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Ask an old gringo: retirement spots, modern life, weddings and horror stories

Marvin West

Thank you, readers. The invitation to ask questions of an old gringo led to an exciting overflow of my e-mailbox, capacity seven. I had no idea so many wanted my opinion.

In addition to illegal immigration, here's a sampling of what's on north-of-the-border minds:

Question: I keep reading that Mexico is a third-world country. How far back in time is Mexico?

Answer: Some rural villages make Appalachia appear modern. Some segments of Mexico City and Guadalajara might be Cleveland or Atlanta. Tall buildings, fancy clothes, traffic jams.

In some ways, Mexico is like the United States was 50 or 60 years ago -- before credit cards. Mexican courts are not clogged with petty lawsuits. This allows lawyers to make a living without getting fabulously rich. Mexico taxes are generally low and government services are low or lower. Great idea.

Mexico has Carlos Slim, high-rise office buildings and dirt-floor poverty, bad enough to make you sad. In between is a growing middle ground. Many Mexicans have a few pesos in their pockets. That's why Wal-Mart South is showing 27 percent growth.

Question: I'm thinking about retiring in Mexico. Where is the best place?

Answer: If cost is no object and you can communicate in Spanish, there are hundreds of choices. If you have spare cash but are limited to English, artistic San Miguel de Allende and the villages along Lake Chapala come to mind. Is weather a factor? Must you have sun, sand and surf?

My favorite transplanted attorney, Jennifer Rose, swears by Morelia. John Todd picked Veracruz. Roger Shoemaker seems to have settled in Melaque. Pernel S. Thyseldew is an advocate of Taxco. He says it has a steady cash flow yet remains inexpensive compared to other colonial cities. It is near enough to Mexico City but nothing like it. Rental costs are moderate, crime is low, transportation is easy and weather is good or great. Go Taxco.

Question: Did Canadians cancel visits to Cancun because of the violent murders of the Canadian couple at the Barcelo Maya Beach Resort?

Answer: Hmmm, that was February, let me check the numbers. Yes, three canceled. Several others sought discounts.

Question: We plan a late-summer drive to Guanajuato and beyond, no backwoods stuff or off-road racing. What kind of tires should I put on my Chevy Blazer?

Answer: First choice would be whatever is on sale. If you want to blend in better with the locals, buy used tires. If you really want to fit in, avoid matched sets. Save tires and gas in Guanajuato. Park and walk.

Question: Somebody on a soap opera said Mexican weddings have sponsors. Fact or fiction?

Answer: Mexican weddings are nothing like NASCAR where car, driver and pit crew are plastered with sponsors' ads for everything from UPS to DuPont paint. But, it is traditional for Mexican couples getting married to get a little help.

Mexican weddings tend to be very large -- and too expensive for the typical household budget. Without sponsors, more fathers of brides might flee to the U.S.

Godparents serve as mentors and are expected to come up with a gift Bible for the newlyweds. Other friends and relatives who don't know how to say no get appointed to more important roles, paying for food, mariachis and even formal attire and photographs.

Traditional reception menu seems to be tortilla dishes of chicken and beef plus spicy rice and beans. Beer for commoners, sangria for the upper crust. Cost is related to the number of invited guests and how many outsiders hear about the free meal.

Traditional music is a mix of trumpets, drums, guitars, violins and maybe harps and accordions. Players wear impressive uniforms trimmed in silver or sequins. Cost is related to how many hours guests remain standing. (Unwritten rule: Never pay the mariachis until the show is over.)

Some Mexican weddings include the presentation of 13 gold coins (Christ and 12 apostles) from the groom to the bride, signifying his intention to support her. In most cases, a sponsor provides the gold.

You don't have to believe this but at some Mexican weddings, guests pay for a dance with the bride or groom.

Question: I keep hearing horror stories about Mexico. What am I to believe?

Answer: Ignore all warnings from people who haven't been here. I can tell you as fact that most visitors don't end up in dark prisons. Most don't catch an incurable stomach virus. Few are trapped in the crossfire between drug dealers. Not too many are lost in violent protests, minor revolutions or bus wrecks. Mexican police aren't as bad as they used to be about soliciting bribes and asking for your pin number.

An occasional gringo sprains an ankle on cobblestones. Now and then, one loses his wallet. One elderly lady with solid investments, strolling along a sidewalk with her nose tilted upwards, stepped in leftover dog do. Was she ever ticked!

I generally respond to Mexican horror warnings with love stories -- about sweet kids with super smiles, about fresh fruit and flowers, about magnificent mountains and spectacular seashores, about Salvador and Magdalena, our across-the-street neighbors.

It's easy to fall in love with Mexico. But bring money. It is no longer free. If you get here and discover you are running a little short, you can always do what the Mexicans do, go to the United States and get a job.

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2006 by Marvin West © 2006
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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