Mexico, as seen from the north shore of Lake Chapala. This ain’t literature, but may be interesting…
I get a fair amount of mail asking what Mexico is really like, some of it worried about the drug wars. The wars exist, though so far with little effect on the expats here. I don’t downplay the narcotraficantes, especially along the frontier, in Sinaloa, and the Sierra Madre. Murders are creeping in around Lake Chapala, though not murders of expats. As long as Americans want drugs and Mommy Washington doesn’t want Americans to have them, the problem will probably continue. The drawbacks of living next to a voracious drug market with a school-marmish government are manifold. The only hope for Mexico is that the cartels will divide up the territory and live amicably. Until then, things will be iffy here. The following I hope will give an idea of other aspects of Mexico.
It is important to understand that there are at least two distinct Mexicos. In the primitive areas, largely meaning the mountains and canyons to the north, you find dirt floors, outdoor plumbing, low literacy, lots of cuernos de chivo — "goat horns," or AK 47s — and very real oppression of women. Don’t go there. The book to read to understand this Mexico is God’s Middle Finger. Then there is the Mexico of Guadalahjara, for example, sophisticated, often lovely, run-down, with first-rate bookstores and restaurants and agreeable people. You can get mugged in Guad, but the likelihood is less by far than in Washington.
Our region is the north shore of Lake Chapala, maybe forty-five minutes south of Guad. The principal towns from east to west are Chapala, Ajijic, and Jocotepec. Chapala is a small city really, delightful with a pretty waterfront; Ajijic is Mexico by Disney, and Joco, an actual Mexican town still. Ten years ago it was a quiet region with one stoplight. Now it is jammed with traffic, malls are everywhere, roads are badly inadequate, and huge tracts of ticky-tacky ugly-box housing spring up like poison mushrooms. It is no longer a place to come to on purpose. Most of the rest of Mexico is still Mexico.
Some links and stuff:
Web Board This is Chapala.com, a web board for gringos in the region of Lake Chapala. Bear in mind that it is run by a real-estate company, and censored for political correctness and anything that might not sell real estate. You can register and ask questions of local expats.
Then there are the multitudinous towns and small cities, Tapalpa, Mazamitla, Chapala, Ciudad Guzman, Merida. These have pretty plazas, gorgeous churches, and a thoroughly pleasant population. Vi and I wander these places without the least concern, and she knows the country since it is hers. I find the towns to be delightful. Mexican towns do not have the feel of having been stamped out by the dozen. Churches are all different since they weren’t designed at corporate, and hotels tend to be equally distinctive and colorful. Mexico is not yet a mass consumerist society, though it is headed that way.
US Consulate, Guadalajara Rude, incompetent, generally useless, but perhaps suitable in a pinch. For what, I don’t know.
Like American embassies and consulates everywhere, the consulate in Guad cowers behind bars and rentaguards and is terrified of practically everything. You can’t take lipstick inside, for example, though to be truthful, I’ve never wanted to. The employees do not seem to like veterans and to have little in common with Mexicans. The ones I have met have been too white-wine-and-cheese for a country that is more Squirt-and-tequila. They are the whitest people imaginable in a brown country.
Medical Services recommended by the US Consulate in Guadalajara
Good medical care is certainly available, and the care from IMSS, national medical care, while not up to the better American standards, is depended on by many gringo retirees. It seems to be heading toward bankruptcy for the same reasons for the threatened bankruptcy of the Social Security Administration, plus corruption. The question of Mexican medicine is complex and sometimes startling. In Joco, a small town, you can get echo sonograms and now, reportedly dialysis, which amazed me. Extensive vaccinations for kids are required. The "free" care in national clinics is fine for routine things. Vi once had a bad ear infection while we were travelling. The clinic in a small town provided an IV anti-inflammatories, injected antibiotics, and so on, and didn’t even ask her name. Their job was to fix people who needed fixing, and what did her name have to do with it? .
Radio UDG The voice of the University of Gaudalajara. As good as NPR, if that is a recommendation, or any university radio I’ve encountered in the States. In Spanish.
University of Guadalajara. I’d put it at the level of America’s state universities, but I can’t prove it.
For intellectual life, the best thing is to learn Spanish, at which point you have access to the many excellent bookstores in Guad. They are short however on books in English. Spanish is a supple literary language and good stuff in it abounds, as well as translations of works in other languages. Mexican newspapers are less controlled than American, but often contradict each other. On television and radio you find good coverage of news and good political commentary.
If you don’t know Spanish, you have the internet, and all sorts of music and so on in Guad. Most of the expats seem to stay pretty much in the gringo enclaves in the hills overlooking the lake. Kindles work wirelessly here, Amazon is said to get books to people but delivery is slow, audiobooks are downloadable, and so on.
Chapala, from the waterfront. Sometimes it gets so hellishly cold that you almost need a long-sleeved tee-shirt. Photo: Violeta Gonzalez
TicketMaster, Mexico Self-explanatory.
Relations with the Mexicans. Complex. The more Americans and Canadians in an area, the less they are liked. The United States as a country isn’t liked at all. As do people in much of the world, Mexicans remember attacks and invasions by the US, most of which most Americans have never heard of. Many of the expats around here are rich by Mexican standards, and display it, which leads to resentment. Many of the expats don’t really want to be in Mexico but can’t afford Lauderdale, and they do not integrate well into the country. They are condescending, come across as arrogant, and don’t learn Spanish, which rankles. "This is Mexico. Why do they expect us to learn English?" You hear gringas bragging about how lilttle they pay their maids, An American woman at the Lake Chapala Society once asked me why I live in Joco, a very Mexican town, instead of "with my own." I don’t know why it is, but gringas seem to have a sense of entitlement, an expectation that Mexicans will do things the way the gringas want. Men are less so.
On the other hand, individuals are treated according to their behavior. Speak Spanish, invite the masonry crew that built your office over for beer and barbecue, don’t act like a space-alien snot, and you get along fine.
Racism in Mexico. White women are forced to work in store-front brothels, like this on in Zapotlanejo. If you tell the police, they just laugh. Photo: Natalia Gonzalez
Multiple Listing Service, Lakeside. Gives an idea of housing available for gringos. The houses run to pricey, but unlisted ones are cheaper.
Just now buyers are accepting a lot below asking because of the effects of enlightened policy on Wall Street, as well as the drug wars. It’s definitely caveat emptor in the real-estate market because the realtors, heavily American and Canadian, are not notably honest. For example, because land close to the lake is not stable, walls often develop cracks, which the realtors in many cases will plaster over and repaint. This is known as maquillaje, or "make-up." Workmanship in brick, metal, and wood are very good if you find the right workmen. Which isn’t hard.
American Legion Post 7, Chapala Open to all. Not a bad place for breakfast. The vets seem more integrated into the country than do the Hill Tribes.
Hector Haro First-rate dentistry.
Machismo. Common among the lower classes, but very much on the decline. In the prepa or highschool of my stepdaughter, girls abound, as they do in the University of Guad. Hector Haro, the dentist mentioned above, has a staff mostly of girl dentists, who are excellent. Female doctors and lawyers are all over the place. Machismo cannot survive the existence of substantial numbers of female professionals. What a difference fifty years makes. Again, the foregoing does not apply to primitive regions or the lowest classes.
Ajijic Legal Services Adriana Perez Flores, who speaks good English. Her Canadian husband, Kevin, comes close. Another example of non-machismo.
The Mexican government is gringo-friendly. American drivers licenses work here, and vice versa. Yes, you can buy houses in almost all of the country. Residence papers are easy to get. The police will sometimes hit you up for a mordida. Usually, though not always, it will be for an offense you actually committed, and will cost less than going to court, and waste lots less time.
My favorite story is of my buddy Jim, who stopped by the road one night near here to smoke a joint. A cop came by, thought Jim had broken down, and approached to help. He smelled the dope, confiscated the joint, hit Jim for a mordida of about eighteen bucks, gave him back the joint, and drove off.
Recently Mexico made personal-use quantities of virtually all drugs legal. As far as anyone can tell, this had no effect at all on the consumption of drugs. This being an important observation, it will not be noticed north of the border.
Lakeside Care Residential care for the aged or terminally sick. Run by Sara Vega and Ron Langley, friends of mine. Much cheaper than in the US. I have frequently been there. Nice place.
Lake Chapala Association Local gringo association, good library.
Walmart, God help us.
Also CostCo, Sam’s Club, Soriana, which is a Mexican equivalent. Office Depot. Huge Mexican malls. Huge pharmacies.
Telcel Perfectly good cell-phone service, national coverage.
Telmex The Mexican telephone monopoly. If you get both phone service and internet from them, you get unlimited calls at no extra charge to the US. It doesn’t work the other way around. We have never had a dropped call, and Vi puts a lot of hours on the phone teaching Spanish to students in the US.
Prodigy Infinitum Internet service. Works. If your modem blows up and needs to be configured, the techs are sharp, in Spanish or English.
Bodies hanging on street after firefight among narcos. Or perhaps evidence that Mexican photographers have a disturbed sense of humor. Photo: Natalia Gonzalez
Guns. Article 10, "Mexican Constitution: The inhabitants of the United Mexican States are entitled to have arms of any kind in their possession for their protection and legitimate defense, except such as are expressly forbidden by law, or which the nation may reserve for the exclusive use of the army, navy, or national guard; but they may not carry arms within inhabited places without complying with police regulations." The problem is that the interpretation is baffling. Mostly you can’t easily have guns.
OK, that’s Messico, sort of, at thirty words a minute and minimal editing.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.