Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tacos with your Tosca?

One of the happiest developments around these parts recently, aside from the nearly six inches of rain that we received over the past week, has been the appearance of the Metropolitan Opera of New York's high-definition simulcasts at a theater in Querétaro, a booming city about forty-five minutes from the ranch.

No, you don't experience the frisson of seeing the real thing in New York City, but for approximately ten dollars a ticket plus whatever you munch on during the performance, Met HD has to be the best entertainment value here or anywhere.

Neither Stew nor I can be considered opera queens, one of those urban sophisticates who simply must buy season tickets to Chicago's Lyric Opera or the Met in New York, even if all they can afford is a far-left perch on the fourth balcony, a foot below a chandelier.

Low-budget divas: Most of the people in the audience in
Querétaro are Americans from San Miguel. 
For those discerning souls, fevered discussions during intermission about the night's opera, over a flute of champagne if at all possible, are almost as much fun as the show itself.

Stew and I have seen a few operas, most of them well-known, the so-called workhorses of the repertoire: Think "Carmen," "The Barber of Seville," Gounod's "Faust," "Madama Butterfly," "La Bohème," "Tosca" and others in that category. I even went to see a production of "Lulu"  by Alban Berg, a notoriously "difficult" confection sung in German that somehow kept me enthralled, all the more so because I had finagled a free, molto primo orchestra seat at the Lyric in Chicago.

But you won't find Stew and I fluttering about in the lobby during intermission discussing musical minutiae or previous productions we might have seen. That's largely because, a) we know hardly anything about music, and b) we scarcely can remember plot lines from one opera to the next, except such gross details as Mimi's breathing difficulties in "La Bohème" and how Lt. Pinkerton treated poor Cio-Cio San like total shit in "Madama"—and how we wished his ship would sink on the way back to America.

Indeed, limited operatic knowledge is what makes the Met HD simulcasts in Querétaro tailor-made for neophyte divas like Stew and me.

Tickets are inexpensive enough, so when we don't like the opera we can just mutter enigmatically "that was certainly interesting" to our friends on the way home. No big loss, and far better than having sat in an uncomfortable $150 seat watching something we didn't understand much less enjoy. "Whose idea was this?" one of us might ask the other on the way out.

And in Querétaro's brand-new, 60-seat cinema, you get Singapore Airlines-style leather seats with electric recliners, small side tables with lamps and extra-wide aisles so that during the first fifteen minutes of the opera Ninja-like waiters can hop around bringing you any munchies or drinks listed on a fifteen-page menu. Anything from slider burgers and beer, sushi or croquettes. Just don't be shocked on the way out that the theater looks like Wrigley Field after a double header.

Something not to your liking? Press the button on your seat's armrest and a young Mexican guy dressed in black will come running to try fix it.

Alas, there are a few hitches. Subtitles are in Spanish, and there have been a few problems with the feed from New York though they were fixed promptly. A couple of productions ago, the audio lagged behind the video but the problem was solved after a brief pause. Last week the satellite transmission was breaking up because of a fierce rainstorm, but that was fixed too after a three- or four-minute pause. Just press that button on the armrest.

Interestingly, video and audio quality were actually better at two Met productions we saw at Mexico City's enormous National Auditorium a couple of years ago.  Interesting because this is a four- or five-thousand-seat modern theater designed for pop music and other mass productions that yet has excellent sound reproduction, acoustics and sight lines, and a screen as big as a fútbol field.

Better news still, at least for executive directors of opera houses worried about falling attendance, the two Met HD productions we saw in Mexico City were completely sold out to a demographic that tilted heavily toward young people and even families with kids.

Now for perhaps the biggest surprise: Stew and I have enjoyed most of the operas we've attended, most of them unknown to us. There were a few clinkers, like Béla Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle," whose endless screeching and bizarre plot propelled us to a quick exit at the end. That was certainly interesting.

One thing we've learned along the way is not to worry too much about the plot and to keep an open mind, as a pianist friend of ours recommended.

Most opera plots are too ridiculous to worry about the details. Who loves whom, who killed whom, who jumped off from which balcony, who cares? Just allow yourself to entertained, sometimes dazzled, by the beautiful singing and productions.

There. I'm starting to sound like a seasoned opera queen, and only for ten dollars a ticket.  Can't wait until the next season.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Jews and I

At age sixteen, two years after my arrival from Cuba in 1962, I got an after-school job as a bagger at a Safeway grocery store in Long Beach, New York that paid one dollar an hour plus random tips of dimes and quarters from shoppers impressed with my expertise at keeping the cantaloupes and canned goods from smashing the eggs and  the tomatoes.
 Long Beach is one of the barrier islands on the south shore of Long Island but it was not a posh destination like the Hamptons or Fire Island. Rather it was a middling-class commuter town, the terminus of one of the Long Island Rail Road lines, and it had a large population of Jews, a good portion of whom lived in mid-rise retirement buildings along the boardwalk.
Bagging groceries has never been a brain teaser but it was exciting enough for me because the money I earned paid for my weekend escapades to New York City, just an hour away by train. The monotony of the job allowed me to plan my jaunts too, which usually consisted of walking around Manhattan gaping at the skyscrapers and the huge avenues choking with people and cars.
While bagging groceries I also noticed that a couple of the women shoppers had numbers crudely tattooed on their forearms, something I thought strange until later, when I learned about the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps. I wish I had asked the women about their tattoos. Despite the horrors they memorialized these older ladies seemed kind enough I suspect they would have held my hand and told me their stories.
Later, at my next after-school gig at the Long Beach Public Library my hourly pay went up to $1.25 an hour and I met Alfred Linsky, a paunchy, gregarious Jew who supplemented his retirement income by doing odd jobs, such as driving around town delivering packages and emptying the book-return boxes.
Perhaps because he and his wife were childless, Al virtually adopted me, guiding me through such initiation rites as learning how to drive and the meaning of trenchant all-Americanisms like, "Kid, in this country there's no free lunch."

But by far their kindest gesture was to sponsor my parents—total strangers—so they could get out of Cuba. In effect the Linskys guaranteed that my parents would not become "public charges." I guess Al liked me enough to assume my parents would be nice people too. One of my countless life-regrets is that I never properly thanked this couple for their generosity.

Living in Long Beach through junior and senior high school was my introduction to Jews, a group I never heard about growing up in Cuba except in Catholic school, where we read about an exodus from Egypt that somehow led the Jews to Jerusalem or thereabouts.

A few years ago, though, I learned that in my hometown of Santa Clara there was a tiny Jewish community whose members were called "Polacos," which in Spanish translates as Polish, not "Polacks." They must have been Polish Jews who fled Nazi Germany.
Surrounded by such a large Jewish community in Long Beach I learned about Jewish holidays, menorahs and yarmulkes but the more I learned the more questions arose in my mind. Why did so many of them seem to be so generous, like Al Linsky? Why didn't the horrors of the  pogroms, ghettoes and ultimately the Holocaust turn Jews into a introverted, hateful or at least resentful tribe?

How could the couple of ladies with concentration camp tattoos etched on their skin survive such abysmal experience and still go shopping at Safeway—indeed, go on living— and smile gently at the Hispanic bagger and give him a quarter tip?

And most of all, what was the obsession with Israel? In Long Beach, fundraising for Israel—bonds, Hadassah, hospitals, universities and Israel-whatever—seemed to be a perpetual chore.

Such questions, even allowing that I was a seventeen-year-old Cuban immigrant, now seem terribly naïve or plain ignorant. Except that today, even after ingesting considerable amount of prose and films about Israel and the Holocaust, and visiting Israel twice, such questions still resonate in my mind. They are not naïve questions after all.
Early May Stew and I are going to Israel and Jordan, his first trip to the area. In preparation we've both been doing some synchronized reading, most notably Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel."

Shavit's love of Israel comes through his eloquent writing along with the profound moral dilemmas that led to the creation of the country and its development into a mite-size superpower whose internal and foreign policies affect certainly its Middle Eastern neighbors but also Europe and the U.S.

Last Sunday, halfway through our reading, Shalom San Miguel, the Jewish community center in town presented a discussion of Shavit's book, led masterfully by Sharon Leder and Milton Teichman. Combined with the comments by the 30-odd attendees, it turned out to be one of the most enlightening discussions about Israel's history and the Jews that I've ever attended.

Palestinian Arabs fleeing the town of Lydda, 1948. Photo by David
Boyer, published in the Oct. 21 issue of New Yorker magazine. 
On the way back to the car Stew said that combined with his reading of Shavit's book, so much information made his brain hurt. Mine too.

My two trips to Israel, both as a journalist, were nothing if not a study in contrasts—the first was guided by a Zionist group and the second by a spokesman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The first kept me safely on the Israeli side, visiting kibbutzim, archeological sites, and various sites illustrative of the history of the Jews and Israel, and the country's astonishing economic and scientific accomplishments.

The second trip took me to the mirror, or perhaps shadow side of Israel, on the occupied territories of the West Bank, the Palestinian refugee camps, the Gaza Strip and the Israeli settlements.

The latter gave me an idea of the difficulty of implementing a two-state solution: Most Israeli settlements are not improvised pup-tents-and-kerosene-lamps operations but full-blown cities built on occupied land formerly held by Palestinians.
The stereophonic, reductionist and often hateful rhetoric that I heard was distressing. When I asked one of my Israeli guides what happened to the Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel, he blandly, and somewhat disingenuously, answered that "they were afraid of the Israelis and fled."

Then again the resentful Palestinians I found on the West Bank did not fit the image of placid sheepherders who were pounced on by the rapacious Israelis. Their hatred for the Jews was scary.

Neither scenario is entirely true, Shavit points out. During the war that preceded Israel's independence, the Jews carried out a policy of "transferring" Palestinians out of Israel and wiping out Palestinian villages. His vivid description of the deportation of the Palestinian population of the city of Lydda, around the time of Israel's war of independence and within a 24-hour deadline, is wrenching and horrifying.

But on various occasions the increasingly resentful Arabs also engaged in random acts of murder and terrorism against the growing Jewish population, in a cycle of violence that persists today.

In Gaza's teeming refugee camps, presumably populated by Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel, the loathing for all things Jewish seared my eyes and mind. Faded, hateful graffiti and posters of young men who earned the honorific  "martyr" by killing some Israelis or blowing something outside Gaza's fence seemed to be the only adornment on the crude concrete buildings housing the refugees.
Worst of all, the situation seemed totally static: Many of the refugees have known nothing but life in the sixty-year-old camps—and hatred of Israel and Jews. And that stench of hatred that envelops the Gaza Strip has nothing if not thickened following the merciless bombing by Israel last year, which killed hundreds of both Palestinian combatants and civilians. And so on.

Indeed, the two-state solution that would allow Palestinians and Israelis to leave peacefully side-by-side—always a Kumbaya-like pipe dream—has been pushed further into the future by the apparent reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu who during the closing hours of the race declared his opposition to a Palestinian state.

So off we go to Israel and Jordan in May, which I assure Stew is a dream trip, particularly for a history and archeology fanatic like him, despite all the bad political karma.

But I don't expect any epiphanies or answers to the questions about the Jews I wondered about when I was a teenager and still swirl in my mind today, unresolved.



Friday, February 13, 2015

Is that aging that I hear?

If during a romantic dinner your mature date keeps craning his neck over the table it may not mean he's trying to steal a kiss or ogling your chimichangas. It could be the old coot just can’t quite hear what you’re saying.  

Or if you’re a preacher at one of the expat temples in San Miguel and some of the congregants stare at you strangely, as if trying to read your mind, maybe they are. It’s not that they are ready to accept Jesus into their hearts. Nah. More likely they can’t quite make out what you’re sermonizing about and are baffled by how Isaiah ended up in the belly of a whale.

Yea, hearing aids are another speed bump on the road between Medicare eligibility and the Six Feet Under cut-off. And an expensive jolt it is: Yesterday I went for a exam and two hearing aids and the bill came to $2,300 U.S. That's less than half what I was quoted in Chicago but still not a cheap afternoon.

Watcha' say? And at this point, should I care?
The trip to this point began a couple of years ago when I developed tinnitus, or buzzing in the ears. Fortunately I don’t notice it much unless I'm in a very noisy situation like a busy restaurant or one of those mega-decibel Iron Man movies.

Tinnitus is generally the result of damage to the hearing apparatus, in my case caused by listening to Santana and Blind Faith with earphones, volume turned way up, while smoking dope and eating pizza. That was eons ago, in college, when all my body parts worked perfectly except apparently for my brain and common sense.

And, ah, tinnitus is also often triggered by old age. Surprise.

Admitting that you need a hearing aid takes a while, in my case about a year, a process that involves one’s spouse yelling about the problem and one yelling back for him to get that sock out of his mouth and speak clearly. One can also blame it on weird foreign accents, like Australian, Canadian or Texan.

I think it's also called denial.

This dapper dude opted for the deluxe device. 
Another obstacle is cost. Hearing aids are in a class of essential medical devices, along with orthotics and eyeglasses, that are almost criminally overpriced and only minimally covered by insurance, if at all. Ever wonder why Gucci, Pucci and Fucci Minucci all hustle their own lines of eyewear?

Worse, there’s no alternative, particularly if you live in Mexico. In the U.S. a number of companies offer mail-order hearing aids some with money back guarantees. But American vendors don't extend such service to customers in Mexico.

Outfits like Costco offer “free exams” which are a bit like free grief counseling at a funeral home. The undertaker provides a complimentary box of Kleenex and a few minutes of hand-holding before hustling you into the showroom, where the $25,000 Forever Grandma line of mahogany caskets awaits you. And Costco's hearing aids in Mexico are actually more expensive than independent clinics despite its “free exam”—and some trashy reviews posted by dissatisfied customers in the U.S.

So onwards. Come Tuesday I should have those little buggers stuck in my ears.

Just don’t talk behind my back—I’ll hear you—and please, whatever you do, don’t tell me how you can hardly see the little wires coming out of my ears.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Teach the children (to input) well

My latest project may be one of those foolers that turns out to be far more complicated than one figured at the outset: How to escort a timid six-year-old child into the realm of computers, particularly a girl who has never as much as pressed a letter on a computer keyboard and whose parents's exposure to electronics is limited to dialing a cell phone, watching television and blasting a boombox inside their battered 1998 GMC Jimmy SUV.

The girl is Alondrita, Félix' eldest daughter, who's emerged from a particularly acute case of the Terrible Two's—when she'd react to a friendly gesture with a scowl or a screaming fit and was generally insufferable—and blossomed into a charming, giggly and even flirty girl not afraid to give me a hug whenever we meet.

Ready for her close-up
After two one-hour classes on a notebook computer, mounted on a small drafting desk on wheels, I've found too that halfway to her seventh birthday Alondrita has barely started to read, a challenge that's going to delay any games or other computer derring-do that requires her to recognize on-screen words and commands.

Stew and I have known Alondrita almost since she was born and were quietly worried about her abilities. Despite having only a sixth-grade education, Félix is as smart as anyone I've ever known personally but three of his six siblings, a boy and two girls, are mentally handicapped and illiterate. So Stew and I feared that perhaps Alondrita might have inherited some of those deficient genes.

Not to worry: she readily picks up and remembers information, and during our last class even corrected me when I showed her a picture of white bear that I described as a plain oso. "That's an oso polar," she said. To me, all indications are that she's a smart and delightful kid.

In fact she recognized all the animals in pictures I showed her except for a bat and an iguana, thanks no doubt to Félix keeping his TV tuned in to Animal Planet in Spanish as faithfully as Republicans have theirs locked on  Fox News.

Looking for an "A"
Stew and I also were concerned about the lack of outside stimulation for a girl growing in a one-room house with no indoor plumbing, in a rural Mexican town of five- or six-hundred people. Félix told me recently he's never been to a movie house.

We had noted that many kids younger than Alondrita—albeit whiter and from better economic circumstances—would sit at restaurants and play with their smart phones or computer tablets and ignore all conversation at the table. Even in Mexico computer literacy starts at an early age and apparently so does computer-related rude behavior.

The problem I've noticed is that Alondrita apparently hasn't been taught much. I remember reading and writing quite fluently at her age, though Mexican schools might operate on a different time zone. I'm not a teacher or ever raised any kids either so I hesitate to pass definitive judgment on her progress.

As we head for our third class this weekend in a corner of the garage, with either Félix or his wife standing by like hawks nervously keeping an eye on one of their chicks, we'll type vowels and then try to connect them with consonants to form syllables.

I'm sure that Alondrita will catch on quickly. She's learned the location of many of the letters as well as the Space, Enter and Backspace keys, though for some reason she seems afraid of the mouse. Meanwhile, I'll start prowling the internet for games and other learning aids in Spanish.

Another unexpected challenge, though, is her three-year-old brother Edgar who is stuck in the two-year-old phase and very jealous of all the attention Alondrita is getting. He loiters around the garage during our lessons, pestering the dogs and kicking things around.

I wish the little shit would get over it. 


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Doing the U.S. immigration two-step

About a year before President Obama's announcement that the U.S. would seek to reestablish diplomatic relations Cuba, one of my cousins still in the island began lobbying me to help his daughter Odette and her three kids get out of the socialist island paradise. The more pronto the better.

My cousin, also named Alfredo, and I hadn’t seen each other for about fifty years when Stew and I visited him in Cuba in 2012. I had never met his daughter or her kids either. We two Alfredos were never particularly close but his apparent desperation to get his family out of Cuba has rekindled our familial ties.

One of my cousin's granddaughters, and potential beneficiary of the
1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.
Initially Alfredo and his daughter proposed an “Escape from Planet Fidel” novella starring me as as an "employer" who would offer Odette a "job" at our Rancho Santa Clara, so she could get a phony work visa from Mexico and from there enter the U.S. through the Texas border. I scotched that script right off: I was in Mexico on a temporary resident visa and could not get mixed up in some immigration flimflammery.

The cornerstone of this drama—and a revised version now in rehearsal—is the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act which grants political asylum, permanent residence a year later—and the chance to apply for U.S. citizenship five years after that—to virtually any Cuban who physically touches American soil.

It’s ironic, or perhaps cynical, that even as U.S. conservatives rail against blanket amnesty for undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans already in the U.S. or coming over the border, blanket amnesty is in effect what the 1966 law grants Cubans. The historically solid popularity of the Republican Party among Cuban-American voters in Florida, hmm, may have something to do with the double standard. 

The thin logic behind the law is that Cubans are political refugees fleeing Communist oppression while Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans are economic refugees fleeing poverty. The political refugee argument may have had some merit at the height of the Cold War, but any more most Cuban arrivals seek a better economic future as much as freedom of expression.

And who can blame them: My cousin Alfredo is a pathologist at a big hospital in the southern town of Cienfuegos who makes the equivalent of $30 dollars a month.

Indeed, Hondurans trying to escape drug gangs and the reign of terror in Tegucigalpa nowadays probably have a more credible claim to political asylum than most of the Cubans.

The unfairness of the policy, however, has started to irk even the Cubans in Florida because newcomers increasingly are turning out to be criminals, Medicaid scammers, money smugglers and other riff-raff  who can be arrested and jailed but not deported because, hey, Cuba doesn’t want them back.

Some of the new arrivals also go back and forth to Cuba bringing merchandise for sale on the black market in the land of their former persecution. This boondoggle has to be one of many giggles Fidel has had at Uncle Sam’s expense.

The unjustness of the law is particularly blatant to me because of the many undocumented immigrants I met in Chicago, many of them now good friends, who must sleep with one eye open for fear of deportation. I have also witnessed a sorry caravan of desperate Central Americans wending its way through San Miguel on the way to the U.S. border where, unlike the Cubans, most will be turned back. 

Bicycle driver in Havana: Political or economic refugee?
Meanwhile, my second cousin Odette continues to revise an updated plot for getting herself and her three daughters out of Cuba. It turns out that her husband—news to me—made his way to Austin, Texas a year ago, entering through El Paso. In typical immigrant style, Julio is double-jobbing his butt off in construction during the day and at a restaurant at night, to save enough money to bring his family through Mexico.

Odette already came to Mexico on a work visa about a month ago via Cancún, where she stayed for ten days, thus establishing residence here that would allow her to bring her daughters along on the next trip. From what I hear, the paperwork is being handled by an immigration fixer in Cancún, though in contrast to smugglers of illegal migrants, called coyotes or polleros, her machinations appear to be legitimate.

Odette’s fixer, though, wants $6,000 dollars for his work,  half of which is supposed to come from me in the form of a loan. Though I’ve spoken with her and Julio on the phone, I know them only slightly so the collateral is pure faith.

After some hesitation, I agreed to the loan, with some encouragement from Stew, who reminded me of the many people who helped me when I came to the U.S. as a frightened fourteen-year-old. Now it was my turn to return the favor, he said. 

Big-hearted guy that Stew, that’s why I like him so much.

So we are waiting for the next episode to play out sometime in June, when Odette and her three girls will arrive in Mexico City, where we’ll meet them, put them in a hotel overnight and then on a bus to Nuevo Laredo.

Meanwhile, Stew and I will drive up to the border and regroup with Odette and the girls. Then we'll cross the U.S. border together where they will claim political asylum, a process that’s supposed to take a couple of hours. Or at least that's the plan. 

After a year apart, no doubt it will be a tearful reunion between Julio, Odette and the three girls. I will be there with a camera to record the memorable event.

At that moment I doubt I’ll be thinking about the unfairness of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.

Parting shot: This socialist dachshund in
Havana was trained  to growl if someone
 waved a (fake) dollar bill in front of his nose,
 yip if you showed him a Cuban peso.   


Friday, January 30, 2015

Protests on the road to nowhere

Driving back from two weeks at the beach with our dowager mutt Gladys, Stew and I were trapped in a seven-hour live demonstration of the Mexican art of futile political protest: A lot of sound and fury—perhaps justified—but ultimately signifying very little except that our trip to our friends’ place in the beautiful colonial town of Pátzcuaro took eleven instead of four hours.  

The beach resort of Barra de Potosí, located twenty minutes south of Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast, is located in the state of Guerrero, where forty-three students were massacred and their bodies incinerated four months ago under still murky circumstances. This horror detonated a national uproar that has been slow to fade. The latest theory is that the drug gang that carried out the executions confused the students for members of a rival gang.

Easy rider: Protesters? What protesters?
During the entire trip Gladys remained imperturbable but Stew and I were not quite as calm as news reels quietly looped in our minds about much-dreaded bandidos, narco-gangs and assorted miscreants roaming the Mexican roadways—the horror of such stories often enhanced by the rumor mill among jittery gringos in San Miguel.

“Nothing to worry about,” Tito, the cheerful and wiry maintenance guy at the house where we stayed, told me as we packed to head home. The killings occurred about 190 kilometers from Zihuatanejo, he said, and that’s far away. Except that Tito also had told me that a storm surge last year, featuring fifteen- to twenty-foot waves that swallowed some beachfront palapa restaurants, had not been a big deal. Either he's a very calm guy or a practitioner of the old Mexican habit of minimizing or denying bad news. 

Indeed nothing happened during our two-week stay at the beach or during our drive back until we hit the third or fourth toll booth in the neighboring state of Michoacán, which has its own sordid history of drug-related violence. A little less than two years ago seven decapitated bodies, each sitting on plastic chairs, were found neatly arranged around a traffic circle in the town of Uruapan in Michoacán—perfectly timed to coincide with our arrival a day later for an annual arts-and-crafts market and fair. 

But shortly after entering Michoacán we discovered that the first two toll booths on the highway had been taken over a giddy bunch of students who were collecting their own tolls in slotted coffee cans—the toll-takers apparently went home—and handing out flyers explaining the reasons for the commotion.

We'd run into that before driving in Mexico, as well as the unnerving sight of police officers leaning against their cars, their arms crossed, silently watching the ad hoc circus performing just beyond their noses. Tolls in Mexico’s excellent roads are pricey, anywhere from the equivalent of three to twenty dollars, so if nothing else these protests are not nickle-and-dime events for either the highway authorities or the protesters.

Street protests by mainline organizations, but also loony-tunes along the lines of the Union of Maoist Students or some such, are an almost permanent part of political discourse in Mexico, particularly in the capital. If you sit long enough in the central Zócalo sipping a cappuccino a protest march will soon go by. 

Last November, in fact, we ran into an enormous march that went on for several hours, up one of the city's main boulevards, protesting the killing of the forty-three students. That was a huge event as it befitted the horror in Guerrero

The expressway was completely blocked when we approached the third toll in Michoacán, except for truckloads of cheering students, some waving placards, aboard pick-ups going in the opposite direction. Two ambulances and one federal police truck with one helmeted soldier standing on the bed clutching a machine gun raced in the opposite direction too. 

I asked people walking by but no one had any idea what was going on except that the highway was completely blocked.  No one seemed very excited or upset either.

About an hour later cars started breaking loose from the line and racing ahead as if someone had found an escape route or a way around the jam. Instead, cars piled up at the toll plaza where the lanes to Pátzcuaro were completely blocked.

Stew grumbled that if such nonsense took place somewhere say, in Texas, irate motorists packing heat—probably most of them—would have pulled out their weapons and started shooting over the heads of whoever was blocking traffic. I doubt guns would have improved this situation though, or that police in the U.S. would have allowed anyone to close off a major tollway in the first place.

The ice cream truck cometh, and just in time.
But we're not in the U.S. Here, people walked around the toll plaza, visited the newly installed restrooms, bought snacks from walking vendors, walked their dogs and exchanged theories as to what was going on. It resembled an after-dinner walkabout in a small town.

The young driver an ice cream truck walked around too, peddling pints of vanilla ice cream for the distress price of twenty pesos, or about $1.35. Gladys enjoyed three tablespoons of ice cream and went back to sleep.

We called our friends in Pátzcuaro who suggested a Plan B: Go back on the tollway to Uruapan and then take the toll-free back entrance to town.

Five hours after we'd left the beach the detour seemed like a delightful surprise. The recently resurfaced road snaked through a pine forest vaguely reminiscent of Switzerland, or at least Wisconsin. Even the houses, with steeply pitched roofs of red corrugated zinc, seemed un-Mexican. The only local touch were occasional patches of banana trees with their usual droopy, wind-torn leaves.

Yodeling in Mexico: Chalet-type house similar
to what we found on the road to Pátzcuaro.
As we climbed from beach-level to approximately seven thousand feet, the temperatures dropped from 95 to 50 degrees. Smells went from sea-briny to forest-piney. Road signs pointed to towns with impenetrable names like Parangaricutiro, Tzintsuntzan and Purechecuaro.

For the first half hour Stew and I forgot the inconvenience and marveled at our good fortune to be suddenly embraced by such exotic beauty.

Our joy ride came to an end though just as the sun was setting, and the traffic stopped again, this time for good. Stew tried to call our friends to ask for a Plan C, but there was no cell phone or internet service for sending emails.

The end of the road: When we stopped the car we found next to us
this roadside memorial to two twenty-year-old guys who were
killed in a car accident on that spot in 2012.
We stopped the car by a roadside memorial where two twenty-year-olds had been killed in a traffic accident. There was nothing else to do but to sit in the car, sip Coke from our cooler and later—what else?—take Gladys for yet another walk, or “spin” as Stew calls them.

Admiring the combination of cool weather, the silence and extraordinary night spectacle, Stew and I agreed this was not an altogether bad place to be stuck. Better than a Florida traffic jam on a muggy day or skidding through mire of slush and salt on a wintry Chicago road.

All the cars turned off their engines and lights, and a cover of darkness and silence enveloped the caravan of stalled vehicles. 

I got out to gaze at a beautiful starry sky, its twinkling exaggerated by the lack of artificial or even natural light from the moon, which was only a sliver. Stew and I reminisced about a desert night in Morocco when the stars also were equally numerous and bright and also so close they seemed almost within our reach. 

Except, where were the cops or any sign of government authority? Or are we being held hostage by a bunch of Mexican stoners celebrating their version of Easter week in Florida?

Actually at the first “liberated” toll booth we had been given a brief flier, alleging that the forty-three students were still alive; that the Mexican army was complicit in the massacre—whoever the victims were; that the version of the attorney general was completely fabricated and pleading with the drivers to not be indifferent to the sorrow of the students’ parents.

Bring back the students alive and punish the material and intellectual assassins!

Out with (Mexican President) Peña Nieto!

There is scant evidence, from what I've read, that the students are still alive. Far more tragically, I doubt the Mexican government is ever going to pin down with certainty who murdered these forty-three people, students or whoever they were.

The mayor of a town near the massacre and his wife, who allegedly ordered the killings, are on sabbatical at a Mexico City prison, but don’t wait for a formal trial to bring out the facts much less lead to appropriate sentencing. Certainly don’t wait for Peña Nieto to resign over his administration’s bumbling handling of this crime.

To use a Bill Clinton-ism, I can feel these kids’ pain—and rage—but comparable or far worse massacres have taken place in Mexico during the past several years: Hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez, mass graves along the border and other horrors that remain unsolved and unpunished.

Indeed, their day of euphoric and perhaps empowering protests barely registered with the media. Later someone explained that road closings, toll booth-taking, and hijacking of private buses to transport protesters to their destinations were not at all unusual. What we experienced was not really news. 

Bonfires of futility: After a day of protests by blocking traffic,
celebration around a bonfire. 
About nine o’clock on Friday night we finally got through the final roadblock that the students had lifted thirty minutes before. Huge bonfires were lit on both sides of the road. One Federal police vehicle stopped briefly and sped off, as if the officers didn’t want to know what was going on.

We were finally able to talk with our friends in Pátzcuaro who were understandably worried about our whereabouts, and arrived at their home forty-five minutes later. 

After a cautious round of butt-sniffing greeting with out friends’ two dogs, Maggie and Lucy, Gladys ate, went out for a walk and directly to sleep. Not much later, we also had dinner and followed Gladys' lead into the sack.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A brief, horrible tale

Bicycling back from lunch today our gardener Félix, who has an unnatural sense of hearing, picked up some noise coming from a plastic bag quivering by the side of the road.

He stopped and inside the bag found seven puppies, a day or two old, with the eyes closed and one with its umbilical cord still attached. Three of the puppies were dead. Apparently someone didn't want any more dogs and decided that tossing the entire litter from a car window was the most expedient solution to the problem.

It was Félix too who found Felisa, the fifth addition to our gang of mutts, almost on the same spot as these puppies, similarly abandoned by someone. Though she was only the size of a large rat, Felisa was big enough to survive and turn into something slightly bigger and just as yappy as a Chihuahua.

Calls to our neighbor Arno, who runs a spay-and-neuter organization called Amigos de Animales; my friend Lynn who runs the Sociedad Protectora de Animales; and our young vet Ricardo Merrill, yielded the same answer—euthanasia. Short of finding a willing surrogate mother there was no other hope of survival for puppies that young.

Even if you factor in the lessened sensitivity to animal life in rural areas, such as where we live, and where animals are constantly born, raised and killed as part of the natural cycle of farming, tossing seven puppies in a bag, as if they were garbage, is a cruelty hard to fathom.

We know that it rattled Félix, who was born and raised barely a mile from here but who was visibly shaken by the sight of the surviving puppies whining and squirming around, worm-like, on a towel Stew fetched from the garage. Félix walked around, his baseball cap tilted back, muttering, "I don't know why someone would do something like that."

So barely three hours after Félix found them, he and Stew went off to Dr. Merrill to have the surviving puppies killed, or as they say, "put to sleep." Félix will bury the litter in our ever more populated pet cemetery.

As far as horror stories go, this was a brief but particularly horrible one.