Friday, September 23, 2022

Housesitting near Lake Chapala, Mexico

Dave and Chloe on the San Antonio malecon

Our home base is in Baja Sur, but there's so much of the huge country of Mexico that we haven't seen. So when an opportunity came up to do a six-week housesit near Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico which is surrounded by mountains, we jumped on it. 

Along the San Antonio malecon
the most pastoral of the three.

The Chapala community is primarily made up of three towns on the north shore of the lake: Ajijic, San Antonio Tlyacapan (where we were), and Chapala--each with a town center and a malecon or esplanade along the lakeside. 

Ajijic malecon

Ajijic is a charming pueblo, heavy with expats, covered in murals and dotted with boutiques, galleries, open-air cafes and specialty restaurants. San Antonio Tylacapan is much smaller, with a pastoral malecon and a downtown so tiny it's easy to miss. Chapala is where Mexican families tend to come from Guadalajara a weekend or longer holiday. Its malecon is lively in the afternoons and evenings, with vendors and big, touristy seafood restaurants playing live music.

One wall in Ajijic...

...and another.

A two-lane road winds through, connecting these communities. One main road means traffic, especially since the area has experienced a growth boom. Fortunately, there's also a bike path. 

vegan tamales & cacao drinks in Ajijic

non-vegan tacos

Green drink for me, fresh OJ for Dave in Chapala.

The growth is due mainly to retired expats, primarily from the U.S. and Canada, coming to a place where prices for real estate and health care are much more affordable. The good weather (it's usually in the 70s) is a draw as well. Food, however, seemed to us to not be as low cost, unless you bought street tacos and shopped at fruterias. That may be because a lot of the restaurants and grocery stores are geared to the expats and Mexican tourists. This means, too, there are many places to eat delicious meals.

Vegan burgers in Ajijic

We flew into Guadalajara, and the hosts picked us up and drove us an hour south to their home, a lovely place with a pool and a view. We didn't make much use of the pool, however, because it never got hot enough to be appealing--and eventually because of all of the rain, the gardener was having a hard time keeping it clean. 

The lake is picturesque but unfortunately too polluted to swim in.

We were there during rainy season, a time of year many said is their favorite because there are fewer people around and less dust. Several times storms woke us in the middle of the night. Once, for at least an hour, the rain dumped like someone had overturned the lake in the sky, during which time there was no space between thunder and lightning. The booming exploded and flashes lit up the bedroom in a continuous, epic melee.

Happily there was a green space where we could walk
Chloe off-leash not far from the house 

All this rain meant we got to see waterfalls in action when we went hiking in the mountains. Nice trails are easily accessible from Ajijic. We also walked with Chloe, the sweet dog in our care, every day. The walks weren't easy, though, since we had to get acclimated to the 5,000-foot elevation and also because the streets out the door were sharply hilly and unevenly cobbled. Those charming but challenging cobbles are a feature everywhere in the area. 

our digs

back yard

Before they left, the homeowners introduced us to their neighbors who were heading out in a few weeks and who, in turn, introduced us to their housesitters, Cathie and Brian, a couple from the U.S. who were traveling throughout Mexico with their dog.

Sunset from Cathie & Brian's pad

I received a message from a friend in Baja who told me that her housesitters scheduled to arrive in a couple of months, Dodo and Sven from Germany, were currently in Ajijic. So we six housesitters met up a couple of times and shared stories about our wanderlust. 

roaming housesitters unite!

We'd heard that about an hour away furniture is manufactured in the town of Ocotlon. The beachy budget furniture in our casita, which we bought more than eight years ago and has endured dozens of renters, was in sad shape. Baja, being nearly an island, can be a hard place to find such things at decent prices. So one day we headed out to do something we rarely do: shop for non-edible things. 

We stumbled across a Pride celebration in Chapala!

Octotlon was a dreary, gray grid of dilapidated buildings. We spent hours walking through furniture stores that varied from warehouses to elaborate displays. Fortunately we didn't want traditional "rustico"-style Mexican furniture, because we didn't see a single piece. Everything was modern, and a lot of it looked alike. Dizzy, hot and hungry, we straggled into the tenth store and struck gold. In one fell swoop we bought a couch, love seat, coffee table and dining room set. We think it's going to be delivered in November when we get back to Baja, but I'm hoping something wasn't lost in translation...

Cathedral de Guadalajara in Centro

Chicos playing in the fountain in Guadalajara

Another day we took the bus to Guadalajara to meet up with our friend Leah, who now lives there. There was no bus schedule (get used to it, it's Mexico) so we stood in the drizzle at the place we thought it was supposed to arrive, and eventually it did. It was great to see Leah, and in our short time together she toured us around the city she loves. We started in Centro, gaping at the grand colonial buildings and murals. And then we took the bus to the outskirts, through neighborhoods lined with towering trees. We had lunch on the sidewalk of a seafood place that looked unremarkable but the food was incredible.

Back at Chapala, we geared up to leave, doing a big house cleaning and getting our last massage. Did I mention the masseuse came every week at about $20 USD per person? She was a true healer and also a single mom who told me she used to work for a company who took half her earnings. She took a risk and went out on her own--and is now doing very well. I share this because I love hearing people's stories and, better yet, we spoke mostly in Spanish.

I'd gotten pretty attached to Chloe, so it wasn't easy to leave her. I was also verklempt when we said goodbye to Cathie and Brian, but with nomads you never know when you'll collide again in another place. With Dodo and Sven it was "hasta luego" because we will see them when we get to Baja!

But first, we were headed to Panama. Next up: Adventures in Panama City, Bocas del Toro, and Playa Morrillo!


PS: Want to stockpile some good fall reads? All my books are price reduced right now...and they are also available as audiobooks:

Call it Wonder: An Odyssey of Love, Sex, Spirit & Travel (award-winning memoir)

For the May Queen (coming of age in the dorms in 1980, with lots of sex, drugs & rock n roll)

Complementary Colors (what happens when a straight woman falls in love with a lesbian)

Revolutionary Kiss, co-authored with Mary Janelle Melvin under the name Mary Kate Summers (love story set during the French Revolution)

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Return to Baja

It was 2014 the first time we drove from San Diego all the way down Baja to our casita at Cerritos Beach. We've done it many times since, and I've written about it here, here, here, and here.

Santa Rosalia

You'd think with our experience we'd have it down. But this time we couldn't figure out where to get our visas-upon-entry at the Mexicali border. Everything looked different, and indeed it was. We'd zipped by the new building where we were supposed to stop and had to turn around, cross back over the border, and re-enter the country--a painfully slow trek because we couldn't figure out how to get in the fast last using our new SENTRI pass. [Insert tongue-out, googly-eyed emoji here.]

Tacos with Susan and Gilly, whom last saw here.

Fortunately the rest of the trip down was beautiful and seamless. Usually we pass right through the small town of Santa Rosalia, but at the last minute we discovered our friends Susan and Gilly were there! For years we'd talked about meeting up in Santa Rosalia, since they own property there, but the stars didn't align until now. 

Until they toured us around, I hadn't realized what a charming town it is. The architecture is French style because the French operated copper mines here until the 1950s.

Gilly & Susan on their property.

We also saw their seaside property next to the small college where Gilly is involved in building a marine biology research center. He's a squid researcher and she's a John Steinbeck scholar, the perfect Cannery Row match.

A few days later, pulling into our neighborhood near Cerritos Beach after nearly two years away gave me the tingles. Ahhh...that desert air mingling with the sea. But we were only spending three nights there--and not even in our casita so as to not disturb the longterm renter. Instead, we stayed in a palapa (thatched roof) studio with outdoor kitchen, organized our stuff in our bodega (big garge) and headed out to find food.

With Art at Good Vibes

Lucky us, our friend Art had recently opened a Caribbean-food restaurant called Good Vibes within walking distance, where we feasted on super delish dishes. They have jerk chicken but also offer jerk cauliflower, which was divine.

Squeezed in a beach walk

We had time to meet up with friends and family in Todos Santos and got over to my sister Ann's property, where she and Gary are building a new house. It will be magically completed by the time we return.

With nephews Beau & Brock, Ann & Gary, and Paul

It was strange after only three days to board a plane. Part of me yearned to stay, to burrow into our house and community, while the other part was excited about what was up next: housesitting in the area of Lake Chapala. Stay tuned for that!

PS: Want to stockpile some good fall reads? All my books are price reduced right now...and they are also available as audiobooks:

Call it Wonder: An Odyssey of Love, Sex, Spirit & Travel (award-winning memoir)

For the May Queen (coming of age in the dorms in 1980, with lots of sex, drugs & rock n roll)

Complementary Colors (what happens when a straight woman falls in love with a lesbian)

Revolutionary Kiss, co-authored with Mary Janelle Melvin under the name Mary Kate Summers (love story set during the French Revolution)

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

From Trauma Came Giving

Beau (photo by Dave Rhine)

My 30-year-old nephew had a surfing accident in Mexico, breaking his back.* He is a phenomenal surfer, and I'd watching him on the waves since he was a little kid. An electrician by trade, his dream of going to Indonesia to work as a surfing guide was dashed by the pandemic. He then spent time budget traveling and surfing in Central America and refurbishing a surf shack in Baja Sur, about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas. As a fellow wanderer who lives part of the year in Mexico and spends the rest traveling, I feel a special affinity to him beyond the familial.

Even though I knew that an infusion of cash could help him out, I was hesitant to start a GoFundMe because of the snide things I’ve heard people say about “grifters” and the stridency of online comment feeds. Who knew what people might say about my nephew’s life? Would they blame him for engaging in a dangerous sport? Would they deride his need for cash given that he lived an alternative, modest lifestyle? But I’d seen GoFundMe’s work well for others, and I’d contributed in the past. Besides, this would be for a young man I loved who was in need, so I posted the request, steeling myself to delete comments that might not be supportive or might offer unwanted advice. Within 24 hours, a number of donations rolled in, as did only heartfelt comments of love and support.

But most striking was this: I realized that many of those who contributed had suffered their own traumas. One of the first donations came from a woman I’d never met. When I asked my husband if he knew her he said, “Yes, from high school. Her own son died by suicide.” My heart thumped in my throat.

nephew and auntie, 30 years ago

And then I realized another donor had also lost a son. I scoured the list: a friend whose parents had died tragically, another who was mourning her husband’s death, a cousin whose young husband suffered for years with kidney disease and finally received a transplant (and was boosted with online contributions), another cousin who was treated for breast cancer—and a woman I’d never met in person but who had reached out to me online years ago after reading my memoir that treats my experience with a brain tumor. She’d shared with me, a stranger, her own youthful medical challenges, and ever since I’d felt a kinship with her.

There were others whose backgrounds I did not know, either because I’d never met them or they’d never shared intimate details about their lives. I thought of the Zen parable of the woman who begged Buddha to bring back to life her dead child. He said he could do so if she brought him a mustard seed from a person who had never had never had a death in the family. Filled with hope, she went house to house…only to discover no one had been untouched by tragedy. She made peace with her pain, knowing that suffering wasn’t personal but was the human condition.

My nephew told me he was surprised by and grateful for all the online kindness directed his way. When I shared with him my thought—that giving and compassion often come from one’s own struggles—he was deeply moved. Since then, we’ve been more in contact than ever, this experience bringing us even closer together. I hope all the love and support is helping him to remain in good spirits as he waits in a back brace for professional advice about the next medical steps he needs to take. And I’m glad to have been reminded of the Internet’s power for good, especially in such divisive times. The next time I see a trainwreck of nasty comments online, I’ll try to remember that not one of those people could hand me a mustard seed.

*UPDATE: I wrote this a few months ago. Fortunately, Beau didn't need surgery and is out of his brace and back on the waves!

Friday, June 10, 2022

Housesitting in California: Saving a Zillion Bucks

San Diego is good for kissing

It's been eight years since we discovered housesitting--and by the end of this year we will have done a total of 42, if my numbers are right. 

I'm no accountant, and sometimes I feel like an amateur compared to the travelers I follow online who keep spreadsheets detailing every sit, every pet they care for, every cent they saved or spent each month. It's fun to watch them in action, but I'm a different breed, one who had to get a tutor to pass statistics.

If I were to say how much we've saved housesitting while we travel, I'd say a zillion dollars. You know, a lot. It has made budget travel possible.

Abbey & Spark in Carmel Valley

I'm writing a book about our traveling, housesitting life--one filled with stories, not numerical data. I apologize in advance to those who crave pie charts. You're more likely to read in my book about our experiences eating pie. Peach is my favorite.

Wine tasting with Laurie in Ashland, Oregon

Because of housesitting, we were able to spend nearly three months in California, enjoying all this beautiful state has to offer along with cherished time with family and friends. We were grateful for the sun, as our time in Washington had turned us into ghosts.

With Anne & Ben in Portland

After driving from Seattle through Portland (to visit Anne and Ben) and Ashland, Oregon (to see Laurie), we arrived at our sit in Carmel Valley. We spent a few hours with the homeowners for orientation before they took off for the airport. 

Asilomar State Beach 

Our charges were two labradoodles, an adorable and spirited mother and daughter. We had fun walking them to the nearby open space where they could romp off leash. We also indulged in all the wonderful beach hiking at Asilomar, Carmel Meadows and Garrapata State Park.

It so happened that our friend Cathy, who now lives in England, was visiting California and was able to spend a few days with us. On perhaps half our housesits, we've had friends come stay; we always ask the homeowners in advance, urging them to feel free to say no if they're uncomfortable. But they've always said yes, often enthusiastically so.

Zoom with a View

When Covid hit, to allay the isolation, Cathy and I, along with Sally and Kelly, starting Zooming twice a month. When we met for lunch in Carmel, it was the first time we'd been together in more than two years. It was wonderful, and I must say, I prefer Zooming in person.

Our next sit was a darling Santa Cruz vintage home, built over 100 years ago by a doctor who used to see patients in what is now the bedroom. Upon arrival, we went out to dinner the hosts, and spent the night in their backyard cottage. We cared for their sweet, older dog named Mazy who was happy with one stroll around the block a day. (Bizarrely, when I lived in Santa Cruz years ago, I had a dog named Mazie.) 

Reading with Mazy

Being there afforded us all the wonderful Santa Cruz things: beaches, redwoods, friends, and on April 20 a 420 party with our friend Stacey, a totally Santa Cruz experience. Even though I don't like weed, I had a great time meeting new people and learning a card came called Kabul.

Piper and Pepper

From Santa Cruz, we drove to San Diego, for the first of three housesits in So Cal. The house had a killer kitchen and two hilarious French bulldogs who snored like truckers. After a sleepless night, I had to move their beds to another room and texted the hosts to let them know; they were cool with it. 

Before we take a sit, I always ask where the animals sleep (because "on the bed" isn't an option for me). When I learned they were small dogs who had crates in the bedroom, I mistakenly thought that would be fine. Lesson learned.

We love Shannon & Tony

Soon, though, we heard from the hosts, who'd gone to Europe for a cruise, that they tested positive for Covid and were booted from the boat. After a five-day quarantine, they wanted to come home a week early, and we said not to worry, that we could go stay with our friends in nearby Solana Beach.

(We had this happen once before, where homeowners needed to return a week early. They kindly paid for an Airbnb for us. We could have stayed in their guest room, but that was a much better solution all around.)

We'd already planned on going to the home of our Solana Beach friends, Tony and Shannon, to care for their sweet doggie Auggie while they traveled to Guatemala--so we got bonus time with them before they left.

Mark at Cabrillo National Monument State Park

This housesit turned into an event. Our friend Mark came for a few days, and we were so happy to host him because we've stayed at his house in San Jose five billion times (I counted). Dave picked him up from the airport and they went immediately to hike at the stunning Cabrillo National Monument.

Frankie, Trey & Johnnie know how to chill.

The next day, more guests descended: Paul and Christi, their three teen boys, and their dog, Luna. On our drive down, we'd spent a few days with them north of L.A. so now we were getting bonus time together. We hiked, jammed (Paul on mandolin, me on uke), and had a sweet day at Del Mar beach. 

(Side note: We would never ask homeowners on a regular sit to let us invite this many guests, but in this group was also close friends with Tony and Shannon.)

Luna and Christi at Del Mar Beach

Our final sit in the area took us inland to Escondido, to a comfortable home with a view of the hills. There are lots of trails through green space right out the door, great for walking the two dogs.

Fiesta del Sol

Being in this area also meant we were finally able to see my sister Crystal and her guy Kristian in their beautiful downtown penthouse, along with our niece Jenna, who was home for the summer after her frosh year at Indiana University. I was in the delivery room when she was born, so there's nothing like seeing her so grown up to remind me of time's winged chariot

We walked along the downtown waterfront, danced our patooties off at a music and food festival called Fiesta del Sol, and spent a day in Coronado--a beachside resort town that I'd always wanted to visit. As a native Californian, it took me only 59 years to finally get there, and it's gorgeous. We ate lunch at the Hotel Del, overlooking the water.

The Hotel del Coronado

Once we've established ourselves in a home, the unfamiliar quickly morphs into a sense of ease. However, it's not all fun and games. There's cleaning, shopping, taking out the trash, scooping the dog poop--and since we've been here we've had medical appointments and work done on our car. I've edited a client's manuscript and worked most days on my book. In the evenings, we cook and watch Jeopardy.

All of these things contribute to the feeling of a stranger's house becoming ours--and then before we know it, it's time to pack up and leave. The bed, the writing table, the neighborhood, the pets--everything that was "ours" is about to exit our lives. Right now we are three days away from leaving, residing in that in-between space between home-dweller and nomad. And where are we heading? To do three more housesits in two different countries--pictures and stories to come.

PS: For more about our housesitting lives, check out this piece on The Traveling House Sitters.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Coming Out of the Cave



When we accepted a four-month housesit in Washington state, we imagined we'd spend time with friends and out in nature: snowshoeing, skiing, hiking. But our winter became a hibernation.

First, though, we did a four-day sit in Manchester, across the Puget Sound from Seattle. I lived in Seattle for three years, but I'd never even heard of Manchester, an unincorporated community next to Port Orchard. 

Mt. Rainier from the back deck

The house had a view of the Seattle skyline in one direction and Mt. Rainier in another. After our epic road trip (which I wrote about here and here and here), it felt like pure bliss to soak in this hot tub.


Usually we get our sits through Trusted Housesitters, but this one had been a personal request from the homeowner, Kim, whom we'd met in Kauai. Our task was to take care of her gorgeous home and two adorable Golden Retrievers.

Cooper and Abbey

While we were there, Dena and Gary--the homeowners of our upcoming sit --came by for an afternoon. We were supposed to meet in person at their house, but because of Covid travel issues, they had to leave earlier than expected for their four months in South Africa. I enjoyed getting to know them in a relaxed way. Usually we meet the hosts a day or two (or hours) before they leave, which can be taxing since they need to orient us to the house and pets while they're packing.

Rocky loves Dave

The house is southeast of Seattle on Cougar Mountain between Renton and Issaquah. Soon after we moved in, a monumental snowstorm hit. This custom home in the woods has plentiful large windows and a fireplace, so it felt like being in a lovely, warm snow globe. That was until the pipes froze and the water pump broke. Also, sweet Rocky was having digestive issues, which meant cleaning up a lot of accidents. Given that they were on the other side of the world, Dena and Gary were very responsive. It took a while, but a new pump was installed, and the cat's gut stabilized, more or less, with the help of probiotics. 

view from the snow globe

Our dear friends Tony, Shannon and Ava, who live in So Cal, happened to be in the area and came for a night, braving the steep, icy roads. 

We were able to get out snowshoeing at Snoqualmie Pass, and we took a few hikes after the snow melted. But the whole time I wasn't feeling my usual vibrant self. Truth be told, I hadn't felt great for a while but traditional doctors and specialists weren't helping. I wanted someone who'd look at my whole self and who was versed in holistic medicine.

Licorice Fern Creek

I lucked out that there's an integrative practitioner in my network nearby. I learned that I have two issues going on that I'm being treated for with supplements and one pharmaceutical. I was also instructed to rest a lot and not stress myself physically or mentally. So I upped my meditation and also, upon the doc's advice, bought an infrared sauna blanket that I wrap up in like a sleeping bag to sweat out impurities. The thought of being a sweaty mummy made me laugh, but after the first time I was hooked.

elfish, post surgery

And then Dave went to the dermatologist, who said the irritating thing on his nose was basal cell carcinoma and had to come off. The Mohs surgery he underwent took five hours and involved transplanting a piece of ear cartilage onto his nose. The recovery, he was told, would take 4-6 weeks. Given two spots on his face were affected, sleeping wasn't easy. And he had to be extra careful of his nose to make sure the transplant would take, changing bandages and seeing the surgeon weekly. We have lots of reasons to be grateful for being in one place for four months, surrounded by good health care.

check it out here

So, as it's turned out, we spent a lot of time in the house, 
healing--other than going to see a play in downtown Issaquah that Dena and Gary kindly gave us tickets for. We've both read up a storm, and Dave has been studying Spanish. I've written seven chapters of my new book, a memoir about housesitting and nomadic life. Also during this time, my first memoir was released on audiobook. I'm biased, but I think the reader did a great job.

The past two weeks, we were feeling ready to see some friends. The first were Gary and Laurie, old pals of my parents. They are both in their late eighties and inspire me with the way they live, talking walks, enjoying eating out, and being involved in their retirement community--and Laurie, whose art I've always admired, still paints.

Laurie gave me this picture I'd never seen before
(my parents with my sister Ann and me on the right).

We also had lunch with my longtime friend Jennifer and her husband Dwight, and then followed them north to their house in Richmond Beach, which overlooks the Puget Sound. Crazy, but I lived two blocks away years ago, before they were there. Dave and Dwight did car stuff, while Jen and I went on a long walk and fell back into our bond as though it had been days, not years, since we'd seen each other.

We were in a high school musical together.

Dwight in his 1953 Jaguar

To those of you we didn't get to see on this Pacific Northwest trip, we hope to be able to get together another time. Our main focus had to be getting healthy for what's ahead between now and October: eight housesits in three countries. Like the other hibernating creatures, we welcome spring, refreshed.