Monday, November 19, 2018

A round of applause for El Señor Arreglalotodo

Stew and I recently adopted the routine of doing a brief expression of gratitude before meals. Nothing deeply religious but just an improvised reminder of what is going right in our lives, so the occasional potholes in the road don't rattle us so much.

Topping my gratitude list, of course, is my husband Stew, along with our good health, our unfailingly amusing and loving animal companions, and a few others good-luck charms.

Most recently I've added Félix to the list. He's someone who is always in good humor, hard-working, loyal and honest and perhaps most important of all, whip-smart, particularly when it comes to fixing things around the ranch, often in the role of Stew's assistant.

Félix is our Señor Arreglalotodo, or Mr. Fix-It.

The latest Félix-Stew feat was to fix our dishwasher. To someone in the States that may not sound like splitting the atom or discovering a cure for baldness. In San Miguel, though, where knowledgeable appliance repairmen are a nearly nonexistent life form, and availability of replacement parts is controlled by a monopoly called ServiPlus, Félix and Stew's achievements are certainly worthy of note. In the past they've cured an ominous rattle in our refrigerator; our stove's temperamental oven (until we replaced it with a new GE model); sputtering chainsaws; flat tires; water heaters and a hundred other things around the ranch that have gone pfft.

The Santa Clara repair team is pleased with their work. 
We know many people who are not nearly as lucky as we are with Félix. For example, after several failed attempts to get a dishwasher fixed, friends of ours gave up and bought a new one. That's not an unusual "fix" for broken appliances in these parts.

In the past, we've tried using the oft-recommended repairman Margarito, but he turned out to be an elusive and useless character. When Margarito failed to show up at our place to fix our stove three times in a row, I tried to ambush him at his taller, or workshop, by loading the dysfunctional stove on our pickup and bringing it to him. One look at the place and I knew this was a fool's errand. The workshop was a dimly lit cavern of rusting parts, broken appliances, scattered tools, and whatnots piled halfway up to the ceiling.

I never got to meet the famed Margarito. He was never there and his wife, talking from behind the piles of junk, kept promising Margarito would call me when the repairs were made. "We'll get back to you" she said—ah, that most fraudulent and cruel Mexican expression.

In my experience service providers never return phone calls, much less call when they are not going to show up. It's up to the customer to chase the repairman with incessant calls at various times hoping to "catch" him, so he can earnestly promise to come another day or have the job done by—another cruel expression—mañana. Dream on.

Crafty fellow that he is, Stew has tried to circumvent the repairman juggernaut by downloading repair schematics from the manufacturers so he could buy replacement parts here and do the fixes himself.

Dream on some more. Repair parts for appliances—regardless of the brand or where you bought them—are only available from an octopus-like outfit called ServiPlus. And the only way to get parts from ServiPlus, based in Querétaro, is to engage one of their repairmen, who has to come to your house, diagnose the problem, order the parts, and after two or three service calls, perhaps fix it. ServiPlus' chokehold on the replacement parts and repair racket explains why there are so few independent appliance repairmen in captivity in San Miguel: There's no room for them to operate.

At this point, Toto might ask, "But Dorothy, isn't that system a monopoly, like, illegal restraint of free trade or something like that?" And she would patiently reply, "Yes, Toto, maybe in Kansas, but we're in Mexico."

The only way out of this trap, which Stew has used a number of times, is to order replacement parts directly from U.S., even if they take two to three weeks to get here.

But back to our gagging, nine-year-old Bosch dishwasher, which didn't seem to be draining properly. Could be the water pump, some electronic circuit or, fortunately, a clogged drain hose. Stew and Félix took the machine out of the kitchen and onto the terrace and set out to unclog the drain line, first with a plunger, then with a plumber's "snake" and finally—Stew's idea—to blow out the crap out of the hose with bicycle air pump. Félix hrrumphed incredulously, but Stew's cure worked.

The old dishwasher is running like new, no thanks to Margarito or ServiPlus. So let us pause now and be grateful for another success, and to Stew and Félix, two clever fellows indeed. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

How environmental fervor led to a bum idea

Of all the hare-brained ecological ideas I've had since we bought our ranch—all in the spirit of "Let's Give Mother Nature a Hand"—the one I conjured up last week has to be one of the dumbest.

Think Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in "Green Acres."

For several weeks Félix had been grousing, politely but insistently, about the endless chore of having to clear an oasis around the house and along the driveway using a weed-wacker. We can't use conventional lawnmowers because there are too many rocks.

About the same time, I'd noticed how Vicente, our neighbor across the road, apparently had to take his animals farther away to graze, as the pasture on his ranch grew scarce.

A bulb lit up in my head. It should have blinked yellow—for "proceed with extreme caution"—or red—for "stupid idea up ahead."

figured that inviting Vicente's cows and horses to graze on our ranch would be an environmental trifecta. The cows would have some virgin grass to eat, while essentially mowing the weeds that  by now are hip-high. In addition, their manure would supplement our meager soil. I mentioned my plan to Vicente and he agreed to lend me his cows.

What could go wrong? Hmm.

The next morning he showed up at our gate with nine enormous cows that he guided to the bottom portion of our ranch, away from the house. I expected the cows to graze all day and then return home to Vicente's ranch.

That placid pastoral vision blew up after an hour or so. It turns out cows are not quite as witless as they seem. Quite the contrary. Cows are lazy, too.

Indeed, in short order the bovines concluded that schlepping through the thistles and other thorny vegetation was too much work. Why not come up to the clearing around the house and feast on an all-you-can-eat buffet of freshly cut grass, ground covers, flowers and other delicacies, and even some Swiss chard in one of raised beds?

And so they did. Coming out of the shower later that morning I looked out the bedroom window and spotted the nine cows circling the house. They seemed very happy.

I asked Félix to shoo them away back to the weedy part of the ranch. Then I made another unsettling discovery: Félix has no idea how to handle livestock; he doesn't even know how to ride a horse.

Felix, the plastic bucket toreador, at work.
The only strategy he could come up with was to get a five-gallon plastic bucket and use it to politely push the cows away. Félix is definitely not rodeo-ready.

Then he noticed that Luiso, one of his two dogs, a slothful half-witted creature, had a hidden talent after all—getting the cows to move by some impressive barking and growling.

So Félix spent the next couple of hours siccing Luiso onto the cows while continuing to use the plastic bucket as a sort of cow-taming device. The cows remained unimpressed and continued to circle the house, probably giggling among themselves. Luiso's natural laziness also returned.

At five o'clock, thank God, one of Vicente's sons, a runty teenager who must weigh about ninety pounds, showed up to collect the cows and effortlessly lead them to a watering hole and then home. It pays to know what you're doing.

Ruminants inside the gate: Watcha'you looking at, bubba?
But the next morning, around eight, the cows impatiently paced outside the gate as if waiting for Al & Stew's Bovine Buffet to open. Except now there were eleven of the beasties, the original group plus two very young calves.

I thought the calves were adorable but quickly realized others in the herd are very protective and ornery regarding any fools coming near the young 'uns. If the cows had paid little attention the day before, on the second day they were downright ornery.

By eleven o'clock, a distraught Félix, shaking his head, said he was going to get Vicente to take away his cows.

Arnold Ziffel: Another great idea, not. 
That left us with two horses we had borrowed from Antonio, the watchman at the ranch at the other side of our place. Fortunately for everyone, the two horses are, for the most part, exemplars of good behavior. They occasionally graze near the house but mostly keep to themselves in the far corners of the yard. One of them is downright friendly.

In fact, I think horses pacing in our ranch lend an air upper-class appearance to it. Passersby might think this is an equestrian estate in the making. No one needs to know we have no idea how to ride or care for horses. So far our horse maintenance routine consists of just setting out buckets of water.

As far as the fertilizer portion of my idea, horse apples are relatively easy to collect for fertilizer if we wanted to. Cow pies are a mess. Scrap that idea too. It's easier and neater to buy bagged compost.

During lunch yesterday I jokingly suggested to Stew that we get a pig and call him Arnold Ziffel, in honor of the porker in "Green Acres". We could feed it the kitchen scraps we now put into our compost pile.

Stew was not amused.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

When death came marching in last week

This past week, appropriately enough when Mexicans celebrated the Day of the Dead, we witnessed four different facets of death and the reactions it elicited from different people.

The massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, ironically named The Tree of Life, was a horror that left decent people speechless. It's precisely on those occasions when the president is called to act as the nation's grief counselor and hand-holder.

Instead, President Trump acknowledged the tragedy then went on—just a few hours later—to cheer-lead a raucous rally of supporters in Illinois. From there he went farther afield, to ask why the synagogue didn't have armed guards, and attacking the media and other opponents, real and imaginary, a run-on tantrum that if anything confirmed his lack of empathy, narcissism and lack of basic decency.

Couldn't he just express his personal grief over the massacre, and then just shut up, while the nation absorbed the meaning of the tragedy? Or suspend his politicking and tweeting for several days out of respect for the victims and their families, rather than continue to stoke sectarian rancor?

The crowded and chaotic highway to heaven.
On Sunday, several members of the San Miguel Community Church which Stew and I attend, signed a card expressing sympathy and solidarity with the congregation of the local Jewish Community Center. Though I didn't get to sign the card, I was proud people in our congregation were so thoughtful.


More significant was the church's Day of the Dead fundraiser, planned weeks before and held on Monday afternoon. Incongruous as it may seem to those who live outside Mexico, this celebration of the dead was a festive event, heavy on typical decorations, food and entertainment. One hundred and thirty-two people paid a hefty eighty-five dollars each and the event netted over eight thousand dollars—a very significant sum in Mexico—that will go to support an organization designed to help rural women improve their lives and those of their families.

The following Thursday several church members gathered at the American section of the local cemetery to clean the graves of expats buried there. It was a study in contrasts: To reach this area one had to walk through the main part of the cemetery where Mexicans did their own ritual cleaning and tidying up of the family gravesites.

If the American section was very neatly and uniformly laid out and maintained, the Mexican counterpart was a collection of every conceivable gravesite design, laid out bumper-to-bumper and resembling a traffic jam honking to get to Heaven. Americans dusted off some gravesites and put flowers on others here and there but there really wasn't much maintenance to be done.

Touching up the family tree.
The Mexican side, on the other hand, smelled of flowers, spray paint (to touch up rusting metal railings) and Fabuloso, a sharp-smelling all-purpose detergent. People brought picks and shovels, bags of potting soil and live plants in preparation for the main vigil for the dearly departed that night. A mariachi band in full regalia tuned up and a priest cleaned up an altar in preparation for a mass scheduled to begin a half-hour before.

The atmosphere on either section was respectful but hardly morbid—just a celebratory tip of the hat to those who had come before us. I told Stew I wouldn't mind having my ashes buried at such a beautiful, disparate place.


Amal Hussain (NYT)
Also on Thursday came the news that a seven-year-old Yemeni girl named Amal Hussain, whose picture had appeared in the New York Times the week before, had died from starvation. Amal is one of an estimated 1.8 million malnourished children in Yemen, a man-made humanitarian catastrophe perpetrated by the incessant attacks by Saudi Arabia, one of America's staunchest allies.

Following allegations that the Saudi regime may have been involved in the murder of a Saudi journalist in Turkey, and the growing international outcry of the humanitarian situation in Yemen, there's now talk of a cease-fire to take effect within the next 30 days.

As we mourn this tragedy, we must remember that "Amal" is the Arabic word for "hope," and indeed hope her death was not in vain.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Legends of the Mexican fall

Expats here sometimes muse nostalgically about the "changing of the seasons" back home, particularly autumn, when the leaves flip from green to shades of ocher almost overnight. In spring, nature then awakens and the landscape reverses to bright green; crocuses and other small harbinger bulbs peek tentatively out of the muddy ground and everyone goes out for a walk to celebrate, often prematurely, the end of winter.

Me, I rather miss winter, sometimes, the brilliant cerulean sky of a cold winter morning or the immaculate whiteness of fluffy, fresh snow. For several years Stew and I had a small lakeside cottage whose beauty in retrospect I didn't appreciate enough. Our dog Pooch certainly did: After a restless hour's drive from Chicago he'd leap out of the car and, full-speed, dive into the virgin snow. God help any goose, duck or other creature dumb enough to stand in his way. Later, exhausted, he'd come in for a drink of water and plop in front of the wood stove to thaw out his fur and feet, and dream of doing it all over again. Life is good, free from leashes, fences or other urban restraints.

In the eerie light of an autumn morning, a cobweb becomes magical.
Nostalgia, of course, is a most undependable friend who lives mostly in our imagination. There's a flip side to the northern climate, such as the nearly madness-inducing gloom of January and February, when the sun barely bothers to come out, or the sooty snow melting in mid March to reveal dog turds, soggy cigarette butts and other detritus we thought had miraculously vanished during the winter. But we'd rather rhapsodize about the changing of the seasons.

Granted, in San Miguel we don't have such four-season drama. But if you pay close attention, you'll notice, and come to appreciate, the more subtle transitions of our climate. In autumn, temperatures, never extreme, turn cooler. After the sun sets it feels good to light up the fireplace and at bedtime reach for that fluffy comforter, wherever we put it. By noon the next day, the sun will warm things up, and temperatures will go into the mid-seventies. Then I can walk around the ranch in shirtsleeves, dogs closely trailing me, and fantasize about which trees and flowers I'll plant next year, and swear to stagger our vegetable plantings so we don't end up with the usual avalanche of tomatoes and cucumbers we can't possibly eat.
The plumes of a patch of Pampas Grass glisten in the fall. 

Another sure sign of autumn is the awesome appearance—eerily timed to coincide with Halloween— of hundreds of spiders perilously clinging to branches, eaves and anything standing still. Where do they go the rest of the year? How does a tiny spider spin a web four or five feet across? How do cobwebs withstand the wind? Why have spiders become synonymous with spookiness? Check them out closely next time you see a web; spiders are really lovely creatures, not frightful at all. (And let the New York Times clear up some of those mysteries.)

One last nibble before it all ends. 
When we fall back to Standard Time, two weeks before the U.S., the sharp drop in the sun's angle recasts the appearance of everything outside. Colors are more vivid, shadows more dramatic, even the plumes of the lowliest weeds glisten, making everything seem new and special. Photographers call such moments "the magic hours," early in the morning and also late in the afternoon before the sun sets. In the fall you don't have to rise early to catch this almost surreal spectacle. 

The landscape browns up, just like in northern latitudes, as flowers and low-lying vegetation dies off and some trees shed their leaves. The fields of yellow daisies, lavender cosmos and some of the Northern perennials I've planted—the glory of the September landscape—by now have all but withered and their seed pods get ready to drop their loads on the soil where they'll await the spring to dazzle us with a new generation of blooms. There's a last-minute flurry of butterflies too, to take advantage of whatever flowers are left.

Hmm. Where did the summer go?
With most flowers gone, the bees return to one of our three hives, probably to buzz among themselves how things went over the summer. Stew and Félix, who peek inside the hives periodically, predict a bumper crop of honey this year. Tomorrow is supposed to be honey extraction day, when the hand-cranked centrifuge makes its annual appearance and the dogs hide inside the house to avoid the angry bees angrily swarming around. Expect a sticky mess of honey drippings all over the garage, another sign of autumn in our ranch.

We will have several overnight freezes which this year can't come too soon. Even at this late date, swarms of grasshoppers still infest the yard, tormenting practically every piece of greenery. Only succulents seem immune. Good riddance. Let if freeze and we'll just throw a few more logs in the fireplace and look for that extra blanket.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Buying a new pickup the Mexican way

Our trusty 2000 Nissan Frontier 4x4 pick-up, which has served us well and saved our butts on several occasions—most recently facilitating our escape, literally, across an adjoining neighbor's ranch when a too-enterprising land developer blocked the entrance to ours for several days—is near the end of its useful life, at least for us.

In rural Mexico, of course, vehicles can live almost forever so we expect the Frontier will undergo several reincarnations, patches, repairs, paint jobs, and many more years of service before it lets out its final puddle of oil, somewhere under the Mexican sun, stripped of every useful part.

¡Surprise!
I'd give the Frontier at least ten more years, given that we maintained it very well, and the deliriously happy new owner is Félix, who got the truck for free, including the six months remaining on the insurance.

Our new pickup is a 2018 Chevy Colorado, which at first looks enormous but isn't really. Not compared to monsters like Nissan Titans or Ford 150's King Ranch, panting impatiently alongside you at a traffic light, their drivers sneering at your puny wheels. 

In Mexico, a seemingly impregnable backwater of capitalism, there is no bargaining over the sticker price—indeed, no competition whatsoever among dealers—so you just go by whatever features catch your fancy.

In our case we wanted a four-wheel drive, in case we had to make another escape, and a touch screen with navigation, internet connections and other gizmos.

Made in the U.S.A.
It became clear Mexican new-car dealers have yet to have their #MeToo moment, and so showrooms are often decorated with mini-skirted young women, tip-tapping around in their high heels offering you a soft drink or a cup of coffee along with a big smile.

Shopping for a vehicle also confirms the irreversible march of globalization. Pickups are assembled all over the world, from Argentina to Thailand, sometimes with bodies made one place and engines shipped in from three thousand miles away. 

Even with our short spec list, our shopping soon became complicated. A Toyota Hilux 4x4 only comes with a diesel engine, and it's sold throughout most of the civilized world except the U.S. A Ford Ranger 4x4 also had a diesel version that was not sold in the U.S.  Nissan Frontier came with a gasoline or diesel engine but had antiquated and clumsy electronics and a wheezy engine. 

After some test drives, we zeroed in on a third consideration: The new pickup had to be serviceable in the U.S. in the event we drove it back home and some mechanical problem arose. That ruled out the Hilux and the Ford Ranger diesel.

At the last minute we tried the Chevy Colorado which is manufactured, YES!, forty miles outside St. Louis, Mo., as in the ol' U.S. of A.!

The happy—and bashful—new owner.
The delivery of our new truck was an unexpectedly festive event. The truck was hidden under a blue tarp and the nervous woman in charge of deliveries—this was her first week on the job— walked over with a boombox blaring a triumphal Mexican oom-pah-pah tune. She let out a sigh, as if relieved her Wheel of Fortune cameo would soon be over, and pulled off the tarp while the entire staff clapped and cheered.

Then Stew was handed a celebratory cardboard frame for him to hold while having his picture taken. Most people would have been too embarrassed by the hoo-hah, but not Stew.

The inside of the truck was filled with balloons the cats back home enjoyed popping. Felix lovingly washed his new/old Frontier and got a pretty good shine on it. Stew tentatively fiddled with all the knobs on the dashboard, without bothering with instructions which are in Spanish anyway. 

All and all, a good time was had by everyone.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

On diversity, I say the more the merrier

Enchanting as San Miguel is to us—the intimacy, climate, our beautiful ranch and the dear friends we have here—it still does the mind and soul good to escape periodically to the larger playpen of a bigger city, a really big city.

What is it about a big city that thrills, despite the obvious drawbacks of crowds pushing and shoving or a blast of northern winter like we experienced in New York when we went there on New Year's to celebrate my seventieth birthday?

Expensive cultural attractions, like "Tosca" at the Met on New Year's Eve, or Bette Midler knocking them dead in "Hello Dolly" are certainly part of the mix. There was also the spectacular new Whitney Museum, overlooking the gray and frigid Hudson River, and the Neue Galerie, home to Gustav Klimt's famed painting, nicknamed "Woman in Gold," a shimmering and enigmatic Mona Lisa, made [even more] popular by the film starring Helen Mirren. Plus restaurants, restaurants, restaurants.

Hey, there, mein Freund.
Our most recent "big-city fix," as Stew calls them, was our hometown of Chicago a month ago, hardly as big as New York but certainly one of the world's great cities. There were musicals ("Hamilton") and the premiere of a play at the famed Goodman Theater, plus a memorable performance of Mozart's "Requiem" by the Music of the Baroque at the Harris Theater, a new venue we had never visited and which made up with near-perfect acoustics and sightlines what it lacked in warmth (the lobby looked like a cross between a bunker and subway station).

A ninety-minute architectural cruise on the Chicago River, during which we oohed and aahed at the old and new buildings like a couple of rubbernecking hayseeds, coupled with perfect weather (read: San Miguel-like) all eight days we were there, and we had the perfect antidote to the stress back here surrounding the legal wrangling over someone trying to steal a piece of our land.

What's with our fascination with bustling big cities? Buildings are great, culture is edifying and food always exciting.

But at the heart of all the excitement is one element—if you pardon the damn cliché—called "energy". And that comes from the multitude of faces and nationalities.

It's called diversity—of skin colors, languages, dress, cuisines and experiences—a concept recently thrown into disrepute in the U.S. and Europe, by forces of nationalism, closed-mindedness, intolerance and even racism.

Some people have developed an adverse reaction to anyone who looks or dresses differently from the face they see on their bathroom mirror every morning.

Some conservatives bemoan the erosion of some golden age of ethnic homogeneity in the U.S. Fox commentator Laura Ingraham ominously noted that "[I]n some parts of the country it does seem like the American we know and love doesn't exist anymore," the sort of dog-whistling that makes white nationalists' ears perk up. In Europe, similar close-the-borders messages are gaining traction in France, Italy, Britain and Eastern Europe.

Stew and I, on the other hand, seem to revel in racial and cultural diversity when we travel abroad or to large American cities like Chicago and New York, and it's difficult to pinpoint why.

We lived in Chicago for thirty years and the crush of different people and faces aboard a rush-hour train was expected, natural. Within a ten-minute walk from our house near Wrigley Field there seemed to be an endless variety of restaurants and shops. Mama Desta (Ethiopian), Helmand (Afghan) and myriad other cuisines I can no longer remember but miss nevertheless. Even Iva Toguri D'Aquino, a.k.a. "Tokyo Rose" during World War II, had an Asian curio shop near us until she died in 2006.

That's certainly not the case in San Miguel, a charming fish tank populated by only two kinds of guppies—expats and Mexicans—who generally keep to themselves. Mexico City is home to more nationalities but hardly as diverse as the typical American metropolis.

The Chicago friends we stayed with during our last visit live in Edgewater, near the Granville "el" stop, a beautiful neighborhood with its own cornucopia of ethnic grocery stores and restaurants. We ate at a terrific Eritrean restaurant that was empty at dinner time; we learned that rush hour is around noon when the place is mobbed by Eritrean and Ethiopian cab drivers looking for home cooking. Greek. Somalian. Mexican (of course). The Assyrian Civic Association. Kosher delis. Indian. Pakistani.

Next year in Tirana!
Perhaps the most curious was the "L. Woods Tap and Pine Lodge" in Lincolnwood, an establishment designed to resemble a "supper club" like the ones Stew and his family frequented when they lived in the northern Wisconsin tundra, near the Arctic Circle. Stew was tickled by the memories.

Another showstopper was the Cermak Supermarket, a huge and fastidiously neat and tidy operation, that seemed to have every ethnic edible imaginable, organized by sections. The Mexican produce corner, Stew noted, actually had a greater variety that we find at the Mega supermarket in San Miguel, from huitlacoche, zucchini blossoms and a rainbow selection of tortillas. Stew bought a package of some sort of Indian soup that we tried here and found really awful.

Another stop was the Devon Market (stress on the "o" according to Chicagoese), selling newspapers in Cyrillic (Russian? Ukrainian?) and a news weekly for homesick Bosnians and Herzegovinians. We bought some bath soap from somewhere, a "I love Albania shopping bag" and made some small talk with the Iranian cashier.

All the news it's fit to print in Russian,
Ukrainian or whatever this is. 
When Stew came out from a visit to the ophthalmologist at Northwestern Hospital, a woman patient went in, dressed in a head-to-foot black garment except for a narrow slit for the eyes, accompanied by her watchful, bearded husband. I wonder how you do an eye exam or try on eyeglasses with all those layers of fabric in the way. Or what difference the style would make if your face is permanently covered.

In our travels we've found all our foreign encounters interesting, novel and curious, an opportunity to find out other people's take on life and the pursuit of happiness. In Egypt, for example, people were friendly, despite a strange warning "to watch out for the Muslim Brotherhood" from a friend in the U.S. If anything, Chicago's Southwest Side right now is far more dangerous than other places we've visited, such as the West Bank or Turkey. We've liked some places more than others but have never felt threatened.

In Chicago we wondered what would happen if all those immigrant and foreign enclaves—the shops, restaurants, places of worship—were suddenly erased from the map. Economically the city would suffer and it certainly would not be such an interesting place to visit.

Nationally, it'd be folly too to advocate a return to an ethnically homogeneous American utopia that never existed. "Et pluribus unum" is not a very catchy bumper sticker but it has served America well.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Of crime, impunity and powerlessness

Last Tuesday I attended a funeral mass at the church in Sosnavar, a hardscrabble village two kilometers from us, for Eduardo Arzola Chávez, age 30, whom I'd never met but somehow felt some connection to. He'd been shot to death a couple of days before.

The small church was packed. Seemingly everyone in town had shown up, in addition to a few mangy dogs that hung around in the plaza in front. Hovering over this somber event too was the pall of impunity, that handmaiden of most violent crime in Mexico. 

Eduardo was taken to the local cemetery in a late-model Lincoln Navigator hearse with Mexico City plates, whose roof was covered with white and yellow flowers. At his grave he will be remembered again by his disconsolate family during Day of the Dead commemorations at the end of the month.

The chances, though, that his killer will ever be arrested, much less punished, are well-nigh zero.

Let us pray. Again and again. 
I found out about Eduardo's death through Félix, who'd shown up for work on Monday, long-faced and quiet, and said that he would have to take part of Tuesday off to attend the wake of a close buddy who had been fatally shot three times in the chest the day before in broad daylight during a party at the nearby ranch of La Campana. I still don't know what caused the shooting, which occurred after Félix had left the party, shortly after noon.

The assailant took off full-gallop on his horse, bandido-style. No one seems to know where he went, though everyone present knows who he is, according to Félix.

Both Eduardo and Félix are part of the dense Arzola family tree. According to Félix there are four or five predominant last names in Sosnavar, population twelve-hundred people or so, and Arzola is one of the most common.

Félix was particularly shaken because Eduardo left behind a seven-year-old son, almost the same age as Félix's own son Edgar, plus he and his friend were roughly the same age. Though he didn't articulate it, I suspect an ominous thought echoed in Félix's mind: "It could have been me."

"He was a nice guy, not a troublemaker," Félix said. "We were talking and joking Sunday morning, and that evening I find out he was dead."

I didn't know Eduardo but was saddened, even pissed, not only by Felix's loss, but by the recurrent theme of crime and impunity around here.

Last year an estimated thirty-two thousand people were murdered in Mexico—the highest number since 1997—while more than an estimated ninety percent of those cases were never solved, according to the Mexican think-tank Zero Impunity.

"Félix, I'm sorry you've lost such a good friend," I said, both of us standing by the kitchen door. "But what's really awful is that all sorts of shit keeps happening and you folks seem resigned no one is ever going to be arrested or punished. You accept killings and all sorts of crap, as if it were an act of God."

My perhaps arrogant American optimism rising to the surface, I offered to work with the widow, whom I don't even know, to demand the police investigate this latest murder and nail the guilty.

"There must be something that can be done," I said.

Félix cracked a weary smile at my naivete, and said the murderer was probably well on his way north to The Other Side—the United States—and will never be heard from again. Once more, Félix ingrained sense of fatalism and powerlessness left me stumped.

That's happened several times, Félix explained, though in one case a local thug from El Tigre, another nearby town, was arrested when he applied for an ID card at a Mexican consulate somewhere in Texas, and an astute clerk somehow figured out he was wanted for murder in San Miguel. He was arrested, shipped back to Mexico and is now serving time at the local jail. Miracles do happen.

Before this latest horror, two years ago, I'd accompanied Félix on a visit to his friend Pablo, also a guy in his thirties, who had been shot by a drunk during Sosnavar's annual fiesta. The bullet entered a couple of inches above his friend's right eye and went out the back.

I found Pablo bedridden and almost completely paralyzed in his dark bedroom, while his grief-stricken wife mechanically related the details of the shooting, and their litter of  kids, none older than eight of nine years old, stood by uncomprehendingly.

I was completely at a loss for words, in English or Spanish, and all I could think of was to offer to bring a wheelchair, which Félix and I delivered in our second visit, so Pablo at least could get out of bed, go outside and catch some sunlight. 

The worst though, came when I asked Pablo's wife if she intended to press charges so they could nab the dirtbag who left her young husband paralyzed.

Surely, I said, the shooting occurred in broad daylight in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and the crime should be resolved in no time at all. I was carrying on as if this were a case out of Law and Order San Miguel, in the hands of a crack local detective in the style of Lennie Briscoe.

The woman slowly shook her head, her eyes fixed on the ground, as if she were listening to a hopeless dimwit. No, the guy is never going to spend a day in jail, she told me. And so he never has.

I can readily think of several unresolved crimes near the ranch and in San Miguel proper. A kid on a horse got run over nearby by a drunk driver one Saturday night, killing both the rider and the horse. In another case, two teenagers died when the inebriated driver of the pick-up they were in lost control and it rolled over.

No one was ever charged in either tragedy. The only memory of these two events are crude roadside memorials decorated with plastic flowers.

I only stayed at the memorial for about twenty minutes. I felt out of place, for one thing feeling self-conscious about being about ten inches taller than anyone in the place.

I also felt like an impertinent gawker at the scene of a private tragedy.

The bearded Fr. Gerardo listlessly intoned some unintelligible Roman Catholic boilerplate for the dead through the crackly public address system. He's probably presided over dozens similar tragedies and repetition has dulled any noticeable sensation of tragedy, anger, frustration or even emotion in his voice. Likewise, the congregation repeated the canned liturgical responses mindlessly, drowning out the sobbing of Eduardo's family.