Saturday, November 26, 2016

Long lived Fidel—for way too long

I won't pretend to add anything to the torrent of obituaries marking the death of Fidel Castro, Maximum Leader Emeritus of Cuba, at age 90. For the definitive good-bye, read Anthony DePalma's piece in today's Times.

I can add some very personal reminiscences, though, because for nearly 58 years I've lived with Castro's words and deeds echoing in my head, alongside the sound of my parents' anguished and implacable rancor toward him which I could not comprehend until we all grew older.  

Indeed, during my long-haired college days, when I was taken by the lefty-ish, hashish-enhanced fervor gripping American college campuses, I pored through Ché Guevara's rhapsodies about the new Socialist Man being fashioned out of the revolutionary clay in Cuba, and even some of Castro's hours-long harangues, as if they were holy texts.

It was exciting, fantastic stuff, in retrospect a childlike naivete on my part fueled by a secret pride in how Castro had transformed our otherwise insignificant island of six million, known mostly for whores, booze and sunshine, into a volcano of worldwide revolutionary inspiration, or mayhem, from Bolivia to Angola. Everywhere I've ever visited, except Antarctica, I've found Ché Guevara tee shirts, posters and books celebrating some aspect of Cuba and its revolution. What other Latin American country can claim that? How many other Latin American dictators have received a front-page, twenty-one gun sendoff from the New York Times?
Fidel, during his prime poster days.

Sometime during the sixties I bought three large colorful propaganda posters commemorating Castro's 1968 campaign to produce ten million tons of sugar, which ultimately was a disaster.  I reverently kept the posters as if they were precious mementos, and later had them framed, thinking they might be worth something someday.

For a while they hanged on one of the walls of our dining room in Chicago, as so much conversation pieces, until my mom came to visit. She didn't say much except she insisted in sitting at the table with her back to the posters. The posters have long disappeared, worth nothing to me except that, ironically, her silent, pained reaction, and my thoughtlessness, helped me appreciate the impact Castro's revolution had inflicted on my parents and on so many Cubans.

My parents left Cuba in 1965, three years after me, and after spending several months in Madrid, living on charity handouts at a shelter for refugees, joined me in New York. Except for the singular, and significant, achievement of sending me through college and graduate school, their life in New York was no Horatio Alger replay. Both in their mid-fifties, with no mastery of English or marketable skills, they survived on low-paying jobs, my dad for decades at a non-union printing shop that at age sixty-five sent him off to retirement with no more than a pat on the back and a Social Security check. My mom, a public school teacher in Cuba, only got as far as a working as an orderly at an old people's home despite her ferocious determination to get herself ahead and me through college. Hers was a union job that at least provided a meager pension and some medical insurance until she died.

To my parents Castro was as an incendiary a subject as Donald Trump was at many Thanksgiving family dinners this week. I once found a crinkled picture of my mother shaking hands with Castro when he visited Santa Clara, except that after their love affair soured she had taken a pair of scissors and meticulously excised Castro from the picture, as if a tumor, leaving a photograph of herself shaking hands with a hole. As for my dad, I once asked him what he thought should be done in Cuba and he said, "Mi'jo (my son), the only solution is to go back there, machete in hand, and kill every communist in the island." No room for detente or compromise in my dad's world when it came to Castro.

For years I chuckled at my parent's Cro Magnon politics but as we all got older, and I retired at fifty-seven, I learned to understand and appreciate how devastating it must have been for them at a similar midlife pivot to lose everything they had spent a lifetime building to the communist hurricane that ravaged the island. Just as they thought they'd had reached a modest level of middle-class comfort, including a baby blue 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air and my dad's printing and stationery business in the somnolent provincial capital of Santa Clara, it all vanished overnight.

Dreams of my parents: A 1954 Chevy Bel Air 
Communists dying at the blade of my dad's rage? I could finally comprehend.

Still, I'm awed too at the impact Castro and the Cuban revolution have had on the world, even though back home the island's economy is still spinning its wheels in the muck of one failed socialist experiment after another. American visitors are now enthralled by the old American cars farting black smoke around Havana— in my living room I have a photo I took of a Havana-plated 1957 Chevy—but I wonder if the tourists grasp how indescribably depressing it must be for the classmates I left behind to find themselves living in a decrepit tourist curio shop after nearly sixty years of revolutionary privations.

I keep a shelf-full of books about Cuba, as a shrine of sorts, ranging from antique history tomes, early takes on the revolution, Andrés Oppenheimer's spectacularly premature "Castro's Final Hour"—published in 1992—plus memoirs and historical fiction mostly by Cubans in exile. Amid the books is a small pewter reproduction of the capitol building in Havana.

My favorite writer is Mirta Ojito, who for a while reported for the New York Times and wrote "Finding Mañana: A memoir of Cuban Exodus," and more recently Richard Blanco, who read one of his poems at Barack Obama's 2013 inauguration and later on the occasion of the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. In 2014 he published Prince of Los Cocuyos, a delightful memoir of growing up Cuban in Florida.

But by far my most memorable and tragic writer was Reinaldo Arenas, who dared to live an openly gay lifestyle in Cuba and defy the crush of government censorship and persecution. He left the island in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and committed suicide in New York at age 47. His stirring "Before Night Falls" memoir was turned into a movie starring Javier Bardem.

So the old man, the one Cubans once admiringly called El Caballo, or The Horse, to signify his outsize physical and personal presence, is finally dead, his body cremated instead of mummified like Lenin, Mao or Ho, to be venerated by the faithful at an imposing mausoleum. I expect many reverent memorials to be held around the world, including here in San Miguel de Allende, where a small cadre of faithful Marxists sponsor occasional tours of the island to marvel at Castro's achievements.

I must confess a certain pride in all the talent, literary and otherwise, that has emerged from the small Caribbean island during the past sixty years. I'd even admit to a perverse admiration for Castro, who put Cuba on the world geopolitical map by defying the odds, the U.S., cut-offs of Soviet aid and innumerable other calamities that would have vanquished a lesser man.

Except any such admiration is quickly extinguished by the realization of how much destruction Castro's megalomania brought to so many people in the island, most especially my parents.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Two weeks after the Apocalypse

Yesterday morning I spoke on the phone with Rogelio, a mellow, slow-talking childhood friend from Cuba who after I mentioned Donald J. Trump raised his voice several decibels and erupted into a torrent of expletives not suitable for a family blog like this. He said he hadn't slept the night of the election and had felt nauseous the day after, before skidding into nearly a weeklong depression.

His reaction was typical but probably the most extreme was that of a friend who said she was so upset she ate a whole pecan pie right out of the box. She is still cursing Trump, two weeks after the election.

To say we are all just sore losers is a false and unfair equivalence. I was disappointed when George Bush Sr. defeated Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, particularly after the racist Willie Horton ad aired by the Republicans; dismayed when the U.S. Supreme Court handed the election to George W., in 2000 even though Al Gore had won the popular vote; and doubly dismayed when Bush was reelected in 2004, with the catastrophic, multi-trillion-dollar Iraq War already thundering in the background. I'm sure Republican friends were angry too when the Kenyan-born Barack Obama was elected and reelected. But we all accepted the results and moved on.

This is different. For all the faults and misjudgments of the Bush father-and-son team, and later Obama, they were basically honorable people with political agendas we didn't agree with. Now we've turned the presidency to an out-and-out racist, xenophobe and misogynist, who lies almost as often, and as casually, as he breathes. It feels as if he is about to desecrate the highest office and the White House, bringing along, for added insult, a former topless model to pose as First Lady.

Michelle and Barack, whatever your faults, we're going to miss you.

The first reaction Stew and I experienced after the election was the usual stage of grief—denial. Not that we didn't believe Trump had won but that we could shield ourselves against that reality by not watching or reading any news. We even abandoned the PBS News Hour, then headed by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, our favorite news team. To worsen matters a notch, Ifill died unexpectedly a few days after the election.

Then, for a moment, I embraced the "accepting the things we cannot change" fatalism proposed by some. But I don't buy that. I like Rogelio's rage much better—if only a bit more focused than yelling at friends on the phone, and seasoned with some historical perspective and even optimism.

Indeed, both Rogelio and I came to the U.S. in the early sixties and since then have witnessed this American democracy that is now our home go through some awful, seemingly catastrophic crises that would have plunged a lesser country into dictatorship or civil war.

Think of it: Today is the fifty-third anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, which was followed by the killings of his brother and of Martin Luther King, and attempts on two more presidents. The political fabric of the country was ripped by race riots, wars, domestic terrorists, and seemingly unbridgeable political chasms. All this may seem like distant history but should reassure and help us get through this latest low point.

A starting point is a searching, bipartisan post-mortem of how our political discourse has turned so poisonous and illogical. How did working class Americans, who for decades were well served by labor unions embrace a Republican party—think Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—that has set out to undermine or destroy labor unions? Or how did Democrats—think Bill and Hillary Clinton—join hands with Republicans to become shills of Wall Street interests that led directly to the economic debacle of 2008 that punched middle-class Americans right in the gut? Why do Republicans, historical supporters of open markets and free trade, now talk about walls and trade wars? And hey, didn't Sen. John McCain and liberal Democratic paladin Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsor a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005? And didn't Ayn Rand—libertarian goddess and guiding light of Rep. Paul Ryan—vehemently defend personal freedoms, including the right of a woman to choose whether to have abortion?

It's a screwy political era we live in, no doubt, in which winning at any cost trounces reason, principles or comprehension of other points of view. As Toni Morrison eloquently wrote in The Nation, "...when the political discourse is shredded by an unreason and hatred so deep that vulgar abuse seems normal, disaffection rules. Our debates, for the most part, are examples unworthy of a playground: name-calling, verbal slaps, gossip, giggles, all the while the swings and slides of governance remain empty."

To pull political discourse from the present swamp we'll need new leaders, probably some unknown to us right now. I wouldn't dare to propose any Republican candidates except there has to be a better lineup than the cavalcade of clowns we witnessed during the primaries, like Texas vacuum tube Gov. Rick Perry and others who just refuse to go away. Republicans need candidates who can articulate an economic and political platform that stands on something other than attacks on groups of Americans deemed to be different—be they immigrants, gays and lesbians, blacks or Muslims—that promote the discord that has led us to the present conundrum. If the emerging Trump cabinet is any indication, Republicans are a long ways from that ideal.

The Democrats too, need to find some new leadership and quit pretending that a jigsaw puzzle of special interests equals the national interest. Clinton, smart and capable as she may be, was no such inspirational figure. Instead she was a bruised and battered warrior with a sense of entitlement that it was "her turn." Millions voted for her with resignation rather than enthusiasm. To paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and Hillary, you're no Jack Kennedy."  Who the new Kennedy might be isn't clear. The Democrats have just four years to find him or her.

But perhaps the most essential but challenging ingredient to a political renewal is a sense of individual and communal compassion. The coal miners in West Virginia are not "deplorables" or white trash, but working folk desperately clinging to the only way of making a living they know. Mexican immigrants, even those who are undocumented, are not rapists or criminals but people who work to bring you the cheap and wonderful fruits and vegetables that you demand at Whole Foods. Muslims hanging on to sinking boats in the Mediterranean are not all fearsome terrorists but the latest image of souls trying to survive a horrible situation, just like the boat people from Cuba, Haiti or Vietnam, or the Ellis Island hordes that included Stew's parents from Norway.

If the rage, disgust and exhaustion most Americans feel after the recent presidential cycle is channeled into compassion for each other and a faith in the proven history, it can pull us out of this mess, I'm sure. We've done it before.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How should we remember the dead?

Despite the reading of some irreverent and even humorous poems by Billy Collins about death and dying, Sunday's Unitarian Fellowship service for the Day of the Dead was a somber affair. We commemorated the passing of both, prominent members of the congregation as well as people known only to individual congregants. About a dozen people,  their words often drowned by sobs and tears, spoke briefly about relatives and friends they had lost.

I sympathized with their grief. When my mother died, I couldn't stop crying loudly and sometimes uncontrollably, for about a week even though, in truth, we didn't have the warmest of relationships until her final two or three years.

It may be that the sudden absence of someone—not distant memories, pleasant or otherwise—is what unleashes the grief. A couple of years ago, a friend told me that waking up to a half-empty bed after her husband died was the toughest ordeal, that it felt as if some part of her had been torn away.

Remembering the dearly departed. 
While I appreciate and respect others' mourning, I've gradually embraced the more celebratory tone of Mexico's Day of the Dead, when the dearly departed are said to come back for a visit to exchange memories with the friends and relatives they left behind.

On November 2, either at homes or cemeteries, altars are assembled containing pictures of the departed and some of their favorites items, even a fifth of tequila if, to be honest about it, Uncle Pepe was known as a bit of tippler. At cemeteries, in a tradition that may resemble a picnic with food and drink and even songs, some relatives congregate around freshly cleaned and decorated graves to reminisce about grandma and others who've moved Upstairs.

To someone raised in Catholic traditions that glorify death, suffering, blood and tears as essential signposts along the road to eternal salvation—just walk around a Mexican church and check out the expressions on the statues—the festiveness of the Day of the Dead may seem scandalous, sacrilegious.

It's not that Mexicans are incapable of grieving for lost ones. A month ago, Félix reported that a brother-in-law in his forties had died overnight after a long fight with kidney disease. His eyes filled with tears and it took all of Félix's macho self-control to avoid outright crying. I shook his hand and gave him a quick hug, after which he told me all about José María, his family and how long he'd been sick. Félix and his the family will go to the local cemetery tomorrow to visit with José, and also one of Félix' sisters who died from a tumor when she was just twenty-one, and two other siblings who were stillborn.

After an initial period of grief—of detachment—I like the idea of celebrating and reminiscing about the dead, warts and all, rather than mourning them in perpetuity. Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously explained the contradiction in Mexicans' attitude toward death and grieving as ultimately one of acceptance.

"The Mexican...is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: He looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony." 

So this year Stew and I have put together our own Day of the Dead altar over the mantle of the fireplace, with the requisite orange marigolds, votive candles and photos of our dead relatives whom we will remember: Both of our parents (Mario and Georgina, and Thorleif and Frances); our grandmothers, mine maternal (Herminia), Stew's paternal (Verda); my paternal uncle Alejo and my cousin Gustavo, a lovely, dog-loving human being who succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide while still in his forties. Naturally we've also included some of our pets that have gone on to claim their eternal reward of kibbles.

We don't expect to be chatting with any of them or pretending that we don't miss them. In one of his more ironic poems, Collins notes that people die in order to make room for the next generation—to get out of the way—so younger folks can step up with new ideas presumably for improving this world. Next in line at the departure gate will be us.

That reality is not necessarily sad or joyful, just our turn in the inevitable cycle of life. I just hope to get a chance to visit Downstairs once a year to peek on how everyone is doing.



Friday, October 28, 2016

'Tis the season of the spiders

Just in time for Halloween, and the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, spiderwebs have appeared all over the ranch. Some are small, maybe six inches across, others can span gracefully and grandly for three or four feet, sometimes from one bush or tree to another. A few are works in progress, just a lone strand between two bushes, as delicate and perilous as the wire that carried aerialist Philippe Petit between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

All in a day's work.
It's an awesome display, particularly early in the morning when the sun, barely peeking over the horizon, backlights the spiders and the dewy landscape. It's as magical as it is ephemeral: You've got to put off your breakfast for a hour or two or you'll miss the show. By the time it warms up most of the spiders and the glistening dew will vanish, as nothing more than a vision.

Both Stew and I are entranced by the beauty of the cobwebs. That makes us arachnophiles, or "spider fans" though our affection has its limits. Last year we were introduced to the dangerous brown recluse spiders, one of which almost killed one of our dogs.

Apparently we are a small minority in a world dominated by arachnophobes—spider haters. Seeking to unravel some of the mysteries of spiderwebs I looked in Google and before anyone had any kind word about spiderwebs I had to suffer through three or four pages of comments, questions and suggestions on how to kill, smash and otherwise get rid of them. Some of the posts were hysterical, with four-letter words as if spiderwebs were monsters poised to destroy people's homes.

The dawn's early light, before the fog dissipates, it's the best time to admire spiders.
Around here, spiderwebs are clearly seasonal. They appear just as summer is letting out its parting sigh and most every plant and animal is readying for winter. The patches of rambunctious zinnias, that this year grew four feet high, are shriveling but not before scattering their seeds in preparation for next spring. As the flowers vanish so do the butterflies, which two months hovered in small flocks but now are down to a few laggards picking over whatever flowers are left.

Bees seem to be hunkering down too, though they don't know that next week Félix and Stew will be disrupting the hives to harvest the honey. For some reason last year we had a very meager honey harvest but these year they have peeked in the hives and it looks as if we should be back to four or five gallons of honey. We have boxes of jelly jars ready to be filled.

Dueling webs. 
British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, not exactly a chirping bundle of cheer, described man's existence as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." And have a nice day, Tom.

Spiders' existence may be solitary and definitely short but none of the other. According to the OregonLive site, spiders shed their skins four to five times a season, before the adult females begin building the webs in late summer or fall to lay their eggs and, alas, die, presumably the eggs to lie dormant until spring to start the cycle again. No word about the fate of the males.

One of a number of spiders in our ranch. Not sure of its exact name. 
A  few more engineering points. A web's filaments, made of liquid protein—and which comparatively speaking are as tough as steel—are secreted by the spider at night and blown by the evening breezes until one sticks to something. The spider then goes back and forth on that initial strand to strengthen it and from there build the concentric web. Towards evening, many spiders eat the web and start building anew. Spiders, aside from their astonishing engineering skills, are excellent insect predators too.

So next time you see a spiderweb don't go running for a broom or start recycling childhood horror stories. The same thing for bats, another voracious insect-eater. These guys are much better than harmless—they are actually very beneficial.

Just go out early in the morning, stand back and admire the spiders' astonishing handiwork because in a few more weeks, it will all be gone.

A week after this post, the Washington Post published this article about a young girl's fascination with a spider:


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Then there were five (mutts), again

After our dowager mutt Gladys died several months ago, under sad and questionable circumstances, Stew and I made a solemn pact not to adopt another dog. I knew it was going to be a fragile promise, though, what with a canine chorale that assembles outside our front gate every day howling for food, a reassuring pat on the head and a back scratch—and admission to The Other Side.

No more stray mutt, mister. From now on, it's Señorita Ellie to you. 
This ensemble is made up of seven to ten members, of all sizes, colors and appearances. There's a scruffy Benji look-alike that knows English commands that he must have learned from his previous owner who likely abandoned him by the side of the road. I'd like to think that he got lost; I can't fathom how someone could dump an animal that gentle and beautiful and just drive away.

There's also Malcolm, a small orange number with short hair, a mutt from central casting, with a tightly curled tail and a squeaky bark calling for attention whenever someone approaches the gate. Malcolm practically lives outside the gate under a bush, with Poochito, a smallish, twice-removed relative of a Border Collie, with long black matted fur. Stew named him Poochito because he looks like a small replica of our Chicago dog Pooch.
We have tried a few times to wean the dogs from our food handouts but it's impossible. They keep gathering at the gate, skinnier by the day, their howling gradually turning into a desperate dirge. So after several days we say, okay, okay, okay and get more bags of dog food that right now run about a hundred dollars a month.

We've sterilized all of them but when one disappears a replacement promptly joins the pack after a brief audition by the other members. That's how an orange Chihuahua-nese female appeared about three weeks ago, at first crawling timidly but then leaping, licking and nipping at our pants. She would not be ignored.
She timed her appearance well. Stew, Felix and I still miss Gladys, who died at the vet's office we suspect of bungled or negligent treatment. Gladys left a glaring vacancy in our pack of five dogs.

Left is my best side. 
I tried to be firm in my arguments against taking in another dog but neither Stew nor the little orange mutt—a genius at self-marketing—would give up. I knew it was game over when Stew started writing possible names, most of which began with "e", as in Edna, Ethel, Ellie.

Ellie (and Stew) won and after a trip to the vet for shots, de-worming and spaying, she's doing delirious figure eights inside and outside the house. She must have been someone's pet, because her tail was chopped off and she seems to be housebroken. The vet figures she's about nine months old and in the middle of teething which means a gnawing frenzy, including pant cuffs, with her piranha-sharp choppers. After a few growls from the resident dogs and two cats—which seemed unnerved mostly by her energy—Ellie seems to be fitting in well.

If any readers are interested in adopting—please, I don't want any more dogs—e-mail me and I'll introduce you to the outside pack: Malcolm, Benji, Poochito, Brenda, Osita and Doofus #1 and Doofus #2 (also known as the Doofi sisters), and any others that may have shown up by the time you get here.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Tourism in the Age of Anxiety

What are people addicted to the thrills of foreign landscapes and cultures to do when news from many of those places is ominous or at least unsettling? Get travel insurance in case trips are cancelled because of terrorism, popular uprisings or other mayhem? Look into medical evacuation policies in the event they get shot by angry natives? Or should they stop traveling altogether to be completely safe?

It used to be that dangerous places were remote too—Bangui, anyone?—or obvious kamikaze destinations like Damascus, Baghdad or Mogadishu. But by now the list of high-risk locations has expanded to include legendarily civilized places like Paris, where one-hundred and and thirty folks got blown up in various terrorist attacks late last year, or Brussels, that drowsiest of European capitals, which morphed into a terrorist hotspot earlier this year after thirty-two people were killed at the airport and a metro station downtown.

The list goes on and it gets scarier the closer you get to home. Should we visit bars in Orlando, Florida? Historic black churches in Charleston, South Carolina? Or Chicago, home of the Cubs and also one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S.?

Even closer to us is Mexico, the world capital of criminal impunity, where you can mow down a dozen people and unless you're a singularly hapless gunman, never worry about spending a night in jail or even going before a judge. Get even closer: Did you hear about two bombs that blew up recently in downtown San Miguel de Allende, of all places?
So last month, amid flak from everyone we knew—aren't you scared?—Stew and I took off for Egypt for two weeks and we found it far more peaceful than Mexico or even many places in the U.S., thanks to an authoritarian regime not afraid to lock up anyone for just looking at a cop cross-eyed, and also a population desperate to revive the vital but comatose tourist industry and coddle the few tourists that dare visit.

Admittedly the omens were strongly against visiting Egypt. On October last year a Russian plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb shortly after takeoff from an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea, killing all 224 people on board. Hmm. Then in May of this year an EgyptAir plane spiraled to a crash in the Mediterranean, killing 66 people on board, cause yet unknown except it was caused by a fire on board supposedly unrelated to terrorism. Oh boy.

Yet after some serious head-scratching Stew and I decided to go. The cost of the tour was very attractive ($3,650 each) considering it included round trip airfares from New York and within Egypt, all meals and tours, lodgings at first-class hotels and a four-day cruise down the Nile, plus a camel ride that we skipped. Business class upgrades were about $4500.

The tour operator was Road Scholars, an educational travel outfit that we had used to visit Israel and Jordan two years ago (weren't you afraid?) and Morocco (isn't that place full of Arabs?) seven years before that. We figured, or assumed, that Road Scholars had scouts on the ground in Egypt that would pull the plug on the tour at any sign of immediate danger.

Our ever-present pal, Ahmed Oddjob. 
It turned out that no one was more concerned about security than the Egyptians themselves. Airport security at JFK and within Egypt involved triple X-Ray and thorough manual checks of passengers and all their luggage. Entry to hotels and all historical sites required similar searches.

In addition, we were accompanied during our bus travels by a beefy, unsmiling gentleman whose gun sometimes poked from under his suit, and who bore an uncanny resemblance to Goldfinger's sidekick Oddjob sans the steel-brimmed bowler hat. To be completely sure, our bus was escorted by a police car with four guys carrying long arms.

If such security measures evoke images of a dour police state, a la North Korea, you'd be way off the mark. I made it a habit of greeting everyone—vendors, hotel workers, passersby, policemen, young and old, men and women—with a hearty "Hello!" and my gesture was invariably returned with a smile, except for women bunkered behind black veils who acknowledged me with a modest nod. Some younger guys added an enthusiastic "Welcome!" and oddly, "Obama! Obama!" after discovering we were Americans.  (Quite different from what you get from some Mexicans here who spit out "Troomp" with a tone that makes it sound like a social disease.)

Two weeks under the wing of a guided tour is not conclusive evidence of the popular climate in a foreign country. But none of the thirteen travelers on our group detected even a whiff of danger or hostility by anyone we encountered. It could be either the tight security or the Egyptians' desperation with their economic travails, aggravated by the collapse of tourism, one of the top sources of foreign earnings. Or both.

Prices were very reasonable too. The best advice I can give to potential visitors, aside from "Go!" is to carry a wad of single dollar bills. Whether to buy a trinket or tip someone for having their picture taken, "one dollar! one dollar!" seemed to be the most common way to seal a deal.


For my slideshow of Egypt, click:


(click on each image to get captions and other information)

For a New York Times slide show of Egyptian exiles, click here:


Monday, September 19, 2016

Escape from Gringo Gulch

While a friend of ours and I had a French Dip sandwich at a new restaurant Friday, and Stew and another friend enjoyed a cheeseburger and steakburger, all with sides of crispy French Fries, a question popped in my head: Are we in Mexico? Neither the sandwiches nor the fries had anything to do with France, and the hamburgers were definitely all-American.

Actually the question had germinated the weekend before when a friend invited Stew and me to an all-Mexican lunch at his ranch prepared by a Mexican woman friend of his. On the menu was a beef broth with chunks of sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots and what-not. Terrific as any soup I've ever tasted, to rival some of Stew's inspired creations. It came with rice with an assortment of vegetables mixed in and decorated with sprigs of cilantro. The main course was small chunks of slow-cooked pork. You put the pork on warm tortillas, accompanied by any or all of a selection of condiments—jalapeños, a red (or green?) sauce, cucumbers, grated cheese, chopped onions and cilantro and others I can't remember.

Caldo de res mexicano: Hmm, hmm good. 
 All-Mexican and all delicious. Why don't we eat Mexican food more often?
Despite vehement protests to the contrary, one of the dirty little secrets of why so many Americans love San Miguel is that it allows them to live in a comfortable gringo bubble. Thanks to an influx of tourists and expats mostly from the U.S. but also Canada and Australia and even a few from New Zealand and Britain, San Miguel has gradually become Mexican-ish or Mexican-light, and less genuinely Mexican. Perhaps that's the inevitable price of living off the tourists.  

You can live here with no more Spanish than "Buenos días" and "Gracias." I've witnessed Americans become miffed with waiters or other service personnel who don't speak English to their satisfaction. Others complain that a recent "invasion" of San Miguel by "chilangos"—weekend visitors from Mexico City—might be ruining our little San Miguel. As pretentious and annoying as young chilangos can be, we momentarily forget that this is, after all, their country.

Indeed, English speakers attach themselves to English-speaking venues like barnacles on a pier. We socialize in English-speaking bridge clubs, churches and volunteer associations. For entertainment we have English-speaking theaters and movies. A small grocery store regularly imports American indispensables like canned Texas chili and even grits.

The self-segregation by Americans is most noticeable in restaurants. Hecho en México is probably the busiest in town and on many days it's packed with nothing but Americans attracted by such delicacies as reuben sandwiches (my favorite) and fish and chips (Stew's). On Mondays you can get meatloaf at the American-owned La Frontera restaurant, on the way in or out of the all-American bridge club venue next door. Variations of Italian restaurants abound, offering the all familiar pastas and sauces but nothing Mexican except the waiters.

Reuben, we're going to miss you. 
Before getting too preachy, let's admit that, even after almost eleven years here, Stew and I are very much trapped in that gringo bubble. For one thing, we don't have any Mexican friends that would invite us to dinner or vice-versa. Stew has surprised me recently with his growing command of Spanish, but it manifests usually when he has no choice but to string some words to get what he wants—or when I decline to play translator.

Our very predictable choice of restaurants recently has been Hecho, Firenze (a quite good continental restaurant), a place called The Restaurant, Cafe Monet, and Fat Boy, a new motorcycle bar with an incidental restaurant attached to it. There are some exceptions, such as El Vergel, outside of town, that offers some good and original Mexican dishes. But in general, Mexican cuisine enters our gullets only accidentally, such as during the wonderful and unexpected Mexican lunch we had at our friend's ranch.
It's only natural to try to soften the inevitable alienation of moving to a foreign country by hanging out at familiar places frequented by people like yourself. But it also negates the excitement of learning new ways of living and celebrating life in a foreign country. Isn't that why we came to Mexico?

Most noticeable to me is our insulation from local celebrations or fiestas, which come and go often without us knowing even what's being celebrated. Just this weekend, on the main road past the ranch, we saw groups of people on horseback going and coming back from San Miguel, probably something to do with the Independence Day celebrations all this month. On other occasions I've seen religious processions of some sort passing by, with people carrying banners and statues of saints while singing or praying. Who or what were they honoring?

On one memorable occasion, I spotted a young couple decked out in full Mexican attire riding a horse, also decked out with a fancy saddle. The guy was as handsome as the girl was gorgeous. Were they on the way to get married or going on their honeymoon? I should have stopped and asked—and congratulated them.

I mentioned to Stew this morning we should accelerate our halting efforts at cultural acculturation. First, we should try restaurants that are not expat hangouts, including taco carts and smaller venues in town preferably those favored by the locals. I'll miss Hecho's reuben sandwiches, but we'll survive.

Second, I'm going to try to keep track of local celebrations, including fiestas in the nearby localities and find out what they're about. Are they marking some religious holiday or secular celebration? We've attended a couple of fiestas near the ranch but mostly looked around and left after an hour or so. We should stay long enough to talk to a few people (but before some of them begin to fall face-down drunk, sadly a common occurrence).  

Finally I'll try to encourage Stew to shift his efforts to learn Spanish from first to second gear. That may prove to be the most difficult step in this program. But there's hope: This morning he was checking a Spanish-language cookbook and found a recipe for a beef broth soup just like our friend served at his ranch. I can't wait.