Born and raised just outside of America’s Big Apple, Tom Lang lived most of his life north of the border. But after 40 years, trading Vancouver rain for Mexico sunshine brought he and his wife happily to the northern shore of Lake Chapala.
Lang, 69, left his small New Jersey town, just outside of Newark, after high school to attend the University of Rhode Island for a year before moving on to Michigan State University to complete a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1972.
After college, his career began at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City as a research assistant, but after a year he was packing his bags for Canada’s great Northwest.
“I had a friend who was born in Alaska and wanted to take a trip there,” Lang said, “so I tagged along and fell in love with British Columbia.”
His first stop was in a tiny town not far from the Alberta border on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.
“I lived in a little fur-trapper’s cabin with two light bulbs and no running toilet,” he said. “I could hear the wolves howling at night, quite a departure from my life in New York City. It wasn’t long before I headed west to the bright lights of Vancouver.”
He looked for a job in biology and health-related fields, but Canada’s employment policies favored Canadian citizens. Lang renounced his U.S. citizenship and applied for and received Canadian citizenship to improve his odds of finding a job.
“Then I met this great guy named Jim Bohlen who was working at the University of British Columbia,” Lang said. “He and his wife were the co-founders of Greenpeace. They invited me to join them on a nearby island to work on the Greenpeace Experimental Farm. I ended up living and working there for eight years.”
He returned to Vancouver and started Woodstoves Unlimited, a small retail chain of efficient wood-burning stoves and furnaces, with Bohlen. By then, U.S. policies had changed and he was granted his citizenship again. But the deep recession of the early 1980s proved too much for the new business.
“’We had to sell everything when the recession hit,” Lang said. “After that, I decided to take a Canadian securities course and became a stockbroker for the next 13 years before I sold my business to travel the world for a year, including Mexico.”
Mexico was a frequent destination for Lang, an escape from the cloudy, cool and rainy Vancouver climate.
“My first visit was in 1972,” he said. “I probably made the trip south at least 20 times over the last 40 years.”
Lang and his wife Cate, 64, decided to stick their toes in Mexico’s waters seven years ago and became snowbirds for several years, spending half of the year in La Paz, the capital of Baja Sur.
“We did that for three years on tourist visas, returning home every six months,” he said. “La Paz was nice but the combination of desert heat and humidity was too much for my wife.”
Now convinced that Mexico was the place for them, they began looking for a place that would provide the best climate for his wife’s arthritis. Lake Chapala’s well-known temperate climate seemed perfect.
“My wife has severe arthritis, so cold and damp or super-hot and humid weather is no good for her,” he said. “Chapala has ‘goldilocks’ weather pretty much year-round.”
They eventually settled in Riberas del Pilar, wedged between Chapala to the east and Ajijic to the west, over three years ago. They rented a two-bedroom and two-bath home with about 1,200 sq. ft. of space with high ceilings and skylights.
“Our neighborhood is about one-third American and Canadian expats and about two-third Mexican people,” he said. “It’s a very quiet area with cobblestoned streets not far from the lake. Our rent is about U.S. $550 a month. When we first moved to the Lake Chapala area we lived for a short while in the Raquet Club development west of Ajijic. That house was 2,500 sq. ft. and rented for US$1,200 a month.”
Lang still works a few days each week, telecommuting for two U.S. companies as a health coach for employees who have weight problems, diabetes, heart disease or have difficulty managing stress. But he and his wife still have plenty of time to enjoy lake life.
“There is a great organization here called the Lake Chapala Society that has been around for decades,” he said. “They have all kinds of social events and learning programs. They even bring in American and Canadian consulate people to discuss any topics of concern for local expats.”
Lang admitted that he and his wife do not lead an exciting lifestyle, but that suits them just fine. They have developed many friendships among Lake Chapala’s very large expat community and spend most of their time socializing with them at home or in local restaurants.
“We love to go to different restaurants in the area,” Lang said. “Since we come from a real foodie city, we like to try Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, French and other cuisines available to us here. Of course, the Mexican food is wonderful and very inexpensive.”
Since they live just a 40-minute drive south of Guadalajara’s city center, they shop and sometimes attend events in Mexico’s second largest city.
“We like to shop at Costco and Home Depot for those things we can’t get locally,” he said, “but we also like to go to restaurants and shows once in a while, too. We also love that the international airport is just 30-minutes from our house.”
Although both speak Spanish well, he emphasized that fluency in the local language is not required in Chapala. Expats have varying degrees of Spanish language competence, with most falling on the “enough to get by” end of the scale.
“Our maid doesn’t speak any English, which is not a problem for us, but if we didn’t speak Spanish we could still communicate with her by using Google translate or other translation programs,” he said. “By the way, we pay our maid US$15 each week for about four hours of cleaning. Local gardeners and other service people are equally inexpensive.”
Life along the lake has been good for them. They love hiking in the nearby mountains, kayaking on the lake and, most importantly, living in Lake Chapala’s world-renowned climate.
“I like sunshine every day, especially after suffering through 40 years of gloomy weather in Vancouver,” Lang said. “Lake Chapala has been a little slice of climatological heaven for us.”
But not enough to hold them forever. Within the year, the couple will be moving on to the beach town of Melaque, about 40 miles north of Manzanillo.
“We love Chapala but we’re both beach people,” Lang explained. “It’s like missing something in your life, you just feel the little hole. Even though it’s great here, we just miss the ocean so much. It’s like a magnet pulling us back.”