It was a dark and balmy night.
Fifteen years ago today, I began my final adventure.
I stepped off a Delta jet from ice-bound Atlanta that landed in warm Guadalajara around midnight. I went to baggage claim and picked up my two suitcases. From the taxi kiosk I took a cab to a downtown hotel, the name of which has faded from memory. I was 55 years old, alone, and spoke no Spanish.
Two days later, I took a bus on the posh ETN line to a state capital high in the middle of Mexico where I lived two months in a frigid, thinly furnished room above a garage and studied Spanish in a private school. After the two months, I rented an almost empty house nearby for another six months.
That capital city is a 40-minute drive from my current colorful, Colonial mountaintop town which I happened upon by pure good fortune. I moved here after those eight months in the capital.
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PHONES, ROADS AND STUFF
In the past 1.5 decades, Mexico has changed dramatically, mostly for the better. We were still a one-party oligarchy when I arrived. Now we are a democracy. The downtown of the nearby state capital, a beautiful Colonial city, was hidden behind thousands of street vendors who clogged sidewalks. They have been swept away.
Cell phones were primitive and service was sketchy. Service is now excellent. The internet was only available by telephone modem. Now we have wireless. Highways were usually bad, and directional signs were just not there. Highways now are often better than above the Rio Bravo, and signs are clear and informative.
At that time, you could drive neither to Mexico City nor the border — which is 700 miles distant — nor the beach on nonstop autopistas. Now you can. Driving to San Miguel de Allende, about 140 miles away, was slow and cumbersome, averaging about 45 mph.
The autopista to the beach is now just a three-hour jaunt. And San Miguel takes fewer than three hours. Mexico City takes under five hours. And soon a new highway bypass will be completed that will allow us to circumvent the state capital completely.
That circumvention will reduce the time and hassle to most points north, east and west significantly.
The state capital back then was likened to Topeka, a dull backwater. There was one Walmart, a Costco, and a few movie screens. A couple of humdrum shopping malls were available. Now there are four Walmarts, Starbucks, shopping malls that rival Miami or Rio, massive cineplexes with cushy seating.
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NO OBAMACARE HERE, GRACIAS
There were a couple of relatively small but reportedly good hospitals in the state capital. Now there are huge health complexes that serve our every medical need with modern facilities and reasonable prices.
The manner in which we get our healthcare hasn’t changed much. It was excellent 15 years ago, and it’s excellent today. Two systems, two levels: Government-subsidized for the needy or anyone who wants to use it, free or very low-cost. Private system, also for anyone who wants to use it. Level Two costs a good bit more, but still just a fraction of what medical care costs above the Rio Bravo. And nothing is coercive.
Since most folks use the public system, that does this to the private system: Little or no waiting. Speedy appointments. Next day? No problem. And no sitting endlessly with hordes of other people in waiting rooms or little cubicles. Very personal service.
Since we are not a litigious society, doctors don’t need to pay astronomical malpractice premiums, so they can afford cushy waiting rooms, high-tech equipment in their offices and reasonable charges.
You don’t need medical insurance.
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MY BEST MOMENT
This patio is where I got married in 2003. There were a surprisingly large number of guests.
And the bride was beautiful in a blue dress. She later regretted not picking white.
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GETTING ABOUT, PAYING BILLS AND STUFF
Fifteen years ago, public transportation was plentiful and cheap. That has not changed. What has changed are the vehicles. Here on my mountaintop, apart from taxis, the public transportation, 15 years back, consisted of aging Volkswagen hippie vans and rattletrap, belching school buses recycled from above the Rio Bravo.
The belching school buses are all gone, and so are most of the VW vans, replaced by late-model Nissan and Toyota vans. And all remains plentiful and cheap and fast.
Back then, we milled about in mobs in a government office to pay our annual car taxes and get license plates. Now we print the forms from a website and pay online or in a bank. Getting a driver’s license is relatively fast and painless. I hear horror stories of DMVs in the United States.
Mail a letter? Go to the post office. It’s cheap, courteous and usually no wait. Mail is slow, but it gets there. I’ve experienced U.S. post offices, the long lines, the surly service. Pay property taxes (generally very low), water bills, phone bills, electricity bills? Can be done online from your bank account. We now live in modernity.
For years, after we built the Hacienda in 2002-03, our water came from periodic visits from a tanker truck that filled an underground cistern. Now our water comes automatically from the town just like yours does.
We still don’t drink it, however.
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STUFF TO READ
Fifteen years ago, finding books to read in English was dicey. Our town’s library had a few shelves of novels that tourists had dropped off, available for borrowing. Sanborn’s in the capital city would have four or five popular novels in English at sky-high prices.
Most of my reading material, and I still only read books in English, came down in box-loads from Half Price Books during our then-yearly visits above the Rio Bravo, usually from San Antonio, Texas.
Kindle to the rescue. Amazon will send a Kindle to my front gate in three days. I have three now. One for me. One for my wife, and a spare. Problem solved. About any book I want comes via cyberspace.
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I never grew a ponytail.
Nor a stubble, and I never started dressing like a hippie.
And I don’t smell of patchouli.
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All is not positive, however. When I arrived in my small mountaintop, lakeside city, there were about 40 foreigners, mostly Gringo* crackpots, living here. Now there are maybe 400, significantly more normal people, and they are setting up art galleries and saving pooches and feeding old folks.
In short, turning the place into another San Miguel de Allende. This is a mixed blessing, mostly negative.
Soon, waiters will respond in broken English; burglars will move here from all over; rents and housing prices will soar; and everybody will dress like an artist. Then some wiseacre will start a blog to make fun of us.
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NOISE AND ACCLIMATING
One of Mexico’s most notable characteristics is the racket the natives love to make at all hours. In some respects living here is akin to living among millions of unsupervised children.
This long drove me nuts, but not anymore. Amazingly, I am now used to it. When the lunatics light explosives a block away on the plaza at 6 a.m., sometimes I don’t even wake up. If I do, I go right back to sleep.
This is a positive development. And it’s not the only way I’ve changed. Mexico is incredibly different from the United States and Canada. The language is different. The way of thinking is very different, all of which unsettled me a lot when I moved here, in spite of my previously having visited fairly often.
But after 15 years here and — perhaps as important — not having set foot in the United States in seven years, this Mexican world has become the norm. If I ever visit above the border again — which I very well may not — I will find that old Gringo world of mine strange and unsettling, I am sure.
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MY LOVELY COMPANION
The absolutely best result of my moving south is pictured above. My child bride, caught in the middle of a giggle in our Mexico City apartment about four years ago.
Note to the guys: You can do something similar if you are reasonably presentable and didn’t move south with a wife in tow. If you did, there’s nothing that can be done for you. Sorry. You’re out of luck.
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15 GREAT YEARS
These 15 years have been kind to me. And I live in a cool, refreshing world of green, mountain beauty. It’s been my final adventure, one that has yet to end.
It started as quite a challenge. The first couple of years I would have returned to the United States in a nanosecond had I been able to afford it. Now, however, returning is unthinkable. Mexico has greatly improved while the United States has significantly worsened. This was the best move of my life.
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* Many people will tell you Gringo is disrespectful, an epithet. They are mistaken. It is simply what Mexicans call us, usually behind our backs because they don’t know how we’ll take it. It is a neutral word that can be disrespectful depending on the tone and intent. But, basically, it’s just the locals’ name for us, and has been for ages.
(For my first five years here, I was a pretend Mexican. In 2005, Mexico made me a bona fide citizen and gave me a passport. No more visas, and I can vote, which is great fun.)
(TOMORROW: Drinking, smoking, drugs.)