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Kevin Collins Article in SkyMall Magazine

The Mexico They Never Left

by Roger Toll, former Editor of Mexico City News (Delta Sky Magazine, February 2006)

Near Guadalajara, the lakeside town of Ajijic has proven irresistible to many Americans. Here’s why.

If the cherished ideals of human unity and harmony between cultures remain hard to achieve, maybe we’d best look to a basic biological concept for a solution. Symbiosis, the dictionary says, is the life association of two dissimilar organisms for mutual benefit. I thought of this on a recent visit to Ajijic (pronounced “ah-HEE-heek”), the prettiest of several towns laced together by a two-lane highway running along the northwest shore of Mexico’s largest lake, Chapala, 45 minutes south of Guadalajara. It is midsummer, the rainy season, where the air is soft and the surrounding mountains turn an exuberant tropical green. The setting is bucolic, Old World, with a rustic church and peaceful plaza, and a gazebo waiting for a band to arrive. Cobblestone streets slow traffic to a genteel crawl, and people come and go, murmuring a polite “buenos dias” as they amble by.

It is a scene replicated in thousands of towns throughout Mexico. But in one way, Ajijic and its lakeside neighbours–Jocotopec, San Juan Cosala, San Antonio Tlayacapan, Chapala–stand alone, not only in Mexico, but in the world. For they are home to the largest population of Americans and Canadians living outside their own countries. This being Mexico, no one is quite sure how many foreigners there are, nor does anyone seem to know the total population of these lakeside towns. But guesses place the foreigners at about 10,000 during the high season of winter, amid a total population of 60,000.

Ever since Americans began migrating to Ajijic in the 1950s, detractors have said it’s where old gringos go to die. Granted, most of the foreigners are retired, though more and more younger people have made the move after corporations began offering early retirement. Reduced incomes become a lot more elastic in the Latin American economy, and the lakeside’s perfect, spring-like weather, with average temperatures ranging between 67 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit (19-26 Celsius) year-round, seems like a dream to long-suffering veterans of harsh winters or sizzling summers. Comfortable, stylish homes, even Spanish Colonial gems, are half the price of their equivalents back home, and employing a full-time gardener and a maid or cook is no longer an unjustifiable luxury. Labor, goods, and restaurant meals are impressively inexpensive. Life is comfortable and relaxed, and there’s little cause to hurry anywhere.

“I’m on the younger side of the expatriate curve here,” says Kevin Collins, a wry, 49-year-old former advertising executive from Toronto who moved here a decade ago. “But the average age of foreigners is coming down pretty quickly, probably around early 60s by now.” We meet over drinks in the sprawling garden of La Nueva Posada, the town’s best hotel, whose bedraggled charm is reminiscent of a setting in a Graham Greene novel. Collins, who moved to Ajijic with his wife and two children, has lowered his golf handicap to 6 after years of playing three times a week at the nearby nine-hole golf club. He has also become the area’s top real estate agent.

“People get fantastic medical attention in Guadalajara, which is probably why we have so many older gringos tottering down the cobblestone streets here,” Collins says. “Any other place, they wouldn’t get such good attention for so little money.” Besides, he says, the elderly can be well cared for in their own homes because help is so readily available, loyal and inexpensive. “Mexicans are very warm and caring by nature,” Collins adds, “and they value and respect the elderly.”

Retirees often find they are rejuvenated by the prevailing live-and-let-live attitude of Mexican culture. Foreigners give themselves permission to go a little eccentric–what the British call “going native”–painting their walls in bright Mexican pinks and yellows, for example, or wearing arty, bohemian clothes that might have been frowned on when they were dressing for their neighbors back home. One senses a zest, a youthful spirit won back after years of tending to corporate or family imperatives, a feeling of being freed by distance to become what their fantasy dictates. Some take to playing roles in a string of theater productions, while others start painting. (D.H. Lawrence lived and wrote in the Lakeside towns in the 1920s–just one milestone in Ajijic’s thriving art scene.) The entrepreneurial Norte-americanos open shops and restaurants as ways of keeping busy in the relaxed small-town ambience.

Walking along cobblestone Constitucion Street early one evening, I encounter two seventy-somethings in colorful dresses and long gray-blond hair who pull up to a curb on a cherry red ATV like two 18-year-olds. “Come on in,” they say as they stride into Tom’s Bar. “There are some fun people who come here, and they serve great sandwiches.” Tom’s is a small dive that has blossomed into a popular American and Canadian watering hole. Due to a satellite hook-up and a new television, it is the place to watch weekend games in the robust company of expats. I sit at the bar beside Fred, a 48-year-old building contractor who was passing through town and decided to stay. He’s been in Ajijic now for 17 years.

Many foreigners, armed with a social conscience and strong community action skills that they’ve imported along with their cars, throw themselves into the long list of organizations that have helped make Ajijic one of the most communally active towns in Mexico. “With all the charity and fund-raising events, the foreign community has launched a lot of programs that support crippled and orphaned children, old people, scholarship and health programs, and so much more,” says Teresa Kendrick, author of Mexico’s Lake Chapala and Ajijic: The Insiders Guide. Kendrick came from Austin, Texas, to Guadalajara on vacation 11 years ago, and stayed for a spell. Three years after that, at age 42, she moved to Ajijic, where she had found her Eden. “Take stray animals,” she says. “When I got here, there was an abject neglect of dogs and cats. Now we have an excellent pound, and animal-care groups train kids in school to care for animals. It’s common to see well-fed dogs with collars and leashes out walking with families. It’s been a really positive change.”

Gringo retirement dollars have had a huge impact, and the Mexican population appreciates the economic benefits, even if at times it means putting up with some angry or impatient Northerners who haven’t yet acculturated to the slower pace of life and different norms of behavior. “Unfortunately, we always get some rude foreigners with nasty tempers,” says Kendrick. “They want everything now and in the way it’s done in the States, so they don’t really fit in here.” But most people, she says, blossom in the warmth of the community and learn to adjust their expectations.

Ajijic’s mayor, Ricardo Gonzalez, believes communication between the two communities is ‘very beautiful because each side respects the other.” Foreigners, he says, have improved the area’s education, environment and health, especially in the area of nutrition, and have led efforts to clean up the town. “We have lived here for many generations so we don’t change too fast but we are learning many useful things from them that improve our lives,” he says. According to the mayor, people don’t feel envy towards the foreigners’ relative wealth, because that money flows into the economy. “We have full employment, and our salaries our higher than elsewhere in Mexico,” he says.

“The foreigners seem to like our Mexican traditions, and we appreciate that,” Gonzalez adds. For instance, even though it is an unusual customs for Northerners, the community still celebrates the Dia de los Muertos, he points out, rather than Halloween. “Both our groups are benefiting from living together and exchanging our cultural ways. So, yes, I think the foreigners are learning a lot from us as well.”

Article reproduced as it appeared in Delta’s Sky Magazine (February 2006) — written by Sky contributing editor Roger Toll, who lives in Park City, Utah, is the former editor of Mexico City News.