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!
It’s been smooth sailing (relatively) as Leslie and I head for Europe the old-fashioned way — by ship. One of those random thoughts I’ve had on this trip is about people like my ancestor John Rogers who left his home in Laugharne, Wales, in 1635 and sailed west to find his fortune in Surrey County, Virginia.
He sailed on a ship called George. I’m sure it was quite small, probably less than one-quarter the size of Celebrity’s Reflection, and I’ll bet the North Atlantic waves bounced that little ship around fairly well. We started out in five- to eight-foot waves, but for the last two days and nights it’s been more like 11- to 18-foot waves. The captain promises that will change tomorrow. This is a huge ship, but there are some big waves out there that sometimes make passengers (crew, too) walk like drunken sailors. So far, my motion-sickness patch is working perfectly.
I doubt my ancestor’s ship had a huge international crew, as this one does, to serve the passengers and meet all their needs. I’m willing to bet the facilities were quite limited: No pool, no library, no fitness center or jogging track, no shore excursion options, and likely no restaurants. In some cases, passengers on 17th century ships sailing to and from the New World had to bring their own food for the journey, which could take a month or longer. Our ship has 15 different restaurants, and we’ll be in Europe in less than two weeks. Plus, we have all the amenities mentioned — and then some.
It’s quite possible John Rogers didn’t have a private stateroom with his own bath, and he most certainly didn’t get room service for any meals. We not only have a nice stateroom, we opted for one with a king-size bed and a private veranda, from which we can see the Atlantic Ocean — and nothing else. A few days ago we had breakfast on our veranda, which seemed decadent. But we’ll just ignore that and do it again soon.
There’s a pool and a solarium, with deck chairs and lounges on all the upper decks. Leslie and I have both gotten haircuts, and she’s made use of something called “The Persian Garden” several times. They have a room full of tiled chaise-like loungers that are heated. Great place to meditate or nap. Crew members are from many different countries. We’ve been served by crew from Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Malaysia, St. Lucia and South Africa. They all smile and say “good morning,” and they do a great job.
If we had a complaint it would be that we are required to reset our watches one hour ahead almost every night during the passage. That means we lose an hour of sleep, but it also means we gradually adjust to European time. I think we have one more “spring forward” to put us seven hours ahead of Chicago time. We’ll be in that time zone until we head back to the U.S. in mid-July.
Celebrity tries to keep the passengers entertained. There’s a show every night in Reflection Theater and musicians perform at various spots around the ship, mostly near the bars. There are games, lectures and special sales in the many shops that line Decks 3 and 4. Leslie and I enjoyed a wine tasting a few days ago. We tried reds and whites from the U.S., Austria, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. A few were just okay, but two or three of them are now on our list of, “buy this wine whenever you can find it.”
It’s interesting that many of our fellow passengers are from Europe. We met a lovely British couple at dinner a few nights ago, and we’ve encountered people from Canada, France and Italy. That gave me a second weird thought: I wonder how many of these folks are just going home from a long vacation and they’re afraid of flying? Hmmm.
Not much else to relate. I’ll try to post again after we’ve visited our first port, which is Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.
Monday, Oct. 16, was Leslie’s birthday. We celebrated at one of the top-rated restaurants in town — Ajijic Tango. Varied menu, but the Argentine steaks are stars of the show. We had the filet mignon for two — 26 ounces of mesquite-grilled beef, medium rare. We each had half a baked potato and a glass of red wine. We finished off by having two cups of descafeinado (decaf coffee) and splitting a piece of flourless chocolate cake. Total bill with tip was 664 pesos — $35 USD!
Lest you think we made pigs of ourselves with that huge chunk of beef, we did a para llevar (doggy bag) on at least half of it. We had steak on our salads at lunch the next day, and steak-and-eggs for breakfast another morning.
That’s just one indicator of the Lakeside cost of living. Eating out is so inexpensive we often pay cash, especially at lunch.
I got a haircut a few weeks ago. I recall paying 200 pesos in Playa del Carmen. At Joe’s Barber Shop, just down the street, the haircut was only 80 pesos. With a tip, I paid a little over $5 USD. Leslie found a good place for a pedicure, which was only 160 pesos. That’s less than $9 USD. She’s gone back twice for other things.
Groceries, as usual, come from several different places — just like back in the U.S. One favorite spot is Super Lake, known for having lots of items popular with Americans and Canadians but with prices a bit higher than other stores. They have the best selection of gluten-free items. From our receipts, prices in USD:
Silk almond milk, 947 ml, $2.23.
Orowheat bread, $2.30.
President unsalted butter, 200g, $2.99.
Schar gluten-free bread, $5.47.
Filippo Berrio olive oil, 750ml, $6.79.
Pasta, gluten-free, 1 lb., $6.55.
One dozen brown eggs, $1.83.
Closer to home is Supermercado El Torito. We were told, “That’s where the Mexicans shop. The gringos shop at Super Lake.” One reason the locals shop at El Torito: lower prices, especially on meats. The grocery selection is not as good as Super Lake or Wal-Mart, but we saw a number of gringos shopping there. We got 1.82 pounds of ground beef at El Torito for $5.25, and two pounds of chicken breasts was about the same.
Tony’s is the best carneceria in our area. For example:
About a pound of ground beef, $2.78.
Nearly two pounds of chicken breasts, $4.26.
Just over a pound of smoked bacon, $3.50
A one-pound pork tenderloin, $2.35.
All our fruits and vegetables come from the Wednesday morning tianguis, where the real savings is. You’ll see lots of locals as well as ex-pats.
We have no idea what individual items cost at our favorite vendor. We put everything into a round plastic bin, they weigh everything individually and we pay the total price. Last week it was 180 pesos, roughly $10 USD, and we got:
One head green-leaf lettuce.
Four medium tomatoes.
One bunch cilantro.
Three white potatoes.
Two sweet potatoes.
One medium red onion.
Two small heads broccoli.
One poblano pepper.
One-half pound (approx.) green beans.
Five large portabella mushrooms.
At a different vendor, we got eight pints of fresh locally grown blackberries, raspberries and strawberries for 170 pesos, or $8.95. And to make my special pico de gallo, I got three medium jalapeños for 5 pesos, roughly 25 cents.
Shopping at the local markets saves money, as you can see. But it’s also a social event. We’re starting to see people we know at both the Tuesday morning organic market and the Wednesday morning tianguis. The organic market is great for home-made hummus, specialty chorizos, nuts, free-range eggs and chicken, and prepared foods such as tamales and tortilla español. It’s a little more expensive than the tianguis.
Unlike the tianguis, the Tuesday morning organic market is inside a large “eventos,” a hall where people often have large parties. Lots of great stuff here.
Let’s leave food now, I’m getting hungry while typing. The other big expenditure, no matter where you live, is housing. This area, like most we’ve encountered in our travels, has a wide range of available housing for sale and for rent. You can easily buy a nice home here for under $200,000 (all prices are USD), but if you want to be up the hill and have a lake view, that will cost closer to $350,000. Rentals range from less than $500 a month to well over $2,000. The good news for us is that there are rentals with views of the lake that fit our budget.
And unlike other places we’ve lived, Leslie and I have seen a number of homes here. Some on the market and some owned by new friends who’ve been showing us around. Most of the real estate companies have a free home tour once a week. We went on an Ajijic Real Estate tour of five homes. Two were in Racquet Club, a gated community in the San Juan Cosalá neighborhood. They were $269,000 and $349,000. The lower level of the more expensive one could be closed off and rented as a casita, so there was income potential. We also saw a nice 2/2 slightly closer to Ajijic for just $187,000, but the view was not as good.
On our way home from the tianguis one Wednesday, Leslie and I spotted an “open house” sign, so we wandered in. It was a new 3/2.5 in a gated compound. Dwight, the agent on duty, said the price had been reduced to $249,000. It was nice, but the only lake view was from the mirador on the third level. Many Lakeside homes have this feature. It’s usually a small area above the roof where the view is good and you can enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset. But in this condo, the mirador was a huge terrace complete with wet bar. You could have a party for 100 people easily!
Prices tend to be lower in the town of Chapala and other surrounding communities, but we prefer Ajijic. Here’s a sampling of what’s on the market right now, all in Ajijic:
If Leslie and I were to choose this area, we would definitely rent for at least a year, and if that works out we would most likely try to find a place with a three- to five-year lease option. The rental market is good right now, but lots of gringos are coming to Lakeside, so prices may go up.
Rents vary by area and whether or not there’s a lake view. We know someone who’s renting a 2/2 just off the main road in San Antonio Tlayacapan for $350/mo. It’s small and not in a subdivision, but it has a gated carport and a nice mirador. You can also find luxury properties on the hillside that rent for $2,500/mo. or more. Other possibilities include:
All that stacks up well with the other Mexican cities we’ve lived in, and in some ways Lake Chapala costs are slightly lower. Of course, it’s all less expensive than living in Chicago’s western suburbs.
If you’ve been following us since the beginning of this sojourn, almost eight months ago, you know Leslie and I are looking for a place to live in retirement where we will “never be cold again.” So imagine my surprise when my lovely wife said to me: “I’ve learned one thing living in Mérida. It is possible to be too hot.” Yep. And, I might add, too humid.
It is incredibly hot here. Oppressive heat. Excessive sweating heat. Two showers a day heat. And we’ve been asked to use the air conditioners in the house sparingly because they use a ton of electricity and it’s supposedly quite expensive. If a house uses too much electricity, the state government can charge a higher rate. But what prompted Leslie’s comment is the amount of fun we had on Tuesday (May 23).
We had finished breakfast and were planning our day when the power went out. AC was not on in any room at the time, but we checked to make sure no breakers had been tripped. They had not. We contacted the rental agent for this house and she said it was a city-wide power failure. Later in the day, we learned that the entire Yucatan Peninsula was affected, from Cancún to Campeche. We heard that even parts of Mexico City were affected. This, on a day when the high in Mérida was forecast to be over 100° F. and the heat index around 105°. We spent most of the day in the pool.
So even though we have about two weeks left here, Mérida is officially off our list. I still want to tell you about the cost of living here, because it seems to cost less to live here than in the other two Mexican cities we have tried. That makes it hard to eliminate this city, but there are reasons other than the heat and I’ll explain them in the final post from here.
This is strictly anecdotal, but taxis seem to charge less here than in Puerto Vallarta, for example. A ride I would have expected to pay $70 to $80 pesos for in PV was only $50 pesos here. Leslie bought two new pair of shoes a few days ago for about half what the same shoes would have cost in the U.S. There’s a small farmacia (drug store) right off Santiago Park where I bought some Advil, 24 tablets, for $2.70 USD.
Restaurant prices seem generally lower here — even lower than in other Mexican cities. I took Leslie out for dinner on Mother’s Day (even though she’s not my mother) at Apoala, a nice place that features food from the Mexican state of Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah). Leslie had sea bass and I had a roast pork dish with black beans. Dinner for two, with wine, was about $60 USD. We would easily have paid over $100 in the U.S. for that meal. And we enjoyed breakfast this morning at Maize, Canela (cinnamon) y Cilantro. I had Mexican-style eggs (scrambled with tomatoes, onions, serrano peppers and chorizo) and refried black beans while Leslie had an omelet stuffed with chaya (a Yucatan green, similar to spinach). With one hibiscus tea and one cup of coffee, the total bill was $170 pesos — less than $10 USD.
Grocery store prices vary somewhat, as usual, depending on the store. Here’s a brief list of purchases at the three supermercados we’ve been to so far — Mega, Soriana and Wal-Mart:
premium OJ, 1L, $1.14
oatmeal, 800g, $1.62
rice, 900g, $.85
medium red onion, $.33
gluten-free bread, $5.17
almond milk, 946ml, $2.49
bacon, 227g, $4.18
1 dozen eggs, $1.07
boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 1K, $4.73
paper towel roll, $1.41
coffee, 340g, $5.00
cilantro bunch, $.36
Contrast that with the mercado near Santiago Park, where lots of locals shop. A bag of limes — 13 of them — cost five pesos. Five. That’s only 27 cents USD at today’s exchange rate. At Nature’s Best in Westmont, where we used to shop regularly, you might get five-for-a-dollar on special. We also bought two nice Mexican squash and two large zucchini, all for 38 pesos, or two dollars.
At the other end of the market spectrum is the weekly Slow Food Market, where prices are higher but so is the quality. We pay roughly $30 pesos ($1.62 USD) for a bundle of lettuce — several different kinds — that usually lasts all week. Another vendor sells homemade hummus for $50 pesos, which is $2.71 USD. Closer to prices in U.S. stores, but frankly some of the best hummus we’ve tasted. Then there’s the sausage lady, the tamale guy, the gringo couple selling smoked meats, and the woman who sells various cuts of lamb. All high quality but on the pricey side — relatively.
And tonight we’re going to a performance by the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra at Teatro José Peón Contrearas. I paid $400 pesos for two main-floor seats. That’s about $22 USD for two tickets. The cheapest orchestra-level seats at Symphony Center for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert are $56 a pop. Okay, that’s like comparing a nice Honda Accord to a BMW 7-series, I know. But you get the idea.
As for real estate, it’s a mixed bag. We’ve walked past a lot of really nice updated homes in the Santiago neighborhood sitting right next to a run-down rat hole. Sometimes between two run-down rat holes or empty shells. And we haven’t seen much outside our neighborhood. I’ll do a little more research and report on real estate prices next post.
First, a brief aside. Something happened yesterday that I did not think would ever come to pass. Someone other than my good friend Traci Sedlock cut my hair! Traci’s been cutting my hair for at least the past 10 years, probably longer. It had been over two months since my last visit with her at the end of September, and I looked pretty shaggy. So I found a pelequeria por hombres and got a corte de pelo. The guy did a pretty good job. Not as good as Traci, of course, but at least I look a little better now.
Phase One of this retirement adventure ends tomorrow. Leslie and I leave Alicante on Friday, Dec. 9, spend one night in Valencia, then catch a plane for Malta at noon on Saturday, Dec. 10. We will spend Christmas in a 400-year-old house built by the Grand Masters and once part of a convent. It’s in Senglea, or L-Isla in Maltese, and is across the bay from the capital of Valleta. More on that when we get there.
We have mixed emotions about leaving Spain and Alicante. We like the area and we’ve gotten accustomed to everyday life here — as it would be if we were to live here long-term. But we need to experience other options, so off we go. But first…
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Alicante, with decorations in the main streets, like this one that runs past city hall (below).
It seems a little strange, but many of the signs in store windows say “Merry Christmas” in English! The city hall building, however, is decked out with holiday greetings in both Castilian Spanish (left) — a phrase you are no doubt familiar with — and Valencian (right), which, in case you can’t read it, says, “Bon Nadal.”
And they’ve opened an ice skating rink in the plaza right across from city hall. It was in the low 60s when I shot this brief video, and everybody’s having fun:
Plus, at a number of locations on city streets, vendors have opened temporary churrerias, where you can get traditional pastry items such as churros con chocolate and bunelos. Every time I pass one, I think of my dear friend and former coworker Yvette Pina, who always brought churros to work on potluck days.
Tuesday was Constitution Day, a national holiday marking the approval of Spain’s 1978 constitution by 88 percent of voters in a referendum. That’s when this country became a constitutional monarchy and a democracy. There was a parade through our neighborhood, with yet another brass band, yet another Catholic float carried by lots of people (this one has a pope on top, I think) and some very tall cartoonish figures that I believe are called fogueres. You can see them in the short Constitution Day videos I have attached below for your viewing pleasure. The celebration seemed to focus heavily on children, and included people young and old in traditional Spanish dress. This procession ended at the Co-Cathedral San Nicolas. Enjoy!
So it’s Adios, Alicante! The next post will be from the island nation of Malta.