Many retirees set their sights on conventional spots—a condo in Florida, perhaps, or a nicely manicured golf-course community down South. New York journalist Barry Golson, however, chose a far more adventurous path for him and his wife, Thia: a fishing village on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
His account of building their dream house, Gringos in Paradise, began as a 2004 assignment for AARP The Magazine, in which Golson explored Mexico's Guadalajara region. It had become an expat retirement belt of sorts, home to some 50,000 Americans. Meanwhile, he was facing the end of his own working life. After a 35-year career, Golson suddenly found himself put out to pasture, a relic in the youth-focused magazine business. For him, like so many others his age, the prospect of early retirement was alarming rather than welcome.
"In the period after the turn of the millennium," he writes, "it was broadly reported that a majority of our baby-boom generation was not saving enough to live on during its retirement years. That, combined with general insecurity about Social Security, set off widespread anxiety, introspection, and not a little whining." Golson found himself having nervous conversations with friends about what might come next and whether the so-called nest egg would be sufficient to live on.
As it turned out, Golson's article would give him not only an award for travel writing but an epiphany. As he interviewed American expats over the course of his travels through central Mexico, Golson became increasingly intrigued by their lifestyle. The sunny, idyllic locale didn't hurt either.
Golson learned that Mexico was much more than our "superficial image" of it: "a poor country with good resorts, lousy water, spicy food" and abundant crime and corruption. During his reporting trip, in fact, he developed a great affection for the country and its people, characterized by "amiability, generosity, creativity, honesty, [and] joy in living," especially in the smaller towns.
Above all, he discovered that Mexico potentially offered an incredibly affordable—and comfortable—retirement, one that wouldn't be possible in his own country. "Absurd is the word for it," one of Golson's interviewees told him at the time. "We have a 5,000-square-foot beachfront house and pay $24 a year in property taxes." Golson was dumbfounded. Slowly, the notion that he and Thia might reinvent their lives began to coalesce.
Gringos in Paradise is the author's moving, often hilarious account of making that dream happen, describing the year that he and Thia spent building their home and settling into their new lives.
After a real estate broker in Sayulita showed the couple some properties, they bought a hilltop plot of land, high above town, on impulse. "When I say bought, I may be overstating the case," Golson writes. His New York lawyer was "apoplectic" upon learning that "we paid for it in full and got no deed in return, just a power of attorney and a legal promise that it was ours. Not to worry. It was the way things were done around here; everything would work out fine."
Golson's immersion in the local culture is absolute, and his and his wife's openness toward it is inspiring. They endure a steep learning curve about how things are done (or not) in town—garbage collection happens whenever, for instance, with no real certainty; and yes, small payoffs must be made to local authorities to avoid being hassled. They endure most of it with a great deal of patience and humor as well as respect for local customs, however odd they might occasionally seem. And in the end they are rewarded with a stunning home and gorgeous swimming pool, and best of all, a genuine sense of community in Sayulita.
On the surface, this is a narrative about building a dream house in Mexico, but it's also a story of marriage, friendship, adventure, and education at midlife. Gringos in Paradise is well-written and exceedingly entertaining, full of rich anecdotes and plainspoken advice. Above all, it's proof that reinventing your life in retirement is anything but a crazy idea.
Carmela Ciuraru is a writer and editor in New York City. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, ArtNews, The Washington Post, and other publications, and edited six anthologies of poetry. She previously reviewed The Last Days of Dead Celebrities on AARP The Magazine Online.