Thursday, 27 November 2014

Adventures driving in Mexico with Big Red the Jeep

I recently drove with my most excellent house/dog-sitters, Anne and Mike Howard of, who are globe-trotting travel bloggers of some renown, from Puerto Vallarta to Austin, Texas.  I needed to renew my permit for the Jeep for another six months, which means a trek to the border and re-entering with a new permit.

Anne and Mike had been staying at my apartment with the dogs for about 6 weeks while I was up in Calgary.  They fell in love with Mazatlan, my dogs, and apparently many people here returned the love.  They were very popular people, and for good reason.  They are young (both still in their 30's), energetic, engaging and friendly people with many fantastic stories of their travel adventures on an extended honeymoon.

I flew to Puerto Vallarta because flights were much less expensive to there from Calgary.  They drove down and picked me up at the airport - then we were on our way driving north.  We stopped in Tepic, Durango and Saltillo for a night each, then up to Austin where they had friends to stay with before flying back up to New York.

I planned to meet up with a fellow driver in Laredo, Texas, a border town, the next day to drive tandem with him back over the border and back to Mazatlan, 1060 kilometers.

However, my Jeep had other plans.  

I had experienced some signs that all was not well with the Jeep when we sat at the border crossing on the way up for over 2 hours in the heat, idling the motor.  But, after a some TLC at a Pep Boys after crossing, it seemed to be fine. 

I left the hotel at 5 am in Laredo to get to the border crossing, 4 kilometers away, at an early hour when it wouldn't be busy.  My travelling partner was driving behind me on the highway when the Jeep suddenly began back-firing and stuttering.  I pulled off and he followed me to a parking lot.  The Jeep died.  I told him to go on without me, I would have to get it towed to a Pep Boys for repair - and god knows what was wrong with it.  

He had it set in his mind that he was going to drive the entire distance in one day and so was not about to delay his travel - he left me in the dark in an empty parking lot in a border town.  I didn't know quite what I was going to do then.

As bad as that guy might be, another guy was great.  A man in a pickup pulled up near to me (I was a little nervous about that) and rolled down his window.  I rolled mine down a little.  He asked if I was okay - did I need help? What a lovely man - he was Mexican-American.  He drove to a Pep Boys to see if they were open (they weren't) and then came back and called a tow truck for me to get towed to the Pep Boys and wait for them to open.

They opened at 8.  I sat in the Jeep needing a bathroom but finally got in and explained the issue.  They took the Jeep in and said it was a blown distributor.  It was replaced and I was back on the road by noon - $500 lighter.  But it could have been worse.

Then I was faced with driving on my own across Mexico.  I debated with myself about it, but in the end I sucked it up and figured I had no choice - anyway, a lot of people do it every day and the toll-roads are excellent.  I actually decided to wear a black, loose-fitting shirt and no makeup or earrings to make myself as non-attention-grabbing as possible.  Anyway, a middle-aged woman with short grey hair, in a 1998 Jeep, isn't going to get much attention.

The first day, leaving around 1, I drove to Saltillo and stopped for the night before dark at 5ish.  About 300 kilometers, but with an hour of processing at the border for my visa and the car permit.

The next day, I was on the road at 9 am and drove the rest of the way, descending out of the mountain passes 30 kilometers from Mazatlan before dark.  The Jeep ran like a dream.

Monday, 10 November 2014

A post for Blanche Clarke

We have been busy renovating our condo in Calgary this fall and I just wanted to write a short post with pictures for Blanche, Mike's mom, who turned 91 on Oct. 25.  She has a laptop and is trying to learn how to use it more, but one thing she can do is find and read my blog regularly.  Sending pictures to her by email for her to see is still a challenge but I'm sure she will master that by 92!  And then - Facebook!  Don't get me wrong - she is as smart and sharp a 91-year-old woman as you are likely to find.  I hope I do as well as she is.

The bathroom was updated with new ceramic tile flooring, cabinet with deep drawers, counter-top and sink in one, new light fixture, mirror and paint.  I should have taken a before picture but suffice to say this is a HUGE improvement!

All of the carpeting was taken up and new laminate wood flooring was installed throughout.  We love how it turned out!

And, finally, here is a picture of a picture she bought for us from a local Nova Scotian photographer as a house-warming gift so that we have a little bit of home to look at.

Just the kitchen to go but I think that is going to have to wait until spring.  We've been lucky so far with weather but winter has arrived and since I want any sawing or cutting tiles to be done outdoors on the patio (the dust it creates indoors is horrendous), I'll wait for warmer weather.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The universe is shifting.

Before I jump into this post, I just want to note that the post "How to find a rental and live cheaply in Mazatlan" has surprised me by being the most read post - 10 times more popular than any other post. Obviously, I have struck a cord of interest and various articles I have read in major media lately confirm that.  With Baby Boomers retiring en masse and wondering how the heck they are going to be able to do that in North America, they are looking at Mexico as a viable alternative.

I will probably write a follow-up post on that subject but I just want to mention now that some of the rules for becoming a resident of Mexico have changed and there are many places online you can go to get this information.  It's a little complicated, particularly if you want to bring down a vehicle, so I strongly recommend that you google "residency visas in Mexico" or something similar and inform yourself.

I have been a busy woman this summer.  After returning in June, I left again six weeks later to go up to Calgary where Mike started a new consulting job.  Our intention was to find somewhere to rent but instead we did something I never thought we would do again.  We bought a condo.  Real estate in Calgary is booming, unlike many other places, so the thought that we could actually buy something was astounding.  We moved in almost right away and rented for a month while the mortgage was processed.  That was a lot of work for me - our financial status was iffy given our struggles in the last two years, but I managed to pull off a miracle of shuffling money around to at least make it look like we were a good bet to the mortgage company.  They really have nothing to worry about, we have recovered quite well since Mike went to work for Chevron in 2013 but banks are nigglers.

So this is all part of the "shift".

First:  After about 5 years of Mike NOT working in Calgary, making my staying in Mazatlan during winter months make sense (I did visit him in various work sites like Sacramento and Houston), it now appears that Mike will be permanently located in Calgary.

Second: After more than 5 years of developing, pivoting, promoting, begging and struggling, Qtility Software has paying customers - oil and gas companies, government departments, and others.  That means I need to be there to help manage it until we find someone to replace me.  Mike is under contract to consult until the end of December and is walking a fine line between obligation to the consulting client, and being CEO of Qtility Software.  There is a blending there because the consulting client is the one who is selling our software to their clients.  We are working on some kind of partnership deal with them to make sure the blending is clear to prevent conflict of interest issues.

And so, I am going back again, less than a month after getting back here in Sept.  I have lined up a great couple for house/dog-sitting - they are world travelers with an active blog and travel business.   Very interesting story and I am sure they are going to love Mazatlan.

I have to come back in late November again in order to drive my Jeep back to the border to renew the sticker for another 6 months.  No getting around it.  After that, we'll see.  If I have to spend a winter in Calgary, I am very happy to do so if it means that I am helping to get us to the point when Mike and I are free to have adventures - together!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

More details and where I stayed in Calgary, Vancouver, Houston, and Durango.

I used Airbnb properties a lot on the May trip and only had one slightly bad experience - in Calgary.  I won't even post the link to that property because I can't recommend it.

The owner seemed to think that an open cat litter box just inside the front door where people came and went was just fine.  What?  Do you have a problem with animals in the house, she asked?  It states right in the profile that there are animals, she said.   No, I said, I love animals,  but an open litter box in that location is just unpleasant, not to mention something of a health hazard.  I wouldn't subject my own friends and family to that, let alone paying guests.  She didn't get it, and claimed that there was no other spot to put it. C'est la vie.

In Vancouver, I stayed for two nights at an older, 1930's row house in the Mount Pleasant section of Vancouver, and area that was great for walking and stopping at interesting shops and cafes/restaurants. Hosts were a younger couple who were very nice.

In Calgary, for one of the other nights, I stayed at a good, comfortable house that we had stayed in before.

In Houston, I stayed with an older, single retired man, a long time resident of Houston, and his dog Duke in gorgeous area of Houston called The Heights - leafy, green and very interesting architecture in that area.  It was very comfortable and I had my own ensuite bathroom which is always nice.

Gwen and I stayed at a Wyndham hotel in San Antonio using my time-share points.  It was fine, but nothing special and I am always annoyed by the salespeople there trying to get me to go to a breakfast presentation when I am only there for 2 days!

We stayed in Durango at Hostal de la Monja, a hotel housed in a beautiful 200-year-old building across from one of the Cathedrals and right on a walking street, closed to traffic.  It used to house nuns at one time. The rooms were very spacious with 20 foot ceilings, two double beds, and air-conditioning. It was a treat to be there for two nights. There is a lobby bar and restaurant - breakfast was included.  The staff were wonderful and there was parking behind the hotel in a secured lot.

We absolutely loved Durango, a colonial city dating from the 1500's.  It has recently become a tourist destination for those who live in Mazatlan due to the opening of a new toll highway and the second largest suspension bridge in the world between Durango and Mazatlan.  It cuts the time of the journey from the border of Texas to Mazatlan by about 4 hours I am told.  We found it to be well-maintained with actual clean, modern bathroom buildings and SOS phones placed frequently along the way.  Not to mention incredibly scenic.

Durango was VERY clean and orderly.  Everyone we met was so pleasant and helpful, and happy to see tourists from north of the border in their city - something they are not used to yet but they seem to love the fact that we want to visit the city - they are very proud of it.  The architecture, museums, walking streets and parks are all so worth going for.  We had dinner at two different restaurants that we just have to go back to. One called El Esquilon and the other La Fonda de la Tia Chona.  Unique interiors and ambiance and excellent food for such reasonable prices, especially when compared to prices north of the border.

I tried a dark, rich mole sauce that had the taste of a hint of dark chocolate and cinnamon, on chicken in Tia Chona, and a lighter-flavored yellow mole at El Esquillon.  Both were delicious.

Have to go back!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Catch-up long overdue

My friend, Gwen, and I had an road-trip adventure together in May.  The '98 Jeep parked in Houston since Mike left there in April needed to be driven down to Mazatlan.  I asked Gwen to meet me in Texas and play co-pilot and navigator.

Since it was to be my first time driving through Mexico, I wanted company.  And since she said enthusiastically agreed, we decided to add a few days to the trip and explored San Antonio, Texas first for a couple of days, then made stops in Eagle Pass on the border (for the night), Torreon, Mexico the second day (for the night), and then Durango, Mexico for two days.

We reached Mazatlan on June 1st, after getting a flat tire about 40 kilometers out.  It was fixed by a very nice Federal policeman (see picture) soon after it happened in 104 degree heat (phew).  We were slightly panicked by that time and yet, afterwards, we congratulated ourselves on our "most excellent adventure" that will be told and re-told to our (eventual, hopefully) grand-children. 

We rested up for a night then flew to Mexico City for two days.

This was all after nearly a month in Calgary and Vancouver, BC, catching up on business and personal stuff, and visiting my two sons, Tim and Simon.

It was a VERY busy month.

My house-sitters have gone on to the rest of their adventure, after admitting they had been bitten by the Mazatlan bug and had loved it here, even in the extreme heat.  They are somewhere in Europe now.  I am getting occasional emails.  They did a great job, and many people here have told me they spent time with them and found them to be a wonderful couple.

So, I've been back since June 4th and Mike will be here on June 28th for two weeks in between contracts.  The new contract is in Calgary!  No more Kuwait (or will there be?)

We may have some very big news on that front - coming soon!

I am flying up to Calgary on July 18th for two months.  No house-sitters this time - the girls are going to stay at their beach vacation home with my dog-sitter and their canine boyfriends.

Here are a few pictures from Gwen and Susan's Excellent Adventure:

New Durango Highway Bridge
Fellow travelers on the road.
Cathedral in Durango at night.
New Durango highway between Durango and Mazatlan

Monday, 14 April 2014

More on the House-sitters

Jen and Steve from Ontario, Canada are now here in town, staying in a nice place for a couple of weeks before taking up residence in my apartment May 1.  They will be house and dog sitting for a month.

I have learned some more about them and their motivation to sell everything and quit their jobs in order to fulfill their desire to travel for a year more or less, depending on how long the money lasts.  They have been regular, normal people for 20-plus years, working and raising a family.  When the kids moved out (for the last time) about three years ago, the itch to do something radically different began to grow.  Some family members began to have life-threatening illnesses, and their own family doctor, a very healthy man who exercised and ate healthy foods his whole life, suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack.  The phrase, life is short, began to be a mantra for them.  They realized that working another 20 years with the idea of retiring and travelling THEN was something that life could simply not guarantee for them.  That was when they put their plans in motion.

Telling friends and family was at first greeted with great surprise and concern that they may have lost their minds, but, they say, most people came around and supported the idea eventually.  They know they will have to return to a "normal" life in about a year, and go back to working for the next 20 years in order to officially retire around 65, but taking this adventurous sabbatical will, I think, open their eyes and minds to many new possibilities and ideas for their future.  Already, in just a couple of days of being in Mazatlan and meeting expats and snowbirds and hearing their stories, I can just hear the wheels are turning in their minds.  Taking the plunge and doing what they are doing cannot NOT change them - forever.

I am very happy to be their first stop on this journey and I will try to help make it a great experience!

For those wondering - I found Jen and Steve on the website    There are three websites that I have used.  The housecarers one, and

I, myself, have a profile on as a potential house-sitter.  I think it is a great way to travel the world inexpensively and uniquely.  Yes, there may be pets to take care of but not all of them have pets, and taking care of a cat or two is much easier than dogs.  So, if you have an adventurous streak and love to travel, check out these websites for yourselves.

Of course, one consideration for travelers should be emergency medical insurance.  My new portable business as a Skymed representative for Mexico now allows me to offer emergency medical evacuation services - something most people assume is a part of their travel/medical insurance policy, but if you read the fine print, being evacuated to your home city is something you will have to pay for upfront and claim back - if you qualify and meet the restrictions of the policy. It can cost many thousands of dollars upfront - who has that much room on their credit cards in an emergency? Skymed is a service offered to supplement your emergency medical policy and once approved you can never be cancelled for any reason.  You, your travel companion, your family, your vehicle, even your pets will be transported home at your request should you have a medical emergency while travelling, and you will not have to pay a dime upfront or file a claim, nor are there any deductibles.  I am very happy to be able to offer this valuable service.  For more information:


Thursday, 13 March 2014

Upcoming story of another adventurous Canadian couple

Olas Altas Beach with son, Tim.

I will be writing more later about the Canadian couple, Jen and Steve, who I have found on, who will be my house/dog-sitters for the month of May.  I chose them over others because of their story.  Here is what I know so far:

They live(d) in Barrie, Ontario and recently sold their house and stored their belongings with a new life plan to retire and travel the world doing house-sitting.  Their first stop will be Mazatlan.  They have never been to Mexico. They don't speak any Spanish.  I admire their moxie, and am happy I can help like-minded adventurers get started on what will surely be an eventful and memorable time of their lives!

After a visit with their son in Edmonton, Alberta, they plan to fly down here in April, ahead of starting the house-sit for me so that I can spend some time familiarizing them to Mazatlan and my dogs.  They are very excited!

My plans are to fly to Houston on May 1st and meet up with Mike there when he returns from this last stint of two months in Kuwait.  From there we plan to drive our Canadian-plated Versa up to Las Vegas for an industry conference from the 5th to the 9th of May.  After that, Mike will fly back to Houston and possibly back to Kuwait again (we aren't sure of the length of time he will be in Houston this time) and I will carry on up to Calgary to return the Versa to it's legal home in Alberta.  I will have to find a parking spot for it but that shouldn't be a big problem.

I may also be spending some time there looking at possible house or apartment rentals again.  It is possible that after this contract ends in July, Mike will be taking a contract in Calgary for six months or more.  We are weighing all the pros and cons on this because Chevron has verbally stated they expect to keep him on after July until at least the end of 2014.  But will they guarantee that with a contract? That remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Mike has a contract offer in hand from July to December in Calgary.  Its a good feeling to have that much security.

After some time in Calgary, I will fly back to Houston and pick up a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee we bought recently from a friend and drive it back to Mazatlan.  I hope Mike will be around to drive with me, but if not, I have great instructions and recommendations for the drive through Mexico.  Many people do it frequently without a problem and with the new highway from Durango to Mazatlan, the trip time has been cut dramatically and made safer too.  There are places along the way I am tempted to stop and explore.

Road trip in Mexico anyone?

Monday, 17 February 2014

Back in my happy place

Annie, Teddie and son Tim
Our lives are a continuing work in process.  The other day someone asked me, shaking his head, "How the heck do you keep everything straight?"  I looked him in the eye and said, "I'm a genius."  Then I laughed because that's not true, and sometimes I screw up.  Despite my desire to simplify life, it resists simplification. It may appear to many that I am a young retiree.  At best, I am semi-retired.  I choose to live in a place where I would retire to, because I can, but it is not without challenges.

On my recent trip up to Canada to take care of things there, such as visit elderly parents, see my doctor to reassure him I am still alive and taking my medications. (Well, not ALL of them that he has prescribed - we have an understanding - I don't blindly accept the medical and drug companies' recommendations, but he continues to try.  This time he finally told me that the protocols for cholesterol have been changed - statins are NOT necessary, and, in fact, studies have shown that although they lower cholesterol, that has made no difference in preventing heart attacks. I could have said I told you so but I didn't.)

I'll just drink red wine every day, thank you very much.

Along the way, many people inquired about my tan.  Had I just come back from vacation?  When I briefly described my lifestyle (it's rather distracting and surreal to be talking about it while my doctor performs a pelvic exam), invariably I got responses such as - oh, that sounds wonderful, I wish I could do that too but I have another four years to retirement - or, I want to do that but I have a house, cars, and stuff here, but boy I would be happy to have a hot-dog stand on the beach and live there instead of here right about now.

My answer to all of them, if I had responded with something more than a smile because I didn't have time for more, would have been - it just takes imagination.  You have to step back, look at what is and imagine (as in "image") something different.  What would it take?  Would waiting four more years to retire really make a difference?  Do you really need all your stuff?  If you sold it all, would that finance an early retirement in a relatively inexpensive place?  Take a first step - you don't have to make a huge decision all at once.  

I started by coming to Mazatlan on vacation and talking to others who winter or live here full-time.  I scoped out the landscape of renting, transportation to and from Canada, all of details I felt I needed to know to take another step.  Then I took that step, then another, and another, until I had finally sold most of my stuff, including my house, and rented a year-round apartment. And I enjoyed myself in the process.

Of course, there are in-between lifestyles that don't include selling everything and renting year-round.  And some people wouldn't want to spend all of their time here - a month or two or three away from the deep freeze winter-time of their home is bliss enough.  But going all the way and making a place like this the home base certainly cuts living costs back dramatically, which is all it might take to be able to retire or semi-retire.

Even with lives as complicated as ours, Mike and I, it is workable.  And man, it is complicated.  And changeable.  A contract consultant has no security, no assurance that the client will continue with the contract he has (there is always a clause that allows both parties to end it with sometimes just a week's notice), or that the contract will be renewed.  On this contract, Mike can be sent to work in any of the client's locations around the world.  He, too, has to get up to Canada from time to time to visit his mother, see his doctor, and we have to make and take opportunities whenever we can to spend time together - either here or wherever Mike happens to be.  

We still have to maintain some kind of "residential" status in Canada, even if it's just a mailing address for now, to keep our health care there and for business purposes.  Then there is the Alberta-plated Nissan Versa currently in Houston that I have to drive back to Canada and find a place to park it.....maybe in April or May....  And the Jeep Grand Cherokee we just bought from a friend in Georgia that is being trucked to Houston and licenced/registered in North Dakota (no residency requirements) that I have to go up and drive back down here....maybe in March....

Yeah, it's complicated.  But if I can be here, in my happy place, I can handle it.

Friday, 3 January 2014

What a difference a year makes!

Teotihuacan Pyramids, near Mexico City
Mike and I in Mexico City
This time last year, my anxiety level was beginning to build. Worried by the sudden end of Mike's contract in New Jersey Dec. 7 and the prospects for a new one starting in 2013, I could not relax and enjoy the holidays as much as I did this year.  And my concern was warranted - I had no idea at the time that it would take until May 20 for anything substantial to begin.  Mike started a six-month contract for Chevron in Houston, which would turn out to include a two-month stint in Kuwait at an exceptionally higher rate than he was getting in Houston, which was pretty good anyway. 

We were deep in the hole after last winter, and got through it with a little (ok - alot) help from friends and family, so the income was a welcome relief.  In addition, the projects at Chevron that Mike is involved in provide the perfect opportunity to introduce our software into the mix.  It provides a key functionality that no-one thought was possible and will speed up and simplify the process.  For now, he is keeping it low-profile and just plugging into the project plan until it becomes self-evident.  Kind of like a "puppy-dog sale".  You know - leave the puppy with them for a while for free and they'll never give it back.  And - there are upgrade projects like these planned in outposts for Chevron all over the world in the next year....

This season has been so much better!  Mike flew in from Kuwait on Dec. 19 to Mexico City, where I met up with him for a three-day stay before flying on to Cozumel for a week.

Palacio del Bellas Artes, Mexico City

Zocalo Square, Mexico City

We stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Historico Centro in Mexico City, a perfect location for getting out and walking around in the historical area.  

In Cozumel, we stayed at the Coral Princess which we liked very much for the direct access to deep, crystal clear water and coral reefs, and for the size and feel of the hotel.  We much prefer a smaller resort like this one, and getting into town was just a $5 taxi ride.

Cozumel is a popular cruise ship port city on an island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Renting scooters to buzz around on is popular.

And now we are back in our apartment in Mazatlan.  On Jan. 6, Mike will fly to Houston for a week then back to Kuwait for three weeks.  We had a small get-together for our friends here last night.

So, what will 2014 bring?