Gringos in Paradise: An American Couple Builds Their Retirement Dream House in a Seaside Village in Mexico

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9780743276351: Gringos in Paradise: An American Couple Builds Their Retirement Dream House in a Seaside Village in Mexico

A Year in Provence meets Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House in this lively and entertaining account of a couple's year building their dream house in Mexico.

In 2004, Barry Golson wrote an award-winning article for AARP magazine about Mexican hot spots for retirees longing for a lifestyle they couldn't afford in the United States. A year later, he and his wife Thia were taking part in the growing trend of retiring abroad. They sold their Manhattan apartment, packed up their SUV, and moved to one of those idyllic hot spots, the surfing and fishing village of Sayulita on Mexico's Pacific coast.

With humor and charm, Golson details the year he and his wife spent settling into their new life and planning and building their dream home. Sayulita -- population 1,500, not including stray dogs or pelicans -- is a never-dull mixture of traditional Mexican customs and new, gringo-influenced change. Before long, the Golsons had been absorbed into the rhythms and routines of village life: they adopted a pair of iguanas named Iggy Pop and Iggy Mom, got sick and got cured by a doctor who charged them sixteen dollars a visit, made lasting friends with Mexicans and fellow expatriates, and discovered the skill and artistry of local craftsmen.

But their daily lives were mostly dedicated to the difficult yet satisfying process of building their house. It took them almost six months to begin building -- nothing is simple (or speedy) in Mexico -- and incredibly, they completed construction in another six. They engaged a Mexican architect, builder, and landscape designer who not only built their home but also changed their lives; encountered uproariously odd bureaucracy; and ultimately experienced a lifetime's worth of education about the challenges and advantages of living in Mexico.

The Golsons lived (and are still living) the dream of many -- not only of going off to a tropical paradise but also of building something beautiful, becoming a part of a new world, making lasting friends, and transforming their lives. As much about family and friendship as about house-building, Gringos in Paradise is an immensely readable and illuminating book about finding a personal paradise and making it a home.

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About the Author:

Barry Golson tried to retire, but put it on hold to launch a travel website for Forbes.com. He and his wife Thia are also researching a new book on living abroad to be called Retirement Without Borders. Golson is a former editor of the Playboy interviews, TV Guide, and Yahoo! Internet Life. He has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Ski, and Salon. His article for AARP on Mexico won a Lowell Thomas award. He and Thia divide their time between New York and Sayulita, and look forward someday to re-retiring.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1

A Rainstorm...

A Goodbye Party...Crossing Over

¿Es usted norteamericana?

Sí, soy norteamericana.

We are rolling across the republic to the soft droning of my wife's Spanish language drills on the car's CD player. My wife answers with the same exaggerated singsong lilt as the woman on the disc, and it is starting to grate on me. Certainly it is a credit to Thia that she is using our five days of driving to the border as a time to begin learning the language, but it has something of the same effect on me that songs tallying bottles of beer used to have when returning from camp. It is Election Day, and it is pouring sheets here in Ohio as autumn lightning crackles down onto the plains. When we pull off the highway to fill up, I see lines of people outside a school building, holding umbrellas or turning their collars up, waiting to vote. Thia and I have cast absentee ballots in our Connecticut town before leaving -- as it happens, I was in the college class between the two presidential candidates -- but if there is any astral, or political, sign in our departure, it is not of our making.

The election results unfold for us in a motel in Ohio, where it continues to pour. We wonder, in passing, what effect the lashing rain might have on the voter turnout here. Thia and I resume our drive the next morning, and the weather clears. She puts on her Spanish drills again (yes, she is a norteamericana, but I cannot think of a time in Mexico in the next two years when we'll be called that), and we strike a time-sharing compromise: I am finally able to tune into my newest toy, a satellite radio. With 120 channels, it turns a long drive into a continuous sampling of music, news, and sports -- Mozart, classic rock, crooners of the thirties, Debussy, even a twenty-four-hour Elvis channel, plus NPR and the talk shows, all thrashing out the election results.

Although we are on our way to simplify our lives, it will not be without some of our society's more useful technology. Mine is the first generation since the rise of the Internet and the technology boom to try out the expatriate life. We may not need our TV -- we have not brought along a set -- but we do want our laptops, our DVD players, our iPods, our Wi-Fi cards.

Our car is a midsize used Japanese SUV I bought recently on eBay. It is hardly a smart choice of car, since it is not serviced in Mexico, and it is not particularly economical or environmentally friendly. But it is a strong, rugged beast, and we didn't want to trade it in for a lesser breed; at least it is a four-wheel drive vehicle. Mexico, as we knew from a previous visit, offered ample opportunities to test a car's constitution. The topes -- vicious speed bumps that appear out of nowhere approaching towns and villages -- were enough to require reinforced shocks, and any detours could involve streams, mud, and rocks.

It also had enough cargo room for the stuff we were bringing for a first year's stay in Mexico. Thia decided suitcases would only be a nuisance to store in the apartment we would be renting, and a pain to pack in the car, so instead we filled sixteen large steel-reinforced plastic trash bags with our (all-summer) clothes, our laptops, a printer, a fan, our flippers, a multitude of CDs and books, a stereo, and a foldable bookcase.

By afternoon of the next day, in Missouri, we switch off the satellite radio in favor of an audio book of Mark Twain readings. As we have planned our rambling route, we cross the big river not that far from Hannibal listening to excerpts from Life on the Mississippi. We are in no hurry to reach the Mexican border. We have traveled with our boys throughout the United States and in Europe, and always enjoyed the going as much as the getting there.

To easterners, Europe seems closer than Mexico. In the East, our superficial image of Mexico is shaped by what we read or see on television or when immigration issues are in the public eye: a poor country with good resorts, lousy water, spicy food, dangerous bandidos, a colorful history, and a hard-working people -- a good number of whom might, at any moment, be poised at the Rio Grande, paying unscrupulous smugglers their life's savings to ferry them across to do America's lowest-paid work. When we get exercised about illegal immigration, as we do every few years, we notice the Mexicans in our midst, laboring in our fields and our cities. But we do not trouble ourselves to know much beyond the clichés about Mexico, or about the Mexicans who remain and reside in their own country. In the East we are exposed to a less nuanced image of Mexico than are residents of California or the Southwest. But it's safe to say that a mix of apprehension and condescension toward our southern neighbor seems to be pervasively, reflexively American. Sorry, North American.

In our family, there was a different tradition. It may not have been in our blood -- we're pretty much Irish-French -- but living in Mexico for a time was part of our family history. My paternal grandfather lived and worked in Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, at the turn of the last century. My father, a mining equipment salesman, was transferred to Mexico City in 1952, and we spent seven years there, leaving when I was twelve. I forgot much of my Spanish and did not return to Mexico until I was an adult.

Though I passed some formative years there, Mexico faded from my mind. My family moved to Europe -- I met my future wife's family there -- but I went to high school and college in the States and worked in America's big cities. I retained a warm feeling for the years I spent in Mexico City, which was then a balmy city of a few million. It seemed to me, young as I was, a fabled, romantic time of my life. But later, as time went on, I became no less susceptible than other Americans to the drumbeat of press reports about Mexico's unstable finances, poverty-stricken citizenry, and crime in the border cities, to say nothing of the effects of drinking the tap water.

In fact, after we announced our decision to our larger circle of friends, it was surprising how many had their own personal horror stories to relate, and how eagerly they told them. Just before we left, there was a good-bye party for us in New York at our in-laws' apartment. Our friends came to wish us well. One, a svelte, smart New York City judge and an experienced world traveler, told us she had visited Mexico only once and had been shipped home feet first, retching. A soft-spoken sister-in-law was uncharacteristically agitated when she talked about a friend who had once been stopped by police in Mexico and taken off to jail on spurious charges. A couple of friends from the suburbs mentioned kidnappings in Mexico City and the rash of stories about violence in the border cities.

At the party, after we cut the celebratory cake that was bought for us, several of my male friends put their arm around my shoulder.

"You dog," said a lifelong buddy. "We're so goddamn envious."

"You're paving the way," said another friend and fellow writer. "You're going to live the dream."

That is what they were saying. But by the way they squeezed my shoulder, kneading it sympathetically, I knew it was more than happiness or even a touch of envy they felt for us -- they were wishing us luck, as if they feared we would need it.

After a final Stateside lunch on San Antonio's voguish riverfront, we are in Laredo, Texas, approaching the border. Thia and I rehearse our plans. The guidebooks and websites have advised us what we can legally take across the border. Among other things, we are declaring only the ten books and twenty CDs we are allowed under a tourist visa, and have written a list to that effect, translating it into formal Spanish on Google's language site.

We are taking a risk by failing to declare the fifty CDs and the sixty or so books we are actually carrying. We will be applying for a tourist visa even though we intend to stay for at least a year, and will wait to get a resident visa at our destination in Mexico. That will eventually allow us to bring over a virtually unlimited number of household goods, but for now we have to make do with what tourists do. We are resigned to what may happen if the Mexican border police give us the notorious red light, which randomly singles out travelers for a major inspection. We know we face duty and a possible fine if our international music- and book-smuggling operation is uncovered.

In downtown Laredo, we pick up our Mexican insurance papers; American insurance is not valid in Mexico. Nasty stories about uninsured accidents in Mexico are a cottage industry online, not least because so many Mexican drivers do not themselves carry insurance -- or driver's licenses, for that matter. In Mexico, we hear, with a legal system in part based on the Napoleonic code, guilt is sometimes assumed and innocence must be proved. If papers are not in order, or there are any discrepancies at the scene of a fender bender, it is not unknown for the police to escort both drivers to a jail until it can be sorted out.

We head for the international border.

In the middle of the bridge spanning the Rio Grande, we pass into Mexico. American customs is uninterested in those of us leaving, while at the Mexican booth, an unsmiling man in uniform peers in at us and nods us through. It's a false positive, we know. The real customs stop is twelve miles down the highway, through a "free trade zone," in which U.S. residents can make casual day trips with a minimum of red tape. Those of us going further face the gauntlet. It is an instructive experience to cross the border by car, unlike flying into a Mexican airport, where you encounter only gradual changes amid the familiar glass and chrome of the arrivals building. In a car, you are immersed in the new culture instantly.

On the streets of Nuevo Laredo, the potholed pavement, littered sidewalks, dilapidated buildings, horizontal traffic lights, and a swelter of unfamiliar signage hit us at once. An old gentleman in a straw hat pulls out in front of us, on...

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