Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mexit, meet Brexit

As we returned on the bus from Mexico City on Sunday, we approached the city of Querétaro and the sight was one of explosive economic growth.

Indeed this city of nearly one million is the fastest-growing in the country right now. There are brand-new expressways, shopping centers, residential and commercial construction everywhere you turn.

Behind this growth during the past several years are dozens of industrial parks with huge hangar-like steel structures housing some Mexican but mostly foreign companies such as the France's Airbus (helicopter assembly) and Canada's Bombardier (jet engine components).

Although I didn't do a headcount, the largest number of tenants seemed to be American companies, attracted to Mexico by its low labor and operating costs. Call it the upside of free-trade.

Industrial parks in Queretaro.
What would happen to this feverish economic activity if the U.S. embarked on a nasty, Brexit-like divorce from Mexico, particularly if the grounds were Donald Trump's xenophobia and demagoguery rather rational economic calculations?

I suspect the results might resemble the mounting crisis now shaking the United Kingdom. Brexit was sold as an nationalistic and economic elixir but in fact it was poisoned by immigrant bashing and intolerance. It may turn out to be a case of the normally cold-headed Brits cutting off their noses to spite their ears.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Mexico's most annoying tradition

Much more dangerous than incendiary salsas, tainted water or marauding bandidos, Mexico's hundreds of thousands of speed bumps—in many sizes and shapes, sometimes marked but usually not, and lurking anywhere frequently for no apparent reason—stand at the ready to jolt motorists into fits of cursing.

This morning's New York Times carried a brief piece by reporter Damien Cave about the curse of Mexican speed bumps. Damien, you don't know the half of it.

At their most basic, speed bumps or topes (toe-pays) are a cheap and nasty Mexican solution to the very real problem of speeding cars.

On the way to the nearby town of Celaya, in the middle of nowhere and with little warning, you run into a string of five or six topes—and five wooden crosses huddled on one side of the road that tell the reason why they were installed: Apparently five people lost their lives trying to cross the road.

Topes near schools, busy pedestrian crossings or construction zones make sense. But the vast majority just pop up overnight, unexplained and at apparently illogical locations.

On the Richter Scale of topes, the ones on San Miguel's Calzada de la
Luz are relatively benign, except there are more than a dozen
on a piece of street less than a mile long. 
Several years ago San Miguel drivers celebrated the opening of a marvelous silk-smooth highway that shaved ten or fifteen minutes from the drive to nearby León airport. Within a week or five, however, a series of ten or fifteen topes appeared. They seemed to be of the homemade, asphalt variety which suggested neighbors had taken matters into their own hands.

The screeching of brakes and teeth-gnashing all but eliminated the time savings and convenience of the new road. But just as quickly, someone—the government? irate drivers? the Almighty?—went by and scraped up most of the offending speed bumps. Some survived and others were replaced, and at the end of this brief but intense speed bump war we are left with five or six of them.

A double string of little turtles looks innocent but it can
bring out every rattle in your car. 
There are no engineering standards governing the height or width of topes. The most innocuous ones are simply a length of thick rope across the road, usually to signal a military or police checkpoint ahead.

Most colorful are the tortuguitas ("little turtles"), or metal half-spheres, yellow when new and imbedded in the pavement. They can deliver enough of a jolt to spill your coffee but at least you can see them coming.

The most lethal tope is the combination speed bump and crosswalk, up to nine or ten inches high and with a flat top four to five feet wide. Unless you approach them almost dead slow, your car's front end will be on one side and your rear wheels still on the other—while your muffler and undercarriage scrape bottom. The deep gouges on many of the topes around San Miguel tell that story.

Our first car in Mexico was a VW Passat stationwagon that suffered innumerable scrapes. The low-slung profile made it a great road car with handling so sure its wide tires seemed glued to the pavement. But in San Miguel—Mexico's national obstacle course with a combination of cobblestones, potholes, narrow streets, cyclists and topes around every corner—the Passat didn't stand a chance.

Many other low-riding car models are similarly vulnerable. Toyota Priuses are hopeless and even most of the menacing Dodge Chargers of the Policía Federal seem to have had the bottom of their fiberglass noses chewed off by topes. 

A little-used road leading to a subdivision on the edge of town.
Why is a speed bump needed here? Because, why not?
A fun aspect of this tope mania, though, is to watch visiting chilangos—a not too endearing moniker for blowhard Mexico City visitors—in town for the weekend and trying to wow their girlfriends with their Mercedeses, BMWs and the occasional Ferrari, and instead losing parts of their mufflers in our little jungle of pinche speedbumps.

Topes, annoying and destructive as they are, survive because they are cheap and effective. They save the cost of installing traffic lights (San Miguel has none, and its many Stop signs are mostly decorative) and certainly of having a trained police force to prosecute speeders.

So the problem feeds on itself—drivers ignore speed limits because they know the police is not going to do anything. Even when they spring into action, cops often are out to collect bribes rather than enforce speed limits or other traffic regulations.

On the approach to the U.S. border, near Laredo, there is a stretch of road notorious as a shameless speed trap. There are curves, exits, lane changes, loopy loops and other traffic features—each stretch with its own speed limit—and an endless stream of clueless gringo drivers who neglect to speed up or slow down accordingly. Like shooting fish in a barrel, many get stopped by the police though usually a cash contribution to the officer makes the problem go away.

And to the New York Times reporter, here's a free piece of advice on clearing topes without wrecking your car. First, slow down almost to a crawl. Then tackle them at a sharp angle, so at least one of your tires remains on the tope and you don't bottom out.

If that doesn't work, I dunno, have you considered buying an SUV?


Monday, June 13, 2016

Gay lives matter

Sunday started out gloomy at our ranch in Mexico and it only got grayer as the day went on. We woke up to dense fog that erased the mountains that usually delineate our horizon, while clouds descended so low they seemed to settle atop our house, making us almost feel trapped.

Then around eleven o'clock our phone started chirping and vibrating incessantly on the kitchen counter, signaling newsflashes from CNN that twenty people had been shot dead in Orlando, a number that after noon had risen to fifty, including the killer, plus fifty-three people wounded.

As I recall CNN didn't mention the word "gay" or "gay bar" initially, and the New York Times' rambling opening report only mentioned "gay" once. No complaints there. Reporters and editors understandably were caught by surprise and assembled whatever scraps of information were available.

But as the day progressed, commentators and politicians—except for President Obama and Hillary Clinton and other usual liberal suspects—immediately pivoted to speculation that centered on terrorism. Conjecture quickly gelled into "fact" after the killer was identified as a U.S. citizen but who had an Arabic-sounding name and was the son of Afghan immigrants. Bingo.  

That was not an unreasonable suspicion or supposition except it missed the gorilla in the room: The site of the massacre was a crowded gay bar and all the dead and wounded were gay men and women. Those were incontrovertible, readily available facts that needed no speculation or interpretation and had some bearing on the evolving story.

A gay bar and a refuge for gay people.   (AP photo)
Might not homophobia been the principal cause—more so or as important as—possible Islamic terror links or the wide availability of assault weapons? Might not homophobia—the hatred, ostracism and condemnation of gays and lesbians—that right-wing politicians have embraced as central article of faith and has become a GOP political talking point during the past fifteen or twenty years, contributed to the Orlando massacre? Such suspicions would hardly be a stretch.

It's not as if this gay bar was the first one to be attacked, by bigots and sometimes even police. In 1973 a deliberately set fire at a bar in New Orleans killed thirty-two people and there have been thousands of incidents of homophobia since that have led to the death or injury of gay people.

But on Sunday all the talk was about radical Muslims, led by Donald Trump who never misses an occasion, no matter how grotesque or inappropriate, to advance his demagogic agenda in person or in this case through "I told you" tweets about Islamic terrorists that mentioned nothing about the victims being gay.

A good friend in Chicago recently wrote me that the current political debate and climate in the U.S. nowadays are "beyond comprehension." Imagine how much more disheartening and confusing it must be for Stew and me, living ten or twelve hours driving time from the closest inch of U.S. soil, and trying to follow events back home by watching and reading about them on electronic gadgets.

Following the Orlando massacre, few politicians specifically lamented the deaths of 49 gay people or the scourge of homophobia that might have motivated the killer.

The exceptions were President Obama, who took time to recognize "all our friends—our fellow Americans—who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered" affected by the Orlando massacre, and Hillary Clinton, who reassured the gay community "that you have millions of allies across the country. I am one of them."

For his part, Sen. Ted Cruz issued a statement that is a masterpiece of cynicism. While presumably strongly condemning the killing of gays and lesbians he really aimed his fire at Democrats and specifically Obama for not putting enough effort into eradicating Islamic extremists.

Beware of Republican homophobes bearing gifts. I doubt that either the president, Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party support or coddle terrorists. Far more likely, Cruz is trying to use the issue for political advantage.

Besides, I'm suspicious of someone like Cruz who, in the dying days of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination launched yet another jihad against gays and lesbians, this time under a totally disingenuous campaign against bathroom access for transgendered people.

To use a hackneyed escape clause, it's too early to say how the story of the Orlando massacre will play out. It could fuel the rush to fear-mongers like Trump; engender a growing recognition of the reality of homophobia; or rekindle the drive for some sensible gun control legislation. Sadly, I'm betting on the first of these three possibilities, at least in the short term.  


Saturday, June 4, 2016

Slouching, very slowly, towards Vegetarianville

After nearly 44 years together Stew and I have developed an instinctive telepathy. While on vacation in Granada, Spain, ten days ago, a dinner at a restaurant triggered in each of us reflections about our eating habits that resurfaced during a conversation yesterday.

At the Estrellas de San Nicolás restaurant the cuisine was what I would call faux haute cuisine, or piss elegant in the vernacular. The menu was a bulky, leather-bound tome, and the entrées printed in a fine, curlicued cursive type that was nearly illegible, and seasoned with lots of French that had me going from Spanish to English and back again, trying to figure out what to eat. The prices were certainly haute, culminating with desserts for 12 euros, or 15 dollars, and up.

Worse, most of all the food was mediocre, falling far short of its pretentious billing. The one compensation was the view: The panoramic and unforgettable sight of the Alhambra at sunset.

What dawned on us yesterday was our unspoken but similar reactions to the menu. For a variety of reasons we wouldn't touch most of the items offered. We don't eat lamb, veal, or God forbid, suckling pig, or snails, clams, octopus or fish served whole with its head intact, one eye looking at you pleadingly, or pretty much any animal-based dish that too closely reminds us of the original. And those are just a few of our dietary objections.

Yesterday Stew and I agreed that we could be in the middle of yet another one of our vegetarian epiphanies, which in the past have been brief and predictably thwarted by the appearance of an irresistible dish, like Cuban-style pork roast or Southern fried chicken.

Say "no" to soy bacon. 
An awful meal also can shove us off the vegetarian wagon. Some forty years ago, during a visit to their home in Minnesota, Stew's brother and his wife served us for breakfast a soy-based imitation bacon, with perfect bacon-like stripes, microwaved to a crisp perfection and then sprayed with brown coloring meant to give it a more realistic appearance. Hmm. It triggered in Stew and me a post-traumatic, anything-but-vegetarianism reaction that lingers to this day.

More recently, a friend here in San Miguel invited us to dinner without warning us that, in a fit of concern for all living things, she had embraced veganism just a couple of nights before the engagement. It was a disastrous, rice-based concoction that triggered the lamest of compliments: "Gee, that was interesting!"

Veganism is out of the question. It's a noble aspiration, very close to sexual abstinence, and it would take a lot of research and development unless we hire our own $100,000-a-year vegan chef as Ellen DeGeneres or Bill Clinton have done.

But another stab at vegetarianism is an idea that keeps coming back, reinforced by childhood memories and recently, living in a small ranch in Mexico.

Stew's uncle Harvey and my dad each imprinted in us our deep love for animals, which of course conflicts with killing and having them for dinner. Customers at my dad's printing shop in a small town in Cuba periodically brought live gifts from the farm, such as ducks, rabbits, chickens and even kittens and puppies.

Once a chicken arrived at home and duly given a name, it was hard to kill it and eat it, though there were exceptions. My maternal grandmother Herminia, a short, stern character with her gray hair always tightly collected in a bun—and who was a phenomenal cook—would prepare arroz con pollo when we visited. Nothing would do but fresh chicken, the kind of freshness that required a live bird that, shortly after arrival, would let out a shriek reminiscent of a bris, on its way to be plucked in a bathtub of hot water.
Arroz con pollo anyone?

When arroz con pollo arrived no one talked about animal welfare. Even my dad tried to assuage his own feelings by explaining that the business with the chicken, ahem, was quick and painless, nothing to get weepy about.

Reading and watching shows about animal welfare have compounded our carnivore qualms. "Milk-fed veal" involves the confinement of a very young calf to ensure its meat is tender. "Suckling pig" means offing a piglet before it even knows how to oink. To get fois gras you need to force feed a goose to abnormally enlarge its liver. And so on; perhaps too much information.

Stew and I find other dishes just repulsive. Octopus tentacles with the suction cups staring at you? Sucking the innards from snails? Brains, liver or tripe? No thanks.

In fact, the end of our lamb-eating days came in a farm in Scotland when we arrived in the middle of the lambing season and the kelly-green landscape was covered with hundreds of the meandering little buggers, cute as bugs and innocent and dumb as rocks.

Right now our ranch here is surrounded just-born lambs and goats and veal-grade calves that remind us of our dietary misgivings. Our gardener Félix, an animal softy himself, has a more agrarian view of things. They run around grazing and whatever, he says, until they are killed and eaten. It's silly to go around naming one's individual lambs or goats. For his wedding blast his in-laws contributed a whole cow and someone else a pig.

Stew and I have talked about some carnivore alternatives that respect our concern for animals. But that is a difficult rationalization to follow in Mexico where the animal rights movement hasn't even left the barn. Range-fed beef, humane slaughtering, free-range chickens and other Whole Foods niceties are not on the table. Pigs and cattle are "processed" at a city-owned slaughterhouse and you don't want to even think what goes on there.

Maybe gradual flirting with a vegetarian diet is our most realistic approach, like one or two days a week. Pastas, vegetarian chili and other meat-free dishes.

It's going to be a long, arduous road though, to give up roast pork, ham or fried chicken.

Plus Stew and I are pushing seventy: We'd better find the exit to Vegetarianville pretty soon.


Friday, May 6, 2016

The age of electile dysfunction

When tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister of Italy—a notorious era when the country was a flying circus of bimbos, corruption and scandals—Americans could afford to snicker. 

You know, those wild and crazy Italians; only they would think of electing a billionaire with strange skin tones and a slippery grasp of facts, figures or truth in general. Those Italians—over there—just can't get their act together to watch a pot of rigatoni.

Silvio, are you laughing at us?

But now that Americans have Donald Trump, an orange-haired Berlusconi, stirring his own pot of demagoguery and hate—and inching his way to the White House—we're not laughing. 

Stew and I read an e-mail summary of The Guardian, an English daily, and watch some BBC newscasts, and it's unsettling to watch the rest of the world react to the U.S. electoral process with a mixture of bemusement, scorn and alarm, as if saying what the fuck?

It is difficult too to explain the Trump phenomenon to Mexicans, a politically cynical bunch if there ever was one, used to corruption and political clowning as a way of life.  

Shortly after moving here, Stew took a volunteer job teaching English to young Mexicans who would often pose unanswerable questions about American politics. 

"Maybe we could understand why Americans elected George Bush the first time," a student once asked Stew, "but twice?" 

To answer that, Stew would have had to explain Karl Rove and dirty politics, the corrupting influence of big money in U.S. elections and other details that may have sounded awfully similar to the Mexican political system. And after that, there would have been little time left for English grammar. 

It is just as difficult for me to explain the rise of Donald Trump, who was universally dismissed as a freak show only six months ago. Indeed, I feel defrauded by the American democratic system for allowing someone so repugnant to come so close to becoming the nominee of one of two major political parties.  

Some analysts say Trump may have tapped a vein of resentment among white Americans who see themselves losing their historic demographic and political advantage, especially after enduring almost eight years under a black president. 

Others theorize that working folk in the U.S. feel the economic system is rigged against them. What's good for "job creator" Mitt Romney turns out to be not as good for the struggling middle class. Trump is the guy willing to fix the problem or at least pay attention to the victims. Trump may be a serial fabulist but when people are pissed they tend to skip the fact-checking or the fine print.

Or perhaps Trump is a vile demagogue who'll say anything to rile up his supporters. 

More perplexing is why the Democrats have failed to formulate a credible alternative to Trumpist lunacy and sleaziness. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders has led a progressive campaign that has captured and enraptured a large, young following but his proposals, for instance, for single-payer health insurance and free college tuition don't sound too realistic. I shudder at the prospect of what the Republican wolves in Congress would do with them and four more years of gridlock.  

Then we have Hillary Clinton who is plain old and not just chronologically—she and I are contemporaries—but in her ideas, which sound as exciting as leftover meatloaf. In foreign policy, for instance, I'd like to listen to someone present a new vision that doesn't involve American men and women fighting wars and drone-bombing the natives the world over, in perpetuity. We can't afford any more blood or treasure in such adventures. She sounds like a hawk, which means more of the same. 

Or a candidate that would recognize the legitimate grievances of labor unions and the workers they represent, and the fact they've been sidelined by a new economic order that favors Wall Street financial manipulations. Instead we have Hillary who has made a fortune in speaking fees in Wall Street and won't even reveal the content of her talks. 

A few weeks ago I received one of those jokey emails, this one about the new phenomenon of "electile dysfunction" supposedly affecting millions of American voters thoroughly unaroused by the choices they face in November. 

And all I could say to myself was, "Yep." 




Friday, April 29, 2016

April showers and succulent flowers

My fascination with succulents and cacti initially arose out of necessity—they are the natural denizens of semi-arid areas such as where we live—but has developed into a true fascination with these quirky and frequently beautiful plants.

This aloe grows in a pot in our back terrace.
They come in thousands of contorted and bizarre shapes and most look gruff, spiny and downright hostile. They don't want to be messed with, by humans or hungry goats, and some remind you of that with hair-thin thorns that break off and embed in your skin.

Then comes April and the same succulents now beg to be admired with their bright green growth replacing their dour, grayish winter plumage and most amazingly, flowers in all colors from shrill orange to more discreet shades of rose or lavender. Some are delicate and orchid-like, others tiny and barely visible, while a few grow in giant stalks ten or fifteen feet high that serve as natural alarm clocks to bees, signaling them to get going and make some honey.

Their flowering seasons are brief and not simultaneous, which has the added advantage of forcing me to walk around the ranch to check which cacti or succulent is putting on a show.

This very common aloe grows all over the ranch.
A couple of years ago I tried to learn their botanical names in order to exercise my aging memory but it proved too big a task. I remember a few names such as the agave americana medio picta alba and the aloe family but beyond that, succulent and cacti nomenclature is a hopelessly tangled jungle. For example, I know euphorbia, except there are dozens and dozens of euphorbias most of which don't look at all similar. And so on with the opuntias and mammillarias. 

In fact, I've come to appreciate why Mexican nursery owners rather use made-up names like "Shrek's Ears" or "Helicopter Cactus". Both of them are some type of euphorbia, but who can remember which one?

Small red flowers will form a crown atop this
barrel cactus, which grows wild in the ranch. 

"Crown of Thorns" is an unfriendly-looking succulent
that flowers most of the year.

Mammillaria cactus, with tiny lavender flowers. 

There are about 200 species of mammillarias. I don't
know which one this is, though its purple flowers
stand out atop a white plant. 



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A small eulogy for a great mutt

Gladys, our oldest dog who had a crooked tail, soulful eyes and a great heart but no visible link to any particular breed, died last night of respiratory failure at the vet's office, as unexpectedly as she had entered our lives about nine years ago.

Maybe just a mutt to you, but a queen to Stew and me.

We don't know what triggered her death, except she had become lethargic and stopped eating during her last two or three days. The vet suggested it might have been a toxic reaction to phenothrin, the active ingredient in an anti-flea shampoo we'd used, though the other dogs were not affected. Following reports of toxic reactions, phenothrin was banned in the U.S. for use on cats but not on dogs.

Whatever. We brought Gladys home this morning, put her on a wheelbarrow and took her to a grave that had been already dug by Félix and his brother Esteban, who had come to help. Under a cloudless sky, an improvised, single-file funeral procession consisting of Stew, me and our four remaining dogs, wended its way through the weeds, to what has become a pet cemetery in one corner of our ranch. 

We stood as Gladys, wrapped in an old bed sheet, was gradually covered with soil. Stew, who doesn't have as big a problem crying as I do, knelt by the gravesite and sobbed for several minutes.
Gladys parachuted into our lives when we lived in a condo development in town. We found her walking aimlessly in a pouring rain, the remains of a piece of rope around her neck, and limping as if she had been injured. While vehemently protesting we would not adopt her, I nevertheless built Gladys a dog house behind our building, out of a large plastic storage bin with a blanket inside, and set out food for her every morning.

Naturally she kept coming back for more food and soon started walking, cautiously at first, alongside our other dog Lucy to a nearby park. The two dogs became fast friends and started playing and chasing each other in the park.

Gladys's funeral procession. 
After I don't know how many weeks of this routine, suddenly Gladys sat as if inviting Stew to pick her up. "I wanna go home with you guys!" And so she did.

The vet said Gladys had been either hit by a car or abused, hence her injuries, including a permanently crooked, droopy tail and slightly off-center gait. We've always suspected she had been mistreated or abused because, with the exception of Stew and me, Gladys didn't trust people. Truth be told, for the first couple of years she was quite the dyspeptic bitch.

We've always suspected her previous owner must have been a Mexican woman who hit her with a broom: Every time our maid Rocío picked up a broom to start cleaning, Gladys started cowering and growling threateningly. She kept up that routine right up to the end. She definitely didn't like Mexican women with brooms or mops.

Eventually though, Gladys grew up to be the tamest, friendliest and most attentive dog in our crew of five.  She went to the beach with us a couple of times; riding in the car, even just for two hundred feet up the driveway, was her biggest thrill. She would sit ramrod straight on the back seat, peering out the windows as if she owned the place.
Graveside ceremonies. 

When we took her to the vet two days ago, Gladys at first didn't get up from her cushion. Then Stew shouted the magic words: "Hey, Gladys, want to go in the truck?" Her eyes opened and she slowly stumbled out to the garage and sat by the truck waiting for help to get up on the back seat.

That was her last ride until we brought her home this morning.