Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Day in the Life...

When we returned to the US for a visit this spring, several friends asked us what it was like for us living in this area of Mexico on a day to day basis. "What do you do all day?" they wanted to know. We don't spend our days eating tacos and listening to mariachi music, so what is a typical day like for retirees living in the Lake Chapala area? I was stuck for what to write about for my next blog entry, and Pixie suggested this. The truth is, our lives now are not very exotic.

Being retired has its advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, not having to worry about going to work is huge. Living here offers many opportunities for getting involved in various activities, so, you can be as busy or idle as you wish. The downside is the fact that we have to live on a limited income. We are living on a state pension, and we try to put money aside every month for our trips north, and we basically live on what's left. Generally this is not a problem. Now that we own an house and are in the process of furnishing it, it is tempting to spend more than we can afford. Mostly, though, we have no problem living on our income because of the generally low cost of living here.

So...a typical day. I am an early riser and enjoy getting up early to have a cup of tea, check my email and read the newspapers online. I always enjoyed reading the paper newspaper in Maine, but here, The Guadalajara Reporter, the English language newspaper comes out only once a week, so I read the newspapers online. I regularly check the NY Times, The Washington Post and sometimes The Boston Globe and the Lewiston, Maine, Sun-Journal. Since we now have a Mexican mailing address, I cancelled all my magazine subscriptions and now read them online. My two favorites were The Atlantic and The New Yorker. But now that I can access other magazines online as well, I often read the Nation, The National Review, and the Economist. I still miss the paper versions of periodicals, but the cost for international subscriptions is high.

Sometimes I do some writing in the mornings while it is quiet. I have written enough poetry to publish a collection. I am collaborating with an artist friend, Vicente, to do a painting for the cover, and Donna, his partner, is translating my title poem, The Sacred Lake, into Spanish. I have been working on that project in the mornings recently.

It stays dark here late because we are very far west in the central time zone, so it doesn't get light until about 7:30, so I am usually up in the dark. Pixie usually is up by about 8:30, but is not good for much conversation for another hour or so. She makes tea and turns on the news. (We have DISH network here. It thinks we're in New York, so we get local NY stations, but the usual list of cable channels.) Maggie often sleeps even longer! She does not like to get up.

Generally, I have to water the gardens every couple of days. This time of year, we often get rain at night, so it isn't as necessary. I usually do this in the morning. Our ajibe (our underground water tank) fills only through the day, so if we use a lot of water at night, we may run out till it fills the next morning. It usually takes me about half an hour or so to do the watering, but I love the tropical plants, and it's very relaxing to just walk around with the hose and generously water. We have a young man, Horacio, who comes once a week for about 2 1/2 hours to mow, trim, prune, and weed. He has been taking care of this garden for years and keeps it looking beautiful.
On a typical day, we usually have things we need to do. Today, for example, is market day. Since we generally buy our fruits and vegetables, yogurt, cereal, flowers, honey and spices at this market, it is a regular Wednesday morning chore. Pixie is doing water aerobics now, and she has this on Wednesdays, so she generally catches a ride with a friend while I go the the market alone. If she's around, she always comes with me. This usually takes a couple of hours, because we have to check over all the produce and we invariably run into friends, so we get talking. We have our regular vendors we like. We always buy our produce from Aaron and his wife, Carmen. They help us pick out the best pieces and usually throw in some cilantro and chiles for free. Several times I've inadvertently left something (produce I've bought, or another package) at Aaron's stand, and he always saves it for me for the following week. He takes good care of us, and we are loyal to him. We buy our cereal from an Indian woman. The granola is excellent. She recently broke her hip, so her husband is running the stand. We usually check to see what new movies are available from the movie guy. He knows me now, so when I walk up to the stand, he hands me a stack of the new movies he has. The movies are 35 pesos, or three for 100 pesos ($10). They are all pirated, but in English and generally good quality. We buy flowers almost every week, and fresh yogurt. The hardest part is hauling everything back to the car.

Even if it's not market day, we usually just shop for our evening meal the day we are eating it. It's easier to do this because we may have a sudden change of plans if friends invite us to join them for dinner. Also, the fish and meat is much fresher if we buy it and consume it immediately. Usually we eat fish, shrimp, chicken, or beef, either grilled or stir fried when we cook in. Pixie has lost about 17 pounds, and is keeping me eating much more healthily than when we first got here. Mexican food is delicious, but uses lots of fat (like lard!) and the tortillas are delicious but very fattening. We eat Mexican food sometimes when we go out, but, except for fresh tortillas to make quesadillas and tacos, which I love, we don't cook Mexican much at home. I recently ordered a book from Amazon The Gringos' Guide to Mexican Cooking, though and I want to try some healthier Mexican alternatives.

Also on a typical day, we may have other errands to do. We may need to pick up a prescription from a 'farmacia, ' which can take a long time. Drugs are generally available over-the-counter, but the prices can vary widely. We might find one drug at a good price at one store, but another at a different one. So comparison shopping works. We need to check our mail in Ajijic a couple of times a week. We sometimes need to pick up printer paper, fill and ink cartridge, or pick up cleaning supplies or any number of other things. These are usually sold in different stores, so shopping can take a considerable part of the day.

I will continue this post next week...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Unexpected Leaks

Well, we thought our renovations were complete, but the heavy rains brought some unexpected leaks into the house. We thought we were in the clear. We had experienced some heavy rains early in the season, and we'd had no leaks. BUT...after we finished our renovation and painting, of course, several leaks appeared, dripping water onto the floor and leaving mildew stains on the ceiling and walls. Here's what water does to concrete walls and ceilings. Doesn't look too bad but it needs to be fixed to prevent more damage:

I thought they could be easily fixed, so we called our good friend and construction guy, Antonio, and asked what we should do. Ahhh...not so simple. The clay tiles on the roof needed to be removed, and the flat tile roof underneath needed to be sealed with a plastic paint they use here for waterproofing. Apparently this needs to be done every few years, and the previous owners did not do it. Antonio suggested that while we have the tiles off we should do all the areas of the roof where leaks have appeared. So, we now have a sealed roof, but we have to wait for the leaky areas to dry before sealing and repainting.

I was feeling a bit sorry for myself since we hadn't planned to spend this extra money. So when our Mexican buddies who did the renovation cheerfully showed up and told us "Don't worry Mr. Guillermo...we feex your casa. No more agua!" and went to work, I was glad at least to be getting it fixed. However, as I began to chat with the workers, I was able to put our problem in perspective. They all started telling me, very cheerfully, often laughing, about the terrible leaks in their homes. Here they were fixing our leaks while they were having worse problems which they could not afford to fix themselves. When we ran out of tiles (some inevitably break when being removed), Jesus went home and retrieved some tiles form his OWN house to put on our house. I was, of course aghast when I discovered this. "No problema, Mr. Beell, that part of my house need fixing anyway." What do I say to these guys???!!!

This very unequal situation prompted the following poem I wrote and read at the writers' group yesterday morning:

Mexican Rain

They accept the rain
Without grudge
As the clouds empty
Over the green mountains
Bringing waves of mud
Cruelly into the cobbled streets
And into their homes
Darkening their lives.

We, however, insist
On stopping all leaks
Which, to us,
Represent failure
And calamity.

And so they work
To patch our roofs
While the rain
Pours into their homes,
For they know
That water is not
A tragedy.
It comes and it dries
And keeps us connected
To the earth
And that patching a roof
Only provides
The illusion
Of permanence.

One last note: I did a funny "dumb gringo" thing when they were fixing the roof. I borrowed their ladder to climb up on the roof of the terrace over the BBQ area at the back of our yard to see if I could see the lake from there. I did NOT realize that the tiles are not strong enough to support my weight. So....I realized almost immediately that this was NOT a good idea, and turned to go back, but it was too late, my legs had fallen through and I was hanging onto a support bar. Jesus saw me and ran with a ladder to provide me with an escape route. "Senor," he sympathized," It is NOT so good an idea to climb on the roof." Obviously. They were all sympathetic, and returned the next day to fix the roof, but I bet they had some good laughs that evening. Here is a photo of the damage I did:

I did get a peek before I fell. Unfortunately, I could NOT see the lake.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Ajijic Writers' Group

The Lake Chapala area has been a haven for expatriates from North America and Europe since the early part of the twentieth century. In the early days, it drew mostly artists and writers. The old Posada on the Ajijic waterfront, and the old hotels in Chapala, provided lodging and watering holes for such writers as D. H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, and Tennessee Williams. D. H. Lawrence's novel The Plumed Serpent takes place in Chapala and the surrounding area. For thirty years, the Ajijic Writers' group has been meeting to listen to and critique writers who are here from around the world.

When we relocated here, I must admit I was a bit intimidated about attending a group with such a history. I had written a bit of poetry for many years, but had never subjected it to any serious criticism. So it was with some trepidation that I first ventured to la Nueva Posada (the New Posada) where the writers gather the first and third Friday of every month to share their writing. We meet from 10-12 then gather for lunch under the big rubber tree.

Each writer is given up to ten minutes to read what he or she has been working on. If a writer goes too long, they are politely told to wrap it up, as we usually have more writers on the list to read than we have time for. I'd estimate that we regularly get between 30 and 50 writers, depending on the time of year.

Most of the people read fiction, either short stories or portions of novels. Some read non-fiction pieces, often travel pieces or other essays of interest to a larger community. There are some poets who read regularly as well. When I first attended the group last summer, I was surprised by two things: (1) the overall high quality of the writing, and (2) the accepting attitude and helpful criticism offered by the group. I immediately felt comfortable and decided to read at the next session.

I was even more surprised to find that most people in the group genuinely liked my poetry and gave me positive comments about it. But the best thing for me about the group is how much I am learning about writing fiction. I have not yet tried to write fiction, but I am thinking about it.

There are some very interesting people who attend this group. It is moderated by Alejandro Grattan, the publisher of the local English-language magazine El Ojo del Lago(The Eye of the Lake), who was, for many years, a screenwriter in Hollywood. He also happens to be an excellent critic and I have learned a lot just listing to his pointed criticism of other writers. He has published a number of my poems in the Ojo, and when I sent him a non-fiction piece about using critical thinking as an expat living here, he asked if I'd make it into a monthly column which he wanted to call 'Uncommon Common Sense." I have been writing this column since January. (I have a link to this column, and to the Ojo on the left column at the beginning of this blog.)

Jim Tipton is also an excellent writer who has written many articles for local magazines, fiction and poetry. I have been inspired by him to try my hand at Haiku. Jim, and many others, have published in many publications, and many have published fiction and poetry books.

In the photo below, on the far left is Karen Blue who has written a very popular book called Midlife Mavericks, which is a collection of stories about single women who decided to move to Mexico. Next to here is Canadian Neil McKinnon, author of Tuckhoe Slidebottle, a collection of humorous short stories. He is a very funny writer. At the end of the table, wearing the white baseball cap is Alejandro Grattan.
Reading below is Stan (I don't remember his last name) who writes mostly poetry. A few years ago, he moved to Guatemala and word was received here at Lakeside that he had died. Some friends organized and held a memorial service for him. Everyone was surprised when he showed up again few months later, and it has been the source of much hilarity in the Writers' Group.

Below my friend Jim Rambo reads a piece written by another friend of mine (whose back you can see in the foreground) Sheldon James. Sheldon has a tremor and can't read himself easily. Sheldon was a professional musician who wrote a memoir of his life on the road as a musician. Jim Rambo was a prosecutor in Wilmington, Delaware who writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Some of his most gripping pieces are his true-life memoirs about some cases he prosecuted in his previous life. Sheldon attends our UU fellowship, and Jim took over my English class for me when I went back to visit the US last spring.

As you can imagine, I look forward to the writer's group every two weeks and have met some interesting and vibrant people there.

Below is a copy of the recent review I wrote of Sheldon's book:


SAXOPHONE PLAYER: Notes from a Transient Musician
by Sheldon James

Reviewed by Bill Frayer
For El Ojo del Lago

June 2008

One of the great things about retiring to Lakeside is our opportunity to meet fascinating people. Sheldon James is one of these people. My only regret in knowing Sheldon is that I did not have the opportunity to know him earlier. Fortunately, Sheldon has published a collection of recollections and stories which have helped me understand how he turned out to be such an opinionated and lovable man today.

Sheldon is a retired musician. His professional life was as a saxophonist in many bands over more than fifty years. This collection includes seventeen stories from his years on the road and his relationships with many colorful characters. Some of the memories are poignant and sad, others uproariously funny, but all are focus on Sheldon’s imperfect humanity and benefit from his unerring eye for detail. The book includes photos from Sheldon’s career, and ends with six additional stories from other aspects of Sheldon’s life, including his life in Mexico.

It’s clear to me that life as a musician during the big band era, and beyond, was not for everyone. It was not always profitable. The travel schedule was grueling. The food was often bad, and Sheldon does not hold back when describing some of the unique characters with whom he worked. But what comes through, in all the stories, is his enthusiasm for life and his dedication to music.

Some of the most notable stories are about Sheldon’s experiences with some of the music industry’s giants. He describes his private meeting, as an aspiring jazz musician, with Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. He describes seeing the great Charlie Parker, the Bird, diminished by drugs and alcohol, in a pathetic performance during the last year of his life. And, perhaps in his most memorable story, Sheldon shares the heartrending story of his young daughter Claudia’s battle with cancer, and the very special relationship she formed with Sonny Bono, before she died.

Of course, most of the “cats” in Sheldon’s book are less well-known, but perhaps even more interesting. The life of a musician is that of a hustler: hustling for work, for a drink, for a room, even for a pretty girl’s attention. The road musician is always looking for his next gig, learning music on the fly, and having to act confident even when he’s feeling exhausted and vulnerable. Sheldon’s characters help him recreate his world, and he’s not afraid to reveal his feelings. He’s lost many good friends, and he still remembers most of them with a tear and a smile.

Sheldon is a good writer, and a long-time member of the Ajijic Writers’ Group. His stories are concise, full of dialogue, and interesting. They are true, as far as Sheldon remembers, and when they’re not literally true, they have been enhanced only by Sheldon’s wish to make his art more perfect.

Copies of Sheldon’s book are still available, and can be purchased from the author.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

July Rains

The mountains have suddenly turned green and the weather has turned cooler, although the threat of rain hangs in the air every afternoon and evening. Last night we had a steady, drenching rain and rumbling thunder all night. This morning, the clouds had dispersed to reveal a sunny, cooler day, typical of this season. We are glad to have the dust gone!

This week we had a visit from Sara Wright who used to work with us at the community college in Maine. She was only here for four days but she was able to check out the area for herself. She was a most enthusiastic visitor. Sara has spent a good deal of time at a women's cooperative in Peru and is used to the Latin American culture. She found many similarities between Peru and Mexico while she was here. She enjoyed driving with us along the north shore of Lake Chapala and visitng the markets. One disturbing thing we see at markets here is wild birds in cages for sale as pets. Sara purchased a captive cardinal at the Chapala market and released it near the lake:

Here are photos of Pixie and Sara and of me as we drove into the mountains east of Chapala towards Mezcala later that day:

One interesting development about the lake, which we saw with Sara on our travels, is the remarkable absence of Lirio, the invasive water hyacinth which used to cover large parts of the lake, damaging the ecosystem. The government of Chapala decided, last summer, to treat the lirio with some type of herbicide. (Previous attempts to simply haul it out by the truckload did not work.) The environmental group, Amigas del Lago, protested, claiming it would kill many fish in the lake. Well, the massive fish kill apparently did not happen, and the lirio is mostly gone. There have been various claims by the government of the safety of swimming in the water, but some contradictory claims as well. I'm certainly not going to swim in it. The government also built a beautiful walkway along the lake in Chapala, called a malecon. Living in Riberas now, we are halfway between Ajijic and Chapala. We spend more time in Chapala now, shopping. It's more Mexican and a good deal less expensive than Ajijic. Here are some photos of Chapala:

One more interesting event: we ran into a woman who showed up at our UU fellowship last week who was walking from San Diego to Santiago to raise awareness about the environment. Her name is Rolene Walker (get it?) and she's haired drivers to drive her camper while she walks so she has a place to sleep at night. She was hoping to hire one of us at church to drive for her, but no takers. The trip will take her two years, she anticipates.
If you are interested, her website is

On a personal note, Pixie is almost fully recovered from her surgery and feeling much better. After a long stay in the US, having all the renovation done, and Pixie's surgery, we are looking forward to getting back to our "normal" life here. I am writing a sermon on why I am an atheist to be delivered next Sunday. We enjoyed a 4th of July picnic yesterday at a gathering for Democrats Abroad. We picked up our applications for absentee ballots so we can vote for Barack Obama!

Here is one final photo. We didn't know it, but you have to groom palm trees. They grow fruit which feeds the fruit bats, which causes them to defecate on our terrace. The palms also drop seeds and other waste, which makes a mess. Here is Israel, our tree trimmer, at work this morning: