Staying Put: the Neighbourhood

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My neighbourhood is another reason I wanted to stay put in this house. I live in what expats call a “Mexican neighbourhood.” I call it “economically diverse.” It’s a neighbourhood with a lot of homes that could be called shacks, but sitting next to beautiful upscale homes. There’s often trash on the poorly maintained streets and there aren’t really any high end establishments like cafés, sit-down restaurants, and cantinas. Mérida has much neater and newer neighbourhoods and developments that look like any suburb in Canada and the U.S., with wide streets, walkable sidewalks, underground utilities, all perfectly groomed and maintained, and with beautiful restaurants, bars, and cafés. But that’s the world I’ve always eschewed and not the Mexico I fell in love with. Those are all things I enjoy in moderation. They are a place to go to for a treat. But they lack what are for me the necessities of daily living — cheap taquerías and cocina economicas, a vibrant neighbourhood market, little mom and pop-type shops where you can get really good service, and, most important, a sense of community and security because people walk the streets and know their neighbours.

Across Calle 60, the main north-south boulevard, is an older but still more upscale neighbourhood called Campestre. I’d say that neighbourhood is the same age as mine, but it’s a world apart. While the streets of Chuburná de Hidalgo are usually bustling with people, Campestre’s are eerily silent. While Campestre’s homes and streets are more diversified and older than those in the new tract developments, they are much neater than those of Chuburná de Hidalgo. Campestre doesn’t as far as I far as I’ve seen in my explorations, have a single tortillería, cocina economica, or cheap taquería. It does boast some really good restaurants, bakeries, cafés, and all manner of more upscale stores. Its “downtown” is as equidistance from my house as Chuburná’s “downtown” is to me, with its cheap little restaurants, beautiful newly renovated market, and are completely redone supermarket. I live between two worlds and can go to either as easily.

Campestre is like an island between the two main north-south boulevards.

I looked at a house in Campestre on the day that I found this house. I’ve thought a lot about that house as it was the only real other contender. It was a much, much smaller home, but not significantly less expensive, overall. Every time I find myself in Campestre, I try to imagine what my life would have been like there. I’ve been looking for the house, as I didn’t save the address, just to see where it is exactly in relation to all the things I go to between Chuburná’s centro and the businesses I frequent along Prolongación Paseo de Montejo. Well, I found it. And boy is that a funny story.

A street in the more upscale neighbourhood of Campestre.

Looking north on my street, you can see several not-so-nice homes and the crumbling apartment block at the corner. This street is definitely cleaner than the next one over, which has a huge trash heap at each end.

I made a new friend through my bowling club and he happens to live right near me and have a dog. He came by a few days ago and his dog got along fine with Bonita, so my friend suggested I go visit them with her. We know from my last post how that turned out! Well, when I had visited that little house in Campestre, I was immediately put off that that there was an expat living right next door. Can you see where this is going? 😆 Yup, the little house I’d looked at is immediately adjacent to my new friend’s home and he’s the person who helped me put it on my don’t rent list! Too funny. The world is full of strange coincidences. At any rate, now, I have my answer and the closure I wanted. I would have been so poorly situated to the things I need to be happy in my everyday life here in Mexico and I likely would have never discovered my favourite Chuburná businesses. I would also very likely have had a much higher cost of living.

Chuburná is definitely a growing neighbourhood and I’m seeing new businesses pop up all the time. I think, just based on the renovation of the Super Akí up the street that it’s slowly being gentrified. Expats are starting to discover it. But it feels like home in a way that no other part of Mérida feels like that. We’re the north of centro neighbourhood with the best bus service and our literally labyrinthian streets might not be much fun to drive but they are a wonder to walk as there is a surprise around every corner. I’m really settled in — I’m recognised as being a local and I have so many favourite restaurants I’d miss if I moved (my favourite pizzeria alone was a major factor in wanting to stay put 😆). I really love it here!

Staying Put: the Location, both in Mérida and in Mexico

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A recent comment that I received is the perfect opener to this post:

It takes a lot of courage to embark on a new life in a foreign country

This is where I have to reiterate something I have said many, many, many times. Mexico was the least brave choice I could have made. I moved to a developed, modern country that I can drive to from my home country and in which I speak the language. A brave choice would have been something like moving to Cambodia. Mexico was a comfortable choice.

I get asked how I picked Mérida and, really, was there any other option at this time in Mexico’s history? Yucatán is by far the most secure and prosperous state in the country, as evidenced by the mass exodus of Mexicans to Mérida and the environs. Mérida is also safe from earthquakes and direct impact of hurricanes.

Mérida’s only real negative aspect is the heat, which even the locals complain about and which is laughably news here, but is something a healthy person can adjust to. Accepting the heat (and the humidity) by giving in to a local schedule of staying out of the sun for the bulk of daytime hours, sleeping in a hammock, supplementing natural ventilation and shade with fans, wearing breathable clothing to prevent chaffing and absorb sweat (rather than making the mistake of wearing as little as possible) all build resiliency to the climate. I used to have to do 12-hour shifts and sleep out in minus 40 weather. The skills to survive that transfer to this climate as well — if you can’t beat it, you might as well embrace it.

Mérida is well connected to the rest of Mexico and the world by an international airport and the Yucatán has great roads (outside of Progreso) to explore a state filled with cultural and historic riches beyond all imagining. And it is quite a modern city that offers all of the services that someone who has spent most of her life living on the edge of modern civilisation might crave. I’ve spoken with Mexicans from other regions about wanting to move to another city in a few years, just to see what else is out there, and I keep being told the same thing over and over again — I’m already where I would have ended up. Well, that won’t stop me from going exploring, but it’s certainly something to consider.

So often when I talk about my pleasure at having access to services like fast, reliable, and affordable internet or Uber or an international chain restaurant, I get a reaction of derision and a haughty, “I came here for the simple life,” as though that makes their life here more noble. You know what? You don’t have to come to Mexico for the “simple life.” You can have the simple life in the Gatineau Hills or southern Saskatchewan or the Yukon or even a Texan beach. I have done my bit of living with no services, having to haul water and chop wood and make everything from scratch. The “simple life” is an enormous amount of work and the ease of urban life was for the first time appealing. But after a decade on the road, I simply cannot afford to return to an urban life in a Canadian city that can offer even a fraction of what Mérida offers while having such a high standard of living. And that has nothing to do with my having taken my decade off — if I had remained in my government position, I would still be making almost exactly what I was making 10 years ago, but, according to a recent rental ad, my rent would have doubled! I would not have been able to continue living in such a centrally located urban neighbourhood if I wanted to keep up a similar standard of living.

Looking at friends of comparable age, it seems that we have generally done best when we have given up on the life we were raised for because we accepted that that world we were prepared for no longer exists. Those of us who have outrun the steadying decline into — and normalising of — genteel poverty are those who have managed to continue earning a Canadian-level wage while moving to places with much lower costs of living. But ultimately, for all our adventuring, we still crave the comforts of modernity, like nights cuddled on the couch with the dog in a beautiful home while watching Netflix and waiting for your UberEats driver to come with a sushi meal. It’s sadly funny that the people who defined having arrived in life by having access to such comforts tell us that we can only have those things if we follow a very specific path — any other and you do not deserve comfort. Ha!

So, really, in terms of choosing Mexico, Mérida makes the most sense for me at this time in my life with my need for a bit of stability to focus on growing my business. The location of my home within Mérida is also excellent as Mérida isn’t a huge city, but she’s not easy to get around in.

I’m almost exactly in the middle of “north” Mérida. Many residents of the north do not venture south of the Cathedral unless they are going to the airport as there are not many services down there. I go periodically and it is not an easy part of the city to get to, but homes are much less expensive. I have friends who are rare expats making their home in the “south” and their proximity to the periferico (the ring road) gives them the best of both worlds in terms of car access to the north and low cost of homes. But as someone who likes to be able to walk and bus as much as possible, I don’t think I’d be happy there.

The next post will talk more in depth about my neighbourhood, but I will say generally that I am very well situated right near a major north-south road. Mérida is a city with a strong car culture, which is the most negative thing I have to say about living here. Public transportation is inadequate and the road infrastructure can’t keep up with the population growth. Going just a few kilometres in Mérida is an ordeal, especially in a vehicle without air conditioning that doesn’t fit in underground parking structures. Being so centrally located, I spend less time getting places and taking Ubers makes financial sense. It also means that outside of the dead heat of the day, I can walk almost anywhere I want to. I’m not doing as many 6-10KM roundtrip walks as I’d expected, but within a radius of 4KM roundtrip, I have 99% of what I need and I take advantage of that. It’s funny how getting on a bus or in an Uber or driving to go somewhere feels like work most days, but being able to walk 2KM there doesn’t.

So the longer I live here, the more activities I add to my schedule, the more friends I make, and the more businesses I start to frequent regularly, the happier I am living where I do in Mérida. Next up, I’ll explain why my neighbourhood is such a good fit for me.

Staying Put: Bonita and the House

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Staying put for financial reasons is all well and good, but it’s not the only reason. Like, if I wasn’t happy in my house and the house was causing me stress in ways other than financial, moving would probably be a good idea. But that’s not the case. I adore my house.

Before I get more into details about why the house is working for me, I want to address why staying here for Bonita was something that had to take precedence over my own needs. Remember that I adopted Bonita at age 11 or 12 after she had spent 10 years living in a smallish outdoor enclosure. Bringing her here was a huge trauma that took months to get over. Now, she is queen of her little domain. The yard is large enough for her to get some proper exercise, there are a variety of spaces to explore, there is shelter, and there is easy access in and out of the house. I would have had to work really hard to find another house that had the right yard for her. She also knows the people who come in and out with any sort of regularity and is happy to see them. Moreover, she knows what is normal noise on the street and what I need to be alerted to — yes, I have a guard dog!

B has two modes: hyperactive puppy or sedate geriatric.

Now that Bonita is settled here, she doesn’t like to go out. I thought that she might appreciate a trip to the beach or to a park, but that just stresses her out. She’s always happy to go out initially, but it only takes a few minutes for her to have enough and express a desire to go back home. I always have to remember that she is an old girl and that she does not have the needs of young pup. So with that in mind, I think that moving right when she has finally truly settled in would have irreparably traumatised her.

It took more than a year, but B actually will cuddle with me now, especially when I’m working. She likes to press against one of my feet.

So the house. Sure, I dreamt (and dream) of a house with more character but you know what? I’ve looked at a lot of houses here and unless I want to live in a damp, dark, and poorly ventilated colonial in centro or spend really big bucks for a mansion, I’m living in a very average middle class home in Mérida and I’m not likely to find one with character. They’re really conservative here and things are just as uniform and monochrome as middle class Canada and the U.S. have become, so it’s up to me to add colour and character within my budget and limitations as a renter. I’m about to embark on a project that would solve my biggest issue with the aesthetic aspects of the house, but I don’t want to talk about that until I have something to show for it. I’m super excited about getting going on it, but, as always, finances dictate how fast projects move forward. 🙂

The house is really comfortable as it’s built for the climate — I remain convinced that a smaller home with poorer ventilation would have ultimately cost me more because I would have had to rely a lot more on AC. The house very bright and airy (and private!), has the right number of rooms for me in the right proportions, and it is well maintained. The design of the house is such that it is almost entirely shaded from direct sunlight. So that combined with the privacy wall around the property means that I can leave most blinds open and let sunshine pour in. I never realised how important natural light is in a home and now that I have it, I’ll never want to do without. And to further show how well the house was designed, when it rains really hard, there are still doors and windows that are well protected enough that they can be left open, so I can still enjoy a breeze rather than let the cloying humidity build up.

A bright morning on the patio after a storm. I will have tomatoes in a few weeks!

Privacy is a big thing. I love that I can get fresh air and sit outside without necessarily having people see what I’m up to. I also like that if a stranger rings the bell, I’m only letting them see into my front yard, not my whole house. I don’t really feel that disconnected to my street, though, because I frequently step out to go for a walk. I know my landlady would just drive out of the parking bays and not talk to anyone. So I’m well connected to the routine of the neighbourhood and I know what noises I need to go investigate and which are just life going on as normal.

I also have privacy in the sense of having my own space when guests come, be they there for just a few hours or for a few weeks. I don’t have to share my bathroom and if I want alone time, I can retreat to my spacious master suite and let guests watch TV in the living room. I can also shut the door to my office and let guests live their life without bothering me. I still haven’t given up on the idea of doing Airbnb here and I’ve gotten a good sense of how that would work with my routine and my need to feel like I have my own space (doable with the right guests!).

I use all the spaces of my home, and most daily. It’s wonderful to have the upstairs landing as a creative place where I can leave unfinished projects without them being in the way. The maid’s suite is my “catch-all” room and a great place to do furniture painting projects as it has a door to outside. The guest suite is there when someone needs it and is very comfortable now that it has blackout curtains and a double bed. The kitchen is fully furnished now and I enjoy my meals at my dining room table, the breakfast bar, or the rear patio. I have to say the side terrace is the only space I haven’t used as much as expected, but it has a power outlet nearby and I have on occasion sat out there with the laptop.

The upstairs landing has amazing light during the day. I need to find some nighttime lighting so I can use this space when I get off work!

My office is still nowhere near the office of my dreams and is poorly situated in the house, but I know the rhythm of my neighbourhood now and when noise will ebb and flow, so my productivity isn’t affected. I do love how I get a breeze through the room and how it is flooded with natural light for most of the day without there being direct sun. And, of course, Bonita has an exit to outside from it, so she’ll frequently go out to run around or dig in the dirt or chase bugs while still being able to occasionally pop in and make sure I’m okay.

Mid-morning in my office. Finally have the desk arranged optimally. I like being able to look towards the carport, the yard, and at my flamingo. 🙂

The master bedroom caused me grief for a long time. It was just too loud and bright — I didn’t have the protection of the walls around it to tune out noise and one of my neighbours keeps replacing his rooster. I really didn’t want to move down to the maid’s room or even the guest room — I love having my private upstairs retreat. I investigated all manners of noise and light-proofing. As it turns out, a hammock, a good quality sleep mask, and the cheapest small box fan from Walmart run at top speed ended up solving my sleep issues!

So all told, I’d rate the house a solid 9 out of 10, losing points for bathrooms and a kitchen that need updating and its blandness. There’s no way I’m going to get a 10 at my price point, especially as a tenant. I knew this house was special when I first visited it and it still feels like that now. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude at this house being my home. I remember doing some unpacking 18 months ago and thinking, “I’m going to be really happy here.” And I was right. I really think I would have more to lose than to gain by moving in terms of the quality of life I have in this home.

A future post is going to discuss some of the promises I made to myself regarding upkeep of the home and how I manage all the chores that come with living in such a large space. But I will add here that having a landlady who is on top of the maintenance really makes a difference. I have to pay for little bits of maintenance myself (like a plumbing leak), but she’s on top of the big things, like having major electric work done to resolve my issue of wild voltage fluctuations and changing the float in the roof tinaco so I stop running out of water when it gets stuck.

Of course, a house doesn’t exist in a bubble, so the next couple of posts are going to talk about where the house is located within Mérida and even all of Mexico. Then, I’ll delve deeper into details about my neighbourhood and how I’ve fallen back in love with it after having a bit of a tiff.

 

Staying Put: Finances

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I’m going to get the heaviest and most emotional post in this series out of the way first. This is the post I know a lot of you have been wanting, based on comments here and on Facebook, as well as emails I’m received, because it’s the post where I am going to flat out tell you the real principal reason why I lost interest in blogging. If this post offends you, then that’s the second reason why I lost interest in blogging and not the subject of this post. 🙂

Let’s go back to the early summer of 2008, when I’d made the decision to buy Miranda and hit the open road in an RV. At that time, I was almost debt-free (just a car payment) and had savings and investments. There were some rumblings in the financial world, but no real hint that the bottom was going to drop out. My financial advisor at the time told me to finance Miranda rather than buy her outright based on the current interest rates.

The plan was to live off savings for a few months, then I would start getting jobs and eventually build some sort of passive income through blogging. Within a year, I was flat broke (minus my investments) and my credit was maxed out. I was never able to recover from that because of this blog. Instead of doing the sensible thing and just staying put somewhere warmish for a year to get a decent paying job that would let me pay off the newly accumulated debt, I put all my energy into trying to make the blog a business.

No matter how many times most of my readers made it clear that they would not tolerate any attempt to monetise the blog, including supporting me during times of financial crisis that I saw other bloggers got fundraisers for, I persevered and put all my creative energy into finding a way to make money from the blog. The culmination of that effort was the 2011 Early Bird RV Show, which was a major contributor in my hitting real financial rock bottom in July of 2011, the summer that I was in Lethbridge. I only made it to that point, and a little beyond, thanks to the generosity of the readers who invited me to park on their property or even just took me out for a meal while I was passing through town. If you gave me that kind of support, I have to stress how much it meant to me and that it was never taken for granted. You were the people that help me justify some of the energy that I spent on the blog in that time and that made me feel like I was part of a community.

It was in Lethbridge that things would start to slowly pick up as I built my transcription business. But again, I was faced with the challenge of being a digital nomad in a country whose ideas about internet access are twenty plus years behind that of the rest of the world. Even when I got mobile internet, there were months where I was paying 500CAD for bandwidth in order to be able to make barely more than that in income. The only way I could see out of the mess I was in without compromising my desire for mobility was to start spending time in the US for its better weather and lower cost of living. So that’s how the decision came about to buy Haven, so that the US would see I had a real home base in Canada. But then, life continued to throw curveballs, most especially the accident in 2012 that made me feel more isolated than I have at any time in my life. I ended up getting one wonderful winter in the southern US and then, it was time for Miranda to limp back to Canada to be berthed permanently at what would become, although I had no idea of it at the time, my beloved Haven.

The winter of ’13-’14 was really hard, but I emerged from it in a financial upswing that made it possible to go to Mexico for that first winter. For the first time in six years, I stopped increasing my debt load and was able to meet my monthly expenses every month. But I wasn’t actually paying off debt, just living month-to-month.

In January of ’16, the most amazing contract I will ever have ended without warning. The client went above and beyond for me and gave me an incredible severance package that they absolutely did not owe me. I was blown away by their generosity. I had a choice — make a huge dent in my debt or give myself one last hurrah before settling down in Mexico for a few years to actually start paying things off. So that’s how my year in Europe happened. Even though I had to steal from my European budget to fund my preempted move to Mérida, I have no regrets. I ended up where I knew I needed to be, just sooner than expected.

A bunch of Balkan currency leftover from my adventure

I thought a lot about what I would rent when I finally got here. I could have gone with a crappy little studio type apartment for 1,000 pesos per month so that I could really slam my debt. Or I could find myself a real home, somewhere that I’d be happy to live in long-term. I’d have initial move-in costs, but after that, I could settle into a budget and coast, especially if I decided and was able to renew the lease after the initial contract was up. That latter option made the most sense to me. I wanted a place where I could wake up in the morning and be happy to go to work there, a place where I could receive people and build a new life instead of feeling like I was in suspended animation waiting for life to restart. It would be easier to focus on a debt repayment plan if I still felt like I could live a decent life (I’ll go into that in more detail in another post as this one is getting too long). Anything else would feel like I was punishing myself for my previous choices when I did not regret them one bit.

And it’s not like the amount of debt is that huge — once I figured out my real budget for living here, I knew I could knock that debt out in two to three years at my current income levels or even sooner if I increased my income. So that’s the mode I’m in right now, my schedule wholly centred on work, where, for quite a few years, work was scheduled around life. I just need to get through over this hump and then I’ll be able to dramatically cut back on my work hours without affecting my quality of life. Or I’ll be able to really increase my support of my “adopted family“.

I’ll sidebar here to say thank you to Contessa for all her hard work promoting my Amazon link to earn commissions that go directly to this family. This is such an effortless way to help people at no cost to yourselves, but no matter how much I’ve promoted that link over the years, no one else has bothered to bookmark and use it. 🙁

One of the things I’m working on is taking a course that would let me move into legal transcript proofreading. If I’m successful, that will double my income and get me out of debt even sooner. But I never make my plans on financial maybes, just the budget of the day. And unlike what a lot of people have told me, no, I can’t just coast until some long lost relative dies and leaves me their millions! Or I win the lottery. Seriously, what world are people living  in?! 🙂

It helps your finances when this is an expensive taco meal!

I’m actually in really good financial shape for someone my age — between investments, my Canada Pension Plan benefits, and Old Age Security, I will have a comfortable retirement here in Mexico. Property values in Saskatchewan are increasing steadily enough that it is not unrealistic to think that I may one day be able to sell Haven to buy something modest here. So it’s not like some people think, that I’ll clear off the debt and have to start over in my forties with a net worth of zero.

And interestingly enough, I find there is a lot more financial security in being a freelancer than having a job — if a lose a client, I can turn around and get another, and while I’m doing that, I’m still getting income from the remaining clients.  I’ve come to understand a lot of things about myself in my decade out of the world (more on that in yet another post) and one of the most important ones is I don’t need anyone to manage me. I think this has to do with the fact that my parents were never that hands on and treated me like an adult from a very early age. If they didn’t feel I need raising and I did just fine on my own, how does it make sense for me to answer to a boss? Plus, I have had too many “Miranda Priestleys” in my life, bosses who thought they were superior to their staff and belittled them. I know my worth. When I get a client that acts like that, it is so empowering to just fire them!

So all that said, staying put makes financial sense to me. Instead of having to lay out big bucks again this year for deposits and time off to house hunt, I can instead put that money towards debt. I really don’t have any big expenses ahead of me until spring of 2021, when I’ll be able to move from my temporal to permanente visa. All my electronics are up to date; the house is as furnished as it needs to be; I have a furry reason to keep my nomadic tendencies in check and not take any big trips; and while I’m super eager to get a more city friendly vehicle with AC, Uber is ridiculously affordable. I’ve got two years of data now on what it costs me to live my life here, have set a budget that I can stick to, and as long as work holds out, there’s no reason that in 2021 I won’t be able to celebrate my 10-year anniversary of freelancing with an amazing trip, like I did my 5-year anniversary. I’m absolutely fine with where I am right now. Truthfully, I’m exhausted. I have not stopped since that moment in Bulgaria when I decided to preempt my move to Mérida by 18 months. It feels really good to take a breather (yes, there’ll be more on this subject in another post, go figure!).

I’m just waiting to find out how much the landlady is going to increase the rent. My rent went down the second year so I’m expecting a fairly drastic increase to make up for that and bring me back up closer to current market rents. That said, my landlady said it will be a “small” increase so I’m pretty confident that I’ll still be within my 10,000 pesos or less ideal price range. Such an increase would still be much less than having to take time off to house hunt, the deposits I’d have to put down, and the furniture I’d need to buy that is provided in the current house. I’m really a big picture thinker, so the rental increase isn’t concerning.

And that brings me to the primary reason I’ve stopped blogging: my job and blogging both take an enormous amount of mental energy. One pays the bills, one keeps me in debt. I’m mature enough now to know what my priority should be. I do miss having the personal journal aspect of the blog, but I make notes on pictures I take and I do keep a personal diary, both of which achieve a similar result and aren’t as mentally taxing. Would I start blogging again if I could suddenly start making with it a living at least as comparable as I do transcription? At this point, probably not, and that’s the other reason why I’ve stopped blogging. Maybe one day, I’ll address that reason too…

So that’s the heavy post out of the way. Heads up for those sick of the dog pictures — Bonita’s going to be the star of the next post in this series. 😉

Staying Put: a Series on Why I’m Renewing My Lease

The entrance hasn’t changed much… but for the dog bed by the door and the dog running around!

My lease expires at the end of September. I did not want to spend the next months working double overtime to save enough to come up with deposits early “just in case” I would end up losing the summer to hunting for a suitable house for Bonita and myself. So I asked my landlady at the start of April if she and her husband would consider extending the lease another two years.

It took 24 hours for her to reply that she had spoken with her husband and, as long as I would accept a small rental increase, they were happy to renew for two more years because of how happy and fulfilled I am here, my care of the house, and the fact that I’m always punctual with the rent payments.

I felt like an enormous weight had been taken off my shoulders now that I knew I had a solid 24 months of stability ahead of me, something I haven’t experienced for more than ten years and which I feel I need at this point in my life.

I wrote a very, very long post about my reasons for choosing to stay put. And then, I realised that not only did I have enough to split the post up into a series of posts, I could use this series to address a number of topics I’ve been meaning to write about that may not be directly related to the lease renewal but which address where I am in my journey right now and how I see myself going forward. I’ve not set up a timeline for when I’ll get the following posts out nor have I decided the order in which I will post them, but these are the topics I will address regarding my decision to stay put for a few more years. As I post, I will come back here and link to the post in question.

Finances

Bonita and the House

The Location, both in Mérida and in Mexico

The Neighbourhood

Building Sustainable Habits/a New Life/a Routine