Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Mexico a Dangerous Place to Live?

The US State Department recently issued a travel warning for Mexico that made it sound like it is very dangerous to be here.  The US Consul General pointed out that the warning was only intended for certain areas, but the damage is already done. Even before the warning, the number of tourists had plummeted and the restaurants and other businesses are in serious trouble because there just aren't enough visitors to sustain them all. Many houses are on the market but there aren't many buyers right now.  Rentals are sitting empty.

Our local weekly newspaper reports that 2011 Canadian tourism to Mexico was up seven percent over 2010.  I don't know where they are, but it's not here.  A few months ago a Canadian woman was severely beaten in Mazatlan. Then it was Canada issuing warnings. I think the two countries just take turns.  But who is warning the people north of the border of all the murder and drug problems up there?

The media seems to take some joy in keeping track of the number of people who have died in President Calderon's war on drugs.  Almost all of the deaths have been caused by the drug cartels battling each other for power, and almost all of the dead had been working for one cartel or another. These are not fine upstanding citizens. And that goes for the Americans that have been killed, too; most were involved in the drug trade.

Many things have changed since I retired in Mexico almost eight years ago. In addition to the cartel wars, the "war on migrants", and the problems with the US economy over the past few years have sent many people, both illegal aliens and US citizens of Mexican descent, fleeing south across the border looking for work. Many come to areas with lots of gringos because of the demand for bilingual employees.  It seems like it's getting easier all the time for those who don't speak Spanish, but it also means that the Spanish-speakers who held the jobs before are now out of luck. Desperate, many have turned to crime when they couldn't find other work.

Yes, things have changed, but I have no intention of fleeing north.  I'm more careful about answering my door.  I only drive on the heavily traveled toll roads if I'm traveling long distances. I installed an automatic gate opener so I don't have to get out of my car to open it.  I don't go out alone after dark, and I'm more careful about keeping my doors locked. Am I afraid? No, just cautious. Not much different than I would be up north.

The Mexican government says there are 738,103 US citizens and almost 8,000 Canadians living permanently in Mexico. That doesn't count the snowbirds who just come down for the winter. About 50,000 of us live in the state of Jalisco.  I've heard that this area is the largest community of US citizens outside of the United States. If we thought we were in danger, we wouldn't be here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is Expat Retirement for You?

100_3306.jpg by klsterndahl
Chapala: Little Corner of Love
I'm really glad I decided to retire in Mexico. I absolutely love it here. I've become fluent in Spanish and I plan to become a citizen (with dual citizenship) as soon as it is possible. But the life down here is not for everyone.

I first came to the Lake Chapala area in February of 2004 to see if I would like it here. I did, so I went back home to sell the house and most of my furniture. Five months later I was back. I temporarily left my car up north and packed two boxes, each with 49.5 pounds (what the airlines allowed with a tiny bit of wiggle room) of the things I thought I would want for my first six months down here.

I leased a house for six months and started looking for something to buy. I was surprised when realtors told me that almost 50% of the clients that they worked with bought a house on their first trip down here. The real surprise came when I found out that a large percentage of them "came to their senses" back home and never returned.  The houses went back on the market.

So many people are just not cut out to live in a foreign country.  They want everything to be done just was it was back home, wherever that may be. There are many issues to consider before you commit to living in a foreign country.

Do you speak the language? Some places, like here, you can get by just fine without Spanish because there are so many English speakers, but that is not the case in many places. Can you get English TV? How about internet access?

What is the housing like in the place you are considering? Most houses here have no heating.  It's not usually an issue, but it can be pretty cold in January and February. And the maintenance needs of houses are much different here than up north.

My boyfriend and I have considered moving if we could find an area we like better, so we have visited some of the places where other expats are living. We thought Boquette, Panama, was too small and too primitive.  We couldn't see much to do but drink. 

We tried Cuenca, Ecuador, because a good friend of ours moved there a couple of years ago. We were too out of breath and way too cold there. We've seen hundreds of photos and everyone is always wearing a jacket.

We seriously considered Antigua, Guatemala, where he had lived almost twenty years ago.  It's a great place to visit, but again, there is not much to do there but drink! And there is a long, slow trip to the airport.

Anyway, please think it through carefully before you make a serious move like this. Travel around. Stay in each place long enough that you can make an informed decision. If you can be comfortable leaving family and friends behind and are sure that you can adapt to a different lifestyle, welcome to the life of an expat!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Living Your Dreams in Retirement

     Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have imagined.
                                                                              - Henry David Thoreau

What did you want to be when you grew up? What were your dreams for your future?  So many of us were told that our dreams weren't reasonable.  We had to chose a profession that would allow us to earn enough money to support a family.  Or our parents didn't have enough money to send us to college, so we'd better find something we could do without an education. Or maybe circumstances conspired to stop us before we could fulfill our dreams.  Although the above quotation from Thoreau has always been my favorite, the one below more accurately describes my life...

     None of us can help the things life has done to us.  They're done before you realize it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be, and you've lost your true self forever.
                                                            - Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night

Our dreams change all the time.  You probably had one goal as a kid - ballerina? fireman? astronaut? - another as a teen - rock star? artist? - and maybe another as a young adult - doctor? lawyer? novelist? Were you able to follow your dream or did something come along to get in your way?  Maybe an illness, a death on the family, or an accident?  Unplanned pregnancy? There are so many possiblities.

But a wonderful thing happens when you retire because you no longer need to earn a living.  You are now free to do whatever you want.  I doubt you want to start over with a long education and training, but what about volunteering in the area of your dreams?  Frustrated teachers can volunteer at a local school, lead a scout troop, or teach English as a second language.  While you wouldn't be practising medicine, hospitals and clinics often have volunteer positions available.  What could you do to make life more comfortable for the guys around the firehouse or police station?  Could you help teachers out with a presentation on space travel to a classroom full of children?

Other dream vocations are still a possibility.  Write that novel. Take music lessons or start a rock band. It's never too late to become an artist. Community colleges offer classes in drawing and painting.  Don't worry if you're not good enough to sell your work.  Just enjoy yourself.

So think about it.  Remember your dreams and live that life you imagined . Find your true self again. You might be surprised what you can still achieve and how much fun you'll have along the way.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

End of Life Planning

End of Life Planning is really a hot topic around this area right now with lectures, editorials, and articles in all the local publications.  Considering the number of old people and the fact that we are living in a foreign country, it certainly does make sense to be prepared to have someone take over the technicalities of our lives, whether because we've died or even if we've suddenly become incapacitated for some reason.  For that matter, it makes sense for people of any age to be prepared like this. If you were hospitalized, could someone walk into your house right now and take over running your life for you? If you died, would your loved ones know where everything is and how to settle your estate?

Each of us should take the time right now to get our affairs in order.  Make sure all the important stuff is in one safe place and not scattered all over the house.  You may know how to find it, but could anyone else? Set aside a drawer, a file cabinet, or even a box where you can keep everything in one place, preferably in carefully labeled file folders.  What will you put in these files?  Here's a list that I've put together from various sources:
  • Will or Trust: plus a letter explaining what you want to happen with everything.  If you have posessions in more than one country, you will probably need a will for each place.
  • Important Papers: passport, birth certificate, death certificate of your spouse, marriage certificate, divorce decree, social security card, medicare card, immigration paperwork, military information, insurance information.
  • Medical Information: the name, address, and phone number of your doctor, medical history, allergies, medication and glasses prescriptions.
  • Bank and Investment Information: bank name and address, account numbers, debit and credit card information, including pin numbers, investment information, and statements from all of them.
  • Funeral Wishes: Don't make someone try to guess what you want, write it down.
  • Next of Kin: a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers, with their relationships noted.
  • Pet Instructions: Where will Fido go when you can no longer care for him?
  • Valuables: Where can your family find your stuff? It would be a shame if great-grandma's wedding ring, hidden in a coat pocket, went out with a charity donation
  • Computer Access Info: Do you have something on your computer that you want to pass on?  Make sure they know how to access the information.
You have to store all of these things somewhere.  Why not put them all in one place to make it simple? Something that I add to this is a small notebook where everything is explained, one page per item. But don't just do it once and never look at it again.  Make a habit of going through everything once a year to make sure that it is up to date.  I do it during the first week in January.  Then I don't have to think about it for another year. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Dealing with Loss and Death

We all have to face it sooner or later - the loss of a friend through break-up, illness, or death; and the older we get, the more we experience it. We may do everything we can to keep ourselves alive and healthy as long as possible, but a healthy lifestyle and preventative care can only postpone the inevitable. We're all going to die, whether through long illness or sudden accident.

Living in a community with many retired people means that it can sometimes seem like death is all around us. But, actually, that's life. Death is just as much a part of life as is birth. It will happen to all of us sooner or later. Not accepting that fact can make it even harder on those left behind. Of course, all the acceptance in the world won't make it any easier to say goodbye when the time comes.

Just last week I was trying to help a friend talk through the loss of a relationship. Yesterday, another friend lost the cute little dog who has been his companion for many years. I'm not sure there is much difference between those losses and the death of a human friend or family member. We are never prepared for the end, even if we know it is coming. It all hurts.

There is another kind of loss that I'm seeing lately - the loss of a friend or loved one into illness.  One friend's husband was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's; another has Parkinson's disease, and another is beginning to experience some dementia.  I think this kind of loss may be harder - to watch someone you love slowly lose the personality that you fell in love with. The grieving starts with diagnosis and goes on and on for many years.

When it does happen to you, remember to allow yourself to feel your sadness. Let your surviving friends help you; they don't want to see you hurt any more than necessary. Remember the good stuff.  Think of something really cool that you can do to honor your friend.

My First Month in Mexico, Part 2

Proud vendor of fresh bread at Ajijic street market by klsterndahl
Proud vendor of fresh bread at the Ajijic street market
Continued from yesterday...

At least twice a day, I climb down from my rooftop perch and venture out into the neighborhood. Walking through the village is a cultural experience that I always enjoy. Every morning the women are out sweeping their own bit of sidewalk and the street in front of their houses. I imagine that they start at the back of the house and just keep going right out the front door and into the street. It is also a time to greet each other and exchange news and gossip. At the very minimum, a "Buenos dias" is exchanged with everyone who passes by.

When walking along the sidewalks, an open gate can offer an interesting peek into a private world that is hidden behind plain, and often crumbling, walls. Many of the properties are very narrow but deep, and almost all seem to have patios and gardens hidden inside. Sometimes, all that faces the street is a door opening onto a long dark hallway that leads to a house and garden in the back. These internal gardens are planted with avocados, oranges, mangoes, limes, bananas, bougainvilleas, honeysuckle, and jasmine. The variety is endless, and every conceivable kind of container might be used as a flowerpot. From my top floor, I can see much of the square block where my house is located. The entire outside edge is narrow buildings packed tightly together, but the whole center looks like a forest of large trees of many different kinds with an occasional glimpse of a rooftop patio.

I live at a very convenient corner. Next door is a small tienda - a tiny grocery store - that carries an amazing variety of goods.  I can buy eggs or envelopes one at a time, Diet Coke, milk, cheese, juice, candy, chips, toilet paper and fresh tortillas plus a variety of breads made fresh daily. Across the street is another tienda that sells fruits and veggies, bottled water, and a few canned items.  A few doors down is a laundry where I drop off my dirty clothes in the morning and pick them up that afternoon, clean and neatly folded. They charge according to the weight of the clothes; I usually pay about $1.50US.

The small, densly packed houses in this neighborhood mean that there is lots of activity from 7am to about 10:30 or 11 at night.  Trucks drive up and down the streets daily with loudspeakers announcing their wares: propane gas, purified water, or fruits and vegetables. A man pushes a wheelbarrow and calls out in Spanish, "Honey from bees"; another pushes a cart with ice cream and stacks and stacks of cones. One day I watched a Huichol Indian in traditional costume as he walked up and down these steep streets playing a flute and keeping time with some sort of wooden bells attached to his left ankle. A teenager, maybe his daughter, moved up the block with him, knocking on metal doors and gates (with a coin so the sound would carry well) and hoping for donations.

It gets quiet in the heat of the afternoon, but as the sun sets, the streets really come alive. The men come home from a long day's work and clean up. Music is playing in many of the houses but rarely loud enough to be unpleasant. Front doors and gates are opened and whole families may be sitting out on the sidewalk--old people in chairs or on stumps placed near the doorway for that purpose, the young seated on the curb, and little kids playing soccer or jumping rope in the street. Teenage boys call to each other with distinctive whistles while girls of the same age tend younger kids and giggle with their friends. Some of the  families set up tables in front of their doors where they offer for sale little candies or maybe some avocados or limes from their yard. Most blocks seem to have a family that goes all out and has a taco stand or serves some other hot meal. Neighbors stroll around visiting with each other and catching up with the day's events.

By around 10:30, or earlier if the nightly thunderstorm moves in early, everyone has headed home and the streets are quiet once again. I quickly adapted to getting up and going to bed with the rhythm of the neighborhood.  Many nights, the last thing I hear is the sound of horses' hooves on the cobblestones. I figure it is the Indian farmers coming home from tending their fields high up in the mountains, but I may never know for sure.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My First Month of Retirement in Mexico

100_3287.JPG by klsterndahl
Ajijic street market under the blooming Jacaranda trees
For this post, I've decided to share some of my journal entry from August 12, 2004 - three weeks after I'd arrived in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico...

I spend a large part of each day up on my top floor where a lot of time is occupied with reading and studying Spanish.  The large table on my patio is a comfortable place to write, but I am often distracted by all of the activity in the neighborhood below.

From my elevated vantage point, it is obvious that, in Ajijic and most of Mexico, a rooftop is much more than a cover to keep the rain out of the house.  It is really an extension of the house.  Almost every rooftop is flat, and on each sits a black water tank that supplies water pressure via gravity, in case the electricity goes out.  Beyond that, every rooftop is different. Some have a small wall or railing and serve as patios with tables and chairs and potted plants. One nearby roof is a playground where the kids of that house can enjoy a slide, a swing set, and other toys.  A few roofs, mostly gringo houses, contain large satellite dishes, but my Mexican neighbors across the street have a dish with cables that branch out to about five different houses in the neighborhood.  The fruit and veggie vendor around the corner uses his roof to store hundreds of wooden crates.  Many roofs are strung with clotheslines; they probably dry the clothes almost as fast as a dryer would. The bright colors of bedding and tablecloths remind me of 'papeles picados', the traditional strings of colorful tissue paper with cut-out designs. It is also common to see sinks, toilets, and building supplies stored on the roof until enough money can be saved to add on another bathroom.  A local second-hand store ran out of storage space, so they built a stairway to the roof and started stacking merchandise up there.

Rarely is much of this noticed from the ground, though, because looking up as you walk is extremely hazardous; crazy sidewalks and uneven cobbled roads require strict attention to where you place your feet. For this reason, I'm usually surprised to glance up and see a roof dog silently peering down at me.

Most of the homes are built side-by-side with a common wall between, so it is often possible to travel from roof to roof and even to use that route to break into someones house. This is discouraged by 1) implanting broken glass in cement along the top edge of walls and buildings, and 2) with roof dogs.  Roof dogs don't usually live on the roof full time but have easy access via the same stairs that the people use. I don't see them much in the heat of the day, but come evening they all seem to take their places at the front edges of the roofs where they can keep a sharp eye out on the neighborhood. Usually, they are pretty quiet, but occasionally something will set them off and a chorus of barking can be heard in all directions.

To be continued tomorrow...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Thoughts about Semi-Retirement

Zihuatanejo by klsterndahl
Zihuatanejo, Michoacan, Mexico
When I was a teenager, my parents had a friend named Al who lived what I considered a perfect life.  Al was an engineer who lived on his sailboat docked at Marina Del Rey, near Los Angeles.  One year, he would work hard and save his money.  The next, he'd take off and sail around the world.  I don't know how old Al was, but my parents were only in their late 30's so I'd guess that Al was close to that.  He had no wife and kids to tie him down, but I'm not sure that would have mattered.  When Al had sailed almost all the way around the world, he stopped in Hawaii for a while and my parents flew over and spent some time with him.  It was a wonderful experience that they never forgot. And my brother ended up getting to fly to Hawaii and help sail the boat home.  I'm still very jealous of that!

My father retired temporarily in the 1970s when he was in his mid-40s.  My parents bought a small farm in central California and went back to their roots, Mother Earth News-style.  I joined them along with my son, who was then 4. The original plan included my brother and his family and my sister and hers.  My sister got there eventually but my brother made other plans (that have worked out very well).  I tended bar at night so I could be home with my son during the day.  My sister's husband was a carpenter. This little farm never made any money, and we all worked hard on that place, but my dad got to take a couple of years off from regular work to work with the animals. It really was fun, though.  We milked a couple of cows and six or seven goats, which produced plenty to drink and make butter and raise piglets on the left-overs.  We had a burro, a couple of horses, a few sheep and a bunch of laying hens.  It was so different from our city life.  We learned so much, and it was a wonderful experience for the kids!

When I first moved to Mexico I had a friend named Peter.  He and I both were teaching English as a second language while he was here for a year with his wife and 14 year old daughter.  Amanda had been in a bilingual program for a few years in her California school, and they decided to take a year off work and bring her down here to attend school for a year to become completely bilingual.  Peter's family knew that this would be just a one-year adventure when they came south, but it was a great temporary retirement experience.

I've read about other people who have tried year-long temporary retirements in France and Ecuador, and I think it's a great idea.  And I can't imagine a better educational opportunity for school-aged children and teens.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Problem in Paradise

100_1566.jpg by klsterndahl
Sunrise over the lagoon between Barra de Navidad and Melaque
My daughter was in her early twenties when she came to see my new home in Mexico.  She loved it!  She was ready to move down here, too.  My advice to her was to go back home, find a good job, save your money, and when you have enough, you can come back down here to live. Of course, that was not what she wanted to hear, but that's the way it works.

One of the problems that I see every day down here in Mexico is the number of people who have either retired too early, with not enough money saved up, or who just come down here and expect to somehow make enough money to support themselves. Then something happens - accident, illness, or some other crisis - and they think the gringo community should donate money or get together to raise money to get them out of whatever problem they are facing.  And it does happen that way a lot of the time, but I refuse to be a part of it.

That sounds really selfish and mean, so let me explain. In order to live in Mexico legally, we expats are required to prove a level of income that the government has decided we will need to survive - somewhere just above $1,000US per month, or less if we own property.  That amount is really pretty accurate. There are ways around this.  One is to come in on a 180 day tourist visa and leave every six months to renew it.  Another is to come in on that visa and just never leave. The first is legal, the second, of course, isn't, but it happens all the time. If they live quietly and don't draw the attention of the authorities, they may get away with it for many years. 

I was lucky to be able to retire so young, but I gave up a lot to get where I am today.  I did without, saved my money, and kept my eyes on my goal.  I waited until I had enough saved up to be reasonably certain that I can take care of myself financially.  If that should change, I know that I will have to go back to the states and get a job and save more money until I can afford to come back down here.  But it's not fair to cheat and then expect others to cover your butt!  People either have enough to retire or they don't.  If they don't, then they should go back to work until they do!

I don't want my readers to come away from this thinking that I am a selfish person.  I'm not.  I just prefer to have my charity go to someone who really needs it - not someone who is trying to cheat the system.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Iki Gai

The Japanese seniors of Okinawa with a reputation for living longer than the rest of us claim that one reason for their longevity is what they call iki gai. A reason to get out of bed in the morning. A purpose in life. They may be caring for great-grandchildren, tending a garden, meeting with friends, or painting a picture. Or they may be doing all of these things. The idea is to have something to look forward to each day.

In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics told us that the average American senior watches television for almost four hours a day. It seems to me that TV is a huge waste of the limited time we have here on earth. And no wonder so many retired people complain of boredom! Sitting around for hours every day staring at television programs aimed at a viewing audience with an IQ of about 50 should bore anyone to death. Various polls taken in the US over the past few years show that 47% of people of retirement age read less than ten books a year. I can't imagine that! I have read six books this week! My worst problem is that I get so involved in a good book that I find it hard to put it down and get anything else done.

One of the good things about living in a community in which so many people are retired is that there are lots of opportunities to keep yourself occupied. Although I'm in Mexico, I would imagine that it is similar in any area with a large population of retired people.  Have you ever dreamed of becoming an artist? Sign up for a drawing or painting class at your local community college. You may never become a Van Gogh or Monet, but what difference does it make as long as you are enjoying yourself? Think of this as an opportunity to remember those dreams you had as a kid. The ones you had to give up because you had to find a career that would pay the rent and put food on the table. Most communities have groups of people who get together to share a love of quilting, cooking, gardening, writing, or photography. Or how about a theater group?  Did you ever see yourself as a teacher?  Volunteer to help at a local school or teach English to an immigrant.  The possibilities are endless.   

I often wonder now how I ever found the time for work. I saw retirement as an opportunity to do all the things that I didn't have time to do before. Now I can't find time to get to all the things I thought I would have time for after retirement. I find myself moving from one obsession to the next. One week I'm working in the garden. The next I may be drawing or painting. I'm studying French and hope to one day rent a little house somewhere in France for maybe six months so I can really learn the language. And I write every day. And read.  Maybe someday I'll also find the time to reorganize my grandfather's stamp collection or look for more information to add to my genealogy files. Since I plan to live at least as long as my grandmother, I've got another 39 years to get to that stuff.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Life-Long Learning

I had planned to write today about some ideas to avoid boredom in all the free time we suddenly discover after retirement.  While doing a bit of research on that topic, I discovered a wonderful website, Open Culture, that offers 400 free online courses from top universities like Harvard, Yale and M.I.T.  I'm so excited about the possibilities that I've decided this deserves its own blog post. Since the website gets 1.2 million visitors per month, I may be the last to discover it, but maybe not.

In addition to the college courses, they have many other free items: audiobooks, movies, books, textbooks, science videos, and language lessons.  There is even a free iPhone App! The classes are delivered via YouTube, iTunes Audios and Videos, websites, downloads, and MP3.

The course list reminds me of one of my old college catalogs, with choices like: Archeology, Architecture, Art History, Biology, Computer Science, Economics, Engineering, History, Literature, Math, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science, and Psychology.  And there are many classes to choose from under each of these headings. 

They have links to free online classes in forty different languages: all of the usual plus more exotic languages like Catalan, Danish, Esperanto, Finnish, Gaelic, Greek, Hindi, Lithuanian, Maori, Urdu, Swahili, and Ukrainian.

There are also links to 300 free eBooks, mostly classics, from authors like Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman, Paulo Coelho, and even the Kama Sutra.  There are hundreds of free audiobooks, both fiction and non-fiction.  Textbooks include many topics from high school to college level.  I took a peek at Art History, Botany, Mathematics, and Physics.

I didn't get to go to college until I was almost forty.  I majored in Latin American Studies but since I never worked in the field, I guess you could say that I studied to retire in Mexico.  I'm sure it will come in handy when I take my citizenship test in a couple of years.  But the most important thing I learned in college was the love of learning.  I couldn't wait for each new semester to start and I never found a topic that I couldn't have happily majored in - well, except maybe math.  I could have happily been a perpetual student, except for the cost of tuition and the need to earn some money.  I'm excited to find out all of this is available to me, without charge, right here in my home in Mexico. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Logistics of Living in Paradise

100_2255.jpg by klsterndahl
Sunset from Bigote's Bar in Melaque
The life of an expat is not for everyone. Almost daily I see someone who would really be much better off if they went back to wherever they came from. They cannot accept that things may be done differently in Mexico or wherever they may be trying to fit in. Rather than adapting, or even cherishing the unique qualities of their new home, they insist that the way it's done back in  ______________ (fill in the blank) is so much better, so everyone should change without delay. For those of us who are willing to just go with the flow of the life around us and make an effort to understand the differences, our new home becomes paradise.

Many people have asked me why I decided to retire in the Ajijic-Chapala area when I had the whole country - really, the whole world - to choose from. The answer is pretty simple.  First, I grew up in the Los Angeles area, surrounded by Mexicans (or Mexican-Americans) and their culture.  Half of the students in my first elementary school were of Mexican descent. Many of their families owned or worked in Mexican restaurants, and we loved to eat there.  Olvera Street, in downtown LA, was my favorite place to go. Second, there are many Americans and Canadians living here, so the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic has a good library of English books.

I'm willing to give up some things and adapt to others, but I could never be happy without books.  Back in the states, I was a regular customer at my local library.  In Portland, I drove from library to library to see if I could find something interesting at one that hadn't been at the last one. I haunted the New Books shelves of all of them. So that library is what made me choose this area.  I joined the organization and used that library at least weekly.  That was before Kindle and Nook, audiobooks on my MP3 player, and internet access to a library up north.

And the internet!  How did anyone move away from home before we had the internet?  I've got access to the entire world!  Really!  I can't imagine any information that I might want but can't find on the internet.  The internet keeps me connected with my family and friends back home between trips to visit.  I can use Skype to call them all for free or almost free.  I didn't make it to my 40th high school reunion, but I still got to see all the photos and try to figure out who everyone is. And I've become reacquainted with some of them via Facebook.

I do make up to the US at least once a year, and I have an ongoing Want List for shopping when I do.  This list includes lots of little things that I either can't get down here or that cost too much with the import duties. Every time someone comes to visit us and they want to know if there is anything they can bring, I've always got my list ready. I order what I need and have it shipped to the friend's house.  I think I have about 10 different shipping addresses with

I feel like I have adapted well. I learn more about the Mexican culture every day. I speak better Spanish than most of my fellow expats. Sure, there are things that I don't like about Mexico, but there are also a lot of things that I don't like about the US. I cannot even imagine living back in the states.  Mexico is my home.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Do Artists Ever Really Retire?

My version of a Buddhist Toran - Tibetan Prayer Flag
I say I'm retired.  I consider myself retired.  So why am I still working?  I still make quilts when the inspiration hits me.  I'm writing this blog every day.  I'm constantly creating something.  I can't help myself. The thing is, I don't think of creating as work.  I guess it's a passion.  The need to be creating is something that has been inside me all of my life. 

Every elective in junior and senior high school was an art class.  Those were the only classes that I really enjoyed.  I tried every crafty fad that came along: paper mache jewelry, macrame, decoupage, candle-making, embroidery, tie-dye.  And all that was in the 60s when I was a teenager. During the 70s and early 80s I was creating a family, so some other things had to be pushed to the back burner, but when the kids were young, we did all kinds of crafty things together. 

While I was going to college, I didn't have time for crafts but I was still creating every time I wrote a paper for a class.  One of my very first classes was a writing class.  I loved every second of that class.  We wrote poems, short fiction, and long term papers.  I loved it so much that I also started writing for our small local newspaper as soon as I had completed that first class.  Later, I graduated to writing for various newsletters and took a couple of freelance writing jobs.  All that was fun but I really enjoyed writing papers for my classes - the ones that required research and organization. I liked the challenge of it.

By the time I graduated, I had already opened a quilt shop.  Although I had made a quilt back in the early 70s, the 'quilting bug' didn't bite me until I wrote a paper about my mother's quilting group.  I made a small quilt so I could include information and photos on how to do it. I discovered that quilting had changed a lot over those twenty years: new tools, new methods, wonderful colorful fabrics.  The old traditional quilts have never appealed to me very much.  I can appreciate the beauty and workmanship in a finely-crafted traditional quilt, but that is not what I was interested in making.  I love the bold fabric combinations and unusual patterns of the modern art quilts.  I also like seeing something that someone else has done and challenging myself to do it better. The possibilities are endless.

And that's what I can't let go of. I see a new fabric or a new design idea and I can't help myself.  I just have to try it - see what I can do with it.  This blog is the same kind of thing.  I actually wrote a couple of blogs ten years ago, but I called them travel journals and I was writing to my family and friends.  I was always surprised when someone else found them and commented. I had never heard of the term blog.  So this is something relatively new and exciting for me. Who knows where it will go?  Maybe nowhere, but like my quilting, I'll just keep on writing and see where it leads me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Just When You Least Expect It...

100_3412.jpg by klsterndahl

The most unexpected things can happen without any warning at all. You can be a fanatic about eating right, get lots of exercise, and follow all the recommended preventative care advice, but there are no guarantees. A friend of mine wrecked his motorcycle on his way to share Thanksgiving dinner with us last year. He's OK, but he's certainly gone through a lot of pain and unexpected changes in his life over the past few months. In my case, the surprise was autoimmune disease.

First, I discovered that I have Celiac Disease. Apparently, I've had it most of my life. At least I can look back and say I've had symptoms since I was very young. There's no cure, but it can be controlled by not eating the gluten found in wheat, rye, and barley.  It took quite a while for me to re-learn how to eat in a way that wouldn't make me sick, but now, four years after diagnosis, I've pretty much got it under control and don't even miss the gluten stuff any more - except when an old classmate of mine puts his photos on Facebook of the loaves of wonderful homemade bread he's just taken out of the oven. I swear I can smell it across the internet and a whole country away!

My next autoimmune surprise was Alopecia Areata. Or I guess it was coming first but I had no idea what was going on. I kept finding these little circles on my head where I had no hair. They would be there for a while and then the hair would grow back. Later, I would find another one in a different area of my head.  A few years back, the hair quit coming back and the bald spots continued to expand.  I went through all kinds of lotions, creams and painful shots to my head. The dermatologist kept telling me it was stress, but I really didn't have any stress in my life - except the shots she was giving me in my head. I'd finally had enough and told her so.

I bought some wigs. I decided that if I had to wear wigs, I might as well have fun with it, so I bought a blond, a brunette, and a redhead wig. As the weather warmed up - don't forget that I live in Mexico - I realized just how horribly uncomfortable a wig can be. It soon became apparent that I would rather hide my naked head in the house than go outside if I had to wear one of those things. Fortunately, I have a wonderfully supportive boyfriend who encouraged me to just accept it and forget wearing the wigs. It was really hard venturing out bald at first, and even worse when I also lost my eyelashes and eyebrows - every single hair on my body!  After a while I realized that I didn't mind the bald head so much, but I'd be really happy if I got back my eyelashes and eyebrows. You can't even imagine how difficult it is to try to figure out exactly where on your forehead to draw eyebrows if you have nothing to start with. 

I did get lucky with the brows and lashes, but I've come to appreciate the advantages of being bald - no shampooing, no conditioning, no blow-drying, no straightening or curling, no brushing, no messed up hair.  It goes well with my laid-back lifestyle! And I always remind myself that there are much worse health problems out there than being bald.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What is your definition of success?

At one time in my life, I thought I was successful because I was married to a pretty nice guy, had three children, and lived in a big house on a hill overlooking a pretty farm valley. My son was in 4-H and Little League. The girls were in Girl Scouts and ballet lessons. I enjoyed my motherly roles as troup leader, score keeper and driver as well as occasional farm hand for my husband. We had everything we needed, lots of toys, and traveled every year.

Later, that fairy tale fell apart, but I quickly found a way to redefine success for myself. I was a single mom with two kids still at home but I was finally fulfilling my dream of going to college. I was a junior with a 3.9 GPA, President of the Honors Student Association, Chief Justice of the Student Judiciary, and was considering applying to Stanford Law School.

The thing is, I never could picture myself dressed in business clothes, working in some big office building, in cut-throat competition with others for advancement. I knew I would hate it if I found myself in that situation. So when I realized that my daughters would pass their last few years at home looking for their mom in the law library, I realized that I just couldn't do it. Although I found the law very interesting, I have always been an artist at heart. 

I'm not real picky about what kind of art I am creating, but I have to be creating to be happy. At different times in my life I've become obsessed with papier mache, macrame, drawing, painting, photography, embroidery. You name it, I had done it. When I went to college, I made myself stay away from those art classes. I wanted to learn something new and different. But I was able to satisfy my need to create through writing. I loved all those writing assignments for my classes!  I also wrote for a small-town newspaper and various newsletters, and did some freelance work passed onto me by my professors.

Anyway, when I informed my Honors advisor that I had decided to open a quilt shop after graduation instead of going to law school, to say that he was upset is quite an understatement. At the same time, his reaction shocked me! The last time that a man screamed at me that I was making a huge mistake that would ruin my life was when I informed my father that I was going to move in with my boyfriend right after I turned 18. My advisor (and friend) started throwing statistics at me about how often women were right on the verge of huge success when they got cold feet and backed out of whatever the challenge might be.  When he finally calmed down enough to listen to me, I tried to explain that what he wanted for me was his version of success, not mine.  He didn't want to listen, but once I make up my mind, it's a done deal.

So, by the time I graduated (with Distinguished Honors) I had already opened my quilt shop.  Over the next 8 years, I made hundreds of quilts and taught quilting classes to thousands of students. I did custom machine quilting for quilters from all over the US, and I sold art quilts through a cooperative gallery.  I worked 60-80 hours a week - half of that time at home with the kids - and I loved every minute of it!  I didn't make a lot of money, but I was very happy doing what I did.  To me, that was success!!!

Fortunately, I also invested well the money I did make, and everything else came together just right to allow me to retire at 50 and move, first to Japan and then to Mexico. I have two homes - one near a lake in the central highlands and one in a fishing village at the beach.  I can can live happily on very little money and have enough left over each year to allow me to travel .  After 20 years of being alone, I find myself in the best relationship of my life.  I'm happy and healthy and financially OK. Now this seems like success to me!

I would love to hear your success stories...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Countries I Have Visited So Far...

Travel is my primary goal in retirement.  I hope to be able to take at least one good trip every year for the rest of my life.  One of the many reasons that I live in Mexico is because I can live inexpensively and save more money for travel.  This is where I've been so far...

  • Mexico - 1959, 1963, 1991, 2004 - I grew up near Los Angeles and Mexico was close so my family came here often and then I moved here in 2004
  • Canada - 1978 & 1985 - Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Yukon, Alberta
  • French Polynesia - twice in 1986 - Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora
  • US Virgin Islands - St. Thomas and St. John - 1987
  • Belize - 1987 & 2009
  • Caribbean - St. Martin, Antigua, St. Kitts, St. Barts - 1988
  • Aruba - 1989
  • Soviet Far East - 1991 - Magadon & Khabarovsk
  • Provence, France - 1999 -a tour with my mother - my only vacation while saving for retirement 
  • Japan - 2002 - I lived there for six months
  • Thailand - 2002 - Ten days in Chiang Mai
  • Guatemala - 2007, 2009, & 2011 - my boyfreind & I considered living here
  • Portugal - 2007 - checking out the Moorish architecture
  • Spain - 2007 - more Moors
  • Panama - 2010 - A good place to live?  I think not.
  • Ecuador - 2010 - Another possibility?  I don't like being cold all the time.
  • Italy - 2011 - a wonderful 'girlfriend trip' for a month
  • Croatia - 2011 - part 2 of the 'girlfriend trip'
This doesn't count the regular trips that I take back to the states to visit family & friends in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Florida, nor the trips I take all around Mexico.

My next big trip will be to France.  I am currently studying French and hope to spend 4-6 months there once I feel that I have enough of the language that I can get by without English.  Maybe 2014????

Saturday, February 11, 2012

International Hostels

Once I got used to hostelling in the US, I was ready to test my wings abroad. In Japan, I stayed in seven different hostels, but they were very different from the ones in the US. What really sticks with me is that they were mostly huge, mostly at the top of a hill, very clean, and mostly empty. Many nights I was the only person in a hostel with 120 beds. Most had rooms for four with the male and female sections separate - maybe even on different floors. Some were like large hospitals, some had tatami mats floors and sliding doors. They all had traditional Japanese baths. Almost all cost $30 in 2003 - more like $40 now.

My favorite was definitely at Hiroshima, the City of Brotherly Love. The people running this hostel recognize that the way to prevent war and hatred between different ethnic groups is to help them get to know each other. To encourage foreigners to stay with them, the price is only $15. It was by far the most welcoming and comfortable of all that I experienced.

Last summer I booked my girlfriends and I into a hostel in Lucca, Italy. Neither of them had ever stayed in a hostel. Both of their 'other halves' suggested that they may want to get a hotel room on their own instead.  They chose to not listen to the advice and found out that hostels can be a great alternative. I have also stayed at the Monkey Hostel in Campeche, Mexico, but hostels are not necessarily the most economic choice in Latin America.

Another option is what might be called guest houses in Japan and Thailand. The ones in Kyoto were old traditional homes with tatami mats on the floors and sliding wooden doors between rooms. One was so bad that I spent the entire night feeling like I was in a big fire trap and moved the next morning.  The other, while aging and not maintained perfectly, was a fun place to stay. And, at $16 a night, I figured I couldn't be too picky. I did learn, though, to make sure to ask to see a place before committing to stay.  My guest house in Chiang Mai was just like a small hotel but had a comfortable place for everyone to hang out together like you might find in a hostel.

The thing all these places have in common is the opportunity to get to know people from around the world.  One time at lunch in a Kyoto restaurant, we realized that we had people from nine different countries, aged from 18 to 71, sitting together at one table and having a wonderful time.  Fortunately for me, most travelers seem to be able to get by in English, but that really makes me wonder about our education system.  Why aren't our kids learning multiple languages in school like the people of other countries do?  

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Focus on the Journey, Not the Destination..."

The rest of Greg Anderson's statement is, "Joy is not found in finishing an activity but in doing it." Staying in hostels can make for an interesting journey. It may not be for everyone, but it's a great way to see the world on a budget. The hostels affiliated with Hostelling International are required to live up to HI standards, but I've seen a couple of non-HI hostels that were just plain scary.

Each one is different so I never know exactly what to expect until I check in. The rooms usually have bunks for about 4-8 people, but these dorms can be for men only, women only, or co-ed. Most also have a few private rooms at a slightly higher cost. Mattresses can range from very bad to very good, and earplugs are an absolute necessity! Most have a kitchen where food can be stored and cooked. Prices (today) start at about $20-$30.

I began my retirement with a six week trip from Portland, Oregon, down the coast of California to my brother's house in the LA area. These are the hostels I stayed in:
  • Northwest Portland - a great Victorian house within walking distance to downtown 
  • Redwood National Park - just across Hwy. 101 from the beach (closed right now)
  • Point Reyes - an old ranch house 30 miles north of San Francisco
  • Marin Headlands, Sausalito - just 10 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge
  • San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf - right on the bay, walk to the wharf
  • Point Montara Lighthouse - former Coast Guard quarters 25 miles south of S.F.
  • Pigeon Point Lighthouse - lighthouse keeper's quarters 50 miles south of S.F.
  • Monterey - Cannery Row, the  aquarium and a short drive right into Steinbeck' books
  • Santa Cruz - the Beach Boardwalk and some great surfing
  • San Luis Obispo - a bit more inland than the rest, in California farm country
I wish I had known about hostelling a long time ago. The very best part is the wonderful people I got to meet from countries all over the world. And I often ran into the same people at other hostels further down the road. It's like running into old friends! There is always a large common room where everyone can sit together and talk or read or play games.  It's so much better than going to a hotel room, turning on the TV, and closing yourself off from the rest of the world!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

An Arguement for Early Retirement

I plan to follow in my grandmother's footsteps. She was looking forward to having Willard Scott wish her a happy 100th birthday, but died a week or so before she made it to 99.

My ex-husband's parents weren't so lucky. They were living the American Dream: immigrated from Holland right after WWII with four children and nothing to their names. They had a couple more kids and the whole family worked day and night to get ahead. They eventually built up a large dairy in Southern California, were able to help each of the kids start a dairy of their own, and then finally sold the original property to developers and retired very comfortably.  A very short time later, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's. They never had the opportunity to enjoy retirement.

My parents retired early.  Dad was 55 and Mom was 53.  They bought a really nice motor home and hit the road. Two years later, my dad had two heart attacks.  I realized the wisdom of retiring early while you can enjoy it.  He recovered from that but ten years later died from throat cancer.  By then I had set my goal of retiring at 50. Even though there was a good chance that I would have to go back to work at a later date, I wanted to be sure I got to have time to enjoy that freedom.

By the time I turned 50, I was just taking care of last minute details like selling my house and putting my stuff in storage before heading out to see the world.  I started in Japan.  I was on a 90-day tourist visa so I had to leave the country for a short time.  I took a vacation from my vacation and went to Thailand for ten days before returning to Japan with a new 90-day visa.  Two months later, some stuff came up that made me realize that something was going on with my mom.  Good daughter that I am, I finished my second 90 days and then went home to Oregon.  After about six months of dealing with her newly diagnosed diabetes, we found out that what she really had was pancreatic cancer.  She died two months after diagnosis.

Of course, this only confirmed my idea of retiring while I still had time to enjoy it.  The difference now was that I inherited just enough money to be fairly certain that, as long as I'm careful, I shouldn't have to worry about having to give up my early retirement to go back to work.  I doubt Willard will still be around to wish me a happy 100th birthday, though.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Early Retirement Planning

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to retire when I was 50. At the time, I was divorced with two kids still at home. I had some money from my divorce, but I would have to be careful or it could easily be gone before I reached 50.  I had a house with a lot of mortgage and an interest rate over 10%.  I had a nearly new TransAm - fun to drive but not very practical. I started do some serious planning and budgeting.  This is what worked for me then and is still working now...
  • No debt allowed.  I have one credit card, mostly for emergencies.  As soon as I use it though, I immediately go online and transfer the money from my checking account.  I never carry a balance and so never pay any interest. 
  • I learned the difference between a want and a need.  A fancy cable TV package was a want. I needed a computer and internet service, though, especially because of the kids. Fancy cell phones are fun but cheap ones work, too.  Do you want toys or do you want to retire early?
  • I refinanced my house as soon as the interest rate went down, and then sold it eight years later and used the equity to buy in a less-expensive area for cash.  No more mortgage!
  • The TransAm had to go.  I bought a less-fun, more-practical minivan, again paying cash.  A car is so much cheaper without finance charges!  That minivan served me very well for the next 10 years. Do you want a new car every couple of years or do you want to retire early?
  • Avoid medical bills by living a healthy lifestyle.  Most disease is caused by how we treat our bodies. The huge majority of it is preventable. We really need to get more exercise but who needs the expense of a gym?  Walk, run, yoga, pilates, push-ups - it's all free!
  • And eating at home is much cheaper and can be much healthier than eating out.  Don't even think of wasting your money or your health at the fast-food places!  Shop around the edges of the grocery store, where all the healthy food is. Cooking can be an adventure that the whole family can enjoy!
  • Your local library is a wonderful resource - and it's all free!  Books, videos, music and, if you don't have a computer at home, most have one you can use.
I just turned 60 and I've been retired for ten years. I live an amazing, full, happy life on less than $15,000 a year. I travel every year. This year, it was four weeks in Italy, one in Croatia, and another couple of weeks in the states. I hope you'll come back to find out more.