The second phase of our home renovation has begun. All doors and windows have been replaced and the front entrance has been transformed from black metal sliding glass doors to a standard double door with side panels that open to let the breezes through. The fixed panels are now etched glass with a pattern that matches the windows in the new master bathroom.
Now we can start painting the house inside and outside, which is the second half of Phase 2.
Interior painting should begin by early September. We have chosen a nice neutral color that looks great with our artwork and rugs. The guest suite will be a nice light teal color with darker teal trim. We’re still debating about a color for the master bedroom.
Exterior painting, a nice light blue with white trim, will have to wait until rainy season is over. That’s probably early November. So we hope Phase 2 will be over by Christmas.
What’s next? Probably landscaping. We have a lot to do in the front because all the large plants were removed for the addition of the new bathroom. We also need to redesign the front patio and move the fountain, which right now is in an awkward place directly in front of the main door. Plants in the back are badly overgrown, so we need to look at that too. At some point, I’m hoping to renovate the office area, which doubles as the family room, or TV room. Phase 3 certainly won’t happen until 2022.
The title of today’s post uses the Spanish word hogar (home) rather than casa (house) because Leslie and I are gradually trying to turn this house in México into our home. We spent three weeks in San Diego recently, and it felt great to come back to familiar surroundings instead of moving on to another new city or country. We did that for a little over two years as “vagabonds.” Now we’re settling in. And we like it.
We’re fairly confident the leaks in the roof have been fixed — for now, at least. We haven’t had a torrential downpour like those that brought this problem to light in the first place, but one is coming! There are still a number of “issues” with this place but now we have Eddie, the best handyman in México, on our side. Eddie spent many years in the U.S. and is fully bilingual. In addition to fixing a toilet and other repairs, he hung up most of our art work for us. Builders don’t use lumber and drywall here, they put up brick walls and cover the brick with concrete — for interior as well as exterior walls. Bricks and concrete cost less than lumber and drywall here, and no wood in the house means fewer termite problems.
Hanging artwork here is not as simple as nailing a hook in the wall. We marked spots where we wanted to hang something, and Eddie drilled a hole in that spot. Then he inserted an anchor into the hole and put a screw into the anchor, left it sticking out a bit, and hung the picture on the screw. Having our art on the walls makes the place seem more comfortable — more familiar. Eddie admired some of them, as did Salvador, our bottled-water delivery guy.
And here’s a surprise. We have roommates! Sort of. A pair of barn swallows has built a nest on the wall of the house, just outside the master bedroom. We’ve seen at least three baby birds in the nest, but there may be four. There are lots of swallows in this area right now. Leslie and I enjoy watching them dart and dive around as we have a meal on our patio. Lots of hummingbirds here, too, but they tend to be camera-shy.
As promised, here are some photos of how the house is turning out, all full-size so you can see better:
Finally, in the last post I left out something important. With the rainy season comes higher humidities and lower temperatures. You may recall that when we moved into this house three months ago, temperatures were high (90° F.-plus) but low humidity and a nice breeze off the lake made it more comfortable. In rainy season it still gets into the low 80s during the day, low 60s at night. But now the humidity can be as high as 70 percent. We still think this is a nearly perfect climate. After all, it has never snowed here!
A few weeks ago I posted about the beginning of rainy season here in the Lake Chapala area. It’s mostly a good thing, but not so much when there are cracks in your roof. Leslie and I returned from three weeks in San Diego to find the roof of this brand new house had leaked and damaged one of our rugs. Then we experienced two nights of torrential rain that forced us to put towels down to soak up the rain and prevent further damage.
The good news is the damaged rug is not one of the prized oriental rugs, and the leak did not extend into the living room. The bricks in the boveda ceiling got wet, and still show dampness nearly two weeks later. But a leak in the living room could’ve been much worse. We think it’s fixed now.
And we have rosemary, thyme and basil planted in neat containers on the terrace, but they seem to be dying. The owner of the local garden store — who gets rave reviews from our friends — said “too much water.” Not much we can do about the amount of lluvia (rain) God sends us, so we may have to replant those herbs.
The rain comes mostly at night, although I got slightly damp last week walking home from my Spanish class at 11 a.m.! And the storms really light up the night sky. Here’s what it looks like from our back door, looking south across Lake Chapala:
On the positive side, nobody waters their lawns at this time of year. Rain comes almost every night — sometimes in torrents, sometimes in soft showers, and often at 3 a.m.!
This is when things get really, really green. When you look north out our front door, you see part of the Sierra de San Juan Cosalá mountain range. When we moved in, there was nothing but brown on the mountains. Now, it’s lush and green, and it will stay that way until the end of the year.
In a previous post I noted that May is the hottest month in the Lake Chapala area. It got up to 90° F. or more several times during May, but low humidity and cooling breezes off the lake or the mountains made it feel comfortable. Now “rainy season” has begun. That means lower temps, higher humidities and lots of much-needed rain.
One storm sent driving rain out of the north, and it came in under our front door. I mopped up a full bucket of rainwater!
A few days later, our new best friend Eddie came and installed some weather stripping on the front door and two other doors that were problematic. Eddie lived in California for many years and is fully bilingual. We hope he’s going to do lots more in coming months.
We’ve been told that as the season progresses, the storms come more frequently out of the south. We’re not sure that’s true, but it would be great because the two doors on the south side are sliding glass doors and rain won’t come in if they’re closed.
Rainy season runs until September or October. The mountainsides outside our front door are already getting a bit greener. I have a “before” photo. As soon as it gets to peak, I’ll snap an “after” shot and post them.
On another note, Leslie won another prize at the June meeting of CASA — Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic. The theme was “picnic” entrees and desserts. Leslie’s “open-faced spicy pimento-cheese sandwiches” took the People’s Choice Award. She got lots of comments from CASA members saying those sandwiches took them back in time to family picnics where pimento-cheese sandwiches were a staple. I, too, have fond memories of those sandwiches. But my grandmother never put jalapeño peppers in them!
Finally, still no photos of the inside of the house. Sorry! Hopefully, Eddie will come tomorrow to help us hang art on the walls and the place will be more photogenic. But we still need to locate some necessary items of furniture. First priority, however, is for me to decide on a new grill.
Leslie and I are headed back to the States this week. While daughter Stephanie is taking a well-deserved vacation to Italy, we’re going to be house-sitting and cat-sitting for her. So we’ll be back in San Diego for about three weeks. Looking forward to seeing friends at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church on Coronado Island. I’ll try to post from there, since this is sort of a vacation for us.
Leslie and I are still settling into our new digs with challenges on a near-daily basis, mostly due to poor workmanship or cheapest-possible materials used in construction (e.g., broken toilet seats, broken shower head). We’ve harbored thoughts of bailing out and trying to find something better. But that would mean moving all our stuff again, so we’ve decided to do what we can to make the place habitable. So no photos yet. Please be patient. We still have work to do.
There is news, though. Last week, Leslie did a “presentation” at the monthly meeting of the Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic — better known as CASA. Members must present a dish at least three times a year but are encouraged to do more. Presentations are judged by three local food service professionals — chefs, restaurant owners, etc. Attendees get to sample everything and vote on the People’s Choice award.
There are two categories: entrees and desserts. For May the entree category was cold soups or salads, and the dessert category was bar cookies. Leslie presented “Ajo Blanco (AH-hoe BLAHN-koh),” or white gazpacho. It’s a Spanish dish with Moorish influences. Ingredients include almonds, cucumbers, garlic and grapes. Her soup was one of 10 entree entries…and the professional panel awarded her third place!
I’ve never been a big gazpacho fan, but this was an outstanding soup. Fortunately, there was some leftover to bring home.
May is Lakeside’s hottest month. Daytime highs have been in the upper 80s to lower 90s F., but humidity is usually less than 20 percent. That’s why most of the white pelicans have migrated north. The dry air and the constant breeze keep things fairly comfortable, even without air conditioning. But rainy season is coming, and we’re looking forward to watching the mountainside turn from brown to lush green.
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.
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!
Costa Rica advertises its Central Valley as having “the best climate in the world.” We’ve heard that about other places, too, so we had to check it out. The valley encompasses most of the country’s interior, and includes several national parks. This week, Leslie and I visited the Central Valley towns of Atenas, Grecia and Sarchi. We spent most of our time in Atenas (ah-TAY-nahs), which — you guessed it — is named for Athens, Greece.
Best climate? Depends on how you define “best.” One definition is a place where temperature and humidity are relatively constant throughout the year. However, it was unseasonably hot the few days we were there — in the low 90s F. with overnight lows in the upper 60s. Our Canadian host at the bed and breakfast where we stayed told us many North Americans leave Costa Rica at this time of year because it is hotter. Humidity is lower in the valley than at the beach, of course, but it still felt humid. So maybe it’s not “the best” climate.
Another thing that changes very little is sunrise and sunset. This area is so close to the equator, these events happen at roughly the same time every day. And there is no daylight saving time.
We also heard horror stories about Costa Rica’s rainy season, which is in the fall and is not limited to the Central Valley. Apparently there are deluges almost every day, and while they don’t last long they cause brief flooding in some places. Areas without paved roads have bigger problems. We noticed that streets in Costa Rican towns have drainage gutters built into the roadsides. They are made of concrete and some are at least six to eight inches wide and eight or nine inches deep. You’ve got to be careful when walking or you might break an ankle if you step into one, and very careful when parking or your car will drop off into the ditch.
We found Atenas to be fairly small (5,000 population, I think), with some very nice homes near the center of town. We talked with a young woman from the U.S. who lives with her husband and daughter on a nearby mountaintop. They can actually see the Pacific Ocean from their 6,000-foot perch. There’s a sizable gringo population, but it’s not as obvious as some Mexican towns, particularly Ajijic. We met some other ex-pats at a small cafe and learned there are men’s and women’s groups that meet weekly, so a new resident would have to get connected through those two social groups. A downside for us is the lack of a faith community. The closest English-speaking Protestant church is in a San Jose suburb.
Atenas sits at about 2,200 feet, while Grecia (GREH-see-ah), the largest of the three cities we visited, is slightly higher at 3,270 feet. That makes sense, because we thought it was just a bit cooler in Grecia. Sarchi is only 1,000 feet above sea level, and is a center for Costa Rican crafts. Furniture manufacturing is huge in Sarchi. We saw lots of places selling furniture.
So the Central Valley has some good things going for it, and a few things not so good. Leslie and I might consider coming back to spend more time here. To be continued.
Finally, some fun facts about Costa Rica in general:
This country has no standing army. There are local and national police, of course, but Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948.
Life expectancy in Costa Rica is about 79 years. That’s among the highest in the world. The Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast is one of the world’s seven Blue Zones, where people often live past 100 years.
The World Health Organization ranks Costa Rica’s health care system as the 36th best in the world. That’s one notch ahead of the United States (France and Italy top the list).
Costa Rica is the world’s unofficial hummingbird capital — home to 52 species of hummers.
There are five active volcanos in Costa Rica.
That’s it for now. Last post from Costa Rica coming soon, then it’s time to return to Europe. Time flies!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…