The Vatican: Michelangelo’s work impresses

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St.Peter’s Square, where thousands of the faithful wait hopefully every time a new pope is elected. First time I saw this place was in the movie “Shoes of the Fisherman” with Anthony Quinn and David Janssen. Excellent movie, you should rent it.

On our last day in Rome, Leslie and I spent some time at the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We saw Michelangelo’s work on the wall and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as well as his Pieta, completed when he was only 24.

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The Pieta, one of Michelangelo’s most famous, and most revered, works.

This was the second time Leslie has seen the Pieta. The first was at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The sculpture is stunning in its intricacy, and inspiring in its subject matter. As I tried to get a decent photo, which is difficult since the statue is protected by plexiglass, I noticed a young man make the sign of the cross right after taking a picture. His reverence was balanced, however, by those who felt they just had to get a selfie with the madonna.

Laura, our amazing tour guide, explained that Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, not a painter. So when Pope Julius II hired him to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, he refused. Turns out it’s hard to say no to any pope, so in 1508 Michelangelo started the project that would keep him on his back for four years. As Laura pointed out, painting frescoes is difficult because you must paint on wet stucco. Once the stucco dries, it’s too late. So he painted on wet stucco on a rickety scaffold about 60 feet above the marble floor. Is it any wonder the artist started dictating to the pope what he would and would not do?

But the ceiling, with the creation of Adam as the iconic focus, was just the first contribution Michelangelo would make to the chapel. Between 1535 and 1541, he also painted The Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar, on commission from Pope Paul III. While he was working on it, Michelangelo crossed swords with a powerful cardinal over the nude figures in the painting. But Michelangelo was older now, highly respected and powerful in his own right. He painted the cardinal’s face into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. When the cardinal complained to the pope about this, the pontiff said his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so — no changes. Moral: You don’t mess with Mike! Michelangelo also painted his own face in the work, on the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew. (Click on the link in this paragraph to see the whole work and get lots of details. Fascinating stuff!)

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Laura uses photos outside the museum to explain Michelangelo’s works in the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is sacred space, and all are encouraged to be silent. Not everybody obeys.

Probably the coolest thing about the Sistine Chapel, though, is that this is where the conclave of cardinals meets whenever it becomes necessary to elect a new pope. I recall a great scene from the 1968 movie “Shoes of the Fisherman.” Anthony Quinn plays a Russian cardinal who attends the conclave only weeks after being released from a Soviet gulag. Nobody’s winning, even after lots of politicking and a number of failed votes. Suddenly, one cardinal makes an impassioned speech in which he practically deifies Cardinal Kiril, who isn’t even one of the candidates. His speech sways other cardinals, who end up proclaiming Kiril as pope despite his vigorous refusals (“My brothers, I beg you! Do not do this!”).

I would love to show you the incredible, high-resolution, professional-quality pictures I took of Michelangelo’s works. But The Vatican doesn’t allow photography in the Sistine Chapel. You can go to the Vatican Museum’s website to see what it looks like. And Khan Academy has a site that is very educational.

 

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Looking down the nave from the back toward the altar of St. Peter’s. That’s an enormous bronze sculpture, biggest in the world, that marks Peter’s burial place.

We ended the tour in St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. Laura told us the basilica was built on the site believed to be where the Apostle Peter was martyred. Peter was crucified upside down because he did not want to die in the same way Christ died. The Vatican claims Peter’s tomb is under the basilica’s altar. Therefore, only the pope can say mass at this altar.

The rest of the Vatican Museum was interesting — a good warmup act, if you will. Works of art in sculpture, painting, mosaic and tapestry. Gallery after gallery of stuff. Impressive, but in a way it made us think the church could sell off a small portion of these treasures and help the poor. Isn’t that what Christ wants us to do? I’m just sayin’.

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Greek and Roman sculptures, a small part of the Vatican Museum’s huge collection.

So it’s time to bid farewell to Rome. It will be a pleasure because Leslie and I have been sharing a summer cold during our time here. Now we move on to Florence (Firenze in Italian), birthplace of the Renaissance, and hope for better health.

Next post from Florence, and more about Michelangelo.

Ciao!

 

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One of the Swiss Guards, who provide security for the Vatican. Tour guide Laura said the uniform and the armament are traditional, but he’s got a gun under that outfit and he can get to it quick if he needs to.

 

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Sculpture of our favorite pagan god, Bacchus. God of wine.

All roads lead to Rome

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Our hotel is just a few blocks from the Spanish Steps, one of Rome’s most popular, and most romantic, attractions.

Rome. The Eternal City.

Shortly after arriving in Italy’s capital, Leslie and I climbed the Spanish Steps and gazed out across the city. “We’re in Rome,” she beamed as she grabbed my arm. Okay, we’ve been to many of the major cities in Western Europe by now, so a new town really shouldn’t be making us giddy. But there really is something special about this place. After all, we’re walking in the steps of Julius Caesar and Sophia Loren. Lots of other folks, too.

There’s a lot going on in this town. More tourists than downtown Chicago in July! We’ve seen ancient wonders like the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, as well as more recent tourist sites like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, both of which were an easy walk from our hotel.

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The Trevi Fountain by night. Both of us tossed coins into the fountain, which means we will come back to Rome.

We started with the Colosseum. Our outstanding guide Roberta explained that the world’s largest amphitheater was built by Emperor Vespasian to get rid of a lake and some buildings put up by Nero after he burned Rome. Construction started in 70 C.E., just after the Empire destroyed Jerusalem. Jewish slaves got the whole thing done in just nine years. Impressive. Vespasian got it started, his son Titus finished the amazing arena.

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Free bread and free sports, like the games here in the Roman Colosseum, kept the public happy.

Events in the Colosseum were free, part of the empire’s way of keeping the populace in check — give them free bread and free sports. There were exotic animals fighting each other, simple executions and gladiatorial contests — the main event. Gladiators fought for three years. If they survived, they won their freedom. That doesn’t mean they went at it every day. Roberta said gladiators only had to fight four or five times a year.

The Colosseum could hold more than 50,000 people — some say as many as 80,000. Even though it was free, you had to have a ticket that provided a reserved seat in the proper section.

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Seating for top government officials. Best in the house, except for the emperor’s box.

The best seats were reserved for the emperor, top government officials and wealthy citizens. The good seats were for the middle class, while ordinary folks were higher up. Slaves and women — because they really didn’t count — got the nose-bleed seats (women of wealthy families could sit with their husbands in the better seats, of course).

Roberta then took us through the Roman Forum, where we saw several temples to pagan gods and a massive victory arch celebrating the Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

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The Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. If you’re thinking that’s where we get the term “vestal virgins,” you’re right!

We also saw the Capitaline Hill, where the Roman Senate once met and which is still home to one of the most important Italian national government buildings. The Forum was a marketplace for ideas as well as consumer goods.

We finished the day at The Pantheon, which was originally built “to honor all gods” but now it’s part tourist trap and part Christian church. Originally built in the first century B.C.E., it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the second century C.E. Parts of it, though, are over 2,000 years old, including the marble floor, the stunning facade and the beautiful dome, which is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. (Yeah, the Romans had concrete.) The dome really is an architectural masterpiece. If you can tear your eyes away from it for a moment, you’ll notice lots of other people looking up and gaping. Great design.

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Looking up into the dome of The Pantheon. That’s actually a hole in the roof. 

Finally, a bit about Rome itself. Many of the streets are tiny, almost alley-like. But cars and scooters use them at will, meaning pedestrians do not always have the right-of-way. We sat down in the outside seating at one little restaurant and had cars going by less than a foot away from our table. We moved inside, but only because it started to rain. Drivers are stunningly aggressive. The only time they back off is for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Drivers have to stop — it’s the law. If you’re not in a crosswalk, though, stay alert or get run over.

Our hotel is in an area where there are lots of restaurants; one on nearly every corner — sometimes three in one block. The menus are much the same everywhere: antipasti, first course pasta, second course meat or fish. And pizza, of course. No, Roman pizza is not better than Neopolitan pizza. They both taste really good, but I still need to check the pizza quality in Florence. So far, we have not had a bad meal in Italy. And Rick Steves is right about one thing — in Italian restaurants, the pasta is always perfectly al dente.

The downside to Italy in general, in my humble opinion, is that pretty much everybody smokes. There are limits, such as no smoking in restaurants or public buildings, and not on trains. But just about every restaurant has outdoor seating, and smoking outside is OK. Well, not if your table is right next to mine. Also, while waiting for a train one day in Naples, we looked down at the track and saw that it was littered with butts. It’s hard to walk down a street and not smell smoke. Big downside.

I’ll leave you with a few additional photos and this short movie of the Colosseum. Leslie shot this with her phone. It may go into your “downloads” and you’ll have to look for it there.

Next, Vatican City and its treasures.

Ciao!

 

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The fourth-century Arch of Constantine, between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. 
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Where the Senate met. It’s part of the vast grounds of the Roman Forum.
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This section of the Pantheon is now a Christian church.

Costa Rica misses the cut

While Costa Rica has a lot going for it, the downsides overshadow the positives for Leslie and me. The land of Pura Vida is no longer on the list of places we’ll consider living. It’s a close call, but we think Mexico is still in the lead.

On the plus side, Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The mountains are lush and green, and there’s an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. We didn’t get to see much of it because we didn’t do any of the touristy things, such as jungle treks and zip lines. Areas like the Central Valley and Lake Arenal have a nice climate with warm days and cool nights. The humidity in those places is relatively low. Beach towns are definitely out. Too hot, too humid.

There are a number of things we like about Costa Rica in general. It’s a politically stable country that just elected, by a fairly large margin, a center-left president who has great plans for his country. There has been no standing army since 1948, the 90 percent literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, there’s a growing middle class, and Costa Rica takes care of the environment. For example, almost 100 percent of the electricity generated in Costa Rica comes from five renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar.

But electricity is expensive, and the overall cost of living is only slightly lower than in the U.S., In some cases it’s on a par with North American and European countries. We’re looking for a place where our money goes a little farther.

Other downsides include:

  • There are no street addresses. We talked with a Canadian who rents a box at the post office to get mail. If he knows a package is coming, he calls the UPS or DHL delivery driver to meet them somewhere. Crazy.
  • And you get directions that assume you know where you are: “We’re 200 meters south of Pops Ice Cream.” Thanks — now where the heck is Pops?!?!
  • Even the highways are not very well marked. We used Waze and Google Maps on our two trips around the country and still got lost in places.
  • Driving is hideous. In cities and towns, you have to avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists who just dart into traffic. In rural hilly areas, the twists and turns force me to slow down while the locals just barrel ahead. We saw several near-accidents from drivers passing against a double-yellow line.

Finally, we just don’t have good feelings for Costa Rica like we have for Spain and Mexico. The people are friendly, and there are a lot of ex-pats in the area to socialize with. But neither of us has developed warm fuzzies for this country.

So Costa Rica is off the list as a place to retire. But we would like to come back someday as tourists to do some of those things we passed on while we were here. Also, Horizon Church — the nondenominational we’ve been attending in Jacó — is building a new church. The walls are up already and the plans look terrific. We would love to see it after they have moved in, and reconnect with our new friends there.

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Our last look at Costa Rica — a Pacific sunset. Hasta luego!

Now we’re taking a short break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which was back on Feb. 6. Has it really been 25 years? Doesn’t seem like it. We are marking this auspicious occasion by taking a two-week cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome. While Italy is not really on our list of places to live in retirement, we’re taking this opportunity to visit Naples, Rome and Florence to see the historical sites and museums — places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the coliseum in Rome.

After Italy, we’ll move on to France, the last place (maybe) on our list of possible places to live. We’ve rented an apartment in the historic center of Montpelier, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon area, for six weeks. Leslie is looking forward to finding a French cooking class, and I relish the idea of sipping cafe au lait at little French bistros.

We’ll be back in Chicago’s western suburbs by July 12. Then we have a decision to make.

Next post will be from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — IF we have decent wi-fi on the ship!

Ciao!

 

Livin’ in the land of ‘Pura Vida’

Leslie and I finally made it to Costa Rica last week. This is a beautiful country, with a number of national parks and wildlife preserves. The national motto is, Pura Vida, which means “pure life,” or “simple life.” It’s more than just a saying or a greeting, it’s a way of life. This site gives you a brief explanation.

We’re living in the beach town of Jacó (ha-KOH) on the central Pacific coast. It’s a fairly small town, geared to touristas, very much like Playa del Carmen was in Mexico. It’s hot and humid, so we would probably not choose it as a place to live in retirement. But we rented a car so we could get to other parts of Costa Rica. Our original plan was to spend all of February in Atenas (ah-TAY-nahs), which is at about 2,000 feet elevation in the Central Valley. A long-weekend trip there, where the climate is probably more amenable, is in the works.

Driving in Jacó, and in most of Costa Rica, is difficult. There are a ton of bicycles on the road, some of which are motorized. Plus, pedestrians  like to cross the street pretty much anywhere they like, since there are few actual street corners. Looking for a parking place is also a challenge. On our first full day here, we were searching like crazy for a particular restaurant that was highly rated on Trip Advisor. Couldn’t find the restaurant OR a parking place.

When I finally spotted a place to park, I was so hungry and frustrated I just dragged Leslie into the first place that looked like there was food available — a hole in the wall. Well, actually there were no walls. Just some tables and chairs and a bar. Fortunately, we had stumbled onto a traditional Costa Rican soda. This was our first taste of Costa Rican food. We both ordered casado, which is a plate with salad, rice and beans, fried plantain, and choice of meats (chicken, beef, pork or fish). Nothing fancy, but it all tasted great!

One rather challenging thing about Costa Rica is that they do not have addresses or street signs. For example, here’s the “address” for the church we attended Sunday, right from their website: “Horizon Church is located 200 meters south of Pops Road on the Costanera (main highway) in front of Auto Tica.” Now, Pops Road is NOT the actual street name, and it is NOT marked — you have to know that it’s the road that runs past Helados Pops, or Pops Ice Cream Shop. See? Challenging. 

More on Costa Rica once we’ve seen a bit more of it! I’ll leave you with a shot of the beach I jogged on this morning.

Pura Vida!

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The volcanic-black-sand beach north of Jaco. Big waves. Lots of surfing farther south.

 

Surprise! We’re back to Plan A.

You may recall that Leslie and I originally planned to go from San Diego to Costa Rica, but those plans changed because of scheduling issues. So we decided to take a cruise through the Panama Canal instead. A great way to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we thought. Well, we’re back to Plan A again!

It’s a long story — here’s the short version. The company we were working with to book the Panama Canal cruise failed miserably, so we called on USAA* for help. They quickly verified that canal cruises in the time frame we wanted were sold out. After some discussion about our options, they booked us on a repositioning cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome in mid-April. So we return to Europe in spring when temperatures are milder than in February!

That, in turn, caused us to take another look at Costa Rica, and we found what appears to be a good place — under budget — in the Central Valley town of Atenas (ah-TAY-nas). The plan is to be there for about five weeks, then head to a Pacific coast beach town for another five. Still working on the beach town. More on that in the next post.

The 14-night transatlantic cruise takes us from Fort Lauderdale to Civitavecchia, the port city of Rome, with stops in Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain); Malaga, Cartagena and Barcelona, Spain; and Ajaccio, Corsica (France).

While we’re presently not sold on Italy as a place for us to live — at least not right now — Leslie and I would like to check it out and do some touristy stuff, like we did in Scotland and England when we started this journey in 2016. So the plan is to spend two or three weeks in various parts of Italy and then head to France for about six weeks, probably in Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France, or maybe in Provence. Details to come.

If all goes well, we will be back in the Chicago area in late July to see our doctors, catch up with friends and family, and make a decision on a retirement location. By the end of this year, we hope to be vagabonds no more!

Looking back at the last post, I’m afraid it may have left you with the impression that we don’t like San Diego. We love San Diego, but our focus is to live in another country. Plus, the cost of living in southern California is quite high, so things will have to change dramatically for us to retire here.

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Lots of Navy people attend this church. The design of the sanctuary is that of an old sailing vessel, upside down. The roof is the ship’s keel. 

There are lots of great things about San Diego, though. One of them is not even in San Diego — it’s St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, the “Church of the Voyager,” on Coronado Island. We’ve made some good friends at St. Paul’s and have learned a lot from Pastor Robb’s sermons, like his current thought-provoking series on the Gospel of John. Anytime we’re back in San Diego, we will return to St. Paul’s.

I’ll close with this: Stephanie’s Christmas gift to us was tickets to the musical “Hamilton”! All three of us went on Thursday, Jan. 11, to the San Diego Civic Theatre. Wow! This is the best show I’ve seen since “Les Miserables,” which is my all-time favorite. The music, the staging, the singing, the dancing — all just incredible. I’ll admit I was prepared not to like it because I’d heard some of it was in rap. But the rapping was like the recitative, or spoken words, in opera. It worked really well. I highly recommend “Hamilton.” Go see this one, it’s definitely worth the price!

The music is the real star: songs like My Shot, The Room Where it Happens, and Washington On Your Side, just to name a few. They’re not tunes you can hum while walking down the street, though. They are rich and complex, like fine wine. One of the most impressive things about this musical came after the last notes died away. The entire cast took a bow together. Curtain calls didn’t start with the minor characters and end up with the stars getting the most applause. No. The cast appeared at the end as equals, no matter what role they had. It made me think about Mr. Jefferson’s eloquent words, “…all men are created equal.” Too bad we have drifted so far away from that idea.

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The Civic Theatre is an excellent venue. Decent seats and good sight lines, even from the upper balcony. We could see the dance moves well from up above.

 

*We use San Antonio-based USAA (United Services Automobile Association) for car and home insurance, life insurance (Mike), banking and investments. In fact, I’ve never had any other brand of car insurance — over 45 years with the same company. The bank and investment services are available to anybody, but the insurance is sold only to current and former military officers and certain non-commissioned officers. The company offers many additional services to members, including a car buying service and a travel agency. If you ever served in the military, go to their website to see if you qualify to become a USAA member. And no, they didn’t pay me for this advertisement!

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?

It’s halftime! Sorry, no marching band.

Leslie and I have been back in the States for two weeks. We are officially halfway through our search for an overseas home in retirement. This time next year, we’ll be making a choice — or at least narrowing it down to two finalists, which we will then try out for at least six months each. There could be a third year of this escapade.

We’ve enjoyed seeing friends and family, going to our church and visiting some of our old haunts. We’ve already been to our favorite farmers market on Saturday morning in Downers Grove, and we’ve dined at a couple of our favorite restaurants. We’ve even gotten a few physician appointments done. Okay, Leslie has done that. I’ll get to it soon.

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Met our friend Lini at the Tap House Grill in Des Plaines. We tried to catch up, but it’s going to take a few more long lunches!

One common question is whether we’re experiencing culture shock after being in Europe and Mexico for almost 10 months. Well, yeah! We’ve been living in places where we could walk or take public transportation (along with taxis and Ubers) for almost everything we needed. Here in the western suburbs of Chicago, things are spread out. We have to drive everywhere.

So we tried to rent an “intermediate” size car, thinking we would need a little more room than the smallest thing available. Imagine our surprise when they upgraded us to a Cadillac XTS! It’s got more bells and whistles than Leslie’s former car, an Acura RDX.

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Leslie says the trunk is big enough to hold three bodies! We just need to haul a few boxes.

The last time either of us drove a car was back in September when we turned in the RDX. Seems we’re both still able to drive on U.S. streets and highways. I guess it’s just like falling off a bicycle.

And it’s nice to see green trees and green grass again. We’re also thoroughly enjoying cooler temperatures and lower humidities. Summer is great in Chicagoland. It’s just those winters that make us want to live somewhere else.

Finally, we traded in our worn Jake’s Country Meats bag for a new one. For many years, Leslie and I have bought pork from Nate and Lou Ann Robinson (owners of Jake’s Country Meats and seventh-generation pig farmers in Cassopolis, Mich.) at the Downers Grove farmers market and throughout the winter, too.

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Remember this from October 2016? The Jake’s bag served us well in the past 10 months.

As we began our vagabond journey last October, Leslie used our insulated Jake’s bag — which we formerly used to take our farmers market produce home — as the carrier for prescription meds and medical supplies. The bag made it easy to keep some medications cool, and it kept all our meds in one place. That’s good organization, but it also helps in security lines at airports. Plus, we’ve advertised for Jake’s Country Meats in six different countries  — seven if you count Scotland as a country, which it may be very soon.

But over the past 10 months, the Jake’s bag has suffered from over-use. It has been through 12 international airports and seven train stations as we made our way from O’Hare to Dublin to the U.K., through France to Spain, to Malta, to four cities in Mexico and back to Chicago. Leslie has repaired it with duct tape more than once and it has remained serviceable. But today, Nate presented us with a brand-new insulated Jake’s bag. Of course, we promptly used it for breakfast sausages, bratwurst and pork tenderloin! Nate raises pigs the way his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, did. We’ve been buying pork and other meats in grocery stores and meat markets, but have not found anything as good as what Nate sells.

Our friends Linda and Bill are putting us up for a few weeks at their beautiful home in Glen Ellyn, and last week Leslie introduced them to Nate and Lou Ann’s outstanding pork products. She cooked some smoked pork chops, which were a huge hit. This morning, Linda joined us at the farmers market to meet Nate, and once the bag replacement ceremony was over she decided she wanted our old bag, which Nate was just going to throw away. I always say recycling is better!

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Nate presents a new Jake’s bag to Leslie while Linda signs up for the Jake’s newsletter as Nate’s newest customer. See the duct tape on the old bag?

We have a lot of work to do before Year Two begins in September, and we need to connect with lots of folks while we’re in Chicagoland. Some of you have already heard from us regarding when and where to meet for lunch, dinner or drinks. If we haven’t gotten in touch yet, we will soon!

 

Playa del Carmen: For a vacation maybe, but not long-term

Leslie and I love the beach. Since we moved to Chicago’s western suburbs late in 2000, most of our vacations have been on Caribbean islands. In February. It helped us survive Chicago winters.  So it seemed natural that a place like Playa del Carmen, right on the Caribbean Sea, would be a strong candidate to be our new home. Wrong. We would love to come back here for a vacation, but living here permanently is out.

There are some positives. Let’s look at those first:

  • It’s a small city, only about 150,000 people, and relatively walkable if you live between the beach and Highway 307.
  • There’s a lot to do here. Playa is a major tourist destination, so you can visit Mayan ruins, swim in cenotes and go to water-related theme parks on the Mayan Riviera. Oh, and there’s the beach. We will miss our wait-person Luis at Kool Beach Club. He tried to teach us some Spanish: “Estamos bien, por ahora.” (We’re good, for now.)
  • Excellent restaurants, and not just in the tourist areas. And not just Mexican food, either. We had terrific gazpacho and paella last night at Mar de Olivo.
  • Good public transportation, especially the vans they call colectivos, which will get you around town and to other cities on the Mayan Riviera. Lots of taxis available, too.
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One great thing about living in Mexico: BIG avocados, some of the best we’ve ever had. Less than $2 USD for a pound.

But the negatives are strong:

  • We’re looking for warm temperatures and Playa has that. But the humidity is 80 to 90 percent or more. We’re tired of sweating constantly when outside. The deodorant works, the antiperspirant does not. It wasn’t so bad when we were here seven years ago in December but again, we’re looking for a year-round home.
  • We’ve been unable to find an English-speaking church. In three other Mexican cities, we have thoroughly enjoyed attending Anglican church services weekly and meeting some terrific people.
  • As a consequence, we’ve been unable to meet other expats. There doesn’t seem to be any organized group here as there were in San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, and to a lesser extent in Mérida.
  • We’ve also been unable to find any cultural events, such as concerts or lectures we might want to attend. This town appeals to a younger, hipper crowd. One of the biggest annual events is the DJ Festival at Mamita’s Beach.
  • Playa is a big-time tourist trap. We gringos cannot walk peacefully down Fifth Avenue. We are assaulted by people selling tours, fishing trips, diving trips, cenote trips, tacky souvenirs, Cuban cigars and lots of other stuff. “Vivimos aqui, amigo,” (We live here, buddy) usually works, but it’s easier just to avoid the street.
  • And as mentioned in a previous post, it seems most of the housing is vacation rentals rather than traditional Mexican homes for more permanent residents. Prices seem a little on the high side.
  • Did I mention the humidity?

So we’ve learned that the Yucatan Peninsula is not for us. Great for vacations, but not more.

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Madre Tierra is one of the few restaurants we remember from our Christmas vacation seven years ago. I enjoyed one of the best steaks I’ve had in years.

We’ve been on the road for nine months now. Time to take a break and head back to the U.S. to take care of things that need our attention and to see friends and family. Our flight from Cancún lands at O’Hare tomorrow afternoon (Saturday, July 15). We will be in the area until the end of August and possibly for the first week or two in September.

What happens after that? You may recall from a previous post that Leslie and I visited the Lake Chapala area for a few days at the end of March to reconnect with an old friend from Texas. At the time, I said this deserved a closer look. So we’ve secured a two-bedroom house in Ajijic for mid-September through the end of October.

Ajijic is similar to San Miguel — high altitude (5,000+ feet), warm days, cool nights, low humidity. The expats who live there say it’s the best climate in the world. And we really liked their downtown weekly farmers market. It will be our fifth, and probably final, Mexican home. Leslie wants to try Ensenada in the northern part of Baja California. I think it’s too close to the border, which is where a lot of the drug cartel activity is. We’ll see.

After that, we’ll be in San Diego for November and December. That lets us spend the holidays with our daughter Stephanie, and it gives us an opportunity to see what it would be like to live there. It is possible, after all, that someday we would want to be closer to her. Knowing, however, that moving in with her for two months would be nearly impossible, we have secured an East Village condo about three blocks from her place.

As 2018 begins, we plan to check out a couple of highly recommended towns in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, and then do another three months in Europe — France and Italy are on the agenda, but we may also try another city in Spain. This time next year, it will be decision time. Where will our new home be? Vegas oddsmakers are already hard at work!

Next post from the U.S.

 

 

 

 

Playa is a little different, seven years later

Leslie and I spent Christmas 2010 with daughter Stephanie in Playa del Carmen. In fact, this is the only place in our travels so far that we have actually been to before. Back then, we rented a two-bedroom condo near the beach for about a week, spent nearly every day at Kool Beach Club and sampled some excellent restaurants. We’re back, almost seven years later, and a lot has changed.

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Pedestrian-friendly Fifth Avenue is Playa’s top draw.

Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is still the hot spot in Playa but it seems busier now, with even more opportunities for tourists to spend their money.

On our first stroll down that famous pedestrian-only  street, we were attacked by at least a dozen vendors who aggressively tried to sell us something, thinking we were tourists. Easy assumption to make, I suppose.

I saw one or two restaurants that looked vaguely familiar. Otherwise, big changes. The little wine bar the three of us enjoyed more than once in 2010 — gone. The Mayan-themed restaurant where I got some great cochinita pibil (a traditional Yucatecan pork dish) — it’s Guy Fieri’s Restaurant now. I guess that’s called progress.

We got in last Saturday, unpacked and got settled, then decided to revisit Kool Beach Club on Monday. I remember it as being a place with great food and drinks, and a DJ that played techno-beat electronic junk music that annoyed me.

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Back at Kool Beach Club!

Until I caught my toes tapping to the beat. Then I heard the overlay change — something dropped in and something else dropped out. The music was changing, evolving, interesting to listen to. But the beat was the same. Hard. Driving. Constant. Not annoying anymore — fascinating. Didn’t read much in my book after that.

Well, the beach has changed. The music isn’t nearly as good, and a couple of new condo-hotels have been built, making the beach more crowded. The food is still great at Kool Beach Club. We had some terrific fish tacos Monday and will probably return several times over the next month.

Changes are not limited to the beach and Fifth Avenue. Playa del Carmen (pop. about 150,000) isn’t laid back anymore. It looks like they’ve built condo buildings all over the place in the last few years, especially between the beach and Avenida 30, a major thoroughfare.

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New condos along Calle 34, near our condo.

In 2010, PDC was centered on Fifth Avenue establishments catering to the tourist trade. Not anymore. There are restaurants and boutique hotels along 1st Avenue, 10th Avenue and all along the calles in between (avenidas, or avenues, go north-south while calles, or streets, run east-west).

One big downside to Playa is the lack of an English-speaking Protestant church. We loved St. Paul’s Anglican Church in San Miguel de Allende, as well as St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Mérida. Christ Church by the Sea in Puerto Vallarta (also Anglican) was OK, too. Unfortunately, that denomination apparently has no presence in Playa del Carmen, or anywhere in the state of Quintana Roo. There are non-denominational churches in neighboring cities like Tulum (about an hour south) and Puerto Morelos (about 30 minutes north) but nothing in PDC that might meet our needs.

Same with expat groups. Leslie found three groups on Facebook, but all appear to be geared toward real estate. We haven’t connected with any other expats yet.

We’ll be here in Playa until July 15. That should give us time to experience this little beach town and visit other possible retirement locations, such as Bacalar (on a lake near the border with Belize) and Tulum.

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We’re in a modern two-bedroom condo across the street from PDC’s major sports complex, where I join the locals to go jogging around the cinder track every morning. 

As for the weather, it’s hot and humid — really humid. But temps here are in the upper 80s F. instead of the upper 90s as they were in Mérida. Humidity, though is consistently high, so we start sweating when we walk out the door. Nice breeze at the beach, though.

More next time!

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The pool in Aqua Terra, our home for the next month. Not as private as our digs in Merida, but it’s nice. And the big saltwater “pool” is just a few blocks away!

 

 

Moving on; one stop left in Phase I

We’re at the end of our six weeks in Mérida. Tomorrow, Leslie and I hop on a bus and travel to the beach city of Playa del Carmen. We’re looking forward to slightly cooler temperatures and a more walkable town.

Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan, is an interesting city.

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Merida’s many parks feature these “conversation chairs,” also called “Las Sillas Confidantes,” or  “Tu y Yo,” or “De Los Enamorados.” This young couple shows the original purpose.

There are some good things about it:

  • While there are lots of expats here (fewer in May when it’s so hot), the percentage is smaller than in the other cities we’ve been to so you don’t often run into other Americans or Canadians on the street.
  • The cost of living seems a bit lower here, especially for food at the local mercados and for real estate.
  • There’s no beach in Mérida but in 20 to 30 minutes you can be on the tip of the peninsula and enjoy neat little beach towns like Progreso.
  • Orquestra Sinfónica de Yucatán performs in a very nice concert hall. They’re pretty good, too. And there are classical music performances every Sunday at a smaller auditorium on the other side of the park. Last week we saw the chamber orchestra Orquestra de Cámara de Mérida do seven Vivaldi works. A free concert!
  • St. Luke’s Anglican Church has warm, helpful people and an energetic priest who gives insightful sermons. Sunday (June 4), we helped inaugurate the new church building just five blocks from our house.
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Merida’s cathedral, completed in 1598. It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral on the American mainland. This cathedral and the one in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) were the only American cathedrals built entirely during the 16th century.

Never say “never,” but Leslie and I agree Mérida won’t make our final list. Here’s why, in a nutshell:

  • I never thought we would say a place is “too hot,” but Mérida is too hot. And too humid. Maybe it would be perfect in January, but we’re looking for a year-round home.
  • This is a city of almost a million people. It’s big and spread out, and outside the centro it’s not very “Mexican.” We liked the smaller towns better.
  • Being a big city, of course, means it’s not very walkable, and walkability is a big asset.
  • Transportation back to the States is not simple. When I looked for ways to get back quickly for a funeral, the only options were to fly to Mexico City and catch a flight north, or take a bus or private car to Cancún and hop on a direct flight to Chicago or  another U.S. city. Connections are not the best.
  • Did I say it was too hot?

So it’s on to the final Mexican stop on this part of our journey — Playa del Carmen in the state of Quintana Roo, about 30 miles south of Cancún. I’ll leave you with some photos of the places we’ve visited here and the things we’ve seen — pics that haven’t made it into any previous post.

Next post from Playa!

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We visited Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, where henequen (sisal) is grown and made into fibers that are used to make rope, carpets and burlap bags. It’s the only henequen hacienda still operating. At one time, the Peon family alone owned 14 henequen plantations in the Yucatan. Our guide Jose (left) and one of the workers showed us how rope was made by hand, using this simple machine. We saw every step of the fiber-making process. Now, they only produce the fiber as a working museum for tourists and for use on the plantation, and the plantation is dramatically smaller than in the early 1900s during the “green gold” boom.
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Henequen fibers come from a type of agave plant. Yes, agave is used to make tequila. Different kind of agave. At the end of our tour, though, I had a margarita made with henequen liquor rather than the normal agave tequila. It was OK, but not great. Once a plant is started, it’s seven years before any of the fronds can be harvested. Then you can only harvest seven fronds per month.
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Hacienda Sotuta de Peon has one of the Yucatan’s many cenotes. We enjoyed about an hour swimming here, and there were no crowds. Leslie enjoyed floating in the crystal-clear water. This cenote is in a cave.
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Uxmal (OOSH-moll), an ancient Mayan site dating to 700 A.D. The temple is to the right, and palaces to the left where priests, scribes and other professionals lived and worked. Lower class Maya lived in villages outside the temple grounds. This site was apparently abandoned around the 10th century.
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Mayan figures at Kabah, a smaller site near Uxmal.