One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most from our time here in Mexico is the amount of friendship we’ve generated in the last two months. Of course, while the local Mexican population here in Ajijic is friendly and accommodating, nearly all our new friends are expats like us. Sure, the area on the lake is beautiful, the town historically quaint and the weather temperate—all which obviously draws people to this location. But beyond that, Thom and I seem to have proportionally found more people to connect to here in this small town, and in a surprisingly rapid time period, than we ever do in other travels or back home in the U.S. Naturally that has me asking myself, what is it about this area that seems so conducive to easily finding and then encouraging such relationships?
A few of the more obvious explanations are that most of the expats here are retired and in our age group. The only children visible are the adorable local kids. It’s apparent while walking through town or eating in the restaurants that the majority of the expat population is from either the U.S. or Canada. And while there are obviously differences in income and lifestyle—some manage fairly well on their social security alone, while others live a more lavish lifestyle. Like anywhere there is some distinction in resources but it doesn’t feel as obvious as in other places we’ve visited. Perhaps most clearly of all is that the people who call Ajijic home like to travel and are unafraid to explore parts of the world other than their country of origin. Plus, perhaps unsurprisingly, because they have chosen to make Mexico their home, most are of the liberal persuasion socially and politically.
What’s the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together?” I believe that is a big reason why we feel so comfortable here and find it easy to connect with others. While there are a lot of things to do here, the pace of the “doing” seems to be more relaxed. And rather than face dozens of obligations with family and former friends and associations, people here are able to take the time to make plans and connect. (Of course, the dozens of restaurants with reasonable prices makes that easy!)
But something else occurs here in Ajijic that we found very similar to cohousing communities in the U.S. that we visited in several states. In those communities people walk past each other nearly every day and they are connected in dozens of ways (managing the property together, planned social events, front porches, etc.) that those of us who live in suburban areas don’t often encounter. Like cohousing communities, Ajijic is small and compact with a Central Plaza where people gather. This plaza is surrounded by coffee shops and restaurants with lots of benches under trees where it is pleasant to sit and chat with others. The Malecon (or boardwalk) along the lake is perfect for taking a morning or evening stroll. People are accessible to each other making it easy to connect.
There is something else unique to Ajijic that contributes to connecting people and that is a local organization named The Lake Chapala Society (LCS). Founded in the 1950’s by an amazing woman named Neill James who was an adventurous American-born travel writer who explored the world. She settled in Ajijic to recuperate from a serious hiking injury and there she began “helping the Mexican people help themselves” by setting up scholarships and educational programs, English classes, art and computer classes. LCS has evolved into a membership that supports both locals and expats in hundreds of ways. Through their activity heavy calendar there are a dozen events every day as well as beautiful gardens, a huge English library, class rooms and a restaurant where you can meet someone new every day. Because of Neill, LCS has helped Ajijic become home to what is considered the largest expat community in Mexico.
In the end these qualities confirm the principals of “The Mere Exposure Effect” and “The Proximity Effect.” The exposure effect states that people tend to “like” the people that look like them and that they encounter on a frequent basis—often forming close relationships. While the Social Proximity effect explains that we are drawn to, and often mirror the people we hang out with. I think many of us have heard of the research that shows that “A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval.” (1). At the same time, “People who hang around smokers or drinkers are more likely to smoke and drink themselves. And you’re more likely to buy things the people you’re closest to also buy. Their values become your values.” (2)
From my perspective these two effects appear to explain why we have found it so easy to find friends and connect here in Ajijic. They are also a good reminder that we are highly influenced by the people we see and encounter most often. Of course, this can be a benefit as well as a detriment. If those people are healthy and happy, we will tend to be too. If they are depressed, practice unhealthy habits or are drawn to mindsets like conspiracies or chasing the Joneses, it is likely we will be the same. When our parents harped about the quality of our friendships, they might have been right on track!
This does not deny the large value in creating more diverse communities and friendships. We have much to learn from people who come from different backgrounds than us with different perspectives. However, when it comes to friendship, exposure and proximity have a big part to play.
Ajijic, MX offers a lesson for those of us who want to create deeper and closer relationships as we grow older. Let’s not just passively accept loneliness and lack of friends when there are actually things we can do to improve our situation. Let’s acknowledge that our environment, our communities, and our neighborhoods have a bigger influence on the quality of our lives than we usually acknowledge. I’m not suggesting we all move to Ajijic (FYI Thom and I aren’t!) but finding and/or creating a similar engaging and supportive community could be the SMARTest thing you do in the years to come.
- New England Journal of Medicine: 2007. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa066082
- Social Proximity Effect. https://www.riskology.co/proximity-effect/