So This is Retirement in Mexico?

Pride Senior Network, Vol 1. Number 3, Fall 2000.

Jim and I began our quest for our perfect retirement location early into our relationship. Every vacation we took together seemed to be a test for future possibilities. I would laugh each when we returned and Jim would announce to friends that we had found the place where we were going to retire.

Jim is an Episcopal priest. We met in Portland Oregon in 1973, shortly before he decided to move to a new parish in Philadelphia. In 1974 I resigned my teaching position in Education at the University of British Columbia and took on an administrative position setting up a new Media Learning Center for faculty at Temple University.

On one of our first vacations out of the country in the late seventies, we visited an older friend who had retired to Mexico City. After driving through the grinding poverty of the suburbs en route to the pyramids at Teothuacán, I announced that I could never live in Mexico. During the eighties we visited friends in the Florida Keys and then followed them a couple of years later when they migrated to Panama City on the Panhandle. After a look at the available real estate, neither place seemed right for us. Then we traveled to visit other friends in the Monterrey peninsula and later to their new bed-and-breakfast inn in the mountains around Nevada City in California. The former location was too foggy, the later too dry and remote. What about Santa Fe or Taos in New Mexico? Jim had romantic memories of those locations from a trip there in the sixties when he made the conquest of a local artist at a local watering hole. On my first trip there several years ago, we found those now trendy sites had fast moved out of our limited price range.

During the nineties we began to explore the Caribbean. Montserrat in the winter after Hurricane Hugo was calm but boring as we peered into the mouth of the then inactive volcano. Much of what we saw is now under ash. Puerto Rico was partly American, but again we feared the oppressive summer humidity and the limited cultural scene. On Saba, a tiny Dutch island near San Martin, we found a paradise English village, Windwardside, cool and quaint, perched on the side of an extinct volcanic cone 1800 feet above the sea. We met a few kindred souls here, yet with only 1200 people on the five square mile island, we would have little privacy or variety.

Early in 1996, some old Philadelphia friends suggested we explore Mexico's central highlands for potential retirement locations. Stuart had retired a few years earlier and he and John had read about San Miquel de Allende. They knew that we had visited this area on our earlier Mexican trip and asked if we wanted to check it out with them over a winter vacation. Although Jim and I were only in our fifties and not anticipating early retirement, we decided to go. Little did we realize then that we both would be living in Mexico within two years.

San Miquel was charming that week in February. During that week Stuart decided it was too hilly for his comfort, but Jim and I rented a casita for a return visit in July. We explored and read and wrote during that delightful month of relaxed living on the rooftop of a renovated villa in the middle of town close under the bell towers of the pink parroquia church. We were charmed by the relaxed and colorful Mexican culture. On our return to Philadelphia, Jim learned that the Episcopal Church had announced the potential for early retirement for priests who had served 30 years and were at least 55 years old. He qualified for both conditions. If the motion passed at the next Convention, he could retire at the end of 1997.

Now our search was in earnest. We found San Miquel delightful, but we wanted to search out other locations in Mexico. Retirement guides discussed the coast of Baja closer to San Diego, Cuernavaca near Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta and the Lake Chapala area just south of Guadalajara. The proximity to a major city and airport appealed to us after the ninety minute drive on a winding two lane road from the Leon airport to San Miguel. On the plane down at New Year's of 1997, I cautioned Jim not to get swept up in some realtor's hype on our first visit. We would sensibly wait until we could retire, then move to various locations and rent a house before we decide where it was we would settle permanently. Four days later we owned a lot on which to build our dream home on the shores of Lake Chapala beneath the Sierra mountain range.

Within days in the small former fishing village of Ajijic, we had met more friends that we had met in the entire month in San Miquel. On the street, in restaurants, at the busy Lake Chapala Society or in stores, people talked freely and shared their experiences of life here and in Mexico. The simple village had a charm all its own nestled at the edge of the largest lake in Mexico. We were hooked!

During the following summer we returned for a month and began the process of locating an architect to build a modest home on our lot. While we were here, Jim learned the Convention back in Philadelphia had passed the early retirement motion and that he could be out of his two small New Jersey parishes by the end of the year. In reviewing my own retirement portfolio earned after almost 25 years working at Temple University, my financial advisor suggested that I could manage to quit early. After a near fatal heart attack in 1994, I was ready to get out of a stressful non-tenured position. Thus, I planned to resign my post in May of 1998. And so our countdown began.

Could we make the switch from a primarily gay social lifestyle in downtown Center City in Philadelphia to a quaint village in Mexico? We had little doubt after our three visits there before the move. We had already met more than fifty gay or lesbian couples as well as numerous open-minded and fun straight people. We also noticed how easily the groups mixed in this community. Those people who had made the momentous decision to leave their home and hearth to move into a foreign culture and lifestyle were usually adventurous souls open to change and different experiences. Many had gay offspring or friends and were not at all judgmental. Whether straight or gay, many living here were "our kind of people"!

Unfortunately, some of our friends and family members did not share our enthusiasm and were not so comfortable with our decision. "Will you have a phone?" "What about TV?" "Aren't you worried about medical care?" "And what about those banditos?" "Will you be able to stand the heat there?" and the inevitable question placed to all retirees "Won't you be bored being retired with nothing to do?"

Our experiences over the last two years have laid to rest all such doubts. We have noticed that even the scruffy young flower salesman at the Wednesday open air market has a cell phone. Our satellite dish brings us all the networks, CNN and all the premium movie channels, although we don't have much time to watch them. Within six months of my arrival I had an angioplasty with three days in a first class hospital in Guadalajara by a surgeon trained in the US. Since I wasn't yet covered on my new Aetna policy, I earned 6500 frequent flyer miles on my credit card. We were told once by an over zealous real estate agent that there was only one criminal in the area, but that he was across the lake now. Unfortunately, this fairy tale was undocumented and crime is becoming more of a problem here, but nothing like the record of burglaries and murders in Philadelphia or many American communities.

This area has one of the five most perfect climates in the world. Lake Chapala is called the land of perpetual spring. Located on a plateau about 5200 feet above sea level, our temperatures throughout the year range from the 60s to 80s. We need neither heat nor air conditioning. Only in April and May do we climb into the 90s during the late afternoon. Even then, by the next morning we have to pull up a blanket to ward off the early morning chill. Then in mid June the summer rains begin, bringing a return to mild days. Within two short weeks the dry mountains and scorched fields are restored to vibrant luxurious growth sporting innumerable shades of greens. I have lived in Ontario, Florida, Arizona, British Columbia and Pennsylvania, but never have I experienced such delightful year round climate.

As for being bored, I would welcome a little down time. I had planned to sit back and warm the computer chair writing my memories of my childhood in Ontario. While I was able to do some writing early in our move here, the last year has been amazingly full with little time for myself. First, we took on the building on a new house working with a young Guadalajara architect and a couple of young builders here at Lakeside. Horror stories not withstanding about building in Mexico, we set out to design our dream home. Jim wanted something that looked like it had been here for 250 years, complete with cupolas, tile roof, domed ceilings and arches. Yet we also wanted light and openness and rooms that flowed into the outdoors. And so form followed function and we ended up with a modern, distinct and clean line structure reminiscent of the Frank Lloyd Wright of Mexico, Louis Barragán. We love the simplicity of the lines and the minimal look after years of colonial living on the North East.

Our second venture began as the house was being completed and we were able to move in. Just as Mickey suggested to Judy in too many old MGM movies, Jim idly suggested to a woman friend of ours who runs a gallery with her Mexican girlfriend, "Wouldn't if be fun to have a film festival here at your Gallery?" Little did he know what that comment would unleash over the next few months.

Ajijic has a number of film professionals who have retired here. First, we consulted a friend who had been a former President of Paramount Pictures for Worldwide Distribution. "Why not? Go for it!" was his simple suggestion. Through Gordon we met Marcella, a retired film distributor and public relations "legend" from Mexico City. She introduced us to Pedro Armendáriz Jr, a popular film and TV star in Mexico. He also encouraged us to take on the challenge since there are few festivals in the country. With the help of Gordon and Marcela and a number of adventurous others in the Anglo and Mexican community, we put a call out for films and screenplays using the internet as our prime communication tool. Within a month through the help of a local network provided we had our website up and running.

The first Ajijic Festival Internacional de Cine was held in early November of 1999 with 111 entries from 21 countries. When we began, we thought we would watch films on VHS video in hotel convention rooms or at the small gallery in the village. Hearing of our plans, a local businessman, funded through family in Chicago, moved up plans to complete a theater complex in the village and rushed construction. The electrical connections were made the day before the Festival was to open. We opened the next night with a smash party and the screening of "Crazy in Alabama," Antonio Banderas' first directing job with his wife Melanie Griffin. Besides feature films, we showed animations, short subjects and documentaries and read screenplays from struggling writers.

The village was wowed. The doubters who said it would never happen had to admit it worked. Many old and new friends had come out to volunteer with assistance with public relations, social events, ticket sales, and the merchandising. In 18 short months we had brought this diverse community together in new ways. What's more, it was not only the Anglo community who joined in, but many in the Mexican community both businesses and individuals who could share in this truly bicultural event. We are already well underway with our Festival 2000 scheduled for November 8-12. Check out the Festival and the area at http://www.mexconnect.com/cineindex.html

Besides the Festival we have joined several other groups. Jim is a stalwart at the Lakeside Little Theater and has had lead roles in three productions to date. He also joined the Culinary Society but has had little time to attend. We both are involved with the Niños Incapacitados, an organization that funds health care for lakeside children. We regularly attend the Jalisco Philharmonic and Opera performances in the lovely nineteenth century Degollado Theater in Guadalajara as well as local concerts organized here by the Music Appreciation Society. Recently, we decided to live up to the gay stereotypes and became founding members of the Opera Buffs of Lake Chapala. In addition to meeting to discuss our favorite operas, we plan to help support struggling young music students who have earned scholarships. Several local singing students are already studying at the University of Colorado and the University of Houston.

What is most gratifying for us in retirement in this ex patriot community is that the distinctions between straight and gay are not as prominent as they were during our life in the States. While most of our friends in the U.S. are gay, we find many of our friends here are straight couples. In this retirement setting in Mexico we are accepted more openly as a couple. Life for Mexican gay people, however, is not always so open. Like the 1987 Mexican film Dona Herlinda and her Son, filmed in Guadalajara and Chapala, many gay Mexican men yield to family pressures and marry while still retaining their lovers.

Learning Spanish here has not been easy since so many of the people we see everyday speak English, whether they are American, Canadian or native Mexican. Among the professional and educated Mexican community, we feel comfortable as gay men. While I am determined to persist in my Spanish lessons, it may not be easy ever to determine what people from a very different culture from our own really think of us. And yet the Mexican people are basically a gracious people and welcoming to those of us who have chosen this as their home. While cultural differences can cause confusion and frustration at times, after two years we continue to welcome the new experiences and learn more about our adopted country.

One of the more delightful traditions is acquiring a longer legal name. On our official FM-3 visas and in all legal documents I have taken on a final surname, that of my mother. I am officially identified in this country as Robin Edgar Lawrason Priest. Now Jim and I are both Priests since my mother's maiden name was Priest.

I hope thus to be able to use this forum over the next months to inform others about some of the things we and our friends here and in other parts of Mexico have learned about retirement in this wonderful country. To date we have made trips to Xalapa, the capital of Vera Cruz, to Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacán, to Mexico City, as well as to the coastal resorts of Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta both of which have active gay communities. We hope to have many other adventures ahead of us as we explore the culture and the many delightful historic and scenic locations around this country.

My first response to people who inquired about our life here listed some of the things people often asked about and provided a list of other internet resources on the region.

P.S.: We're not the only ones to recommend retirement in Mexico. AARP, Newsweek, the NYTimes and others have had recent articles. Check out International Living's article on Why Mexico?. And check out my first response to people listing many Resources for Visiting and Living at Lakeside.

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