Thursday, December 20, 2007

a travel log in search of an editor

[Note: I decided to publish my travel journal even though it contains information a bit more personal than I would usually discuss in a public forum. But I have decided I will simply be as open as I can in discussing this journey. So, here it is: the journal of my first trip to Mexico to look at houses -- along with a few pictures.]

29 November 2007

Left Portland on a very uneventful flight to Los Angeles. Very full flight, but it went quickly and uneventfully. The flight to Manzanillo was only about half full and quite rough at spots. Manzanillo has a very small airport. In a matter of minutes, we were through Customs. I then had my first gringo-Mexican moment. A Canadian family was trying to book a taxi, but they were surprised at the cost -- by the way, the father was one of the most arrogant Canadians I have ever seen. But he was outdone by another Canadian who immediately started “negotiating” loudly – and aggressively -- in passable Spanish with the fellow on the taxi desk. The two groups combined forces and took two taxis -- paying exactly what the taxi guy had originally proposed. And the Canadians thought they had won. (Personal note. I love Canadians. I regularly sail in Canadian waters, and I have always found them to be the most polite and gracious people in the world. I count these two experiences as being mere anomalies.) Lesson one: Listen before you start arguing. Defensiveness is not a good way to learn a new culture.

I then arranged for a taxi to La Manzanilla. The driver spoke no English. But we communicated in our own broken languages – with bad pantomime.

The taxi ride was about an hour through the type of country I had learned to expect from reviewing the internet -- coconut palms and bananas everywhere.

My first impression of La Manzanilla was that it was a little more tawdry than I had expected -- and that was silly because it looks just like the pictures I had seen on line.

My apartment at Brisas del Mar was perfect for my needs. It had a full kitchen – and I used only the microwave and the refrigerator.

The weather. That was the first thing I noticed when leaving the airport in Manzanillo. It is hot and humid. I did not see a thermometer, but the forecast was for 85 -- and it felt at least that hot. I noticed on the drive to La Manzanilla that the temperature in the surrounding hills was noticeably cooler. I changed into shorts and a fresh shirt and walked through the village in the evening cool. The beach is everything that it is advertised to be. I started at the south end and walked through a group of fishing boats tied up on the beach. This is not a place that would please OSHA. Collapsed sidewalks (from the flooding in September, I suspect) and lines across the beach call for constant vigilance. We used to call that “paying attention.” I then walked through a portion of the village out the main highway to see if I could see the houses I saw on line. (I did not see them.)

I should have stopped to buy some food at one of the local stores, but I allowed the language issue to arise. Lesson number two: Living here is supposed to be an adventure. And you cannot have an adventure unless you are brave enough to try. I eventually did, but I still need to get back to studying my Spanish before I make my next trip.

I was so tired that I went to bed at 9:30 (7:30 home time) without supper. I would like to say that I slept well. I did not. But I do not sleep well in new beds. I suppose that plus I had a headache and Mexico can be real noisy. I could hear yelling through the evening and the church bells are right next to my balcony. But I did get some rest.

30 November

A great morning. I got up and took a few pictures from my balcony. Beautiful. La Manzanilla will never be noted for its architecture, but it does have great charm. Right now I am looking at two small domes that could be from Mykonos.

The insects have not been bad. When I went for a walk last night, I noticed that a hole in my deck shoes had allowed something to bite me on the side of my left foot. I saw lizards on the roof of the balcony, a few moths, and some small ants eating a dead moth, but that has been about it. I am surprised -- being this close to a mangrove lagoon.

I am sitting about 4 blocks away from the beach, but I can hear the whisper (literally) of the surf. The waves are so small that they barely break on the shore.

I am heading out for breakfast and to meet the real estate salesman.

But, lest I forget. Noise. I was greeted by a sound this morning that I knew about but had yet to experience: a chorus of roosters. There was one champion who could be heard through the entire valley. At 8:30, they were still crowing. And I quickly came to love the sounds of the roosters, the gas and water trucks with their loud speakers, and the general commotion of a village that was truly alive.

I was also hit with a bout of scenery stare this morning. I had pulled out a magazine to read. I sat down and looked out at the ocean. I soon realized I had just spent an hour staring with the magazine on my chest. I think I could do that full time.

I met the realtor after having breakfast at a family Mexican restaurant (huevos rancheros, fresh milk -- probably not pasteurized, and fresh tortillas -- all delicious and for 40 pesos). He came down from Malibu about 7 years ago. He has that hip surfer look.

We looked at the ocean view house I liked on line. It was disappointing. Great views, but the interior is cramped. But it was better than the other house I wanted to see. The second house was completely overgrown by the jungle with no true view. That can be fixed. But the house is little more than a shack. Too small even for a downsized retirement. It has some major maintenance issues (with slippage) as does the first house. I then looked at another house -- no true ocean view -- except on the roof. It would take a great deal of work to renovate -- and it is new. I may be better off looking at a piece of property and building.

My biggest concern is still the ejido land issue. I feel very uneasy about buying property in the name of other people -- especially if it does increase in value.

This afternoon does not feel as warm as yesterday. I walked north to the lagoon entrance to see the crocodiles. And they are right there. One was basking next to a restaurant.

And I slept. The siesta has to be one of the Mediterranean’s greatest contributions to western civilization. Hot afternoons are not designed for doing business.

The realtor invited me to his office after hours for an informal gathering. I also met a the fellow who bought the house that first caught my eye on the internet and introduced me to La Manzanilla. He is originally from London, but has lived all over the world -- most recently in Virginia City. I also met the wife of a minister who runs an English-speaking church in Melaque, and a couple from Canada who are in the Spanish immersion course here. They will be renting in La Manzanilla in the near future -- with the realtor’s assistance. La Manzanilla appears to have no dearth of interesting people.

I bought a can of refritos for dinner and ate it with some potato chips and Coke light -- hardly the high life. I am going to the roof to look at the stars and then head to bed. And the stars were perfect. No moon. Nothing but the Milky Way -- and Mars. (Now, I sound like a candy commercial.)Tomorrow, I look at another house.

1 December

What a glorious day. I had trouble sleeping last night, but somewhere around 4 I fell asleep and slept until 9:30. After all, it is a vacation. Even the skim milk tastes very good down here -- fresh.

The house I saw today was not quite what I had expected. The lawn has gone bad -- and I do not expect to see landscaped lawns at the beach -- especially with the informal look of the neighbors’ yards. The house has some very nice features, but it simply did not hit the spot with me. There is a beautiful roof view, but a cell tower is in everyone’s way on the north side of the village.

The realtor told me that a multicultural center in a condo complex is going on the market for $150,000, but it would require massive work. [It turns out that the place has listed for $195,000 – far too much.] I walked through it imagining a number of creative options, but it would be an expensive proposition.
The realtor then took me to another house. I have seen it online, but it did not look very interesting. It has no ocean view and the yard is not landscaped. However, it has a great valley view and the house is certainly functional. It is at the end of a road next to a very expensive hotel complex -- so there will be tranquility. (I just noticed that I can see the dome of the house from my balcony.) I would not have believed it, but it has possibilities for a very great garden. The danger is water runoff from the jungle during the rainy season. And the deep ruts in the road in front of the house are the best evidence of how forceful the runoff can be.

I had a great comida at Jolanda’s -- Indonesian pork over rice with pickled beets.

The weather has been perfect today. I have been able to see everything on the bay all day long. Even though hot and humid, there is a pleasant breeze -- and time for a nap.

But no nap. Instead, I read a bit and joined the realtor and the two Canadians (a delightful couple -- just as I expect Canadians to be) at the office for the sunset celebration. The Canadians left for Puerto Vallarta and another Canadian stopped by. Her luggage had been delayed in Los Angeles and she needed a key to her house. We had dinner at Coco Loco -- a new Italian restaurant -- where I was very original in ordering a pepperoni pizza. But it was good for two more breakfasts. I wandered around La Manzanilla trying to take night pictures. I have no people studies as of yet. Those always feel so intrusive. To bed.

2 December

Another night of no early sleep, but I did sleep in. The day was not as clear, but I ate my pizza and struck out to the campo to look at the house I had come to like. I did get some interesting neighborhood shots. The walk back to the village is an easy one if I decide to buy the house. I need to weigh the pros and cons.

I had lunch at Lora Loka where I met the father of our waiter at Coco Loco. It turns out that they are both archaeologists. The son is a Sumerian expert; the father is an Egyptologist. I gave the father my current National Geographic with a short article on mummies. He cooked up a nice paella with a piece of peach pie with chocolate sauce. He leaves for New York tomorrow to renew his visa. What a great opportunity to share a hobby interest. La Manzanilla looks better all the time.

I strolled around the square this evening, but I am still struggling with the heat. Even walking slowly, I started sweating as if I had been at the gym for an hour. As I sit here writing this, I am still dripping. The archaeologist said that he leaves every summer due to the heat. I just noticed that the usual breeze is not as pronounced tonight. (I should have tried the ocean today. I need to do that before I leave.)

3 December

I thought today was a bit more humid than normal. Looking at the haze on the ocean, I must be correct. But who is to know here? I doubt too many people track such things. The weather is as the weather is; it was like yesterday, but more like it is today.

I walked out to the house today (it is now The House) and talked to the next door neighbor. He is retired from Canada living here full time. I had a very good conversation about the internet, paving the street, buying houses, and how La Manzanilla is growing. It turns out that there are a number of Canadians who are building in that portion of the neighborhood. As a result, there is a mix of national and social factors at play. I have no doubt that I could fit in. (I have not mentioned one concern. When the arroyo seco floods during the rainy season, that portion of town is cut off from the rest. I am not certain how people get around the river.)

And the heat. I had trouble sleeping last night. Too much caffeine? Too much noise? I am not certain, but I got by fine today without a nap.

While at the house, I took a quick trip through a trail in the jungle. I think the land belongs to El Tamarindo -- an exclusive resort -- but I did not find a fence. Nor did I spot any jungle animals other than some rather healthy spiders with webs that seem to be made of teflon.

The animals I did discover were two dogs I befriended on my first trip. They belong to the neighbors. Professor Jiggs (my dog) would not be happy. This is not a spot for him.

I saw another house today in town. Very nice view, but expensive. The best thing about the house is the view, but it could be lost to more building.

I ate lunch at Jolanda’s -- the Dutch-owned restaurant that specializes in Asian food. So, off to bed. Tomorrow the bus to Barra.

4 December

I did not sleep soundly, but I was up at 7:30 to catch the 8:30 bus to Barra de Navidad to look at houses there. I went to the zócalo where two local workmen helped me find the correct bus.

The ride to Barra was not bad. I had an open window that provided a nice breeze, and I got to see things I missed on the taxi ride in.

I stopped by the realty office in Barra . Our email exchange gave both the realtor and me an idea of what to expect. She reviewed some listings with me and we went to see them in her car.

I had seen the first two on line. The first has never impressed me. The pool is in the front yard -- right next to the parking place. The living room and kitchen are now enclosed in glass. When I first saw them, they were open. The kitchen is very primitive without appliances – with space only for a small stove. Two bedrooms (including the master) are on the first floor with two bathrooms and a laundry room -- with bat issues. The third bedroom is upstairs with a nice tile terrace. There are three beds in that room with a bathroom. That bedroom should be the master bedroom. A little work could dress up the house nicely, but it is already priced over $200 K.

The second house was Casa Riley -- right across from the house that sold that was my original interest. It is an older home at a good price, but it shows its age. It has a hot tub, though, a good selling point for me. It also has a full apartment on the roof. The kitchen is small -- and essentially part of the living room. I have noticed that is a theme in many Mexican homes.

The third home is not one of the realtor’s listings. It is “for sale by owner” built by a Canadian and his wife. They build and turn -- and this house is almost complete. It is fascinating, but eccentric. It was designed by a well-known Barra architect -- Alejandro. Everything curves in the house. It has a nice kitchen. Once again, the dining, living, and kitchen areas meld together. There is a very nice laundry area with a “forest” accent. The back yard could be an excellent garden. The builders have a good sense for what grows well. (I would find a place for a hot tub somewhere.) The really unusual feature in the back yard is what fills the rest of the yard -- the master suite -- a very nice bedroom and bath setup with a partially-outdoor shower. I cannot remember now if there are 1 or 2 bedrooms on the second level. I do know there is a great study on the north side of the house. On the south, there is a small palapa that looks out onto the street -- with a limited ocean view. On the north is a narrow terrace that overlooks the garden. The terrace has a metal spiral stair case leading to the roof. The roof is just a flat roof. But is has slight ocean views -- for now. There are two empty lots to the west -- one is for sale by the same builder -- and he is willing to deal.

I like this house a lot. It is a bit too dark inside. There may be several reasons for that -- one being the furniture setup.

I really like the builders. Both are very active in the realtor’s nondenominational church. (I met the pastor’s wife in La Manzanilla several evenings back.) She has a dream of teaching Bible studies in Spanish. She lost part of her right arm in a terrible accident on a trip down from Canada. Their truck flipped. But she is an incredibly active person -- as evidenced by the garden and her dreams.

I am tempted to purchase the house and the lot. I could afford an additional house payment until I retire. At that point, I would need to sell my home in Salem or make other arrangements. Of course, that works only so long as I am working. The only advantage in moving early is that if I want to live in either Barra or La Manzanilla, I should consider moving quickly. I have watched prices increase. So far, the housing problem in the states does not appear to be having an effect here.

I had lunch with the realtor at Casa Senorina, a new establishment I have seen on line. The lunch was good and the realtor had some interesting insights about life in Barra. I was correct in believing that she will be a major source in navigating through life in Barra.

I walked around Barra. It was as I expected. There are more paved streets than in La Manzanilla, but the shops are similar. Nothing big, but adequate.

I missed the last bus to La Manzanilla and had to hire a cab that turned out to be more expensive than my dinner tonight at Coco Loco: shrimp sautéed in white wine sauce. It was superb. Lesson number three: Buses are on time. Taxis are too expensive when buses are available.

I need to choose between La Manzanilla and Barra. I just realized tonight that La Manzanilla reminds me of Powers and Barra of Seaside. Making that choice will help. Every time I mention Pátzcuaro, everyone here -- not surprisingly -- complains that it is cold. A restaurant host added a new observation that I think I have heard before: there seems to be some sort of odd depression in Pátzcuaro. Perhaps, they are more reserved than coast people. He found it weird. I guess there is only one way to find out -- go there.

This has been the best day so far. I am beginning to feel the project pulling together. If I buy the house along with the lot, the lot would be a great place for my brother to build -- or it would be a nice spot for more garden.

5 December

I was almost uncertain of the date. This has been my first day of full relaxation -- and I did almost nothing. Last night seemed a bit cooler. I slept well.

I walked up the beach as far as I could go. The beach is justifiably famous for its beauty. It was easy to walk about. And there were all types of shore birds. There are some very expensive houses along the beach (something about the foolish man and sand) with several lots for sale. Right across the street is the lagoon -- where I found plenty of no-see-ums and mosquitoes. (The mosquitoes found me on the deck last night. I have at least three good bites.) And then I had a very odd experience. I just missed getting beaned by a coconut. As I jumped out of the way, I felt something hit my neck. I walked on, but decided to take off my shirt to see if I had picked up something. I had: a leaf hopper disguised to look like a thorn. I took a couple pictures and moved on. I saw a hawk-like bird catch a rodent and what I think was a pair of evening grosbeaks.

The beach road ends up at the washed out bridge over the beach end of the lagoon. I had the fun experience of walking within feet of a large sleeping crocodile. I then saw my first pileated woodpecker. As I was watching it, a crocodile near the shore must have caught my scent and started stalking. I kept my eye on him because we were separating by a fence that appeared to have the consistency of chicken wire.

I took the afternoon off -- reading, checking in with the office, napping.

Tonight I ate at a great restaurant -- Martin’s. The special was dorado in a mustard sauce. I decided to brave it – because fish is not my favorite food. Extremely good.

Tomorrow I will need to talk to the realtor about one last look at the house on the edge of the jungle. I may also ask to look at the ocean view house.

6 December

A lazy day. I slept in and then sat on the deck most of the morning. When I went out, I intended to have breakfast. Instead, I stopped bythe realtor’s office for a discussion on purchasing ejido land. He has some ideas of putting together a deal. We will have dinner tonight at Café de Flores.

I did not eat breakfast. Instead, I walked over to the house -- again looking around the neighborhood. Even though the neighborhood is primitive, that is one of its charms. When I arrived at the house, a man was there weeding. I assume he was the owner, but we could not communicate with one another, once again, due to my lack of Spanish skills. So, I walked back to the village where I spent the afternoon on my blackberry -- as well as reading and snoozing. This has hardly been an exhausting visit.

I had dinner with the realtor at Café des Flores -- seafood lasagna with alfredo sauce. It was good. We talked a good deal about life in a rather college dorm manner -- including the inevitably of a Ron Paul presidency. (That gives an idea how connected with reality we were.) We also touched a bit on the process of buying ejido land. Between the borrowed name and lack of title, I am not certain this is the place to buy. But I want to show both places to my mother and brother – perhaps in January or February.

I have packed what I can for my flight tomorrow. If I can sleep, I would like to get up early enough to walk around town and perhaps actually have a dip in the ocean.

7 December

I did not get up early, but early enough. I waded in the ocean and took a walk along the beach. I stopped at the restaurant where I had breakfast my first day in La Manzanilla. It was great.

I then finished packing, walked down the steep hiking trail that passes for a driveway, and caught a taxi to the Manzanillo Airport. One thing I will need to adjust to is Mexican driving. No distance is left between faster and slower cars. The next trip down, I will need to rent a car and get a feel for playing in a bit part in the drama that is Mexican transportation.

I was three hours early for my flight. To kill some time, I decided to sit in the café and have lunch. Most of my fellow diners were either Canadians or Americans -- slightly older than I am. But I felt that there was a wide cultural gulf opening. One group was having a discussion whether Taco Bell was better than the Mexican food they ate during their week in Manzanillo. They concluded Taco Bell was better because the taco shells are crisp. I decided that weeping was not an option on my part.

A second group -- two couples -- treated the waitress like dirt (at least, the women did). And then they started talking as if they were the only people in the restaurant. Loud. Simultaneous. No wonder most Canadians and Americans find Mexicans to be shy. We tromp through the world like herds of elephants -- oblivious to our own actions. I am not even certain they realized what they were doing. I suspect I may be guilty of the same sins.

After eight days of thinking through this process, I know the following:
1. I should not retire before January 2009.
2. However, I could afford to buy a home before retiring – even though it would change my deferred compensation plans.
3. If I decide to rent when I move to Mexico, my lessons learned could stop here. I would simply leave Salem in 2009 and head to Mexico.
4. That would be fine if I had some idea on what will happen to the Mexican housing market. It appears to be steadily rising -- any Californian in 2005 would have said the same. All of the arguments for buying and renting in retirement are the same in Mexico as they are in the United States.
5. If I decide to buy in July 2009, I can deal with financing at that point.
6. If I decide to buy now, I will need to figure out a financial strategy.
7. Then I need to decide what to do with my Salem house.

Plenty of questions to discuss.


Unknown said...

I found your site on Life in Mexico. I too read Life in Chachala as well as Countdown to Mexico and many others including some from Belize, Costa Rica and Honduras. I look forward to reading about your adventures and love your writing style. I am heading down to Sayulita tomorrow after reading Gringo in Paradise. I also appreciate your comments about Canadians being loud etc., and will try not to be one of those abnoxious types!

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing. I enjoy your writing style and look forward to hearing about your adventures. I too look forward to the day (sometime after you) that I can retire, and am considering Mexico. I too read Life in Chacala, Countdown to Mexico as well as a few blogs from Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica. A lot of adventuresome people out there! I'm heading to Mexico tomorrow and can hardly wait!

Nancy said...

It is always interesting to me to hear the thought process others go through in their decisionmaking.

I'm sure you will help a lot of others with your blog...and what I found (when we were still in decisionmaking mode) was that it also helped me, too - not just the writing but the comments, too.

Steve Cotton said...

Lori and Nancy --

Thank you very much for your greetings. As I blog along, please feel free to suggest what you like. This going to be a new adventure for me -- in so many ways.

Felipe Zapata said...

A friend spent an entire summer in La Manzanilla a few years back. He said the insect problem was beyond belief. He could hardly get away from them, especially at night, even with mosquito netting.

This is a persistent problem with Mexican beach areas and likely explains why many, probably most if you don´t count the boating nuts who inhabit places like Mazatlan, Gringos live in the central highlands.

Tropical beaches can seem more romantic from afar than they actually are in real life, especially in the summer.

That said, my wife and I spent three wonderful days in La Manzanilla a couple years back. But it was not during the summer. I had been warned about that.

Steve Cotton said...

Michael --

Great to hear from you. I just tried my hand at a bit of Dicksonesque bloggery. See my Billy Collins entry. My experience at La Manzanilla with bugs is that the season and immediate locale matter a lot. I was free from bites on my balcony for all but one night. I thought the winter was what was protecting me. But why that one night made a difference, I don't know. Maybe the breeze died down. Even in the height of the winter, though, there are plenty of biting bugs on the beach road down by the lagoon. That is a no-brainer. Standing water. Tropics. Bugs. Having said that, I loved La Manzanilla. The Jalisco coast reminds me of the Oregon coast topography -- the only difference: you can actually see it in Mexico.