26 Jan Five years later: Mexico in retrospect
When I moved to Mexico, I didn’t plan to stay. I thought that San Miguel de Allende would serve me as a hub to travel around Mexico for 3 years or so, at which point I’d head to Central America for the same stint, then Northern South America, and so on. But, like many pre-planned long term goals it changed – or I changed – I’m not sure which. Today it’s been 5 and a half years and I guess you could say I’ve learned some things.
For one, I like my home base. It’s a place I enjoy returning to after a trip. Another thing is that while I’ve certainly explored Mexico, I’ve also traveled to places like Thailand and Cuba, so the region isn’t as important as I might have thought (convenience aside). However, there are some things that leave me wondering whether my beloved Mexico, and more specifically San Miguel de Allende, can be my indefinite home base.
A brief moment of clarification, this blog is oriented toward the advantages and disadvantages of living in San Miguel de Allende full time, not coming on vacation or even part of the year retaining a residence somewhere else.
So, let’s start with the things that make San Miguel de Allende and amazing place to live.
Firstly, I fell in love with SMA while visiting. It was the pace of life, the relaxed way people went about their business, and the friendly hellos from colorful strangers on the street that struck a chord with the angst I’d felt about living stateside. Then there was the breath-taking colonial architecture and vibrant colors, the incredible cuisine (both Mexican and international), the appreciation and celebration of culture and history, the mesquite and nopal-decorated Sierra Madres framing the city and a teeming community of artists of all mediums.
So that’s just to start …and it speaks to quality of living. Waking up in a place that’s beautiful, warm and accepting, where I can explore the infinite possibilities that are me, is what makes me happy.
But what about logistics? What makes Mexico easier, more convenient and better than living in the States?
Lower cost of living
Suffice to say that everything is less expensive. Considerably. From rent to groceries prices are lower, and many exorbitant city prices for things like parking are unnecessary. A doctor’s visit costs anywhere from 200 pesos (10 USD) to 1000 pesos (50 USD). Rent, though it varies depending on neighborhood and house size, can be quite affordable. I live in a small two bedroom, two story house and pay 4,500 pesos (250 USD) monthly. My groceries are quite inexpensive as well – stocking up on as many fruits and veggies I can consume in a week runs me about 18 USD. With meat included, I might spend 70 USD a week total, cooking three meals a day at home.
The point is that you work to live rather than living to work. You really live your life.
Inexpensive local farmer’s markets
It’s not only iless expensive, it’s healthier! Local farmers markets are sources of local, free range and organic food at a fraction of the price. The local food is free of GMO concerns, and the free range meats from local ranches are free of hormones and are sold the day they’re killed. For more on where to grocery shop, check out my previous blog on my favorite places to go.
Flexibility of time
I’m not just in favor of this because I struggle to be on time. Here, everything starts later and ends later. Minimal tardiness is excused and the general atmosphere is relaxed. Due to cultural values of respecting family, a communal lunchtime is observed from 2-4 so the family can eat together and rest a bit before returning to work.
And time just isn’t viewed through the American viewfinder. You are not a cog in the machine and your productivity doesn’t define you. Rather, good interpersonal relationships and respect are valued. Time is cyclic rather than linear, meaning there is no destination at which to arrive – there is only here and now.
In the States we get cheap factory made items like tennis shoes and electronics, but if you want a high quality, handmade piece of furniture or other artesanal craft, you might as well cut off one of your arms and sell it. Here, it’s the opposite. Hand crafted jewelry, clothing, wood work, iron work or ceramics are an enormous value. Besides, who do we want to support? As conscious consumers, there’s no question! Local and handmade are the way to go!
Being from the great state of Louisiana, I thought we had a festival for everything, but San Miguel de Allende has us beat …by a long shot. There are easily 200 festivals, everything from La Calaca festival celebrating Day of the Dead to International Chamber music, from Fringe theater festival to Art 2 Wear Fashion week, from religious pilgrimages to culinary delights. There is something for every taste.
On the other hand, there are some things that have rubbed me wrong too. Several are new policies that have come with the recent change of administration in Mexico. Primarily my complaints focus on things that make the life of the ex-patriot more complicated or disrespect the environment.
Policies on foreign plated cars and NAFTA difficulties
As I mentioned, there have been some recent changes including a requirement that all cars have Mexican plates, even if they belong to foreigners. Here’s how it works: if you’re a tourist or have a temporary working visa then you pay for a temporary sticker that allows your foreign plates, but if you’ve reached 4 years as a temporary working resident you are required to change your status to permanent (or return to the tourist visa). If you have permanent working status, your car must be nationalized. Just two problems: first, nationalizing American plates costs a thousand dollars and second, even if you want to pay that, only cars made in America, Mexico or Canada can be legally nationalized, in keeping with NAFTA. So you and your reliable Japanese made car can piss right off. Or you can sell it to a Mexican friend who could nationalize it and sell it back to you. Your choice.
And if you can figure out how to arrange working papers without having to sell your car, Mexico requires an extremely high tax of its working people – 28% to be exact. Just to put that into perspective – it’s a third of what you earn.
As a kid in Louisiana, I remember trucks driving through every street of our neighborhood spraying pesticides (in fact, I attribute my mild insanity to it.) Well, they still do that here. I know. I thought it was an 80’s thing too, but due to a rise in Dengue fever spread by mosquitos, they go full force when we have mosquitos. Pesticides have been linked to disrupting normal thyroid function, tumors, cancer and more. What are we doing using this stuff?
While infrastructure inside San Miguel keeps the downtown clean and tidy, with manicured gardens and fountains, and uniform architecture in classic colonial colors, the outskirts of the city receive little attention. That means the government enforces fewer environmental laws in the area surrounding the city. Common occurrences include trash burning for the purposes of disposal, as the government has no system to pick up their trash, as well as melting down plastics and tires to make “bricks” for construction, spewing toxic fumes into the air. Neighborhoods downwind have begun to complain, but the government has taken little action.
Meanwhile as San Miguel has become more popular for foreigners and nationals alike, our downtown has developed a traffic problem. The lack of enforcement regarding emission violations combined with inefficient public transportation and delivery trucks on the narrow streets has caused an increase in air pollution. Since it’s really a walking town, the exhaust can be quite unpleasant, and while the overall air quality is better than most places, we are seeing a visible change.
Moreover, the Presa, our freshwater reserve is polluted beyond belief, making the fish caught in unsafe to eat and open sewage runs through less-developed parts of the town while the mayor spends taxpayer’s dollars to redesign gardens and ornamental statues in the more touristy parts of town.
Nowhere is perfect. I’ve found that for now the good outweighs the bad. It’s truly a magical place, but, like most places, it’s in need of some governmental reform. I’d like to see a Mayor brave enough to make larger environmental changes regardless of whether he could see the project completed in his term.