Friday, January 29, 2016

LIV. A Las Guachimontones Encima del Pueblo de Teuchitlán

At the Guachimontones Above the Village of Teuchitlán

Taking a break from realtors and bankers I went on another recreational hacienda hunt yesterday. Nowadays, Las Cazadores [Hunters] de Haciendas club not only has badges affixed to hats, packs, shirts or shorts, but many of us (not me) were also sporting their official blue and yellow t-shirts, under several layers of sweaters, down vests, or jackets. It was cold. There was a nasty wind.

We went to a restored hacienda this time—El Carmen is its name. We had a noontime dinner there in a fancy dining room, after strolling the grounds and being shown to some opulent suites—all the mod cons in eighteenth century style. The style, though, of the entire place didn’t suit my tastes. I’ve come to much prefer the early colonial period, simpler and more rustic. And sometimes, just ruins seem appropriate. 

As a side note, the medical doctor who owns the place also has his practice attached to the hacienda’s large, no longer functional and very old stables. You can see his sign as you drive into the gravel parking lot, its tasteful brushed aluminum letters are cunningly attached to the stucco exterior, “Dr.———, Urologia.” That awakened unpleasant memories. 

Undoubtedly, though, my funky mood was more a factor of the uncomfortable day rather than any aesthetic distress. Due to high clouds the air was unwarmed and the light seemed stretched and thin, and a fitful wind was disturbing my ability to receive an I’m-OK-You’re-OK vibe from the environment.

Things picked up in the fine little museum of the nearby town, Teuchitlán. An amazingly athletic and knowledgeable guide met us there after being called by a friend who’d seen us talking in the town plaza with a curious restaurateur who’d seen us gawking at the ruins of an old casa grande just off the main square. They’re all friendly sorts and willing to help some curious gringos. 

In the center of the picture is the largest restored guachimontón at the
archeological side above the town of Teuchitlán which is visible on the plains
below. The long, narrow space stretching clear across the lower quarter of the
picture was the ballgame court. All of the low area stretching from the lake on
the left to the distant foothills and covering the existing town used to be only
part of a huge lake that existed when the site was established several millennia
The reason I wrote that the guide was “athletic” was because he demonstrated some of his remarkable ball game skills. He’s a member of the town team that plays the ancient jugo de pelota like their ancestors who lived in a nearby city that used to be in the hills above Teuchitlán. Today that's an archeological site called Guachimontones—the word describing their circular pyramids that were recently restored after being covered and lying forgotten since some time in the pre-Columbian period.

The game was usually played, he said, to resolve disagreements. The same five young men for each team played all day from sunset to sundown, up and down a long and narrow court. The round ball was heavier than a five pound sack of flour and could only be moved by striking it with one’s deerskin-padded hips. The game was also played during periods of threat or famine. In those cases, in order to gain the dieties’ assistance, the captain of the winning team was given the honor of being sacrificed.Being sacrificed was an honor because only those who had given their life to help the common cause could go to Heaven to be with the gods.

The way I understood what the guide was telling us, the alternative to Heaven wasn’t so bad either; especially since it was called Paradise. Your manner of death determined in what section of Paradise you landed. There were something like 19 levels down there, and much fewer levels up above, in Heaven. The space where they met was the plane of our existence. 

After lunch at the fancy hacienda we went back through town, drove past a kind of kitschy hot spring resort and up to Guachimontones. By this time, the sun was stronger, the wind weaker and I think we were all feeling much better. From the site’s plateau we had a great view of the new town below us, and beyond to the still-impressive remains of a once huge and ancient lake, with a string of long extinct volcanos in the distance. Not far behind us, to the north, Volcán de Tequila, rises to almost ten thousand feet. 

The most restored pyramid there was 80% original, sixty feet tall and about a hundred and fifty feet in diameter, composed of 17 levels of progressively smaller concentric circles, each rising a few feet above the one below it. At the pinnacle—it has been conjectured—a tall pole was inserted in a deep hole, and a priest would occasionally swing from its top, supposedly simulating the flight of a bird.

There was a very compatible group in our car. Good-natured Gary is always fun to be around, and his two friends visiting from California were interesting, friendly people as well. 

When I got home there was a fantastic soup waiting from the kitchen of my culinary wife, and we later talked on the phone to our youngest daughter stateside. Meanwhile I arranged a bank wire transfer of the first of two installments of our down payment, and she fed me the verification codes I had to have sent to her cell phone since neither of our burners can receive calls here from the US. We’re now into the money part of our commitment to buy a house, and more and more frequently I’m nervous as a cat. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

LIII. Estamos Comprando una Casa

We Are Buying a House

In the more than half century since I graduated from high school I’ve never owned a house. For most of my working life I was marginally self-employed and/or doing my artist thing, and couldn't afford even a meager down payment, not to mention qualify for a loan. But more than that the idea was so off-putting I seriously doubt I would have done it even if it had been possible. The first hurdle was coping with intimidating finances, bureaucratic hassle and confusing legalities. Even putting that aside, when I contemplated being a home owner I was overwhelmed by a depressing scenario of not only being burdened with responsibilities of ownership and debt, but most of all of being tied down to one place. I envisioned dusty rooms, the echoes of an empty garage, furniture that was only growing old, the weariness of parking my car in the same spot for decades.

For the past three or four months, though—in this country not-of-our-birth—we’ve been regular visitors to the real estate listings online and posted at the half-dozen realty offices nearby. On my nearly daily walks I’ve kept an eye out for suitable “For Sale” or “Se Vende” signs. We still want to live in el centro, close to the plaza, the lake, library and gardens. We want a little bit quieter street, though, with a good feel to it, a mixed neighborhood of houses, cafes, and shops. Mostly Mexican, a few gringo touches would be OK. We want a house that’s open and airy, with traditional architectural details, outdoor workspace, patio garden and rooftop mirador. Not too big, not too little. In good shape. Out of the ordinary. Affordable.

Last month I walked by a house that met the criterion for location. We checked out the listing and liked what we saw; the price was within our range. For several weeks we talked about it, walked by it, looked at its pictures online. Finally, a few days before the new year we arranged to meet a couple of our friends there—they had recently bought a house themselves—for a walk-through with the realtor. We were all charmed. It had everything we had been looking for. A plus was the artwork, along with furnishings. Other bonuses included a fountain, two traditional fireplaces, a high domed brick ceiling and several tiled, hexagonal skylights.

A few weeks ago, my adventurous wife and I took the plunge. We submitted an offer to buy this casa, and our offer was accepted. When I look back on the few times in the past when I’ve been vaguely tempted to buy a house, I could not imagine any allure to the permanence associated with our purchase as there is now.

This is a cash economy here in Mexico and we are fortunate to have the cash—at least enough to buy this place—and there’s good reason now for making the purchase. An immediate benefit will be a reduction of our monthly expenses. And with the house paid for there will be no debt hanging over our heads*. Nor will there be the inevitable ratcheting up of rent. Allied to that is the security of knowing where we can live for the rest of our lives. And when one of us dies, not having to pay rent will make up most of the difference in income lost. At that point owning a house will also offers possibilities we would not have otherwise. I could never have put the issue so starkly before.

In the meantime—several decades, at least, we hope—we’ll have a lovely place to call our own and to slowly make over in the image of our own tastes. And when this run ends for both of us, a place to leave in this fine village to our daughters. Still, for me at least—my wife has been at least part owner of five different houses spread throughout the west coast with an outlier in Iowa—this is taking some getting used to. Some nights I imagine all the obstacles that could come in the way of our closing mid-February. In the worry hours I also wonder how I will adjust to ownership. Time will tell.

*Property taxes are incredibly low here. The house we’ve made an offer on has taxes that run about US$50 a year.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

LII. ¿Cuánto Gastamos Cada Mes?

How Much Do We Spend Each Month?

About four months ago my sensible but fun-loving spouse and I began tracking all of our expenses here in Mexico. We kept a 3”X5” post-it on the table where we have the phone, change basket, keys, etc. Every day when we’d come home from shopping, we’d write things like, “115 [amount in pesos] - fruit/veg”, or “410 - meds”. We could usually get a whole week’s worth of expenses on one side of that little piece of paper. At the end of the week I’d add it all up and start a new post-it.

We did this for twelve weeks. We felt that this amount of time would allow us to reasonably extrapolate to a typical month for the whole year. 

At the end of the twelve weeks I ordered all the expenses into categories and totaled the amount in each. Since I figure we probably captured a little less than 100% of all that we spent, I added 4% to make up for what we might have missed. And since twelve weeks is not quite equal to three months, in order to get the “average” monthly outlay I added 8% (except to expenses billed monthly like rent and utilities) before dividing by three, thus turning 28 days into a tad over 30—the typical month.

To turn pesos into dollars I divided these totals by 17, since the current exchange rate—unusually high and very favorable to Yanks—is 17.8 pesos to each dollar. As recently as three years ago, however, the rate was 12.5 to 1, so the following figures will probably be somewhat higher as the global economy changes. 

Altogether we spent during each of those three months, on average, about $2300US. Major expenses were for rent (the peso equivalent of $800/month), groceries (about $450/mo), dining out (about $250) and travel (including hotel and car rental, about $175). Health care, including visits to Mexican clinics and for drugs, plus our U.S. Medicare supplemental payments, came to a little over $100. All of our utilities, including internet wi-fi (but no TV) cost us about $75/month.

We didn’t stint, buying artwork which would have cost us in the U.S. well over $200 during that period, eating out several times a week, a couple of big and entertaining eventos, and weekly recreation—often including kayak rental and gas money for short trips out of town—plus Spanish and cooking classes, with books and supplies for both of us. During this time, we were also paying down a student loan of over $200/month. In other words, we lived comfortably but definitely not lavishly, unless you contrast it to the frugal lifestyle we were accustomed to in the States. We even had a liquor bill of about $60/month which allowed us a generous margarita early every evening.

The "Future Expenses" column mainly differs from "Current" in that it is based on a budget 
after buying a home in Ajijic and includes funds earmarked for savings in several categories. 
The final column extrapolates from the previous one to the entire year. One caveat is that the 
peso to dollar conversion is figured near the current (Jan., 2016) rate of 17 pesos to one dollar.
Even so, these expenses are well in line with those reported by other ex-pats in Judy King's 
excellent book, Living at Lake Chapala, based on the 2012 exchange rate of 12.5 to 1. 
To give you an idea how we could spend so much less in Mexico and get more, compare some of our current costs with what we'd be paying in the States: locally grown ground coffee here, $4.40/lb; there, $9-10/lb; bottle of good tequila here, $9 for 950mL; there, about $20 plus for the same brand and amount; excellent haircut here, $4-10; there, $30-50, full breakfast here, $2-3; there, $5-10; rent here, $800; there, for a comparable apartment, $1500; mammogram, pap smear and bone density scan in Guadalajara including transportation there and back, $90; at Seattle's Group Health, not sure, but the latter test is not normally given...

Looking to the future, we will increase our budget for health care to about three times what we have been spending. We have both joined Seguro Popular—the free Mexican public health insurance that we plan to use as a backup for emergency, catastrophic care. Our local and reliable MD charges only about $10 per office visit, but the prescription meds can be expensive—$50-75 for a week's worth of antibiotics. (We could get these drugs from Seguro Popular for much, much less but we'd have to take the bus into Chapala and wait at a dispensary.) Finally, our plans include—as a familiar safety net for now—keeping our supplemental Medicare programs, but we want to build up a fund to allow for unanticipated expenses that we elect to take care of outside the Mexican health insurance, including possible travel to the States. We’ll do that to the extent of putting aside about $3,000/year over our current healthcare spending. 

We will also set aside more money for travel—a little over $4K a year. This will allow us each one week-long trip stateside a year, as well as the funds to continue 3-7 day trips around Mexico about every quarter or so.

Buying a house instead of renting will effect a big change in our budget. Since home sales are always cash here, and utilities are about the same whether owning or renting, after the purchase the main additional cost is for upkeep. Because labor is pretty inexpensive, maintenance and even remodeling costs are relatively low. And property taxes for one house that we have been considering buying are less than $50 a year.