New year, new plan

Happy New Year, everybody! May this be a great one for all of you. Leslie and I have been sharing a bad cold since right before Christmas, so we’ve been staying pretty close to home and doing very little of interest. Nothing to post about. We both feel much better now but we still have lingering coughs that sound worse than they are.

A new year brings new plans. We will be here in San Diego until the end of January (longest we’ve been anywhere since this project began). Unless our circumstances change significantly, San Diego is not on our list of possible retirement locations.

The cost of living is stunningly high here. For example, there is a one-bedroom, one-bath condo for sale on the first floor of the building we live in right now. It’s 717 square feet and is listed at $398,000. A two-bedroom, which is what we would need, is closer to $500,000+ in the downtown area. In nearby towns like La Mesa, one of our favorites, you can find two-bedroom places under $500K, but they’re generally quite small. And rents are high throughout the area. I’m not going into detail about real estate because everything depends on location. Prices are affordable if you don’t mind owning a double-wide in El Cajon. Want to see water from your house? Now you’re looking at seven figures.

Groceries cost a lot more here in Southern California. Ralphs is the biggest and best grocery store in the downtown area, and it’s an easy 10-block walk from our condo. (An aside here for my editor colleague John: It’s Ralphs, not Ralph’s. No apostrophe — checked their website to be sure.) The best thing about Ralphs is getting 30 percent off all wine (mix and match) if you buy a minimum of six bottles! That’s a great deal. These prices, though, not so much:

  • gluten-free penne pasta, $2.79.
  • Classico pasta sauce, $2.99.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.92.
  • grape tomatoes, $3.99.
  • Silk almond milk, 1/2 gal., $3.49.

Across the street from us is Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, a discount food store. Prices are lower and the walk is less than a block, but they don’t carry the range of stuff Ralphs or Whole Foods does:

  • 5 limes, $1.00.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.02.
  • Quaker oats, 42 oz., $3.29.
  • Ritz crackers, $1.99.
  • pineapple, $1.99.

When we have a rental car, we go up to the hip Hillcrest neighborhood to Whole Foods. There are some things we can only get at Whole Paycheck, like our favorite Intelligensia House Blend coffee, which sets us back $13.99 for 12 ounces. It’s worth it. Some other stuff:

  • guacamole, .85 lb., $7.64.
  • romaine lettuce, $1.99.
  • coconut milk coffee creamer, $4.49
  • low-sodium bacon, $5.49.
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People-watching is great at the year-round Little Italy farmers market.

Then there are the Little Italy (Saturday morning) and North Park (Thursday afternoon) farmer’s markets. I have no idea what we spend there, but it’s dramatically more than at the tianguis in Ajijic, or the mercado in Mérida. For example, you may recall me bragging about getting 13 limes at the Santiago mercado in Mérida for about 75 cents. At the Little Italy market, one vendor was selling limes at three for a dollar. Sometimes, though, you get what you pay for, like free-range eggs from Three Sons Farm in Ramona, Calif. — expensive at $7 a dozen, but by far the best eggs I’ve ever had.

I looked back at cost-of-living posts from Mexico, and you should feel free to do the same if you like. The Orowheat whole wheat bread I enjoy, for example, is $3.49 at Ralphs. We paid $2.30 for the same loaf at Wal-Mart in Ajijic, Mexico. At Ralphs, a dozen large eggs is just a penny shy of four bucks. In Ajijic, less than two dollars.

Mexico still seems to be in the lead in our home search, and cost of living is a big factor. But we’re giving Europe — France and maybe Italy — another chance in the spring. More on that when plans firm up.

Finally, some sad news. We had to say goodbye to our cat Sam last week. He was only 10 and suffered from episodes of poor health about once a year since he was a kitten. Dr. Berg, the best vet in the world, would give him a B12 shot and some other treatment and he would bounce back as if nothing had happened. She did that several times while we still lived in Westmont.

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Sam

This time, after more than a year of excellent health, he didn’t respond to treatment as he had in the past. He stopped eating and his kidneys and liver were shutting down, so we consulted with Dr. Berg and with our dear friend Barbara, who was caring for Sam in our absence, and made the tough call to end his suffering. We deeply appreciate Barbara, who did all she could for him. She and Sam had bonded, and we know she feels the loss as we do. We bring these little creatures into our homes and into our lives knowing their life spans are shorter than ours, but it’s still hard to handle.

2018 started on a sad note as Leslie learned that her second cousin, Helen Thoman, died in New Jersey at the age of 99. She was a grand lady, and a lot of family history may have been lost with her death, especially information about Leslie’s Hungarian relatives.

And we were shocked just after Christmas to learn of the unexpected death of our former neighbor Dan Smith. Dan and Zdenka were the best neighbors we ever had. I remember Dan shoveling his own driveway, then shoveling ours, then shoveling Monica’s driveway across the street, after her husband Ed died. Dan was one of those really big men who was never without a smile. Except, maybe, when the Chicago Blackhawks lost a hockey game! He was truly a gentleman, and a gentle man. Z, you and Christopher are in our prayers.

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We miss you, Dan. So glad we had this dinner together last summer.

 

Looking at options in San Diego County

In the last post, I said one part of the plan for San Diego was to spend the holidays with our daughter Stephanie. Another part was to continue being warm — or at least warmer than we would be if we were still in the Chicago area. So far, so good.

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One of the upsides to living in California. Great wines!

It was over 80° F. on Thanksgiving Day here in San Diego. Leslie and I enjoyed a great Thanksgiving dinner with Stephanie. The list of things we’re thankful for begins with Steph. Being here in San Diego to share the holidays with her ranks right up there. And leftovers, of course. I’m always thankful for leftovers!

We got the festivities started a little early. On Nov. 18 (the Saturday before Thanksgiving), we enjoyed a “Friendsgiving” celebration with Stephanie and more than 40 of her closest friends. The hosts provided a roast turkey and a turducken. All the women brought a side dish and all the men brought two bottles of wine. There was a lot of great food, and a lot of wine! Leslie made her famous home-made cranberry sauce (way better than that gelatin stuff out of a can) and Stephanie made some amazing mashed potatoes. The party was on the rooftop of a condo building where one of Steph’s friends lives. Long walk for us — almost a whole block from where we’re living now.

Plans for Christmas Day haven’t been formalized yet, but we had dinner with Stephanie last weekend and helped her put up her Christmas tree. In keeping with tradition, we watched the 2003 Will Ferrell movie “Elf.”

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A small part of the crowd at “Friendsgiving.” We were the second- and third-oldest at the party. One other set of parents was there: David (he’s 70) and Patty, a neat couple we enjoyed meeting.

This week Leslie and I have been going to a number of communities in and near San Diego to see if maybe we could live here. We still plan to live outside the U.S., but San Diego has always been “Plan B.” There may come a time when we would need to be closer to Stephanie — driving distance rather than a potentially long flight.

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There’s a Farmers Market every Saturday morning, year-round, in the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego. Lots more than just fruits and vegetables: hummus, sauces, jellies, bread, cheese, you name it.

So far we have visited places as close as North Park, La Mesa and El Cajon, as well as farther-flung haunts such as Carlsbad, Temecula and Poway. We also drove through the coastal villages of Solana Beach and Encinitas, both of which are very similar to Carlsbad. And we have a few other places to check out.

The leading candidates appear to be Carlsbad (a quaint beach town) and Temecula (inland, lots of wineries). It’s jarring, though, to look at tiny apartments — two-bedrooms, about 850 square feet — that would cost us three, four, even five times as much as a nice furnished home or condo would in Mexico.

And so far, all the independent senior housing we’ve seen has been at a very high price and includes three meals a day in the facility dining room. We’re not interested in that — not yet, anyway. We want to cook most of our own meals. If you’ve tasted Leslie’s cooking, you understand.

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One of the desserts we enjoyed at Friendsgiving. Couldn’t resist including this! Leslie says the turkey is made of fondant, a type of decorative icing for cakes.

UPDATE: We’ve been struggling with where to go after San Diego. The original plan was to spend some time in Costa Rica before heading back to Europe to check out France and Italy. But we couldn’t seem to find appropriate housing in our preferred area of Costa Rica, the Central Valley. The other problem was how to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which is Feb. 6, 2018.

We always try to be flexible, so here’s the new plan: A Panama Canal cruise for late January and early February. That would allow us to see a bit of Costa Rica, as well as some of Panama and Colombia. It would also get us from the west coast to the east coast while crossing the Panama Canal transit off both our bucket lists!

Getting to the east coast (Florida) sets us up to take a repositioning cruise to Europe (up to four weeks). That should make for a nice vacation — like the one we did last year in the U.K. — and it’s a little less expensive than airfare. Plus it gets us to Europe in spring when the temperatures are more amenable. Yes, we’re still leaning toward Mexico for our retirement home, but we need to give Europe another shot.

More on that later. I leave you with photos of Stephanie’s cats, Louis and Piper. They’re both Maine Coons, which is the third most popular breed in the U.S. right now.

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This is Louis. He’s the senior cat in the house.
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This is Piper. Her markings are really dramatic.

Exploring Lakeside

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Many thanks to those of you who wished Leslie a happy birthday (Oct. 16) on her Facebook page. Here, we’re celebrating at Ajijic Tango, an Argentine restaurant in the centro. Perfectly done steaks and great chimichurri!

I know it’s been awhile since the last post. Leslie and I have learned a lot about Lakeside recently. For example, there’s a lot to do here! You can be as busy or sedate as you like. We’ve been busy.

We made “history” recently. We rented a car, which is something we have not done except for the brief time we were in Illinois over the summer, but that doesn’t count.

Why a car? Ajijic centro is walkable but there’s a lot more to Lakeside than the centro, and some things require a car or a generous friend with a car. For example, we’ve been attending St.Andrew’s Anglican Church in the Riberas del Pilar neighborhood of San Antonio Tlayacapan (tuhlay-ah-kah-PAN). On our first visit we took a taxi there and got a ride home from our Canadian friend Libby, who lives right around the corner from us. She graciously picked us up the next week. But she did not plan to attend the following Sunday, so we had to make other arrangements. Also, the Tuesday organic market is a few miles west on the carretera, or main road. We took a taxi one week and managed to catch a bus back, but it took longer than expected and we missed an event at The Lake Chapala Society that we had planned to attend.

Taxis are less than dependable here in Ajijic. You cannot hail a cab as you can in most other Mexican cities in which we’ve lived. Here you must call or go to the sito (taxi stand) in Ajijic Plaza. We could use the buses. They’re only eight pesos per person and fairly dependable. But not all bus stops are clearly marked, and you often have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for a bus.

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It’s not a Cadillac, but it’s kind of fun to drive.

And there’s a lot to see outside of Ajijic, like Chapala and Jocotepec (ho-KOH-teh-peck), for example. You need a car to reach those towns, or to get to Costco in Guadalajara. So we got a little Nissan March for a couple of weeks.

One of the first things we did with our new wheels was to take a Saturday drive east to the town of Chapala, which is the largest Lakeside town and the seat of government for the Municipality of Chapala. It’s like a county or a township in the U.S. The Chapala municipality includes Chapala, Ajijic, San Antonio Tlayacapan and smaller towns, but not Jocotepec, the westernmost Lakeside town.

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Part of Chapala’s malecon, with restaurants and shops. The green stuff at the water’s edge is called liria, and it’s not good for the lake.

Chapala has more than 21,000 residents. Its malecon, or boardwalk, is longer and more commercial than Ajijic’s malecon, which is mostly a park. There’s a pier and a restaurant or two — that’s about it. It’s a quiet place to jog in the morning, or to walk your dog. In Chapala, though, we saw lots of vendors selling food and other items (ice cream!), and there were a number of hotels and restaurants with nice lake views. There are also small boats you can hire to take you out into the lake to visit one of the small islands.

Leslie and I were excited to see sailboats on the water at Chapala. The only watercraft near Ajijic are small fishing boats and kayaks. Leslie, who grew up in Tower Lakes just north of Barrington, Ill., remembers lots of Sunfish and Butterflies on a dramatically smaller lake. So it was good to see sails. A few days ago we learned why the sailboats steer clear of our end of the lake — it’s too shallow. The lake is deeper east of the town of Chapala.

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This statue of Christ as a fisherman, “Jesus Pescador,” is just off the Chapala malecon. It looks back toward the town.

This fact, and many more, came out of a program at The Lake Chapala Society called “Introduction to Lakeside.” Our leader was Rachel, who is Australian but came here from Canada seven years ago. She speaks Canadian with an Australian accent! Here are some other tidbits:

  • Mexicans celebrate a number of religious festivals, most of which involve fireworks at odd times, like in the middle of the night. The message: If late-night/early-morning noise is a problem for you, find a house that’s nowhere close to any local churches!
  • Health care in Mexico is highly rated — as good as, or better than, the U.S.  Most Mexican docs graduated from the University of Guadalajara Medical School, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins. Not too shabby.
  • The total population of Lakeside (from Chapala west to Jocotepec) is about 110,000.

Speaking of health care, we got yet another chance to experience health care in Mexico, and it is very good. Leslie’s eyes were irritated and the problem wasn’t responding to normal home treatment. She saw Dr. Rios, an ophthalmologist who said the problem was environmental — there are a lot of allergens floating around right now. He gave her two medications and will do a follow-up just before we leave town. The exam was 700 pesos — about $36 USD. That’s not the co-pay or deductible. That’s the total cost of the exam. We paid another 1,000 pesos (about $52 USD) for two medications, and that’s less than if we had gone to a farmacia. She’s already improving.

And it’s not just people health care. Last weekend, we had to take one of “our” cats, Doris Day, to the vet because she also appeared to have an eye infection. Total bill was 460 pesos — 150 for the examination and 310 pesos for eye drops. That’s less than $25 USD total,  and the exam itself was less than $10 USD.

Sunday, we spent a terrific afternoon with Dale and Don, new friends from St. Andrew’s. They have a beautiful home with great views in the Puerta Arroyo subdivision on the western edge of Ajijic. Dale showed us some other houses in their neighborhood, including one under construction, then took us on a tour of other subdivisions she thinks we might consider renting if we come here permanently.

Are we leaning closer to Lakeside as our “permanent” home? Maybe.

Next time: Cost of living.

Hasta luego!

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Inside the parroquia, the main church in downtown Chapala. We just missed a wedding!
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In Chapala’s parroquia , we noticed circular windows that can be opened and closed by pulling on a rope, which hangs down just to the right of the pillar. See it?

Year Two begins with one more stop in Mexico: Ajijic

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Leaving Midway on a direct Volaris flight to Guadalajara. A little better prepared than a year ago, and still advertising for Jake’s Country Meats!

First, let me assure you we were completely unaffected by the earthquake that killed more than 230 people in five Mexican states, primarily in Mexico City. We are a little over 330 miles from Mexico City, so we did not feel the quake here in the Lake Chapala area.

And a correction: Last post had a pronunciation guide for Ajijic, but I got it wrong. Sort of. There is some debate. One source says “ah-he-HEEK,”  but the locals often drop the hard “c” at the end, making it “ah-he-HEE.”  

Ajijic is a 450-year-old village where the cost of living is relatively low and the climate is “the best in the world.” This town is at roughly the same latitude as Hawaii and the same elevation as Denver. Average temperature is 68 degrees F. It’s near the end of the rainy season right now, and daytime highs are in the high 70s to low 80s with overnight lows in the low 60s. The humidity seems to run from 50 percent up to near 80 percent after a storm.

Like San Miguel de Allende, Ajijic has narrow cobblestone streets and a central plaza. There are a number of colorful shops, art galleries and restaurants in the centro. Population numbers vary but 15,000 seems to be a good number, with at least a quarter of that being retired expats, mostly from the U.S. and Canada. Some live here year-round, many more stay through the winter before heading NOB (north of the border) for the rainy season. There are several other villages along Lake Chapala — Jocotepec, Chapala and San Antonio Tlayacapan just to name a few.

Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It’s 50 miles long and 11 miles wide, at its extremes, with an average depth of about 15 feet. Ajijic’s “Malecon,” or boardwalk along the lakefront, is a great place to jog/walk in the mornings. I often see egrets, herons and pelicans on the shores.

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Traditional house on a cobblestone street.

Leslie and I have settled into our new digs, a very nice home on Donato Guerra street in the central section of Ajijic. We have two bedrooms (family and friends can come visit!) and a patio with a pool. There’s a good bit of street noise and a few mosquitos, but the house is terrific. Some of that street noise is the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Yes, you can see locals on horseback here almost any day of the week. The kitchen is probably the best-equipped we have seen in our travels.

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Leslie has already whipped up some great meals here!

And we have four female roommates: Audrey, Doris Day, Racer and Bean (photos below). They must think we’re okay, since they sleep in our laps and ask for belly rubs. Thanks, Anita and Ken, for letting us live in your home for the next few weeks!

We have become members (through the end of October, at least) of the Lake Chapala Society so we can take advantage of their many social and educational offerings, and meet more people here. They help expats with health and legal issues, offer personal enrichment classes, and sponsor bus trips to the shopping mall in Guadalajara. LCS has lots of things for expats, but they also sponsor ESL classes for local people who want to improve their English. Our friend Marlene, who has lived here almost two years now, is a volunteer ESL teacher.

I’ll leave you with pics of our four housemates.

Hasta luego!

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Audrey has her own chair! Her name is on the heart-shaped medallion.
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Bean, short for “String Bean,” can open the patio door by herself, but never closes it.
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Racer, short for “Speed Racer,” loves belly rubs.
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Doris Day, a tiny kitty who loves to cat around outside at night, but is always at the patio door seeking entrance when I get back from my morning walk/jog.

 

Not so frequently asked questions

Some of you have been asking questions about our journey to a new home “somewhere in the world.” So a few answers first, then more about this amazing part of Mexico where we’re living for the next two weeks.

What if you need a doctor?  Health care in Mexico is very good and very affordable. Last week, Leslie went to see a podiatrist for a minor toe irritation. (We walk a lot here, so foot health is important.) She called and got an appointment the same day. She liked the doctor, who spoke English fairly well. He fixed her up with no problems. Fee: $200 pesos — that’s not even 10 bucks. He gave her a cream to use for the next week or so, and that cost another $200 pesos. No need for insurance. She just paid cash.

How do you get your mail? We use a great mail forwarding service, U.S. Global Mail in Houston. It’s a physical address, not a P.O. box — sort of like we have an apartment in Houston. They email me when we get mail, and I can look at a picture of the envelope and decide whether I want them to open it and scan the contents, forward it to me or throw it away. Most of it gets thrown away, just like if we were at home. But while we were in Spain, we got a $500 refund check. U.S. Global Mail offered several options for delivery, some of which were less than $20 USD. I chose an option through DHL that provided a tracking number, and that cost us about $40 to have it sent. DHL got that check to me in two days. I can’t say enough about U.S. Global Mail. If you plan to travel for an extended period, go to their website and sign up. Just click on the link above for information.

If you have more questions, send me an email or comment through the blog.

We did some exploring this week — went to a place called Cañada de la Virgen, about 30 minutes outside San Miguel. This is an archaeological site that wasn’t discovered util 1998.

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The pyramid seen from the inner courtyard.

Excavation began in 2002, and the site was opened to the public in 2011. We were very fortunate to have Roxana as our guide. She is an archeologist who worked on the early excavations, and actually did her Ph.D. dissertation on Cañada de la Virgen. It was incredible to have a guide with so much knowledge of the site. Her passion for the site, and for mesoamerican culture, came through clearly.

 

She said the main pyramid and other structures were probably built by the Otomi people sometime in the sixth century, and were likely abandoned by the 11th century.  She explained astronomical aspects of the pyramid, how the pyramid is aligned with the solstices.

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Archeologist Roxana explains the ancient structure.

She also explained how people would approach the holy site on a pilgrimage. The architect actually built the road leading to the pyramid first, and you can still see it today.

 

Three things were needed to have a holy site: a mountain, a cave and water. Roxana said the pyramid is the mountain. Ask the local people, even today, about a pyramid and they won’t understand what you mean. To them, it is a mountain. This mountain is smaller than the better-known pyramid in Chicen Itza, but it has the same very narrow steps. Roxana showed us how the ancient people probably walked up those steps, and we tried her method. Leslie and I are quite proud that we walked up and down the set of steps leading to the inner courtyard, and all the way up to the top of the pyramid!

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We didn’t walk straight up, we went at an angle with one foot crossing over the other. That’s Roxana leading the way while the rest of us try to figure it out.

 

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View from the top of the pyramid to the inner courtyard. You can see the ancient pathway that led from the distant river valley to the temple.

Yesterday, we treated ourselves to a dip in the mineral waters at La Gruta, just outside SMA. We spent a few hours there, starting out in a big pool of warm water. Then we moved to the second pool, which is even warmer. From that pool, you go through a tunnel into the hottest pool, which is like a hot tub without the jets. There’s a dome over this area so it’s a grotto — La Gruta. We spent a few hours lolling around in the warm baths on a day that wasn’t quite so warm. It only got up to about 70º F.

 

Following advice from several people, we got there in the morning to beat the crowds. But on a Thursday when the weather was cool, there weren’t many other people there. We got out of the pool and changed, then had lunch at their restaurant. We both had some excellent enchiladas verde and a margarita. But the highlight of lunch was a visit from a friendly cat who prowled the grounds like he owned the place.

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This guy knows a comfortable lap when he sees one.

He got a small treat and wandered away to visit another table, but he came back when we were done and almost immediately jumped into Leslie’s lap and made himself at home. Made us both think about our Sam, whom we know is being well cared for by our friend Barbara Hoch in Naperville.

 

That’s all for now. Hasta luego!