Sunday, 16 December 2012

From New York to Mazatlan with an unexpected event.

Our new apartment building - the light green one.
Whew! Its good to get here and kick back and park myself and dogs for a few months.  I'm still living out of suitcases and carrying around my "portable office" - a large computer bag on wheels stuffed with files and papers.  But this is about to change, at least with respect to Mazatlan.

We have secured a two-bed, two-bath first floor apartment in a 4-story apartment building in Centro a half-block from the ocean and malecon.  This is to become our full-time residence where we can leave our Mazatlan things over the summer.  Several friends live in the same building year-round so we have built-in care-takers if needed.  The price? $340 a month plus utilities.  How could we not take it?  It's an older building and the kitchen is definitely of the mexican variety (no counters, no cupboards except a large shelved pantry) but this can be remedied easily with a few pieces of standing storage furniture and a table for a counter.  Even a big secured parking area in the back if we choose to keep a car down here.

So we have taken a new step in the direction of permanent residency in Mexico.  Maybe there will be another twist in the road sometime but for now this seems right for us.  Every winter we spend here makes us feel more and more at home - in fact, attached to the place.  We love coming down and meeting up with friends from last winter, catching up on all their summer doings and sharing in new developments for them.  Several of them have also found new places to rent full-time (and one couple bought an old, small mexican house last winter and are now in the midst of renovating - to be finished they hope by the end of December).

The patio with plants included!

Every winter there seems to be new shops and restaurants and art galleries to see.  The centro area has really become a mecca for artistic types.  Every month there is an "Art Walk" on a Friday evening when people can wander from gallery to gallery, having a glass of wine and and snacks in each one, taking a look around.

Life is both the same in many ways as living north of the border - we go food shopping, run errands, cook, do laundry, see the doctor or dentist, take our pets to the vet, pay our bills - and also very different.  The lifestyle is relaxed and easy-going, with so many more opportunities to casually meet up with friends for a drink or a meal or a show without having to drive for miles, find parking, or spend a lot of money.  We spend a lot of time outdoors, especially for meals.  We can sit for hours in a public square watching local families walking or sitting together, just out for an evening stroll.  We might catch random acts of fireworks, or folkloric dancing, or parades - these things seem to just pop up unexpectedly.  We can watch a world-class live performance or concert in a historic, beautiful old theatre for next to nothing.  And then there is the beach and ocean just steps away.  Where else can you live like this?

End the street just steps from the ocean and malecon.

So what is the unexpected event?  Well, Mike was not due to be down here until Dec. 22 but his work contract finished unexpectedly early in New Jersey so he has come down two weeks early and now has time to work on the software during weekday hours.  We decided to focus some time on getting things going while he has the chance and before everyone takes off for Christmas.  We have a new product that is very promising as an easy thing to sell, and now have two key phone meetings set up for next week.  Oh, that this goes somewhere finally and Mike can stop consulting and work on our own thing! From Mexico perhaps?

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Life more interesting.

This year, starting 12 months ago, has been very full.  Last November, I was already in Mazatlan in a dream 150-year-old mexican house in the historical town centre.  My dogs were with me for the first time in Mazatlan.  Mike was able to spend 5 months straight there with us, working remotely.

Summer was spent in the mountain town of Canmore, AB and in our home in Okotoks, AB.  In August, Mike and I drove cross-country to New Jersey to a new 6-month work contract.  I had extended time to explore my favourite city of all time - New York.  In September, I went alone to Lake Chapala, Mexico on my first house/dog-sit for two weeks.  (That trip is another blog post on its' own). This week we experienced something very close to how it would be in a post-apocalyptic world.  Super-storm/Hurricane Sandy wiped out power, water, subways, bridges, tunnels in New York and New Jersey.

On Monday, we watched and waited, and the weather slowly worsened.  Still, no big deal we thought.  It won't be anything like the hype on TV.  My son, Tim, was with us in the apartment texting with his girlfriend, Alex, who was across two bridges and the city of NY in Queens with their friend, Riv.  It was debated whether he should go there, or they should come here, for the duration.  He decided to make his way there in the wind and rain, but the subways were still running then and he had no trouble getting there.

Mike went out to fill up the car with gas, buy water, food and flashlights in preparation.  He came back and said it was already a zoo at the gas stations and shopping parking lots - people were almost in a panic state.  

Well into the evening, until about 10:30 pm, we watched TV and browsed the internet, sipping wine and noshing on cheese, sausage and olives.  The wind was howling and the rain was blowing sideways past our window.  But, it felt kind of cosy inside.  Then, the power went out.

Okay, we were prepared for that.  On with the flashlights.  The buildings outside the window a few blocks away still had their lights on.  We decided just to go to bed and try to sleep.  An alarm sounded somewhere in the building with a recorded voice saying something.  We went to the hall and heard it say that there was a fire reported on the 4th floor and to go to the stairways to exit the building.  Ok, now we are alarmed.  Should we grab some of our things and go?  I started throwing things into a bag.  We ran around in the dark, banging into each other, trying to decide on the spot what to take.  I was just putting on my shoes and coat, when another announcement was broadcast - this one a live person.  Don't come down to the lobby - there is no fire - stay in your apartments!

Should we believe that?  What if he was wrong?  We decide to trust him and prepare to go to bed.  I looked outside and down to the streets 11 floors below and was shocked to see water everywhere - deep enough to half-submerge a car parked on the street.  A little later, we watched it deepen to totally submerge the car.  Wow, could the Hudson 6 blocks away be flooding this far in?

We go back to bed.  Just as we might have drifted off, the smoke alarm in our apartment beeped loudly.  It wasn't an alarm, it was just the low battery notice now that the power was off.  We couldn't do anything about it that night so I handed Mike earplugs and put mine in too, and we finally got to sleep.

Mike got up sometime very early in the morning while I still slept and went out to the hall with the flashlight to take a look around.  He went down the stairs, intending to go to the lobby and check conditions, but got to the 1st floor stairs and was stopped by water.  The entire first floor was under water! He went back up to the 4th floor parking garage and drove down as far as he could to the exit.  An attendant was there and told Mike that he couldn't get the garage doors open - even manually - they used electricity.

When we were both up, we immediately felt very helpless.  We have no power, no water, no way to get out of the building.  We don't know who to contact or what to do.  One of our flashlights had a built in radio so we turned it on to hear some news.  That didn't help ease our minds at all.  The news was dire all along the north east coast with widespread power outages and serious flooding.  What should we do?  I poured a bowl of cereal and milk with banana.  No coffee, just water.  I text Tim and ask how they are doing.  They are fine, amazingly no power loss in Astoria, Queens.  They had been out walking around a little taking pictures.  It was a disaster area with trees down everywhere but the power was still on.  Ok, everyone is safe, just sit tight for now.

Later that day most of the water had receded and I could see pavement again.  A few people were out wandering around.  Even a car driving around here and there.  Mike went down to the lobby and found that it had been cleared of furniture, the water was mostly gone, and a sole building attendant sat huddled on a chair wrapped in blankets with his wife.  They were cold and wet.  We found out later that he had been there all night trying as best he could to stem the tide of water that ended up rushing into the utilities room and elevators.  He had started up a back-up generator to power the hallways and common areas, and it had been wet.  It ran for a while, then started smoking and he had to turn it off.  Mike went back to the garage door and found that they had been able to manually get it open finally.

We decided to pack up some things, including Tim's things that he had left with us, and get in the car to see if we could drive over to Queens to deliver Tim's things and then look for a hotel for the night.  We had few problems getting to Queens - the bridges had been opened and there weren't too many people out driving around yet.  We got lost of course, missed a turn or two, traffic lights were out so everything was slowed to a four-way-stop situation.  We ended up driving down Central Park West somehow past all the multi-million-dollar residential buildings and hotels.  Past the dangling crane that had been broken almost in two in the wind 30 stories up on the top of a luxury residence under construction.  The area around it had been cordoned off and people were on the sidewalk pointing and taking pictures.

Finally we reach Tim, Alex and Riv who were just finishing up a meal at a diner in Astoria, and give him the rest of his things so he can be ready to go right to JFK on Thursday from there in case he isn't able to get to us or us to him in the meantime.  Good thing too.  After that day, there were very few ways of getting from Queens to Jersey City and vice-versa.  No subways, few buses, and with the increase in traffic the police were limiting cars from using bridges unless there were three or more people in the car.  Tim and friends were able to take a bus to Times Square on Wednesday and watch a sold-out Broadway show, which was amazing to me.  After that, I saw huge line-ups for buses from Queens to Manhattan on TV.  They just lucked out.  He also got very lucky on Thursday at JFK.  With all the backlog of cancelled flights for 3 days, he and Alex cruised directly through security and flew out on time.

Mike and I drove back to New Jersey and called a few hotels while in the car.  Everything was full, or the phone and power was out.  There were roadblocks and detours everywhere.  We finally find a Super 8 in North Bergen with rooms and we stay the night, enjoying a hot shower.  The cable and internet were out, but Mike was able to spin up a hotspot on his Blackberry although it went in and out.

The next day, we wonder what we should do.  Go back to the apartment and hope the power was back on?  Stay another night in the hotel?  Try to find a hotel that has internet?  We decide to drive back to the apartment and check the situation there.  It takes a long time - traffic jams and diversions - our GPS working overtime recalculating routes for us.  We drive by very long line-ups at gas stations, debris-lined streets, people hauling belongings and destroyed furniture out to the curb.  Most shops and restaurants are closed and dark.  At the apartment building we drive up to the sixth floor parking where we can walk up the stairs to the 7th floor common room which has a working internet hotspot.  The room is full of people with laptops and cell-phones, working.  It is a comfortable place with couches, tables and chairs.  We decide to hang out there for the afternoon while Mike gets in touch with his co-workers and tries to get some work done.  The office at which he usually goes to work is in Hoboken and that town got hit very hard.  There is no way to get there, and no point because the office building is shut down.  Everyone is working remotely as best they can.  Some are not affected at all, depending on where they live.  

The power comes back on in our apartment, but the water is still not working. I go down to the lobby at lunch time to see if I can find some food to bring back.  The lobby is empty of furniture still but fairly cleaned up.  People are sitting everywhere along the walls with their various electronic devices plugged in.  I ask the building attendant for an update on the situation.  He is busy talking with various types of workmen and looks really tired.  He just shrugs.  He can't tell me when everything will be working again.  I go out to the street and see that a Subway sandwich shop is open but crowded with a huge line of people.  I walk on past a bagel shop which is dark inside but I see people in there.  They are simply making coffee for sale by boiling water in pots on a gas stove and stirring in coffee then straining it out into styrofoam cups.  There is a line up of people waiting for this elixir.  The Starbucks on the corner id closed.  I walk on and find that the mexican grocery store is open.  I feel like I am back in Mazatlan!  I buy a few edibles and go back to the 7th floor.

We decide that spending the night in the apartment won't be too pleasant without water, especially in the morning, and we head out to find a hotel.  Again, it is a long time trying to navigate streets and find a hotel that is open and has a room.  We make a reservation with a central system at a Hampton a few towns away, only to get there and find that it is not open.  The central system didn't know that.  We drive by dark hotel after dark hotel, when suddenly we spot one with lights on.  Mike goes in and comes back out.  The hotel had JUST got the power on, and needed an hour or so to get things ready for guests.  They won't even let us register yet because its a computerized system.  We go to a restaurant close by that is open and have dinner.  An hour later, we go back to the hotel.  Now there is a line-up of cars and people.  Mike gets in line and is very lucky to get the LAST room!  We decide to stay 2 nights to give everything a chance to get back online at the apartment and also give Mike time to catch up on work.  Two days later, we go back to the apartment and are ecstatic that not only was the water back on, the elevators are running!

Next week I will leave New York (did I mention it is my very most favourite city in the world?) and go to Toronto to see my parents for a few days, then on to Calgary for a couple of days to do some business stuff and pick up my two very most favourite dogs, and fly to my other very most favourite city, Mazatlan.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Re-thinking the way forward

Mike's meeting with the director of the Industrial Research Assistance Program went like this:  Great idea, good market research, do you have $50K to put into the $200K grant you are seeking?  Uh, no.

His suggestions after that are really quite good.  Scale back the $200K plan, finish a very basic prototype that just one law firm volunteers to test and validate and go from there.  Here's the thing - we don't need IRAP to be able to do that.  And maybe that's a good thing.

We have a basic philosophical problem with taking government money.  It bugs us that Canadian angel and VC investors demand that startups be first vetted by government bureaucrats who have never been self-employed and put their life savings on the line.  They have a guaranteed job and retirement pension.  They don't know risk from a hole in the ground.

When you take government money, you are pinned to staying in Canada.  What if an investor wants us to relocate elsewhere?  What if WE want to relocate somewhere else?

So, we will continue under our own steam.  Andy, our programmer, knows what needs to be done for a basic prototype for the legal application and can do it.  He's been on the road in his camper for months, coding away on our platform on a thin stream of income.  He is a shareholder in the company so his work benefits him too.  Even before we start marketing the legal application, we will be ready to market another application we are calling "Move" (Andy came up with the name).  It's exclusively a tool for large enterprises that use Documentum for content and file management.  He's pretty proud of what he has created and we are too.  Already Mike's contacts in Documentum have asked for a brochure and told him "we run into this challenge all the time with clients - show us what you've got".

These events also tell us more about where we need to be - or can be - this fall and winter.  If we were working with a government grant and a couple more hired programmers, we'd really have to be in Calgary.  Now we don't.

After a month of applying for various new consulting contracts, it looks like Mike will be going to New Jersey for 6 months - but, its very possible they will allow him to work remotely after an initial month or two.  If so, we'll be in Mazatlan this winter.  If not, we'll both be in New Jersey with visits to Mazatlan.  Either way, we'll rent out the house again.  New Jersey might actually be fun. After all, right across the Hudson is the most exciting city in the world!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

We have an "Advisory Council" for software

I know, I know - two posts in one day!  It's raining and it's two different topics.

We have a marketing consultant now, working on a marketing plan for the legal market application.  He's pretty excited.  After conducting many interviews and focus groups with IT guys and lawyers in law firms across Canada, he says we've got something here - if we can build it.  And you know that means money.  However, several of the lawyers and IT guys have agreed to serve as an advisory council for us going forward.  That's big - lawyers NEVER do anything for free.

An application for a development grant has just been submitted, and will be bolstered by this marketing plan.

More news to come.....

My new career in house-sitting

Some people might think I can't stay still.  Others say I'm the most grounded person they know.  All I know is - I want to see more of the world before I die, or succumb to a debilitating disease such as Alzheimer's (and I have a pretty good chance of that given my genetics).

So, I've been cruising the various house-sitting website as a voyeur, drooling over assignments in places like France, Italy, Greece, Costa Rica, and I happened to see a very new one for 12 days in Lake Chapala in September.  Hmmm.  I'm back in our house in Alberta, kinda settled down, I'll be pretty bored by late September, and I have no idea where Mike will be then.  He could be off to some exotic place like Columbus, Ohio leaving me here all by myself.  So I applied.  The home-owner was surprised at how quickly she got a response - she literally had posted it less than 15 minutes before my email.

Here it is:

Yes, it is a casita on a property with a house where the owner lives, and it is normally for rent. My "charges" are these two:

Don't they look adorable?

I have been wanting to check out Lake Chapala area and now I can.  I even have a vehicle to drive.  Sweet!

Of course, Mike may accompany me if he has work he can do from there.  I'll let him. ;)

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Hangin' in Halifax

This why we are here.  Mike's Mom, Blanche Clarke.  Avid gardener but with limited ability to attend to it these days.  She planted much of the flowers and herb garden around her building, and her fingers are itching to get out there and weed it.

I lived in Nova Scotia for 12 years - from 1986 to 1998.  My children were born here.  We didn't live in the city but north of it in a rural community, in a house we built on Grand Lake.  We rarely visited the city.  Later, I lived in Halifax for about 2 years.  It was a difficult time in my life - post divorce - and all I remember is being depressed and disliking the place.  Summers are okay, but winter, like anywhere, are miserable.  Not so much extreme cold like in Alberta, but cold enough and wet and slushy.

But I am enjoying being here now.  The sheer green-ness and lushness of the plants and trees in the older sections of the city.  The Victorian clapboard houses with intricate and well-tended gardens.  The waterfront boardwalk.  The vibrant downtown with one or two streets in particular, lined with outdoor cafes and pubs.

The house we are staying in for $35  a night is an old Victorian, semi-renovated, with lots of quirky-ness.  It's like a warren of rooms, hallways and staircases.  We have two flights of narrow stairs to navigate to get up to our attic bedroom - and the bathroom is one flight down.  Its kind of funky, but also pretty much empty of people except ourselves.  The two nice (and energetic) young women who live here right now are always out working or with their boyfriends, and both are away for the weekend right now. We have the place to ourselves.

Today, we are taking Blanche to a movie matinee and then meeting up for dinner with Andy, our programmer, who is in town after a four-month trek in his camper-van up the east coast of the US and Canada, making his way back across Canada to home in Alberta.  He just arrived in Nova Scotia/Halifax yesterday.  Should be fun.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Doing things differently to save money while travelling

Mike and I going to Halifax (to see Mike's mom) and Toronto (to see my mom and dad - and Mike's son Matthew) for the first 2 weeks of July.  Our house is still occupied until then and our stay in Canmore is up.  We weren't too sure about spending money unnecessarily right now since Mike is between contracts and we really don't know when the next paycheck is coming in.  But he does have a part-time contract that he can do from anywhere, and we really need to go and see our folks sometime this summer.

So I began looking for inexpensive accommodations, particularly in Halifax where we definitely can't stay with Mike's mom in her tiny assisted living apartment - and we need a car while there, so going to Halifax is not an inexpensive trip for us.  We can stay at my dad's house if necessary, and don't really need a car, so Toronto is a secondary concern.

Here's what I found for our first 2 nights in Halifax for an incredible $50 a night:

The owner wrote to me after I booked it and said we will have the house to ourselves because they are going camping for the Canada Day (July 1) long weekend and would it be okay with me if he just left the key somewhere secret and we let ourselves in!

Airbnb is a very libertarian idea (in my opinion).  Anyone with a spare room or two can list it on this website, charge what they want (without tax) and make a little money without actually starting a B&B business etc.  The prices vary, but the average charge I've seen for Halifax in a modest room is $35.  Some even give you breakfast for that too.

Here is what I found for our next 5 nights in Halifax for $35 a night:

Incredible, isn't it?

Another idea I've been exploring for the future is house sitting.  I joined a couple of website services recently and I am amazed at the opportunities out there to live FREE in someone else's home all over the world.  

Check it out:

We are planning to put our house up for sale this summer.  Our plan after that is to try to find a suitable house-sitting gig in the Calgary/Edmonton area for at least 6 months.  It looks likely that Mike will need to be around here this winter, particularly if things kick into gear with the legal software app and we get funding for further development.  But if not - there are house-sitting jobs in Mexico!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

What is wrong with us?

This picture has nothing to do with this post - I just like it!  When you are writing
about software and technical stuff, what kind of picture should you use - a company logo or a picture of a computer?  Nope.  Okay, maybe - here goes:

You know, we're crazy.  After ten-plus years of developing and trying to launch a software company we have little to show for it except a LOT of code, some cool logos, a website, and a very long list of failed attempts to raise investment - and consequently, a lot of debt.  Who are we kidding?  We're in our 50's now - people our age don't launch software startups.  It's something young geeks just out of high school do.  

We are presently in the mountain town of Canmore, Alberta until the end of June, waiting for our house to be vacated by our tenants.  Mike is between consulting contracts and so we have a lot of time on our hands.  We are devoting it (in between walks with the dogs in the natural beauty of this place) to a few little projects such as expanding and building our social networks-Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter- for both our consulting and software companies.  It has become "de rigueur" to have a social network marketing strategy for even the biggest businesses, governments and other organizations.  If you aren't visible online, you're nowhere baby.  As a result, Mike is making and re-establishing contacts in the industry for both companies.

On Friday Mike has a meeting in Edmonton with three lawyers and our marketing consultant.  A marketing study was completed this spring, funded by a grant from the Industrial Research Assistance Program of Canada.  Turns out there is a strong interest from the legal field in an application that securely allows the sharing, collaboration, and transferring of documents electronically.  And Canadian lawyers want it all to be kept in Canada and not exposed to US privacy (or lack thereof) laws.  Mike tells me that he can just tweak and build onto the existing code to create such an application.  Now, a marketing plan by the same consultant is in the works.  The meeting is to have these lawyers contribute to the analysis of exactly what this app should do and how much it should cost.  The other benefit is that these lawyers will act as guinea pigs and try out the software when it is done.  When will that be?  Good question.  Further developing and coding costs money - which we don't have.  So the plan is to go back to IRAP for further funding once the idea is fleshed out.

I can't help it - I am taking a huge "wait and see" attitude on this.  I have seen too much and been disappointed too often.  But Mike won't quit, not yet, and, well, I'm married to him so I want to believe.  God help me.

Monday, 11 June 2012

How to live inexpensively in Mazatlan - Part 2

Dining out often is something that anyone with a modest budget can do in Mazatlan - and we do!  Getting together with friends over a meal is a popular activity and big part of the reason the lifestyle here is so enjoyable.  I have found that the quality and variety of restaurant meals has improved quite a bit since 2009.  The prices have risen too, and yet it is still very reasonable.  The salad above is called the Citrus Salad at La Tramoya, an indoor/outdoor restaurant on Machado Square - one of many.  I believe the cost was 70 pesos, maybe 85.  At approximately 13 pesos to the Canadian dollar, you can do the math.  The ambiance of sitting out of the sidewalk under cheerful umbrellas on a sunny, warm day, while a random guy played clarinet just a few yards away, is free.

At the same restaurant in the evening, one can enjoy a delicious and excellently prepared steak in a red wine reduction and roasted onions for 180 pesos - about $15.  While this may not be "cheap", it sure isn't anywhere near what we would pay in north america.

The most expensive thing about this meal is the glass of white wine which was 55 pesos. Some places charge as much as 80 pesos per glass.  While the availability and choices of wine with meals has improved in the last three years, the price per glass is very close to north american prices.  It is much cheaper to be a beer drinker in Mazatlan.  You can, however, buy a decent bottle of Chilean wine at the supermarket for 70-80 pesos.  Mexico does make wine, but I'm afraid its not very good.

The range of choices and prices for meals is wide.  Of course, the least expensive way to go is to eat mexican food where the locals eat.  Taco stands are popular.  A corn tortilla filled with chicken, beef, pork or fish and lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes is a perfect lunch for 20 pesos (average) - and fairly nutritious.  Hot dog stands are also common, but you probably don't want to eat one too often if you value your health. Small kitchen restaurants with a few plastic tables and chairs will cook up tacos, quesedillas, and tostadas - all a variation on a theme - meat or fish and vegetables on or wrapped in tortillas, either soft or crispy.  They won't mind a bit if you grab a bottle of cold beer from the tienda next next door to drink.  They typically offer local beverages or soda, but not alcohol.  Some places may offer more variety on their menu, such as a fish or chicken filet with rice and vegetables for about 30 or 40 pesos.

I think hands down the best inexpensive place to eat for lunch in historic centro is Paulina's Cocina (kitchen) on Sixto Osuna.  In 2009, it was a little "hole in the wall"with a limited menu.  This winter, their premises has been moved just down the street with more space inside and with tables and chairs outside on the sidewalk.  Every day, they offer a lunch special with two or three choices of main dish including salad or soup and dessert (usually home-made rice pudding or flan), along with a non-alcoholic beverage, for $60 pesos.  Come hungry.  They also have a great dinner menu with barbecued ribs to die for, and a full wine and drink list.

Of course, cooking your own meals is the least expensive way to go, particularly if you stick to locally grown fruits and vegetables and stay away from north american items which are much more expensive and treated like "specialty" foods.  Simple meals of fish, rice, tortillas and vegetables are best.  The big gringo grocery stores like Mega are reportedly more expensive than the ones frequented by the locals such as Soriana's.  Fresh fish and seafood can be purchased directly from the fishermen at a couple of spots near Centro.  Shrimp is usually about 80 pesos per kilo.  Dorado or Mahi-Mahi is the most common type of fish filets, and the most inexpensive.

It is possible to live and eat in Mazatlan on a very limited, fixed income such as Social Security.  I know of many people who do.  They don't spend a lot eating in restaurants however, and likely stick to the small local kitchens.  For a somewhat higher budget, life is still very affordable even eating out three or four times a week - something unthinkable for most of us in north america.  I know many retired couples (who are not wealthy by any means) who eat out every single day (at least for dinner) and don't consider it breaking the budget at all.  Mike and I did more dining out this past winter than ever before, but we did try to cook at home at least three or four times a week.  (Really - we did try!)  If we just didn't have the wine habit, and switched to drinking beer, we'd be much less lighter in the wallet!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

How to find a rental and live inexpensively in Mazatlan- Part 1

This is the outside of the house we rented this past winter for seven months.  We found it by "walking around".  In the spring of 2011, in the last weeks of our stay in Mazatlan, we began looking around for somewhere to rent the following fall.  We walked by this house and saw that it had a little sign on the window.  It said that the house was for sale and listed a contact number and email address for someone in Canada.  On the spur of the moment I emailed the owner and asked if we could take a look at the house, not from an interest to buy, but from an interest to rent.  He replied and said he wasn't really intending to rent it out but we were welcome to look at it.  There was a local acting as live-in caretaker and all we had to do was pull the rope by the door to ring the cowbell (doorbell).  Well, long story short, we looked, we fell in love, we asked him to consider renting it to us in the fall.  After some back and forth over a couple of months, he agreed.  Houses in Mazatlan were not selling well and it was unlikely this one would sell anytime soon.  He said he would give us 3 months notice if and when someone bought it.  The house and two studio suites were fully furnished.

This house was not a "cheap" rental for us at $1000 a month, but we decided to go ahead because it was such a beautiful place and an extraordinary opportunity to experience living there.  We were able rent out our own house in Alberta for the winter, furnished, so in fact our monthly housing costs went down.

Finding a rental apartment or house in Mazatlan can be tricky.  It can be very difficult to discern what a place is really like from classified ads and the pricing tends to be out of whack sometimes.  It is really best if you go there in person to spend a few days to actually take a look at places you are interested in, or if you happen to know people living there, have them take a look.

I got lucky with my first rental, which I found on Craigslist.  It was a 2-bed, 2-bath apartment attached to a house owned by an American.  I really did not know a lot about the various areas of Mazatlan then and although there were pictures on the ad, I rented it sight-unseen over the internet.  It turned out to be a very nice apartment in a quiet mixed residential area called Sabalo Country, close to the beaches, bus line etc.  I paid $600 US for that.  Some people thought I was paying too much, and others thought it was a deal.  There are comparable apartments for less, but they are difficult to find unless you are okay with living farther from the beach and in what some people might consider less-than-desirable areas.  Having said that, I know a couple of single senior women who each rent and live full-time in totally mexican neighbourhoods without even paved roads, and they pay very low rent - something like $200 a month - and are very happy and safe there.

Here are some ways to find apartments and houses:

1. Craigslist
2. Kijiji (in Canada)
3. Several expat websites that have classified ads such as or
4. Join Mazinfo - a bulletin board group on Yahoo.  Many of the members are long-time residents of Mazatlan and very helpful.
5.  Search various Mazatlan real estate websites for rentals, such as (they will find a place for you for a flat fee too) or
6.  Walking around

It is important to keep in mind that it is common for landlords to expect you to take care of any issues such as plumbing or electrical, appliances and other minor repairs or problems yourself.  Also, it is much less expensive to rent unfurnished if you are planning a long term rental.  It is relatively inexpensive and easy to buy used furnishings, usually from other expats.  A good rule of thumb, I think, is that the further inland (east) you go, the lower the rents.

There are several main "areas" of Mazatlan to consider, depending on what your preferences are:

Nuevo Mazatlan or Cerritos - this is the most northern and newest area, dominated by gated and other communities, and high-rise condos, all of which are either on the beach or close to it.  The buses do run out there but it takes about 45 minutes or more to go from there to Centro, which is the southern most area.

Marina - a little south of Cerritos but still dominated by high-rise condos and newer housing developments, all around a marina with inland canals.  Less of a beach area, more of a boating area.

Golden Zone - a little more south, this is primarily a tourist area with hotel resorts. shops and restaurants geared to tourists.  Apartments and homes can be found here in the residential areas just east of the main road.  This close to where I rented my apartment the first year (2009) - it was a little north of the core of the Golden Zone in Sabalo Country.  I liked it there, but I like Centro more.

Everything in between the Golden Zone and Centro - this is about a 10 mile stretch, fronted by the longest malecon in the world along the waterfront.  There are many condo buildings along here and houses and apartments just east of the main road.  There isn't very much in the way of restaurants or shopping, but the buses run down the along the malecon frequently between Centro and Cerritos.  It is about a 10 to 20 minute ride to Centro depending on how far north you live in this area.

Centro - This is my favorite place to live, but it isn't for everyone.  The core historic area consists of the Mercado (market) where you can buy all manner of fresh food, public squares such as The Machado which is ringed by sidewalk cafes and restaurants, the Cathedral, Olas Altas (High Waves) the waterfront section and end of the malecon, which is lined with more sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and blocks and blocks of narrow streets and architecturally beautiful buildings - some crumbling and just waiting for someone to restore them.  It seems no matter where you live in historical Centro, you will have to get used to noise, especially on weekends, and a certain amount of dirt and grime and smells.  Its' charm exceeds all that for me and I wear earplugs at night.

There is one other area a little bit south of Centro called Playa Sur (South Beach) which is a newer residential area, much quieter than Centro but walking distance to it.  It is mainly houses, but there are a few apartments.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive guide.  If any of my Mazatlan friends have anything to add (or correct) to this information, please feel free in the comments.

Next post: Eating inexpensively

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Lucky us.

Lake Louise, Alberta
We went for a walk at Lake Louise on Sunday with the dogs.  Before we set off on the path along the lake, a young family of middle-eastern origin with two small girls approached us with smiles and a camera.  The little girls wanted to pet the dogs, and the father wanted to capture the moment.  They were very nervous about actually touching the dogs, much like Mexican children.  I put Annie into a calm sit - Teddy is much less threatening-looking since she resembles a fluffy teddy bear.  The girls were very cute and asked me things like "do they have sharp teeth?" and "do they eat dog food?".

Mike chatted with the father who told him they were living in Dallas, Texas and had come up to Banff/Lake Louise for a 5-day vacation.  He asked where we lived and when Mike told him Calgary, he said, "It must be wonderful to live so close and be able to come here anytime you want," with an authentically awestruck look on his face.

I gazed around me at the stunning views and realized anew that we were indeed very lucky.  Seven months in Mazatlan, and now here in the Rocky Mountains where people come from all over the world for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The languages I heard as we walked the path were many and varied.  They all came for a week or two, and may never come back and see it all again.  We came for a couple of hours, and could come back on a daily basis if we wanted to.

Yep - very lucky.  Do you feel lucky to be living where you live?

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Come on in!

I'm seeing an increase in readership lately from various sources - it feels great!  I'd love to have you on an automatic email update so you will know when a new post comes out.  I am shooting for once or twice a week, depending on whether I have something interesting (hopefully) to say.  So look to your right - there is a box you can enter your email address into - or become a follower.  I am also on Twitter (sujess) and Facebook (susan.jessup).  Leave me a comment too!  I'd love to hear from you, whoever you are.

This is a picture of my two dogs with a couple of  friends coming in from a romp on the beach.  They got to be guests at a beach house for a week this winter - more than I did!  Annie is in the middle and Teddi is on the right.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

New Beginnings in Alberta

Quite a different view out our window than last week!  Once I got over the shock of the difference in climate (the air is so dry here), and having to put the furnace on in the house, I am quite happy to be here and be with my dogs again.  There are several great features to the house we have rented.

Across the gravel road you see here there is a crystal clear creek with a plain wood bridge across it and walking paths on either side.  We are just about at the end of the road so no traffic to speak of.   It is a five minute walk to the town centre and all manner of shopping including groceries.  I love that about Mazatlan and now Canmore.  I can't even do that in our own town of Okotoks.  And it is QUIET!

Mike is all set up with a quiet space and desk in one of the bedrooms to work in.  We did a big food shopping on Sunday and I have been COOKING all meals since then, and actually enjoying it.  After months of eating out on almost a daily basis in Mazatlan (because its inexpensive and is just such a part of the lifestyle there), I know we can't do that here - or we'd be broke!  We are also following a low-carb diet now that I have control over the food we eat - it's really not difficult for us and seems to be the only way for us to lose weight.  We have a couple of tricks up our sleeves to satisfy a sweet tooth with very few carbs too.

Mike is still working on the remote work contract for BHP Billiton and has another part-time remote contract coming up in June. Something else has transpired on the software front too.  We heard that it has been approved for another Alberta business development grant to pay for a professional marketing plan to be developed by a Calgary consultant.  We have to contribute 25% of the cost, which isn't a small chunk of change but we are going ahead.  The software application (we have more than one) that is going to be pursued is one for securely sharing and exchanging legal documents by smart phones and other electronic devices - the target market is law firms in Canada at first.  We had a market study done back in the fall/winter (also paid for with a grant from Industrial Research Assistance Program of Canada) and three markets were looked at - medical, music industry, and legal.  The research showed the strongest interest from the legal market.

Being chosen to receive this further grant lends stronger credibility in the eyes of Canadian investors.  And we'll circle back around to IRAP to apply for further grant money to help pay for further software development - meaning, paying programmers.  These kinds of things seems to be the ONLY way we will ever get launched in Canada.  This isn't silicon valley - Angels and VC's are virtually non-existent here, and those that exist are loath to part with their money and take any risk whatsoever.  So even though I really don't like working through government programs (seriously, it rankles my libertarian soul), there does not seem to be any other way - and believe me we have tried for years.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Time to go

Today we fly out of here for the season.  We stayed the last couple of nights at Casa de Leyendes so that we could pack up the house and put it to bed for the summer for the owners, who will come down in October to open it up for us.

So, this is naturally a time to reflect on our feelings and thoughts about Mazatlan after our third winter.  One major aha stands out for me.

I have never really been someone who had a lot interest in things like "culture" and art.  I'm a left-brainy gal, not big on emotions and feelings.  But slowly over this particular winter, I became aware of just how much those types of things add to one's enjoyment of life and cause you to form an stronger attachment to places like this.  I had not known much about Jackie Peterson and the hard work she has done for many years to encourage the sharing of cultural events between the locals and the gringos.  I did not know until she died.  Her memorial service was an eye-opener.

We made many new friends this winter, and got to know some old ones better.  Back in Alberta, our circle of friends is tiny.  We have lived there for 9 years.  And we live in a relatively small town - about 20,000 people.  Still, life north of the border simply does not lend itself to the kind of social life we have here.  It's not just that most of the gringos here are retired and have more time to make and be friends, although that might be part of it.  For me, it has a lot to do with living in historic Centro which is like a small town onto itself, except one walks everywhere and that means you are apt to run into people you know all around town and spend a few minutes chatting, maybe even sit down and have a drink or a meal on the spur of the moment.  Going out with friends anywhere doesn't mean getting in your car, driving somewhere in heavy traffic, finding parking, and then repeat to go home.  And, if you want to enjoy a cocktail or two with dinner, well, you can't because one of you will have to drive home.  The entire experience in Mazatlan is completely easy and relaxed.  I love that.  I'm quite certain living here extends your life - and if not, you will enjoy it immensely while you are alive.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Just gotta write

My son Simon atop Deer Island
I have come to the conclusion lately that I am highly unemployable in any conventional sense.  Of course, I do "work" in and on our business and have been handling just about everything related to that administratively and financially.  I do it because we can't afford to pay someone else.  It's the type of work I have always done, whether for someone else or ourselves.  I'm the organizer, the manager, the detail person.  Yuck.

Recently I was toying with ideas for what kind of work I could do (or would do) now if I REALLY had to.  Sensible people might actually be thinking that I really should be working at my age, and using my income to more aggressively pay off debts and save.  I know my accountant thinks so.  So, I thought, well, what if I was to work just 6 months of the year in the summer - what would I do that would make it worthwhile.  A review of my work history is confusing quite frankly - I've done so many different types of jobs over the years, it is really very difficult to put me in a box and say "this is what she does".  I've never had a "career". I'd be a recruiter's nightmare. I actually thought I might try taking a self-taught course to write the test for getting certified as an insurance broker - something that might tie in with a lot of my other background and give it a focus.  Yeah, that might be good......and then a few minutes later, I am shuddering when I picture myself in a cubicle wearing office clothes with a phone to my ear.  NOOOOOOOOO!  Likewise, I think about taking a few computer courses with a particular focus, like document management systems......Mike could help me learn that shit.  But god, I just don't want to!  I'd have to work in big corporations downtown and commute on a train and sit in traffic for hours a day.  Please, never again.

No, it would seem that the only thing I am suited for now is writing, particularly if I want to continue to spend winters in Mazatlan, or travel to other places more.  I just have to find a way to get paid for it.  Luckily, this is the age of self-publishing e-books and social marketing.  I'm going to give it a try.  There, I said it and I want everyone who reads this to hold me accountable.  I'm a lazy so-and-so, and I MUCH prefer reading other people's writing than my own!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Oh, these Latin men..

Mike and I went to one of the ocean-front restaurants last night for some delicious fish and seafood.  (La Fonda).  As the youngish waiter served us, I caught a subtle look from him - a slightly flirtatious smile and glint in his eye that instantly made me feel good.  It hit me then that this happens all the time and it's not because I'm some hot bod young blonde - far from it - it's just because I am a woman.   The men here just seem to appreciate the femaleness of women, no matter what they weigh, their age, colour of hair, or body shape.

I mentioned this to Mike, trying not to alarm him or make him jealous, but just as an observation - something I had been experiencing and observing all along but it hadn't really crystallized until that moment.  He says North American men certainly do appreciate women in the same way, they just feel they should suppress any expression of it - kind of a "PC" thing - in public. I disagree.

I think North American men have been programmed more by the media and society in general to place far more value on the young, the slim, the blonde (not necessarily but more than other hair colours), the buxom, and that a woman like me becomes "invisible" after a certain age.  A youngish waiter in a restaurant in Calgary would NEVER lightly flirt with me.

The kind of flirting I'm talking about is totally harmless.  It just sends a little message - I am a man and I see you and appreciate your presence.  That's it.  It's lovely.  There's no leering, no "pervy-ness" (Mike's word).

It's a kind of payback to all the mature women in this place for the fact that the young mazatlan women here are extraordinarily beautiful, and the expat men do a fair amount of drooling over them - some quite overtly. We just roll our eyes.  Meanwhile, the youngish waiter is giving us secret little looks and smiles and we remember we are women.

Another reason I love Mazatlan.

Monday, 7 May 2012

What about the software business?

Okay, so as I posted last January, I reached a burn-out point and basically refused to even talk about software, or invest any more money it.  And we haven't.  Well, maybe a little.  But our focus (well, my focus) has been on getting finances under control and paying down debt.  Mike has been a good boy and did not start any new initiatives on the software.  Andy was also busy working full-time as a consultant, which actually made us money as opposed to paying it out to him.  I began to breathe a little easier.

Until recently.

Now, I'm not saying I'm freaking out or anything.  So far, there have been no large requests for funds (a couple of small ones).  But I'm also very skeptical.  I've earned my skepticism.  I'm not being discouraging either.  

I am being told that Andy, using existing code, has created a new, deceptively simple application that actually works and can be sold for easy download to a market with a demand for it.  He did it in three days.  While on the road in his camper.  What is it?  It's not something a lay-person would understand or need so I'm not going to try to explain it - even I barely understand it.  Doesn't matter.  It does something cool and necessary for those enterprise document management people, and several immediately offered to beta test it.

Mike won't be quitting his consulting jobs anytime soon, but let's see what happens shall we?

Friday, 4 May 2012

More about The House in Mazatlan

I capitalized The House because it is so special.  The original building is from the 1860's - one of many huge homes built by wealthy German immigrant families.  It was a complete wreck when the current owner bought it about 12 years ago, and was also much larger.  He divided up the building into three and sold off two.  Then he restored the house to historical standards for this old city area of Mazatlan.  The red tile floor you see here is original and extends throughout the house and patio.

The main house itself is spacious and open, with 25 foot ceilings.  It really has only one bedroom, but there is a loft bedroom too, with a small spiral staircase up to it.  Kitchen, dining, living, bathrooms, bedroom all lie in a row facing out to the patio and courtyard.  Across the courtyard (and I'm not sure this is an original building) is a two-story building with a full studio apartment on each floor (called casitas) and a roof-top patio above.  But the main attraction of this place is the courtyard with its many and varied tropical plants and trees and vines.  There is a fountain in the center which is not functioning now but still adds to the ambiance.

The patio and courtyard are wonderful for entertaining. Three huge iron doors (seen in the picture) open the house up fully onto the covered patio and courtyard, providing total easy flow between them.  We have hosted several cocktail parties and potluck suppers over the winter and it never fails that everyone enjoys themselves immensely and comments on the relaxed and beautiful old world atmosphere.  The house is truly the envy of many expats.  How lucky we were to be able to rent it, and at a reasonable price.  We have reserved it again for next winter.

This winter, my husband, Mike, has been able to work remotely from here on a consulting contract for a company back in Canada.  He uses one of the casitas to work from.  How wonderful the opportunity to do that has been for him.  I hope it can be arranged again for next winter!  I remember my first winter here (see my first post in the blog).  I spent most of the winter by myself that time, and it was a good experience for me.  But part of my motivation to do it was to lay the groundwork for future winters here, hoping that we could eventually design our lives to be: exactly what they were this winter.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Much, much later....

In keeping with the spirit of other blogger friends who have posted recently after a long break, I have decided to do the same.  My last blog post was so very dispirited and a teensy bit depressed, I was a little worried about following it up.  But enough time has passed and much has happened in the meantime.  Here is a summary of events since January 2011:

  • Went back home to Mazatlan in January and stayed there until late April in a small apartment in old Centro at Villa Serena.  Mike continued to work on contract in California and miraculously was able to fly back and forth to Mazatlan most weekends (taking Friday and Monday as travel/work remotely days) AND have the client pay for the airfare.  This made everything sooo much better and he was being paid very well, so our financial situation improved too.
  • Summer in Okotoks.  Mike worked in California until July and was then "between contracts" until Sept. 25.  This was both good and bad.  We did a lot of road-tripping around Alberta which was fun, but there was an interruption of income.  Luckily, we had saved well during his last gig and had paid down debts so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.
  • Oct. 30 - yay! Back to Mazatlan via California.  Mike's "new" contract was same as the old contract - back to California with flights home on weekends.  One weekend we handed the keys to our house in Okotoks over to new tenants and drove with the dogs to California.  There I caught a flight with the dogs in cargo to Mazatlan to begin our winter stay in new digs - a gorgeous historic home in old Centro complete with courtyard and two extra studio "casitas".  We had found it before leaving Maz last spring and booked it for the winter.  More expensive than anything we had rented before, but with our house in Okotoks rented out to reliable tenants, our cost of living actually went down.
  • December - Absolutely loving the house and life in Maz.  Mike's contract in California ended and he miraculously (again) found a new contract that allowed him to work full-time remotely from Mazatlan with period trips north to attend a meeting or two.  No interruption of income.
  • April 2012 - Still here, Mike still working remotely, everyone thriving, parties in the courtyard, limited stress, new friends, dogs loving it and us loving having dogs with us.  Life has certainly improved 100% since my last post.  Mike and the dogs will be flying up to Okotoks on the 21st because the dogs can't fly in cargo later than May 1st.  But we still have the house here rented until the end of May, and our tenants in Okotoks want to stay there until the end of June.  So come the end of May, we will have to find alternative digs - it will be too hot here for us.  I'm thinking Canmore, Alberta for the month of June.  In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains close to Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and other beautiful places.