Monday, May 08, 2006

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On Lonely Planet's "Thorn Tree" there's a discussion about whether an American on disability (about 1000 USD per month) can live in Mexico. I suppose it depends a lot on the nature of the disability, but a lday of a certain age who found herself stuck in Chicago "between a rock and a hard place" when her minimal social security payment was not nearly enough to survive, has been living contentedly in Mexico City on substantially less than that. Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine was interested in short articles by older women on how they overcame hardships. This, apparently, isn't what Ophrah had in mind ... but well worth publishing as it was originally written: When you are between a rock and a hard place. by "Ann O'Nomous" The Plans Behind the window of my small downtown apartment, I used to watch the snow falling – layer upon layer and think – it is going to be a rough commute tomorrow morning for the workers. It turns out that I was right. As the newscaster on the morning program said “today is another ‘character-building day’ in Chicago.” Since I am in my late seventies, and no longer working, I spent much time reading in preparation for a summer flight to someplace warmer, cheaper and not to far away… Mexico City. My husband of 53 years had died after a 33-year illness that had eaten away at our savings, and now I found myself alone, no savings left. My social security check was 800 dollars, but with a $736 rent, I was left with 64 dollars for telephone, food and electricity. Something had to be done! I had left England as the bride of an American paratrooper who I met when he was stationed in England, awaiting the Normandy invasion. Then, on to Germany for two years in the American Sector of the Army of Occupation, we came to Chicago, where we lived and worked until a massive stroke in 1966 left my husband paralyzed on one side of his body and unable even to speak. I nursed him faithfully for 33 years and became a widow in 1999. When the year 2000 came in I had two alternatives – end it all, or go to a place where the Social Security Check would stretch from month to month. Purchasing a book from the neighboring bookstore for $25 (The Fodor Guide to Mexico) provided both facts and entertainment during the Chicago Winter. I studied as one would study for a final exam: in fact many people living here in Mexico have remarked that I knew facts of which they were not aware… so be it! Realizing that my baggage allowance would be two suitcases full meant that clothes and other necessities to tide me over. Everything else had to be left behind. I wanted to keep my leaving a secret for many reasons. Four people knew about my leaving , one by accident: I went for a passport to City Hall, and another tenant of my apartment building worked in that particular office as Probate and Passports are in the same room. Fortunately, this person was a devout Christian and kept my secret. In fact, her church’s weekly prayer meetings were a supportive influence while I was waiting to leave. In the prayer group were two ladies who had been stewardesses on the Chicago to Mexico City flight. A friend in Chicago had a connection in Mexico City and although I could not count on this contact, at least there was one person, English-speaking, who had lived in Mexico City for 30 years. A lovely couple gave me emotional support – invited me to social events and paid for my passport. The other friend helped me put my two cases of clothing together and suggested which items to take and which to leave behind. On July 5th I left O’Hare for Mexico City and have been there ever since. Being the Capital of all the Government and other facilities are right here but the cost is more than it would b in a rural town. With about one dozen words of Spanish in my vocabulary, I as afraid to be adventurous and go to a more remote place. Many people here have some English, and which what I have learned, get along quite well. It was sad that despite belonging to the most powerful and wealthy country in the world, I should have to leave it all behind and find a place where I could manage financially. I did not feel British anymore, as I had left there at 21 and had become an American citizen and had lived in the United States for 54 years. Since Chicago has about a million Latinos, I had quit a good idea of the culture, and encountered quite a few Mexicans in my day to day life. My final decision was made when I read that the climate varied from 60° Farenheit to 80°. That sounded good after 52 years of hard winters which I never got used to, and hot summers, which required air conditioning, and here, you just pt on more clothes and close the windows when it is cold, or dress lighter and open windows when it’s warm. Please don’t get the idea that I have come to a Paradise. Lake ever other places, it has its warts and bumps. The pollution is horrid, though you learn to tolerate it. You are on your own for Medical benefits (you can, however, buy medicine without a prescription – except narcotics – and a doctors visit to their Generic brand of medicine is two dollars (Farmacias Similares). Medicine is much cheaper than in the U.S.A. Strangely enough, Medicare, which was free for me in the U.S., because my Social Security income as under $900, I have to pay for here, where I cannot use it. Go figure: they deduct 80 dollars a month from my Social Security check. I pay it however, as if I develop a major illness and return to the U.S. for treatment I will have to keep my benefits intact. Now this escape is not recommended for everyone. Immigrants used to return to their native lands from America (back to Italy, Poland, Greece and many more countries). Now with the European Common Market and the Euro – I hear that Hungary is one of the few places left affordable. My advice to anyone contemplating the move would be to come here on a vacation, learn Spanish and if you have a major illness, stay in the U.S.A. At least if you live in Mexico with a limited income you are not the bottom of the economic scale – a place where I found myself in Chicago. You are in the middle class, and if you get a higher rate than me, you can well find yourself in the upper class. The cost of being an alien in Mexico is about a hundred dollars a year. You can own a car and a house. Also, if you have savings and a generous Social Security income, you can go back and forth to the U.S.A. The American Embassy is so helpful. One visit to the Embassy with documentation, social security card, medicare card, birth certificate and passport and in about six weeks you can receive payment – direct deposit to any A.T.M here (though the Bank of California. Every 3rd of the month, the payment is credited to your bank card and the charge for the service is $5 a month. The interbank rate on the 3rd is what you receive in pesos. They do ask you to chose direct deposit as the Mexican mail is horrendous, and those who chose a check (which often fails to arrive) wind up at the Embassy – trying to replace the lost check (which can take up to two months). And, it is costly and difficult to cash checks. Once a year you take your Social Security statement to the Embassy. Report any change of address or marital status and the money flows to 12 months (you can mail the statement in, but it’s risky). Packages to and from the U.S. are expensive, often lost or stolen. A friend sent me a parcel and two years later I received it – I was lucky – I had given up hope. Most people are warm – friendly and polite and although there is crime here – at the side of Chicago, I fell much safer and the little green cabs are cheap and in the four years I’ve never had a problem. Just know which direction you are going – your destination and keep to the main streets. Most places I go the fare is about a dollar and I usually walk back. Being a senior citizen, I usually go out in the day time and have yet to be openly accosted, but do watch myself and use precautions and move around if I feel threatened. It took me quite a while to locate certain items, but after four years – almost everything I need – I either know where to get it, or a reasonable substitute. The rate of exchange is in our favor and transportation is cheap. Subway is free for seniors, although it is not convenient for me (stairs, and too many people). Buses are 25 cents (no transfers) but on the subway you can travel 30 miles on one ticket, costing 15 cents. Deluxe buses are cheap to cities North, South, East or West (1/2 price for seniors) and you can visit all the towns and cities in Mexico without the hassle of passports. Airfare is not cheap here. I am going to list the good features and the set-backs to help you decide if this change of country would benefit you, or caution you about things that might make you want to “stay put”. I did everything by “trial and error” but I’m most willing to share my experiences with you. On the negative side... If you admire promptness, efficiency and the truth, Mexico will fall short! Mexicans arrive late – very late. Services are often delayed and dry-cleaning, etc., late, work promised – not delivered and the truth – rather than say no, they say “si” to be agreeable, bu of course, it doesn’t happen. Although age is usually respected here, women can expect “overtures”, “approaches”, “flirtations” but sadly it is for the wrong reasons – free English lessons, and you have a reliable income: they don’t. Or a marriage could mean entrance to the U.S.A. It bothers me how critical the T.V. and newspapers are of America where there is such a long line to get into the States, and so many American Dollares are being sent by Mexicans in the U.S.A. to support their families back here – at least be fair! After the bounty of American tables, I find the food here lacking in quality – it is cheap and the fruits and vegetables plentiful. I especially enjoy the mangos and figs, but the best apples arrive from America and also the large peaches. There is a beautiful supply of kiwis from New Zealand. Most vegetables are not served as such, but as “salsas” (sauces) and after being accustomed to a serving of meat, potatoes and a vegetable at most dinners in America, it is difficult to find potatoes served (except as French Fries in fast food places). Cars park bumper-to-bumper and Mexican families move around in groups and seldom “break rank” on a sidewalk – so give in – move around them. There is hardly a sidewalk which is even – so stiletto and high heels are difficult and hazardous to maneuver, but Mexican Senoritas do wear them, and sprained ankles and broken heels are the result. On the positive side... After a winter of approximately six weeks the trees are starting to bud and flower and April is the hottest month of the year, June starts rain, which you can usually time – 5 or 6 PM, and it seldom lasts long. You do not miss the snow and ice and biting winds, layers and layers of clothing, the heating bills in winter and the high electric bills in the summer for air conditioning. People have less here, so you don’t feel underprivideged if you are not wearing the latest clothes. Also, if you pockets are less than full – welcome to the club – you probably have more than people you come in contact with. They think my monthly income (without working for it) is “Manna from Heaven”. Pensions here are much less. A ten dollar a month check for an elderly lady is not unusual. A retired executive or business man $700 or $1000 a month is about as good as it gets. My final “nudge” out the door came when I read Oprah’s Magazine – a monthly feature “What I know for sure” explained how we carry around so much emotional baggage that it cripples us and prevents us from doing what we can and should do. You can begin again! Make a fresh start, take a chance! A least with an American Passport, you have what 9 out of 10 people in the Third World would like to own and believe me, it is my most cherished possession. I love my adopted country, America, but cannot afford to live there.


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