Sunday, April 8, 2012

Community, Vitality, Service, Survival

“All human beings should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.” 
 James Thurber

Eight days from now we'll board a jet headed for Querétaro, Mexico (via Houston). We'll check two modest-sized bags apiece and will each have a carry-on, and in them will be all of our possessions save the contents of a closet-sized storage locker here in Silver City and a couple of boxes of books and winter clothes stored with Erin's parents.

In trying to explain the inexplicable - yet another move - the title of this post came to me. Those are pretty much the reasons for our move - in order of priority.

"Community" in the context of San Miguel is a mandala with several vectors radiating out from center. In the central position is the Meditation Community of San Miguel, a small but vibrant group of practitioners who welcomed us warmly this winter. There's a depth and breadth of practice and perspective in this group that we both find very inspiring, and plenty of opportunities for us to contribute our talents.

Radiating out from there are the various "green" groups, mindful movement community (yoga, Qigong, etc.) and of course the amazing arts scene for which San Miguel is justly renowned. Next is outreach to and interchange with the broader Mexican community, which for starters for us will involve Spanish immersion classes, volunteer work and supporting the extant programs within the meditation community to offer Dharma teachings and meditation instruction to interested locals.

Part of what I mean by "vitality" has to do with the simple fact that San Miguel is a vibrant small city, not a sleepy small town, and as I've mentioned before we are small city people, not small town people, at this point in our lives. The rub for the two of us has been and continues to be that the kinds of small cities we love in the U.S. - places like Ashland, Oregon or Boulder, Colorado - are out of the question for us due to cost. Meanwhile there's more of cultural and culinary interest to us happening in San Miguel in any given week than there is in an entire year here in Silver City (or in Cañon City or any of the other affordable retirement burgs we've tried to make work for us without success).

Another aspect of vitality is that those who have the gumption to pick up and move to a foreign country - let alone one portrayed in the hysterical U.S. media as an about-to-implode narco republic - are by definition vital, adventurous, curious about their surroundings and at least somewhat courageous. What that translates to in our experience is an ease of making new friends within the expat community in Mexico and an interest in spending time with fellow expats at all hours of the day and days of the week that we simply have not found in any of the places we've lived in the U.S., where our lives since leaving the full-time working world have often been extremely lonely and solitary.

On the service side instead of having to try to create a nonsectarian meditation community or rally the foodies as we have tried to do or had to do in other places we've lived, in San Miguel we have the chance to join forces with extant groups that not only have momentum but are replete with people we can learn from. And because of the size and vitality of the community and the cultured and sophisticated nature of the tourists who typically visit it, there are opportunities for work in coffee (for me) and massage (for Erin) that certainly don't exist for us here, where the always-tight local economy has taken a major nosedive since last fall.

Last not least there's the small matter of financial survival. In case I haven't said it clearly enough before we both made a major mistake in exiting the world of full-time work when we did, and had we had any inkling of what would happen with the economy, health care costs and so on, I'd still be a cog in the machine at Whole Foods and Erin would be working the HR desk at some megacorp. Things being what they are, and boneheaded choices being what they were, we're faced with the need to live decently on what amounts to a Social Security level income if we're to have any hope of arriving at actual SS age with any assets to our names.

Silver City is about as affordable a place as there is in the U.S., but our expenses here, based on careful tracking, are still a good $500 a month or so more than for a roughly equivalent (albeit infinitely richer, culturally speaking) lifestyle in San Miguel. The big differences? Very simple:

1. No car needed or wanted in San Miguel vs. can't live without one and really need two here in Silver = $150 a month in savings (and our used $7000 Toyota Yaris gets 39 MPG and is cheap to insure).

2. Food is half the cost, incomparably fresher and more vital (full of prana) due to being fresh and local year-round and picked ripe for immediate consumption. And we can actually afford to eat out - often - in one of the world's greatest street food cultures - something that's out of the question here and not appealing in any case in a place where the extent of the affordable culinary repertoire consists of green chile, red chile or fast food burgers - your choice.

3. The 10,000 pound gorilla: health insurance and health care. On the insurance front we consider ourselves blessed to be paying only about $300 a month in premiums for a bare-bones catastrophic policy ($10,000 deductible each) but of course said premiums are going up dramatically every year and actual health care is on top of those payments. Even at current levels that $300 represents over 15% of our total budget, and knowing that one catastrophic medical event (and we've had several scares and close calls in recent years and months) and/or the inevitable doubling or trebling of premiums would force us out of the country anyway makes the move to Mexico seem like a question of when, not if, anyway. Just knowing that that's the case has a subtly disatrous effect on friendships, resulting in an emotional hedging of one's bets due to knowing that the viability of living even in a cheap place in the U.S. is strictly short term.

In San Miguel we'll register with Seguro Popular (which costs nothing other than a modest fee to a bilingual facilitator for help with paperwork) and pay out-of-pocket for what we need. There's excellent allopathic and alternative medicine in San Miguel, with costs roughly on the order of 10-20 cents to the dollar compared to the U.S. For both of us probably the most ironic aspect of having lived for extended periods in both the U.S. and Mexico these past few years is the sense of ease and comfort of knowing that we can afford to pay out of pocket for pretty much anything that might happen in Mexico, vs. the anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop here in the U.S. - whether that shoe be the overturning of Obamacare, a 30% increase in premiums, a car accident or cancer diagnosis or the prospect of living to a ripe old age and going broke paying for nursing home care for one or both of us. Meanwhile people ask us if we aren't scared of getting caught in the crossfire between drug cartels...roughly like asking which are you more afraid of, the odds of getting struck by lightning or death and taxes.

Maybe the Supreme Court will nix Obamacare, maybe Obama will get reelected and propose Medicare for all like he should have in the first place. Maybe we'll win the lottery and be able to afford to live in one of the aforementioned college towns and winter in Mexico, but I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, while we're beyond weary of moving,  we're both very excited to be making San Miguel our home and hope to be able to host any friends intrepid enough to come visit. Airport and bus access are quite easy, flights are numerous and the city itself is dazzlingly beautiful all year round.

Here's another Thurber quote to end:

“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” 
 James Thurber


Tay said...

Hello. Having just come upon your blog and reading your latest entry, I'd like to thank you for providing so much food for thought and for doing it in such an enjoyably readable way. I was trying to find an opinion as to the differences between the Lake Chapala and San Miguel areas, and your blog certainly fit the bill. I look forward to reading more of your entries, but in the meantime, would like to ask a question: do you feel there is a significant difference in the cost of living between Lake Chapal/Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende? I'm thinking of basics like housing, utilities, food, etc. Would appreciate getting your impression. And I look forward to reading more of your entries. Thanks again.


paintyourlandscape said...

Although we are selfishly saddened to hear of your move to San Miguel, we understand completely. If we should find ourselves wanting or needing to make a move back to Mexico, San Miguel would certainly be tops on our list. We loved the city; it has such vitality and so much to offer. We will be in touch before you head SOB. Our best wishes, thoughts, and prayers go with you both as you make this journey. I love your Thurber quotes. They are most appropriate for this post.

Kevin Knox said...

Thanks for your kind words LuAnn. We hope to see you in San Miguel sometime, and I'm sure we will see you wherever you end up in the U.S.!

Thanks for your comments as well Tay. Regarding the comparative cost of living question (San Miguel vs. Lake Chapala) if you'd asked me 5-6 years ago during the peak of the real estate fueled boom in both places I'd have said San Miguel was far more expensive, and certainly for those foolhardy (IMO) enough to buy real estate that's still the case. Property values in San Miguel are roughly double those of Lakeside, but rentals, apples-to-apples, are about the same.

You do have to factor in $100 a month or more in propane costs for 2-3 chilly winter months in San Miguel, but on the other hand you don't need or want a car in San Miguel whereas at Lakeside not having one is a real drag due to far poorer bus system, having to call a cab rather than flagging one down, etc.

I would say that the biggest thing that makes Lakeside potentially cheaper though is that there are just not many tempting things to spend money on there! No jazz, flamenco, foreign films, wide choice of tempting restaurants, writer's conferences and artist residencies, classes, etc. Is that a good or bad thing? Personally I would rather have the option of being tempted and saying no and having that vitality and cultural richness, but for those who want a slightly slower pace and sense of calm and beauty that always comes with being right up against a beautiful body of water Lakeside might be a better fit. Best advice is rent for a year in both places and then decide!

Lalo said...

I truly appreciate these last few posts. Having lived in Boulder and Oregon I know how magical those places can be, but you are absolutely right, what you can get out of San Miguel at a fraction of the cost is what I call value and quality of life. I am moving back to Mexico, my home country, in May to start my work in coffee, so maybe I can come visit San Miguel and drop of a bag of beans and join in on meditation, yoga, and a night out for food! Wishing you the best on your move and the start to an amazing experience.


Kevin Knox said...

Would love to meet you Lalo. I'm hoping to connect with the people running a couple of local cafés who roast their own coffee in hopes of supporting their efforts and perhaps helping them do even better than they are. Challenging times in the coffee business as you probably know and I would like to help build more pride in Mexican coffee and more offerings of farm-designated beans from the best areas.

Lalo said...

Thats awesome! Im sure they will love the insight. Im very excited as well in building some pride in Mexican coffees, especially those from regions outside Chiapas and Oaxaca. Shoot me an email ( and well stay in touch. Ill let you know when Im back and we can coordinate something. Until soon,


susanopera said...

A wonderful blog post and so succinctly stated - thank you.
As more than 20 year expat residents of Mexico, (DF, San Miguel and Queretaro), we appreciate your perspective.
And on a personal note - my husband and I will welcome - fresh roasted, in San Miguel, (not shipped in from DF), coffee.
The coffee roaster we go to in Queretaro, has so much business in Qro that he can't even think about a branch in San Miguel.
We'd be happy to put you in contact with him.
Welcome to Mexico!

Kevin Knox said...

Thanks so much Susan and Lalo. Will be in touch once we're down and settled!

Pat said...

Speaking as a Canadian, with "free" healthcare that we pay for in our high taxes, I too appreciate the cheap cost of healthcare in San Miguel. I would rather pay the moderate healthcare costs in San Miguel, than die waiting to be seen by a doctor in Canada. I can't believe how quickly in Mexico a doctor, specialist or not, can see you. Nor can I believe how caring, attentive, and competent Mexican doctors are. They actually treat you as a person, rather than a number. My husband and I have had all kinds of medical problems, that seemed insolvable by Canadian doctors, solved by Mexican doctors.