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Why Mexico, you ask?

Marvin West

May is our primary month for visiting friends and renewing acquaintances in the good old United States of America. It's catch-up time for birthdays and anniversaries, the correct time to analyze Tennessee spring football and a good-enough time to try to catch a fish.

After all these years of going and coming, West and West are still viewed with a hint of skepticism regarding Mexico. We annually answer similar questions and smile at perplexed expressions. People just don't understand.

Why do you spend so much precious retirement time in Mexico? How much does it cost? Is the weather really wonderful? Aren't you afraid? Do you think we'd like it there?

Occasionally comes a surprise. An Alabama farmer had heard about cobblestone streets. He asked if any of Mexico's roads are paved.

A former journalist who became a college professor to reduce his workload said he is considering coasting into Mexico for 2007 and beyond. He asked us to name five places he'd like best for doing absolutely nothing.

A woman who thinks she wants a new husband wanted to know about supply and demand south of the border.

Another woman considering going south asked if she could take her pet boa constrictor.

Conventional questions about sensational sunsets, concrete ribbons and spare males we field flawlessly, then toss across a commercial for all the information available on MexConnect forums and this magazine. We're still studying what to say about the snake.

Why Mexico? That's easy. For openers, we don't call it retirement. We're still living and learning and Mexico is different enough to be an all-around adventure. And yes, the weather is mostly wonderful and the cost of living is less than Boston and San Francisco and maybe Panama City.

Almost always the next question is "What do you do all day?"

This leads to a short sermon. As said on TV, you can be a passenger or a driver, a spectator or a participant. We say find something to do besides drink.

Explore. Study. Write your memoirs. Join the crowd and become an artist. Teach English. Count white pelicans and other big birds. Volunteer for a civic project or charity. Master the computer or digital camera. Go hiking. Learn to cook -- or go to Nueva Posada for lunch.

All that in one burst usually leaves listeners speechless. That creates a gap for another verse.

As much as we enjoy Mexico, we understand it isn't a perfect fit for everyone. Some of us type-A personalities had/have trouble adjusting to the slower pace. And it is slower. Sometimes it drags. Sometimes it barely crawls. Without warning, it may stop dead still.

Many Mexicans simply refuse to fret about time. They'll chat with neighbors without worrying about missing the next bus. Nonchalant happiness tears punctuality into little pieces.

It is possible that Mexicans are born with an unusual portion of patience. They wait in lines without emotional outbursts. They accept the disappointment that the little merchant on the corner doesn't have orange sewing thread this week. They handle major disasters gracefully. No tortillas? No problem.

If the eyes of the American audience haven't glazed, we explain that it is possible to be in Mexico without living in Mexico, that some gringos buy big houses inside high walls and never come out. They send their maid shopping at the gringo grocery for Campbell's Chunky Soup and Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. They never learn three words in Spanish and wouldn't know Mount Garcia from Mount McKinley, even if it was on a Mexican Christmas card.

Most of the curious don't accept cute comments concerning costs. They want to know the real price of two-bedroom houses -- and gas and Coca Cola. We tell them it is not uncommon for good homes in good locations to go for really good money, $200,000 and up, up and away. We tell them gasoline has gone up 60 percent during our time in Mexico and is now cheaper than in Los Angeles. We explain that soft drinks cost 15 pesos at Bruno's but we don't go there much anymore.

Listeners can't hide their surprise when we recite the cost per kilo of cantaloupes, carrots, bananas, potatoes, pineapples, cabbage, oranges, lettuce and tangerines. We never mention cucumbers. They are bad for the digestive system.

We proudly announce that routine visits to the doctor or dentist cost about the same as parking in Washington, D.C.

Those who ask seem disappointed that we do not live in fear of Mexican bandits or police or malaria. War stories about robberies, shakedowns and awful illnesses have made the rounds and frightened the faint of heart.

We admit we and our little white Volkswagen are seriously scared of big trucks and buses speeding toward us on downhill curves and we dread the thought of horses and cows strolling along in the middle of the highway in the middle of the night. The daytime solution is to drive very defensively. Safest coaching tip for darkness is to stay home.

Now and then, old Americans who have forgotten previous words and music want to know more about Mexico attractions. We tell them about sights and sounds and smells, about the little burro that pulls the big wagon, about beautiful flowers blooming in December, about simple suppers cooking over open fires.

We pretend to laugh about speed bumps that jump up and attack exhaust pipes. We describe the town named Tequila and Mexico's version of Niagara Falls and barbecued ribs at Jose's on the square in Chapala.

We show snapshots -- from Barra de Navidad of Pacific sunsets and of the wonderful family that lives just across the street from our suburban Jocotepec home. Salvador, Magdalena and their five children are among our best Mexican friends.

The woman hoping for a husband wasn't particularly encouraged by our response. We admitted we've never seen an official Lake Chapala Society survey on the subject but we reported what we've observed and heard and read: Most unattached men in our part of Mexico would have you believe they are just skimping along on pitiful pensions and two meals a day. The more affluent appear to be rapidly approaching age 86.

Best bets for looks and cash stir memories of Peter, Paul and Mary. They wear a smile and carry a song in their heart: "Leaving on a jet plane, don't know if I'll be back again."

Published or Updated on: May 1, 2005 by Marvin West © 2005
Contact Marvin West

Marvin West, mostly retired after just 42 years with Scripps Howard newspapers, is senior partner in an international communications consulting company. This column is from his forthcoming book, “Mexico? What you doing in Mexico?”  West invites reader reaction; his address is

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