Sunday, May 31, 2009

News from the Guadalajara Reporter


These are three of the workers on the house down the street.  They love having their pictures taken, so I made copies for them and dropped them by last week.  They loved looking at themselves and were busy teasing each other about the way they looked.  You can see in the background that the brick walls have now been covered by cement.  

This is election time in Mexico, with midterm elections scheduled for July 5.  Instead of using lots of paper signs, as in the US, the politicians here paint their campaign advertisements on the sides of buildings, more environmentall-friendly.  Here are two examples:

Both signs are for the presidente (mayor) of the municipality of Chapala, which includes Riberas, the subdivision where we live.  On the left is the sign for the PAN candidate.  The PAN party is the party of President Calderon, now in power.  The sign on the right is for the PRI candidate.  PRI is the party which ruled Mexico for 70 years.  It was considered corrupt and undemocratic.  This 70 year rule ended in 2000 with the election of PAN candidate Vicente Fox.  Surprisingly, the PRD party, the ultra left-wing party which almost won the presidency in 2006, is very weak, at least in this area.  The PAN party is considered conservative and pro-business, and is popular in Jalisco.  

Speaking of painted walls, here's a photo of the beautiful new mural being painted in Chapala on a retaining wall erected to keep the road clear of rock and mud during the rainy season.  Murals are a common type of artistic expression throughout Mexico, in the spirit of famous muralists Rivera and Orasco:

Since there is such a large English-speaking North American presence here at Lake Chapala and, to some degree, in Guadalajara, The Guadalajara Reporter, an English language newspaper reporting news from Western Mexico, including Guadalajara and Lake Chapala, is very popular. To give you a sense of what's news this week, I will detail a few of the main stories from this week's edition. 

1. The headline this week is about the spread of the seasonal dengue fever.  This is an illness in tropical areas spread by mosquitos.  Most dengue fever is temporarily debilitating, but not fatal.  But the hemorrhagic variety is fatal.  The most recent numbers for Jalisco for the year are 131 cases, including 11 cases of the hemorrhagic variety.  Coastal areas have more cases because of their higher heat and humidity, I assume.  The article goes on to describe Jalisco's efforts to use pesticides to reduce mosquito breeding, and warning people, particularly in the rural areas, about protecting themselves from mosquito bites.  We have a friend here who, several years ago suffered a long bout of the non-hemorrhagic dengue.   

2. Another front page story concerned the drug corruption problem.  The federal government swept across the neighboring state of Michoacan last week and arrested 10 mayors and 18 other government officials of aiding a drug cartel, La Familia.  The officials were from all three major political parties, and were intended to demonstrate President Calderon's determination to follow drug corruption wherever it leads, even into his own party.  I think this shows progress, but also demonstrates how serious political corruption is in Mexico.  

3.  Another front-page story is about Chapala's new trash separation program to facilitate recycling.  As of June 1, local residents will need to separate their trash into three categories: organic matter, inorganic matter, and sanitary waste.  The inorganic matter will further be divided into recyclable materials.  The sanitary waste category is necessary because most Mexican households deposit toilet paper and other sanitary waste into trash containers rather than flush it down the toilet.  Recycling has been slow to take hold in Mexico, but there is increasing emphasis here on all types of environmental efforts.  

4. An article inside the paper is about Guadalajara's efforts to design and construct an athlete's village for the 2011 Pan American Games, which it is hosting.  The Pan American Games are like the Olympics, but for the Western Hemisphere.  It is not as well known in the US (although it does send athletes), but it is huge in Latin America.  The village is being built to house 5000 athletes in downtown Guadalajara.  They will begin work by October 5 of this year.  

5. Another interesting piece is about the efforts of eighty-five 10th graders at a school in Guadalajara to spread awareness of the Darfur tragedy.  One student is quoted as saying, "We think the issue of Darfur is more important than Michael Jackson's skin problems."  Sounds like they could provide a few lessons to the American media as well! 

6. Finally, there is an interesting piece about a thermal river spa near Guadalajara.  Thermal river?  Yes, Rio Caliente is fed by thermal springs warmed by underlying volcanic magma.  The article highlights a business started in this rural setting to provide massage and other natural healing services to people who can either stay at the spa or come for the day.  I went to the web site,, and found it interesting but a bit pricey!  

Pixie and I are getting ready to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary on June 9.  Wow.  Time does fly!  We are going to be taking a two-day trip to Colima, south of here in the State of Colima, and the home a two famous volcanoes, next weekend.  I will post some photos and information about Colima in the next entry.   

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Another perspective on Mexico

You may remember Linda Elerbee the TV journalist.  She is now spending a lot of her time near here in Puerto Vallarta.  Here is an article she recently published which tells the hidden secret about Mexico.  Enjoy! 

By Linda Ellerbee 

Sometimes I've been called a maverick because I don't always agree with my colleagues, but then, only dead fish swim with the stream all the time. The stream here is Mexico.  You would have to be living on another planet to avoid hearing how dangerous Mexico has become, and, yes, it's true drug wars have escalated violence in Mexico , causing collateral damage, a phrase I hate. Collateral damage is a cheap way of saying that innocent people, some of them tourists, have been robbed, hurt or killed.

But that's not the whole story. Neither is this. This is my story. I'm a journalist who lives in New York City , but has spent considerable time in Mexico, specifically Puerto Vallarta, for the last four years. I'm inVallarta now. And despite what I'm getting from the U.S. media, the 24-hour news networks in particular, I feel as safe here as I do at home in New York, possibly safer. I walk the streets of my Vallarta neighborhood alone day or night. And I don't live in gated community, or any other All-Gringo neighborhood. I live in Mexico. Among Mexicans. I go where I want (which does not happen to include bars where prostitution and drugs are the basic products), and take no more precautions than I would at home in New York ; which is to say I don't wave money around, I don't act the Ugly American, I do keep my eyes open, I'm aware of my surroundings, and I try not to behave like a fool.

I've not always been successful at that last one. One evening a friend left the house I was renting in Vallarta at that time, and, unbeknownst to me, did not slam the automatically-locking door on her way out. Sure enough, less than an hour later a stranger did come into my house. A burglar?
Robber? Kidnapper? Killer? Drug lord?  No, it was a local police officer, the "beat cop" for our neighborhood, who, on seeing my unlatched door, entered to make sure everything (including me) was okay. He insisted on walking with me around the house, opening closets, looking behind doors and, yes, even under beds, to be certain no one else had wandered in, and that nothing was missing. He was polite, smart and kind, but before he left, he lectured me on having not checked to see that my friend had locked the door behind her. In other words, he told me to use my common sense.

Do bad things happen here? Of course they do. Bad things happen everywhere, but the murder rate here is much lower than, say, New Orleans , and if there are bars on many of the ground floor windows of houses here, well, the same is true where I live, in Greenwich Village , which is considered a swell neighborhood - house prices start at about $4 million (including the bars on the ground floor windows). There are good reasons thousands of people from the United States are moving to Mexico every month, and it's not just the lower cost of living, a hefty tax break and less snow to shovel. Mexico is a beautiful country, a special place. The climate varies, but is plentifully mild, the culture is ancient and revered, the young are loved unconditionally, the old are respected, and I have yet to hear anyone mention Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, or Madonna's attempt to adopt a second African child, even though, with such a late start, she cannot possibly begin to keep up with Anglelina Jolie.

And then there are the people. Generalization is risky, but- in general - Mexicans are warm, friendly, generous and welcoming. If you smile at them, they smile back. If you greet a passing stranger on the street, they greet you back. If you try to speak even a little Spanish, they tend to treat you as though you were fluent. Or at least not an idiot. I have had taxi drivers track me down after leaving my wallet or cell phone in their cab. I have had someone run out of a store to catch me because I have overpaid by twenty cents. I have been introduced to and come to love a people who celebrate a day dedicated to the dead as a recognition of the cycles of birth and deathand birth - and the 15th birthday of a girl, an important rite in becoming a woman - with the same joy. Too much of the noise you're hearing about how dangerous it is to come to Mexico is just that - noise. But the media love noise, and too many journalists currently making it don't live here.

Some have never even been here. They just like to be photographed at night, standing near a spotlighted border crossing, pointing across the line to some imaginary country from hell. It looks good on TV. Another thing. The U.S. media tend to lump all of Mexico into one big bad bowl. Talking about drug violence in Mexico without naming a state or city where this is taking place is rather like looking at the horror of Katrina and saying, "Damn. Did you know the U.S. is under water?" or reporting on the shootings at Columbine or the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City by saying that kids all over the U.S. are shooting their classmates and all the grownups are blowing up buildings. The recent rise in violence in Mexico has mostly occurred in a few states, and especially along the border. It is real, but it does not describe an entire country. It would be nice if we could put what's going on in Mexico in perspective, geographically and emotionally.

It would be nice if we could remember that, as has been noted more than once, these drug wars wouldn't be going on if people in the United States didn't want the drugs, or if other people in the United States weren't selling Mexican drug lords the guns. Most of all, it would be nice if more
people in the United States actually came to this part of America ( Mexico is also America , you will recall) to see for themselves what a fine place Mexico really is, and how good a vacation (or a life) here can be. 
 So come on down and get to know your southern neighbors. I think you'll like it here.  Especially the people. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

Two Year Observations

It has now been two full years since we retired and moved to Mexico.  Therefore, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on the past two years and write about the TEN THINGS I’VE LEARNED SINCE RETIRING AND MOVING TO MEXICO.  So here is the list:


  1. Contrary to what I had imagined, being retired is wonderful.  Now, keep in mind, I loved my job and was more than a little reluctant to retire.  I was afraid that I would regret the decision soon after I actually retired.  Fortunately, I am very happy to be retired.  BUT, and I think this is a big BUT, I am fairly certain that the decision to move to a new culture and immediately get involved in a number of stimulating activities has made a huge difference.   For example, I was worried about missing teaching.  So I immediately volunteered to teach  English here to Mexicans.  I love the contact with my students.  In addition, I am actively involved with other writers here and am busy in our Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here.  I am learning a new language and happily adapting to a new and exciting culture.  So I am as busy as I want to be.  The hardest thing is being away from our family, but we are making regular trips twice a year back to the US, which does take much of our extra income; but it is worth the extra money, for sure.  I doubt I’d have been as happy retiring and staying in my old life. 


  1. You cannot take your health for granted.  Well, I was very fit, exercised regularly, was relatively young, and I still had some major medical problems this spring.  Go figure?  A brain hemorrhage and a deep vein thrombosis were not exactly on my radar, but both occurred.  So, despite our false feelings of invulnerability, I have learned we cannot, ever, assume that our good health will continue uninterrupted.  It’s simply too complex, and there are environmental threats we don’t even know about.  So, even as I am recovering nicely from my problems of this spring, I will not become complacent about watching my health and taking steps to stay healthy.  An important lesson!


  1. Although medical care is cheaper in Mexico, it takes time and energy to assure we are getting good care.  We are finding, as is probably true anywhere, there is a wide variety of quality in medical care here.  We recently had to change doctors because the doctor we were going to was simply not aggressive enough about treating what turned out to be a potentially serious brain hemorrhage.  We now have a medical team which, although more expensive, seems more professional and is tied into a good group of specialists.  Medical insurance is available here, but at a high price and with high deductibles.  The IMSS coverage, offered by the state, is very economical and usually good.  For example, our next door neighbor, a Canadian, recently had a hip replacement through IMSS, and it went very well.  Although we’ve heard reports that the hospitals are not as clean and overcrowded.  We have chosen to stay with private insurance and are keeping our IMSS just to cover all bases.  But there is no perfect solution.  And, along with travel, medical care takes most of our extra money. 


  1. Although poverty is never desirable, it seems as though the poor in Mexico have an easier time than the poor in Maine.  This is true for several reasons.  First, the climate is so mild that keeping warm is not difficult in Mexico.  In Maine, it takes a significant amount of labor (wood) or money (oil or gas) to stay warm.  Many of my students had to miss class or drop out of school because of high heating costs.  Another advantage of Mexico is the easy and cheap availability of public buses.  Here, most Mexican families cannot afford a car, but they can easily get to work by bus.  The buses run all day and cost about 6 pesos (about 50 cents).  Most are full of Mexicans going to and from work.  In Maine, you need to keep are car which can pass yearly inspections.  This can be prohibitively costly for poor families.  There are also many medical clinics which are very low cost here.  The care is probably not great, but it is available for poor families.  Not so in Maine, where poor familes usually show up in the ER when there is a crisis.   Finally, I think the strong extended family networks work well here.  There is not the ethic of “You’re 18, time to live on your own” here.  Many families live together, often with many people in a few rooms, because there is no other option.  It’s not ideal, but, as a result, there is very little homelessness.

  1. When you choose to move to a new culture, you must accept a some puzzling, sometimes undesirable behaviors.  This is clearly true in Mexico.  Although we love the Mexican people, they are, let’s face it, different than we are.  They tend to tell you what you want to hear,  even if it’s not true (they are not hesitant to give directions even if they have no idea where to go), they will promise you to be there by a certain time, but have no intention of following through, they throw trash on the ground regularly, they love all-night, very loud parties and loud cohetes, or rockets, and I could go on.  As an example, they throw all kinds of waste into the empty lot across from our house.  The other day they burned the field down, without warning, to keep the brush down.  In the process they burned the telephone pole which collapsed into our road overnight.  See photos below.  If you are going to survive and be happy here, you have to let go of the idea that they will ever decide to do things as they do in the US.  It is not going to happen! Those who remain happily here learn this and adapt to it.  A common phrase we here among expats is, “Oh well, it’s Mexico; what are we going to do?” 


  1.  Watch what you eat and drink.  This sounds like a stereotype: “Don’t drink the water!” but it is true.  We need to be careful to drink only purified water here.  Even though we have purified water in our house, we drink bottled water only; it simply tastes better.  We also have to be careful; where we eat.  The Mexican love these outside road food stands.  But often they do not have sanitary conditions to clean with, so we avoid them.  There is plenty of good Mexican food without eating street food.  Many people who do (and some who do not) have been infected with parasites and/or amoebae: not life threatening, but uncomfortable and difficult to treat.  We have avoided these so far by avoiding street food and soaking all our produce in a disinfectant.  Living here has it’s price!  But, of course, the food is wonderful and cheap if we take the precautions.

  1. I’ve already touched on this, but money is an issue.  It’s cheap to live here, and we can easily do it, but if we want to regularly visit our families and stay healthy, we have to devote a significant portion of our income to these.  We usually fly, but this summer, we’ll be driving back to Maine for an extended visit.  That will be expensive too, but worth it.  My medical care for my illnesses this spring have already topped $4000 easily, just for the diagnostic procedures and drugs.  Another friend of ours paid over $10,000 for a hip replacement, less than the US but a large out-of-pocket expense! 

  1. Living in a large expat community is better than I had thought.  I was reluctant to move to Mexico and live with so may gringos, but I was wrong.  The amazing variety of US, Canadians, and Europeans who live here make our lives rich and interesting.  Many have travelled all over the world and have much experience to share.  We have many friends and it’s so easy to meet new friends here.  They share our culture and interests.  On the other hand, it’s not as easy to make strong Mexican friends here; our cultures are just very different! 

  1. Finding reading material in English is much easier than I thought.  Not only does the Lake Chapala Society have a large English-language library, but we share books among friends and many restaurants have free book exchanges as well.  We have had no trouble ordering books from Amazon and having them delivered to our Mexican mailbox, duty-free.  Plus, on our frequent trips to the US, we always bring books back.  We have excellent Internet access here, so some people use Amazon’s Kindle to download books, a bit to pricey for us.  But I regularly read the New York Times and a variety of magazines as well. 

  1. The Mexican people are gregarious, courteous, and fun-loving.  We enjoy being guests in their country.  One interesting thing I have noticed is that there is a much stronger native American influence here than in the US.  Most Mexicans are Mesitzos, part white and part Indian. Most have some of the darker Indian skin.  Some of the wealthier Guadalajarans who visit here on weekends are almost entirely white, but most of the people we deal with are very much darker.  It is my unsubstantiated theory that these Indian blood Mestizos  carry in their genes a tendency to take life as it comes and find happiness despite their poverty.  They seem so happy compared to Americans, even though they may be poor.  Just my theory; but we do enjoy living among them. 


So, just some random observations after being here for two years.