Monday, November 1, 2010

Mi casa mexicana

Published in Victoria Boulevard magazine, November/December 2010:
by Deborah Wilson


It can start with a vacation.
The city of Merida was well off the beaten track when I first saw it in the early 1980s. A sense of torpor and graceful decay pervaded all. Horse-drawn calesas clip-clopped along empty streets. An old man slowly mopped tiles under the grand arches of our ancient hotel.
A quarter-century later, returning for a family vacation, Merida had changed. Public squares thrummed at night with live music and dance. Colonnaded buildings and private homes had been restored to their original grandeur.
Odd details stick in your mind: The grace of an elderly couple dancing to music in the square; a particular shade of blue on the walls; the riotous noise of birds in the trees at dusk. Back home, you search the online real estate listings and lurk on forums where expatriates share tips about scorpions and septic systems. You realize you can buy a house in a nice neighborhood for as little as the price of a kitchen renovation here at home.
That's how I ended up earlier this year holding the keys to our own,  slightly dilapidated,  century-old casa mexicana. Along the way I learned that a lot of Canadians and Americans are doing the same thing. Some are also from Victoria.

A million Americans live in Mexico. Canada does not keep tabs on emigrants, but a recent study by the Asia Pacific Foundation estimated more than 5,000 Canadians have moved permanently below the Rio Grande. Many more Canadians are snowbirds, spending winters in in the south and heading home for the summers. (Canadians who stay out of the country more than six months risk losing their provincial health-care coverage.)
Around the time I was bumping around Mexico in the 80s, Evelyn Butler discovered La Manzanilla. She was looking for a winter vacation spot with more culture and less development than she encountered on holidays in Hawaii. She found it a short drive south of Puerta Vallarta on the west coast, in a small fishing village with a wide unspoiled beach. Every year after, she'd return, renting a room for five dollars per night in the only hotel in town. Meanwhile, at home in Victoria, she eventually became publisher of Boulevard. After 16 years of visiting La Manzanilla, Evelyn decided it was time to purchase her own bit of paradise. On the final day of her vacation, she climbed into a pickup truck to look at a lot with the owner.
"We were going into the jungle down this rut track and I thought, 'Oh, my God, Where are we going?' " The owner hit the brakes at a corner and jumped out of the truck with a machete. Without explanation, he started hacking fiercely at the undergrowth, before inviting Evelyn to inspect the property. She promptly agreed to purchase the lot for $7,000, racing to a nearby town with a bank machine to withdraw the $400 deposit.
Ten years after her purchase, her pretty house with stone walls, tile floors and a terra-cotta roof stands on a steep lot surrounded by palms, fruit trees and exotic flowering vines. Where there was untamed jungle a few years ago, now mansions climb the hills behind her house.
Evelyn Butler photo- La Manzanilla
Some of those new homes were built by another Victorian, Michael Cullin.
Aside from a childhood glimpse of Tijuana, Michael had never been to Mexico before being asked eight years ago to design a house for another Victoria couple in La Manzanilla. Michael understood building in the tropics, though, having lived in Barbados. He knew the need for shade and cross-ventilation, resistance to hurricanes and imperviousness to rainy-season downpours. He designed the house for his first Victoria clients, then several more houses in the fishing village, including one for his sister and one for himself.
In 2005, a road trip led to the lakeside town of Patzcuaro, high in the mountains of central Mexico. He was enchanted by the wide, shady central square, the historic buildings painted a vibrant red and white, and the evening scent of pinewood fires. On a later visit, he stayed at a 19th-century adobe villa near the square. Its original details were gone, replaced with glue-chip marble floors and concrete columns. When he learned it was for sale, he bought it in collaboration with another Victoria couple, Ross and Joanne Kipp.
Back home, Michael clicks through photos of the villa. In tribute to his hometown the inn is named Villa Victoria (VEE-ya vik-tor-E-ah). It's now a highly-rated bed and breakfast, restored to its original magnificence and filled with art and antiques, as well as the extraordinary works of local loomers, ironsmiths, and wood and stone carvers. He's opened a store in Patzcuaro, selling home furnishings and art of his own design, rendered by local artisans he's come to know. Eventually, Michael wants to live in Mexico for nine months a year.
Michael Cullin photo - Villa Victoria, Patzcuaro

While Michael and Evelyn divide their time between two lands, Juanita Stein and her husband, Jan Zak, made the big leap. They cashed out of Victoria and made a permanent move to Mexico.
They bought a 2,500-square-foot house in a working-class neighborhood, not far from the lively Plaza Grande in Merida, a city of about one million on the Yucatan peninsula. It cost less than $50,000. They also bought a car, furniture and appliances with proceeds from selling their Victoria house. Jan retired from his architecture practice and set to work renovating the house — scraping, rewiring, replumbing and repainting every inch. Juanita took a job teaching English to private school students. Then, a job came open as editor for an English magazine, Yucatan Today. The day we spoke, the couple planned to drive to the nearby beach town of Progreso to sample the cuisine at a restaurant for the next edition.
The days of $5 hotel rooms are long gone, but most Canadians still find the cost of living to be much lower. Property, construction and renovations can be a fraction of the cost north of the border. The restoration of Michael Cullin's Patzcuaro villa cost about $200,000. In Victoria, he says, it would cost $1.2 million to complete the same work.
Juanita Stein and Jan Zak's living/dining room in Merida

Juanita says one reason they chose Merida is because housing prices were more affordable than other better-known Mexican destinations. Food and most utilities are cheap, though electricity and imported electronics cost as much or more than in Canada. "We simply could not have afforded to retire in the same standard in Canada," Juanita says. "If we wanted to retire in Canada we would be paying a mortgage for the rest of our lives." Instead, they have saved enough money to buy a piece of land on the Gulf Coast, where they plan to build a beachfront getaway.
Merida is hot and humid, at times sweltering. Temperatures top 40C for a few weeks in late spring before the rains begin. Juanita will take too hot over too cold. Her year-round wardrobe in Merida consists of sleeveless tops and light khakis, flip-flops and sandals. She might tie a light shawl to her purse just in case she needs it on cooler evenings.
Juanita says for her first two years in Merida she had a recurring dream that they had never left Victoria, never found a Yucatan home, never escaped the grey chill.
Some buyers do come to wish it had never happened. Evelyn says she sees people who come on vacation and buy on impulse. A year or so later, paradise has lost its lustre, and they may find it hard to sell, especially a million-dollar-plus property. "The biggest mistake they make is they really didn't understand the culture. You're going to become part of the culture, part of the country." I notice that Evelyn and Juanita and Michael talk a lot about the Mexicans who are their friends and neighbors, contractors and collaborators. They emphasize the importance of speaking Spanish (Note to self: more lessons!)
I'm encouraged by the happiness of those who followed their dreams to Mexico. At times I wondered if I was making a terrible mistake, house-hunting on my own in unfamiliar neighborhoods. I fretted that my house would flood from the rains while no one was watching over it, or that unscrupulous people would overcharge for bad renovations. (Ripoffs are an occasional thread on the online expatriate forums). None of this has happened —  so far, touch wood.
It's getting cool in the afternoon shade on Evelyn's Victoria deck and she pulls a soft cotton shawl from Patzcuaro around her shoulders. I try to pay close attention to her helpful advice: Spray for scorpions every couple of months and cover the drains to keep the cockroaches out. Don't invest more than you can afford to risk. In Mexico, there are no guarantees. Don't expect everything to go according to plan. Don't be ostentatious. Most importantly, "know it's going to be different. Be respectful. Just be really respectful."

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