Wednesday, December 31, 2014

IV. Lo Que Pienso a las Tres de la Mañana

“It’s colder than a penguin’s penis” out there by the beach at the edge of the waves coming down from Admiralty Inlet and across a frigid Puget Sound. Or at least that’s the way my lingually adventurous spouse would put it. 

I saw a gull picking at some detritus on the shore, and when I approached discovered it was a good-sized fish, an orange roughy I believe it’s called. That’s a fun name. Evocative. You might imagine a renegade artist or member of a Scottish biker gang.

There was a rosy sunset view, this evening, over Mount Baker’s broad and snowy-white southern flank.  

I’ve grown so accustomed to this place, up here in the corner of the country, just below Canada--lived around here for over forty years. This move we’re planning to Mexico will be the longest time I’ve ever spent—during all that period—away from the tall, dripping green firs and ferns, rocky coastline, and mountains. 

Center right: the pier at Playa de los Muertos. That's where we'll load onto
a water taxi--tomorrow-- for a 45 minute ride from Puerto Vallarta to the
little fishing village, Yelapa, where we'll relax for a month. 

Tomorrow at this time, that beach I’ll be walking on will be called a playa. We’ll be in a little village in Mexico, and, instead of shivering, our skin will be opening to weather that will be un poco calor, pero muy amable.

Such a sea change, in such a short time.

It’s been six months since we last came home from Mexico back to the Pacific Northwest. My first impression upon return was how sedate life here seemed, how far apart everything was—houses, buildings, cars, people. How few people were about, and the ones that were, seemed to be either in cars or scurrying down an incredibly wide and almost empty sidewalk. 

And that was in the summer. On a freezing day like today everyone holds their coats around them like armor against the cold. Once you come home, after you turn up the heat, all you want to do is stay home. 

Some time in the next week or two, if recent history is a guide, I will be out with Ronco in his little fiberglass outboard, hugging the palm-covered shoreline, bobbing in the Pacific swells as we troll for bonitas. 

And, in exactly a month, we’ll still be in that pueblo, but on the eve of departing for the lakeside village in the Central Highlands where we plan to move. We’ll spend a week there, talking to rental agents, and viewing some casas, searching for ones we fancy. 

Wouldn’t you know it though? I’ve begun feeling nostalgic, already, for this place I've called home for so many years. 

What’s familiar can sure get comfortable. And we have good neighbors here—The Young Man, Joyce, and The Little Family plus one. Full-tilt Joe, even Casanova. Gym Bob, friends from work. Not to mention the sweet daughters. Or water you can drink from the tap; toilets down which you can flush the paper…Maybe sedate and complacent don’t necessarily have to go together…

Anyway, that’s the flavor of the thoughts I’ve been having lately when I awaken at three in the morning and contemplate this extended vacation, let alone our year-long (at the least) move.

Monday, December 1, 2014

III. Ubicación, Ubicación, Ubicación!

Location, location, location! That's what's been driving our search for a place to live in Ajijic. But other than that familiar mantra, house hunting there is not the same.

A shady street scene in Ajijic with its narrow sidewalks,
streets, and attached walls and casas.
The dwellings in Mexican villages we’re familiar with are vastly different from those that are most common stateside. House fronts, or walls, are connected more or less continuously—a solid stucco/brick facade that runs along and right next to a narrow sidewalk, and almost equally narrow cobblestone street. Ownership is often only differentiated by the color and pattern of paint on the wall. 

Contrast this to our little town of Edmonds, Washington, with its individual houses set back from the street, separated by a lawn, and often a shrubbery border, from neighbors.

Entrance to Casa de Masks
Although much closer together, Mexican homes have more visual privacy—only a small curtained and barred window looks directly into a room from the sidewalk, or wrought iron gate gives view to a walled courtyard. Household security is much more obvious in Mexico than the US—bars or grillwork on windows or in front of doors, and often there is embedded broken glass, or even concertina razor wire on the top of walls. 

Generally speaking, in our experience: rather than lawn there are tiles; rather than flower beds, there are pots; rather than a yard surrounding the house, there might be a small high-walled courtyard just in front. A sense of the outdoors is also gained through interior courtyards, atriums or rooftop patios called miradors.

Yellow Casa de Arbol, opposite tree,
with its covered mirador on top
The casa we’re checking out in a couple of months is called Casa de Arbol. Arbol means “tree”, and there’s an old landmark tree growing right across the narrow street. The house is also narrow, and attached to its neighbors, like row houses in some large US cities.

There is a stairway winding up to the covered rooftop mirador from just outside the sitting area at the back of the second story bedroom. I’m thinking that in addition to the views of the lake, cathedral and mountains, this would be a great place for morning exercises, perhaps followed by a short stroll to the lake and run along the malecón

Bird of Paradise, on location at LCS
Directly across the street from Casa de Arbol is the outdoor cafe, gardens, and library of the Lake Chapala Society. That’s where my studious wife plans to continue her Spanish lessons. This will also be a good place to become familiar with the local ex-pat group and its resources, as well as a connection to community volunteer work. 

Restaurants, cafes and bars abound, all around, and Casa de Arbol is almost equidistant between the weekly tianguis, or street market, near the school, and the tiendas and many Saturday vendors all around the main plaza.

Ubicación, ubicación, ubicación!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

II. La Visión

On New Years Day we’re leaving for our traditional winter idyl in Mexico. The last ten days of that six-week trip we’re moving inland to seriously scout out housing in Ajijic—the place we plan to move next spring. Last summer, on our last—and also first—trip to that village, we’d thought about exactly where in town we’d like to settle. 

Gazebo in the main plaza
Walkability—safe, enjoyable and easy access, by foot, to resources we value—has long been a prerequisite for where we choose to live. We like to be able to amble to the action.

The desired features within strolling distance of our new home in Ajijic include the main plaza with its gazebo, gardens, multitude of shops and stalls, a 400-year-old church, and simpatico places to eat and drink; the lakeside park and boardwalk (malecon); and the flower gardens and resources at ex-pat oriented Lake Chapala Society. This gives us a 50 square block area, centered on the plaza. It does not include any gated community.

Four blocks from the plaza to the lake at the end of this calle
When we got back to Edmonds from visiting Ajijic last summer, we immediately began looking at online resources for finding a rental casita. We soon sniffed out a half dozen local agencies. We searched within a monthly price range about one-third less than we are paying now. When we found an affordable listing within our walkability boundary, we called our spouse to come excitedly look over our shoulder at its description and, especially, its pictures. 

We decided we wanted a two bedroom (one for the visitors we look forward to hosting), furnished casita. It should have at least one and a half baths, a well-appointed kitchen, the usual dining and living areas, a private courtyard, and ideally a rooftop patio, or mirador. Less tangible features include plenty of light, and attractive traditional furnishings and fittings. It should have decorations and paint we can easily live with for at least the year we are giving ourselves to see if we want to make the move more permanent.

Malecon, or lakefront, at the end of the street above
These online searches have been great escapism, particularly on cold, wet and cloudy days here in the Pacific Northwest. They’re bringing us closer to the reality of our future life in sunny, friendly Mexico, especially when we go on Google Street View and click ourselves up and down the calles around a possible home.

In addition, this process helps us more clearly define our desires, and weigh them against what is available. When we find a place online that makes the cut, I take screen shots of its location, description, and pictures, figuring that, once down there, we can show these to agents so they will understand what we are looking for. 
Screen shot of casita #2

Recently, though, we found a listing for a little casita that incorporates so much of what we want, and is available when we want it, that my get-it-done wife emailed the agent and told him we’d like to look at it when we visit Ajijic in February. Eduardo is expecting us. We’re stoked...

But--just a minute ago we found another casita we maybe love even more--oh, the riches!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I. Rinconcito de Amor

Where the action is in Chapala on a Friday night
In the early summer about five months ago, we visited an ex-pat friend who was trying out life in the scattered gringo community at Lake Chapala in central Mexico. The lakeside town of Chapala, where she lives, is a lively and attractive place; it primarily caters to Mexicans coming down for a fun weekend from the large and nearby metropolis of Guadalajara. At one end of Chapala’s well-maintained malecon, or lakefront, there is a pier that goes out a hundred yards into the large, bird-filled, and often misty lake. 

The pier is popular with strollers, ambling out to its vista, and also the embarkation point for colorful boats that will take you to the ill-named Isla de las Alacranes, or Scorpion Island. The slogan formed in wrought-iron on the portal to the pier, though, is totally inspiring to romantics like us: “Chapala - El Rinconcito de Amor”; in English, according to Google Translate, it means, “Chapala - Little Corner of Love”. 

Ajijic boy running for a fountain just off the main plaza
We hadn’t expected to like the area, and the people, as much as we did, and we returned home to Seattle vowing to move to a little lakeside village just a few miles west of Chapala, with a strange name that sounds like a tittering laugh—ah-hee-HEEK—spelled Ajijic. 

We've booked a reconnaissance trip to Ajijic this coming winter.

In a kind of snobby way, we hadn’t originally thought we’d would like this village because of the large number of ex-pats centered around here. But our experience walking around the pueblo revealed what seemed to be an amiable mix of locals and gringos, and the gringos we met were that rare breed—people with whom we actually enjoyed spending time. 

Moving to Mexico isn’t a new idea for us. For nearly a decade we have been spending a week or more each winter in a little fishing village near Puerto Vallarta. As our retirement became a near reality, we began toying with the idea of a move. Last year, when I finally pulled the plug (as a side note, “retired” in Spanish is the happy-sounding jubilado), we were able to extend our customary vacation to take in the entire month of January. 

Sun rising over Yelapa's little bay, from our balcony
Our idyl there was relaxing almost beyond belief, but returning from weeks of warm days fishing with a local friend and lazing in the sun on the patio above the bay, to month after month of cold, wet, dreary, north-of-the-border weather was brutal.

It isn’t just the weather, of course, that’s encouraged such a big move as this. We love the vibrant culture and friendly people we’ve come to know over the past seven years. We had previously thought of moving to live full-time in Guanajuato or perhaps San Miguel de Allende—old colonial cities in the central highlands. We visited Guanajuato several years ago and found it beautiful—magical, even—but socially impenetrable. 

And San Miguel has come to seem a bit too caro—both expensive, and whatever else a fair number of people with serious money bring to a place. We’d planned to check it out this winter to find out whether it was artful, or just arty, but after my sensible wife said she thought Chapala—or Ajijic—would be a welcoming place to move…well, I’m totally in with that.