Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reflections: How I Got to Be "Here"

Brad, a Phoenix reader of the blog asked a very apt question last week. I paraphrase his question here: “I would love to hear how your criteria of a place to live have changed as a result of your travels over the last several months.”

I asked Brad if I could reply here in a public forum, as I think the answer may be of interest to a number of you.

Brad continued, “I am fascinated by your comment that the places you thought you would like you haven't and the ones you thought you wouldn't like you have. I have read almost all of the existing books about retiring in Mexico. I don't think there is any one place that is perfect, and I also think we will be happy with a variety of places.”

First of all, Brad, thanks for following my perambulations across all of Mexico. Every day has brought fresh insights---both about the choice of a new hometown and about myself. In some respects, I blame myself for not being able to make a quicker decision. But “blame,” however, isn't really the correct word. I set out in October without any fixed definitions. I began with a short list of towns I found of interest. From that, I put together a notebook with information on each gathered from the Internet, travel books, and friends' experiences. And off I went with open eyes and an open mind--

1. Quality of Life was my prime consideration. That hasn't changed. I didn't want to move to Mexico to live less pleasantly than I was living in Phoenix. That doesn't mean having more STUFF. I made a conscious decision to simplify my life, and did so in selling most of my household belongings, storing my car, and leasing out my house. Many people come to Mexico for the allure of CHEAP. Consider: you could live here on a small rural rancho with NO services for pennies a day. I've met people who do. Do you want to? For that matter, you could find a small town in the U.S., live in a mobile home, or rent inexpensively. Do you want to? I've realized I like having high speed Internet available, excellent medical care, cable TV, even chain stores where I can buy some of the products I'm accustomed to. And since I have the ability to choose, I'm going to choose a place that's attractive: colonial architecture, green parks, and clean streets and sidewalks. That's my own personal comfort level. Yours may be different.

2. Culture. This relates to #1, quality of life. I've always enjoyed culture. I don't plan to give it up just because I've moved to a foreign country. That means bookstores, libraries, theaters, galleries, a university, concerts, dance, a symphony. As I get older, I make no apologies for enjoying these things. Therefore, I need a town which has them (and that--I've found--normally means not a small village). Plus my own cultural horizons are being expanded by participating in local Mexican cultural events that are new to me.

3. From my travels, I have become more resourceful. And from that resourcefulness have come greater coping skills. I think those are critical for anyone planning to living overseas. The smallest challenge can easily magnify under the lens of cultural differences, different attitudes, lack of supply, and limited resources. The Mexican Dream isn't for everyone. In fact many—if not most—wind up moving back to the States after a couple of years, tired of the challenges. The thrill of "new" morphs into nothing more than a daily hassle.

4. I wasn't sure if I wanted to live on the coast or in the mountains. I surely love the water. When I was in Chicago, I lived close to Lake Michigan and spent many happy hours along its shores. In Mexico, however, beach/coastal city usually implies "tourist trap." As fun as Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta are for a vacation, I've found I don't want to LIVE in a purely tourist town. Don't get me wrong: tourism is a respectable way to make a living, a important part of the economy. I just don't want to live around the constant go-go hustle. Plus, I'm not crazy about 100% humidity and hurricanes. Consider: even if you live in the mountains, you can get to a beach usually within a matter of a few hours. It's the best of both worlds.

5. An American community. This has weighed heavily in my decision. Oaxaca, Merida, Mazatlan, and San Miguel all have highly developed American/Canadian communities, an English-language library, and a busy calendar of social activities. That's still very seductive. Especially moving to a foreign country without a spouse. It's 100% on my own. Like the first time you rode a bike with the training wheels OFF. So having a group of Americans to hang out with is important. Where I am now, in Queretaro, there isn't such an organized community. But since I speak Spanish, it's not quite such a critical consideration. I just have to work harder at making local friends.

And, last, Brad, you're correct that there is no completely perfect place to retire to. If there were, they'd call it Shangri-La. Mexico is no utopia. Like any country, including our own, there are monumental problems--crime and poverty among them. I've learned that this choice is a highly personal one. What's right for me may well NOT be right for you. An example: I was on a bus tour here a week or so ago, talking to an American I met. He said he's about 3 years from retiring to Puerto Vallarta. I noted that PV has the highest crime rate in Jalisco state. He said he didn't care. He was from New York City, a tough neighborhood....and that wasn't a factor for him. For me it is. Security is right at the top of my list.

Like you, I could be happy with a number of places. I'm so grateful for the opportunity I've had to travel the width and length of this incredible Republic. It is so rich in history, beauty, culture, and nature resources, the greatest of which is its people. For example, I found myself having a half-hour discussion with the desk clerk at my hotel. Would that happen at home? Likely not. The lost art of taking the time to chat and getting to know people is still in practice here. If/when I settle down I hope that I can make a personal contribution through teaching and volunteer work.

I hope that answers the question.