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.

 

And now for something completely different!

We have arrived in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and the difference between this city and San Miguel de Allende – where we lived for the past six weeks – is amazing. It’s bigger. More than 300,000 in the metropolitan area, with lots more traffic. It’s a beach town at sea level, with high temps and moderate-to-high humidities. Even more Americans and Canadians.

Leslie and I were able to rent a modern three-bedroom condo in Marina Vallarta that backs up to a golf course. We have a small pool in a huge outdoor space with lots of tables and chairs. We’ve already had one visitor (see photo below)! And we’re seeing (and hearing) a number of birds I can’t easily identify. A sparrow-sized cutie with a reddish-pink head and chest, a larger bird with yellow on its chest and a streak from its eye backward along its head, and a woodpecker. And what I think may have been a goldfinch – not sure.

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Saw this small iguana joining us on our first day in the sun! I didn’t have a snack to offer, so he left!

Hal, our Canadian landlord for the next two months, has a local administrator for his property. Rosanna picked us up at the airport on Wednesday and gave us some pointers on the marina area.

“It’s very safe here,” she said. “You can walk all around the area any time of day or night and you’ll be safe. Just one thing that you must never do: Never, ever, walk across the golf course at night.”

I was having a difficult time figuring out why. Would we be attacked by banditos lurking the links after hours? Bopped on the head by golf balls from blind golfers playing in the dark to avoid crowds? No and no.

“Crocodiles,” she said. “In the dark, you might step on one, and they don’t like it when you step on them.”

Right. What’s now a huge marina with lots of boats and tons of shops and restaurants, not to mention a plethora of condos, was once a swamp. There are still crocs here. It’s their habitat. So the danger is from wildlife, not from a wild life.

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In English: Danger. Crocodiles. No Swimming.

Rosanna has been very helpful. On Friday, she took us on a tour of Vallarta, showing us a bit of the old city and pointing out areas we will need to explore in depth over the next two months. She also took us to a local mercado for fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as seafood and meat.

There’s also a Wal-Mart and a Costco, in addition to Mexican grocery stores very much like the one we patronized in San Miguel. More on cost of living next time, but at first glance it appears prices are slightly higher here than in San Miguel.

We attended our first Vallarta ex-pats dinner on our second day in town. A number of them live here in the marina area, including Mike and Sara, the group leaders. There’s a social event almost every week.

We also attended Sunday morning services at Iglesia Cristo del Mar, or Christ Church by the Sea. But…it’s not really by the sea, more like on a really busy street close to the airport! I dressed as I would for any summer Sunday at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville. Boy, was I overdressed! Shorts and t-shirts are not out of place here. It’s another outpost of the Anglican Church in Mexico, like the one we attended in SMA, and we enjoyed the service in what is essentially a big open-air palapa. Nice people. We will be back.

We’re really excited that John and Anne Mixen, friends from Grace UMC, are right here in Vallarta this week for a well-deserved vacation. We’re meeting them this evening to watch the sunset and enjoy dinner and conversation.

I’ll leave you with the view from our patio toward the golf course. We planned to do things today but we’re still on the patio because of a comment I made during lunch, “This is just about perfect, and you don’t often get perfect.” Maybe more often here in Vallarta. We’ll let you know.

Hasta luego!

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Looks great, doesn’t it? Behind these lounge chairs is a round table with four chairs where we’ve been having lunch almost every day. The only down side to this space is watching the golfers on what appears to be the 18th fairway. I don’t play golf, but know a lousy swing when I see one. Have to keep myself from yelling, “follow through, dude!” or “Hey, your stance is too wide!”

 

 

Sunny San Miguel

Leslie and I have arrived in San Miguel de Allende, about three hours north of Mexico City. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is about 6,200 feet above sea level and has a population of about 140,000 — perhaps 10,000 of whom are expats from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland and the U.K.

We plan to be here through the end of February. And it’s warm! Today (Sunday) the high will be about 75º F. Cool at night, but really pleasant during the day. Low humidity, and no rain for the next week at least.

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The neo-gothic La Parroquia San Miguel de Allende Arcangel is the parish church and the city’s emblem. It is one of the most photographed churches in Mexico. 

Getting here certainly wasn’t easy, and we made it more complicated by trying to save a few bucks on the airfare. First, we flew from Malta to Barcelona and stayed overnight to avoid getting up early and rushing around trying to make close connections. Good move.

From Barcelona, we endured an 11-hour flight to Bogota, Colombia, then another four hours to Mexico City. On the trans-Atlantic leg, we were on an Avianca Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner. First time on one of those. Neat plane, and an uneventful trip, but in hindsight it would have been better to spend a little more and go through Miami to Mexico City. You get what you pay for.

We arrived in Mexico City at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday and stayed over Wednesday night to become acclimated to this hemisphere. Got to SMA Thursday afternoon and settled into our apartment in the Centro area, which has cobblestone streets and narrow sidewalks with neat little shops and restaurants all along the street. We are just above Cafe Monet, owned and run by our landlady’s brother. Click on the link to see their site, then click on “Casa Monet Apartments” to see where we’re living for the next six weeks.

We’ve already visited the Central Mercado for some fruits and vegetables, and on Saturday we went to the Organic Fair just down the street. Judging from the quality of the produce, we’ll be going back there every Saturday. Especially since there are also food vendors selling all manner of tacos, enchiladas, empanadas and other Mexican food for lunch.

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One of the food vendors at the Organic Market. Looking forward to proxima semana (next week)!

San Miguel has a vibrant arts scene, with tons of art galleries and almost-daily opportunities to see plays and attend concerts of all types. In fact, there’s a jazz festival Feb. 7-11.

Today we attended St. Paul’s Anglican Church, just a 10-minute walk down the main street. Neat old building and a good message from a retired Episcopal bishop — also a U.S. expat.

More next time on costs, but the big thing in that area is the peso-dollar exchange rate. The dollar is getting stronger by the day, and that helps in many ways. For example, in the Mexico City Airport Hilton I tipped a bellman 100 pesos — that’s about five bucks USD. And yesterday, we went to a chain supermarket here in SMA known locally as “Mega” for all the stuff we couldn’t get at the mercado. Put over 1,200 pesos on my debit card! Checked the bank account online today, and with the exchange rate USAA Bank gives us, we paid $57.18 for a basket full of food. Leslie is sure that at Jewell or Whole Paycheck it might have been double or even triple that amount.

As they say around here, hasta luego!

 

 

Malta: Maybe, Maybe Not

We have fewer than 10 days left here on Malta, so it’s time to start evaluating. There are a lot of good things to say about Malta. The biggest plus so far has been the ease of meeting other expats. We’ve enjoyed going to church at St.Andrews

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Here we are with the Rev. Kim Hurst, pastor of St. Andrews and a methodist minister from the U.K.

and have met some lovely people. In fact, Leslie and I had dinner last night at the home of our Canadian friends, Frank and Judy Wilmot.

Another plus is that most Maltese speak English, some better than others. Most signage is in English or a mix of English and Maltese. It’s generally pretty easy to make ourselves understood.

Culture is a big deal here — yet another plus. In fact, Malta will be the European Union Capital of Culture in 2018. They’re already promoting it. Beginning next week is the Valletta International Baroque Festival, a series of 25 classical concerts at various places around the capital city. We may get to see two or three before we leave. Malta also has an annual jazz festival and many opportunities to see theater and dance performances.

Leslie and I attended the President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on New Year’s Eve at the Mediterranean Conference Center, which was built in the 16th Century by the Knights of St. John as a hospital. The orchestra was pretty good, as was the featured soloist, a young Maltese soprano, Nicola Said; the program mostly light classics and show tunes. And the president was there!

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The blond woman with glasses in the center of the photo is President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. We were that close to her. Everybody talks about her with genuine affection and respect. What a concept!

We were in the same room with the president of Malta, and we never saw any security. No metal detectors, no cops or soldiers with guns. Granted, the real political power here rests in the prime minister rather than the president. But she is far from a figurehead, being heavily involved in social issues of all kinds. I think it speaks well for this island nation that the president can mingle easily with the people.

There are also some things that aren’t that great. We noticed pretty quickly that it gets quite chilly here in December and January — and many Maltese don’t have heating or air conditioning in their homes. We have a dehumidifier in this 400-year-old house, which makes it feel more comfortable. Today’s high was only 50º F. with light rain and even some sleet, and tonight’s forecast low is 41º F. Up until today, it’s been more like 60º to 65º F. most days. Our neighbor came by this morning and said this is the coldest winter she can remember. Newer construction and renovated spaces often include heat and air conditioning, but running them costs quite a bit — electricity is expensive on Malta.

That’s just one part of what we’ve determined to be a slighter higher cost of living than what we found in Spain. Renting or buying property would be more expensive here. The biggest real estate agency lists apartments in Valletta for upwards of $315,000, and some of the better properties are well over $1 million. Here, on the older more historic side of The Grand Harbour, an area known locally as The Three Cities, some apartments are listed for under $160,000, and about the same in other parts of the island.

Surprisingly, we found some rentals available in St. Angelo Mansions, built recently just outside the walls of Fort St. Angelo — the only Malta fortification that withstood The Great Siege of 1565. We could rent a three-bedroom with water view there for anywhere from $1,100 to $1,600 a month. And in Valletta, we found rental listings for as little as $1350 a month for a two-bedroom. In communities nearer the center of the island, we found monthly rentals as low as $600 a month, also for two bedrooms. So there is some affordable real estate all over Malta.

Then there’s the cost of food. Just a few items from last week’s grocery list, all converted from grams and liters into U.S. measurements, and from euros to dollars at the current exchange rate. Bear in mind that without a car we don’t have easy access to an American-style supermarket. Our neighbor Marthese, who takes care of this house for the owner, took Leslie to the supermarket one day a few weeks ago, but most of our food comes from The Convenience Store (yes, that’s the name — it’s a local chain). With that in mind, here are the costs for you to compare:

  • peanut butter, 12.3 ounces, $2.88.
  • eggs, one dozen, $2.31.
  • orange juice, 67.6 ounces, $3.56.
  • olive oil, 8.4 ounces, $3.35.
  • coffee, 17.6 ounces, $3.03.

Leslie says the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables from the greengrocer on Victory Street is slightly more than we paid at Central Mercado in Alicante. Same with meat and poultry. So in general, food costs are slightly higher here. Eating out in a restaurant is also a bit more expensive than in Alicante, with dinner menu prices rivaling what we paid at our favorite restaurants in DuPage County.

In general, we both believe Malta deserves continued consideration as a retirement home. We may come back to see how it is in a warmer season.

Our time in Europe is over for now. Next stop, Mexico. More on that next post.

I leave you with a photo of the nave and elaborately painted barrel vault of St. John’s Co-Cathderal, the number one tourist attraction in Valletta, built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. In the 17th Century, the interior was redecorated in the Baroque style by Italian artist Mattia Preti and others. The church is considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world’s great cathedrals. The artwork alone is awesome.img_1318

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…