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The Mexico They Never Left

View of Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico

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. Village streetCobblestone 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.Chula Vista Golf Course “People get fantastic medical attention in Guadalajara, which is probably why we have so many old 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 old people.” 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