THE GREGARIOUS HERMIT
—Living in a Town with Few Gringos
By Roberta Rich
On December 15th, 1999, as our plane descended into the Manzanillo airport, I took my husband’s hand in mine and said, “In the next two weeks, we must either buy a house in Mexico or never speak of it again.”
“Deal,” he replied.
Colima was on our ‘short list’ for livable quiet towns in Mexico— a small, provincial capital of about 165,000, lovely winter climate, and accessible from either Guadalajara or Manzanillo airport.
We checked into the Ceballos Hotel, the old colonial style hotel on the main square across from the cathedral, and began our quest for the perfect house. We spoke just enough Spanish to get ourselves into trouble and not enough to get us out as you will see.
We soon discovered there were no real estate agent in town. Not one. The accepted practice for selling property seemed to be a peso sign chalked onto the side of a house. I was staring into someone’s adobe house when a young boy of about eighteen, rode up on his bike and asked, in Spanish, “What are you looking for?”
“A house,” I replied.
“To buy or rent?”
“Buy,” I said, dizzy from the midday sun and walking around without a hat.
“Come with me.”
“It’s beer-thirty,” said my husband.
“I want a house.” I trailed off after the boy.
Soon we came to a stucco wall with a door in the middle. Behind this door could have been a slaughter house or a palace. The exterior gave not a clue.
The boy, whose name turned out to be “Jesus,” knocked. A beautiful Mexican woman opened the door and stood thunderstruck at the sight of two very tall gringos. She ushered us in and called for her daughter Paty who spoke fluent English.
Paty explained her father, Pedro, was a builder and had a house for sale on the other side of the wall. She showed it to us. I got the feeling my father used to call ‘Rich’s Law of Instant Recognition.’ It was a shell, but an adorable one: two bedrooms, perota wood beams, hand made tiles, cool, sunny and rustica. A bougainvillea bloomed neon red in the front garden and ginger plants guarded the back patio. My imagination supplied windows, doors, furniture, more plants, papier maché figures and hand painted bathroom sinks.
For the next two weeks we got to know Paty and her family. One night they took us to a farmer’s field and we watched as the Volcan de Fuego spewed out balls of hot lava.
Paty and her family took it for granted we would buy the house but we had not discussed money. Oh, we knew the asking price but had not negotiated a buying price. This bothered me. I am known in some quarters, as ‘Never Pay Retail Rich.’ It’s against my religion to just pay the asking price.
My husband has a very different view of the world. My daughter used to say to him, “Ken, I know someone has to pay retail. But does it always have to be you?”
“Say something,” I urged him. “At least tell them we want to pay a thousand dollars less, or make them throw in the vacant lot next door.”
“This is what we shall do,” said Ken, “We will pay full price but I will explain to Pedro you are being difficult, which you are, and that he must replace the sinks and tiles with handmade ones.”
And so the deal came to pass. And a good one it was and one that lead to many New Year parties with mariachi bands and cauldrons of pozole, visits from kids and grandkids, boozy dinners, and huge breakfasts.
People often ask what it is like to live in a town where there are few other ex-pats. It can be lonely. It makes you more reliant on your spouse for companionship. You miss your friends and family at home, which in our case is Vancouver, Canada. My husband is more solitary by nature. He goes on long bike trips up the volcano.
I need women friends and am developing a circle of friends, both Mexican and gringa. Last month I hosted a ‘girl’s comida’ with five friends. It was a great success.
Roberta Rich is the author of The Midwife of Venice, an historical novel set in the Jewish ghetto in Venice. (Ed. Note: Published by Random House. Also available on Amazon/Kindle)The book is now a NYTimes best-seller, having sold an astounding 70,000 in Canada alone!)
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com
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