Wednesday, May 22, 2019

When does populism become authoritarianism?

Except for the gasoline crisis a couple of months ago, I must confess that I have not followed the performance of Mexico's new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) since he took office earlier this year.

The avalanche of political news from the U.S. pretty much eclipses what goes on here—at least from an American's perspective—plus I hesitate to add Mexican newspapers and magazines to my pile of to-be-read stuff.

So my knowledge about AMLO comes primarily from totally unscientific surveying I did shortly after the election, and which showed a clear split of opinion along economic and professional lines.

Briefly, lawyers, dentists and other better-heeled Mexicans predicted an economic apocalypse under AMLO, while gas station attendants, cashiers at the grocery store and other representatives of the lower economic classes generally reacted a discreet smile and a thumbs up.

In that regard, AMLO seems to keep company with Trump, and other populists around the world, who profess concern for the forgotten working man, who has been exploited by the economic elites for the past umpteen years.

Transformation man. 
Yet the latest internet edition of Foreign Affairs magazine argues that despite AMLO's man-of-the-people rhetoric and histrionics, he may be leading Mexico back to the dark days of one-party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled the country for 71 years, as a "perfect dictatorship" as Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa once described it.

AMLO's anti-corruption campaign, according to Foreign Affairs, has metastasized into a "political weapon  to wield against his enemies, a tool to undermine resistance to his policies, and a shield to defend decisions that would otherwise elicit more scrutiny."

Trump's narcissistic rhetoric—particularly his "I alone can fix it" claim at the Republican Convention and since his he took office—and his frequent impatience with cumbersome legislative processes, public debate, compromise and laws and regulations in general, betray an authoritarian streak.

One Mexican newspaper columnist described AMLO as a president without "intermediaries" such as NGO's and business organizations, who goes directly to the people, sometimes to decide complex issues of government through quick referendums.

But the U.S. and Mexican government are quite different beasts. The American model is one that restrains the executive through a long-established system of checks and balances, as much as Trump might bristle and tweet against it.

The Mexican government doesn't have such controls, and the rank-and-file Mexicans who put AMLO in office may be far more amenable to a take-charge caudillo, if that's what it takes to root out the endemic corruption and insecurity that grip the country.

Finally, two years into the Trump presidency, his popularity is stuck around the mid-forties, and Trump's reelection in 2020 is by no means a done deal.

López Obrador, on the other hand, continues to ride an enormous wave of popularity, that would make Trump green with envy—a 78 percent approval rating in one poll.

Moreover, the Mexican president's term is six years, and López Obrador doesn't have to face the voters for several more years, during which he can work on his "fourth transformation" of Mexico pretty much unimpeded.

Mexico's First Transformation was the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821); the second was the period of reforms that drastically curtailed the power of the Catholic Church (1857-1872); the third was the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917).

If AMLO's campaign to eliminate corruption succeeds, it may be the most significant transformation yet, or, and some critics fear, it may push Mexico back to era of an "imperial presidency" of 30 or 40 years ago. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Fifo the Cat says: Demasiado calor

This won't come as news to anyone who lives in San Miguel, but it's been hot, borderline miserable here for the past two weeks. I don't care if it's hotter in Houston or New Orleans. I live here, not there.

All winter we had to listen to people in Chicago, New York and Boston moaning about the weather. Now, it's our turn to complain, double-loud, perhaps because we've been spoiled by what we have come to call San Miguel's "perfect climate."

But: Yesterday, at 5:33 p.m. it was 91 degrees, the wind a pokey 11 m.p.h. and the humidity down to a Saharan 10 percent. Next week, the temperatures are supposed to be in the nineties, except for Friday when it will be 84 degrees or so. A week from Monday the temperatures are predicted to climb to 96 degrees.
Fifo says: I'm not moving until it's time to eat. 
Remember the line about "it's not the heat but the humidity"? Baloney. When it gets hot and the humidity goes below 10 percent, your skin gets wrinklier, which makes you look older and grumpier,  no matter how much Oil of Olay you slather on your mug.

The landscape is pretty much fried until further notice, even with Félix running around watering everything in the place like a Chinese fireman. (Is that an ethnic slur?)

The latest forecast promises some rain the week after next, which actually would be a little bit ahead of schedule for the rainy season to begin.

The surest indicator of our dire situation is our cat Fifo. Not a particularly vivacious sort even during sparkling weather, these days he sleeps 22 hours a day, and spends the rest of the time eating or meowing for more food. Mucho calor, he says.

Of course, when the rains arrive, everything will turn green, Fifo will perk up and we'll be giving each other congratulatory high-fives for our wise decision to move to a place with such ideal weather.

It's called the Chicago Syndrome. After all their whining, on Memorial Day the pasty-looking masses there will rush to the lakefront, dusty barbecue gear in tow, to enjoy a memorable day outside.

And if you ask anyone then about winter, they'll look at you and say, "What winter?"

Saturday, May 18, 2019

After the fall: Yoga

Lying on a hospital bed several weeks ago, following my horseback accident, the first thing I thought was, "Well, this really sucks!"

Then Stew and I agreed this debacle might well be a omen, among other things, pointing the way back to some sort of exercise regimen to help me mend whatever damage was done to my back. Stew has long-standing back problems too.

So we returned to our thrice-weekly yoga routine that we'd abandoned four or five years ago.

Not me. 
Though sometimes scoffed by more testosteronal guys as a somewhat effete, yuppie indulgence, along with Evian mineral water and sushi, yoga is a powerful tool, in effect a form of physical therapy to help mend damage to the body.

In fact, Stew got a sheet of suggested exercises from his physical therapist, most of which are right out the yoga handbook.

Yoga has been around for 5,000 years and is a low stress but very effective exercise to increase strength, balance and most of all, a sort of WD-40 to help loosen up old and increasingly crankier joints.

In the absence of fancy gyms that long ago, I guess devotees practiced it atop the nearest mountain but that's not a requirement. 

Your first yoga session, particularly here in Geezerville, Mexico, might look to you like a support group for the chronically uncoordinated. Nothing as graceful as an Esther Williams water ballet, or as stunning as an old, bald-headed yogi, his body locked in a pretzel-like pose.

Nope, not me either. 
Alejandro, 53, and his partner Jorge, who seems to just keep track of attendance and collection of the approximately $7 dollars per session, have been leading yoga classes here for about 15 years.

Since we first met him, about ten years ago, Alejandro has gained some weight—pretty much like his pupils—but remains a master teacher who can ratchet the routines up or down, according to the ability of the participants, and yet demonstrate with ease poses that seem impossible.

Several years ago we attended a "hot yoga" class here in San Miguel and fled after 15 minutes. Not only were we surrounded by heaters that kept the temperature 90 degrees or thereabouts, but we were light years behind whatever the instructor was demonstrating.

Room with a view.
Also to be avoided, though, mercifully, not offered in San Miguel yet, is "nude yoga." Never been, but I can't imagine it to be anything but a horror show unless the participants are buff 20-somethings. Even then, I'd be so embarrassed I'd probably roll myself in my yoga mat and never come out until everyone left.

Alejandro recently moved his class to a large, sunny and gorgeous party room in a downtown hotel, with floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of San Miguel's Centro and two of its churches, including the iconic Parroquia. 

An added attraction of the new venue is its location, right above the hotel restaurant. Our class meets at 9:30, and the inebriating smell of fried eggs and bacon wafting from below effectively mask the pffts and other mishaps inevitable in any yoga class, which I'm too embarrassed to discuss here. Check here for details, if you dare.

Otherwise, namasté!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

An afternoon at the opera

"Dilettante" is a word that may have been coined to describe Stew's and my knowledge of opera, which is about a yard wide and a sixteenth-of-an-inch deep. Yes, we're familiar with the one about the bullfighter and the cigar maker; and the other one about Egyptians and Ethiopians. But that's pretty much it.

But thanks to the Metropolitan Opera of New York's high-definition simulcasts of some of its performances, we might be progressing from "dilettante" to "conversant," albeit far from the title of full-fledged "opera queens."

Although the simulcasts supposedly are showing at the Angela Peralta Theater in downtown San Miguel, we prefer to view them at a 54-seat VIP Cineplex cinema in Querétaro, about 45-minutes from here.

The theaters have plush, reclining leather seats, much like first-class in airlines, and young people will come and take your drink and food or orders, at the push of convenient button on your armrest. Practically anything from sushi to enchiladas is available, and several kinds of popcorn. This past Saturday we settled on a more modest order of coffee and churros. A great deal for about seven dollars a person, munchies not included.

Apart from the theater, the technology involved is pretty amazing. The show coincides exactly with the live afternoon performance at the Met, adjusted for time zones, and is broadcast by satellite to over 70 countries, with local subtitles.

Here, we get Spanish, but Stew says he can understand enough to figure out who's the heroine and the dirtbag.

(For the 2018-19 schedule in theaters from one end of Russia to the other, consult this link.)

Each show is preceded by an introduction by a genuine opera star (on Saturday it was Renee Fleming) and intermission interviews with the stars of the show. Also, cameras follow the assembly and dismantlement of the scenery by two- or three-dozen stagehands with ballet-like precision, an amazing show in itself. 

The quality of the video and audio is astonishing, particularly considering the signal has to travel from New York, up to a satellite about 20,000 miles in space, and back down to our lowly neck of the woods.

Poulenc's "Dialogue of the Carmelites"
Even with a knowledge of the operatic repertoire as limited as ours, and if can't tell a high C from a low M, some of the performances are awesome. Check out the performance by the diminutive Mexican tenor Javier Camarena in an aria from the Daughter of the Regiment, an opera we had never seen. The plot is pretty lame, but Camarena's singing had the audience practically jumping off the balconies, clamoring for an encore. Check it out.

The last in this year's ten-opera package was Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, not exactly a comedic romp: It's about 16 nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. Without spoiling the end, each of them dies, one by one, with a ghoulish screech from somewhere in the orchestra to mark each whack of the blade.

Move over, Turandot. 
Poulenc's music is not something you whistle on the way home from the theater, but somehow it was incredibly fitting for a very moving—feminist?— work about religious conviction and personal courage, by a group of women.

The stark main set was a white cross painted on the floor of the Met's enormous stage and metal prison grates that came and went according to the plot.

Nothing like Puccini's Turandot, which at one point has so many people on stage, wearing such wild costumes, including Turandot's foot-high headgear, you half expect Bette Midler to sneak in and hit a few bars from "Hello Dolly," just to complete the show. 

We're are going back next year.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Study: Too many vegetables will make you nuts

May is the time of the year when, despite the relentless dry weather, vegetables start erupting from the garden faster than we can figure what to do with them. And we haven't even reached Tomatomania yet, which starts around June.

Cornucopias are overrated.
It's a problem easily avoidable, except for people like Felix and me: The solution is better planning and self-control which neither one of us seem to be good at.

Around December, seed companies in the U.S. such as Burpee, send out pornographic catalogs with hundreds of perfectly round, shiny and luscious vegetables. Lust devours my mind. Every vegetable, even a plain cucumber, looks far better than anything we can buy here. Gimme, gimme.

MEGA, the largest grocery store in San Miguel, only seems to stock the same varieties of potatoes, tomatoes and grapefruits year-round: Mexican Same-Old, Same-Old.

Yet you crave shiny Black Krim Tomatoes and thick cucumbers, and some of those vegetables Alice Waters casually drops in her recipes, that I've never heard of, much less held in my hands. Wild amaranth greens? Florence fennel? Celery roots? Winter squash?

So I try to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality by ordering all sorts of seeds—far too many— by the start of February,  which Félix dutifully germinates indoors and sets out on the raised beds by the beginning of April.

The raised beds, which Félix has been turning over and nurturing with compost, all watered with an automatic drip-irrigation system, provide the proverbial fertile ground. A chain-reaction of vegetables ensues.

Gardening guides tell you thin out and toss the weaker seedlings but Félix, who grew up in an impoverished household, won't countenance such waste. He saves them all. 

Now what?
That brings us to now, when Félix triumphantly brings in beets the size of tennis balls, a non-stop supply of radishes, carrots of various sizes, and generally more stuff than we know what to do with. Where's Alice?

Félix doesn't help alleviate the vegetable glut by taking some home. His diet is tortilla-centric: If it doesn't involve tortillas, he doesn't want it. Green salads are a bizarre Gringo fetish.

It isn't all bad news, though. I have come to like a variety of greens I would never have touched before, such as Swiss Chard, cauliflower and spinach. Beets remain a taste I haven't quite yet acquired. Brussels Sprouts is the handiwork of the devil, and so is okra.

Martha's Swiss Chard galette.

Also, Stew has broadened his culinary palette to accommodate the flood of vegetables. Soups are tasty, keep well and best of all, consume large quantities of surplus vegetables.

He even tried a Swiss Chard and ricotta galette he saw Martha Stewart making on TV. It was great.

Now, a bunch of beets await Stew's touch on the kitchen counter.  Any recipes for Ukrainian beet borscht out there? Stew says he's made it and it's not hard. Best of all, he says, it uses lots of beets. 

Ah, those adorable expats of San Miguel

I've seen this VW Bug around town before, but never talked with the owner who, I've been told, is Canadian. This time his creation was on the parking lot of the Mega supermarket.

Can't tell you what his schtick might be: Irrepressible creativity? A deep-seated craving for attention? Hippie flashback?

Or about some of the logistics: How does he select the objects to go on his car? Does all this crap affect the driveability of the vehicle, as in aerodynamics during one of San Miguel's windy afternoons? Ever been stopped by the police? For what?

So here are two pictures of this creation. Maybe one of the readers knows him.

If I catch up with the owner one day, I'll mention that Felipe Zapata has an apartment for rent in Pátzcuaro, with a view of a mercilessly mutilated bougainvillea. Reasonable rent.  I'm not sure the two of them would make a good match though. Ja. Ja.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Queen for less than a day

During these bleak days toward the end—or so we fervently hope—of the dry season, when the landscape looks like it's never to going green up again, cacti and succulents step up to brighten our sagging spirits with their unexpected and lavish blooms. And you'd best be ready with your oohs and aahs, and camera, to capture a magical moment that may last for no more than a couple of hours.

Early bloomer

Delicate flower from a rough-looking mom.
Yesterday when I sat on the terrace with my cup of coffee, to do my pretend meditation—"pretend" because much of what I do is in fact fiddle with my phone and noodle things in my head—I turned to my left and on the table found this the stunning white flower, at the end of a six-inch stem, from of a cactus that might belong to a genus called "mammilaria."

My limited knowledge of botany and Latin make "might" and "maybe" the operative words in my attempts at plant identification. Mammillaria, which is Latin for "nipple" or "teat," are round and generally look like a bunch of little barrel cacti clustered on top of one another.

They are best admired from a distance, though, because like most succulents and cacti, then are covered with delicate and sharp spines that sink into your skin and break off, to remind you of your impudence for a couple of hours

The blooms of succulents often don't seem to fit the appearance of the mother plant. The tiny purple blooms of some mammillaria pop up randomly in the crevices and dimples of the main plant, to create a harmonious overall appearance. The one yesterday, at the end of a solitary stem coming from the side of the plant, looked incongruous.

Not too far from this guy, I have another customer that looks quite like a fat phallus, with a couple of round protrusions at the base to complete the effect. A small label I put on it calls it mammillaria supertexta, but don't take my word of it. A couple of weeks ago, it decided to put out a series of tiny purple flowers, arranged tiara-like around the tip, or head, of the main phallus.

Maybe I have a dirty mind, but it seemed as if this delicate, so feminine, tiara of flowers didn't quite go with the rest of the more masculine package.

In another case, nature's joke went up my nose. Over by the main gate, we have a stapelia grandiflora, which grows finger-like branches and then, boom!, puts out, at no particular time of the season, exquisite five-petaled blooms, either white, or light cream with small purple dots. Get close to it and you'll never forget its common name— "stink flower."

The flower of the mammillaria that bloomed yesterday, probably before sunrise, started to swoon by  ten, and folded up before noon. And that was all folks.