The good life: Just how affordable is it?

Can we afford to live in paradise?  Is living in Mexico as cheap as everyone says?  How can we afford to retire so early?  (me at 50, Andy at 52).  I assume this question is on many minds. How the heck did we make this big move happen?

Facts first:

  1. We have no children. That means no Xboxes to buy, no first cars to wrap a big ribbon around, no college fees to pay, no weddings to bankroll and no, “I’m going out tonight. Gimme some money.” By not having kids, we conservatively estimate we saved ourselves about $27.5 trillion.
  2. We live in a hot housing market (Oakland, Calif.). This has allowed us to rent out our house well above our mortgage.  If it wasn’t for this, it would be very difficult for us to make this move.
  3. Andy is working remotely two days a week. This is helping us fund this adventure, for when converted to pesos, his pay goes a long way.

Now let me be 100 percent honest. We don’t know with any certainty that we have amassed enough “wealth” to retire so young. But, since our 20s, we put money away for retirement every month … and it added up to a tidy sum. Is it enough?  We’re not sure.

But we think we’re close based on what our financial planner has told us. Andy always wanted to stop working around 55 or 56 (which was our plan). Unfortunately, the money we  saved in our 401k’s and other retirement funds can’t be touched —  without us having to pay a huge penalty — until we’re 59. And, of course, we’re too young to tap into our U.S. social security, so no help there (yet).

In light of this, a more creative solution had to be found. This included Andy working a few days a week and us renting out our home. And I also plan on working remotely, doing a bit of non-profit consulting.

Luckily, our families supported our decision (all four of our parents), and bravery, or maybe stupidity, won out. The chance to live out a long-held dream skewed our reality and helped us make this monumental leap.

And then there’s the philosophic approach to life. Shit happens. People have heart attacks. People get cancer. In my case, it is statistically likely the cancer will return. None of us knows when our time is up, but we can live every day like it’s our last. And so we are.

When we decided to quit our jobs, I made a budget of how much I thought our monthly expenses would be. I based it on what other ex-pats pay to live in Mexico. There are tons of ex-pats who provide online advice and guidance on how to set a realistic retirement budget. I read many of these blogs and then created a budget based on the numbers they reported. The problem is that people have very different expectations of what a “low,” “moderate” and “high-end” budget is. My idea of a nice night out might be very different from another person’s — so everything becomes subjective. We won’t know for sure how realistic our budget is until we start living in Zihuatanejo full-time in October (and paying rent and electricity bills, etc.)

Still, I was curious as to how much we’d be spending while house/dog-sitting, so for the last month, Andy and I have been keeping track of every single peso we’ve spent. The value of the Mexican peso compared to the U.S dollar changes daily, but it now it’s about 18.5.  Kudos to Andy for entering our daily expenses info into our spreadsheet every night. Even though we are not paying rent during our six-week dog sitting/house-sitting gig, we wanted to get an idea of how much our food and entertainment costs were running. The spreadsheet is at the end of the blog if you want to check it out.

The basic idea is to not have to dip into any savings for day-to-day living expenses from October through March. During the summer months, we may have to use a bit of savings to travel — especially since we decided to pay my mom’s landlord a reasonable rate ($350 USD per month) to borrow his car instead of taking public transportation. Starting Oct. 1, we’re going to have to live within a bit of a modest budget ($500 USD a month for entertainment, including beach excursions and eating out). While we have always lived within our means, we never counted pesos, er pennies, in Oakland.

Now things are going to have to be different.

So what kind of decisions are we making to live in paradise?

  1. Instead of dining at Zihuatanejo’s “fancy” restaurants, where many expats spend $8 or $9 on top-shelf anejo tequila and could easily have a final bill of $25 to $30, or even more, per person, we’re going to steer toward lower-cost places (and eat at home a lot). In Oakland, we also ate home mostly, but sometimes I’d drop $35 eating sushi for lunch, or we’d spend $70 to $80 on a nice dinner out. Now our modest budget can no longer take these luxuries. For example, the second day I was here, I saw a takeout sushi kiosk at the U.S.-style Comercial supermarket, and on a whim I indulged, and, not so whimsically, it came to $11 USD (plus it was pretty bad sushi). So stuff like that is out. We will eat out at a “fancy” restaurant every once in awhile, where a low-to-mid-range entree could cost anywhere from $10 to $20 … cheap by U.S. standards, right? My mom really enjoys eating out at higher-end places when she’s here. It’s going to be tough to limit our excursions with her.
  2. Instead of ordering expensive cocktails, perhaps I’ll take to flasking it, sort of like this (yes, that’s my mom).


3. No beach lunches more than once a week. Having a simple lunch at a surfside restaurant could put a dent in our budget. If we were to visit the beach three times a week (very realistic in high season) and order lunch and drinks, we’d probably spend $20-$25 USD each time. That’s for both of us combined, so it doesn’t sound too bad. But it could add up to  $250 or more USD a month just for beach lounging! A serious hit to our budget.

Instead, one cost-saver is packing some sandwiches and jicama sticks (and, as the situation dictates, walking down the beach a bit to eat our lunch, so as to  not offend the restaurant owner). Or sometimes we’ll split a shrimp and avocado omelet for $6 USD, because if we are sitting in nice lounge chairs all day, we feel guilty ordering just drinks. Lunch at a beachside establishment once a week? Not a problem.

What are we going to do the other days?  One of our plans is to BYOLC (bring your own lounge chair).

Often we see ex-pats bringing their own coolers, umbrellas and beach chairs to the beach. This is also something tons of Mexicans do. They are our absolute idols!  We brought down high-end beach chairs (boxing them up and bringing them on the plane for a $25 USD extra-bag charge), and we are excited to break them out come October. They have straps and can be carried like backpacks (plus have a pouch), and we can easily tote them to Playa la Madera (a 4-minute walk) and/or the beach that’s either a 15-minute walk or a 41-cent “micro” (or “combi”) bus ride away, Playa la Ropa.

Packing a simple lunch of  peanut butter and pineapple jam sandwiches, or avocado and cheese, along with some carrot and jicama sticks, is definitely worth it to experience the beauty of the beach.

So how does our restricted budget (still a work in progress, since we’ve been here only four weeks) shape up?

*  We can afford to gobble down quesadillas at local eateries every day of the week — three meals a day if we want! They cost $1.20 a pop and are very filling.

* There are local restaurants where you can get a lunch for $4 or a dinner for $6 to $8.

* We can afford to drink local beer. It’s about $1 USD a bottle. And don’t get me going on happy hour. It’s everywhere!

* We can afford to buy all the fruits and vegetables we want at the local market. Super fresh and super delicious and super convenient. So far, we’ve been spending about $14 a week on a ton (literally, almost) of fresh fruits and vegetables, and we’re always stocked with fresh avocados,  jicama and pineapple.

* We can afford to eat at home, and eat well. This means eating pretty much whatever we want — including fresh fish and shrimp a few times a week. The fresh ahi tuna is to die for!  So far, I am spending about $70-$80 USD a week on groceries. It’s not hard to keep our grocery spending in check if we don’t buy a lot of imported food.

* We can afford to take an afternoon break and visit the coconut shop for fresh, cold coconut water. A chilled coconut (with the top cut off and a straw inserted) costs about $1.10. Yum

* We can afford a few occasional splurges … a hot stone massage for Stacey, and tickets to see some Mexican baseball for Andy.

Want to geek out and see our day-to-day expenses for the past month?  Isn’t it impressive?

Feel free to  view this budget I created to get us started on our adventure.  It’s basic, but it’s proving to be accurate.

On a side note, the only thing I really underestimated was rent. I thought we’d be able to find a decent rental in Zihuatanejo for about $500-$6o0 USD per month. It’s actually going to be closer to $800, plus electricity of about $75 a month. However, I’m pretty sure if we decide to stay here, I will be able to find much cheaper housing for Year 2. I’ve already spoken to many ex-pats who report spending $400-$500 a month on rent. In the meantime, we’ve got a sweet place lined up for October 2016 through March 2017, and we’re both super jazzed. It’s in a tremendous location that $400-$500 in high season (November through March) could never buy, but it’s also a far cry from the $2,000- to $4,000-a-month hillside places that overlook the bay.

If I have advice to share, it’s this. Don’t put off living your dream. Find your brave space. You can make do with less. Eat home. Watch Netflix. Flask it.

Live your dream.  Paradise is worth it.

Ranch-style breakfast

Here’s a guest post written
by Andy Altman-Ohr:

Today we had a real treat.

We were invited by a well-to-do Mexican man to join a weekly Saturday morning breakfast gathering of family and friends on his rancho about five miles south of town.

The man has had a long career as a lawyer, professor and now restaurant owner, and we know he is from a prominent Zihuatanejo family, so we were quite honored to be asked. The night before, we bought some Italian cookies as a gift, and this morning we got up extra early to walk the dogs so we’d be ready for our 7:30 a.m. rendezvous for the drive out there. Figuring it would take place at the man’s country estate, we dressed nicely — not over the top, but I did break out my top-shelf sandals for the first time since we’ve been here.

We drove toward the airport, did a “retorno” and then pulled off the main highway and started driving up a long dirt road, the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur not far off. A corral with three or four burros could be spotted about 75 yards to the left; 25 yards beyond that, a flock of goats milled about, doing what goats do best. Mango trees were everywhere, with the green fruits turning an interesting shade of purple en route to ripeness. The house must be just over the next crest.

But then we spotted some plastic chairs and tables underneath a big tree, and the cars stopped and parked. Breakfast, it turned out, was going to be right there — in the shade of a huge tree, next to the dirt path, adjacent to palms and mango trees, with the chachalacas in the branches belting out their morning “gobbles” (for lack of a better word). Tables were slid together and dusted off, chairs unstacked and placed around the table. Relatives and friends began to arrive, each bringing their own small contribution to the meal and setting it up meticulously (but certainly not buffet-style orderly) on the table for all to enjoy.

As everyone sat around the table, noshing and having conversations with those nearest to them, I felt like I was in a scene in an Italian film. OK, I know we’re in Mexico, but this scene I’ve seen in Italian movies, not Mexican ones.

Stacey and I managed to converse with the attendees a little bit, asking some of the men if they liked baseball, and I regaled one man by knowing which teams are playing this weekend in the Mexican soccer league semifinals, and what the scores of the first legs were.

Interestingly, Stacey ended up being the only woman among the 12 attendees. Sometimes women attend, we were told, but usually not. She didn’t feel awkward, however, and did her best to make conversation. Two of the later-arriving attendees (a pair of brothers) spoke some English, and since they sat near us, we were able to talk to them a bit. Later, the men started telling stories to the whole group. We sat and listened, unable to understand more than a word or two here and there.

Anyway, much of the focus was on eating. There was Mexican cheese and roll-your-own fish tacos; sweet tamales (to be eaten with the cheese) and Mexican pastries; thick, homemade corn tortillas and barbacoa (slow-cooked meat in a barbecue sauce); pork carnitas (pulled pork) and soft rolls to hollow out and make into tortas; and homemade, crsipy chicharones (fried pork belly). We had a tasty baked good that was crumbly and tasted of cinnamon; a Zihuatanejo specialty we had never seen anywhere in town before let alone tried (a gelatinous corn “tortilla” pressed and wrapped inside a banana leaf); and a “burro banana” (as they are called in the U.S.) … only this one was the most flavorful banana ever. Bowls of salsa and two plastic jugs of coffee were there for those who wanted them. What a great experience!

So how did we get invited in the first place? I would think it’s pretty rare for Americans living in Mexico to experience something quite like this, let alone two rubes fresh off the boat (so to speak) only three weeks earlier.

Well, here’s how it went down:

A week earlier, we were having a drink at a nice restaurant bar when the owner came over to say hola. We began conversing with him in Spanish as best we could (he speaks almost no English), and eventually told him that, come Octubre, we would be living in a house across from the fire station owned by Senor Amador Campos.

His eyes lit up and nearly popped out of his head. Amador Campos! “Mi hermano! he said. No way, we thought. He must mean “brother” as in a close friend, best amigo kind of way. But no, Amador is really his brother. Of all the tequila joints in all the towns in all of Mexico, we somehow walked into his. He knew, of course, that his brother had rented his house to an American couple — but what are the odds that he would randomly wander over to talk to some couple, and it would end up being the renters (us)?

Anyway, we continued our conversation in Spanish, then he called over a “translator” (his son) who helped make things a little more clear. In Spanish, he invited us out to his rancho the following Saturday (today), and we gladly accepted (also in Spanish), and asked what could we bring (in English, I think).

Two times at the gathering, for the early crowd and then the late-arrivers, he told the story of how our paths crossed, getting big laughs both times.

His brother happens to be the ex-mayor of Zihuatanejo and was also something like a state representative to the Mexican congress … but “How we ended up renting the ex-mayor’s house” (where he and his family lived for 17 years) is another story for another time.



Happy cancerversary to me!

This post is dedicated to cancer survivors. I have learned so much from your daily acts of courage and from your acts of kindness. You are such an inspiration!

Today, May 20, 2016, is my cancerversary. Happy cancerversary to me!

One year ago today I went under the knife at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland to remove an ovarian cancer tumor. During my 4.5-hour surgery, I bid farewell to my ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix and omentum. My oncologist told me that she removed all of the cancer she could see, and in cancer speak, I was optimally debulked. Hooray!

My advanced-stage ovarian cancer diagnosis didn’t quite come out of left field. I had been having symptoms for awhile. Two months earlier, I was having severe abdominal pains and diarrhea every morning. I thought it was because of something I had eaten on two recent visits to Mexico, both within a few months of one another. I was also having intense pain during activities between the sheets. Plus, my stomach was bloated. Eventually my symptoms  worsened, and, long story short, I was diagnosed with advanced-stage ovarian cancer. Most women with ovarian cancer are in the same boat as me — diagnosed at an advanced stage, as detection minus symptoms rarely occurs. Which, of course, is very sad.

In total, my treatment for ovarian cancer consisted of the following:

  • One total abdominal hysterectomy, with a post-op hospitalization of six nights.
  • One surgery for a bowel obstruction (six weeks after my initial surgery) with a hospitalization of five nights.
  • Four out-patient blood transfusions.
  • 18 weeks of dose-dense chemotherapy.

Now I’m rockin’ the remission thing, and I am feeling pretty  good. After chemo, I was low on energy, unable to operate at full steam, but my day-to-day my energy is slowly returning (editor’s note from Andy: If by “slowly” she means 90 to 95 percent, then I agree with her) . Unfortunately, from a statistical standpoint, it’s highly likely that my cancer will return — most likely within a couple of years.

Because of the high incidence of return, I need to aggressively follow up on my health every three months. Mexico actually has good cancer care, but it remains to be seen if I can get adequate care in Zihuatanejo.

My follow-up consists of a blood test (CA 125) and a pelvic exam conducted by a GYN oncologist,  a special type of oncologist who specializes in cancers of the reproductive organs. Due to language barriers, and my unfamiliarity with how Mexican doctors are trained, I’m not sure finding a GYN oncologist is going to be easy, although I have some leads.

Here in Zihuatanejo, I think I’ve located a clinic where I can get my CA 125 test, but I’m not even sure if their medical team specializes in oncology (they might be radiologists specializing in breast cancer).  I’m planning to visit their offices next week. Several “in the know” sources have told me that I can easily get examined in Mexico City, but Mexico City is a nine-hour bus ride (or an easy 45-minute flight). But then there’s the expense of the exam, tests, hotel and airfare. I don’t have Mexican health insurance so I would have to pay out-of-pocket.

Another option is Morelia (three hours away), where they are supposed to have excellent medical care. Or perhaps it’s just best to be seen back in Oakland, CA every three months at Kaiser? After all, we have kept our Kaiser insurance. Why not use it?  Or perhaps we’ll end up flying to L.A. every three months to the Kaiser there. There’s a direct flight daily.

No easy answers; just a lot of question marks. Finding out how I can get the best medical care possible is very daunting and it’s just one additional thing we have to worry about while we acclimate to Mexican culture. However, the thought of not fulfilling our dream of retiring to a foreign land never occurred to me. Yes, there are challenges, but I’m happy to have to face them.

Here’s one thing I do know. The American Cancer Society makes the following recommendations for celebrating one’s first cancerversary.

  1. Insist your significant other take you out to a fancy dinner.
  2. Enjoy a libation of your choice. If no champagne is available, an alternative libation, such as tequla, is OK, but the recommendation is to drink no less than Don Julio 1942.

If you’re female, please familiarize yourself with ovarian cancer symptoms.

And thanks again to family and friends who have supported the Ohr’s this past year, from my cancer to our decision to take the plunge and move to Mexico. We are grateful.




Dishing up the dirt: A good, ol’ Mexican smackdown

Welcome new readers. If you found out about this blog from “On  the Road to Mexico,”  I’m honored and happy  that you want to follow our adventures. When I posted my blog on the group page,  I had no idea that so many of you would choose to subscribe.


Some of you fun and adventurous sorts tried to friend me on Facebook. As a rule, I only “friend” people I have met in person at some point in my life, so until our paths cross face-to-face, please simply follow along.  However, feel free to instant message me via Facebook or post comments on the blog itself. I’ll reply.

Let me dish up the news about dishes. Most Mexican houses are sans dishwashers. The place where we are dog-sitting for one more month (two weeks down, four more to go) doesn’t have one, nor will we have one when we move into our six-month casa in Zihuatanejo in October. Doing so many dishes by hand, I began to notice that the dish soap just wasn’t foaming up to par. I wanted a bubblefest, but it wasn’t happening.

Thinking it might be the water in Mexico, I  did some research and what I found out fascinated the pantalones off me! You don’t really need soapy water to have clean dishes. This whole soapy water thing is a ruse by the dishwashing detergent companies to get you to purchase more of their product!  If you need to keep using more liquid to foam things up, you are going to have to purchase more. Want to geek out and learn more about how foam is made?  Read this paper by esteemed professor D.D. Joseph from the University of Minnesota.

It turns out that the most important thing regarding cleaning dishes by hand is to get the food particles off the dishes and remove any leftover grease. Yes, your Bubbie would be a big help (you could be, say, watching “The Simpsons” in Espanol while she cleaned up everything). But your bubbles don’t really matter. Bubbles that are foamy, foamier or foamiest have nothing to do with the process.

Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Throw a bit of liquid on a sponge.
  2. Put the sponge into contact with your dish or plate (or whatever) and move it in a circular or back-and-forth motion. Your personal preference is fine. There is no official recomendation.
  3. Say goodbye to the gristly remains of Bubbie’s cherished Old Country meatloaf surprise.

Success is guaranteed with or without a festival of bubbles.

Or is it?  I was yearning for more information. The experience of having such little foaming action was terribly unsatisfying, and made me miss the good ol’ U.S. of A. perhaps just a little bit too much.

Then I remembered Mexican dishwashing soap paste! My mom introduced me to this awesome product during one of my early visits to Zihuatanejo, perhaps 18 years ago.

Imagine sponging onto your silverware, mugs, pots and pans a substance that’s half toothpaste, half drywall spackle. That’s dishwashing soap paste! It’s available in Mexico and in many other Latin American countries. I’ve even found it in some Mexican grocery stores in the Fruitvale, the heavily Latin American neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., our city of residence until, geez, was it really only 16 days ago?).

So I moseyed on over to Comercial Mexicana, our local (and huge) grocery store, and I bough me a tub.

Then I convened the Great Mexican Dishwashing Soap Smackdown.

And the winner is …

Axion (on the right, dressed in a stunning neon yellow).  No competition. I love the consistency, I love the foam factor, and I’m even growing to love the color.

Another consumer hooked!





Things are heating up

For us, the hardest part about acclamating to Mexico hasn’t been the poverty, (see my last post) it’s been the heat!  It’s really, really hot. At least 89 most days. We sweat buckets and buckets. I don’t really mind sweating so much when I am outside, but I really mind when I am in the house doing chores, like cooking dinner.  Have you ever tried to cook a nice meal while buckets and buckets of sweat are pouring off your face? First, your sweat blinds you, and then it drips into your food and onto your floor. Even with a overhead fan,  and a floor fan, it’s drip city.  Super disgusting.  To solve this problem, we’ve taken to eating dinner quite late, around 9 PM once the sun goes down and the air is cooler.  We also go swimming in the pool and it’s a nice respite, but the pool water does get hot midday.

Here are some fascinating facts about sweat:

  1.  The average person has 2.6 million sweat glands.
  2. Most sweat glands are located in your feet, the least amount of glands are concentrated in your back.
  3.  About 3% of the population suffers from hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating. I’m sure I’m one of them.
  4.  A group of Swedish engineers has built a “Sweat Machine” that pulls the sweat out of damp clothing, and then purifies and filters it until it’s fit to drink.

How hot is it?  It’s so hot that my chemo induced Jew fro is even curlier than it was in the US!  The place where we are dog sitting/house sitting doesn’t get a cool ocean breeze like where my mom lives. Subsequently, during the day, we lie around a lot because it’s too hot to go outside–unless we are at the beach. There the breeze is always blowing.

Growing up in Michigan, I always hated the cold.  I remember putting on my boots, gloves, and hat and saying to myself, “this just is a fools game”.  After college I wanted out–I wanted to be away from the snow. I moved to New Orleans and then to Los Angeles for graduate school. It was sunny every day in LA and loved it.  Then came San Francisco. Bleech!  I never liked it. Gray and foggy. The fog made my brain shutdown. One day of rain and I’d feel awful. Two days and I’d become catatonic.  Be careful what you wish for…Sometimes I stick my entire head in the freezer, just because.

Researchers say it takes two weeks for people to get used to severe climate change. Tomorrow it’s two weeks for us,  but we’re not used to the heat yet. But, based on our experience in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, and based on my mom’s experiences, I’m confident we will adapt. For now, we run the air conditioning unit in the bedroom when we sleep. The A/C units here are called mini-splits and for some reason they are not popular in the US yet. Houses don’t  have central A/C and most houses only have air in the bedrooms.

The mini split where we are house sitting  was not working in the master bedroom when we arrived. We asked our pool man, Juan Carlos how to get it fixed and the next morning  two men arrived on American time (even early) to fix it! They stayed two and a half hours, ran to the store to purchase a new compressor and cleaned both units. Total charge? $50 bucks!  Running A/C in Mexico can be a very expensive proposition. We don’t know how much it will cost to keep us cool yet,  but we are anticipating $80-$100 per month.

Check out this geeky article about the costs of running air conditioning in Mexico. Cool!





Poverty that whispers but doesn’t shout

First, before I begin this next entry, I want to thank everyone for your kind words about the blog.  I’m having a nice time sharing our experiences with you, and if you are willing to keep reading, I am willing to keep writing 🙂

In all my time in Mexico, I’ve never experienced any real culture shock because I’ve always been here as a tourist. This time is different. Zihuatanejo is a very fancy resort town surrounded by a lot of poverty, and we see this poverty daily.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to observe the poverty here through non-tourist eyes. It doesn’t scream. It silently whispers. In the tourist areas (mainly La Ropa beach), it’s hidden away among fancy resorts and killer beachfront views. And though we are housesitting in a very nice neighborhood, mostly middle class, it’s still there. Between the nicer houses, we see shacks. Between the gated houses, with their tall metal gates, we hear the third world singing its daily tune.

You might wonder how we deal with seeing so much poverty. I guess we’re somewhat used to it, having served in the Peace Corps in Jamaica. It’s been a long time since we were in Peace Corps, but the memory of living in a complete slum has been revived. It’s also different here because in Jamaica it was harder to get away from so much poverty. Here, close your eyes, look at the lovely beach and mountain views, and you are transported to a paradise.  Paradise is just a seven-minute walk from our house — soon to be four minutes when we move into our longterm rental in October. If you were just here as a regular tourist, and didn’t stray from the beaten path, you’d think the standard of living is quite high in Zihuatanejo.  And compared to the slums of Mexico City, perhaps it is.

But the poverty is there. It’s the smells of burning garbage, frying food and laundry soap water spilled out onto the street. It’s the barking dogs. It’s the loud noises. It’s the piles of trash of various rubble. It takes us back to our Peace Corps days.  We remember living in a right in the middle of a squater-community-turned-slum, alongside people who deficated in plastic bags because they didn’t even have outhouses.  Things are lovely here in our middle-class neighborhood. But in the barrio  four or five blocks away (an area that no main route would take us into, but through which we have walked the dogs a couple of times and driven through),  I’m not sure people even have outhouses. They live in wooden shacks, laundry and hammocks hanging, with no access to running water (or maybe they have some water, I’m not sure).  It’s heartbreaking.

Andy and I took a bunch of photos today on a morning walk so you can see how some people live.

Sometimes I’m not sure how people survive here when wages are so low. We pay our housekeeper 2oo pesos for 3-4 hours of work. This is the standard rate for most housekeeping services. That’s about $11.40 U.S. for three hours of work. How can people live on such low wages?  How do they feed and clothe their families?

To illustrate my point further let me share another concrete example. Yesterday Andy worked seven and a half hours remotely editing stories for his former newspaper. From what he earned doing that, he could purchase 223 chicken & mushroom quesadillas at a great little quesadilla place we have found right near the Central Market (even more if they were just one-ingredient quesadillas)!

Even more eye-opening stats: In  urban zones (where we live), the minimum salary for Mexicans is 70 pesos ($4.35) per day. The government sets a monthly minimum income for well-being, including essential purchases like food, transportation and hygiene, that stands at 2,628 pesos ($163.13) in urban areas.  Can you imagine spending $163.13 per month to get your basic needs met in the U.S. or in Canada? That’s just astonishing! At the end of this blog, there is a link to more economic data.

When we were here in March looking for a six-month rental for the fall and winter, Andy and I had the opportunity to check out a place in a neighborhood where many fishermen live. It’s a short, six-minute drive from where we are now housesitting. One of my mom’s friends owns a duplex there. The price was great. Only $500 U.S. a month for a two-bedroom place, and it was swanky new. New kitchen (better than our Oakland kitchen), great tiles throughout, washer/dryer. It was really great … except for the neighborhood. There was just too much poverty all around. The neighborhood was filled with roving dogs (very common in all Mexican neighborhoods), chickens, garbage piles, rubble, discarded autos and partially naked kids. Although we were promised the neighborhood was very safe — and, undaunted as we are, we did walk around a bit, and that seemed to be the case — we just could not imagine friends and family feeling comfortable visiting (who would want to take a trip to “paradise” and have to stay in the barrio?). But more importantly, as Andy pointed out, our day-to-day living would have been very much like our Peace Corps days, and we didn’t want that. For our retirement, we wanted something different, and we are lucky enough to be able to afford it. I’ve enclosed a few pictures of the “duplex that wasn’t” and its surrounding neighborhood.

I think the hardest part about seeing all of this poverty is that it is very easy to ignore. The beauty and tranquility of this place can make you turn a blind eye.  Hopefully our eyes will be more open more times than closed.

You can read more about the socioeconomics of Mexico here.


The nice  two-bedroom duplex for $500 per month that we turned down


Street rubble




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Andy’s daily pay for copy editing could pay for 223 of these cheese, chicken & mushroom filled treats. (FYI: This quesadilla has been unfolded, so Andy could load it up with lettuce and vinegar-soaked onions from the tubs on the table. Lettuce? Well, he didn’t  get sick)


Loving the lesbiana life!

I went to college in the 80’s in Michigan. Back in my day, college students didn’t sexually experiment with other women. It just wasn’t done. Today most college females have at least one drunk kissing episode–perhaps even more. Did I miss out on something really cool?

Imagine how excited I was to learn that Mexico has a drink called the lesbiana!  I had to try it. When I describe it, you will be revolted. Trust me. Try to keep an open mind.

A lesbiana is a mixture of Clamato and beer. The bartender presents you with a glass full of Clamato with lime juice with a dash of Worcestershire.  Clamato tastes very much like V8. The beer mug is served with a salt rim too.  It gets delivered it to you with a bottled beer of your choice. I like Victoria Negro. (more on Mexican beer later). You then pour in the beer and mix it up. It’s super refreshing and delicious. I’ve encouraged my mom to try one, but sadly, she’s not into it.

When you come to Mexico to visit,  you’ll have to try out lesbianism, I mean a lesbiana!



When only wipes matter…

Zihuatanejo is a really long name. It’s a bitch to spell and not so easy to pronounce. Insiders call it Zihua  (Zee-Wa).  And now so shall you!

In Zihua, Mexico, one can find almost anything. It’s a town of approximately 100,000 and finding the same products you use at home is possible, although you might not find the exact brand you are familiar with. Getting used to new brands is a big part of the moving abroad experience and something one takes for granted when living in the U.S.  For example, which brand of milk does one buy?  Which brand of bread is the freshest and will last the longest?

Because Andy and I have been here so many times,we are familiar with many Mexican and Latin America products. We prefer them because even if we can find American products, they are very expensive. For example, we can easily find cans of Campbell’s soup, but they cost much more than Mexican brands or brands from Latin America. That being said, we haven noticed very small frozen sections at many stores. Mexicans seem to eat way less frozen food than we do. Fnding my favorite brand  (or any brand) of vegi-burger or vegi-chicken nuggets just won’t happen. These are challenging
times : )  Can I live without my favorite deodorant, Lady Mitchum? (most likely). Can I live without my Trader Joe’s hummus (tough one, although they do have one hummus at the store, and it’s not bad). And what’s gonna happen when I can’t find my coveted white truflle oil?

Let me loudly and passionately state that none of this matters, because I found the one thing I absolutely cannot live without–Clorox wipes!  


In the U.S., I use these wipes to clean our kitchen . One wipe is all it takes. In Oakland, I would quickly become despondent if a backup container was not in our cabinet. Recently we visited Comercial Mexicana, our local grocery store which is equivalent to a Walmart, and the wipes shouted “pick me, pick me” … and so I did!

Truthfully, Comercial has whatever one needs: electronics, linens, food, clothe and even a huge kids section. They also have a pretty good import section where they sell thing used by  ex-pats and by vacationing tourists. Here’s a sample of some of the items we can purchase — all at premium prices. Imported food is a big budget drain, so we’re limited to one or two imported items per week.

  • Imported Olive Oil
  • Jars of beets (not a fan, but I saw them)
  • Several kinds of rice and sushi making items
  • Quinoa
  • Specialty mustards
  • Miller Light, Coors Light and Molson
  • Rye crisps (tempting but I passed)
  • Selected salts (grey, pink and black)
  • Poppy seeds (super expensive)

A funny thing happens when ex-pats find something they like at Comercial in the imported section. They buy a lot of it and begin to hoard it, because you never know if it will be available again. And they share this knowledge with one another, and people run to the store as soon as word gets out. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon.  If you want your quinoa, you’d better get it now — who knows when it might return again.

So yes, I can get hummus, my favorite snack, but they only sell three kinds instead of the six of seven brands available at a Bay Area market. And, no, it doesn’t taste as good as the hummus I get in the states. And, yes, I can change my preferred brand of deodorant to Secret … or Dove. But as for the vegi-burgers — no dice. I haven’t found any yet. I’m on the hunt. For now, I’m happy with my trusty wipes.

In a future post, I’ll focus more on what Mexican products we are buying and enjoying at the market.




Is life really beachy keen?

If you follow me or Andy on Facebook,  you may have noticed that during our first week here, I have been posting a lot of photos of us relaxing at the beach.  You might ask if we ever get bored going to the beach everyday.  I thought I’d give you a better picture of our day-to-day life for the next five weeks so you know that while life is awesome…it’s not beachy keen 24/7.

First, we lucked into a house sitting gig courtesy of my mom. She saw on a a Zihuatanejo board that two people were looking for dog sitters/housesitters in May/June so we reached out.  That’s how we met Steve and Janet two local residents. Janet is now back in BC where she is from and Steve is driving a truck in the Bay Area.  When they are here, Steve is a local musician and singer and Janet is retired.

They live in a very lovely middle class neighborhood between the beach and the center of town, El Centro. I’ll talk more about ZIhuatanejo and how the city is laid out in future posts, but for now, here’s what you need to know.

We are house sitting two very well behaved dogs, Sierra and Maggie. They are both medium sized rescue dogs and we’ve instantly fallen in love with them.  While Andy and I both had dogs as kids, we haven’t been primary caretakers for dogs. Learning the ropes has been challenging. They are a lot of work, and a huge responsibility. In exchange for house sitting we are getting free rent, and the use of a car so it seems like a fair trade, but our time is not our own.

Here’s what our daily schedule looks like.

8:15 AM- Wake-up

8:30 AM-Take the dogs for a 45 minute walk, sometimes we stop for coffee with them  in tow, as they like to people watch. Andy picks up after them when they do their business and I am in charge of two daily feedings.

9:45 AM- Return home and clean the house for 30-45 minutes. In the USA, we would never spend so much time cleaning our house. I don’t even think I spent 10 minutes a day, but there is something about living in a third world country that makes order essential.  And, the dogs shed like crazy!  It’s shedding season and one dog in particular, drops hair everyplace. The house has lovely tiled floors and I hate seeing dog hair on them, so I sweep 3-4 times a day to ensure a hairless house. Truthfully, it’s a fools game because they shed so much — the house will never be hairless, but the sweeping is  keeping it tidy enough for our liking.

10:15 AM- Eat breakfast (yogurt for Andy, vegetables for me) and do the dishes all by hand. No dishwashers in most Mexican houses!

10:35 AM-  First shower of the day

12:30 AM- Prepare lunch

1:15 PM- Take the bus to the beach (it’s about 60 cents and a five minute bus ride)

4:30 PM- Pack up and take the bus home

6:30 PM- Walk our furry friends for 30 minutes

7:00 PM- Feed the dogs

7:15 PM-  Sweep, and tidy up our stuff from the beach

7:45 PM- Start cooking dinner

8:15 PM- Eat dinner

9:30 PM-12:15 AM- Watch old Twilight Zones or Old Westerns. They have a great DVD collection here!

12:15 AM- Second shower of the day to cool off before bed.

On Monday’s and Tuesday’s Andy works a full seven hour shift, and that’s when I work on the blog, or I do non-profit consulting.

So yes, life is kinda beachy keen, but we still have responsibilities and we are taking them quite seriously. We don’t get to the beach every single day. And, we spend a lot of time worrying about Maggie and Sierra. Are they eating enough? Do they have fleas?  What’s that red spot?  Why are they panting so much? We want to do a really good job watching them. Perhaps we might get recommended to others who need house sitting/dog sitting services in the future and this is a great way to build our resume!

All in all, we’re really happy we took this dog sitting gig.  We like being here without so many tourists. It’s really different from what we are used to. And, we are really enjoying staying a bit closer to town that we usually stay.

Stay tuned for more. I’ve got a lot more to share.

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