Friday, January 22, 2016

Canines at the Gate

At the mere clang of the ranch's gate opening, they leap over the neighbor's stone wall, crawl out from under this or that bush or whoosh from down the road in a cloud of dust. On a banner day, there might nine or ten barking and yapping customers. On weekend mornings, though, only three or four might show up.

Hmm, do these campo dogs, as locals call these roaming countryside mutts, sleep in on weekends?

Those who show up mob Stew, who lugs a bucket of dry dog food, as if were a savior which indeed he is, because without his handouts many of these dogs would starve or get run over on the busy nearby road. Just as important as food, Stew doles out affectionate pats on their heads and a bit of conversation that is much appreciated though neither side understands a word.

Benji: Howl are yoo?
No one except perhaps Benji—that's what we've named him—a long-haired, black-and-white number that we think actually understands Stew's gooey gibberish. Benji might even know English. Sometime ago, amid the noisy clamoring for food, Stew impatiently yelled out "Sit!". Naturally, no one paid attention except for Benji who not only obliged but put out his paw too.

Did some gringo lose—or cut loose—this beautiful, gentle dog to fend for himself? If you met Benji and shook his furry paw, the cruelty of someone abandoning him, if that's what happened, would gnaw at you.
Brief bouts of barking and snarling erupt occasionally over who gets which pile of food. But so far not one in this scruffy gang has tried to bite either one of us, though their individual friendliness quotients vary.

We can pick up and hold Malcolm, a fidgety fifteen-pounder, with short, orange fur and a tail perfectly curled like a doughnut, and he'll return the affection with frantic licking. Others, like Whitey, an elegant, long-haired fellow so perfectly white that at first we mistook it for albino, is friendly but not ready for a close-up.

Food call, and Stew forgot to comb his hair.
The biggest curiosity and, increasingly, concern for Stew and me is, where do these dogs come from? And how many more are going to show up at the gate?

In addition to about $50 dollars a month for food; spaying and neutering of anyone we get a hold of; plus occasional emergency trips to the vet when one dog shows up sick or injured, the costs are mounting. Our fifty-pound bags of food come from an animal feed store, with one of the most festive facades in town, called "La Vaca" or "The Cow." Appropriately, its business motto is "Muuu," or "Mooo," for those of you who don't speak Spanish

A storefront you won't soon forget.
The latest arrival are two nearly identical female puppies—Lula and Lola—with short beige fur, long tails and pleading brown eyes, who parachuted into the scene about three months ago. For now, they are at the bottom of the pack hierarchy; not only are they the youngest but also the most timid and clueless, unable to guard their piles of food. As a result, they are the boniest. If he's not in a hurry, Stew will sit on a rock with them until they finish eating. We also call them the Doofus Sisters.
Brenda, one of the old timers.

The two pack elders are Brenda and Osita. Brenda is the quintessential mutt, black with orange spots, and possibly related to Chucha and Negro, who were the original members of the pack but have since died and are buried in our pet cemetery on one corner of the ranch.

All told, twelve animals reside at the cemetery, including our late cat Ziggy that came with us from Chicago, one of Félix's dogs, and a litter of seven days-old puppies he found in a plastic grocery bag by the side of the main road, about a kilometer away. Of the puppies, four were alive but even those had to be euthanized after the vet said they couldn't live without their mother.

After each arrival at the cemetery (or departure, if you will), Félix paints the decedent's name on a rectangular tile we buy from a building materials yard. The puppies' grave he simply marked "Los Hermanos."

Malcolm: Mighty mini mutt
Indeed, one of Félix' most admirable qualities is that he really loves animals. When we found his dog Chupitos, dead and mauled outside the ranch shortly after we moved in, Félix came as close to crying as a Mexican man dares to. In his house he keeps a picture I took of Chupitos alongside shots of his family.

Osita is a another survivor. Her black-and-white, longish, wiry fur earned her the name, which means "Little Bear" in Spanish.  She's been around almost since we moved into the ranch, about six years ago. She showed up pregnant one time and Félix heard she'd later given birth to a litter of eight. Shortly after that she showed up pregnant again and between malnourishment and the burden of caring for her second litter, Osita almost didn't make it.

We asked her nominal owner, a neighbor, if we could have her spayed but he dithered. We suspect he was selling the puppies at the Tuesday flea market in town. So when Osita seemed to have recovered, we quietly loaded her in the truck and took her to be spayed. She's transformed from scrawny and scared to chubby and somewhat affectionate. She'll sit for a rub on the head or a quick backrub but otherwise keeps to herself.

Stew ready to offer some counseling to the Doofus Sisters
Osita: Dowager and veteran mother.
When one of the canine beggars doesn't show up we worry it might have been killed in a fight or other mishap. But we also worry that as more dogs show up out of nowhere, owners might be dumping them at our gate as some act of cheap and quick kindness. Or maybe that the word's spread among the stray dogs—arf, there's is free food at Rancho Santa Clara!—even though newcomers seem to go through a strict hazing and snarling trial before being accepted into the pack.

Stew has reasoned that a daily ration of dog food, and a relatively safe place to hang out away from the busy highway traffic a kilometer away is not a bad deal for "our" campo dogs. We certainly don't want any additions to our private reserve of five dogs and two cats, plus Félix's dogs, Palomita and Luiso, who come to work with him and also get fed.

And we surely don't want an encore of one of our stupidest stunts in animal welfare when we first moved to the ranch. As the winter months ground on, and the green pasture turned to brown stubble, the flocks of sheep and goats wandering outside the fence looked ever
Whitey would be more so if he had a bath
hungrier, or so we thought. We went to the feed store and bought a couple of bales of either alfalfa or hay and dumped them over the fence.

Bad idea, kiddo. Shortly afterward, seemingly every cow, goat and sheep in the county was munching on the stuff—and mooing, bleating and harrumphing for more. Sorry guys, we told them, but there's only so much we can do.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A medical dilemma or a horror story?

Not a week goes by without Félix, with his usual uninflected delivery, tells us a shocking life-in-Mexico story that strikes Stew and me with the force of a blow to the side of the head.

"How can that happen?" we ask, while Félix's response to such day-to-day tragedies and outrages—a reaction I find quite common among poor Mexicans—goes far beyond sangfroid or steely determination. It's closer to profound impotence and fatalism: Life is shit and then you die. 

Félix' most recent story arrived yesterday and involved his twenty-three-year-old niece, Veronica. She had gone into premature labor and was rushed to the local hospital where she delivered a tiny, but very much live-and-breathing baby about five-and-a-half months old.

Rather than place the baby in an incubator to keep it alive, possibly to be transferred later to a more sophisticated facility, the attending physician told the father that the newborn, apparently normal except for its size, could not be saved. It was left lying on the crib while the father watched. The baby gradually turned blue, Félix said, and two or three hours later died without any further medical intervention.
I don't know the full medical details but when we heard that Stew and I felt a similar sadness and outrage gripping our hearts and guts: How could that happen? 

The hospital is but two or three years old and in my exposure to the facilities, when we've taken friends to the emergency room, including Félix' dad, who suffers from diabetes, alcoholism and generally a very hard life, it seemed to be well equipped and staffed. Félix said that his last two babies spent their first few hours with an oxygen mask around their tiny faces, and that there are incubators available.

Yet given the baby's chances of survival, and the medical and financial limitations of the hospital and the government-financed healthcare system on which people as poor as Félix and his family rely, perhaps the doctor had no other options.

Stew promptly said such a thing wouldn't happen in the U.S., that the baby probably would have been kept alive in a neonatology unit even if the medical bills reached hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. I'm not sure.
Stew may be only partly right. If this drama had unfolded at a private American hospital and the parents carried full private insurance, that baby likely would have survived. America's private health care system is justifiably renowned worldwide for all manner of medical heroics—as long as there's plenty of cash to pay for them.

A private Mexican hospital in a larger city also might have saved the baby, assuming the parents had the means to pay for the treatment. Indeed, private Mexican hospitals have a particularly draconian reimbursement system: You have to leave a substantial deposit, in cash or with a credit card, before you're treated at the emergency room or admitted.

If Veronica had shown up at a private hospital in Chicago with premature labor pains and no insurance, she would have been efficiently bounced to Cook County Hospital, a public facility dedicated to treating indigent patients. And at taxpayer's expense, she would have received first-class attention at this multi-billion-dollar version of government health care, precisely the big-government monster conservative politicians love to loath in the U.S.
But what if Veronica, indigent and thus with no health insurance—just like millions of Americans—lived in some Podunkville, U.S.A., where there's no public hospital? What would have been her and the baby's chances? I prefer to think somehow the baby would have had better chances of survival, but I wouldn't guarantee it. Maybe Medicaid? Some "charity fund" at the hospital for patients who can't pay?

And in the U.S.—this is Stew talking again—just the fear of a multi-million negligence or malpractice lawsuit against the doctor, the hospital and anyone involved in such tragedy, if nothing else, might have prevented it. I'm not sure of that scenario either. You'd have to have sufficient reserves of rage and money to hire a competent attorney to do battle with the law firm representing the hospital.

For my part, I would not have waited for the lawyers to do their work. Whether in the U.S. or Mexico I would have throttled the doctor right then and there, or worse.

But Félix and his family don't seem capable of such anger.

"Sí, me sentí molesto," was his response when I asked him this morning how he felt. "Yes, I was upset."

"Pero la vida aquí en México es muy canija," he muttered after a few seconds, looking at the ground. "But life here in Mexico is a real bitch." 

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Friday, January 8, 2016

Escape from Tacoland

Most gringos in San Miguel, even those who profess to be so hip to the local Mexican milieu that they're ready to change their last names from Lynch to López, in fact live in a culinary rut of tacos, enchiladas, tortilla soup and arracheras, the latter a marinated flank steak about as ubiquitous as corned beef in Ireland.

Still, Stew and I are often reminded—and just as often forget—that Mexican cuisine is its own universe, as complex and varied as any in the world, and punctuated by regional quirks that are "acquired tastes" such as Oaxaca's chapulines or fried grasshoppers. Oaxaca is one of the great, if not the premier dining destination in Mexico, where according to Stew, a late-blooming epicure, it's almost impossible to have a bad meal.

There are some limits. During our three or four visits to Oaxaca, and its central food market, we've bumped into buckets of fried grasshoppers for sale, paused for five seconds or so, and just kept on walking. They are supposed to be great snacks, crunchy and tasty like potato chips, but the sight of charred grasshoppers, their little feet up in the air as if they'd been electrocuted, just doesn't look very appetizing.

Two weeks ago Stew treated me to a birthday dinner at Dulce Patria, our favorite restaurant in Mexico City although in truth we haven't tried that many others. Starting with the name, which I translate as "Sweet Motherland," and the chef's proclamation on the website that she "loves being Mexican," the place is all about a genuinely Mexican cuisine that is also as far as one can get from the familiar bowl of guacamole with tortilla chips.

Coming attractions: Cabuches growing
 on the barrel cacti outside our bedroom. 
Instead you're transported to the land of this stuff is amazing; what the hell is in it? Many of the names of the dishes are fanciful but unhelpful. How about a dessert called "María goes to the flower shop," or an entree of "A joyful grilled fish." Better ask the waiter. For starters, we settled on shared portions of oxtail on blue tortillas, and a Mexican take on bouillabaisse.

The hit of the entire meal was a salad with, among other things, lima bean-size pellets called cabuches, which turned out to be the flower buds of the Ferocactus, a type of barrel cactus that—great news—grows wild on our ranch though there are none available at the moment. The down side, I imagine, is that by harvesting them you abort the tiara of bright flowers that briefly pop up atop the barrel cacti once a year. When you bite into one of these guys your mouth is jolted by a sweet and unexpected juice.

The tab at Dulce Patria, including tip, came to one hundred and ten dollars, a cheap deal for a first-class meal, soup to nuts, thanks in part to the plummeting value of the Mexican peso, which has dropped to nearly eighteen-to-a-dollar.

This fall we'll also be on the lookout for tunas, the fruits of prickly pear cacti, also abundant in our ranch in two colors, light yellow and pink. Supposedly one can make marmalade, fruit drinks and deserts with them, though no one seems to know how, including Félix, our gardener and live encyclopedia of Mexican lore.

Open wide: The two chiles Félix keeps harvesting, Tepín (left) and Pequín.
Félix also nurtures a few chile plants that keep producing handfuls of the little buggers, more than we can eat. Through the summer we had several varieties of chilis but now we are down to two varieties, tepín, a little smaller than a marble and bright red, and pequín, gnarled, dark red and about an inch long. That's according to The Great Chile Book by Mark Miller; Félix couldn't tell them apart. As far as Félix is concerned, everything goes better with chiles, no matter what kind.

Both of our homegrown varieties are plenty hot. Tepín scores 8 on the heat scale and Pequín 8.5. Jalapeños get a timid hotness score of 5.5.

A year ago, while eating with friends at a local restaurant specializing in Yucatecan food, Stew—in his new persona of an experienced gourmand—took a innocuous looking chile from atop his pork entree and popped it in his mouth. It turned out to be a habanero, heat index of 10 or the equivalent of gulping a tablespoon of lighter fluid and setting a match to it.

His face suddenly turned purple. That was the here-we-go-again signal to the waitress—who must have also received training in first aid—to fetch a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which along with milk is the usual antidote to gringos shoving chiles in their mouths. I suspect there must be a chile first-aid sign hanging in the kitchen of this restaurant, next to the one about the Heimlich maneuver.

Stew has not given up on chiles. Two nights ago he cooked pasta with some of our pequín chiles which was delicious. He says the most dangerous bits are the seeds, and that the skin has to be minced very finely to avoid an accidental chunk of chile, lurking like a land mine, in a spoonful of pasta.

Last night Stew whipped up some Piri-Piri Chicken, a Portuguese dish of African origin. The recipe called half a cup of hot sauce for the overnight marinade. I had some trepidations but it turned out delicious: moist, with a beautiful char and a taste that was hot and spicy but hardly a five-alarm fire.

As Stew continues his experiments in Mexican cooking and homegrown chiles, though, I think it might be best to keep an emergency pint of Häagen-Dazs vanilla nearby, just in case.

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Late-breaking news: Today's New York Times has a list of 52 places to visit in 2016, and Mexico City topped the list, in part for its world-class restaurants. ¡Buen provecho!


Friday, December 4, 2015

Who should be afraid now?

When Stew and I visit the United States we can count on one tedious question to come up: "Aren't you afraid to live in Mexico?" Over lunch, when we visited Chicago in October, a friend asked us that and it struck me as odd, considering I'd just read in the local newspaper there had been five murders in the city the night before, and Chicago and New Orleans were running neck and neck for the title of "Murder Capital of the U.S."

In fact, following a string of mass murders—almost one a day this year according to some estimates—expats from Mexico should be the ones asking that question when we visit the U.S.

This morning's New York Times reports that Americans, stunned not only by the frequency but the senselessness of the mass murders—the lack of any rhyme or reason that would allow you to protect yourself—are now the ones looking over their shoulders in fear. Over five thousand readers reacted to the article, mentioning among other things, their personal escape plans or owning guns in case a shootout erupted around them.

Look out for "transgendered leftist activists" with guns. 
Fears for one's safety are fueled by both facts and perceptions. Several weeks ago, factual reports of a string of murders in San Miguel, enhanced by gossip and extrapolation, set the local expat community on edge. As I wrote in a previous posting, Stew and I are not immune from such vacillation. Someone gets bumped off on the other side of town? Don't worry about it. A stiff turns up close to home? Oh, shit.

But in general we've somehow learned to manage and localize our fears in Mexico. When we drive to the U.S., we stay away from narcomeccas like Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa and head for border crossings as far from them as possible. We don't drive at night or on back roads, no matter how picturesque. One of the considerations in the design of our home was security; someone might still get in—no place is impregnable—but they are going to have to work at it.

What's most scary about the violence gripping the U.S., though, is the randomness. One might get killed at a movie house, while attending church, near a family planning clinic or at an employee Christmas party at a center for disabled people. The shooter could be a Muslim radical, an anti-abortion zealot, a racist dimwit or, most often, just some nut with a gun.

As they say, there's no figurin', though some Americans try to. When we visited San Antonio a month ago, Stew and I were struck by the number of billboards for gun shows, gun stores, firing ranges and other gun-related paraphernalia. I'm sure gun-toting locals will argue that guns make them feel safe.

But to Stew and me, the apparent surfeit of guns in San Antonio made us feel distinctly unsafe. When you walk into a grocery store, how many customers are packing and ready to start shooting over whatever—that they just got fired, thrown out of their house by their wife, or are just intoxicated? Would bringing my own gun make my produce shopping experience safer and more pleasant?

In fact, the growing number of legal and illegal firearms in the U.S.—by some estimates enough for every man woman and child—has made the guns-for-safety argument tragically circular. The more threatened people feel, the more guns they buy, which only heightens the fear of getting shot by someone, anyone, with a gun, either by accident or on purpose, and that fuels the next cycle of demand for more weapons. And so on.

There is usually an uptick in gun sales after a mass shooting incident, sometimes triggered by some local government genius who argues that the only way to make, for example, moviegoing safer is to bring a Glock with you in case the mayhem on the screen spills into the theater.

Governmental authority should be responsible for maintaining public safety but it fails at that on both sides of the border. In Mexico, the entire law enforcement apparatus is riddled with ineptitude and corruption. Army trucks, loaded with soldiers clutching machine guns, periodically cruise through San Miguel, but they seem more like toy soldiers than credible security agents.

In the U.S. the same paralysis obtains. Pres. Obama pleads for Congressional action to control the availability of guns but you can tell by the sad tone in his words and eyes that he's pretty much given up. In Congress, Republicans call for prayers and the intervention of the Almighty but won't even contemplate the most timid gun-control measures. To make matters worse, there have been numerous incidents recently of police shooting people first—usually black people—and asking questions later.

Occasionally, some public official will come up with an original theory. After the shooting of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz suggested that the shooter might have been a "transgendered leftist activist," as if that would clarify things a bit or soothe people's nerves. It doesn't for me.

Hmm. For the time being, my friends, Stew and I are staying in Mexico, which suddenly looks pretty safe. And that's that. For now.

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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Refugees are knocking. Let 'em in.

Stew and I have just returned from a one-week drive through the immensity known as Texas, where we visited relatives of mine in Houston and in Austin—all of whom, like me, came from Cuba as refugees.

Our visit coincided with the media and political furor against Syrian refugees, who've been battered and demonized mostly by Republican presidential candidates playing a xenophobic game of "can you top this?". Trump has talked about registering all Muslims in the U.S., or perhaps shutting down some of their mosques. Carson compared violent Muslim extremists to rabid dogs, while Huckabee likened some refugees to rotten peanuts.

Not to be left out of this Islamophobic conga line, some thirty state governors have vowed not admit refugees from Syria, even though governors have no immigration say-so whatsoever and, barring the construction of Berlin Walls along state lines, Syrians could take a bus from say, Minnesota to Wisconsin.

Most curious of all are Rubio and Cruz's tirades against admitting Syrian refugees: Their own parents came to the U.S. as refugees from Cuba, a fact one would think should engender a more generous attitudes toward the latest bunch of desperate human beings
María, the youngest refugee in my family, lives in Austin.
fleeing persecution and economic misery. (I particularly resent Cruz, who reminds me of Al Lewis, who played Grandpa in The Munsters).

Indeed, since Castro rose to power in 1959, over a million Cubans have been admitted to the U.S. under special policies, protections and programs not generally afforded to refugees from other countries.

I arrived in the U.S. in 1962 under a program called Peter Pan that was part humanitarian gesture part Cold War propaganda, and allowed fourteen thousand Cuban minors into the country with only a "visa waiver"—in effect no visa requirements at all except the most cursory "come on in" paperwork from the U.S. State Department. In 1970 I became an American citizen.

When I arrived I stayed at a refugee camp outside of Miami for two months before moving in with an uncle in New York. Thousands of Peter Panners were scattered throughout the country, to American homes, orphanages and pretty much anyone who would take them. Many grew up to be rich and famous, a few reported sexual and physical abuse at the hand of their "sponsors."

I wish America were willing to extend if only a portion of the kindness given to Peter Pan kids to the tens of thousands of Syrian children all over the Middle East, Europe, and who knows where, trying to escape the terror and misery choking their home countries.
My second cousin, Adrián, who now lives in Houston, and his family—all refugees—were admitted to the U.S. in 2000 through another peculiar avenue: a visa lottery held by the U.S. embassy in Havana.

It's been a great deal for Adrián—and America. He's a thin, ambitious, high-energy guy, about thirty-years old, who since his arrival has earned a degree in chemical engineering, an M.B.A. and is taking night classes in finance. He works for Exxon-Mobil in Houston. His wife expects to become a registered nurse by year's end. Meanwhile, Adrián's brother, became a pharmacist and works for Walgreens in Miami.

My second cousins in Austin arrived to the U.S. more recently; Julio, the head of the family, arrived early last year, and his wife Odette, and two daughters, one eight years old, the other fifteen, got to Austin just four months ago.

They all arrived through another Cuban quirk in U.S. immigration law called the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. In short, if you're Cuban and somehow get to set foot in America somehow or other—off a boat in Florida or through the U.S. border with Mexico—bingo, you're in. After a year-long "parole" you're entitled to U.S. residency and all the perks that come with it, including citizenship in five years.

The Austin clan worked with a Cuban connection in Cancún, Mexico, who has set up a lucrative business based on the dry-foot provision of American immigration law. Say what you will, Cubans are nothing if not enterprising. The Cancún group charges a hefty fee, to which I contributed three thousand dollars, and for that you get a Mexican working permit that gets you out of Cuba.

After a brief respite in Mexico for a Corona and a taco, the facilitators take you to the U.S. border, give you some coins that get you through the turnstile—and you're in America. Julio came through the El Paso crossing, the rest of the family through McAllen, Texas.

The gang's all here: Odette, Julio, and María, 8, Ana, 15. 
Since his arrival in Austin, where he stayed with friends, Julio, a thirty-something, soft-spoken, gentle-faced guy with sparse hair, has worked—and worked and worked—installing drywall. It's back-breaking work, he says, particularly during Texas's broiling summers, but in addition he moonlights a few days a week as a cook, which was his original line of work in Cuba.

His wife Odette, a dermatologist back home, is exploring coursework to find some medical-type job, probably as a phlebotomist or a nurse's aide. The two girls are attending school. Julio is working to either get a license to drive a truck, a lucrative job, or save enough money to buy the tools to become an independent drywall contractor, which also pays more. There's already talk of buying a small house instead of wasting money on rent.

This gang, as their Houston counterparts, are American Dream-bound. I have no doubts.

Indeed, Cubans have had amazingly good luck at the immigration roulette compared to other national groups, such as Haitians and now Syrians.

For sure, Cubans are far more inconspicuous and "blendable" than the Syrians, most of whom are Muslim, some wearing exotic gear such as hijabs and kufi hats.

Syrians also suffer from the Muslim connection to terrorism, most recently in Paris.

Except that until recently Cuba and the U.S. have had a fractious relationship too, to say the least. Since 1982 until this year, Cuba was a member of the elite "State Sponsors of Terrorism" club at the U.S. State Department, thanks to Castro's annoying support of anti-American governments and guerrilla insurgencies worldwide, from Angola to Nicaragua.

Then, in 1982, there was the immigration debacle known as the Mariel boatlift which brought approximately 125,000 Cubans—some of them convicts or mentally ill folk—to the U.S. For further details, ask former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who lost a reelection bid in part because of his mishandling of riots and looting by Marielitos housed at an Army barracks in Arkansas formerly used to detain German prisoners of war during World War II.  

For better or for worse, though, Cubans have kept on coming, about 1.1 million as of 2013, with nothing like the vetting now required of Syrians.

During the past two years, the U.S. has admitted only 1,800 Syrian refugees, half of them children and one quarter people over sixty years old. In fact, the screening process so thorough that it takes eighteen months to two years for a Syrian refugee application to be approved, if ever.

Some Republicans in Congress, while proclaiming not to be anti-Muslim, want to pile on so many entry requirements that a prospective Syrian refugee would have to explain the theory of relativity while doing the rhumba before getting a refugee visa. In other words, forget it.

Cubans certainly have been an industrious bunch, in part transforming Miami from a ramshackle retirement destination into a glittering vacation mecca with a Latin flavor. But most important, Cubans have learned to develop and use political muscle, with seven Cuban-Americans in Congress at the moment, including senators Rubio and Cruz. Until recently Miami was an obligatory stop for presidential candidates to present their anti-Castro credentials to the Cuban gerontocracy in order to win the Cuban vote—and Florida.

Muslims in the U.S. instead are now terrified by the backlash largely instigated by Republican presidential candidates post the Paris terrorist attacks.

That's a shame both for them and for the U.S. When I see boatloads of Syrian refugees I don't see terrorists although there might be one aboard. Far more likely I see folks who could become another Adrián or Julio, if given a chance. It's a risk worth taking.

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Grandpa for the
U.S. Senate?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The tale of the Hens and the Ostriches

In a shocking demonstration of how reality can resemble folklore, a 78-year-old American woman was found murdered in her San Miguel home on October 26, a week before the big Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead.

Road to heaven: Locals on the way to the cemetery pick up
the traditional Day of the Dead flowers.
And as usual, the local expat social media sites, such as the Civil List, and a new Facebook page exclusively dedicated to the topic of public safety, as well as restaurant and sidewalk chatter, buzzed with theories, condolences and other comments, coming generally from two groups—the Hen House and the Ostrich Farm.

As usual, the hens run around in a panic, wings flapping and feathers flying, amid mostly incoherent clucking about how dangerous our town has become, and what are we going to do, and what are we going to do. After this last murder, some gringos even suggested hiring a private investigator to handle the case.

Things are far quieter among the ostriches which, predictably, just dig their heads a little deeper in the sand, and insist there's nothing to worry about. Whatever happened was the result of carelessness or bad luck on the part of the victim, and it happened on the other side of town and, anyway, more people get killed in Los Angeles, Chicago and other U.S. cities.
After living in San Miguel for ten years, Stew and I find ourselves dashing between the hens and ostriches, depending how a spate of bad news affects us personally.

Despite all of San Miguel's charms, its law enforcement system is spectacularly inept, and so is the legal machinery for prosecuting and jailing the guilty which, indeed, seldom occurs.

After a while, you come to regard police officers with snazzy uniforms, reflective vests and aviator sunglasses—the blue and red lights on their patrol cars and motorcycles constantly and uselessly flashing—not as reassuring sights but as hapless figures who are just part of the scenery.

Since we moved here we've heard of over a dozen American and Canadian victims of rapes, assaults, burglaries, home invasions and murders but except for two cases, we know of no one who has been arrested, charged and imprisoned for those crimes.

Several years ago a serial rapist targeting American women triggered a bona fide manhunt in San Miguel after authorities began to worry that national and international publicity threatened the town's image as a tourist and retirement utopia. The other case, involving a mentally unstable young Mexican woman who murdered an American who had adopted her, was closed when the suspect was essentially turned in by friends or relatives.  
Impunity is a familiar concept among Mexicans who generally treat law enforcement in their own country with derision if not outright contempt. When the notorious drug trafficker El Chapo escaped from a maximum security prison several months ago—by digging a mile-long tunnel that will go down as the most awesome civil engineering project of modern times—the reaction of Mexicans I spoke with was either to relate the latest El Chapo joke or, with a shrug of the shoulders, ask: So what else is new?

Give us our daily dead: One trashy local newspaper, sold to
motorists  stopping at speed bumps, features a daily front-page 
murder in the city of Celaya or neighboring communities, 
including San Miguel. This headline: "Death at Dawn". To 
soften the blow of so much gore, the paper also features 
a centerfold of a scantily clad young woman.  
But impunity and its accompanying feeling of powerlessness—the sense that criminals can do terrible things to you or your property with little fear of sanctions or consequences—is far tougher for Americans to swallow. And so the reaction often is panic or denial, depending on whether the latest murder or assault took place near where you live or the victim was someone you knew.

Indeed, several months ago an American couple who live near our ranch were terrorized and the husband badly beaten in their ranch by four armed bandits. A few days later the house of another American friend was burglarized while he was out of town.

That's scary stuff, particularly close to where you live. Our fears since have been compounded by absence of any arrests, despite much forensic fireworks, dusting for fingerprints, interviews, paperwork and such.
It's at those moments that I can understand the alarm and hubbub in the Hen House, particularly among the women living alone in San Miguel.

And at those times, Stew and I can cluck and cluck as loudly as any scared hen would. Following the home invasion and burglary near our little ranch we even looked into getting a firearm, a silly idea we abandoned shortly.

But after a few months passed, and the initial panic faded, we moved back in with the ostriches, primarily because there is really nothing we can do except to make sure that every opening at our ranch, from the main gate to the garage door, is securely padlocked at night, and to hope that our Rottweiler-ish mutt wakes up if someone tries to get in.

The latest murder is really awful, particularly the vision of an elderly person being pounced on in her sleep. But we didn't know her, and she lived clear across town. So, for the time being, we're staying with the ostriches, praying that something terrible like that won't happen to us or someone we know.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

When technology crushes do-it-yourselfers

Stew prides himself in his supernatural do-it-yourself skills which permit him to repair things lesser humans would toss in the trash or the back of the closet. His brother Greg is even more confident of his technical abilities: He often buys things that are already broken, and really cheap, counting on being able to fix them and saving tons of money.

As a back-up strategy, Stew also saves all receipts and guarantees, so he can smugly send back to the manufacturer or retailer those rare items beyond his amazing mechanical talents, and demand a replacement, no matter how onerous the warranty requirements might be, such as "void unless you include the original sales and credit card receipts and a copy of your grandmother's birth certificate." Stew's got them all neatly filed, and more often than not he gets a replacement.

Then came the case of the LG smart phone, which he dropped sometime ago. The keyboard touch-screen went bonkers and would come up with the wrong letters or none at all, making it impossible to type any messages or even enter the password. In Chicago we went to a Best Buy store, where a lethargic "Geek Squad" member at the service desk declared the phone positively dead and gone.


Patient lying on the operating table; vital signs still hopeful. 
Stew would not give up. Back in Mexico he fiddled around until he discovered that, aha!, the keyboard would work if he held the phone upside down, which meant the entire screen wasn't dead, just the bottom half. Could that be fixed? Yes! he said to himself, and ordered a new screen—a "touch-screen digitizer"—from Guangzhou, China, via Amazon.com, for $9.19.

After a few days, he received a cheerful if mostly unintelligible email from someone in China, announcing the imminent arrival of the new screen. Indeed, it arrived in Chicago, and later in Laredo, in six days flat.

Must admit I became a believer when the cigarette pack-size package arrived, containing a new screen plus a set of nearly microscopic screwdrivers, smaller even than those you use to fix eyeglasses, everything you needed to replace the screen on a LG Nexus 4 smart phone—except instructions and a requisite hair dryer.

Stew found a thirty-five minute YouTube video that promised to guide him through the entire process. Let's go.

Stew's index finger and thumb on his right hand don't work properly, thanks to an incompetent Mexican "orthopedic surgeon" here—with a German last name but no German expertise—who bungled the operation to repair carpal tunnel syndrome.

It was up to me to do the surgery on the smart phone, with Stew yelling the instructions from the guy on the YouTube video, which I couldn't quite hear because the volume adjustment on his laptop doesn't work properly and, anymore, neither does my hearing.

Let's see. Pry the smart phone case open, carefully, with the tool provided, and then, using one of the tiny screwdrivers, remove nine screws, about a sixteenth of an inch long, if that. Set aside. Carefully peel back a printed circuit, onion skin-thick and then another. Using tweezers, not provided, unplug a connection at the end of a wire, about as thin as a human hair. Careful now.

With all the pieces spread on the desk, always being careful not to sneeze, you wonder how human beings, even very tiny Chinese factory workers with eagle eyes, magnifying glasses and tiny fingers, assemble these things. Some of the pieces had what looked like Chinese characters, presumably the initials of some quality control person.

After forty-five minutes, this intervention became as nerve-wracking as a vasectomy on a chipmunk, though, astonishingly, it seemed to proceed according to the YouTube video.

The beginning of the end: In comes a hair dryer. 
 "Now you need a hair dryer," Stew said, echoing the YouTube instructor. The hair dryer was supposed to heat the malfunctioning screen to an unspecified temperature that would cause it to peel back from some sort of sensor panel to which it was attached.

"Shit". A fateful last word, uttered by me or Stew, I can't remember. Doesn't matter. The screen didn't peel back properly and the sensor panel shattered, though we also noticed that, anyway, the wires dangling from the replacement didn't match those on the old screen or the picture on the YouTube video.

Stew wouldn't give up—I can't imagine what he was pondering—and so he left the whole mess of wires, circuit panels and tiny screws lying on the desk, as if waiting for a visit by the Angel of Technology.

"Should have done what ninety-nine percent of smart phone users would have done," I said snarkily.

"Which is?" Stew asked.

"Throw the damn thing in the trash and buy a new one," I said.

Which is what we ended up doing, and we now own shiny new Samsung 6 Galaxy smart phone. It has a panoply of features we've just begun to explore. Fingerprint and voice recognition, plus automatic this and that and the other. Don't ask how much it cost, because I won't tell you.

Meanwhile, Stew now has moved on to the solar-powered, motion-activated LED light by the entrance gate, which doesn't seem to work. He mumbled about fixing it until he discovered we bought it nine months ago and it carries a two-year warranty.

And when that's on its way back to the manufacturer, he'll need to check the weather station on the roof which has been registering zero m.p.h. winds and no temperature, for several days. I think it's broken.

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