Stranded in Rome?

Greetings from Rome, Italy.

I’m an idiot! I fully admit it. When a good friend who used to live in Rome told us we mustn’t skip this grand city during our visit to Italy, I scoffed. I told her we probably wouldn’t have the time — after having spent eight days in Umbria/Tuscany, a week on the road that included Sorrento, Capri and the Amalfi Coast, and five enjoyable weeks in a more-drizzly-than-expected Palermo, Sicily — and that Rome would be too cold for us to fully enjoy, anyway. Because she’s a very kind person, she didn’t call me out on my stupidity. But I really think she could not possibly fathom my idiocy. She did politely mention Rome to me a few more times when I was talking to her about our trip, casually mentioning what a great place it is and how much she thought we would like it. So here’s to you “J” for your persistance.

Yet even with my friend’s proding, we only came to Rome for one reason: To visit the Mexican Embassy. Due to some recent changes in the amount of time one can stay in Mexico on a tourist visa (everyone used to get stamped for 180 days, no questions asked, but now that’s far from guaranteed, and many people are getting way less time) we decided to apply to Mexico for temporary residency. You have to start the process at a Mexican embassy outside of Mexico, and most people do that in the U.S., but with loads of people now wanting to apply, appointments have been impossible to come by. So I got the idea to check if we could apply in Italy, and I found out we could do it at the Mexican Embassy in Rome — and then, just like that, we had an appointment for Monday, Dec. 6! After compiling some 60-80 pages of financial documents, proving that we won’t be a financial liability to the Mexican government, we were on the train from the island of Sicily to Italy (they actually tote the train across the strait on a ship, though we got off and took a faster ferry). The plan in Rome was to stay for a weekend, get our visas on that Monday, maybe stay one or two more days, and then fly to Zihuatanejo, Mexico. I was very, very wrong. The embassy said they needed up to 15 business days to process our visas! Hence, we have become stranded in Rome … “stranded” for two weeks since the day of our appointment.

Stranded in Rome … Holy moly! What an incredible place to be shipwrecked. We’re staying one block from the Colosseum in a lovely, one-bedroom Airbnb. Thank goodness it was still available after our initial four-night booking; we were able extend by 15 nights! And now we’ve extended again (sort of). We’ve taken a another Airbnb unit in our same building (ours was rented), for another week. It’s not easy to find places to stay in Rome during the holidays, because many Italians love to come here to see the holiday lights and the amazing sites, and shop on the quaint streets and alleyways. Here’s a link to our unit if you want to see it. It’s got everything we need and has incredible Wifi, to boot, which has been fantastic change for us after four months of crappy Wifi in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas.

There’s so much to say about Rome! It’s incredibly beautiful. Historical sites are around every corner. We never tire of seeing the Colosseum or the incredible old buildings, or the fountains. Additionally, the Christmas decorations are fantastic. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the spirit of Christmas so fully in other large cities. Getting lost in Rome’s alleyways leads to pure joy, the restaurants are great, and the prices are reasonable. It’s not quite as cheap as the South of Italy, but we’ve found the prices to be on par with a moderately priced American city: Cleveland, perhaps?

We’re not sure what’s on Andy’s nose. It’s some kind of weird light reflection

What about Covid?
Friends and family in the U.S. and Mexico ask me if I am worried because Italy recently went up to Level 4 “do not travel” as determined by the CDC, although things in Italy are generally good compared to many European cities, and things in Rome are even a bit better. I am worried, but Andy and I plan to leave Italy either immediately after the paperwork comes through, or maybe a few days after that. To reduce our exposure to Covid, we do not go to bars or concerts or any closed-in spaces. We rarely eat inside at restaurants, and now, we probably won’t do that at all (restaurants are suppoed to check EU Green Passes, equivalent of a CDC vaccination card). When asked to show ours, we’ve been simply showing our CDC cards, and we’ve never been turned away (a bit more on that later). Some restaurants are pretty lax, so we don’t go inside those places, nor do we go to inside pastry counter, for example, if a place is crowded or is cramped with low ceilings. Luckily, a lot of places in Rome have outdoor cafes with heat lamps so we can stay outside even in the cold.

Need a boost?

In June 2021, Andy and I traveled from Chiapas to California to get our Covid-19 vaccines. We picked Johnson & Johnson because their one-dose regime seemed easiest on our time schedule. Of course, with all the uninspiring updates on J&J, we decided to try to get booster shots as soon as we could — in Italy! That was not our original plan, but with our potentially waning immunity, we wanted a Moderna or Pfizer booster. We started to hunt one down weeks ago in Palermo, then in Rome, then Omicron surfaced. Then we really wanted it.

Let me be clear. I never expected we would receive boosters in Italy! I don’t have that sense of entitlement. I would never, ever take shots away from people that really need it. But in Italy, there are plenty of vaccines available for its population. I never felt entitled to get vaccinated here — but at the same time, I was prepared do everything I possibly could to make it happen. Getting turned away a few times wasn’t going to dissuade me from trying and trying again. But what would be the best way to find out the information we needed, especially because we don’t speak Italian?

Meet Ex-pats of Rome

In every city we live in for more than a few weeks, I join their ex-pat Facebook group. I’ve met some really nice people this way, and I find out a lot of good information on all sorts of topics. When I first posted my question about getting vaccinated as tourists, we were in Palermo, and group members recommended two communal vaccine centers. The first place, across town, told us sorry, but boosters at that point were only for 60-and-overs who had received their second shot (or J&J) at least six months ago. Strike 1 and strike 2 against us, and we didn’t even get to strike 3 (no Italian health number). We left dejected, but not deterred. A week later, people under-60 were now eligible. We walked to a hospital-type place that Andy espied on a walk as a possible vax place, but it was the wrong day. They told us to walk to the train station about 20 minutes away. We wandered. Nothing. They sent us to a nearby pharmacy. No dice. No vaxes there.

One day I decided to reach out to the American Embassy in Italy for help. They just sent us back a form letter. It sucked and provided no additional information.

On our train ride to Rome, we stopped over in a small coastal town, Scalea, for two nights. Our lodging manager told me of a huge vaccine tent a few blocks away. We found it easily! We walked in confidently! Alas, it was only a Covid testing site, not a vaccine clinic. There was a clinic in town, but not on the days we were there. Two U.S. expats who had just moved to this town told us about a foreigner-friendly vaccine clinic an hour away, but we were off for Rome. Many had something to say, especially Facebook users of course, about how to make it happen, but most of the info didn’t pan out.

In Rome, we happened to be walking past the main train station after our Mexican Embassy visit. Outside in the parking lot was a huge vax center in a series of tents. The entrance was packed, with someone checking health-code numbers. We walked all the way around and a door was open. We strode in, and I even made it to one of the check-in desks. Things looked promising, perhaps. But they turned us away – no Italian health card number, no Italian fiscale code. Go to the Italian health care executive offices, they told me, scribbling down an address. Damn. Another failure.

The ex-pats of Rome Facebook board helped. People directed me to a vax registration website, where maybe I could sign up without Italian documents. Andy and I tried filling out the form (in Italian) several times, but we constantly got unspecified error messages. Then one day Andy entered the phone number of our Airbnb host. Bingo! We had made vax appointments. Just to make sure we’d qualify, I messaged the NGO offering the shots, Sant’Egidio. Someone told me in no uncertain terms to not show up! As tourists, we would be turned away. But a different Sant’Egidio person via a different Facebook message said to show up, even though I explained our tourist status, so we gave it a go. But we weren’t optimistic.

Off to the Trastevere neighborhood we went, to the complex of Sant’Egidio, a worldwide organization that generally serves the indigent and homeless. At the clinic, we saw hundreds of people, a lot of recent immigrants, students studying abroad and what seemed to be well-heeled, average Italians, but no one looked homeless or indigent. I had a great conversation, mainly in Spanish, with someone from Mexico City studying in Rome. They were giving first, second and booster shots.

Our appointment was for a first/second jab, a risky move on Andy’s part because the earliest booster signup slots weren’t until late December. Then another risky move, or bold. At the check-in point for our appointment, they were handing out numbers: for first/second jabs and for boosters. Andy asked if we could have booster numbers instead of the other one, and the guy seemed confused, but he went of it. That was very important. An hour later, one hour later than our appointment time, we made it inside and were shuffled to a desk for some basic questions (when/where did we get our earlier vax? how long did we plan to stay in Italy). The man there spoke good English and jokingly told me he had lived in America, but didn’t like Americans! He said we’d qualify because we had our first booster and planned to stay in Italy at least three months. OMG could it be happening?

But wait. There we were, being shuffled off to another desk. First we had to get assigned Italian health card numbers. A few computer clicks later, we each had the vital numbers that would allow us to get booster shots! So back to the first desk, to complete that phase of the registration, then off to another area and another desk to get interviewed by a doctor. Then into the semi-private space, and the needle! Hooray!

Navigating Italian  bureaucracy was the nightmare that everybody told us it would be. It took about 11 hours of doing research, plus three hours of visiting vaccine centers which didn’t pan out. There are many, many details about just how difficult the proces that I am not including in this piece. Suffice it to say that this is a time in which perseverance really paid off. We asked for and received a lot of vital help and support, notably from the Rome ex-pats Facebook group. We are also extremely grateful to the  Italian government for providing us with an health number. And we are very grateful to the community of Sant’Egidio for hosting a vaccine clinic (We’ve made a donation to say thanks).

Getting boosted in Italy protects us and Italians from Covid. Now that we are boosted, we even have EU Green Passes! In a sea of Italian bureaucracy, it seemed like it might take miracle to make it happen. We needed this (didn’t have it), and we needed that. But after some research by Andy and some figuring out of some more forms in Italian, we were issued by the Italian health ministry a QR code that we import into a Green Pass app, which we can begin showing as needed. No more need to show our CDC vax cards anywhere in Europe!

Now we wait
The Mexican Embassy in Rome is closing soon for Christmas. We’re still waiting for them to tell us when our paperwork will be completed. But now we have an Airbnb in Monti (one block from the Colosseum) through the 30th, so we can be a little more chill. Staying that extra time in Rome we also allow us to play it extra safe and smart while Omicron rises and our Moderna boosters kick in (it’s been a week as I write this). After that, will come travel, to Mexico, if travel is still a thing by then. If not, then perhaps I’ll have to write “Stranded in Rome, Part II.”

The magic of Italy

Dear readers of Beleiveitohrnot,

Greetings from Palermo, Italy where we’re mid-way through week three of a five-week stay. Palermo is on the island of Sicily. it’s the largest city in Sicily with a population of 673,000. We knew zilch about Sicily when we decided to make this our 5 week homebase. The only thing we knew was 1) It has a large history of being associated with the Italian mafia. 2) In October and November the weather was supposed to be quite balmy and very sunny. Did someone say balmy weather? Count me in!

When we first got here, it was raining. Then it rained on day two, and day three, and day four, and day five. Are you starting to see a pattern here? I had told Andy to expect sunny days with temps in the high 60’s to mid 70’s. But every single day we experienced drizly or plain old rainy weather.

Amid this dreary weather, I’m happy to report that we have experienced a few incredible days as well, but the dreary weather always seems to return. Our landlord, Luigi told me that all of the rain is highly unusual, but based on all this gloom, I don’t know what to think. Even as a write this blog, the weather simply sucks. We’ve had four or maybe five days of straight rain.

Fun times in Umbria

Before we arrive in Sicily, we were in the Umbria region of Italy for a week. I had heard very little about the Umbria and Tuscany regions of Italy before our visit. Thanks to some friends who live in Switzerland, we got invited to join them, and several other couples in a magnificent Italian villa right on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. The guests were incredibly kind, interesting people. We only had our friends in common–none of us knew one another before the trip. What a great time we had!

We had our days to ourselves to explore all of the fascinating and beautiful medieval towns in this part of Italy, including Montepulciano, a city I really liked. Every day we’d go explore one or two new cities. We’d take long drives in the beautiful Italian countryside, stopping along the way at farm fruit stands–and we’d venture into small towns to enjoy cafes. A few days we had picnics in the vineyards. We’d return to the villa mid afternoon to enjoy some reading, or maybe do a tiny bit of work. Then in the evenings we’d all meet to enjoy home-cooked meals. Each night one couple was responsible for cooking for the entire group. People made some really great food! A few nights the staff cooked for us. One night we had a homemade pizza dinner and one night we took a pasta making class and then ate the pasta we made. I had never made pasta from scratch before. The ravioli (spinach and cheese) could not be beat!

Luckily, Andy and I got assigned the final night to cook dinner, and by that time, we were just party of 6, instead of a party of 12! We really lucked out because I was quite nervous about cooking for so many people. While I do like to cook, I’m best at cooking simple things. In the end, we ended up making lentil soup, (it was a big hit) quiche, roasted cauliflower twice baked potatoes, and ice cream with fresh persimmon for dessert. Empty plates came back to us–always a good sign.

If you want to read more about the incredible villa we stayed in, here’s the link. It was a stunning villa and definately a one-in-a-lifetime experience. It was such a privilege to spend time with people I really like, but rarely see! And meet some really nice new people too.

Fun on the Almalfi Coast

After we left the villa, we hopped into our awesome Fiat rental car and slowly made our way to the Almalfi Coast where I had been one time before with the same people who invited us to the villa! We spent three nights in Sorrento and stayed in small boutique hotel. At first, I wasn’t that happy with our room. It was spartan and a tiny bit on the small side. But looking back, the hotel turned out to be great. Our room was very, very inexpensive and was located smack dab in the center of town. In hindsight, I would stay there again. What it lacked in bells and whistles, (like a nice lobby, and bar area) it made up for in service location and price.

During our stay we did two great things. One day we took a short ferry ride to the Island of Capri, and the other day we took a day-long driving trip along the Almalfi Coast. The scenary was stunning. I told Andy that it was the nicest (a#1) coastal driving trip we’d ever taken. The scenary was jaw-dropping. It was also terrifying due to the small roads, and the crazy driving, but Andy handled it quite well. I would not have had the patience to be the one behind the wheel but later Andy revealed that driving in Guanjuanto, Mexico had prepared him for this white knuckle drive.

I think this photo is from the internet!
It was a rainy day on the Almalfi Coast but it was fun anyway

Sicilian Life

After the Almalfi Coast, we headed towards Sicily. The drive from the Almalfi Coust to Sicily was just about 12 hours, but instead of driving we decided to take the overnight ferry. I’m glad we did. It was an easy, cheap and fun way to travel. We drove our car onto the ship, checked into our simple, but spartan overnight cabin with two twin beds, had some bad dinner in the ships cafe, and then went to sleep. When we woke up at 6:30 AM, we were in Sicily. Easy Peasy.

Now that we’re checked into our one-bedroom Airbnb, we’ve been spending our days exploring all of the cafes here, venturing out into the great fruit and vegetable markets, and working. It’s been nice. We haven’t explored as much of the city as we would like due to the crappy weather, but we have two more weeks to go. Someone told me that the weather gets even better in November, so I’m hopeful.

One of the greatest things about living in Sicily is that there is a lot of English spoken here. At least in the restaurants and cafes. Because we’re staying in the historic center where many, many tourists stay, most restaurants have menus both in both English and Italian. This has made going out a breeze. Although, as I’m learning, Italian and Spanish quite similar. It’s fun to see and hear so many of the same words used.

Ode to the rice ball

I will really miss these delectable delights when we leave Italy

The first night we arrived in Sicily, we went out to dinner a few blocks from our house. After dinner, Andy said “oh look they have rice balls here”. I jumped for joy as I love, love, love rice balls. I was a bit surprised when he told me they had them. We walked a little bit further and he said, “look, there’s more”. My excitement quickly turned into utter disappointment! In my stupidity I thought Andy was referring to onigiri, Japanese rice balls which I adore. Ooops! Wrong part of the world. Silly, silly me!

In actuality, he was talking about aricini. Aricini is an Italian rice ball and it’s a staple food of Siciliy, and they originate in Palermo. They are not popular in the United States or in Mexico, but perhaps you’ve had an encounter with some of these tasty treats. For some reason, I think they actually sell them at Trader Joes!

A ricey, but not pricy bite of paradise

There are many, many arinici stands around Palermo where they sell gigantic fried rice balls for a little more than $3 each. These perfectly fried balls contain incredible, perfectly cooked creamy risotto, along with a favorite filling of your choice. You can get them filled with risotto and mozerella cheese, or cheese and mixed mushrooms, or something as delectible as swordfish and fresh tomato which I had last week and was super yummy. I also like the ones filled with cheese and spinach. They make the perfect pre-dinner snack, and can be eaten while walking down the street. People in Palermo seem to love them as much as we do. We see happy visitors eating them day and night!

A creamy risotto-filled rice ball has my vote!

Next stop Mexico

We have a big occasion to celebrate in December. It’s our 25TH wedding anniversary! Our original plan was to spend the month of December in Chaing Mai, Thailand, but we’ve now scrapped that plan for a few reasons. 1) Thailand is just opening up and we’re not sure how easy or hard it would be to get in. 2) It seemed like a big expense to go for a month to Asia and not visit other parts of Southeast Asia while there. Instead of Asia, we’re decided to head back to Mexico. We think we’ll spend most of December in Mexico City, and then stay in Zihuatenjo hanging out with my mom in January and February. As usual, we’ll have a spare apartment in Zihuatanejo for anyone who wants to come visit.

My next blog post will be about some of the great foods we’ve been eating and enjoying while in Sicily, stay tuned.

A Covid Cruise?

Dear readers of BelieveitOhr Not,

We just returned from our Norwegian (NCL) seven day cruise to the Greek Islands and we had a wonderful time. A summary of the Greek Islands makes for very boring reading, so I’m not going to go into Island deets, but Rhodes was my favorite Island, followed by Santorini. The best part of the cruise was spending time with our friends Dana and James. They were excellent traveling companions! I’ve known Dana since 7th grade (social studies) and it was a real privledge and honor to get to spend time with her and get to know James better.

Our friendship has spanned many, many years!

The food both on and off the ship was incredible and the Greek people were warm and very helpful. Additionally, they spoke very good English so we didn’t really have any language struggles. This was definitely an unexpected bonus. If you haven’t visited the Greek Islands yet, I highly recommend visiting them in the off-season like we did. With the exception of Santorini, we didn’t experience major crowds and overall the weather was quite nice. We had two rainy days out of seven, not bad at all. Most days we could visit Greece’s lovely beaches and we experienced weather in the 70’s.

Covid Criuse?

I had a lot of reservations about taking a cruise while the global pandemic was still in full swing–but I’m glad we made the decision to go. Here’s why it turned out to be the right decision for us.

  1. Everyone on the cruise had to be fully vaccinated including 100 percent of cruise staff.
  2. All passengers got tested immediately before boarding. Testing was quick. If you tested positive, you were denied boarding.
  3. We also got tested the day before the cruise ended. All testing was done at the ships expense.
  4. The ship had implemented other good (although not perfect) Covid protocals. Here are a few I really appreciated.

Washy Washy
Stationed at each buffet entrance was a smiling NCL employee. They always said, “washy washy” and pointed us towards a hand washing station before we entered. At the hand washing station, they had two sinks, soap and steaming, hot water. Everyone entering the buffet had to wash their hands and the employees were very strict about this protocols.

Buffet service
A self-service buffett was not offered as a part of this cruise. There was a large and quite tasty buffet, but NCL employees served food from it. You simply pointed to what you wanted and they put it on your plate. All employees were masked and were wearing plastic gloves when serving. I liked this a lot for two reasons. First, it felt way safer than having hundreds of guests handling food utensils and potentially contaminating them. 2) Having employees serving food keep portion sizes down to a managable level and controlled potential food waste.

Not all food was served to you, though. The buffet had a few areas where you could take small pre-plated dishes such as small salads, mini-sandwhiches and small desserts. I really liked this option because you could grab those dishes directly.

Low occupany rates at the Inn & Social distancing
The Norwegian Jade had a capacity of 2,400, but sailed just above half-full. The ship never felt crowded, so it was fairly easy to employ social distancing. In several sections of the ship, sections were roped off to discourage people from sititng near you. Unfortnately, people didn’t always pay attention. Several times in bars, people were sitting close to me and I decided to move. Due to crowds, we didn’t check out any shows (I’m sad about this since I love shows), so I can’t remark on the social distancing used in the theaters.

Masked Men
Due to Greek law, everyone had to wear masks when moving around the ship. For the most part everyone followed this rule. People did not walk around the ship unmasked, even when outside on deck. Once seated outside (on deck chairs or inside restaurants & pubs) people removed their masks. Thankfully, it was rare to see people walking inside maskless. I can only count a handful of times I saw this.

A better approach?
I have no regrets taking a cruise during the pandemic. Hats off to Norwegian cruise lines for doing a noteworthy (but not perfect) job of keeping everyone safe. Truthfully, I would have preferred a cruise where people were not allowed to disembark. This would have felt even safer, but I guess the cruise lines thought having sea day only cruises would not appeal to a mass market. I understand their reasoning, since most people do not want to experience endless sea days. We’re the exception, since we love sea days!

Enjoy these brief cruise pics!

Bad Karma?

Not complaining…well maybe just a tiny bit. Our lives are pretty incredible. Pretty effing great!

But today, well today was hard. Yesterday, our second day in our Palermo, Sicily Airbnb, we noticed we had no hot water. Andy took a nice hot shower, and then when I showered, it was lukewarm turning quickly cool. I was thinking we might just have a small water tank and that we would probably have to stagger our showers. Then last night when I did the dishes, I noticed we had no hot water at all–none in the shower or in the kitchen sink. This morning, we still had no hot water. In fact, after I ran, I had to take an unbelievably cold shower, which I really hate. Brrrr.

We’re renting a nice one-bedroom in a large remodeled building with 60 units. The manager Luigi, told us to knock on his office door whenever we needed anything so we located him and told him that we had no hot water. He seemed really surprised. He came up to the apartment with Andy (I was waiting downstairs) and told Andy that the circuits and fuses are very old in this building and we can’t keep everything plugged in! He thought we may have overwhelmed the electical circuits and tripped the hot water tank circuit. Andy thought this sounded hghly unlikely. After more research, it was determined that the apartment needed a completely new water heater and Luigi told us that the plumber would come by at 4 PM this afternoon. Andy and I joked that we might have bad housing karma. This is the second itme this has happened to us. Last year when we rented a fancy house in Oaxaca, Mexico, the same exact thing happened on day 2.

When Andy and I returned from our morning walk, we entered an apartment which not only had no hot water, it had no electricity, or internet. I went off in search of Luigi again. He came to our apartment, flicked on a few fuses (Andy had already tried this with not good results) and brought the power and internet back up. He told us that hot water tank was the culprit of plunging us into darkness, but all would be better shortly.

The plumber came exactly at 4 PM with Luigi in tow. He took out the old hot water tank and replaced it with a spanking new hot water tank. 15 minutes later, I turned on the convection oven to cook dinner, and we lost power again! Luckily, Andy was able to tinker with the fuse box, and we unplugged the brand new hot water tank temporarily. The lights and internet stayed on.

Sometimes it’s just too much…. I just want to live in a place where we have no move-in issues. I want to settle into a place where we don’t have to buy dish towels, salad bowls, or even a spatula. I want to come into a casa and not be stressed out like I was today. We both were in horribly foul moods.

Luigi was very, very apologetic and highly responsive. And this Airbnb is very well equiped. We even asked the owner to buy us a few things (3 good knives, dish towels and a small trash can) and she happily did. Plus, we got a really great deal on this rental. But if I count the number of properties we’ve rented, and all the problems we’ve had, it all starts to add up. Luckily, we’ve had very responsive owners each time we have had a problem. But today I just wanted everything to work–and it didn’t.

Tomororrow is a new day and it’s not a big deal to have to unplug the hot water tank when using our large toaster oven. It’s a minor hassle, nothing more. I’m sure once we get used to it, it will become an easy habit.

Here’s the link to our Airbnb if you want to check it out. It’s in a great location and the building is very, very secure.

I’m just finishing a blog about our recent cruise to Greece and I’ll post it shortly.

Stacey

The richness of frugal living

Dear readers of BelieveitOhrNot,

How can we continue to afford to live the lifestyle we live? Are we rich? Are we living off retirement savings? Do we have an endless supply of money? No, no and no! We’re definitely not rich. We are not living off retirement savings and we 100 percent do not have an endless supply of money at our disposal.

This blog post is about how we can continue to live a cool and perhaps even envious lifestyle. I’m gonna share what has worked for us the past 5+ years, and how you can do it, too!

For the past almost six years, we’ve both gotten our Ph.D.’s in the art of living very, very frugally. What does frugal living mean to us?

There are three basic points I’d like to share:

  1. In our day to day lives, we live EXTREMELY frugally. Really, really frugally.
  2. We have very few monthly expenses besides food and rent. I’ll outline some of our expenses to further illustrate this point.
  3. We both still work. Andy’s monthly salary as a copy editor for a San Francisco newspaper usually covers all of our basic living expense IF we are frugal. My salary can be saved for things like nice vacations. Some months his salary doesn’t cover our living expenses. When this happens, we siphon money from our vacation fund. But, Andy’s salary working 10-15 hours a week is usually sufficient. My salary can be saved for the fun stuff!

What does living frugally mean to us?

To make our lives work, we keep a good handle on our monthly expenses. We try to keep them as low as possible. Here’s how we do it.

  1. We eat 95 percent of our meals at home. We’re pretty careful with our grocery budget too. I estimate we spend somewhere between $80 to $100 a week on groceries, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
  2. We rarely eat out. Once every other week we probably eat breakfast out. We eat dinner out on average once a week, and when we do, we spend $30 tops — and that’s for a pretty nice restaurant. If we eat lunch out (once every 10 days or so) we spend about $15-$20.
  3. We buy almost nothing besides food. Really. Let me repeat. We buy very little. This is what we aim for every single month. I also think this is the key to our success.

Some examples of expenses

Clothes

When you live out of a tiny backpack, you can’t buy anything. There’s just no room.Therefore, our budget for clothes is very, very low. I estimate we spend about $350 a year on new clothes for us both. While I do buy an occasional new shirt, or dress, our clothing purchases are sporadic. Andy mainly buys new clothes only when we visit the U.S. and even then, it’s only two to three shirts, a pair of pants and/or a new pair of shoes.

Toiletries

Every since we moved into our apartment at Hotel Casa Mexicana, we’ve spent very little money on personal care expenses. Soap, shampoo, conditioner, and toilet paper is provided every day. Therefore, we’ve saved a a bit of money over the last four months not having to buy these types of items. Do you know how long one deodorant lasts? I do. A long, long, long time! And, generally speaking, deodorant, Q-tips, toothpaste and the like are generally cheaper in Mexico by $1 or $2 over similar (or the exact same) products in the U.S.

General housing expenses

Our rents rarely exceed $800-$900 a month, and this is expensive for Mexico! Right now we are in a small apartment (kitchen, bedroom, living room and a stellar shower-bath bathroom) in a super convenient location in the town center for about $750 per month. Even when our rent is a bit higher, it usually includes internet, cable TV, the water bill and electricity. Sometimes (such as at Casa Mexicana) purified water is also provided, but not usually, in which case it costs us about 50-75 pesos ($2.50 to $3.50 USD) per week. In some places we stay, we might have to pay some of these expenses, but it’s pretty rare.

Our U.S. expenses

Since we sold our California house, we have drastically reduced our expenses. Here are some monthly expenses that we do have.

Car storage, $60

Storage unit for household goods, incl. insurance, $75

Insurance for our 2010 car, $50 (we keep our coverages very low, only bumping ’em up when we are about to return to the Bay Area to use our car. Geico allows this!)

Mailbox at a mail house, $18

U.S.-based Google cell phones, $120. Unlimited data plan.

Spotify, Netflix and MLB app, $300 a year (approximately)

Car registration, $225 annually

Health insurance. Since our annual income is quite low these days we qualify for Covered California and receive a monthly subsidy. This is a significant benefit.

I’m sure there are some things I’ve forgotten about, but not having a house any longer has greatly cut down on our monthly expenses. Plus, we no longer have to worry about paying property taxes, homeowners insurance, (a huge savings) or a property management company (as we did when we were renting out our house to create income), which is a huge deal. And, no mortgage, of course!

Splurges and more splurges!

Even with this tight budget, we have some splurges. I treat myself to a massage ($35) once a month. I also sometimes get manicures and pedicures, but not weekly.

Our travel budget is somewhat of a splurge. When we travel, we have chosen to not live as frugally as we live in our daily lives. For example, in early October we’re taking a Greek Islands cruise. But even then, we booked an inside cabin to minimize costs. We actually like inside cabins! But keep your fingers crossed because Norwegian (NCL) is entertaining bids for an upgrade to a balcony room. We bid the lowest amount possible, $150 apiece for the full one-week cruise. We felt like this was worth it, especially since we’ve never had a balcony. We haven’t heard yet if our offer has been accepted but we’re hopeful. A tiny splurge for sure.

Then there’s airfare. We will splurge to travel business class whenever it’s financially feasible, especially for short-haul flights in Europe and Mexico. Unlike in the U.S., the price difference is minimal (maybe $30-$35 to be in business class rather than the main cabin for a 90-minute flight) — and usually bags are included in the higher class, plus lounge access, which I absolutely love.

Regarding hotels, while we generally don’t book expensive hotels, we don’t book the cheapest ones, either. We like to stay in nice properties, but try to spend no more than $130 a night. We don’t usually order room service or sample treats from the mini-bar, but sometimes a room service breakfast can’t be beat!

Our frugal lifestyle feels just about right to us. We sacrifice O’plenty in our day-to-day lives, just enough to feel a tiny pinch, but not enough to feel resentful. These daily sacrifices allow us to live more extravagantly when we travel. To us, it’s completely worth it.

In the next few weeks, I’m sure I will have more to say about leaving Mexico and relocating temporarily to Europe. After three days in Athens and a one-week cruise to six Greek islands, we’ll be flying to Rome (2-hour flight, business class for $125 each!) and renting a car (about $850, yes, a big hit, but worth it for what a car, rather than trains, will allow us to see and do) for two weeks. Some friends have invited us to stay in a villa in Tuscany for a week, then we’ll tool around the Italian countryside, hit the Amalfi Coast and end up in Palermo, Sicily, where we hope to rent an Airbnb for a month.

More details to come. If you want more information about our day-to-day expenses, I’d be happy to share.

Stacey

Why I hate San Cristobal de Las Casas (Chiapas)

We’re just wrapping up our four month stay in San Cristobal de Las Casas and I can’t wait to leave. When we first arrived here in April, I could wax poetically about the amazing vegetarian food, the smiling indigenous people, the fantastic hippie vibe, the incredible culture…now I just want to scam. After a four month stay, (broken up by a stay in the USA), it’s time to get out of dodge. Europe is calling. I’m alone in my mini disdain for this place, for Andy does not share my discontent.

Health Issues

In San Cristobal de Las Casas, a lot of foreigners get sick. The ex-pat boards are filled with stories from people suffering from a multitude of serious stomach aliments. Andy got very sick when we first arrived back for our second two month stay. In fact, I’ve never seen him deal with such a bad stomach problems. He took a course of antibiotics and soon was feeling better. Then, four or five days later he got sick again! Tests showed a different type of parasite the second time around, and he was able to take a different type of medicine, but the continual stomach problems we both have faced (and continue to face) have really put a damper on our stay. Sadly, we can’t figure out the cause of our problems. It could be from our purified hotel water, or from just eating out–which we have basically stopped doing because we’re so freaking sick of dealing with intestinal maladies. While we’ve encountered stomach problems in other parts of Mexico, we’ve never been as sick as we have been here–especially Andy. Sadly it’s put a real damper on our San Cris experience. I don’t know if it’s the poor sanitation, poor overall hand washing practices, or something else, but it’s simply maddening.

After a house call, Andy felt better for a few short days. Then he was sick again.

Andy was so sick he needed a house call and a shot. The doctor was great and spoke amazing English.

Not only have we dealt with severe stomach issues, I’ve also dealt with some nasty bug bites which made my arm swell up and took five days to heal. I suspect a spider to be the culprit! But I’m really not sure. A scorpion may have visited me in the night.

I think a spider got me!

Little buggers!

The Hippies

San Cristobal de Las Casas is filled with liberal, cannabis/peyote/mushroom loving hippies. Tons and tons of them. Hippies from Mexico, and hippies from many places in Europe. Surprisingly, I’ve gown to dislike them. Why? Because they have no respect for the indigenous people who live here. They walk around everywhere maskless, putting regular folks and the indigenous population at great Covid risk. Furthermore, they are militant in their anti-mask and anti-vaccine views and they regularly post about their disdain for the “sheeps” of the world. Their live and let live philosophy is annoying to the nth degree. I clearly understand I am being judgemental about their lifestyle choices, which I don’t like to be, but it’s a daily struggle to respect their live and let live choices. Put on some shoes and mask up, please!

Streets/Mobility Issues

Walking around San Cristobal is dangerous and downright scary. The sidewalks are very, very narrow and very slick in places due to the types of stones they use. In some sections the streets are completely buckled. Walking around is basically nightmarish. Additionally, you need a mountaineering certificate to descend some of the curbs. Walking in the street isn’t much better because the streets are so narrow. Yesterday I was waiting at a traffic light, and 3 seconds after the light turned green I started walking across it, and a motorcycle almost clobbered me! No fun.

The high curbs make walking around a real challenge.

Weather

We’re in San Cris during the rainy season and the weather is quite unpredictable, which I do not like one bit! In Morelia, it rains a lot in the summer, but the waterworks are usually short-lived and occur during the late afternoon. Here it can be sunny one minute, and rainy the next. Some days we don’t see the sun at all–although this is not the norm. Finally, the weather peeps can’t accurately give correct forecasts! Right now it’s raining, but the forecast says no rain until 1 AM. It’s 5:36 PM this very second and it’s dreary and rainy!!! What gives???

The power and internet issues

When we first arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas, we had tons and tons of internet problems. Wifi here is very, very weak and some days we had to go to a co-work space just to get work done, and even then the wifi wasn’t great. The second or maybe third week, our hotel wifi improved, at least in the main lobby of the hotel and we had better luck. But even then it wasn’t super reliable.

Besides highly wonky internet, we lived with daily power outages for weeks and weeks. Usually the power would go out for an hour or two mid-morning. But then the outages started lasting longer and longer. We lived with this annoying situation for several weeks, but finally we talked to the hotel manager and he got someone to fix it. We haven’t experienced any outages for the past 10 days which is a great relief.

Harassment by street vendors

There are a LOT of street vendors in San Cris. They come from surrounding small towns such as Chamula and bring shirts, jewelry and other local crafts to sell. We’re used to vendors approaching us in many Mexican towns, but the sheer amount of vendors here makes sitting outside challenging. Not awful, but sometimes not entirely pleasurable. Many vendors leave when we simply say “no gracias” but some do not leave our table quickly. They try to give us the hard sell and it wears us down. We’ve not encountered this problem in other Mexican towns, but then again, we’re usually not spending time in such tourist locations–even Zihuatanejo doesn’t seem to have so many “hard sell” vendors.

Generally the street vendors are respectful, but some are a bit annoying.

Regrets???

I have NO (not even one) regret about coming here for an extended stay. Let me make that clear. Chiapas is a very, very interesting part of Mexico and this area feels quite safe. We’ve loved living in the hotel Casa Mexicana. We have loved our simple one-bedroom apartment and having daily housekeeping services has been super cool! We’ve loved the hotel staff and the location of our apartment can’t be beat. However, I don’t see us coming back here in the near future. Four months was enough.

Next steps

Soon we’re off to Mexico City for two nights to meet my business partner and friend, Lisa Cortes. Then we’re going to go to the Bay Area for some routine dr. appts. Then we’re flying to Athens to board the Norwegian Jade for a one week cruise to the Greek Islands. A friend from the 7th grade and her husband will be joining us. How cool is that? Then we’ve been invited to an Italian villa in Tuscany to join some other friends (and 7 other couples who we don’t know). After Tuscany, we hope to move to a small apartment in Sicily, Italy for a bit. Of course, all this depends on Covid as our plans are quite flexible.

I’ll be sure to post another blog about our travel plans as they get firmed up.

Independence Day is coming soon so the town is getting ready with colorful flags

Leaving is such sweet sorrow!

Dear readers of BelieveitOhrnot,

Greetings from Chiapas, Mexico. We’re just wrapping up our 2 month stay in San Cristobal de Las Casas and it’s been a fantastic stay.

We just got back from experiencing some of Chiapas natural wonders including some very incredible waterfalls and it was a relaxing and fun trip. Here’s a few photos of the waterfalls. We also went to Comitan, a small tourist city where we stayed at a really cool, small hotel.





A big change of plans!!!

For the first time in many, many years, we’ve decided NOT to spend the summer in Morelia. I’ll explain why below.

But now it’s time to leave Chiapas. Next week, we’re high-tailing it out of here to go to San Francisco for a month to get our vaccines, then we’re going to go to Michigan to visit my family (maybe with a quick side trip to Chicago) then it’s back to San Cristobal de Las Casas!

An unbeatable living situation!!!

It’s simple. We just could not pass up this easy and unique living situation. Living in this hotel has been fantastic! When we found out the apartment was going to be free this summer, we sat down and made a pro and con list to determine if we should stay in Chiapas, go to Oaxaca or hunker down in Morelia. San Cristobal won. We like the vibe and the people are so interesting. It’s got tremendous energy and staying just felt right.

There are a lot of interesting people here. Like this stilt walker!

We appreciate a good thing!

  1. We are enjoying hotel living tremendously. We have housekeeping services every single day here. We get new sheets at least 4-5 times a week, someone makes our bed, then cleans our tiny kitchen. Then she cleans our bathroom and mops our entire apartment. Yes, we’re getting spoiled.
  2. We have very easy access to an unlimited supply of clean water for drinking and cooking, supplied by the hotel. It’s right out our door.
  3. The location of this hotel cannot be beat. We have access to thousands of cafes, stores and restaurants within a five minute walk.
  4. Next door they roast coffee every day in the coffee shop one door down. The delicious aroma makes us giddy.
  5. There are a lot more high-quality cafes we want to check out but haven’t had the time to do so yet.
  6. We have great access to vegetarian food items including a Japanese shop which makes their own regular and fried tofu. Score.
  7. We can easily get groceries delivered and because we don’t have a car, this is a big plus.
  8. The cost of living is a tiny bit cheaper than Morelia.
  9. The lobby in the main hotel is unbeatable. The center of the hotel features a large jungle like area, with small couches and tables surrounding it. We love to work here. It’s peaceful and the view is super pretty.
  10. We’ve got a gigantic bathtub! I love taking baths and this is a real, real treat. Plus, we have an unlimited supply of hot water!
  11. The hotel annex where our apartment is located is completely empty. A few guests may show up on the weekends, but we have an entire building to ourselves most days. The annex also has a beautiful courtyard with sculptures, trees and flowers. Super peaceful and great for working.

Another reason we’re so happy here is because of hotel management. They have treated us with so much kindness. The manager of the hotel, Thomas, is from Switzerland. He speaks perfect English and always meets our requests promptly.

See, life is so easy here. We have everything we need. But, that’s not to say life is picture perfect here. The weather isn’t great as we entering the rainy season. Now it rains every day. And the hippies (the city is packed with them) need to start darning some basic footware, and wearing some masks. Additionally, the internet remains a problem, but none of this deterred us from wanting to come back in mid-July. We know we’re going to miss Morelia a lot, but this town has great energy and want to experience more of it.

It’s Greek to Me (and Andy, too)

After San Cristobal de Las Casas, we’ve got some really exciting plans!!! In October we’re going on a seven day cruise to the Greek Islands with a very old friend. Someone I’ve known since 7th grade!!! After the cruise, we’re going to be staying in Europe instead of coming back to Mexico. Our current plan is to move to Italy for 6-8 weeks. We’re focusing on the South of Italy (Scilly and Polermo) since this is the warmest part of Italy during this time frame. I’ve been to Italy once, Andy has not. It will be fun to be there in the fall.

Southeast Asia anyone?

Then in mid-November or in early December we’re going to relocate to Chaing Mai Thailand for at least a month. It’s our 25th wedding anniversary in December and we wanted to do something cool. Iv’e heard great things about Chaing Mai, Thailand and I can’t wait to check it out. Then in January and February we’ll return to Zihuatanejo.

Of course, all of our travel plans depend on the Covid situation. I think Thailand is having a bit of a resurgence in Covid 19 so they may chose to not open to tourists. We’ll have to play it by ear and go to locations that are safe and open.

If you want to hangout with us in San Francisco, drop us a line. We’d love to get together for coffee, beers, dinner, etc. And, if you are feeling up for some travel now, I encourage you to hangout with us in San Chris. It’s an easy flight from Mexico City. We would love to introduce you to Chiapas.

Wifi woes in San Cristobal

Hello readers of BelieveitOhr Not, believe it or not, this is my 100th blog post. THANK YOU for reading my random musings about our lives in Mexico and other locales. I appreciate your comments and support more than you know. It’s been fun sharing our adventures with you.

Let me get straight to the point. If you are a digital nomad, stay away from San Cristobal de Las Casas. It’s not a place a digital nomad would want to be. The wifi is spotty on good days, unusable on many other days of the week. If you need reliable wifi, choose another place. Your working life will be miserable, guaranteed.

However, if you are a sun-drenched, blissed out hippie, you should get your vaccine, and board the first plane here. You will love it. There are old hippies and there are young hippies. Many are from Mexico, but other long-haired manbun wearing visitors are from Europe. These well-traveled youth do not believe in mask wearing, which has made our time around them less than enjoyable. Most of them seem to be from Sweden, Italy, Spain, Israel, Norway, etc. We do not see many American folks, or people from the Maple Leaf country here, but there are some. Their mask-wearing is a tiny bit better, but overall it’s simply pathetic.

We’re entering week four of our stay in Chiapas and this place is quickly turning into one of my favorite places in all of Mexico. We like it so much, we’ve decided to extend our stay here for another month. We’re really loving living in a small one-bedroom apartment in this hotel. What’s not to like? The location is perfect–the entire world is outside our door, we get daily housekeeping service (I haven’t made our bed in weeks) and since a 25 person conference left the annex where our apartment is, we have this whole incredible wing of the hotel to ourselves. Why ever leave?

Poke Me

Even thought we don’t want to leave Mexico, we need to return to the U.S.A to get our Covid 19 shots. We don’t want to get the shots they are using here in Mexico, (Sputnick, the Russian vaccine and Sinovac, the one shot Chinese vaccine). They might be using others, but this is dependent on your location in Mexico. Research has shown that the shots they are using here are not as effective as the shots they are using in the United States, so our plan is to return to California. We hope to get Johnson and Johnson, but our provider (Kaiser) doesn’t let you choose–perhaps this will change in the future. We were actually dreading spending so much time in California because renting a house in the Bay Area is so expensive! A monthly rental could have set us back around $2,500! But luckily, I remembered my friend has a really great studio apartment in the lower Richmond District, right near Golden Gate Park. A prior two-week stay there a few years ago worked out great! I asked her if her studio was free, and she said it was! And she gave us a killer deal to boot!!! We’ll be enjoying the avenues, sunning ourselves in Golden Gate Park and eating Asian delights while we wait for our shots to take effect. After California, we hope to go to Michigan to see my family. After Michigan we’re not sure where our next destination will be. We might return to Mexico, (Morelia?) but we might head East to Asia if it’s open for tourists and safe. We really don’t know.

We are toying with coming back to San Cristobal de Las Casas, but only if we can find good housing. Staying at this hotel long-term won’t really work because 1) we need more space 2)we can’t handle the inconsistent wifi. We’ve looked at two places so far, and both were really bad, really, really bad. The first place was a two-bedroom apartment complex with three or four other units. It had moldy walls, (a common problem due to all the rain in San Cristobal), and the bathroom was disgusting. We told the agent we needed something more modern, so the next day she found us a house.

The house was in much, much better condition than the apartment, but it was gigantic, and had uncomfortable furniture. Plus it was pretty dark and the bathrooms needed a lot of updating. It did have a nice kitchen, though.

I can’t seem get a handle on the housing situation here. People seem to be living in incredibly cheap housing, but I think these folks are the happy, sun-drenched hippies I mentioned. I’m seeing local places advertised on-line (not on Airbnb) and some of these places cost just $200-$400 a month. They are pretty dreadful, but they are certainly cheap.

The house we saw was $1,200 a month, but we were told we could have it for $1,000. (gringo prices for sure). I’m sure we could get a pretty nice place here for about $700 a month with just a tiny bit of legwork.

In any case, we are not in any hurry to decide our next destination. We’ve got a few months to decide.

What’s so great about San Cristobal de Las Casas?

  1. The climate is great. It’s not too hot-and it’s not too cold. It’s very, very sunny too. The days are about 76, and the nights re about 55. I understand the rainy season starts in May, but so far we haven’t seen very much rain.

2. The prices- This is the cheapest part of Mexico we have lived in. Food in both the grocery stores and restaurants is very, very cheap. I won’t go into a list of prices, but it’s at least 30 percent cheaper than
Zihuatanejo and 20 percent cheaper than Morelia.

3. The energy of the people. There’s a lot of artistic energy circling these them hills. People give classes in many alternative things like Thai massage, and various types of energy work including types of energy work I have not heard of. People also sell organic food to make extra money including hummus, Indian food, “happy cookies”, chick pea and potato cheese (we tried it and loved it) fresh artisan bread, kombucha, dumplings, healing oils and other related things.

4. The vegan/vegetarian food scene is great! It’s packed with inexpensive vegan and vegetarian restaurants serving inexpensive, high quality food.

5. The international food scene is very, very good. There are many Asian restaurants, Italian restaurants, and other restaurants focusing on international cuisine. Last night we ate dinner at a Korean restaurant and we both really, really enjoyed it.

6. The tourism industry is well-developed. You can easily find a tour company to take you on a plethora of interesting day trips to waterfalls, hiking places, lakes, and other natural wonders. You can also take a van to Guatemala. We haven’t taken any tours yet because we are reluctant to board vans with other non-mask wearing tourists. But we’re exploring some private tours and we hope to get out into the countryside this week and next week.

7. The coffee scene is fantastic! I highly suggest you trying some coffee from the Chiapas region. In addition to good coffee, they have a lot of cool cafes perfect for reading, game playing and quiet conversation. We always enjoy cafes, and we’ve found a lot here we love.

The coffee is great here. Andy’s been enjoying it a lot.

8. They have nice squares guaranteed for top-notch people watching! I am especially enjoying seeing all the young hippies in love, and watching the indigenous vendors because they are always dressed in simply beautiful Chiapas dresses, skirts and shirts. (photo far below).

Now for the not-so-good

  1. We are not used to living in a city populated by so many tourists. As such, we are hit up many times a day by indigenous people asking us to buy shirts, scarves, bracelets, bags, and other hand-made items. Usually when we say no (in Spanish) and say a few more sentences, they are quite respectful, but sometimes they try to give us the hard sell. We do not mind being approached, but we can easily be approached 25 times in a hour if we are sitting at an outdoor cafe having coffee. It gets a little tiring to be approached so often, but I do like seeing all of the vendors selling their wares.

2. The wifi is consistently bad, I mean really bad. I usually can’t get through a whole on-line Spanish class with my Spanish teacher without having to 1) change locations 2) call her back a few times. It just starts to wear you down, especially if you have a lot of work to do. Sometimes the wifi at our house is good, sometimes not so good. The same situation applies to most cafes and local co-work spaces. It’s just a drag. It’s a conversation topic at least 2-3 times a day on the message boards. Because Chiapas is the poorest state in all of Mexico, it does not have a strong infrastructure for power, water, and unfortunately, the internet.

3. There is a lot of child labor here and it’s heartbreaking to see. We often see children in Mexico selling trinkets and other things to support their families, but here we are seeing way, way more children and they seem too young to be out on the streets alone. I understand it’s a struggle to support ones family, but the child labor situation is very disheartening.

4. The mold. We haven’t experienced much mold because it’s not the wet season yet, but we understand it gets very wet and cold. This leads to mold development.

All in all, I’m really glad we extended our stay in Chiapas. It’s been so much fun to live in the center of town. It gets a bit loud with the constant fireworks going off, the loud music from the local bars, (Thursday-Saturday is really loud) and trucks navigating the narrow streets, but we actually like it. We thought Guanajuato was the loudest place we have ever lived in Mexico, but now San Cristobal is giving it a real run for it’s money!

Post 101 coming soon!!!

In the meantime, if you want to hangout with us when we are in the Bay Area, we arrive June 2. Private message me if you want to get together for socially distanced coffee or a hazy IPA.

Stacey

Long-term hotel guests

We’ve lived a lot of places since our semi-retirement started five years ago, including Mexico, Panama, Guatemala and Japan. Two of the most interesting places were a guest house (casita) in Pátzcuaro, Mexico which we could only reach by walking through a gallery-type store filled with tons of Mexican handicrafts, art pieces and furniture (an experience that was kind of eerie at night), and a swanky, 35th-floor penthouse in Panama City, Panama. Now we have a third place to add to our memories: a Mexican hotel!

We certainly didn’t think we’d be living in a hotel for a full month (or maybe more) in the southern Mexican mountain town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. We thought we’d be in an Airbnb, or finding a small house, condo or apartment through a professional listing service. Before we arrived, we had reached out to a woman who rents apartments to travelers (of which there are many here). She told us she had a two-bedroom available, and the online photos looked great, so we arranged to see it our first day here.

Before we came to Chiapas, we spent two very happy days back in Morelia, after leaving the coastal town of Zihuatanejo after two months. I saw my oncologist (a clean bill of health!), got my teeth cleaned and a cavity filled, and saw some friends, and then we went to Mexico City for two days. Big fun!

After we landed in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas, to get to airport-less San Cristóbal we needed to take a one-hour cab ride over a somewhat narrow mountain pass (which didn’t halt the Mexican tradition of turning a two-lane road into a four-lane experience — the truck or slow car on the right scoots over so the other car can pass on the left; and if that’s happening on the other side at the same time, watch out!). Our initial destination was a hostel in which we had reserved a private room with a private bathroom. We’ve stayed at hostels before, perhaps five or six times during our travels, and two times in Mexico. The only bad experience we had was in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala; however, our best hostel experience also was in Guatemala, in Antigua, at the Maya Papaya. If you’re ever there, make sure you try it. It was fantastic!

In Japan, we stayed at a great hostel with its own private hot springs and our private room had a big window that overlooked the river! Last year, we also had a great hostel stay in Merida, Mexico. By checking reviews on Hostelworld.com, I’ve had great luck. So when I found this San Cristóbal hostel for $11 a night, I was super stoked! The pictures looked great, it had awesome reviews, and we’d have our private room/bathroom with a nice shared kitchen and cozyy common space — the perfect place to stay for five nights as we hunted down our “permanent” digs.

But it was a nightmare …

This hostel room was dark, the walls had mold, and the shower didn’t have any pressure.

The room was small, dark and the walls had a lot of mold (a common problem in this town at 7,200 feet elevation). The shower was but a trickle at full force, and cold at that, making it impossible for me to shower (although Andy braved a quick one). But that’s not the worst of it. The communal kitchen was small, dirty and unorganized. The common area (actually a lovely space with a kick-ass fireplace) was always packed with non-maskers, so we didn’t want to spend any time hanging out there. Even Andy, who has much lower standards then the author of this blog, wanted out. We were really hoping the appointment to see that apartment would prove to be successful.

Pavement pounding

We often arrive in cities sans housing. It really just depends. If we travel in the off-season, there’s usually no reason to worry about housing. And in the rare case we can’t find anything to our liking, a real estate office (catering largely to ex-pats) usually can find us something. That’s what happened in Merida, for example. Sometimes we have to pay a bit more for this convenience, but for one month or so, it’s not a big hit. But I actually prefer to pound the pavement for two or three days. We get to see more of the new city this way, and it’s more of a fun adventure. But that only works if we have a nice place to return to after a strenuous day of searching. Returning exhausted after a day of searching, to a crappy place, with a trickling shower, a disgustingly moldy shower curtain and a bathroom door eaten away by wood rot, well, that ain’t cool.

These days, I’m very proud to admit, it’s a bit easier to look for places because our Spanish is way better. We know how to ask simple questions and how to get the answers we need. Obviously, pounding the pavement for a long-term rental in Japan wouldn’t be easy (we had a place booked beforehand for that journey), but in Mexico it usually works just fine.

Our first morning in San Cristóbal, we powered down some instant oatmeal and bread, then bolted out of our hostel and hoofed it across the center of town to our first appointment: the apartment we had prearranged to see. It was the “Moo” unit! When we got there, the manager who had told me it was going to be available for a full month told us, sorry, but she had booked it to someone for two nights in just about the middle of that period — so we’d have to move out during that time! Oy vey! Thanks a lot. And no thanks.

Chagrined as I was, things remained cordial, and before we left, I asked her if she knew of any other places that might have decent apartments. She told us about a bed & breakfast, and then mentioned a hotel in the center part of town that she thought had one small apartment (with a kitchen) for rent.

The B&B was awful, so we headed to the hotel, where we saw a really cute apartment, though I was worried it would be too small for us. It had a nice sitting area in a courtyard, and a lovely bathroom and bedroom, but the kitchen was more of a kitchenette with two burners, no oven and a fridge just a tad bigger than dorm-size. On the plus side, the location was incredible — one block from one of San Cristóbal’s famous walking streets, three blocks from one of the main squares, near cafes and restaurants — and the unit was totally renovated, with all new things (wood floors, furniture, tiles, kitchen counters, glass shower, fixtures, etc) in an old structure! Would this small space work for us? I really didn’t know. Andy thought is would work fine — if we needed alone time, one of us could go into the bedroom, and we would have plenty of outside space in the courtyard. But I still had my doubts.

The high ceilings in the apartment really make it feel spacious!
I had no idea such a small kitchenette could be so functional!
The bedroom is spacious and has high-end linens!
I love this gigantic bathtub – a real rarity in Mexico!

At that point, the hunt continued. The next place we saw was a newly renovated loft, not a bad place but the location wasn’t good. Moreover, I saw a gigantic, rat monster on the corner across the street from the building running from the sewer into some piled-up bags of garbage (as rats are wont to do). It was probably the size of a cat and it scared the crap out of me. No thanks! Then we saw a hotel room in a boutique hotel that we considered taking on-the-spot for three nights just to get out of the hostel. It was a great place, but it didn’t have any cooking facilities, and after Morelia and Mexico City, I didn’t want to spend any more nights eating out.

Then we saw our last place of the day, a two-bedroom apartment which was sparse and in a weird location.

Pow-wow time!

As the day progressed decisions had to be made, as I made it pretty clear that I simply couldn’t spend another night in that hostel. Andy agreed that one night was enough. After considering our options, we decided to check into the hotel apartment for seven nights, and then more calmly continue our search for a better place.

Size matters!

After one night in the hotel apartment — enjoying cable TV, plush bathrobes, a gigantic bed with high-end linens, a huge bathtub (a rarity in Mexico, especially at our price point) and a nice sitting area in the courtyard, we were hooked. Search over!

My biggest concern was the lack of space in the kitchen (“ette”), but it has proven to be a non-issue so far. It’s full of new dishes, new eating and cooking utensils and new cookware. And I’m seriously shocked at how much storage the seemingly small space has. The cabinets are deep, deep, deep, and so are the drawers! We’re able to store enough food for a few weeks in them. The fridge looks tiny, but it easily holds eggs, cheese, milk, butter, yogurt, tons of fruits and vegetables, mayo, ketchup, cottage cheese, leftovers, etc. I am only sharing these mundane details to illustrate how a really small fridge and a tiny kitchenette can serve its purpose (even when a person like me has grave doubts). So far, I have made a lovely spaghetti sauce with lentils, and other easy dishes. With only two burners and no oven, I knew I wouldn’t be able to cook anything super fancy, but it’s fine for simple meals. I later found out that it was a female architect who designed the kitchen, which is perhaps/probably why it has so much great storage and is so functional. We also decided to ask hotel management if they would go 50-50 with us on a toaster oven (we were considering buying one ourselves), and they agreed, so now we have a brand-new Black-and-Decker. This appliance is key. Now I can make baked potatoes, small pizzas, vegi-burgers and even roasted cauliflower. We had one in our oven-less Zihuatanejo kitchen, and used it almost nightly (to complement our four-burner stove there). About three hours after we brought it up, there it was, one of the hotel assistant managers bringing our new “horno tostador” right to our room. I love Mexico!

In addition to all of the above, we get housekeeping seven days a week, and our apartment (which is actually in the main hotel’s auxiliary property right across the street) opens onto a beautiful, green-lawned courtyard with trees and shrubs and decorated with brightly colored Mexican art and even a statue on the lawn! The WiFi isn’t great — it’s a problem throughout San Cristóbal — but it’s been just good enough, if spotty, so far. And if we want really good WiFi, we can work in the courtyard (it’s good there), or simply walk across the street and go to the main hotel. There, we can sit in a lobby that surrounds a man-made jungle motif, complete with a pond, a sculpture and Mexican art, and happily work for hours.

First impressions of San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cristóbal de las Casas (named half after the city’s patron saint, and half in honor of crusading anti-slavery bishop Bartolomé de las Casas) reminds me a lot of Antigua, Guatemala. There is a very large indigenous presence here, bigger and more visible than in any other Mexican city we’ve been to. One hears Tzotzil and Tzeltal on a daily basis, and we share the narrow, cobblestone streets and centuries-old church plazas with indigenous people (from the city itself, and from the surrounding mountain villages), or rather, they share it with us. Everywhere we see men and women wearing traditional, colorful, unique clothing (big black furry skirts, for example). It’s absolutely beautiful! There is very good tourism infrastructure here, including many hostels, expensive boutique hotels, restaurants, coffee shops galore, tons of veggie/vegan restaurants, and nightclubs. But while this town feels touristy, with its three pedestrian-only shopping streets and hangouts for trust-fund hippies and co-work spaces, it also overflows with regular Mexican life. Panaderias, small Mexican shops and local places to get tacos are part of the picture. There is art and color everywhere. It seems to have a good mix of restaurants catering to tourists and restaurants catering to locals.

Finally, unlike Antigua in Guatemala, it’s much, much cheaper to live and dine here. I think it’s even cheaper than Oaxaca. We can eat breakfast for $2 or $3 each, and a pizza and pasta dinner with drinks is about $15 with tip.

Outside of the city, the state of Chiapas is filled with natural wonders which we are eager to check out. There’s hiking galore, whitewater rafting (my favorite), many waterfalls and canyons. I will post about some of our nature adventures in another blog. In the meantime we’re enjoying getting settled in, working, finding the best places to do our grocery shopping, and seeing what we can as we walk to and fro. There’s a twice-daily organized walking tour we plan to take tomorrow — which will already be our fifth day here (that’s how busy we’ve been).

And then there’s Covid

The good news is there’s less Covid here in Chiapas than in many other parts of Mexico. Mexico uses the stoplight system, and Chiapas has been “green” for the last few cycles. That means there are very few restrictions here, but that also means mask-wearing is less than fantastic, and protocols such as reduced capacities at eateries, and temperature checks and gel squirts and going into businesses, are but a blip compared to what we just experienced in the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods of Mexico City. But people do, for the most part, wear masks in grocery stores and when they go into cafes and restaurants. On a walk, Andy espied some areas near one of the bustling mercados (clothes, fruits & vegetables, meats, etc.) where mask wearing was awful, so we just won’t go to those areas.

A lot of friends and readers have asked me about our plans for getting vaccinated. We’d prefer to get vaccinated here in Mexico, rather than have to travel to California. We’ve heard from reliable sources that Mexico will not turn away anyone, even people on 180-day tourist visas such as ourselves. They will vaccinate us on humanitarian grounds. However, we will go this route only if we know for sure we are not taking shots away from local people. Right now, Chiapas is still vaccinating older adults only, and we aren’t sure when they will lower it to over-50. When we were in Morelia last week, we heard of a government center in nearby Patzcuaro that suddenly had no lines as it was winding down a day of one-dose shots from, yes, China (the CanSino shot), so we jumped in a cab and hightailed it about 45 minutes away. Alas, by the time we got there, they had run out of shots and closed the gates. Bottom line is we’re in wait-and-see mode, continuing to play it super safe, but it’s high on our priority list.

Goodbye Zihuatanejo-Hello Chiapas

Dear readers of Believe It Ohr Not:

We had a swell two months in Zihuatenejo, Mexico and now it’s coming to a close. The weather was particularly lovely. For some reason, this year it felt much cooler than normal. Sure, we sweated a lot–one always sweats in Zihuatanejo, but we were also treated to some relatively cool, tropical days, with lovely ocean breezes.

The best part of being in Zihuatanejo was being able to spend time with my mom. We went to the beach, we hung out at her condo, and we just enjoyed being together. While we didn’t get the privilege of hugging, (we still both need vaccines) it was nice to be in socially distant proximity to her.

I enjoyed going to the beach with Andy and my mom

New Adventures Await Us!

Now, after two months in Z town, it’s time to amscray. The weather is getting hotter and hotter and mask wearing will surely not be very good when the crowds descend for Easter. We’ve noticed mask-wearing here is particularly bad on weekends and holidays when people from other locations in Mexico come beachside. We would have enjoyed staying here for Easter, but didn’t feel particularly safe so we decided to leave.

But first..tomorrow we’re heading to a beautiful resort in Ixtapa for two nights! We just made the booking today. Because it’s a Monday, we expect capacity at the lovely Las Brisas Ixtapa to be very, very low. We read that the Ixtapa Las Brisas, has very good Covid protocols in place and because we know the resort is gigantic, we think we can ensure social distancing easily. We got the all-inclusive rate of just $135 per night for us both! It’s a steal! The beach there is private, large and incredibly beautiful and the food is pretty good to boot. They have a regular non all-inclusive option too, which we did last year, but this year we’ll try something different.

Hello Morelia and Mexico City

Then on March 31, we’re going to rent a car and make the five hour drive to Morelia, Mexico. I’ll see my oncologist for a six month check up, and we’ll both go to see our dentist. After a short two night stay in Morelia at this cool boutique hotel, we’re going to drive to Mexico City and stay at an Airbnb for three nights. Then we’re flying to Chiapas!

Chiapas, Mexico

We’ve heard great things about Chiapas, Mexico. Chiapas is a state in Mexico located in the south of the country. We’ve heard the nature scene is incredible and that the city of San Christobal de Las Casas is really nice. It’s also safe as they have had very few cases of Covid and they are now in the Mexico “green tier.” Some of you might have heard about the indigenous fighting that plagued Chiapas in the 1990’s.

On January 1, 1994, a small band of people know as the Zapatista’s Army of National Liberation came to the world’s attention. Forces occupied and took over the towns of San Cristobal de las Casas, Las Margaritas, Altamirano and Ocosingo. The army laid siege to a nearby military base, capturing weapons and released many prisoners from jails. Thankfully, this fighting is a thing of the past, so Chiapas here we come. The first five nights we’re staying at a hostel with a private room and bath for a whooping $11 a night. While we’re at the hostel, we’ll check out some Airbnb’s and explore other housing options.

I hope we get to experience some natural wonders in Chiapas.
San Christobal de Las Casas will be our home for at least one month, perhaps longer.

We plan on staying in Chiapas for 4-6 weeks. Our time spent in Chiapas will depend on two major factors:

  1. Can we get the Covid vaccine there?
  2. If not, when will our health provider in California, allow us to get vaccinated?

We have heard through several reliable sources, that Mexico will allow people on tourist visas (180 days) to get vaccinated and will not discriminate against us for not having permanent or temporary residency. We hope this is the case.

Hello Midwest

After Chiapas, we hope to visit my dad, mom and sister in Michigan. It’s been a long time since I have seen them–I think over two years.

Then, we hope to return to Morelia or maybe Oaxaca at least for the summer and fall. In December our plans are open. We’re going to be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, so perhaps we will do something special towards the end of December, depending on Covid 19 and the general health of the world.

Then it’s back to Zihuatanejo for January/February.

Have you ever been to Chiapas? Tell us more!

I will write again when we get to Chiapas, if not sooner.