December 15, 2017
I really believed that I would never retire. It seemed totally reasonable to work until I dropped. That’s what so many in my family had done, and many friends as well. The cost of living in the US was hardly getting better, so retirement would be far from a breeze. But then my older brother developed health issues - a stroke, precancerous lesions - and mortality began to feel a little more real. Work was great - really great. So why not go out on a high note? But how could I afford to take such a drastic, and seemingly irresponsible, step ?
For years I had been reading about expats moving abroad to find nirvana, or at least an affordable lifestyle, and I had even made preliminary excursions to Costa Rica more than a decade before, researching cost of living, housing, health-care, etc. But Costa Rica was getting pricey, as was Panama, another popular expat destination I had visited. Ecuador offered a lot of promise, but it is a lengthy flight to the US, and I was about to have my first grandchild, so proximity was important. I began to read more and more about Mexico, and had loved the various trips I had made there before - mainly to the central highlands to play historic organs. I already knew that the food far exceeded American preconceptions, the people were warm and welcoming, and the scenery was world class.
Since my retirement plan was fully vested, there was little incentive to keep adding to it. My partner, Marshal, is older than me, and had already retired, so if I retired early, there would be no strings to hold us back. We made a lengthy trip to Mexico to look at our prime choices. Mazatlán and Querétaro were wonderful, great climates and beautiful cities, but for a soon-to-retire musician, they were somewhat limited in cultural offerings. Guanajuato is uniquely beautiful, and had long been a favorite spot. The music scene there is amazing, and we still intend to make regular visits to sample its rich offerings. But the altitude was challenging even when I was younger, and the hills and cobblestones were hard on old knees. San Miguel de Allende is beautiful and culturally rich, but a little too trendy, and the properties there have become very expensive. We also noticed that the houses all have fireplaces, and I’m guessing they are not just for looks! Having lived in the South for more than thirty years, I refuse to shiver through another winter. I just don’t do “cold” anymore.
We arrived in Oaxaca just after people had been gunned down during political demonstrations and the zocalo had been turned into a protest camp. That can raise questions pretty quickly, even if the security fears are otherwise largely hyped. And in spite of history, culture and incredible restaurants, Oaxaca is also at 5000 feet elevation, and has lots of hills - beautiful hills, but still hills. Our final stop was Mérida. It felt just like Florida - warm and humid - great for the complexion. And it was flat, very flat, and at sea level. It is known for its summer heat, but also for its pleasant Gulf breezes, its civic pride, excellent health care, and its low crime rates. It is only ninety minutes by plane from either Houston or Miami, and another brief jaunt to my son’s family in New Orleans. Best of all, it had just been named “Cultural Capital of the Americas for 2017”, and it was brimming over with music, art, dance, and theater, and has a thriving expat community. It checked all our boxes.
We had contacted realtors in several cities before we left, and in Mérida that realtor was Dr. Leroy Osmon. He happened also to be a former music professor, so we would have plenty in common. He arranged to show us properties while we were visiting. In my usual manner I whittled down my initial list to a mere thirty properties. (I like to have options, so I am every realtor’s nightmare.) Leroy patiently showed us all of them, but we ended up buying the first house he had shown us - go figure! It was not in the historic Centro, where so many expats have purchased ram-shackled casonas and restored or re-imagined them, but in Colonia Alemán, the first modern suburb built as the city began a new growth spurt in the fifties and sixties. The north side of Mérida lacks much of the noise and pollution that marks any large city’s downtown, and we have broad boulevards, beautiful parks, and, best of all, the only sewers in town. That may seem like a small matter, but in a town where septic tanks and their attendant problems are ubiquitous, it can mean a lot! The house is not only a half block from a bustling park and mercado, but it was also on one floor - no stairs to climb. I should mention that the house came with a beautiful grand piano, so I wouldn’t have to ship mine from the states. Some things are just meant to be…
We closed on the house three months later. Almost immediately, I questioned if we had made the right choice - about the house, not the city. The house at the time had all the charm of a doctor’s office, and I was having trouble imagining how it might be remodeled to work for our needs. I had never second guessed buying a house before, so this was disconcerting. It would be six months before I would retire, so there could be many trips back and forth. We hired a wonderful architect who helped clarify options, and it turned out to be the smartest thing we ever did. In early 2017 we moved into our new home and awaited a new series of adventures in the world of renovation.