I always knew I’d end up in Mexico, but I didn’t know where. Mexico City holds world-class fascination, but there’s a reason even the idle rich have second homes elsewhere. Chapala had just too many gringos, amenities be damned. San Miguel de Allende struck me as full of artistes etching, sculpting, and writing odes to the cathedral, speaking in hushed reverential tones about the city’s charms in a Mexican version of Solvang. Cuernavaca merited serious consideration but for the hordes of Chilangos descending upon Cortes’ summer palace every weekend. And any city that boasts the world’s most perfect climate has got to have something wrong with it. Life on the beach is seldom a day at the beach.
Morelia became my home because it had all the resort potential of Pittsburgh. While the downtown’s quaintly European, shopping centers ring the perimeter. Three miles away, in my colonia, horses tramp brick-lined streets, vendors hawk freshly killed chickens, and the video store rents first-run movies. Domino’s delivers, and so does the old man selling dirt and orchids from his burro. A mile or so yonder are Costco and Walmart, where Cascade and chocolates imported from Spain compete for shelves along with Petalo toilet tissue. Last night we ate nibbling on arugula from my garden before sallying forth to the pozole lady in the next block. “It’s the life of Reilly,” my friend Sullivan remarked.
About halfway between Mexico City and Guadalajara, only two inches from the beach, depending upon which map you’re reading, a robust single-day’s drive from Laredo, Morelia’s international airport is an additional draw. Daily flights to and from Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles are almost always booked. Add in regular commuter service to Mexico City and Guadalajara, to buses leaving hourly for hither and yon, and problems of access are solved.
If there were a single compelling factor defining my choice of Morelia it would be the city’s ability to exist totally without tourism. Or even an expatriate community. Don’t get me wrong: tourists bring dollars and so do expatriates. Morelia has an insular stability that’s not dependent upon either, drawing upon its strength as a regional center.
“What about Morelia’s fame as a musical center?” you ask. Ever the philistine, I yawn, reflecting that the five hundred or so years it has existed will endure without my patronage. Even though live music and other matters cultural are inexpensive, nary a day passing without some event, my focus lies elsewhere – tending the roses blooming daily in my garden, waiting for the electrician, marveling at the tianguis’ array of fresh produce, fettering a yen to make that half-hour drive to Patzcuaro until I’ve finished my project.
As meritorious as a simple lifestyle might sound, there’s a limit to just how “native” I was willing to go. It’s one thing to contemplate life in an adobe, and it’s another to do without the creature comforts and communications that Norteamericanos take for granted. Electrical connections, telephone lines, satellite antennae, and ISPs, the essentials of the 90s, can be wired into buildings that were already antique during the American Revolution if the location is right. A stone house can be a lot more cozy with wall-to-wall carpeting, and the charms of a roaring fire are made much cleaner and cheaper if fueled by gas instead of wood. The computer on which I’m composing sits atop a table hand-carved by Cuanajo woodworkers in the nearby countryside.
Many requirements of daily life Statesiders take for granted command dear prices in Mexico: books, gasoline, paper products, long distance tolls, net access, and domestic air travel. But all that’s offset by the low cost of personal services, pharmaceuticals, medical care, utilities and food. Megastores such as Office Depot have brought a range of merchandise unheard of a decade ago, but the inventory stops short of the PalmPilot and zip disks. Generously proportioned and big-footed expats will have difficulty finding natural-fiber clothing. Even routine tasks like paying utility bills can become timesinks, until you learn to slow down and savor the moment, palavering with acquaintances and strangers who might merit no more than a nod in a former life.
The number of gringos living in Morelia is a constant source of debate. Some peg the numbers at only a few hundred, and others claim more than 10,000 foreigners live here. Sending many of its own off to work in the United States, Michoacan’s close ties with the its northern neighbor blur the distinctions of nationality. Obvious expatriates fall into three camps— retirees and self-employed, teachers, and the occasional evangelists—and seldom do these groups cross one another’s path. None of the expatriate institutions that mark venues such as San Miguel de Allende and Chapala exist in Morelia, and Morelia’s foreign community prides itself on the lack of distinctive organizations. Every attempt to “organize” the expatriate community has failed, and many of us consider that a definite drawing card. No American Society raffles, garden clubs or organization presidencies challenge my lot, and that’s the way I like it.
The expatriates of Morelia are a reserved lot, some making fifth-generation New Englanders appear genuine party animals, but the truth is that many are simply unwilling to make the emotional investment in developing transient friendships. In fact, week-long tourists may find a more gracious reception than those who announce their rental of an apartment for a stay of a month (or six). Like many small town denizens, Morelia’s expats prize continuity and substantial investment in their community over excited flurries of novelty. In more ways than one, we mirror the conservatism of the Mexican community.
Tour buses lining Av. Madero, the main thoroughfare, evince that Morelia has a “visit here” quality, and indeed many of its foreign residents vacationed here, liked what they saw, and returned lock, stock and barrel. But life here is cast with a “be here” glow that gradually sets in, finding more satisfaction in enhancement of daily life than the latest gallery opening. Private pleasures — getting the water pump fixed after four days, finding the perfect but unbranded yellow rose, buying new kitchen tile from Dolores Hidalgo, discovering a new vegetable at the street market, watching the mountainside green after a summer shower — make Morelia home more than any tourbook touts.