Friday, April 30, 2010

Living Here: Economy

When I began last year thinking about ideas for this blog I started a list, and near the top of that list I scribbled, Economy. This is the title of the first chapter of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau's Walden, or Life in the Woods. It was in Economy that he wrote what have become probably his most famous words, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." The note was a reminder to myself that several of the chapters of this work, which I read for the first time in high school and have re-read several times as an adult, would make good models for entries in this blog. Thoreau wrote about why and how he lived alone in the woods for two years; a lot of this blog is about the why and how of living in Mèrida, Yucatan.

I was reminded of this topic again when I started reading, maybe two months ago, a blog called Hammock Musings from Mèrida, by a guy here who goes by the name of Hammockman Paul. He quotes Thoreau, and I enjoy his blog because it is thoughtful and in many ways Paul and I have similar interests and goals. So with apologies to HDT and to Paul, who has written about the economics of living here, inspired by Thoreau's detailed accounting of the economics of living by Walden Pond I am going to do the same thing.

I decided to do this because lots of friends up north seem to think that I must have become rich or have some kind of whopping retirement to be living here the way I do and at my age. And, a few are curious about the practicalities of living here. These are the ones who talk about coming down here to "check it out," with the idea of living here seasonally or permanently some day. The fact is that I live on less money than just about anyone I know up north. It's all a matter of setting priorities, simplifying and dedicating your resources to the most important and meaningful things, and not worrying about the rest. And, this can be a very economical place to live. So, for those who are curious, here is what my monthly expenses look like (converted to US dollars).

First, I paid cash for my house and all improvements, so I do not have monthly rent or house payments to worry about. Although prices have risen, it is still possible here to buy a good house for about what you might pay for a nicer new car. House maintenance, things like paint, roof maintenance, electricians, plumbers and small parts and repairs (I do as much as possible myself): $100. Bank trust for the house and miscelleneous: $50. Property tax: $8. Garbage removal, curbside pickup three times per week: $2.50 per month. Electricity (I do not have AC, but run lots of ceiling fans, pool and well pumps, computer and a large refrigerator): $45. Natural gas (stove and water heater): $15. City water: $5. Telephone, which includes the local connection with 200 calls, unlimited long distance calling within Mexico, WIFI connection and rental of all associated hardware, and a low rate on international calls: $55. Cell phone (I have a plan that is pay-as-you-go, no calls, no charges): $25. House cleaner (sweeping, mopping, dusting of whole house, kitchen and bathrooms twice per week) and cleaning products: $80. Pool chemicals (I do the labor myself): $15. I stopped watching television years ago and don't have one, so I have no monthly cable bills. Home total: $400.50.

I paid cash for my used car so I have no car payments. I live in an area where you can walk to just about everything and don't drive much except for the occasional "big shop" at Costco or one of the malls, and for things like visiting plant nursuries, the beach and out-of-town trips, so monthly gas costs around $50, occasionally more if I take a long trip. Insurance: $50. Routine maintenance like tires, oil changes and small repairs: $50. Auto total: $150.

Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, clothing, shoes, and all personal and grooming items: $50. It is possible to buy good quality clothing here very economically. I get good polo shirts that last several years for about $7 each, but quality, longer-lasting jeans and shoes are a better deal in the States, so I buy there when visiting. I don't have a job to costume for, so jeans, polo shirts and running shoes or sandals are my uniform. I don't need much else. Health insurance and doctors are another great deal in Mexico. I have good private-carrier health insurance with a $250 deductible for about $100 per month. The facilities here in Mèrida are top notch, with many specialists trained in the US, and normally a doctor visit costs $45 (if one is really on a budget, it is also possible to go to a Farmacia Similar and see a general practitioner for $2). I find service to be more personalized here than up north. Personal total: $150.

Food and Fun
I don't spend a lot of money on things like alcohol, fancy restaurants or nightclubs because these things just don't interest me much. Value for the money they rate way down on the scale. However I eat out once or twice per day, and I also like to drink a coffee or iced mocha in an air-conditioned cafe in hot weather, or an open sidewalk cafe when possible. A couple of beers out with friends is an occasional pleasure. Small restaurants are one of the best deals in Mexico, with great, home-cooked food available for $2 - $3 per person. It's often cheaper for me to eat out than shop and cook at home. Cafes and eating out $250. Food, beverages, bottled purified water, movies, other going out and miscellaneous purchases $100.

I often shop at the local markets, where yesterday a friend found these mangoes for five pesos per kilogram, or about eighteen cents per pound. Coffee is another bargain here. Mexican coffee is among the best in the world, and I am picky about my coffee. I buy rich, fresh whole bean roasted coffee, prima lavado from the mountains of Veracruz for about $5.50 per pound. There are numerous regular cultural events that are free or low-cost. First-run movies at the theater three blocks down the street cost about $2. Food and Fun total: $350.

Total for all of the above: $ 1050.50. My monthly household budget is about $1050. Art, books, recorded music, gifts, furnishings, the occasional other luxury, computers, other technology (which is minimal) and travel are not included in that amount.

This one is not included in the above budget because it is variable and I do not consider it part of the cost of living here. It is my largest annual cost along with food. I travel to Alaska two or three times per year to see family and friends. I also travel quite a bit within Mexico; it's quite economical because high-quality long-distance buses and reasonably-priced hotels are the norm. I rarely pay more than about $35 per night for hotels and often pay less. A week-long trip I took last fall to Oaxaca, including round-trip airfare from Mèrida, three restaurant meals per day, concert tickets, taxis, buses and six nights in hotels set me back about $600.

In Economy, Thoreau wrote: "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." I continue to work at simplifying my life because I have found that by not having to work excessively to acquire and maintain unnecessary luxuries, and by simplifying my comforts, I have been able to afford an abundance of the priceless, the greatest luxury of all: time.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Getting into Mañana

I wrote last week about thoughts that came to mind when a neighbor passed away. He was a pretty happy and successful guy, mostly due to his attitude and priorities, as far as I can see. Well, I posted that piece on the blog here nine days ago, and two days ago started stressing because I am not meeting my self-imposed schedule of one blog post per week.

There's lots of other stuff on my to-do list that isn't getting done, either, and I find myself worrying about it. It's part of my upbringing to meet deadlines, stay on schedule and accomplish things. This attitude is part of American culture, and one of the reasons that the United States has been highly successful in the world doing certain kinds of things. At any rate, lately for a variety of reasons, my days have been full but the long to-do list doesn't get smaller.

Let's see, yesterday, instead of folding a mountain of laundry that's been there since Monday, and buying glass for a new window, I spent a couple hours going over drafts of poetry translations for my friend Jonathan, and then spent a couple more hours, when he stopped by later, talking about them, drinking beer and eating spaghetti.

Today, when the guy who I pay to sweep and mop floors couldn't make it to work, I spent five minutes hitting the bad spots and decided the rest of the mess can wait until next week. Then I climbed on the roof. I have been planning for some time to re-coat the roof this month because this is the height of the dry season, the best time of year to do it. Trouble is, starting a couple of weeks ago, just when I was ready to scrape, clean, patch, and put down a new coating of waterproofing, or impermeabilizante, it started to rain. You can't coat a damp roof, so after it rains it's best to wait a few days. Each time I thought things had dried out enough to start work, it rained again.

This morning I was all ready when the temperature dropped and the sun disappeared behind gray clouds. Time to punt. I finished all of my preparation, quickly put a light coating of impermeabilzante on a couple of trouble spots, and left it for another day. I'll be optimistic and make the rain work for me. One more rain will wash away the last bit of dust up there, making the perfect clean surface for the new waterproof coating.

So today, I also have errands, banking, the blog...

Oops! I just got a call from Padre Luis, the beekeeping priest in Manì. He's starting his honey harvest in the morning, and invited me and a friend to come down and stay over a night or two to observe and help. This is something I have been looking forward to since meeting him last month. I've got to get clothes, hammocks and a few other things organized, and put gas in the car for a very early start tomorrow. And Jonathan told me he is looking for a ride out to the hacienda. That means picking him up bright and early and dropping him in Tekit on the way to Manì. The next three days are full. Looks like not much else will get done around here until next week.

One thing, though, I have something like 35 ripe tomatoes from the backyard garden and I can't keep up with them. I bet I have time to make a batch of spaghetti sauce this evening and put it in the freezer. I have onions and garlic. Good. That's important.

So today, laundry, window glass, errands, banking, the blog. Hmmm. The blog. Well, the topic I'd planned for this week will take quite a bit of time; I'd need to organize photos and my thoughts, and spend a couple hours at the computer. No time for that, so here is this week's post.

The rest of the things on my list? I'll have to get around to them mañana. And actually it looks as if mañana will stretch into late next week.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

People: Goodbye, Neighbor, and Thanks

My neighbor Alejandro died last week. I was out of town when it happened, and busy away from the house when I got back, so I didn't get the news until several days later.

Alejandro and I were not close, but he was my first friend in the neighborhood after I moved into my house in Mèrida a few years ago. He was an outgoing, gregarious type, always waving and saying hello, and I guess it was just in his nature to be the first one to start a conversation with the new guy on the block.

Alejandro was not a young man, but with his unlined face and continual smile he was energetic and always busy, so I was more than a little surprised when he told me several years ago that he was 75 years old. I would have sworn he was no more than sixty, and he might have passed for younger. He'd lost his wife at a young age and remarried, and worked many years as a taxi driver. He remained happy in his second marriage and together with his wife Ingrid raised a houseful of children, who now have families of their own.

Alejandro was always busy with projects, such as painting and repairing old cars he would buy, fix up, drive for awhile, and then resell. He told me he liked to work, and the problem-solving and tinkering involved with the cars, along with the incentive of making a little extra cash when he sold them, kept his mind and body agile and gave him something interesting to do.

Not that his days were empty. Various children and grandchildren were usually around, and the modest house full of activity. One of the last times I saw him, a few weeks ago, Alejandro was delightedly painting the house next door, which they had rented so his daughter and her family could move in. People from the U.S. often don't understand why different generations of a family would want to live in such close proximity. Here, people can't fathom how people from
el norte manage living so far apart from the company, affection and support of their closest loved ones.

Passing by on the street when Alejandro was outside working often entailed more than a casual "buenos dias." He loved to talk about what he was doing, and to find out what I was up to. I sometimes brought him my car and home maintenance problems for advice. The give and take usually ran on for awhile. It seemed as if the socializing for him was the main point of being out on the street, and that washing the car or fixing the tire was something he would get done but not particularly important in comparison.

Alejandro's family owns a ranch about an hour's drive outside of Mèrida, and many times he invited me to go with him for a couple of days and hang out. Unfortunately that's something we never did because I always had something else going on. I started thinking about that when another neighbor told me Alejandro had suddenly died of a heart attack earlier last week. One of the reasons I moved to Mexico was because I wanted to stop living in tomorrow (laboring on and on for that retirement, saving all year for that brief vacation, etc.) and start doing what I want to do now. I have gotten better at living in the now, but the fact that I had put off the ranch visit time and again until it was too late bothers me. I looked forward to that trip as much as I liked Alejandro; he was a nice guy and we probably could have been better friends. I take all this as another of those little messages that life sends us, if we only will pay attention to them, telling us maybe we need to make an in-course correction along the way. I am taking it seriously.

Once my train of thought got rolling along these lines, I started thinking about how happy and successful this neighbor had always seemed to me. He was not a wealthy man, in fact by many Americans' standards he would have been considered poor. Alejandro and his wife raised a large family in a small three-room (not three bedroom, three room) house, where they lived for at least forty years. He didn't have a lot of stuff. His thirty-year-old cars were worth at most a few hundred dollars, and sometimes were broken down. But he always, even when under a balky car and covered with sweat and grease, seemed to enjoy living in the present and have a good time.

I read not long ago that Mexicans have among the highest levels of personal happiness in the world. I think that Alejandro is a good example of some of the reasons for this. It looks to me as if my late neighbor's success in life boiled down to a few simple points. He liked to be happy, so he usually was. He had a good attitude and didn't let small irritations or things beyond his control ruin his day. He was completely authentic: he had no "image" to maintain. He enjoyed everything he did as best he could. He seemed to be more interested in relationships -- his family, friends, and neighbors -- than in things or schedules. I think these qualities gave meaning to the life of a humble and modest man, and filled it with affection and love.

There is an example and a message here.

Adios, vecino, y gracias.

Monday, April 5, 2010

People: An Unorthodox Priest

In Manì, as in most old pueblos in the Yucatàn, the architecture consists mainly of a mixture of centuries-old colonial buildings and modern, utilitarian and often less attractive structures of cement block. Occasionally one will come across a much more ancient style of construction, the beautiful, elegantly simple oval Maya house, but these structures are fragile (they burn easily, and tend to blow away in hurricanes, for instance) and are only occasionally seen now because most people who can afford it want something more secure, modern and lasting.

However in Manì, located in the southern part of Yucatàn state, if a carload of tourists were to become disoriented on their way to the church and mistakenly turn down a certain rough side road, they might stumble upon an unexpectedly picturesque and bucolic scene. First they'd spy pointed roofs of palm fronds topping oval houses made of rough poles and plastered with red mud, scattered along the rocky cerros and shaded by native trees like pich, cedro and chacà roja that dot the
grassy landscape. The foliage, seed, flowers and fruit feed and shelter dozens of species of birds; parrots,
cardinals, vultures, grackles, doves, woodpeckers, chachalacas, hummingbirds and a variety of multi-colored songbirds (to name a very few) fly freely above and rummage in the brush. Wild orchids, some of which are species in danger of extinction, droop from the crooks of the trees.

This scene isn't, and yet it is, a dream.

The visitors have not inadvertently eaten a strange, hallucinogenic herb in their salad, or passed through a time warp back to an idealized pre-Colombian Mayan Eden. This place is real and exists in the year 2010. The lost tourists are not dreaming. They have found a dream.

The dream belongs to Father Luis Quintal Medina, known by everyone simply as Padre Luis, a Roman Catholic priest of Mayan descent who grew up in Hunucmà, near Mèrida, and has made his home in the Manì area for many years. This compound is the dream's living incarnation.

One incongruity the tourists might have missed upon first
glimpsing this idyllic vista is a steel column supporting large solar panels, which looms up above the rustic skyline. It's important because it is emblematic of this particular project.

A few more details about the Padre. Right now he does not have a parish, and the reasons are several. Technically, he is on sick leave, having had some heart problems. However, as he tells it, he also has had some disagreements with the church ("a church of the rich"), and is one of a small group of non-conformist priests that is at odds with the hierarchy in certain respects. That's about all he will say regarding the matter. But, from a little research and talking with others I learned that Padre Luis founded and led for years the well-known Escuela de Agricultura Ecològica U Yits Ka'an, in Manì, which teaches, tuition-free, environmentally appropriate, "green" agricultural techniques, until he was summarily relieved of the directorship and moved to another
parish awhile back. It seems that the Padre, a conservationist, is a bit liberal in some other areas. He is known for incorporating traditional Mayan rites into the Catholic mass. The words "liberation theology" pop up in the conversation. The heart of the matter is that Padre Luis is controversial, a priest without a church, maybe because he was too popular or too powerful. I am not positive, but this is the idea you get in talking with people who know him. At any rate, what really matters is what he is doing now. Although not being paid by the church, he still assists with things like masses and weddings when asked. But he spends most of his time these days planning and building, planting and growing.

The compound is being constructed as much as possible with traditional, local, renewable materials, and will consist of about a dozen houses, each of a slightly different design, and having kitchen, bathroom, living and sleeping areas all constructed in traditional style. Each house also has a kitchen garden and a pond, which could be used for raising edible fish. Some of the houses are wheelchair accessible. Construction is done by local crews, and furnishings are made by local craftsmen. Water for human use and for irrigation is pumped by solar energy. Although construction is not complete, Padre Luis invited us to hang hammocks and stay the night. The house (pictures below) was quiet, cool, comfortable, and the natural surroundings a pleasant escape from the rest of the world. Sitting in the house's entry area, I was able to tick off at least 20 species of birds, some of which I still have not identified, in about a half hour. Benches situated throughout the grounds provide shaded spots to rest and observe.

Among his projects, Padre Luis is dedicated to raising and propagating the endangered abeja melipona, or Yucatan species of stingless bee. He keeps his bees right on the property, situated amongst the houses. This insect was domesticated long ago by the Maya, and is still kept in traditional hollow-log hives. The honey is of extremely high quality, and is reported to have medicinal properties. [We were invited to come back later in April to observe and help with the honey harvest, so I hope to report more on this soon.]

The complex also will boast a restaurant, an underground museum in a cave that is currently being enlarged and cleaned out and an amphitheater-like area for holding traditional Mayan wedding ceremonies and perhaps performances. There is also a small section of elevated sac be, or "white road," a recreation of the paved highways that linked Mayan cities in ancient times. The partially-completed sac be looms like an acropolis along one end of the multi-acre property. The Padre hopes to rent the houses out to ecotourists interested in Mayan culture, sustainable development and the environment, and to people who just want a pleasant, stress-free place to rest for awhile.

It looks as if while Padre Luis is a priest without a parish, he is not a shepherd without a flock. He is very popular in the pueblo and seems to know everyone. Although he didn't say so, it appears that this project is a continuance of his past work with the agricultural school, educating people and promoting sustainable and environmentally friendly methods of survival, based upon the best of ancient and modern technologies. The world could do with more dreams like this one.