snowy mountain framed by evergreens
Glacier National Park
summer 2011

Jak Koke

Initial Impressions of Life in Mexico

Apr
25
2012

Karawynn and I are in Mexico for a month, undertaking an experiment wherein we gather data to determine if we can live here after Claire moves out in five years or so. Karawynn discovered this particular place after detailed online research of a variety of expat communities that matched two main criteria: 1) good weather year round and 2) lower cost of living than in the United States. Thus we chose to visit the Ajijic Mexico area, along the north shore of Lake Chapala about 45 minutes by car from Guadalajara — the second largest city in Mexico.

We’ve been here about a week and half now and here are my impressions so far.

Best thing about living here

Winner: Weather and physical beauty

Ajijic Malecon
Lakefront Park in Ajijic Mexico

We decided to come here during the “worst” time of the year for weather. This is the hot season here. It has been in the mid-80s during the day and mid-60s at night. Ajijic is at high elevation so even though we’re well into the tropics, it doesn’t get as hot as it otherwise would. It has been sunny, and during the afternoons the sun can be intense, but most people just stay inside during that time of day. “Siesta” closes down shops and services for a couple of hours.

The most beautiful place I have ever lived was Hawaii. The combination of rain forest and beaches and dramatic volcanic cliffs is hard to beat. But this place is very picturesque. Lake Chapala is surrounded by mountains; there are lots of bright, colorful flowers; and many many birds!

Runner up: Cost of living

It turns out that Ajijic is more expensive than a lot of Mexico. It’s a little touristy town with art galleries and fancy restaurants. It’s like that coast town you go visit where things are just a little more pricey because it’s pretty and a lot of people go there to get away. Ajijic is a popular place for Mexicans from Guadalajara to come on the weekends.

Even so, it’s a bargain compared to what we’re paying to live in Seattle. Plus, there are ways to avoid the more pricey places. For cost of living, I think it’s a win.

Worst thing about living here

Winner: Language barrier

I only know a few words of Spanish so I am finding it difficult to impossible to really communicate with the local folks who don’t speak English.  I am learning the language, but have just gotten down the basics of ordering food at a restaurant and asking how much something costs at a store. I’m also finding that I have social anxiety and fear around not speaking and understanding. Some of this is embarrassment at being a stupid gringo, and some of it is fear of making a fool of myself by saying stupid things in Spanish. I’m working at overcoming this fear because it really is counterproductive to actually communicating.

In the time we’ve been here, I have gone from essentially zero Spanish to being able to (barely) get by in a store and a restaurant. The social fear is still there, but I can make myself understood for the most part. I know that as I learn more Spanish (which I am doing as fast as I can), I will get more and more comfortable with interacting with people in Spanish, but I still worry that I might never be able to break through the language barrier completely.

Runner up: Missing home

Claire with tree
Claire

It may seem strange, but even after such a short time, I already miss friends and family in Seattle. I know that this particular issue will be a problem for me regardless of where we go, and some of that is related to feeling disconnected from my younger daughter Claire, who (at 13 years old) isn’t the best at keeping in touch long-distance. So this is an issue I will have to deal with in some fashion regardless of where we move… which doesn’t make it any easier of course.

Most difficult adjustment to make

Winner: Writing space

Because we are here for a whole month, this is a working trip for me. But so far, I’ve had a difficult time getting work done. For one thing, I’m distracted by all the interesting and new things there are to do. We’ve spent mornings (when it’s cool) exploring the town by foot, buying food at the various stores and meeting people. The afternoons are warmer and lazier and less conducive to working. And, in the evening, we usually watch a show or play a game.

Other impediments to getting shit done: my laptop is small and slow; the desk chair is uncomfortable. Yadda, yadda.  So many excuses, none of them really valid.

I finally decided to try disconnecting from the internet, and was able to knuckle under and write this post. This house has good, fast internet — important for various reasons. Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, email, and voicemail are a distraction under normal circumstances, but here it’s worse. Far away from home, I am monitoring my online connections with more frequency. I want to feel connected!

If we were to move here, I could set up an office space that would work for me. None of this would be an issue, except for the distracting internet. That will be always be a distraction.

Runner up: Cost of shredded wheat

Yes, you read that right. I have recently grown extremely fond of shredded wheat with bran. Very high fiber, very tasty the way I prepare it. Here, it is prohibitively expensive. A box of Post spoon-size shredded wheat runs between $8.25 and $9.00! I love my shredded wheat, but not that much. There’s a chance that I can find something similar at one of the local tianguis – weekly street markets. I did see a vendor with what looked like bags of spoon-size shredded wheat, and the cost was a good deal cheaper. Tomorrow, I will buy some and try it.

Biggest anticipated problem that hasn’t materialized

Winner: Language barrier

As I said above, my lack of Spanish causes me anxiety and is problematic, but it’s still very possible to communicate here. Because there are a lot of expatriate Americans and Canadians living here, many local businesses have English-speaking staff. There’s an infrastructure set up to make the transition to living in Mexico easier. So in many ways, even though the language barrier is the biggest issue for me, it’s still not nearly as big as it could be.

Many of the expats are also friendly and helpful folks. They’re more than willing, in most cases, to share their knowledge and extend welcoming resources to new people. I knew this might be true, but wasn’t prepared for how much of a help and a reassurance it is. I feel that coming to this location, as opposed to someplace else in Mexico, will mean a smoother transition to eventual integration with the local culture.

Runner up: Communicating with home

I had expected to have difficulty staying in contact with my daughter and our house sitter and other folks from back home. I knew we would have email, although I’d been prepared for issues setting that up. I’d expected that Skype would work too, but wasn’t sure if I’d run into trouble getting that to work. However, none of that was a problem; connecting to the wireless router in the house was dead easy, and the internet was up and running on our laptops within minutes.

Ajijic Sunset
Taken by Karawynn Long of the sunset over the mountains. That I can be here and stay in touch with my peeps at home, makes me very happy!

I was also able to have my Google Voice phone number forwarded to my Gmail chat client, which essentially means that I can receive telephone calls to my phone number on my computer’s microphone and speakers. I can make outgoing calls too at no charge to US phone numbers, and send text messages as well. Everything works!

I will note, too, that for the month that we’re here, I subscribed to a VPN service that can spoof our IP so that it looks like we’re accessing the internet from within the US. This is not necessary for the phone or Skype or email access, but required for watching Netflix or Hulu or HBO shows, which we’d planned to do. The cost for this service is $6 per month, and it works perfectly.

Biggest gringo mistake

Winner: Mistaking beeswax skin cream for honey

The local tianguis are full of merchants giving away samples of their wares. These are often food items like cheese or fruit slices, and so when a honey vendor spoke some words to me in Spanish and held out an small bowl containing some pasty-looking substance, I dipped a finger in and … tasted it.

Wasn’t very good. The man told me, “No, no. For your skin.” I grimaced and rubbed some on my face, but it didn’t make the red any lighter.

Several runners up:

Pig's Feet Ceviche at Chapala Tianguis
Pigs’ Feet Ceviche?

At the local weekly tianguis, I thought that a huge pile of very white meat mixed with onions and peppers might have been ceviche (the “meat” was as white as fish). After asking what it was, a local who spoke English told us that it was chunks of pigs’ feet and skin.

Not asking for the check at a restaurant. Apparently it’s rude for the waiter to bring the check, or even ask you if you want the check, before you request it.

We’ve got another 20 days here, and I expect that we’ll learn a ton more before we’re done! We have our first visitor coming today. We’re going to make the trip into the big city by local bus! Lots of stuff happening.

Until then: Hasta Luego.

Posted in Personal, Writing.


10 responses

Subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. R. K. MacPherson says

    I think you’re smart to check this out. It takes courage to move away, particularly to an environment vastly different than you’re used to. When I moved to Tanzania, I experienced a lot of the same “Must be connected!” anxiety, but it passes. I can’t wait to read the rest of your reports! Good luck and enjoy yourself!

    • Jak says

      Thanks!

      If we move here, one of the things we’re going to budget in is a trip or two per year to see friends and family. When I lived in Hawaii, we didn’t have the means to fly back to the mainland. I loved it there, but I really missed people.

  2. Clancy says

    Way to go, Jak!

    It’s great that you are able to get good, fast internet service where you are. Our last trip to Mexico also taught me the value of VPN. I even went as far as to set up a spare computer at home just for that purpose. In our case it is Pandora that I need to access, but it’s nice to have that added layer of security as well.

    You have definitely inspired me to try something like this in the future. I’ve recently made the commitment to start writing on a regular basis again, and hope to parley that into some kind of income stream eventually. Moving out of the country is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’d prefer a French-speaking area, since like you, my Spanish is poor. I just need to find a country where the cost of living won’t bankrupt me.

    Also, I would be happy to set you up with access to my on-site VPN server at no cost, although I have had some issues with it lately. Once I get the bugs worked out I can send you a user name and password, if you’d like. Maybe you would be interested in being a beta tester? Good luck!

    • Jak says

      Thanks! I would love to try France, too, because I speak French decently well and am familiar with the culture. But while you can find a few places where the cost of living is low enough, they’re not the same places where the weather is good. :) Another French speaking location might be a possibility, but we haven’t found one that meets all the criteria.

      I am learning a lot of Spanish very quickly and I expect it’s just a matter of time and a lot of patience before I break through the language barrier.

      Regarding trying out your on-site VPN, I’d love to give it a whirl. We’re here in Mexico for another 2 weeks so if you get it working by then, drop me an email. Thanks!

  3. Sheri says

    Hi Jak,
    I am also an former Hawaii resident living on the Mainland and contemplating a life in Ajijic. At one point I found cheaper airfare to and from Guadalajara to Bradley airport in CT, than from Kansas City, where I now stay, to Bradley, It’s worth investigating.

    • Jak says

      Thanks, Sheri. We’ve found the air fare varies a lot to Guadalajara, but it’s definitely cheaper than going to and from Hawaii.

  4. Linda Young Hastings says

    Hi there: I enjoyed your article on Lake Chapala , Mexico. I am going for a month or so trial to live in Ajijic, mexico., in July 2015.
    Just wondering what cell phone service or phone plan you used? I have a smart phone Samsung , should I just get a Sim card in Mexico? Thanks, Linda

    • Jak says

      Hi Linda. A lot of people use their US carrier and add international minutes, but it can be expensive so you should check with your carrier. You can get a SIM card from Telcel if your phone is compatible, then just buy pre-paid minutes.

      We didn’t use a cell phone while we were visiting. We’ve moved here now, and bought a super cheap pay as you go phone from Telcel. They’re the biggest mobile phone carrier, but there are others as well.

      Hope you have a great visit!
      –jak

  5. Robert Old says

    I was wondering… will Beyond The Pale ever come out as a Kindle book?
    Thank, R.B.

    • Jak says

      Hi R.B.,

      I have been waiting for Beyond the Pale to be released as an ebook for years. The decision is currently in the hands of the fine folks at Catalyst Game Labs. I’m currently not 100% sure what their release schedule is for Beyond the Pale.

      Thanks!
      -Jak