Is this the place?

Leslie and I came to Ajijic partly because it has “the best climate in the world.” So far, so good. Since we arrived on Sept. 15, we’ve had temperatures in the mid- to upper-70s or low 80s during the day and the low 60s at night. The house we’re renting has fresh air flowing through all the time.

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Sunset over Lake Chapala. Most of the Driscoll’s raspberries and blackberries you buy at Jewel are grown on the other side of the lake.

Most homes in the Lake Chapala area (known generally as “Lakeside”) don’t have heaters or air conditioners. They’re not needed. If we lived here, I would never have to pay those $200-plus Nicor Gas Co. bills in February! One person told us the lowest temperature ever recorded in Ajijic is 40° F.

There’s roughly a month left in the rainy season so it’s a little wet at times, and slightly more humid than we would like but still not like the Mexican beach towns we’ve tried. Here, it’s as high as 70 percent after a storm, but usually 50 percent or less. And most of the rain is at night when we’re sleeping. In fact, one big storm woke us both up around 3 a.m. The lightning was pretty amazing.

We also came here because there is a thriving expat community. We’ve been to several events already, some sponsored by The Lake Chapala Society, and some by Ajijic Newbies.

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We met Susan and Rex (second and third from right) at an LCS event. We later joined them for Happy Hour at Nuevo Posada, where they introduced us to Janelle (front left), Carla (right) and long-time resident Flo.

And we’ve found a terrific faith community in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, just down the road in a neighborhood called Riberas del Pilar, between the two main towns of Chapala and Ajijic. Our new friend Libby gave us a ride home from our first visit to St. Andrew’s and pointed out several other churches in the same area. “They call this Holy Corner,” she laughed.

St. Andrew’s is the largest and most welcoming congregation we’ve encountered yet in our travels. This past Sunday there were probably more than 75 people in worship. In addition to Libby, a Canadian widow who has been here over a decade, we met a couple who formerly worked in marketing and corporate communications, same as me. David worked at some Chicago public relations agencies, and is a former PR director for Playboy Enterprises. We found several other folks with Chicago connections, so we felt right at home.

Then there’s Ajijic Newbies, which is Facebook-based but they do events too. Last week we went to a dinner they sponsored and met more expats, some brand new to Ajijic and some who have been here for a few years.

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Leslie chats with new friends Heidi and Steve at an Ajijic Newbies dinner.

We also went on a tour of five homes for sale in Ajijic. It seems all the real estate companies host these tours once a week. It was a large group, and we went with Rex and Susan, a fun couple from South Carolina who seem much more interested in buying a home here than we are right now. Wherever we land, we plan to rent for at least six months to a year before making any real estate moves.

And it seems all these groups try desperately to keep expats busy! As LCS members, we’ve already been to one screening of a TED Talk with discussion afterward, and Leslie is taking a Spanish class at the Society starting next week. We’re both interested in the Tai Chi class mid-month, and we met some fun people at the Oktoberfest recently. LCS is a great resource for expats and a super way to meet people. The Society also gives back to the local community. For example, our friend Marlene is teaching English to a group of local residents, mostly teenagers, who know some English but are trying to improve their  conversational skills.

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Mariachis play in Ajijic Plaza for the opening of a display of historical photos of Ajijic, taken over 50 years ago. Lots of things happening here!

Finally, we came because it simply costs less to live here. That’s true of the other places we’ve been in Mexico. I’ll discuss the cost of things like food and real estate in a later post, but today let’s talk about the many shopping venues we have here.

There’s Wal-Mart, of course, and a grocery called “Super Lake” that has lots of food items from Canada and the U.S. But we prefer the local markets, like the Tianguis on Wednesday mornings. Here’s a fairly recent YouTube video. This clip focuses on beans and street food, but Leslie and I go more for the fresh fruits and vegetables. You can also buy jewelry, art, clothing, electronics, hats, shoes, DVDs — almost anything you want. On Tuesdays there’s an organic farmer’s market in West Ajijic, with more prepared food and specialty items.

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This organic market vendor had some excellent bulk oatmeal.

It’s a little more expensive and somewhat light on veggies, but you can find gluten-free bread and muffins, excellent sausages and chorizos, and some very tasty hummus.

Ajijic hits a lot of our buttons. Is this “the” place? We don’t know yet, but it looks good so far. More to come…

Hasta luego!

Mérida is hot!

A little too hot, actually. It’s 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon and the heat index is 104° F. Good thing we both bought some new warm-weather clothing in Puerto Vallarta!

Before I tell you about this new place, please allow me a brief personal aside on the end of an era. My aunt Sue Rownd died Tuesday, May 2, in Little Rock, Ark. She was 96. Aunt Sue was my dad’s second-youngest sister. My grandparents, James Claude Rogers and Janie Teeter Rogers, had eight children (if I recall correctly) who lived to adulthood. Today, they and their spouses are gone. Aunt Sue was the last of her generation.

I learned only in the last few years that Aunt Sue was a writer, and she had done quite a bit of writing over the past few years. She was, in fact, the first female editor of the Weevil Outlet, student newspaper at Arkansas A&M College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello). That was in 1941. I am proud to say she was a fan of this blog and sometimes emailed me with comments that I always appreciated. She had a great run. My sympathies go to my cousins Ed, Carolyn and Judy. I wish I could get back to the U.S. for her funeral, but there are some logistical issues. Unfortunately, I can’t resolve those issues to get there in time.

Thanks for your patience.

Mérida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, is incredibly hot and humid. And it’s big — almost a million people live here. It’s on the western side of the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, but inland — about 22 miles from the Gulf of Mexico coast. Mérida has the highest percentage of indigenous persons of any large city in Mexico. About 60 percent of its people are of Mayan ancestry, so the conquistadores didn’t wipe out the Mayans  — they’re still here and going strong. In fact, they’re great at marketing. We both bought new hats from them just yesterday!

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No, that’s not a “Panama” hat I’m wearing. It’s a jipi-japa (hippie-hahpah), made by Mayans right here in Merida out of henequen (sisal). And this style of hat comes originally from Ecuador, not Panama. Gringos in Mexico need good hats!

Founded in 1542, Mérida was built on the site of a Mayan city that was a cultural center for centuries. So, Mérida could be the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas (that’s according to Wikipedia, so it might be true). It’s a beautiful colonial city with lots to offer, both here and in nearby places. We’re planning trips to Mayan archeological sites such as Uxmal (oosh-MAHL) and Ek Balam (eck bah-LAHM). Leslie and I learned about Ek Balam yesterday when we visited the Museo Palacio Cantón, also known as the Museo de Antropologia y Historia (Museum of Anthropology and History, but you probably figured that out even if you don’t know Spanish). We also plan to visit some cenotes. I’ll explain more about them when we’ve been to a few.

We’re staying in a 100-year-old house in the Colonia Santiago, which is home to lots of expats. The Mérida English Library is just a few blocks away. We plan to attend a Library-sponsored wine tasting next week. And on Sunday we’ll probably take an Uber (yes, Uber is here in Mérida!) to St. Mark’s Anglican Mission. We hope to meet more expats at church and at the wine tasting.

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Casa Walker, which we are renting from Arnie and Pam White through Airbnb. 

We’ve already been to our local Mercado Santiago, about a 15-minute walk from our house. But we’re looking forward to experiencing the mercado in the centro historico, which they tell us is huge — covers nearly a city block. On Saturday morning, we’re heading to the northern part of the city for the Slow Food Market. That one sounds great!

The house itself is a bit quirky, but it has a nice plunge pool on the patio and a rooftop area with great views of the city.
We’re not right in the centro, but a bus or our friendly Uber driver will get us there fairly quickly, or we can take about a 20- to 30-minute walk. Depends on how hot it is!

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About half the size of our pool in Puerto Vallarta, but it’s great for heat relief!

Part of the quirkiness is that the pool and patio actually separate the living area and kitchen from the two bedrooms. There is a full bath right off the kitchen, and that’s handy. There’s also an outdoor shower in the master bath.

The heat alone might drive Mérida off our list fairly quickly. One chart I saw indicated that, historically, this city has recorded a high temperature of 100° F. or more in every month of the year, including the winter months. But we’ve been here less than a week, so we need to have patience.

More to come after we’ve had opportunities to check out this city and its environs.

Malta is cool

Actually, a little cooler than we expected — and not in a good way. Leslie and I thought we would enjoy highs near 70 degrees F. on this island, but it’s about 10 degrees short of that mark — about the same temperature as Alicante. We can’t put our sweaters away just yet.

We’re dealing with a few other challenges in the 400-year-old house in which we’re living until the middle of next month. It’s in a town called Senglea, or L-Isla in Maltese. Here’s what the house looks like:img_1265

That’s the front door — the one on the left. It’s called Ave Maria and the address is 7 Triq-Is-Sirena. All the houses have names, most of them church-related in some way, as well as addresses.

We’ve been told the house was built by the Grand Masters. The full title of this ruling class is The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or Order of Malta. It is a Roman Catholic lay religious order traditionally of military, chivalrous and noble nature, founded as the Knights Hospitaller in 1099, around the time of the First Crusade. Its claim to fame is that it is the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order.  And that they developed the Maltese Cross. Yes, it’s still around. But Malta is an independent nation now, part of the European Union.

I’ve provided a few links here for you to find out more about Malta, if you like. It’s not on the vacation radar for very many Americans, but a lot of British tourists come here in the summer. This is the Wikipedia page.  And here is the official tourism site.

But back to the house we’re in. The building was apparently once part of the city walls, and at one time it housed a convent. Now it’s been refurbished with all the modern conveniences. Except one. There’s no heat.

Most homes of this age on Malta don’t have central heat or air. So in the very short winter (I guess it’s just while we’re here) people run dehumidifiers to make the indoor air feel warmer. And it seems to work, too.

One upside to this house is the view. Walk out the front door and look to the right, and you can see part of the bay, with lots of boats moored. There are simple rowboats and water taxis — traditional Maltese design — and larger sailboats with 20- to 30-foot masts. Sleek, nice boats. img_1268Then there are the super-yachts, moored on the other side of the bay. Several of these yachts are bigger than our house in Westmont was! Probably bigger than your house, no matter who you are!

If you walk along the waterfront (on the right in the photo), there are a number of small restaurants. All have outdoor seating so you can see the water and the boats, and watch the ferry head over to the capital, Valletta, every half hour. The trip over takes about 15 minutes by ferry, 20 or 30 by bus.

Walk down to where you see the white van parked, turn left and you can walk along the waterfront and see Valletta.

One downside to Senglea is that it’s built into the side of a hill. And since the house is pretty close to water level, we have to climb stairs to get to shops, the bus stop or the local ATM.img_1270 It’s also very quiet. There are no other tourists here. Most visitors to Malta stay in Valletta, or in the town just north of Valletta, called Sliema. We plan to visit those places in the days to come.

Finally, this country has two official languages: Maltese and English, because the Brits owned this island for a very long time. Everybody speaks English, at least some English, but with a heavy accent in most cases, and not a British accent, either. Sometimes it’s hard to understand. Maltese is kind of a blend of Arabic, Italian, Spanish and English. It actually sounds Arabic, and a neighbor told me last night that Arabic-speakers can understand Maltese pretty easily. At least most of the signage is in both languages.

Now we get to explore this place and determine if it’s a possible retirement home. More to come…

 

 

 

 

Church came to us this week. Complete with a brass band!

One reason for traveling to foreign lands is to experience other cultures. To see how other people live. Those of us afflicted with the travel bug are usually curious about how people live in other parts of the world. Here in Spain, daily life is — for the most part — similar to daily life back in Illinois. But there are some striking differences. More than just the siesta.

We haven’t been to church in a few weeks (I know, seems like a non sequitur but stick with me here), so this week, church came to us.

On Saturday night, about 8 p.m., Leslie and I were relaxing after a busy day; just reading our books and thinking about a nice salad for dinner. Then we heard music coming from somewhere — sounded almost like a drum and bugle corps, but playing in a minor key. The living room window overlooks a short street that leads to a small plaza, and we can’t see much from that window. As the music got louder, we put our shoes on and headed downstairs to see what was the matter (getting in the Christmas spirit there).

What we saw was this: img_1315From a distance, it looked like a parade float. But as it came closer we could tell it was a platform bearing a statue of Jesus carrying his cross to the crucifixion site. It was probably 20 to 30 feet high. There were flowers on the platform and candles on each corner. It was coming toward us, right down Calle Mayor, accompanied by an impressive procession of people with banners and long metal poles, each topped by a Jerusalem cross. And right behind the float was a brass band, playing what sounded like a dirge.

When the procession passed our apartment, we fell in with other people and followed. It ended at Basilica Santa Maria, the Roman Catholic church just a block or two from where we’re living. It’s the oldest church in Alicante, built between the 14th and 16th centuries. The people carried the platform by placing long poles on their shoulders. They were very close together and completely in step.  I counted 42 in front and 46 in back. With the massive church doors open, as you can see in the photo (left) img_1299they carried the platform right inside. This solemn procession was very impressive, and quite moving.

We watched the band milling around in the plaza outside the basilica and it seemed they were waiting for something. Sure enough, after about 15 or 20 minutes, those carrying the Christ statue brought it out of the church, turned it around with some deft maneuvers, and went right back up Calle Mayor to the Plaza Santa Faz.

Leslie and I felt like we had been to church — or rather, that church had come to us! I hope you’ll be able to see this 2-minute video and hear the band, but it was dark and all I had was my iPhone. I shot the video as they left the church, and at the end you can Basilica Santa Maria. Cue the bells!

Now, I’m not Catholic so I can’t say this with total certainty, but I doubt you would see anything like this in a U.S. church. This is one of those cultural events that we can only appreciate through travel to other countries, and becoming immersed in other cultures. We’ve asked around but still don’t know exactly why this event was happening. We know it was something the Santa Maria congregation does regularly.

As the procession made its way away from the church, I noticed one priest on a cell phone. Maybe he was talking to the pope, who knows. And I noticed one little trumpet player in the band who was very determined. Looked like he was marching next to his father.img_1321

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Just one more note on the band — and how many churches in the U.S. have a brass band for cryin’ out loud — some of the instruments looked like bugles, but with valves. Now, I played trombone in the high school band, so I know my brass. But I have never seen anything like these valved bugles. Not valves like on a trumpet or cornet (I saw both of those instruments, too), but valves nonetheless. Maybe they’re historic. Who knows?

Are there downsides to other cultures? Of course. We’ve noticed that lots more people smoke in Europe. And they smoke in outdoor seating at restaurants, which is annoying to those of us accustomed to fully non-smoking restaurants.  It was true in the U.K. and also here in Spain. They don’t always clean up after their dogs, either.

But experiences like the Saturday night procession remind us why we travel, why we try to get a feel for what people do in other countries. When we learn about other cultures, we grow and expand our horizons. When we learn about other cultures, we often see more similarities than differences. When we learn about other cultures, we tend not to mistrust them or fear them.

 

Alicante is the best place in the world!

That’s actually the city’s official motto, as we learned today from guide Maria. She led our little group on a walking tour from the waterfront through the old town and up to Central Mercado, pointing out landmarks and giving us quite a history lesson.

Alicante has a troubled past. Lots of death and destruction in the War of the Spanish Succession and later the Spanish Civil War. This city was on the losing side in both conflicts. But since the mid-20th century — and especially since the 1980s —  things have gotten progressively better. Tourism has created many jobs, helping the population grow to more than 300,000. Now when you look northwest from the heights of the Castle Santa Barbara, you see a thriving city that feels good about itself. Hence, the motto.img_1278

While a few historic structures remain, most of the city’s buildings are 20th and 21st century. Alicante was bombed repeatedly by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and it became the last Republican city opposing Franco’s forces. Many of those who opposed Franco escaped Spain from the port of Alicante, which you can see in this photo, also taken from Castle Santa Barbara. The old city is prominent also. Just right of center, you may be able to see the blue domes of Co-cathedral of St.Nicolas. Stunning from the inside. It dates to the 1600s, but has been renovated several times, once following a fire.img_1286

In an earlier post, I wrote that I didn’t know the age of the apartment building we’re in. Update: Only about 60 years old, according to its owner, but the foundations are over 200 years old. That’s why the streets are so narrow. Some buildings in the area are older, such as the Alicante City Hall and Basilica Santa Maria, both of which survived bombardments from sea and air.

Central Mercado also survived an aerial bombardment on 25 May 1938. But 300 civilians were killed when bombs fell on the plaza just north of the market. A plaque in the plaza floor commemorates that tragic event.

On a cheerier note, Maria explained that tourism started taking off here when Scandinavians discovered Alicante’s beaches. At the time, though, highly restrictive dress codes for women prohibited bikinis. Even into the 1960s! So a delegation traveled to Madrid and petitioned the Franco government for relief. The Scandinavians won’t come  if the women can’t wear bikinis on the beach! And did we mention how much money tourists bring into the city? So the government eased off, and the tourists are still coming today. Here’s part of the main beach on Friday, Nov. 11, from Castle Santa Barbara. img_1289

So the people here think this is the best place in the world. Is it the best place for us to retire? Hey, this is our first stop. And we’ve only been here three weeks. Let us check out some other places.

But it’s definitely on the short list.