|Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico|
Ask a hundred newcomers to Lakeside why they moved here and you’ll get a cluster of answers around weather, affordability, and friendliness, with a smattering of responses about health care, pace of life, culture and food. However, if you ask people why they stay here, you’ll get a slightly different range of answers.
Recently, I asked Dr. Todd Stong that question and his response sparked this article and series. He told me he came here seventeen years ago because his wife Vivian wanted a safer place for him to work. He is a professional engineer who has devoted the past twenty-three years to developing water projects for poor people in often remote villages. Prior to Lake Chapala, he was working in Africa under hazardous conditions.
Stong now works with 43 villages around the lake, serving about 300,000 people. His popular “State of the Lake” annual Open Circle address offers facts and figures about pollution in the lake (at it’s current level, it’s safe) and whether it’s okay to eat fish from the lake (yes). He works with local governments to build water treatment and water storage facilities so he is also a fountain of information on how government works (or doesn’t work) in Mexico.
|Todd Stong at the La Zapatero community center in progress|
A few days ago, I accompanied Stong to La Zapotera, a chayote-farming village perched high on the lake with stunning views, but almost impossible roads. He is supervising the construction of a community center in conjunction with villagers and the Lakeside Presbyterian Church which will be offering a feeding program for three hundred children.
As we drove into the village, children swarmed around the van, shaking hands with everyone as if they were duly elected diplomats. We oohed and ahhed over the progress and freshly painted walls, and while Stong discussed plans and details with the village elders, I took endless pictures of the kids so they could see themselves in the LCD panel. Later as we shared peanut butter and jam sandwiches, Stong thrilled the kids and the adults as he passed out large photos from a previous trip.
|Todd Stong passing out photos to the children|
The next day, Stong and I talked more about all his projects, proposals, and ideas for bringing clean water to the villages. He is in his mid-70s and has great energy, but he could be taking life easier and working fewer hours. I asked him why he was working so hard and he explained that the work made him happy and he felt like he was helping people. “At this stage of life,” he said, “people often don’t feel needed and they start to slow down and feel like they don’t matter. I have become an advocate for the villages. I feel needed.”
|La Zapotera Community Center in progress|
Since I’ve been in Ajijic, i’ve been repeatedly astounded by what people have created here … orphanages and dog rescue programs, children’s art programs, student scholarship programs, community development centers, and one of the most recognized folk art festivals in all of Mexico. Wherever people see a need, and there are many to see, they go to work and do something about it. If someone wants to contribute something here, they just start doing it. The community benefits and they have the satisfaction of giving back and feeling needed while doing work they love.
|Book about Neill James|
Maybe it all started with Neill James. The adventurer/travel writer came to Ajijic in 1943 to recuperate from an accident and wound up moving here. She founded the first public library in Chapala, and then in Ajijic. She developed a water purifying system, dug the first deep water wells, helped install both electricity and telephone services, started a local weaving industry, and set up schools for local children’s education. With several other expats, she formed what would become The Lake Chapala Society (LCS) and willed her house and property to it. El Ojo del Lago named Neill James Ajijic's Woman of the Century.
People who move here seem to become infected with the spirit of Neill James. They may come for the weather, the affordable life style, and the culture, but they stay because they’ve made friends and found a way to enhance their own lives by exploring many interests they may not have had time for north of the border (NOB). Helping Lakeside be a better place to live, both for newcomers and locals, gives people a way to feel needed, satisfied ... happy.
This is the first of a series of stories about expats living lives that matter. If you have a story or know of one that needs to be shared, please email me at jwycoff at me dot com.
Joyce Wycoff, writer/photographer/artist lives in Ajijic, Mexico. More about her and this series at Mexico Stories ... expats living lives that matter.