Time to give thanks!

What are you thankful for? Leslie and I are thankful we live in Ajijic, Jalisco, México. The climate is nearly perfect, almost everything costs less than in the U.S., and we’ve made great friends here among the locals and the ex-pat community. But before we talk about Thanksgiving, let’s briefly address something a lot of you are thinking about: Safety.

We don’t know what happened when nine people in a convoy of black SUVs were killed recently in a remote area just across the border from Douglas, Ariz. Some say cartel gunmen mistook them for a rival cartel. Others don’t buy that, saying they were targeted because their farms were over-using scarce water resources, hurting local subsistence farmers. We may never know. Leslie and I are glad that since that incident, only one person has asked us, “Are you safe there?” I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt — I believe he was being facetious. Mostly.

The short answer is that we feel safer here than we did in the U.S. Sure, there’s violence in this country, just like in the States. But it’s almost all between rival drug cartels. The difference here is that innocent bystanders rarely become victims. Granted, we live in a small-town environment. That kind of thing may happen in big cities like Guadalajara but not to the extent it does in Chicago, for example, where you can get killed by a stray bullet while driving on the Eisenhower Expressway! See articles in the Chicago Tribune at least once or twice a week — like the woman with six grandchildren who had just parked her car in front of her house when a bullet struck her in the face. Almost never happens in México.

Bottom line: None of the ex-pats in this beautiful community fear violence of any kind. The cartels leave you alone unless you mess with them. And if they start shooting, it’s generally far away from populated areas — and they hit what they aim at, unlike Chicago gang members who don’t shoot straight.

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Our friend Louie serves cornbread dressing while Kate prepares to dish up roast turkey at the Harvest Comida. Our new rector, Father Jim (third from left), also helped serve.

The Lake Chapala area is blessed to have thousands of ex-pats, mostly from the U.S. and Canada. While those of us from the U.S. celebrate Thanksgiving near the end of November, Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October. So Lakeside celebrates two Thanksgivings!

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Homemade pies were a big hit at the St. Andrew’s Harvest Comida.

St. Andrew’s Anglican Church has an annual Harvest Comida (ko-ME-dah, Spanish for “food”) about halfway between the two Thanksgiving celebrations. It’s the biggest event of the year for the Social & Hospitality Committee, and Leslie is a member of that group. In fact, she was co-chair of this year’s event, along with our Canadian friend Sylvia. More than 80 people enjoyed roast turkey with all the trimmings, courtesy of Chef Pedro at Ajijic’s Go Bistro, one of our favorite restaurants. Dessert was a variety of pies made by the members of the S&H Committee. Leslie’s pumpkin pie went fast, as did her mincemeat pie.

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These fanciful figures, called alebrijes (al-le-BREE-heys), at the Feria Maestros del Arte were carved from solid wood and painted by hand.

Another recent event was the annual Feria Maestros del Arte, sponsored by the Ajijic Society of the Arts. This is an opportunity for artisans from all over México — some of them from indigenous tribes — to show and sell their creations. We took a long look at the huaraches — a type of pre-Colombian sandal. Maybe next year. We also considered some small carved animal figures, but we don’t have a good place to display them. Maybe next year. I finally settled on a cotton short-sleeved shirt with a Mayan warrior embroidered in relatively subdued colors.

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Our neighbor Margaret entered this gorgeous arrangement titled, “Inner Peace, Love and Joy.” She put a lot of work into this!

Leslie and I also attended the Garden Guild show at a beautiful hacienda just a short walk from where we used to live in the village. From the outside, it’s just a brick wall with a door in it. But walk through that door and you find a sprawling home with a nice pool and a very well-equipped kitchen. It’s been used as a bed & breakfast in the past. There’s even a chapel!

Our friend and neighbor Margaret is an active Garden Guild memberShe has given us cuttings from her garden to jump-start ours, and she developed a rough plan for making our back yard look better. We enjoyed seeing her floral arrangement and those of other Garden Guild members.

The Garden Guild’s community service project over the past year has been replacing foot bridges at three spots on Ajijic’s malecon. When we lived in the village, I went for a jog on the malecon every morning. Those bridges were the only treacherous part of the run, and now all three bridges have been fully replaced. I don’t jog there anymore, but I really appreciate the Garden Guild’s efforts.

Next time, more on why Leslie and I are enjoying our life in México.

Hasta luego!

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This artist at the Feria Maestros del Arte was making and selling beautiful hammocks.
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An artist works on a Catrina figure. Some of them were quite elaborate.
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The site of this year’s Garden Guild show. This event seems to attract some of the best-dressed grinos and gringas in Ajijic!

Dia de los Muertos; and the Titanic!

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Now that rainy season is over, our sunsets are becoming more stunning every day!

Before we talk about Dia de los Muertos, I need to brag a bit on Leslie and her volunteer work with Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic — CASA. Every year, CASA auctions off a special themed dinner, prepared by CASA members, for eight people. Proceeds benefit Niños Incapacitados, which helps local disadvantaged children with medical issues. The person who won this year’s auction donated 70,000 pesos, or roughly $3,600 USD, for a very good cause.

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Leslie’s vegetable terrine. Yum!

This year’s theme was the menu for the last first-class dinner on the Titanic — the meal served on the night the ship sank. Eleven courses, all paired with wine. Leslie was asked to help another chef create one dish, a vegetable terrine in aspic. Because the other person had unavoidable issues, Leslie ended up making the dish herself. It got rave reviews! She also volunteered to be a server. CASA tried to be as authentic as possible with elegant place settings and flowers. But servers on the Titanic were men, so the eight serving ladies (one server per diner) wore tuxedo shirts with bow ties and added drawn-on mustaches!

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Leslie as a Titanic waiter.

Dinner was at the stately home of our friends Carol and David (also CASA members), with a sweeping view of Lake Chapala. The diners got into the act too, wearing Titanic-era clothing. Two of the men were even decked out in kilts with full regalia! And they raved about the dinner. To see the full menu, click on this link to the article in the Guadalajara Reporter (it’s in English!).

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Doesn’t it look like Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey set this table?
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These are the lucky recipients of CASA’s Titanic dinner.

I hope you watched the movie Coco to learn how important Dia de los Muertos is in México. Check out these two links to learn more: Mexperience newsletter offers general information, while Lakeside Guide has photos of last year’s celebration here in Ajijic. The main day was Nov. 2 with events in Ajijic as well as nearby communities Chapala and Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos (better known simply as isht-lah-wah-KAHN). Leslie was recovering from the big dinner (eight hours on her feet) and I just didn’t feel well, so we didn’t see the Ajijic parade or go on the cemetery tour as planned. Fortunately, I have some great photos and videos (some of which are at the end of this post) provided by three friends from my Spanish class — James, Lynn and Pamela. Gracias!

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One of the altars James photographed in nearby Ixtlahuacan.
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My friend Lynn joined other riders in putting on full Catrina makeup and riding horses to the Ajijic Cemetery.

Finally, Ajijic’s malecon (boardwalk), was the setting for Lakeside’s part in “Thrill The World,” the annual world-wide dance event. It’s not related to Dia de los Muertos at all, but it is held on the Saturday before Halloween every year. Dancers, made up as zombies, collected money from sponsors to perform to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on Saturday, Oct. 26. Proceeds benefit Cruz Roja, the local Red Cross group.

For some reason, my video will not upload to WordPress, so here’s a link to the “official” video shot by our friend and videographer Kim. However, Kim says this longer version (runs 14 minutes) is more fun. Enjoy!

Hasta luego!

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Another altar in Ixtlahuacan.
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James took some shots of the Catrina contest in Ixtlahuacan.
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Very creative! The basket of calla lilies is from Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s most famous painting.
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Great design, especially since the Monarch butterflies are coming back to their winter home in Mexico.
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Even the kids got involved in the Catrina contest. We have no idea who won!
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These calaveras (skulls) are the work of local artist Efran Gonzales. They are displayed on this wall along Marcos Castellanos street in Ajijic, across from San Andres Catholic Church, as permanent memorials to deceased Ajijic residents. Every year on Dia de los Muertos, people light candles under each calavera. Thanks, Pamela, for this photo and the brief video of a candle being lit (below).

Spring is here!

You may have noticed we have a new title for the blog: “Ex-pats in México.” Since Leslie and I are no longer vagabonds, I thought it was time for a change. The URL is the same, though, and if you signed up for notifications, you’ll still get an email to let you know a new post is up.

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The jacaranda — harbinger of spring in Mexico.

Meanwhile, it’s definitely springtime in our little corner of México. There are several flowering trees — most notably the purple jacaranda (hah-kah-RAHN-dah) — that make the landscape colorful. Climate is a big reason we’re here, and we’re not disappointed. At night we leave the windows open in our bedroom and have the ceiling fan on. I no longer need a sweatshirt for my daily jogs along Ajijic’s malecón as it’s in the low- to mid-60s F. at sunrise. During the day it’s been reaching the upper 80s F., but with low humidity it feels great. Of course, our Canadian friends — and there are a lot of them here — often complain about the heat!

The snowbirds have already started leaving, most of them going back to Canada. The next influx is the sunbirds, mostly people from places like Arizona and New Mexico who come here to get away from the heat! They should start arriving soon.

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Alon Sariel (left) and Michael Tsalka wowed the Viva La Musica! crowd at Haus der Musik.

Another benefit of living Lakeside (as the Lake Chapala area is known) is culture. During March, Leslie and attended the final concert in this year’s ¡Viva La Musica! series. We enjoyed a mandolin soloist and piano/harpsichord accompanist, both Israeli musicians and exceptional talents. We also saw a performance of “Sweet Charity” at the Lakeside Little Theater. This is a community theater group, but many of the cast and crew are seasoned theater professionals who have retired to México. They did a great job.

We also benefit from membership in the Lake Chapala Society. Leslie and I attended a class on death in México. Things are different here, and gringos need to be prepared. It’s most important to have a local doctor, and Leslie has already found a great doctora (woman physician) that she likes. I attended a class recently on how to watch U.S. TV shows here in Ajijic. And I got help with an e-mail problem from the LCS tech guys. Free.

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The main course at the Garden Party was a frosted sandwich loaf, decorated with edible flowers.

The Social & Hospitality Committee — better known as “S&H” — at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church ushered in Spring with its annual Garden Party. It has traditionally been a fun event for ladies to gather in spring dresses and fancy hats, but this year the luncheon was also open to The Company of Gentlemen (that’s the St. Andrew’s men’s group). Leslie helped make the lunch and hosted a table, while I tended bar.

Finally, our neighbors Gail and John invited us to join them on a boat ride last week. We got a chance to see our adopted home from the water. Our little boat motored west from the Ajijic pier down to San Juan Cosalá, a small town just west of Ajijic. It was a fun morning.

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Ajijic from a boat on Lake Chapala. You can see several jacaranda trees. The mountains in the background are brown right now, but they will be greener than green when the rainy season arrives in June.

Every so often we just have to take a “down day” because there’s so much going on!

Hasta luego!

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Leslie had fun wearing her hat and hosting a table at the Garden Party, which was actually IN the garden at St. Andrew’s.
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My hat is in sad shape, so my buddy Miles got all the hat compliments as we kept the champagne flowing. The ladies asked us to wear bow ties, which instantly afforded us a modicum of class.

 

 

Now we hear the bottle rockets!

This first month in our new home has been fraught with illness and the pains of settling in. But Leslie and I have kicked our colds and are both healthy now. We’ve accomplished our biggest goal — getting the paperwork started for our permanent resident cards. Just two more steps to go. We hope to have our cards before Christmas.

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Javier from Chiapas had some beautiful rugs for sale. Next year, for sure!

This is a busy time in Ajijic — it’s party central until the end of the year. For example, recently we went to the annual Feria Maestros del Arte in nearby Chapala. It’s more than just an art show, it’s a celebration of more than 80 highly talented Mexican artists in a variety of fields: pottery, textiles, baskets, jewelry, etc. It’s a way for artisans to sell their work, but it also raises awareness about the nature of Mexican folk art. The artists use local materials in their art, using techniques that have been handed down through many generations. The Feria is about saving this art and helping the artisans.

Following Día de los Muertos is Día de Revolucion on Nov. 20. This celebrates the 1910 revolution that toppled Army general Porfirio Diaz and brought democracy to Mexico. We missed the parade. On Nov. 21, a fiesta began in honor of St. Andrew the Apostle, the city’s patron saint. We heard some of the late-night partying and wandered through a bazaar set up on the malecon (boardwalk). Then I happened upon some locals in the main square one afternoon where a band was playing (fairly well) and a guy was singing (pretty badly). There were several caballeros (people on horseback) watching. One man’s white horse was dancing to the music, but no humans were.

The San Andres Fiesta lasts until the end of the month. Every day there are bands playing, church bells ringing and cohetes (bottle rockets) going off at all hours to announce masses being held in local churches. There are several parades, too. We can hear band music at 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., as well as during the day. Streets around the main square are blocked by carnival rides and food stands. One of our new friends here told us that when November ends, then the locals start celebrating Christmas. These are apparently two very noisy months!

Leslie and I are trying to establish some routines in our new home. She’s already involved in the book group that meets monthly at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, and I plan to attend the monthly men’s group lunch later this week. We’re looking forward to a pot-luck dinner and Christmas carol singing event on Dec. 7. We had dinner with new friends Carol and David, and they invited us to join an already big group at their home for Thanksgiving dinner. There were nine in all, and the food was fantastic.

We’ve also signed up for the “Introduction to Lakeside” class offered by The Lake Chapala Society on Dec. 13. We attended the class last year when we were here for six weeks, but going through it again — now that we’re full-fledged LCS members — will get us updated on banking, health care, housing, traffic and other important topics.

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Sunrise on Lake Chapala, taken during a morning jog.

Oh, and while the Chicago area endures its first big snowstorm of the season, Leslie and I enjoyed a glass of wine and some charcuterie on our patio yesterday while we watched the sunset wearing T-shirts. It was about 75° F. It’s not perfect, though. A few weeks ago the daytime highs were around 68° and unusually windy. The forecast for the coming week calls for some rain and a couple of days in the mid-60s. It’s in the low-50s around sunrise when I go out for my daily jog on the malecon, so I just toss on a sweatshirt and I’m fine.

More to come. We’re just getting started!

Hasta luego!

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Ernesto from Zacatecas did some amazing work with colored pencils. We thought of our good friend Linda, who works in the same medium.
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Pottery is a common form of Mexican art. Leslie admired this artisan’s work in green glaze.

 

Exploring Lakeside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: Cost of living.

Hasta luego!

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

Year Two begins with one more stop in Mexico: Ajijic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Traditional house on a cobblestone street.

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

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Leslie has already whipped up some great meals here!

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

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

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

Hasta luego!

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