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.

Adventures for the new year

Hello and happy New Year from Oaxaca, Mexico. We arrived here from Panama City, Panama on December 23.

Panama City, Panama wasn’t my favorite place. Andy liked it a little bit more than I did. Some cities are soul filling, and some cities are soul sucking. Panama City, Panama sucked my soul. Maybe my opinion was clouded because of the pandemic. Maybe the unbearable heat and humidity made for a less than optional experience. Living in Panama City was very much like living in the United States. In fact, if Spanish had not been spoken everywhere, I would have thought we were living in the United States. Panama even uses the U.S. dollar as its main currency (in addition to Panamanian currency). In my prior post, I talked about how expensive things were, even pricier than our time in Japan.

We rented two places in Panama, a modern, hip loft, and a super chi-chi Airbnb, something we normally don’t do. But due to Covid 19, the owner cut us a great deal. After the loft, we stayed on the 29th floor of a three-bedroom five bathroom penthouse in a secure building in a hip neighborhood called San Francisco. The penthouse had a stellar, jaw dropping view of other high rise buildings in Panama and of the ocean. If we looked really carefully, and squinted a bit, we could see ships lining up ,waiting to enter the Panama Canal! We spent a lot of time in the penthouse, happily starting out the floor to ceiling glass windows.

We never tired of our incredible Penthouse view.

It was magical, a once in a lifetime experience (especially for the price we paid) and the owner turned out to be a great guy. He asked us for several suggestions on how he could improve his already amazing place, and when I emailed him my long list of suggestions, he took them all!

The neighborhood where the penthouse was located turned out to be great too. At first glance it seemed to be mostly residential consisting of high rise after high rise, and a smattering of regular houses. But once we started exploring, we realized that it had a lot of great high-end grocery stores, nice cafes, and a high-end cheese shop where I bought some divine truffle cheese.

We didn’t really get to check out the Panamanian countryside, which is really unfortunate because we’ve heard this is the best part of Panama. Perhaps the best part of being in Panama City was the incredible Covid 19 precautions the entire country took. We never saw ONE person without a mask in our 7 week stay. Our temperatures were taken in every single place we went and we were always offered gel. We felt really, really safe. We left just as the country was cracking down on its population. A strict stay-at-home order was ordered for Christmas weekend and for New Years weekend. Everyone was asked to just stay inside. And during the week, women were allowed to shop only during certain days for two hours, with men being allowed out other days. And an evening curfew was set for 7 PM countrywide.

Now we’re in Oaxaca, Mexico which is simply incredible. We’ve been to Oaxaca once before, two or maybe three years ago? I think we came for 2.5 weeks and we stayed a bit outside of the city center. I don’t actually remember that much from the trip here, but here’s what I do recall.

  1. I left my brand new Google Pixel phone in the back of a taxicab. Goodbye phone! We spent 2 days using the “Find my phone” feature but never found it.

2. We stayed in a nice apartment complex where many American’s stay. It was called Suites Le Fe. The apartment was nice, but it had a lot of ants! We came in low season and we were the only people in the entire complex for our stay.

3. We took a day trip and visited several small towns where we saw a lot of fantastic indigenous art.

4. We ate a few really great meals, including one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Mexico. I think we will go back again this trip.

Now we’re staying at an Airbnb about 10 minutes outside of the city center. The house is great! It’s got three bedrooms and 2.5 baths. It’s in a great area, and because it was designed by an architect it’s got a great aesthetics. We are very glad we rented it. Unfortunately, the only thing it doesn’t have is comfortable furniture. The couch isn’t a great place to lounge. And it’s a bit dark inside, but it’s still a beautiful house. You can see the listing here.

We’ve been spending our days working, and going to outdoor cafes. Unfortunately, Oaxaca is not doing very well Covid wise. Cases are rising and rising. For this reason, we are trying to spend more time at home than we would normally spend. We rarely go out for dinner, and we try to avoid the tourist center. There are many unmasked people in the tourist center–sadly they seem to be mostly Americans. I am saddened by the disrespect they show for the Mexican people. They do not have the common decency to wear a mask to protect anyone–especially the local indigenous population. The hospitals in Oaxaca are already saturated and if a local person or even if an American gets sick, I am not sure where they will be able to go to get care.

Even though we are not visiting as many cafes, shops and restaurants as we would normally visit, we are enjoying the vibe of Oaxaca tremendously. The weather is fantastic! Sunny days (78 or so) with cool nights. There is no humidity and this climate feels great after sweating it out in Panama. We are enjoying all of the art surrounding us. We see beautiful murals on so many buildings. We see stunning examples of modern Mexican architecture and great examples of old, historical buildings. Then there’s mezcal galore, and chocolate, and mole. I have a sneaky suspicion we’re going to want to spend a significant amount of time here in the future. Our hearts still belong in Morelia, but Oaxaca is giving Morelia a good run for its money!

In February and March, our plan is to hangout in Zihuatanejo with my mom for two months. Then we are not sure where we will be or what we will do. We don’t have any definite travel plans for 2021–although I would love to do an extended trip to Asia including Thailand and Japan. But we cannot make any plans until the pandemic gets more under control.

I will write again when we get to Zihuatanejo

Finding our groove in Panama City, Panama

Hello from Casco Viejo, Panama. Before I start this post about Panama, I just want to thank everyone for sending so many greetings & well wishes as I approached my five year cancerversary. It was super heart-warming and I very much appreciated seeing all of your messages.

Now on to Panama. For the next week, we’re staying in an incredibly beautiful part of Panama City. It’s called Casco Viejo and it’s very similar to the French Quarter in New Orleans, or perhaps even Old Havana. We’ve never really stayed any place like this. We’ve rented a fantastic one-bedroom loft for the first two weeks of our stay. The loft is really spacious and it has a really nice kitchen, so I have happily been cooking in it most nights. If you need the perfect loft to stay in, and I do mean perfect, send me a private message and I can tell you more. We’re loving how comfortable it is.

This is the upstairs sitting area
The kitchen area is fantastic!

To say that our experience in Casco Viejo has been strange, would be a tremendous understatement. Overall, the neighborhood is beautiful. Everywhere we look we see lovely colonial type buildings and small squares with parks. There are many upscale restaurants and hip hotels. Unfortunately, most of the buildings, cafes, shops, and restaurants seem to be completely empty. We can’t tell if it’s because of Covid 19, or because the buildings are so new. Casco Viejo used to be a pretty dodgy part of Panama City. But a few years ago, the Panamanian government decided to restore it to its glory and examples of this restoration are everywhere . You can’t turn your head without seeing massive construction projects, construction workers and active buildings being renovated.

Right next to these beautifully restored buildings and squares are several buildings which look just awful. I’ve included some photos in this post.

I know these buildings still have people living in them. I surmise that this massive restoration project displaced a lot of poor people when it began. I don’t know enough about the history of this area to know where the people have moved to, but the area surrounding the renovations looks very, very poor. I also have read that this area used to be considered very, very dangerous. Now there are police officers on every single street corner, and our Airbnb is right around the corner from a police station so it feels very safe where we are.

Back to the lack of open places. It’s hard to tell what hasn’t opened yet because a renovation is finishing up, or what has shut down temporarily or for good because of Covid. Panama just re-opened on October 15 to foreigners, so perhaps more places will open up shortly. During the day, there are some cafes and restaurants open, but for the most part this area of town seems like a ghost town. It’s a weird experience to staying here during this time. In the evenings, it does seem to pick-up with young people partying at drop dead incredible roof top restaurants. Andy and I ate at one of these fancy rooftop restaurants last week and it was fantastic! We had some unbelievable fusion food. But it did empty out early because there is a countrywide curfew starting each night at 11 PM, so people head home.

As expensive as Japan?

Before we embarked on our Panama stay, we did some research to find out the cost of food and entertainment. We’ve come to the conclusion that Panama is more expensive than Japan! We can eat cheaper in Japan than we can eat out in Panama. Groceries are also cheaper in Japan. Perhaps it’s more expensive to eat out in Japan at super high-end restaurants, but a simple and filling bowl of ramen is cheaper than the cost of a typical lunch in a coffeeshop. Tofu is way, way more expensive here.

Recently we went out for lunch to a local cafe. Andy had a smoothie and a burrito, I had a salad and water. Our bill with tip was $31.00. My $12 salad was delicious and fresh and Andy did like his burrito so were both happy campers, but a similar plate lunch in Japan would have cost us $17 tops.

Groceries are very, very expensive too. Much more than Mexico and much more than the United States. If we lived here full-time, I think a $550-600 a month grocery budget would be needed. That would include the purchase of some American products including Beyond Burgers, and other imported items. Fruits and vegetables also seem pricey to me. An apple costs 50 cents, but an artichoke costs $4.50! A small container of mushrooms is around $4. We’ve been careful to keep our grocery budget down so far and we haven’t bought many American products (except for Fieldroast which I love) and some bagel thins. As in most places around the world, beans are cheap. I think pineapple is reasonably priced too. Other staples like rice do not seem reasonably priced to me. We miss Mexican $4.50 breakfasts terribly.

Covid 19

Having to spend a little bit more money on groceries and on eating out at restaurants is worth it when you get to live in a place with such stringent Covid 19 restrictions. It’s really incredible to see how much the population has embraced mask-wearing. We never see people without masks here! Everyone is fully masked at all times. When we enter a store, or restaurant, or cafe, we are forced to submit to temperature checks (usually with fancy machines) and we are always forced to use gel. In Mexico, temperature checks and gel happened about 40 percent of the time. Here’s it’s 100 percent. Plus, in general, Panamanian’s seem to respect social distancing. People stay far away from one another. They don’t crowd one another on the streets, and when they take their masks off to eat, they put them back on immediately after eating.

We’ve got one more week here in our loft. Then we’re going to move to a different part of town. I think we might rent a car next week for a few days because we have a parking spot here we can use.

Bubbly to celebrate a special milestone

Dedicated to friends I’ve lost (you will not be forgotten) and those currently struggling.

I love me some champagne. I’m going to drink some today. Maybe a glass–maybe a whole bottle. I don’t know what kind of champagne they have in Panama, City, Panama, but I will soon find out. My favorite kind of champagne is pink champagne. Something not too dry and not too sweet.

Today is cause for major celebrating. Today is my five year cancerversary! Five years ago today, I finished 18 hellish weeks of chemotherapy for advanced stage ovarian cancer and I’m still a part of this (mostly) beautiful world!

This photo was taken the day I was diagnosed in May of 2015. I attended a fancy party at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. It was a fun event, despite me getting such crappy news.

I’ m being totally serious when I tell you that me being alive today is kind of a miracle. Only 46 percent of people who have all types of ovarian cancer survive for 5 years after diagnosis. Luckily, the stats improve for my stage and cancer situation. When diagnosed, I learned that my cancer had only spread to my abdominal area, but had not metastasized to other organs.

What’s more incredible is that my cancer hasn’t come back yet–which my oncologist fully expects to happen. Ovarian cancer comes back within 18-24 months in 70-80 percent of the population. For me to have remained cancer-free this long is incredible. People with BRCA 1 genetic mutations which I have, generally have longer periods being cancer-free and react better to chemotherapy, so perhaps this is why I’ve done so well. Or perhaps, I’m just really lucky. I’m really not sure.

For many people, once they have reached the five-year mark, they can feel pretty confident their cancer will not return. I’m not at that point yet, but I still feel like it’s very important to celebrate this very incredible milestone. Let the bubbly flow and let the good times roll! You have to live for the moment and I plan on doing just that.

Happy cancerversary to me.

Adventures ahead in Panama and Oaxaca

Dear readers of Believe it Ohr Not,

There have been only a few times in the history of my blog where I have written something and decided not to post it. Usually I write it up, and up it goes. On very rare occasions, I might sit on a post for a day or two, making several edits, but even that’s pretty rare.

Several weeks ago, I worked on a post talking about how I didn’t know where we were going to be living come Nov. 1 — but I didn’t really like its tone. It sounded like, “Poor us, we can’t travel the world during Covid-19, waaah, waaah, waaah.” Because I didn’t want to sound like a spoiled brat, I ended up not posting it.

But today is another day. This post isn’t like that. And I want to tell you a little story.

Once upon a time there was a young couple, very much in love, that dreamed of traveling the world slowly — spending a month or two (or even more) in far away places. They were two (mostly) frugal individuals who lived relatively simple lives. They liked coffee, Japanese food, music, Scrabble, baseball, fancy cocktails and their well-traveled rolly backpacks.

Before Covid-19 hit, they roamed the world using Mexico as their home base. They funded their adventures using income from renting their small house in Oakland, Calif. One day they decided to sell their house so they’d have more money to travel, so they’d be free from the burdens of property taxes, property management fees, garbage bills, mortgage payments, home insurance costs, all that good stuff. They wanted, well, they wanted nothing to hold them back.

So in February of 2020, they sold that little house and just about everything they owned, except for 11 or 12 boxes of stuff now in a tiny storage unit in Alameda, CA. It was time to take their travel fantasies to the next level! And then, one month later, the coronavirus hit.

The end. Kinda.

Of course, this story is our story. And it’s not quite finished.

Covid 19 almost ruined our travel fantasies, but not really. After all, we’ve been in Mexico for pretty much the entire Covid era (minus a five-day trip to San Diego at the beginning of October).

And recently, as we approached four months in Morelia — which followed two scheduled months and two unscheduled, stay-put Covid months in Zihuatanejo — we decided to embark on a new adventure.

But where would we go? We really wanted to visit Asia (Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and/or Korea), but sadly most of Asia remains closed to tourists. Many Caribbean islands are open, but tropical island living isn’t super appealing since we plan to return to beachy Zihuatanejo, Mexico for February and March.

We thought long and hard about moving onward, not knowing if we should hunker down in Mexico or leave. For a few weeks, we were mentally immobilized unable to make a decision. Every day I would scour the internet to see which countries were open to tourists, which were anticipating an opening, and which ones probably wouldn’t open up until 2021. And we carefully looked at each country’s Covid restrictions and statistics. I was mainly interested in three things: Warm weather, low rates of Covid (far lower than Mexico) and a location where we would not have to quarantine upon arrival.

Now, after lots of research, and recent bookings, I am here to say our backpacks will soon be rolling again.

But first, a test!

A big test helped us feel confident that we could indeed travel. In early October, we flew to Tijuana, entered the U.S. from the airport using the Cross Border Express and “vacationed” in San Diego for five days, largely to get medical tests (we both keep ticking and remain cancer-free). In order to feel comfortable flying, we bought special face shields and paid extra for exit rows, to ensure better social distancing (only one other person was in the 12 combined exit-row seats). As an extra precaution, we wiped down our armrests and tray tables, and took careful measures in our hotel rooms. Everything went fine, giving us confidence to feel like we could begin to safely travel again.

We’re moving to Panama City, Panama

Our adventure will begin on Nov. 1 with two days in Mexico City, then catching a 3-hour, 41-minute Copa Airlines nonstop to PTY (Panama City). Upon landing, we’ll get a instant Covid-19 test for $50 each before baggage claim. Results should take 30-45 minutes. If we wanted to, we could arrive at PTY with a negative test and be waved right in, pretty much, but the 48-hour window and the costs ($140-$170 USD per test in Mexico City) helped us make up our mind.

Before we check into our first Airbnb, we’re going to be staying three nights at a swanky, downtown, high-rise hotel with a view of the Pacific Ocean’s Panama Bay. Why? Because we’ve got something wonderful and incredible to celebrate on Nov. 5. But more about this in a later blog post, coming to you on … Nov. 5.

We actually know very little about Panama as of right now. It wasn’t high on our to-visit wish list, but it’s close to Mexico, and Panama City is considered by some to be the Hong Kong of Central America. Plus, it’s a Spanish-speaking country so I can continue to work on my Spanish while we live there. While not ideal — due to its well-developed, U.S. feel (they even use U.S. currency there) and an overabundance of retired Americans and Canadians — it does have a lot of interesting features including beaches, modern city living, tons of nature and good weather when we’ll be there.

For the bulk of our time in Panama City, we have rented two Airbnbs. The first one is a hip loft in the old section of Casco Viejo. The neighborhood of cafes and restaurants (some outside! many on rooftops!) in old buildings is supposed to be fantastic, albeit maybe a bit too well-scrubbed, and the loft is modern and has two lovely sitting areas. It’s also got parking if we decide to rent a car for a few days. We’ll hang our sombreros there for 15 nights. The second location is a three-bedroom, five-bathroom, ocean-view penthouse in a high-rise building with a gym and with a pool (gulp, both are open — we’ll have to see if maybe a sit by the pool will be OK). We’ll be there for nearly a month.

In both locations, I was able to get a good deal, well below list price on Airbnb, from the owners, as they don’t want their properties to sit empty (although Panama did reopen to tourists on Oct. 12). It’s a win-win for both them and us: They get renters for two weeks (the loft) to almost a month (the penthouse), and we get killer places!

From what we have been reading, Panama is just starting to come out of some heavy quarantining. For months, they have had very strict regulations, namely restricting people from going outside by employing an every-other-day policy (men can go out one day, women the next) — and on Sunday, everyone was fully quarantined. And overnight hours every night were quarantine hours. The men-one-day, women-the-next system has recently ended, and this weekend they are ending the Sunday quarantine, though the overnight quarantine will remain. Beaches reopened this weekend, too, with strict regulations on gatherings and spacing, but bars, gyms, schools and other places remain shut.

It’s not perfect, but this strict, smart way of living has kept Panama in pretty decent stead in terms of Covid — less than 20 deaths per day countrywide since mid-August, and a flattened and even downward-in-places curve in number of active cases since late July (although their cases per 1 million and deaths per 1 million residents is in the same ballpark as the U.S.).

After Panama City, toward the end of December, we’ll go someplace nice to celebrate our 24-year wedding anniversary (perhaps to a nice resort in Panama, or maybe even to neighboring Colombia) before heading back to Mexico, where we will put down roots in Oaxaca for January, staying in a modern property named the “architect’s house”.

After we get to Old Panama, I’ll post more about our first Airbnb, as well as my take on how people there are following (or not following) the Covid guidelines. Stay tuned. And don’t forget to look for another blog post on Nov. 5 with details of a special anniversary.

Best,

Stacey