visit us south of the border.
Now it’s goodbye to the U.S.A. Next post from Ajijic!
Three weeks from today (Nov. 1), Leslie and I will become full-time ex-pats in the town of Ajijic, Mexico. We’re getting so excited that I’ve had a song going through my head lately — James Taylor’s “Mexico.” Click on that link to see a You Tube video of a live performance that will get you out of your chair. You may even feel the need to have a margarita, or some chips and guacamole!
Leslie regularly visits the “Ajijic Newbies” Facebook page. It’s a terrific resource and will help us learn more about our new home. Here’s a great article from Forbes magazine on some of the misconceptions many people have about living in Mexico. Somebody posted this article on the “Newbies” page.
As for our time here in the U.S., we’ve just about wrapped up all our appointments with physicians, and we’re continuing to have lunches and dinners with family and friends. But temperatures are starting to drop — frost advisory tonight — and that means we’ve been here too long already.
We’re watching two hurricanes that bear our names! Yesterday, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle at just-below Category 5 strength. Hurricane Leslie, on the other hand, is ravaging the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean and is no threat to any land mass. Well, where we’re going (5,020 feet above sea level) we won’t have to worry about tropical storms, whether they’re named for us or not.
I know it’s been awhile since the last post, but there hasn’t been much to report on. Leslie and I have enjoyed seeing family and friends, dining at favored old haunts and being back at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville.
Once we decided on Ajijic, Mexico, as our new home, Leslie put the word out that we were looking for a place to rent, starting the first of November. It paid off in the form of a tip from our friend Anita about a two-bedroom house within budget that has a lot of amenities. It’s new construction in the heart of the village just a block from the shore of Lake Chapala. It’s easy walking distance to one of the weekly markets and many of our favorite restaurants. We should be signing a six-month lease within the week.
The rental agent says trees effectively block a view of the lake from the mirador, and that’s a downside. Also, it’s not in our preferred location, but the photos look great and we’ll be the first residents. The six-month lease gives us the flexibility to try out this spot while we look for something farther west that has a pool and maybe a lake view. If our “dream” location becomes available, we’ll move. If not, we’ll renew the lease and enjoy being in the village.
Leslie had her first cataract surgery Aug. 7. Everything went swimmingly and she’s back to normal activities. Dr. Lafayette will do the left eye Aug. 28, giving her a full two months recovery time before we head south. If all goes as planned, she won’t need contact lenses or glasses (except maybe reading glasses) anymore. She’s excited about that.
Finally, we have an appointment Friday, Aug. 24 to apply for our Residente Permanente Jubilado visas (Permanent Resident Retiree). That begins the process for the Mexican equivalent of a “green card.” We’ve heard good things about El Consulado General de México in Chicago. We’ve got all the required documents and we’re hoping the process will be simple and fast. More on that to come.
That’s all for now. I’ll post another update as needed!
Year Two of this journey is almost over as Leslie and I head back to the Chicago area in mid-July. A decision looms: Of all the places we’ve been since October 2016, where will we live as non-vagabonds? The past six weeks in France made that choice a bit tougher.
France has a lot of upsides. There’s great food, history and culture, excellent health care (best in the world according to the World Health Organization), great food, friendly people, a pleasant climate (here in the south, at least), great food, and easy access to terrific beaches (here in the south, at least). Did I mention the great food? And, of course, France has some mighty fine wine! Living in France would make it easier — and less expensive — to see parts of Europe we haven’t gotten to yet, such as Budapest and Vienna, and revisit parts of Spain, Italy and the U.K. It’s a first-world country, so you can drink the tap water and flush the toilet paper (both are issues in Mexico).
Montpellier would be a terrific place to live. It’s got great energy, a moderate climate, tons of cultural activities of all stripes, friendly people, good public transportation, an English-speaking faith community, and excellent markets for fresh meats and produce. We feel safe here. There’s a reason it’s been the fastest growing city in France for the past 25 years. There’s a thriving ex-pat community in Montpellier. Recently, we met a woman at church who told us about an organization that helps English-speaking ex-pats find housing and resolve some of the issues of moving to a new country. It would be most helpful to have that resource available.
There are negatives, though, as with everywhere we’ve been. France is not cheap, for one thing, and the dollar-euro exchange rate is not favorable to those whose income is in dollars (like us). Our money won’t go as far here as it does in other places. Getting to France from the U.S., and vice-versa, can be expensive. That could be an issue for anyone coming to visit us in our new home, or for us going back to visit family and friends. And it’s a very long flight. Also, there’s a seven-hour time difference between Montpellier and the U.S. central time zone, where most of our friends and family live — that’s a nine-hour difference between us and our daughter, Stephanie, in San Diego. We have to take that into consideration when calling or FaceTiming. Another big issue for us is that lots of people here smoke. Smoking is not allowed inside restaurants, but it’s fine in the outdoor seating. Many times we’ve been enjoying our lunch and gotten a whiff of cigarette smoke — takes us back to the ’70s.
As much as we like it, even Montpellier has some issues. Driving, especially in the historic center, is a major challenge because of one-way streets and roads designed for horses. It would take awhile to get accustomed to driving here. The climate is generally good, but the past few days it’s been really hot. It’s 31° C. right now (that’s 88° F., but using Celsius makes it feel cooler) and it’s expected to climb past 33° C. (92° F.) tomorrow. On the other hand, we heard that last winter Montpellier got some snow. So there are some extremes that may be less of a problem elsewhere.
Those are some of the pros and cons. So what’s our choice? Looks like it’s coming down to a tie between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France. Two very different places, but a tough choice. Tell you what: If Mexico wins the World Cup, we move to Mexico; if France wins, we live in France. That sound good? (OK, I hear you saying, “What if Japan wins? What if Russia wins? What if…? Did I say it’s a perfect selection tool?)
Stay tuned — more adventures to come. We’re becoming tourists again briefly before the flight back to O’Hare. Where? I’ll let you know in the next post. Until then, I will leave you with some photos and videos from our time in Montpellier that haven’t made it into previous posts.
MOVIE TIME! I’ve mentioned the market Halles Castellane. Well, here’s a look at one small part of it on a busy Saturday morning:
And here’s Marion, our favorite vendor in the market, slicing some wonderful aged comté cheese for Leslie (you may need to go full-screen to see it all):
We did our “last night” celebration early because we leave on Tuesday morning, and many nice restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday nights. So we did Maison de la Lozère and discovered aligot (AH-lee-go), a regional dish that’s a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese and garlic. If you get hungry watching the video, here’s an English version of the recipe. This restaurant makes quite a show of serving it: