A former high school classmate and cherished old friend when reconnecting with Roger through Facebook quoted the old saying: "When God closes a door, he opens a window." The years have seen a number of life changes for us that make that adage ring true. After being blessed with good fortune, a wonderful son and great experiences, we decided to look out that window and prepare for more of what this wonderful life has to offer. We hope through our blog to share our journey from this point forward with family, with friends and with many others. Hopefully we'll make some new friends along the way. We hope you find our tales of some interest, even amusement and perhaps an inspiration for you to treat each and every day as an opportunity and an adventure to share with those who are an important part of your life.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Look At San Miguel de Allende

   In our inaugural blog, we announced our intention to become expatriates.  Right now we're preparing for an extensive visit to what we currently feel will be our first choice in a new home: Cuenca, Ecuador.  The inspiration, however, for our retirement search began in the charming, central Mexico highlands city of San Miguel de Allende.  It and its close neighboring city of Guanajuato are among our favorite places to visit in Mexico and it was there that our retirement dreams first blossomed.  Should, for any reason, Ecuador not work out as a retirement relocation, it will be an easy-to-make second choice.  All this was alluded to in our initial blog and also referred to on South Of Zero (Thanks, Mary for your gracious introduction of our blog and your warm welcome!)  This resulted in a number of inquiries and requests from friends (all of whom have been hearing a LOT about Ecuador for months now) about this Mexican city.
Partial scenic view of San Miguel de Allende, Mx.

An unusual architectural style for Mexico
and the city's signature landmark:
 Parroquia de San Miguel
   So here goes.  Before we begin what will surely be many, many posts about our adventures and discoveries in Ecuador, here's some info, with some pictures and commentary gleaned from our visits to SMA (San Miguel de Allende).
   Like so many locales in Mexico, the founding of this city traces its roots to a Spanish Franciscan monk establishing a mission there.  It grew to prominence because of its location in a highland plain situated between Mexico's early agricultural breadbasket to the east and south and its mining center to the west and north. It figured prominently in the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain.  The city's current name honors one of the founders of that struggle, General  Ignacio Allende.  He is to the Mexican struggle for independence what George Washington was to the U.S. fight for independence from England.  SMA nearly became a ghost town but was "rediscovered" in the first half of the 20th century.  After WW II the founding of art schools by some ex-patriates led to an influx of americans, many of them GI's looking to utilize the GI bill benefits to study art.  Today, both local and ex-patriate artisans as well as writers abound there.  With its protected 18th and 19th century architecture, as well as its historical significance in the Mexican independence struggle, it has become a popular tourist destination for  anglo visitors as well as middle and upper class Mexicans.  Its elevation in the central highland plain offers a moderate climate. Its historico centro, as well as the nearby Scantuario de Atotonilco are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Its centro has century old cobblestone streets and sidewalks, colorful colonial buildings, many plazas and this city contains an estimated 300 churches and chapels.
Suzanne in a plaza
during our first visit to SMA

The area population is about 160,000 of which about 45% live in the city proper.  Estimates of year around ex-patriate population ranges from 8,000 to 12,000 (mostly U.S. and Canadian) with several thousand touristas visiting annually.  One of its unique characteristics, unlike many Mexican areas that draw anglo residents and visitors, is how well the ex-patriate community has become integrated. While you might find a "gringo ghetto", they are remarkably rare and you will find ex-patriate residents scattered throughout most of the colonias of the city.  SMA is home to the largest, privately operated bilingual biblioteca (library) in Latin America. The Biblioteca Publica is run by a volunteer foundation made up of both local and ex-patriate membership.  The library offers English classes for locals, Spanish classes for ex-patriates, art classes for youth and does regular fund raisers, including a weekly colonial home tour to fund such community projects as computers for the grade schools in the state of Guanajuato.  With the exception of beach resort areas, it has been one of the most costly places to live by Mexican standards with real estate cost rivaling those in the U.S.  However, a 20% to 40% decline in real estate value has been noted in the past year or so mostly due to a somewhat shrinking population, the economic decline in the U.S. and the avoidance of Mexico in general due to the publicized drug violence across the country in the past two years.  The nearby state capital of Guanajuato (about an hour away) is a little more affordable, much more Mexican and is considered one of Mexico's most beautiful colonial cities (It is!!)  Here's more of what you'll see in SMA:
This plaza and its adjacent Jardin face the Parroquia San Miguel and sees a gathering nearly every evening.

Roger enjoying a concert in the courtyard of La Biblioteca Publica
prior to the start of the weekly home tour.
The cane was due to a sprained knee at the time.
A traditional Mexican cocina

The interiors of the homes can be quite traditional and many homes, especially in the centro, will feature rooftop terraces and gardens (Chuck Watson would love these!)  Here are shots that reflect what we found during a family vacation with our son Stephen and his girlfriend this past January:

View from a typical rooftop in the centro.

The sala in our vacation rental home.

Roger and Katrinas after the parade.
With limited traffic in the centro,  it's quite pedestrian,  especially in the evenings. Also, there's always something to do in this city with festivals and concerts and parades that occur regularly.  Last year, we were in town during Dias de las Muertos (Days of the Dead).  In additional to altars to family members and revered citizens and traditional vists to the panteon, the final night features a "Katrina" parade by expats in which candy  is handled out to costumed kids (ala Halloween) who come to the Jardin for the event. In short there's no want for something to do in this festive and active community.
Public concert on Ignacio Allende's birthday.
His former home (now a museum) is in the background.
The kids walking home ahead of us
from the Jardin after an evening out.

A typical street in SMA
Parroquia San Miguel from our rooftop terrace
Roger outside the large botanical gardens during a May visit
Roger at a rooftop wine bar
Popular with tourists, this mounted officer in traditional garb
is  also a regular member of the local police force.
We got to see him participate in a response to a police call.
During our family vacation, these ATV's were a
great way to navigate narrow cobblestone streets and explore.
great tile artwork abounds

Suzanne with artists at a student art show.
We bought a watercolor by Daniel (boy on right)
Each of our trips to SMA has included a stop at San Miguel Shoes.  A local cobbler created this brand especially for walking on San Miguel's infamous cobblestones.  They are also quite fashionable and sell for much more outrageous prices here in the US.  From what we've read in the Expadorian blogs we follow, these shoes will probably come in very handy this summer as we walk the streets of Cuenca!
Suzanne trying on her favorite
San Miguel shoes.
Nearby Guanajuato is the state capital and also one of Mexico's beautiful
colonial cities.  It is well worth exploring if you're in San Miguel.
That's a very brief look at one of our favorite places and the city that triggered our first serious thoughts about retiring and living out of the country.  The wonderful part about our decision to put a priority  on Cuenca as a target is that it will almost as easy to visit this part of Mexico from a future home in Ecuador as it has been from our current home in Arizona.  We look forward to sharing tales of this wonderful place with our soon to be friends and neighbors in Ecuador.  

Until then, we remain, as always:  Juntos en el camino de la vida!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A New Beginning!

Roger & Suzanne
  What a ride it has been over the past few months!  Our home for more than a decade has been sold.  We've done  flea markets, consignment shops and visited donation centers to reduce our 40-plus year accumulation of personal possessions.  We've restructured our 401-K's, rolled over Suzanne's pension money and calculated budgets at least three dozen different ways.   We've read everything from magazines to blogs and have corresponded with ex-patriates and sought advice from people who have lived overseas.  We listened with patience to the horrified cautions issued by our friends.  We've sought advice and council from our grown son.  Our doctors have inspected and examined us in detail and pronounced us fit for travel.

  It has finally boiled down to searching our heart of hearts and making a decision.  Are we ready to retire?  Are we prepared to adopt a whole new way of life? Are we ready to begin the adventure of moving abroad and accepting the challenges of a whole new culture and environment.  Can we really make this happen?  Is this really what we want to do at this point in our lives?   We keep asking ourselves these questions over and over again.  The answer has echoed back from the centers wherein our deepest thoughts and feelings lie:  Yes! Yes! Yes!   

   And so it finally begins.   After at least two and a half years of contemplation and exploring, we've reached a decision.  Within three weeks of this posting, we will both be separated from our jobs and making final preparations for the beginning of our journey.  Our first step will be an exploratory two month visit to Ecuador.  Cuenca, Ecuador is currently our first choice of retirement locations based on our research. but we've never been there.  There's no better way to make the final decision than to just go there and live.  Should, it not work out, the central highlands of Mexico, an area we've visited multiple times and dearly cherish will become our home.  We are in awe of the options we have before us and we feel truly blessed.

   Are there anxious moments?  Certainly!  Do we sometimes wonder if we've thought everything through?  Of course!   But are we excited, happy and, at moments, giddy as we once were when we bought our first new home together? Oh yes, indeed!   Hand in hand, we look forward to tomorrow and all the challenges and wonder it may bring.  We are together on the road of life.  Juntos en el camino de la vida!