Retiring to Someplace Warm: Go or Stay?

Oh to live on the beach!

I love where I live.  I love my town, my street, my house, my dogs, my lawn and my gardens. Central Massachusetts is beautiful three seasons of the year, and most years the winter is tolerable.  There’s even a wonderful coziness to winter when one is an avid reader, especially when one has a woodstove and plenty of wood.

Across the street are woods and wetlands, beyond which a small river meanders through a golf course.  In warm weather as I sit on my deck in the evening, I see deer heading to the river to drink.  Next door to the right, there are more woods and wetlands, and a driveway that leads to the golf teaching school.  Behind me, fifty yards of woods separate me from one neighbor, whose family owns the golf course.  I have another neighbor to my left, a delightful family with nearly grown children and an adorable golden doodle named Macy.

In short, I couldn’t be happier where I live.  So why am I thinking about moving to someplace warm?  There are two reasons: it’s expensive where I live, and winters become more unmanageable as one ages.  If I had lots of money, I wouldn’t worry about the latter because I’d hire people to do the shoveling and plowing and roof clearing.  The outlandish heating bills would be annoying, and no more.  I’d have someone shop for groceries, and hire a car service or call a cab to take me to the synagogue.  During the worst months I’d go off to the Caribbean.

As it is, I do worry about winter.  Each time I shovel my deck I wonder how long my heart will be up to the task.  Already, when the snow is wet and heavy, it seems to take forever and I gasp for breath.  Besides, the shoveling cuts into my reading-by-the-fire time and I resent it.

Money has become a concern because the 2008 economic debacle made off with a chunk of my retirement.  There were the mutual fund losses, and then there were the shortfalls in my dog services business.  I’ve kept the business going and it will bring a decent price when I sell it; but I don’t think the sale price will equal what I’ve put into it.

So both winter and the mortgage continue to be up to me.  Added to that is a relatively high cost of living which limits (or eliminates) cherished extras like travel.  It would be easier and cheaper to live in a warm climate, especially if I decided to go abroad.

Costa Rica intrigues me.  I love the climate, there’s still affordable housing on some of the southern Pacific beaches, and the focus on sustainable living makes me feel right at home.  I’d have to learn Spanish, but that’s something I rather look forward to.  I could live on the beach, swim every day for exercise and pleasure, and go for long walks with my dogs.  If one eats sensibly, food is inexpensive, and utilities are a joke compared to the great sucking sound they cause where I live now.  Finally, good quality health care costs a pittance compared to what I pay, even with Medicare’s help.

Belize is another interesting possibility.  It’s a country the size of New Jersey and very easy to get to from Miami.  One of my customers has an expat sister who lives there and loves it.  The sister keeps busy doing animal rescue work and goes scuba diving when she has time.  My customer goes to see her every winter and brings back pictures of sensational dives, which makes me very jealous.  No where have I been more at peace than gazing at underwater reefs off the island of Bonaire.

I visited Belize once.  It was about fifteen years ago and I was less than thrilled.  I’d only heard of Ambergris Caye, so that’s where we stayed.   Even then it was overbuilt and kind of tacky, and the nearby town was so poor and unsanitary that we avoided it, except for an evening foray to a restaurant that fellow travelers recommended.  The diving was good, but I didn’t see anything new or exciting (I later learned I’d gone to the wrong dive spots). Belize City seemed dirty and sad, again, an indication of the paucity of development dollars.  We took a day trip by boat into the jungle to see the wildlife, and one of the boat’s motors conked out halfway back across the bay.  We limped along in the rain on one motor for a couple of hours, an altogether unpleasant evening.

Nevertheless, I remember the natural beauty of the place, and the exciting mix of jungle and Mayan ruins.  Everyone speaks English and the currency is tied to the American dollar, so easy to figure out.  It didn’t seem terribly far away from the States, since the Mexican border was less than an hour’s drive away.  Outside of Ambergris Caye, the development is pleasant and generally tasteful.

Ah, the laid back lifestyle!

In the years since my visit, the rich and the famous have discovered Belize, not to mention hundreds of average American expats like my customer’s sister.  Development money has poured in to create good quality housing, both affordable and high end.  As in Costa Rica(though for a bit more money), I’d be able to live on or near the beach.  Infrastructure is new, almost ubiquitous, and inexpensive to use.  If one lives along the northern coast, one can easily cross into Mexico, where it’s less expensive to shop than in Belize.

But what would I do all day?  Would I be bored?  Would I miss the seasons (the answer to that is surely, yes!)  I’d write, as I do now.  I’d go kayaking. I’d scuba dive when I could afford it.  I’d spend time with retirees like myself.  But would I find people as interesting as my current friends?  And how would it be to have all new friendships when the ones I enjoy now have mellowed for years?   Sometimes I think of living in Costa Rica or Belize as a wonderful final adventure, a more pleasant one than some that have befallen me.  But other times I think it would be lonely.  I’d miss the States, and have to move back, perhaps with less money than I have now.

When I was in college I lived in Paris for two years and didn’t miss the States for a minute.  In fact, coming home was hard.  I’d adapted comfortably in Paris, and New York seemed strange and wild.  Would it be different now?  Well, of course it would be different.   An older person has needs that a college student can forgo, like reliable transportation right at hand, and creature comforts.  I rely on a good glass of wine.  I mean, why would I move to Costa Rica to drink cheap wine?  Besides, young people aren’t usually entrenched in a tried and true support network that they’re loath to forgo.  So I think, yes, it’s likely that I’d miss what I left behind.

I’m something of an intellectual, so I worry about finding like-minded friends in a tropical paradise.  Do aging hippy writers go south to grow old?  James Lee Burke lives in south Louisiana part of the year.  Carl Hiaasen lives and writes in Florida, and of course there’s always the Hemingway and Tennessee Williams folklore of Key West.  John MacDonald also adopted Florida as his home, though he died inWisconsin.  Elizabeth Bishop lived for a time in Brazil and Key West, but like MacDonald died in a colder clime (an apartment overlooking Boston Harbor.)   Most of those people had long love affairs with alcohol, though, and I worry that booze may be a particularly seductive lure in the tropics.  Anyway, if I could afford Florida, I probably could stay where I am, nice as it might be to live in Key West part of the year.

To go or to stay, that is the question.  The next step is to spend time in Costa Rica and Belize, I suppose, and hopefully that will move the decision-making process along.

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