After spending 3 months on this popular Indonesian island I have a good grasp of costs to live here. All of these numbers are just for a single retired man. No dog. No wife. No kids. Just me. Here we go with Bali cost of living… The cost to rent on this island, in popular areas, can be absolutely amazing low and can go up as high as “are you kidding me”. For example I booked a few hotel rooms, normally referred to as a “home stay”, for as little as 7 USD per night and this included breakfast!! I Read more…
A closer look at San Miguel de Allende
Meanwhile, back in San Miguel de Allende, the sun is shining and the days are beautifully filled with a festive tone most (all?) of the time. Yes. San Miguel de Allende. If you’re keeping up with my blog, you might remember that I had given up on San Miguel. Turns out I was wrong to do so.
What is the most important thing to you right at this moment? OK, not including your coffee if it’s only 8 am. Your family right? Or your friends. Since I am a traveller, explorer, digital nomad and expat then my friends are the most important thing in my life. My sisters, children and extended family all live in England and Scotland. I am an orphan here in Mexico, like most expats here and others corners of the world. I returned here last December to attend a wedding that a nice Mexicana friend had invited me to. That event deserves its own article and post. Oh my god!! Anyway while attending the wedding I was enjoying their friendship, the hugs, the familiar faces that I had no name for and watching all the people smiling and feeling the love and happiness in the reception room.
Events like these in Mexico, I have only experienced in Mexico. Maybe they do exist in Thailand, where I lived for 14 months, or Ecuador and 1 of the other 40 countries that I have visited, but I never had any such experience. Getting those hugs, feeling that friendship and experience being part of this beautiful community made me stop and think and realize just how important this aspect is in my life and has been missing since I left Mexico. Perhaps you have also had the realization? It also occurs to me that many people can never take the big leap into the world of an expat for these very reasons.. love and friendship keep them exactly where they are. The grandkids are often handcuffed to them.
San Miguel de Allende has a lot of faults: the gossip (chisma in Spanish) drives me crazy. The lies that are told about each other, border on a Steven King and 50 Shades of Grey combo novel. Some of the people here just decide to leave their manners and ethics behind when becoming an expat and feel free to gossip, lie and criticise, even about people they have never met. Add to this that often they are drunk when offering advice or being critical of others. This happened to me several times. It does not feel good at all. Which brings me to: My happiness should not rely on what other people think about me.
So at this time, I have no intention of leaving beautiful San Miguel de Allende. With all its faults, this is my home, for now.
Living in Chiang Mai. It’s not all roses!
I think we all can talk ourselves into just about anything. Right? Even though we KNOW that there are few red flags, we can still talk ourselves into believing that our choice is an excellent one. So if you move to another country, would you force yourself to stay even though you it’s not what you thought the place would be like? Would you stay just to be stubborn or not lose face?
Hold on! In this case, I am speaking about my choice to live in this city, here in LOS (Land Of Smiles) – Thailand! Since I had made my choice from 80% reading material on forums and online articles and the other 20% was from people who had actually lived here then who am I to defy all these “experts”?! Just say YES to Chiang Mai!
So I moved to Chiang Mai February 2015. However…
The truth is that after about 5 days here, I really just didn’t “get’ this place at all! But I dare not voice what was in my heart, this would be showing the world that I messed up! Especially if a Facebook post read along the lines of: “It took me about $1,000 to buy a one-way ticket from Mexico City to Bangkok, 36 hours of travel and a huge amount of energy and logistics to arrive here in Chiang Mai. However, after 5 days, I hate this place, so I think I will move on”. Not to mention the fact that I had sold everything I owned in Mexico in order to arrive here with 2 suitcases in tow.
That was honestly the truth of how I felt about my arrival here. I had read dozens and dozens of blogs and hundreds of forum topics about this city and 87.6% (approximately) stated that this city was a fantastic place to live in. So imagine me writing this blog, as the other 12% to say, nope, this place is not for me. I have since learned that most of those blogs were written by 25-year-olds. Digital Nomads who have a totally different energy and interest level about Chiang Mai than I do at age 64! In fact, things got MUCH worse about a month later after my arrival. The infamous “burning season” had arrived. Farmers for hundreds of kilometres around Chiang Mai burn rice fields. I have never found out why exactly, I can only guess like you the reader can.
This burning results in epic smoke filling the skies 24/7. In March, the sun is actually supposed to set at about 6 pm but because of the smoke, it was sorta dark at 4 pm. EVERYTHING in the city turned to an eerie orange-yellow hue. A sort of post-apocalyptic scenery in all directions. The mountains, notably Doi Suthep faded from my view for about 6 weeks. That landmark was about 10 km away and rose another 1,500 meters and it simply vanished. Closer to my room at the Smith Residence the buildings about 200 meters away were now just a foggy outline. Six weeks of this.
I was told, no problem; next year I can just leave town and get away from the smoke. Wait! I don’t want to be FORCED to leave my chosen home because of uncontrolled burning of stuff that may harm my health and certainly looks ugly. That’s just wrong and it accounts for 10% of a year! Then comes along Songkran in April. A “water” festival” don’t make me laugh. It is 5 days of stupid silly behaviour by locals and tourists. Thousands walk around town, Clint Eastwood style with water guns drawn, and these water cannons deliver a huge stream of water to your body! Sometimes this water is ice cold and sometimes it might come from the moat water around the old city. The bacteria in that moat water could be life threatening. So, 6 weeks of burning, 5 days of drunken water gun fights and this is only two months of living here!!
But, I never spoke a word of my true feelings to anyone.
The streets here are ALL full of motorbikes and cars. At breakfast time and sunset is the worst, rush our traffic and riding my motorcycle here is hell. In fact, what the hell was I thinking even buying my new motorcycle? I had rented one for a month as a tryout but I only rode around the old city area. The few times I rode out of the city on my newly bought bike I had visions of meandering quiet roads leading to roads in the jungle with quaint villages. Nope, didn’t happen. From my condo I rode about 45 minutes in several directions and I was STILL in heavy traffic with buses and trucks driving at speeds of well over 80 kph, not fast in a car, but when you are on a motorbike the vulnerability and fear factor should and does kick in big time! Plus the scenery was still awful, no jungle, few green patches so why even bother?! After 6 weeks I have driven a whopping 127 km, I could have walked or taken a 20 baht songthaew for 90% of the same trips that I did. So my motorbike is for sale.
To wrap up this post I could say it very simply: I have lived in Chiang Mai for 7 months and I miss Mexico! I miss the music, plazas, people, language, the culture and I really miss the bus system. It’s funny when I left the USA to live in Mexico January 2013, I NEVER looked back to missing the USA where I had lived since 1974. But here in Thailand, Mexico is very much on my mind.
Maids, Mariachi bands and siestas in Mexico
Living and being retired in Mexico comes with several perks that make my life here just absolutely wonderful. It is often stated that “old people” need more naps. People make fun of this fact! Why? I think they are just jealous. There is nothing wrong with a 60-90 minute nap every afternoon, especially if you live in a hot climate like San Miguel de Allende in the summertime.
Staying indoors and relaxing/sleeping makes perfect sense in such hot weather, especially if you participate in the Mexican party life: which will mean staying out until 2 am or even later. You may need a sleep mask to cover your eyes and ear plugs because neighborhoods are noisier at 4 pm.
Maids in Mexico
Maids are an integral part of many Mexican homes owned or rented by Gringos. In another post, I describe how my rent, of $550 includes a maid twice a week. I have a sweetheart of a maid. She not only cleans my home, she will prepare food, cook the food, go shopping for groceries and even has sewn damaged jeans! I pay her extra for these chores but still – one stop shopping!
My maid, Sofia, does not speak a word of English and so one more added benefit: a Spanish teacher too! Sofia has also taught me a lot about Mexican produce and how to cook it. My attempt at any sort of soup in the USA was pitiful, but now I can make a really full bodied chicken soup with a big kick! Many skill sets I now have are partly attributed to my maid Sofia.
There is one style of music in Mexico that is very Mexican, mariachi bands originated in Mexico several hundred years ago and as far as I know only exist for real in Mexico and with some USA tourist places. I absolutely love the sound that these bands make. If anything in Mexico romanticises this beautiful and exciting country, this music is it! In all cities and even small towns mariachi bands play in a plaza or maybe some civic or private event.
Baños, Ecuador. Volcanoes and spas.
I arrived in Baños by bus from Cuenca via Ambato. The towns full name is Baños de Agua Santa (Baths of holy water). On the bus ride here the winding road took us past quaint tiny hamlets, streams and seem to circle around the foreboding volcano named Tungurahua. This volcano has come close to destroying the spa town on a number of occasions and even as I visit now, the snow-capped volcanic mountain is very active!
I did my normal routine when I arrive anywhere at a new travel destination, I looked for a place to sit down and have a coffee or cold drink. Coffee seemed much more agreeable at this altitude of 1,820 m (5,971 ft) and a temperature of just 20 C. This is when I can relax, stretch my leg, look at a map and ask around about accommodation and generalities of the place I am visiting. One should always take time to smell the roses. We, travellers, know that the journey is the often the best part of an adventure.
A small spa Hostelería had been identified and off I went for a walk of about 300 meters. My room had a beautiful SOFT king size bed, views of cascading waterfall just 2oo meters away and the price of just 22USD included a hot and filling breakfast. Close by was the public and very, very inexpensive option of a mineral pool. To gain access to the pools you had to wear a swim cap, which can be rented for 25 cents. This was NO relaxing in a four-star spa experience, it was one of those “been there done that experiences never wanted to be repeated again”. Hundreds of people, often shoulder to shoulder were in 3 pools, half of which were kids and in water that was murky and tepid. I lasted a full 15 minutes and looked for a shower to clean myself pronto. Only a cold water pipeline was available… refreshing, to say the least, but it did the trick! Needless to say you can find more upscale versions of this whole spa thing dotted all over town.
The town of Baños was on my radar from both what I learned from reading and from people who raved about the place. Personally, I didn’t understand the hoopla about this town. Waaaaay over commercialized and not that pretty. However, the surrounding countryside is gorgeous for hiking and trying to get a better view of the volcano. Remember, it’s all good!
Ecuador jungle, mountains and bus rides.
Perhaps you have already read my other 2 articles on the big cities of Quito and Cuenca; now details and my experiences with the smaller lesser known places.
Having my map of Ecuador in hand, the first area I explored off the beaten track was a 2-hour journey by bus from Quito: The Mindo Rainforest. It gave me a taste of what the Amazon Jungle itself might look and feel like. The town of Mindo is the entrance to a huge swath of land and is a nature reserve full of rivers, waterfalls, wildlife, stunning views. I stayed at a beautiful place called Hosteria Arasari .. click the link to check out the gorgeous grounds.. location and cabins. It was not expensive.. I think I paid about $30 a night. They have a bird viewing platform above the basic restaurant onsite.. great views! The town of Mindo itself was a tad hippie.. a nice cozy feel and friendly faces everywhere. On arrival I was confused as to why I could not get a coffee except for a Nescafe (no thanks), I trekked about 1.5 km to the Hosteria and they gave me the same line. Then, entering my cabin and finding no light switch working it dawned on me..no electricity! Mindo had had no power for 3 days! I never did find out why; welcome to crazy life in Third World Countries. I hiked several kilometers outside of the hotel area.. some amazing views, lots of wildlife and especially birds -the toucan! I have never been one for heights and so I passed on the zip-line experience (yet again). This day was June 23 and the temperature in this cloud forest was just a little above comfort for temperature and humidity, especially hiking.
I decided to take the road back to Quito from Cuenca. I wanted to head to the edge of the Amazon Jungle and so settled on the towns of Banos and Puyo. Each of these towns deserve an article all of their own! From Cuenca I took a bus to Ambato, then a bus to Banos. A few nights in Banos and then on to Puyo for a few nights. The buses were not as nearly as good as the first class buses that go from city to city in Mexico.. but sufficient for a few hours at a time. Also, Ecuador buses are VERY inexpensive. Expect to pay just $1 for a 1-hour journey. The Ecuadorians getting on and off the bus en-route were all very pleasant and at no time did I feel unsafe or uncomfortable in any way. I do have a rule in my life though: “I never worry, but I do manage the risk”. So traveling by bus at night does not seem like a sensible idea. Many travelers like to travel on overnight buses because it is cooler temperature wise and they can sleep and save on a hotel bed. My thoughts on overnight bus travel: bandits attack at night, many more traffic accidents happen at night and I would miss all the scenery along the way! Trust me, the bus on the narrow, winding road which is laid on the ridge of the Andes Mountains is something you do not want to miss. Breathtaking scenery and lots of interesting people and places to see along the way.
Map of Ecuador
A short story: A bus I took from Mexico City airport departed at 11 pm and in 3.5 hours I would be home in San Miguel de Allende. Along the way, in the pitch black night the bus stopped and outside were several large black trucks and many men with machine guns. A Federal officer asked us to get off the bus and present our passports, at the same time ALL of the luggage was removed from the bus and inspected thru an x-ray machine. We were on our way in less than an hour, but let me tell you, this was a very unnerving experience to say the least. In the dark it is hard to figure out the where, who and what of the situation. Enough said.
OK, so for more details about the spa town of Banos and the edge-of-the-jungle town of Puyo then please click on the links to those articles. All in all traveling around Ecuador was very pleasant, fresh air, cheap buses and a cleaner roadside experience than Mexican roads. Less trash here, more of a tidy place, even the junk is often piled neatly here!
Puyo, Ecuador. The edge of the Amazon Jungle
The town of Puyo sits at the edge of the rainforest known commonly as the Amazon Jungle; in Spanish Selva Amazónica. Most of the rainforest is in Brazil but the far Western edge is in Ecuador and also spans 6 other countries to a small degree. I chose Puyo as a gateway to the jungle. The jungle! Cool!
I arrived here from Banos, taking 2 buses via Ambato. A trip of about 5 hours total. The buses were comfy with a large TV monitor playing a movie, in Spanish and no subtitles. The town itself is nothing spectacular or remarkable except to say the locals were very friendly, even a police officer zipped me to my guest house on the back of his motorbike when I asked him for directions.
The town is full of shops with suggested tours of the rainforest some of which include hiking, zip line, canoeing and climbing. I chose a day tour that included a drive of 1 hour east to an animal sanctuary, then a canoe ride down a river to a village and meet with the shaman of that village and have lunch with him.
Inside the village were about 20 homes/huts all colourful and a garden/crop area. The shaman greeted me and his attire was a little shocking to me, in a funny way. I expected the “spiritual leader” of this village to be wearing a long robe, with beads and maybe a funny hat. Instead, he was dressed in jeans and a very oil stained red t-shirt. It’s interesting how I had romanticised the truth of the matter! The wooden table was filled with food and was hard to see given the very dim light in this large hut. I also had the company of a monkey (or two?) and outside large colourful parrots guarded the entrance to the hut. The food was delicious consisting mainly of freshwater fish and corn.
Both the Amazon Jungle and any rainforest had always been on my bucket list of places to see and here I was breaking bread with a shaman, in the Amazon along with the company of a monkey, or two.
My two tour guides were also my protection from god knows what lays ahead. Before entering into the jungle my face was painted with symbols which would protect me from wild animals. I was told not to touch anything just in case it was poisonous or had had an allergy to it. I can also see how getting lost in the jungle could happen quite easily, the tree canopy is high and so reference points are difficult. I found myself recalling some TV shows featuring Steve Irwin and other intrepid adventurer/survival type guys as a “just in case” scenario. Fortunately I was back in my hotel bed that night.
No matter what time of year it is in Ecuador, the sun rises at 6:25 and sets at about 6:20 PM. The longest day in June and shortest day in December differ by only 6 minutes of daylight. Trips like my trek into the jungle have to be started early in the day for fear of still being in the jungle after dark. No thanks!
The whole experience of a few days in Puyo was terrific with a good balance of relaxed and exciting and I can highly recommend such adventure.