The price of sanity

If you’ve been following my blog from the beginning, you know that I had a lot of reasons for deciding to move to Latin America.  But if I had to boil them all down, I’d say it was to finally, once and for all, seize the day.

Remember days?  They used to have them up in the States also.  We used them for reading books, hitting baseballs and petting our dogs.  Sometimes we’d get an ice cream. Every once in a while, we’d have a bad one; a day when a plan fell through or a toe got stubbed.  But we had a secret weapon against those.  It was called tomorrow and–like an unopened gift–there was no telling what was inside.

Then something happened.  We could debate just exactly what it was, but the net effect was that days started colliding together and melting into each other.  They became this sort of amorphous blob of gadgets, money problems, politics, sleep aids and fear that no longer seemed to have any discernible structure.  Pretty soon we were setting calendar alerts to remind us to wash our underwear.

Here in Mexico, I’m living my life in 24 hour increments again.  Each generally begins with plucking a small drowned rat from the pool and flinging it across the fence.  This is a daily gift from our cat who goes out into the night desert, brings them home, and makes them walk the plank.  It is what it is.

Next I’ll fire up the coffee maker and practice my Spanish as it drips.  Then, if it’s a workday and I have projects waiting, I’ll step out to my poolside office armed with a laptop and flip flops.  Remember trying to study outside back in college?  Well for some reason it works much better at age 49.  I suspect it’s because my testicles have dropped.

My writing seems to be evolving as well.  It’s as if someone unscrewed a plate in the back of my head, remove a filter clogged with First World trappings, swished it around in the Sea of Cortez and reinserted it.  Professional writing projects are being completed and approved in record time.  My own writing–little bits of fiction mostly–has never come more easily.

This blog, however, has been neglected.  There are many reasons for this, but it’s a trend I plan to reverse.  After all, this is “The Big Reveal.”  The payoff I promised you all back in May of 2012 when I suddenly realized I was about to do something crazy.

Although we chose NOT to live as cheaply as possible for the first 6 months, we are learning that life can be very inexpensive here, if it needs to be.  Our large Mexican adobe–with a boat, a pool, more than a dozen citrus and mango trees, and a groundskeeper to take care of it all–is not cheap.  Frankly, telling you the rent would be counter-productive.  Most of you are interested in how inexpensively you can live, and this is not a good example of it.

However, if we were older and trying to live on a couple of social security checks, there are ways to do that here and maybe even put a few bucks in savings at the end of the month.  As I’ve mentioned before, Loreto is struggling economically.  There are brand new apartments just down the road from us, in a very safe, almost too-quiet, area of Nopolo for just $300 per month.  But apparently even that is considered extravagant by some expats we’ve met.  One lady we encountered on the street told us she rented a “great little place” in the Saragosa district for $100 a month.  Of course we met her because she was handing out flyers offering a reward for her recently stolen laptop.  If that sounds just a little too “affordable” for you, any number of large, like-new homes with pools, garages, furniture, dishes, linens and modern appliances can be rented for $800-$1,000 while they sit abandoned, waiting to sell.  If you have negotiating skills, it’s anyone’s guess what you could work out.’

As for the cost of groceries, gasoline, electricity, etc., most of it is cheaper than the States, some of it is not.  The Baja is a bit unique in that very little is grown or made here.  It’s a strip of desert surrounded by saltwater.  So gasoline, for example, goes for about what it does in the States.  Here are some other indications of cost for you to consider…

Produce: cheap if you buy it as the farmer’s market on Sundays.  A solid week’s worth of can be hand-selected, bagged and drug home for $15-$20 US.  There are produce-only markets in town, called “Fruterias” if you happen to miss a Sunday.  The prices are comparable, or a few pesos more.  Of course you are free to pay too much, if you choose, by simply going to the gringo-style grocery store.

Meat: it’s a similar story as produce.  The farmer’s market has beautiful meats and cheeses, more or less shaded from the sun, for reasonably low prices.  Careful when you reach inside that chicken to remove the giblets, though.  There are a couple of feet in there, with pointy talons.

Tortillas: hot off the press or, my favorite, precooked (“precocida, por favor”) for the first couple of coins you find in your pocket.  Purchase these at “Tortillerias” located up and down Benito Juarez Street.

Beer: Not super cheap, slightly less than in the States, I guess.  Whiskey is hard to find and also not cheap.  The finest Tequila money can buy however (100% agave) can be had for as low as $12 a 950ml bottle.  About 1/3 of what it would go for in the States, I’m told.

Dish Satellite TV: we haven’t gotten around to this yet, because Netflix works down in Mexico now.  But if we did, it would go for $12 US a month.

Telephone service: So far, we can’t figure out why anyone would pay for it.  You’ve seen the Magic Jack commercial right?  Well it’s not bullshit.  I talk to family, friends and clients as if they were right next door.  It’s reliable enough that I’ve used it to make large presentations to corporate vice-presidents without a hitch.  Next week I’m going to try it on a CEO while he lights cigars with $100 bills.

Electricity: We just discovered a bill for our first two months, rolled up and wedged in the wooden slats of our front gate.  Good thing it wasn’t windy.  $100 a month.  Not horrible considering we’ve got both pool and well pumps kicking on and off regularly.  Like the rest of Mexico, we use lights sparingly at night, opting for your standard, government-issue Jesus candles at 10 pesos apiece (about 80 cents).  There is irony here that I won’t go into.

WiFi: This goes for something like $30 a month and comes with a Mexican phone line as well.  The broadband is First World fast and reliable.  The phone line sounds great, but every time we answer it a flurry of Spanish gets thrown at us.  We hope they’re just sales calls, because either way they’re getting hung up on.

Sea Bass: Pitched fresh from the Sea of Cortes daily.  Delicious and made even more so by its price of perhaps a couple bucks a pound.

Clams: Even fresher than the sea bass as evidenced by the fact that they are often served open face, uncooked and, yes, still moving.  My brother Mike and I enjoyed them on his birthday.  Diana ate one so she could say she did it.  For the record, none of us detected anything wiggling on our tongues.  About $7 bucks for a plateful at a beachside restaurant appropriately named The Clam Shack.

Dove Ice Cream Bars: $5 apiece.  Don’t buy these if you can avoid it.

Hasta manana.  And by “manana” I mean, pretty soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Capitan!

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El Capitan!

My 83-year-old dad taking the helm off Isla Del Carmen. Minutes after this photo was taken, we followed a pod of 300 or so dolphins, saw a massive blue whale, caught a shark, and ran out of gas. Details on this and the rest of our first two months in Loreto coming this weekend. I promise!

Dipping a toe in the Sea of Cortez

Well it’s been one week since we arrived at our new home in Loreto, Mexico.  As you know, I grew conspicuously silent as our move date approached.  This was not due to an unwillingness to share, but rather a fundamental lack of hours in the day.  Turns out the planning, packing and logistics of moving out of the country are about triple the time and energy drain I had anticipated.

Luckily it was all worth it.

This morning I’m sitting at the kitchen bar of an oversized hacienda, drinking an unfamiliar brand of Mexican coffee as I try to describe the almost molecular transformation that I’ve undergone in the past seven days.

It really started a month ago as the Holiday frenzy collided with the need to get the hell out of Dodge.  This year, when the last Christmas ornament was taken down and packed, we just kept going.  Since neither Diana or I possess much in the way of logistical skills, we decided that the best way to get shit done was to start doing shit.

It was random and inefficient.  There must have been a better way.  Still, everything we owned eventually landed in a friend’s house, a storage shed, a donation bin or a dumpster.  What little that remained came with us, including the dog and cat.

It would be hard to overstate the cathartic effect of fitting all your worldly possessions in a 2004 Jeep Cherokee.  Soon, everything we needed–and nothing we didn’t–was making a run for the border.

The trip itself was beautiful and imperfect.  The cat whined.  Things flew off the roof rack.  A check engine light was ignored.  All our traveling money was inadvertently flung into the desert, never to be seen again.  Still, 2,200 miles later we arrived safe and sound and ready for bed.

As I said, it is a week later now, but already it feels like months.  Each day has been a full and complete experience worthy of its own blog post.  Technology like that which I’m currently typing on has made this entire process so much more seamless that it would have been just a few years ago.  But it is good old-fashioned dirt, sky and saltwater that I’m most interested in these days.  It almost feels like the day I saw my first Pong game, except in reverse.

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Yesterday we went to a makeshift farmer’s market staged in a dry river bed at the edge of town.  A couple of kids with a bucket washed all five states off our car for 60 pesos as we bought bag after bag of non-genetically modified produce, seafood, chicken and cheeses.

My Dad, a non-drinker for his entire adult life, tried a shot of tequila and promptly bought a bottle to take home.  He’s too old to be grounded, so we had to endure the singing coming from his room last night.  Going forward, I may insist he keep his hearing aids in so he has to hear it too.

My brother flew here with my Dad and is staying for the first two months.  He offered the groundskeeper, Erilio, a cup of coffee the other day and already it’s become a ritual.  The first day he stood meekly outside the gate and waited for God knows how long to be invited in to work.  Now he sashays in with a hearty “Que pasa!” asks for his “cafe” and gets as much Spanish language conversation out of us as possible.

The other day a good friend back home in the snow sent me a text asking if life was as good down here as I had hoped.  I answered, “The showers could be hotter if that helps.”  He said it actually kinda did.

Now I don’t have the heart to tell him we figured out the water heater.

Fruitcake and shame

I used to think I knew holiday stress.  I was wrong.  Turns out all those years of scrambling around to buy presents, decorate the house, and plan the dysfunctional family meal were nothing.  Doing all of that stuff “for the last time” in a house that is being systematically dismantled for a January departure is whole different kettle of egg nog.

We’ve got dueling To-Do lists this year.  Get rid of the furniture vs. host Christmas dinner.  Send Christmas cards vs. send the cat to be inspected by a USDA approved veterinarian.  I could go on.

The one thing that is quite a bit easier, however, is gifts.  We’re being extra generous this year.

“Merry Christmas, here’s a couch!”

“You’re like a step-nephew to me, have an electric guitar.”

“Someday you’re going to grow up and meet the woman who steals your heart the way your mother did mine.  One thing will lead to another and suddenly you’ll need a lawnmower like this one.  Merry Christmas boy!”

As for receiving gifts, that’s simply not possible I’m afraid.  We won’t have room in the Jeep for food processors with 17 bonus attachments.

Suddenly all of those animated television specials about the true meaning of Christmas seem to resonate in ways that they didn’t the first 48 times I watched.

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?

I promise to write a post about the rents and prices we’ll be paying down in Loreto very soon.  But right now, as you can tell, my mind is on things that aren’t things.  Kids and grandkids who are doing their best to keep their chins up.  Mothers who just want us to be safe.  Friends and co-workers looking on with varying degrees of excitement, envy and concern in their hearts.  You, continuing to provide encouragement and support even as you ponder your own best way to find better days ahead.  Diana, currently asleep at my side, but soon to awaken to another day of worrying about all of the above as only a mother will.  And my Dad, getting ready to leave the country for the first time since fighting in the Korean war.

The Holidays have a way of putting everything under a magnifying glass.  As if what we’re trying to pull off here weren’t already big enough.  Whenever I get truly overwhelmed though, I just think of watching the Super Bowl–hopefully involving the Denver Broncos–over fish tacos and cold Do Equis beer.  It works for a while.

In the meantime Happy Holidays to everyone.  And thanks again for being such great friends and confidantes in 2012.

jb

The deafening click of golden handcuffs

I’ll just come out with it. Most of the reason you have not heard from me recently is that the financial ramifications of my move to Latin America have changed significantly. This is due in no small part to my boss’ unwillingness to take “no” for an answer. As a result, my exit seems to be following the “4-hour Workweek” formula much more closely than I had previously imagined, or even wanted.

In that book, Tim Ferris lays out his plan for separating yourself from your job in phases. The first and most critical phase is to “identify your leverage” and use it to gain the ability to work offsite. The concept basically relies on the notion that if we are left alone to get our work done–rather than sitting in seventeen mind-numbing meetings a week–we can usually wrap it up in a fraction of the time it would otherwise require. Then we simply start using that freed up time to cultivate other, more satisfying, ways to make a living. The moment I read that section I knew it applied to me, a writer of ad campaigns. However, it was also fairly obvious to me–and I’m sure to the author as well–that not every occupation works that way. In other words, it’s pretty tough to be a plumber, cop or firefighter over the Internet.

Still, I preferred to make the cleanest break possible, even if it meant cobbling together what was left of my 401(k) and living from that while I explored other writing opportunities. Then my boss went and offered me full salary and benefits to move to Mexico and remain a full time employee. The dirty sonofabitch.

As most of you know, I turned down three separate partnership opportunities to make our move to Latin America possible. I simply was no longer willing to put money in front of happiness. But with this latest proposal, I may be able to salvage a bit of both.

Living on the Baja with a First World salary is a far cry from the original sentiment I expressed when I began this blog last spring (I can almost hear Steve from Colorado sighing) but I don’t know how I can turn it down. At least for now. In other words, I was more than willing to do something impulsive, and even irresponsible, but I’m trying not to venture into full-on stupid.

I feel some guilt in all this. Here I invited you all to come along for the ride as I gave life in The States my middle finger, perhaps emboldening you to do the same one day. And instead, come January, I’m going to wind up renting a fairly sizable Mexican hacienda with a panga boat and a groundskeeper while continuing to suckle me some First World teat.

Still, the ultimate goal will be the same, I suppose: to find myself writing more art and less commerce in the very near future while broadening my view of the planet.

All that being said, Loreto is a fine place to start. Its economy took a shit a while back when Citibank decided to try turning it into Cabo. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your perspective) this caper failed miserably as America’s financial meltdown conspired with head-lopping drug cartels to pop the proverbial bubble down there. The result is a glut of empty houses that are selling for half their original prices. Many of these can also be rented while their For Sale signs fade in the Baja sunshine.

Okay, you’re still thinking about the head-loppers, aren’t you? Well don’t. From everything I can gather, most of mainland Mexico’s PR nightmares simply do not happen on the Baja. In fact, we spoke with several Mexican nationals who said they themselves came to Loreto to escape “Bad Mexico.” Even petty crime is said to happen far less often on the Peninsula.

In fact, the only real downside I can point to is the fact that they serve their fish tacos breaded. It’s kind of a nightmare.

The beach scene

The biggest knock on this place, at least from my point of view, is the beach.  It’s not great right here in Loreto.  Of course, as one property management lady put it, “If we had great beaches, we’d be Cabo.  And we don’t want to be Cabo.”  It’s a great point.  Here’s the thing, though: there is white sand to be had about an hour’s drive north in Conception Bay.  It’s borderline Caribbean looking up there.  Even better, just a 20 minute boat ride takes you to Coronado Island, just outside of Loreto Bay.  Di and I shared this entire crescent beach with a pelican and a sleeping Mexican boat captain. 

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We’ll be looking at rental properties today, with a goal of securing a rental agreement for our final return in early January.  We’re hoping for something with local character, but there is a fallback newer apartment,  2br, 2bath, fully furnished with swimming pool, etc, for $600/mo. 

Even if I had the money, I’m not sure I’d buy here just yet.  Although the market has been slammed, and everything is for sale, I don’t think people have yet accepted that their homes aren’t worth what they were just a year or so ago.  I can relate.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow when your most prized asset is suddenly worth a fraction of itself because of some nebulous thing they call “the economy.”  My guess is it will take another year, just like it did up in the States, before homeowners are willing to shake off the denial and drop their asking prices for real.