Friday, December 3, 2010

Merry Christmas, Toto

Even after five years in Mexico, I regularly get that "we're not in Kansas anymore" feeling of awe about living here. It's particularly so around Christmas time.

A week ago we went to the market to get some vegetables and had to walk several blocks through the center of town, working our way through a cacophony of shoppers, street vendors, motorcycles and cars, past a policeman on horseback and I think even a couple of donkeys loaded with firewood.

A string of modest and ancient storefronts along the way create their own "cacophony" of aromas: A couple of roasted-chicken joints (about four bucks per bird, seasoned in a variety of ways, usually with garlic); another offering "carnitas," (delicious but definitely not "heart healthy" chunks of seasoned pork.) All the rotisseries, piles of steaming pork and buckets of chiles and salsas are located toward the front of the stores, so you can't miss the smoke, sights and smells even from across the street. I sometimes fall for two quarter-kilos (about half-pound each) of carnitas, for about $6.00, that we then split with our gardener and his family.

Nearby there's the aptly named restaurant "El Infierno" where Stew and I ate about three years ago. Never again. Around the corner, almost as a refuge from all the noise and smells, sits "Plastimundo" a silent, odorless shrine to every conceivable type of plastic container--not exactly Tupperware grade, but close enough--and thousands of plastic bags, sold by weight. For a dollar or so I picked up a quarter-kilo of grocery-type bags, that we will use for cat litter.

When you finally enter the Ramírez Market, another "cacophony" hits you, this time of over-saturated colors. Fruit stands on both side of the aisles display neatly arranged fruits, with emphasis on whatever is in season. Right now there's such a glut of oranges they're practically giving them away, about a penny a pound. Stew has become friends with one of the produce vendors who'll take orders for special items. Green plantains, not readily available in México? He promises four the next day, after politely inquiring "what do you do with them?" (Slice thinly and fry, Cuban style.)

In between the produce stands you find flower vendors, with buckets of dahlias, glads, roses and other neon-colored blooms, slyly asking ¿Qué le puedo ofrecer, joven? (What can I offer you, young man?) The flirting would work better, particularly with gray-haired guys, if the vendors were not all bossomy grandmothers.

From the ceiling hangs an endless assortment of garish piñatas, ready to be loaded with candy for someone's birthday party.

After you leave the market you feel like running back to Plastimundo to hide in a pile of plastic bags for an hour or so and give your senses a rest from this gauntlet of sights, smells and sounds.

We're not in Kansas anymore, indeed, where shopping is supposed to be a soothing, air-conditioned experience with Muzak wafting discreetly from behind the avocados. That model is inexorably filtering into Mexico. San Miguel already has three American-style supermarkets on the edges of town. Along one of expressways entering the neighboring city of Querétaro there's a string of shopping centers with Office Depot and OfficeMax, Home Depot, Walmart, Costco, McDonald's and several jumbo grocery stores.

When we first arrived to Mexico, Stew and I would flee to Costco, supposedly to buy stuff not available anywhere else, but I suspect also in search of the comfortably familiar: Every Costco, like every McDonald's, looks pretty much the same, from Houston to Rio. In Mexico, Chicken McNuggets are pronounced Chicken McNoogets, and include all the jalapeños your stomach can stand, but I bet the ingredients are the same: every part of the chicken except the cluck.

We still hit Costco periodically, for indispensables like one-gallon bottles of Listerine and 100-count bales of rolls of toilet paper. But shopping at the chaotic, aromatic and friendly Ramírez market--including the occasional mutt patrolling the aisles for scraps--is gradually seducing us. You can tell the vendor which flowers to include in your $3 bouquet and if you become good enough friends with the guy at the fruit stand he may whisper that it's best to stay away from the cantaloupes today because they're hard as bowling balls.

Christmas is a particularly non-Kansas experience for us. Thanks to satellite radio and TV, and magazines and sales catalogs jamming our mailbox it's clear the Christmas season--make that the Christmas shopping season--is in full swing in the U.S. Mexico's quieter more solemn celebrations are sharply different and somehow welcome.

Promptly on Dec. 1 the popular classical music channel on our Sirius satellite radio switched to a 24/7 Christmas music format. Aside from the monotony, some of the monumental orchestrations of traditional Christmas carols are unnerving. One of these days we're bound to hear "Grandma Got Run Over by a Raindeer" performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a pipe organ.

Thanks to CNN and some of the other American media we also keep posted about the Black Friday after Thanksgiving, complete with footage of shoppers transformed into thundering buffaloes charging into a Walmart at 6 a.m. Then there are the perennial reports of American retailers somberly expressing "guarded optimism" if not "disappointment" with Christmas sales. One wonders just how much shopping and spending would satisfy retailers, particularly now with the country in the middle of an epidemic of mortgage foreclosures and maxxed-out credit cards?

It'd be refreshing one day to hear the president of Walmart say: "You know folks, given how badly the economy sucks, we're amazed we sold as much crap as we did. Thank you."

By comparison, the Christmas season in Mexico has barely warmed up. For sure, Home Depot, Costco and other retailers, perhaps realizing that it takes a little longer to wind up Mexican shoppers, brought out the Christmas decorations around the middle of November. After Thanksgiving, "live" Christmas trees from as far away as Oregon and Canada arrived at Home Depot, where they sit amid a growing puddle of dead needles.

Part of the reason for the apparent lack of Christmas enthusiasm in Mexico is the Florida effect: Getting into the Christmas hoo-hah when it's cloudless and 80 degrees outside takes some extra psyching-up.

In Mexico there doesn't seem to be any such thing as Christmas cards, we figure because in the hands of the postal system here most of them would be lost or get to your friends and relatives in time for Cinco de Mayo. The same goes for flyers, sales brochures and other junk mail.

But the main reason for the lack of a seasonal shopping stampede, aside from traditions, has to be that most Mexicans don't have the cash to waste on the latest Harry Potter 3-D glasses. By law, all workers are supposed to receive a Christmas bonus equivalent to approximately two weeks' pay but wages are so low that's hardly going to send retail sales curves off the chart.

Christmas hardly goes unnoticed in this Catholic country, though. The nurseries already display red seas of poinsettias along with wreaths and tiny decorated trees. A 20-foot tree made of potted poinsettias will go up in San Miguel's main square, along with decorations over the streets. Elaborate nativity scenes will appear all over town, particularly inside or in front of churches. And for nine days before Christmas, children will go door to door singing carols in the lovely tradition of "Las Posadas," recalling Mary and Joseph's travails trying to find shelter even as Jesus was about to be born.

In some parts of Mexico, louder and more elaborate celebrations take place on Christmas Eve. In Oaxaca that includes the Festival of the Radishes, an odd shindig if there ever was one, in which folks take what seem to be mutant radishes, some a foot long, and carve various figures on them. I don't understand it except it's a quick celebration: Even though the contestants keep spraying water on their creations, the radishes start to blacken after 36 hours or so.

Finally, on Jan. 6, on the Feast of the Three Kings there will be a brief shopping spree mostly for toys and other gifts for children. Growing up in Cuba we used to leave three glasses of wine and some crackers on the kitchen table the night before for Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, who tied up their camels on the fence of our front yard and stealthfully left presents under everyone's bed. I could never stay awake to verify the story but vividly remember the excitement of waking up the next day.

We don't particularly miss the multi-billion-dollar sis-boom-bah of an American Christmas. We enjoy the lower-key, homier celebrations of Mexico.

Still, this Christmas we are having a Kansas-type relapse. Yes, we're going to New York for a week, to ogle at store windows and take in that most seasonal of extravaganzas, the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show, with camels, Rockettes, donkeys and lots of oohs and aahs, with the mighty Wurlitzer organ bellowing away full-blast.

And please don't tell anyone, but we are even hoping for some snow.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tales of Two Mexicos

During the past week we received two articles about Mexico that reminded me of those trick drawings in which one person claims to see a sketch of a haggard old woman while someone else insists it's a picture of a beautiful young girl. Both readings are correct: The difference depends on your point of view which in turn is colored by prejudices, preconceived notions and other data bits in your head.

We also received a tough question via e-mail from a good friend in Chicago: If we knew six years ago what we know now about the security situation and the drug wars would we still have retired in Mexico?

Our quick answer to his query is "yes" though retrospective what-ifs are difficult to answer. Right now Stew and I are happy as a couple of clams--make that "mature" clams, as Stew just turned 64--living in the house of our dreams, in a beautiful spot with an ideal climate.

But that's just us. Our emphatic "yes" is based on our own life experiences, expectations of retirement--and most important our nervousness or fear level, or what financial planners would call "risk tolerance."

Some retirees believe a gated seniors' trailer park in a warm spot is as close to heaven as one can come, while others swear by the germ-free comfort and luxury of Naples, Fla. Those two options certainly would be close to 100 percent safe but Stew and I couldn't stand to live in either place.

The first article was from the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 20) with a grabber of a headline: "Northern Mexico's State of Anarchy." It's a lengthy piece, thoroughly documented (including interactive graphs) and accompanied by photographs that make the small Mexican border town of Mier look like Beirut during its worst days. One of the two names on the byline is José de Córdova, someone I know as a veteran and respected writer on Latin American issues, not prone to hysterics or sensationalism.

According to the Journal, not only some border towns--Reynosa, Matamoros and certainly Mier--but large portions of states such as Michoacán, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas are effectively controlled by warring drug cartels and their enforcers. As the graphic details and statistics pile on, the article begins to sound like a script for the next Wes Craven flick, except that instead of "Nightmare on Elm Street" the title would be something like "Nightmare at the Fruit Stand Outside Nuevo Laredo."

The flipside to that story comes in the December issue of Smithsonian magazine, under the soothing title of "Under the Spell of San Miguel de Allende." It's a similarly well researched story mostly about American expats in San Miguel, going back to the most famous one, Chicagoan Stirling Dickinson who arrived in 1937. Sitting in my office writing this blog and looking out the window at a cloudless, autumnal still life of grasses and dried flowers, with the mountains in the background, I can relate to the rapturous ex-pats quoted in this piece.

Early yesterday morning I undertook what I call a form of walking meditation. Rather that sitting in a lotus position with my eyes closed--which I can never manage--I slowly walked the perimeter of our seven and a half acre land, followed by our two dogs Lucy and Gladys, their noses to the ground for a whiff of a mouse, snake or rabbit. There's very little chance of bloodshed as they never seem to catch anything. Lucy is too big and clumsy and Gladys just bores easily and either returns home or lies under a bush for a quick nap.

My walk was slow and deliberate, and I tried to concentrate on my breath and exclude any thoughts of news, politics, economics or any other static. By the end of the half-hour stroll I was talking to myself, wondering out loud: How did Stew and I find such a beautiful place to live?

But back to the drug war. Both articles made quick nods toward each other's point of view. The Journal pointed out that the mayhem is almost exclusively concentrated along the border and "the country as a whole remains stable." And as if anticipating a charge of being Pollyanna-ish, the Smithsonian writer for his part acknowledged that "mass murder and kidnapping linked to narcotics have overtaken parts of Mexico" but that the area around San Miguel "thus far has been spared."

So how do Stew and I reconcile the two realities, the beauty of where we live and the violence in some parts of the country?

We don't cross the border much, largely because we both hate driving marathons. Between pee stops, gas fill-ups and a few pauses for coffee, doughnuts and contemplation, it takes us as long as 10 or 12 hours to get to The Other Side (as many Mexicans call the U.S.)

But we've talked about the risk of driving through the border nowadays. Although there's no way to prove this of course, if one divided the number of cars and trucks crossing the border into Mexico daily--surely in tens of thousands at least--and divided that by the number of security incidents reported recently, the probability of a gringo with a carload of junk from Bed Bad & Beyond getting hit by narcos would be in the tenths of one percent.

That assumes one takes reasonable precautions. Driving on toll roads during daylight hours, for example. I would no more go cruising for Mexican pottery on the back roads around Reynosa than I would go looking for deep-dish pizza on the West Side of Chicago at midnight. As far as the next Guns & Ammo Expo at the Ciudad Juárez Convention Center, I'd skip that one too for the time being.

But how Americans react to the current situation ultimately depends on each person's level of fear. We have friends who when we mentioned we were building in the country outside San Miguel asked how many guns we planned to buy. The answer is none; we don't feel threatened. We also have friends in San Miguel who've never been to Mexico City--too many Mexicans--and some in the States who wouldn't go near New York City--too much of everyone and everything.

Stew and I often have talked about how, particularly since 9/11, fear seems to drive much of America's public dialog and perceptions, politics and government policy. Americans seem to be afraid of Muslims and Arabs (ban construction of mosques! bomb Pakistan!), immigrants (build a wall to keep the Mexicans out!), the economy (the damned Chinese are taking our jobs!), and the future in general (omg, America is going to hell!). News reports often seem to dwell on every ominous possibility that could befall the U.S. and Americans. Politicians can then make hay out of those fears.

Annie, get your gun!

How much more searching of passengers could the Department of Homeland Security (an Orwellian-sounding name if there ever was one) possibly do at the airports? Or as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow once suggested, should the government should just require every flyer to travel naked, heavily sedated and carry no luggage for the sake of national security?

Indeed, fear can become a noose that gradually chokes the joy and even rationality out of one's life.

Last month Stew and I traveled to the state of Chihuahua the home of the spectacular Copper Canyon--and the dreaded Ciudad Juárez. We've come to enjoy four- or five-day jaunts to Mexico City's restaurants and other attractions. We even, gasp, are learning to use the metro and the buses to get around the capital (Stew's idea). For Christmas we are headed for New York City and its multitudes. Other possible destinations next year include Cuba, which is full of Communists, Instanbul where last month a suicide bomber injured 32 people in the main square, and a whale-watching trip to Baja California, also the home of--oh shit!--the Tijuana cartel.

To go back to my friend's question, we're not afraid of living in Mexico. We think we are prudent and careful in our moves, not a couple of geezer daredevils. But we are also determined not to spend the home stretch of our lives gripped in fear. Naples will have to wait.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Oh, Canada!

Months after the crash of the American satellite TV system that left thousands of American expats in San Miguel staring at a blank screen--or resorting to desperate measures like reading books or talking to their partners--some are still pondering whether to sign up with SHAW, the Canadian TV satellite. Those undecideds seem apprehensive and keep asking us what is Canadian TV like, I mean, is it really a mixture of eskimo soap operas, ten-hour hockey marathons and French-Canadian chefs gurgling about the latest pot-au-feu using elk meat?

Curiously Stew and I seem to have made the opposite assumption, namely that Canada is a very large suburb of Green Bay, Wisc. and TV fare would be the same old as American TV. Much to our surprise--and delight--Canadian programming is quite different, like peeking into the house of the family next door and discovering they do peculiar things with breakfast cereals and that their furniture is kinda odd too.

A few nights a week now we tune in Canadian instead of American programs, even if occasionally we're left scratching our heads: How can you have a popular talk show hosted by a guy named George Stroumboulopulos? Even Lawrence Harvey Zeiger decided early life it would be easier on himself, his viewers and his several wives-to-come if he changed his name to Larry King. How about Strom, George, and forget the other nine syllables?

Or tuning into a prime-time offering called "Indigenous Circle" in which for about 30 minutes--that was all we could take--a very jittery college student interviewed a representative of the Métis aboriginal people, who I guess live somewhere near Saskatchewan. At times like those it feels Shaw satellite is transmitting from the back side of the moon instead of a country just to the north of the U.S. Then again, sometimes things get kind of slow in San Miguel and we'll watch practically anything.

Because of national pride, or perhaps hard local marketing reasons, a number of shows and networks popular in the U.S. are repackaged and tweaked for airing in Canada. There's a Food Network Canada, which offers rather similar fare as its American counterpart but with some surprises.

One day we discovered "Ricardo and Friends," a cooking show hosted by an effervescent, curly haired guy with an intriguing accent we could not quite place. Ricardo also seemed to be a bit "light in the loafers," if you know what I mean, despite a couple of references to his children. Stew and I wondered, who is this Ricardo person? A gay Puerto Rican with his own cooking show? In Canada? It turns out he is Ricardo Larrivée, a celebrity chef who revealed his origins while speaking French to a farmer somewhere in their home turf of Québec. That explained Ricardo's lilting accent and continental panache.

Another Canadian celebrity chef on the Food Network is Lynn Crawford, an internationally renowned Toronto chef with a mean sense of humor. One show had her wading in a field of cranberries somewhere deep in Canada, probably near the Métis aborigines.

Indeed we'd never associated "Canadians" with "humor" before signing up for Shaw TV. The current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was more our idea of a Canadian zaniness: He's got the spark and charisma of a bucket of cottage cheese.

Then we discovered "The Rick Mercer Show," an hour-long comedy show that's a combination of talk, skits and "Saturday Night Live"-style satire. A lot of the political humor stumps us. For some reason Mercer doesn't seem to like the Bloc Québécois in Parliament and makes occasional references to transfers of money (subsidies?) from the rest of Canada to those latte-sipping, croissant-munching folks clustered in and around Québec.

In recent news, Canada's ouster from the United Nations Security Council seems to have plunged the country into a funk. After holding a temporary seat in the Council for the past 50 years, two weeks ago Canada was thrown out. Why? We could understand the U.S. being kicked out of various international bodies, but Canada? They're such nice people. In news reports conservatives blamed laborites, the latter I believe led by one Michael Ignatieff, and vice-versa, with little clear understanding wafting down to American expats watching in San Miguel.

The national shame reached such a level that the comedy show "22 Minutes" provided some advice for Canadian tourists traveling abroad. One tip was to cover the Maple Leaf on backpacks with a label that simply read "Tourist" and another to buy mouth inserts that would prevent them from accidentally blurting out the telltale Canadian "eh?" while talking to foreigners.

Canadian news broadcasts are no-nonsense affairs. The CBC's star news anchor is Peter Mansbridge, a balding, eternally serious man who couldn't be accused of being a glamour-puss. Katie Couric is perky on CBS; NBC's Brian Williams is so made up he looks practically embalmed; and on CNN Anderson Cooper furrows his brow as if he's forever perplexed by the choice of being either a gay sex symbol or a serious newsman.

Mansbridge instead has the demeanor of a geometry teacher explaining the Pythagorean theorem to a group of high school juniors. You want jokes, fabrications, tendentiousness, vacuous blondes and baseless accusations? Not on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, bud. Look elsewhere, like Fox News, south of the border.

The most curious sight on Canadian TV though has to be aforementioned George Strom, formerly known as George Stroumboulopulos. He is 38 years old, has dark hair and eyes, a buzz cut, rings on each ear, and wears jeans and tennis shoes on the show. Anything but light on his loafers, this fellow. You expect him to come on stage on a Harley Davidson.

The only props on his interview show are two red leather armchairs. The guest sits on one. At the very edge of the other, as if ready to physically pounce of his guest, sits George, a bundle of inquisitiveness. One night he interviewed Margaret Trudeau (who was married to the late P.M. Pierre Trudeau) and had written a book about her battle with manic depression. At the time Mme. Trudeau seemed to be at the manic end of her emotional rope. Between her nervous giggle and Strom's laser-like stare and earnest questions, it was a TV exchange so nerve-wracking it was hard to watch.

We just started flipping channels, looking for something calmer and more recognizably American--like "Desperate Housewives."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fall awakening

The rainy season embraced us more than two months ago and it feels as if she won't let go.

According to a local website, San Miguel gets about 22 inches of rain yearly but by the end of August we had already received a little more than that. Surely skewing the yearly average were the 2.10 inches of rain in January and 6.56 inches in February--including an even more rare dusting of snow that left the local folk in awe. One told me the last time a snowflake had fallen around here was about 40 years ago.

Aside from actual rainfall measurements two eyeball indicators tell us 2010 has been a wet year.

First, the oversized rainwater collection cistern we tucked under our terrace, and which holds about 35,000 gallons, has been filled to the top for at least eight weeks. We're supposed to receive water from the community well once a week, but a floater shutoff in the cistern hasn't allowed in much well water.

"Supposed to receive" because a guy named Lucio, who has a long-running battle with liquor, is in charge of turning the valves that distribute the water to the various parts of the community. Lucio tends to either forget to turn on the valves or otherwise leaves the water running for days. Four-day holiday weekends are particularly hard on Lucio and the reliability of our water supply. He has been known to ask local gringos for "propinas" or tips in exchange for turning on the water on the side.

Then again, all public services around here, particularly by the national government-owned electric company, seem to take a hit during long weekends and holidays. A sign on its trucks proclaims that the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) is "world class enterprise." That might be true if you exclude such factors as reliability, responsiveness to customer complaints and fluctuations in voltage. The latter can swing from 103 to 130-odd volts, sometimes frying computers and refrigerators along the way.

Ten days ago a CFE blackout left our house--with its solar electric system, hah!--as the only one in the neighborhood with lights on. Looking out from our bedroom window the dark sky and darkened landscape had become one.

Worse yet, the power failure coincided with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence, which kicked off on Wednesday September 15 and continued until the following Sunday.

When he returned to work the following Monday, my gardener Félix, who has lived all his life around this area, casually mentioned the lack of electricity for almost five days.

"Well, why didn't you call the electric company?" I asked him.

"It's a holiday weekend," Félix explained patiently, as if he were talking to a dim-witted Martian. "CFE doesn't answer the emergency phone, or if they do, they are not going to come out here and fix anything. So why get excited?"

Sage advice from a young but sage Mexican.

Along with a full cistern the heavy rains this year have left us with a second and unexpected bonus: Seven and a half acres of wild flowers, some of them shoulder-high.

When we bought this land it had been used for grazing, mostly sheep and goats that had munched all vegetation down to a stubble. Then came the construction crews which created a circle of destruction around the house that practically engulfed the entire property. It took us months, with the aid of backhoes and Felix' patient and hard work to get rid of piles of rocks, dried-up blotches of cement that looked like giant cow pies--though not nearly as beneficial to the soil--in addition to other construction debris and empty beer and soda bottles.

Most worrisome was the leftover tepitate, a sort of limestone very common around here and used as backfill for roads and foundations. Tepitate's usefulness is precisely that it packs very tightly and stifles vegetation. After the house was finished the workers spread the mounds of leftover tepitate around the foundations. I expected that to remain a dead zone for years.

Reclaiming the land came in two phases. The far less important was our campaign to plant about a hundred native trees and evergreens, and at least twice as many cacti and shrubs, to try stem further soil erosion. The entire land is on a slope, some of it quite steep, and during the first rainy season we could see water and soil rushing down in rivulets. The results were clear: The lower part of the ranch was relatively lush compared to the rocky high points which looked like bald spots.

We also built concentric terraces out of rocks--by far the most abundant natural resource after tepitate--to further help prevent runoff, and fenced in the property to keep out the livestock.

But our efforts are puny compared to nature's capacity for self restoration. No doubt spurred by the heavy rains we must have tens of thousands of wildflowers, some showoffs like tall Mexican sunflowers (tithonia), others discreet blossoms barely a half-inch apart, crawling from under rocks or popping out of barren spots.

Where did they all come from? Most must have been buried in the soil and spent years unsuccessfully fighting against the appetites of the local sheep and goat herds. The relentless winds clearly helped. We planted several patches of ornamental fountain grass (pennisetum) and the seeds from its plumes were carried by the wind. There are colonies of fountain grass growing as far as 50 or 75 feet away from the original plantings.

Pink cosmos, and a single white variety, which are rampant in the area but were nonexistent in our ranch, have established a foothold, its seeds, I assume blown in from nearby lands. Or did the burgeoning population of butterflies and birds carry the seeds in, maybe in their bellies?

It's an amazing, miraculous spectacle particularly so late in the season. Fall in the States is glorious but also nature's grand finale, when flowers fade and trees go into hibernation. Instead we have swaying masses of grasses and plants, just outside our windows, ushering winter not with somber colors but a blast of wild bouquets.

We have a guide to wild flowers in San Miguel that Félix and I need to consult to figure out at least some of the hundreds of species that now cover the ranch. After all, they are bound to proliferate geometrically with every passing season. I can't wait until next year's crop.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Somewhat sleepless in San Miguel

Last week yet another e-mail arrived, this one from my former boss in Chicago, inquiring how we were holding up amid all the violence and bloodshed reportedly wracking Mexico. I'd like to reply that, ha-ha, except for the bother of having to wear bulletproof vests and helmets every time we drive to the grocery store, things are pretty normal in San Miguel.

Plus the loaded .357 Magnum my partner Stew keeps under his pillow is a better sleeping aid than any advertised on the CBS Evening News. (Yeah right: The closest Stew ever came to a firearm was a BB gun when he was ten.)

Truth is that particularly at our ranch, which is a 30-minute drive outside of San Miguel, not a lot happens, criminal or otherwise. Six months ago a drunk driver killed a teenage rider and his horse. A small white roadside shrine was promptly erected by the relatives and a neighbor told us that the driver had received a fine of $70,000 pesos or about $5,600 dollars.

Two months ago someone got shot during a drunken brawl at a soccer game a few miles from here.

Then there was a rumor that a bus headed for the nearby town of Jalpa had been raided by bandits who relieved the passengers of all their money and jewelry. Hard to believe: Jalpa is so wretchedly poor I can't imagine it'd be worth anyone's effort or adrenaline to hold up a busload of Jalpalitos, Jalpaleños, or whatever the folks from Jalpa are called.

But the constant drip-drip of talk, rumors, fear, news and statistics about narco-violence in Mexico has undoubtedly eroded the economic base of San Miguel, particularly that portion that relied on gringos visiting or moving here. Add to that the effects of an imploding housing and employment market in the U.S., and the forecast for San Miguel's economy becomes quite overcast.

When we arrived to San Miguel a little more than five years ago, the town was in the middle of a tourism and real estate orgy. Now it looks and feels more like a ballroom the morning after New Year's. Restaurants are largely empty and homes stand plastered with as many as four or five "For Sale" signs, some of them quite faded.

It reminds you of large sections of the U.S. hit by the bad economy.

In its recent heyday San Miguel enjoyed not one but two tourist seasons. During the summer, flotillas of air-conditioned SUVs whooshed into town with folks fleeing the heat and humidity in Texas. Then, after a few months' respite, New Englanders, Canadians and Midwesterners arrived for the winter.

Bed-and-breakfast joints sprouted everywhere to cater to visitors' fantasies of a charming Mexican ambiance. San Miguel charm, however, didn't come cheaply: Room rates climbed to levels rivaling those in Cancun or fancy parts of Mexico City. And don't bother scouring Internet travel sites to look for cheap rates or discounts. As one B&B owner sniffed to me, the "better" B&Bs--those catering to foreigners--wouldn't think of "cheapening the brand" by embracing such gimmicks.

Since then San Miguel's economy has been hit by successive calamities. There was the swine flu epidemic, whose epicenter supposedly was in Mexico, but turned out to be more of a media hoo-hah than a public health crisis.

Far more real has been the effect of the implosion of the U.S. housing market. Americans used to sell their houses in the U.S. at inflated prices and use the profits to buy retirement homes in San Miguel, quite often on sheer impulse after being here just three or four days. San Miguel real estate, and everything connected with it, was sizzling.

The hills overlooking the town became populated by colonial-looking McMansions, almost all owned by Americans. Dozens are for sale now, typically at prices of over a million dollars.

One sprawling and reportedly quite fabulous spread in the Atascadero neighborhood used to rent for $10,000 dollars a week, plus several hundred dollars in tips for a team of maids, cooks and gardeners taking care of the place. Let's face it: Even if you bring a Greyhound filled with your closest friends that's still some really serious dough.

In addition, this year spring floods shut down most of the roads near the U.S. border which normally bring the caravans of Texans to San Miguel.

Fear of crime, though, is the most intractable problem, both in perception and in reality. One constant theme among some of the contributors to the Civil List, an Internet bulletin board for gringos living here, is that "irresponsible" American media--most notably Fox News--are exaggerating and distorting the crime problem and scaring away visitors. Others argue that crime here is no worse than in, say, Toronto or St. Louis anyway.

Neither Stew nor I is at all fearful of crime in San Miguel, which still consists mostly of random muggings and other small-bore incidents. And it is true that most of the narcotics-related killings and mayhem take place along the U.S. border.

But unless you stick your head in the sand, way deep, it's undeniable that narcotics-related crime seems to be spreading downward from the border like a red inkblot.

The most alarming bit of macrodata is that since President Felipe Calderón took office almost four years ago, about 24,000 people, give or take a few hundred, have died in the drug war. No matter how you spin it, that's an awful lot of bodies.

Shortly after taking office, Calderón, a diminutive, bookish-looking fellow with rimless glasses, threw the Mexican army, federal police and everything else but the Mexico City dog catcher into an all-out assault on narcotraffickers. That effort doesn't seem to have made that much difference.

Sometime earlier this year four people died in Celaya--an hour away from San Miguel--in a gun battle between narcotraffickers and the police. Sizable portions of the state of Michoacan, about five hours from here, are controlled by La Familia, Los Zetas, or God-knows-who having something to do with drugs.

In May, the New Yorker magazine, in one its trademark megaton investigative articles, reported that not only was Michoacán up for grabs, but that the narco troubles were spreading toward the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro.

Uh-oh: San Miguel is in Guanajuato, and a hour away from Querétaro.

Perhaps because in the U.S. the citizenry is inundated with statistics and studies, the most troublesome part of Mexico's security problem is lack of reliable data. No matter how loudly the posters in the Civil List scream, it's impossible to compare crime and public safety in San Miguel versus Toronto.

Torontonians--that's what those folks are called--keep detailed records of muggings, drunk driving incidents, burglaries and rapes, not to mention kidnappings and murders. In Mexico, and particularly San Miguel, no comparably reliable record-keeping system exists. Citizens don't report most crimes because they don't trust the police or believe nothing is going to come of it anyway. Our municipal police department could be best described as a work in progress.

Lack of reliable data only feeds the rumor mill. The local English-language weekly, Atención, is generally a breezy, feel-good summary of art gallery openings and real estate sale ads that's not likely to delve into any topics likely to scare the horses or the tourists.

"Headless Body Found in Topless Bar" once reported the New York Post. You're not going to read anything like that in Atención, even if we had topless bars or headless bodies here.

When a serial rapist was terrorizing gringo women in San Miguel between 2005 and 2006, Carol Schmidt, a local blogger, and others had to practically shame Atención into covering the issue. The rapist was eventually arrested and sentenced to effectively life in prison.

Despite the rough times, for now life goes on quietly in San Miguel, particularly so in the absence of crowds of American tourists.

Next week Mexico celebrates the 200th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Spain, and the decibel level will increase dramatically. San Miguel is one of the centerpieces of Mexico's national narrative and celebrations.

Next week, Stew and I plan visits to San Miguel's main square and to take some photos of the bicentenary celebrations; invite people over for dinner; continue with my Photoshop classes; plant more vegetables; read; and enjoy the wonderful sleeping weather--in the mid-60s and breezy--even if we sleep a tiny bit less soundly than we once did.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The life and world of Chupitos

I'm convinced that the life of Chupitos--the dog--got off on the wrong paw when one of her previous owners gave her that name. Chupitos--the human--is a popular comedic character on Mexican TV whose schtick is her disheveled appearance, drunkenness, toothlessness and vulgarity. The human Chupitos is gross. The comedian told an interviewer that an alcoholic uncle had been one of the inspirations for the Chupitos character.

Humor generally doesn't travel well. What's funny in one country falls flat in another. That may be why I found the YouTube clips of Chupitos' act unfunny and even disgusting despite its popularity in Mexico.

I remember when I was as a child and a dubbed version of "I Love Lucy" showed up on Cuban television. The American producers must have figured it was a sure hit, what all with Desi Arnaz being Cuban, playing the bongos and going "Babaloooo!" once in a while. At least in my home we were mystified with the insipid humor and annoying laugh track.

Then you have the French who think Jerry Lewis is just hilarious. Mon Dieu! What is that about?

Even with all those caveats, the fact someone would name a pet after a repulsive character like Chupitos seems cruel and a bad omen for the poor animal. What happened to Fluffy, Ralph or Blackie? Those names somehow convey a certain affection for a pet that Wino or Dirtbag do not.

There are exceptions, of course. For still obscure reasons a relative named his dog "Barf," which nevertheless went on to reign for 15 or 20 years as the most loved and pampered bitch in all of Minnesota.

Chupitos the dog didn't fare nearly as well. Her owner briefly worked for us as a watchman during the house construction, after the first watchman was fired for stealing. He kept a scrawny Chupitos tethered to a post with a rusty piece of wire about a yard long, while her two young pups alternated between nursing and roughhousing with each other. For weeks the two-yard diameter of dirt allowed by the wire was Chupito's world, in which she ate, slept, pooped and looked after the puppies.

Her diet was almost exclusively leftover tortillas that the workmen casually tossed her way after eating lunch. I brought her some dog food which I had to leave at a safe distance, and which she ate desperately. Whether she was protecting her puppies or simply didn't trust anyone, Chupitos response was always snarling, even after I'd brought her food and water for several days.

Then her owner disappeared, apparently for another job, and left Chupitos and the pups behind. I asked the construction manager what was going to happen with the her and the puppies: He matter of factly replied that he hoped someone would take the puppies. As for Chupitos, he asked, "You want me to have her killed?"

I instinctively replied "No way!" even though I had no idea what to do with her. So Chupitos and the pups loitered around the site for several more weeks and then mysteriously disappeared. I didn't ask any more questions, fearing some horrible answers.

But about two months ago Chupitos reappeared, tail wagging, her two puppies in tow, accompanying our gardener Félix. It turned out that when the hapless trio seemed to have run out of options he had taken them all home. Now they come to work with him every day, grab a quick meal, and spend the day playing with our dogs. On weekends Chupitos occasionally on her own walks the one or two miles here from Félix' home to collect an extra meal and belly rub. We've had her spayed and taken all three of them to the vet for deworming and vaccines.

American animal lovers in San Miguel--most definitely Stew and I--pour much of their hearts, time and often their money on organizations to take care of the town's stray animal population. Abandoned dogs are particularly pathetic, rummaging through garbage, wandering the streets and getting killed on the highways. On the road between our house and San Miguel a dog turns up dead nearly every other day.

Chupitos and her puppies fall in the category of "there but for the grace of God" animals who have been rescued by kind Mexicans or Americans. That applies also to our two dogs, Lucy, which was rescued as a two- or three-month-old puppy abandoned by the side of a road, and Gladys which we found hungry and injured wandering in the parking lot of the apartment complex where we used to live. Then we also have three more stray dogs (Miss Titties, a grizzled female about 10 years old and the obvious survivor of numerous pregnancies, plus her two apparent relatives Bruno and Dopey) who show up every day by our gate looking for handouts.

But lately we've also started to focus on the misery of people living around the ranch. Most of that awareness comes from Félix who has lived around here all his life and seems to know practically everyone within a five-mile radius, along with their personal histories and circumstances. There's the family with 13 children, three of them mentally retarded, who live in a shack a ten-minute walk away from our place that has no plumbing, electricity or heat. The father has no visible means of support except what he brings from doing occasional small jobs. Other horror stories trickle in regularly from Americans we know who volunteer for groups with telling names like "Feed the Hungry" and "So Others May Eat."

Meanwhile Stew and I keep feeding bunches of stray dogs and giving money and time to animal welfare groups. Do we suffer from a form of myopia, or callousness, that screws up our charitable priorities? Should we be buying 50-lb. bags of dog food or spending $60 on shots for Chupitos and her puppies, while there are people around us with little to eat?

While our house was under construction, a friend who cares for approximately 50 (fifty) stray dogs at his ranch came to visit and gently scolded the first watchman we employed for not feeding his dogs enough. "Your dogs are too skinny!" my friend said. "So am I!" replied the watchman without the slightest hint of a smile.

A Mexican friend recently told me that during a local radio talk show someone had called to complain that many San Miguel pet owners fed their animals nothing but day-old tortillas. A flood of calls came in shortly from listeners asking, what do you think a lot of San Miguel families eat?

Some Americans, a bit self-righteously, refuse to contribute to any animal organizations. When Stew asked a friend to host a benefit for the animal shelter she replied that she only supported groups that helped people.

Stew has worked around this animals vs. people dilemma by arguing that there are literally over a hundred charitable organizations in San Miguel attending to some aspect of human needs. There are only two that look after animals and it's only fair that he should focus on the latter.

To me the most comfortable rationalization is the one offered by my friend with the 50 strays: There are so many needs and things wrong here, and in the world in general, that you just do what you can do. Take a pick: stray and injured animals, hungry families, teenage girls with no access to a high school education, and many other tragic causes. So he devotes most of his days and personal fortune to animals.

For now, I'm helping animals and also a few needy people, notably Félix and his wife and baby daughter. In addition to his pay, we give him clothes and helpings of fruits, vegetables and once in a while a much-appreciated kilo of "carnitas," or marinated pork, a local favorite, to stuff his tortillas. We also give him buckets of dog food for Chupitos and the puppies, plus veterinary care which he couldn't afford.

No matter where this rationale takes me, it's clear that the dog food has had a palpable effect on Chupitos. When she first showed up with Félix she would casually sneak in and out through the iron bars at the gate. Now that she's put on some weight she no longer fits through the bars.

No problema.

Using the ingenuity that has kept her alive, Chupitos just dug a hole under the fence at one far corner of the ranch so she can still sneak in and visit on weekends, and cop some food and attention. On Sunday mornings we can count on her standing by the living room door, looking in.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Smut is in the eye of the beholder

The identity of the disgusting growths that afflicted my first crop of sweet corn came not from a tome about plant diseases but from a cookbook, Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen, which even suggests how to use the stuff in crepes, with fava beans in a soup and in tacos. It turns out that what American gardening books contemptuously call "corn smut" some Mexican chefs refer to as huitlacoche, a delicacy right up there with French truffles.

According to an article in Wikipedia, this disease turns the normal kernels in the corncob into blue-gray, tumor-like growths. In the U.S. infected plants are destroyed, but in Mexico they are prized because huitlacoche sells for more than healthy corn. The Aztecs in fact developed a method of purposely infecting healthy plants to induce the creation of huitlacoche.

The word huitlacoche comes Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language, although even in Nahuatl-ese the etymology is not very appetizing. The root huitla or cuitla, could mean either "excrement" or "rear end." Other sources translate huitlacoche as "raven's excrement."

And so on. None of the translations come out as "yummy!"

Still, some American gastronomes have tried to promote huitlacoche as Mexican truffle and persuade Americans to forget references to smut, excrement and such. In 1989 the James Beard Foundation even held a dinner featuring several huitlacoche dishes.

In his book Bayless says a huitlacoche dish is almost always on the menu at his upscale Mexican restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, where diners clamor for the black fungus. Then again big-city diners, apparently bored by more pedestrian foodstuffs, often ask for sweetbreads, beef tongue, brains and other things that wouldn't come near my mouth.

If I hadn't seen huitlacoche up close, in my own corn plants, I may have tried it. But its appearance, combined with the disappointment of the disastrous corn crop, are not likely to persuade me to add it to my diet.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Midseason agricultural report

After three months of hot, dusty and dry summer days, with noon temperatures often in the low 90s, sometime in June we glided into spring, with cool temperatures, down into the 50s at night, and fairly regular rains. So this year we've gone from a clammy, unusually rainy winter, right into summer and now back to spring.

That confusing seasonal cycle has been but one of the problems--but not the main one--that has afflicted my first attempts at vegetable gardening in San Miguel. The bigger problems have been man-made, with some whoppers that have amused more experienced gardening friends. "You did whaaat?" someone howled last night over dinner, when I told him the problems I'd had with my so-called harvest of sweet corn.

Still, we've had quite a few successes. Various types of lettuce ("Burpee's Mesclun Classic Mix," and "Gourmet Blend"; and Martha Stewart's "Limestone Bibb") have done terrifically and I suspect that with cool weather prevailing until next summer--sometime in February--we could keep a lettuce crop going year-round, perhaps with some overnight protection from occasional frosts in December and January. Missing in action is an iceberg lettuce ("Great Lakes 118) packaged in Mexico that never even poked out of the ground.

(Martha Stewart Patrol: In case anyone is wondering, yes, Martha now sells "100 percent certified organic seeds." We bought ours at a Home Depot in Chicago, but the other day at a local supermarket we also found the Spanish-language Mexican edition of her "Everyday Food" magazine. Not even jalapeños and tortillas are safe from Martha's reach. Keep your eyes open now for the Martha Stewart edition of Caterpillar bulldozers, turbo-charged to clear away anything that gets in their way.)

Spinach has done very well, including the appropriately named "Monstrueux de Viroflay" variety, with 10-inch long leaves, which caterpillars recently discovered, and the daintier "Tetona F1 Hybrid" from Thompson & Morgan seeds. And so have a variety of herbs--cilantro, oregano, two kinds of parsley (frilly and plain-leaf)--in addition to thai and purple basil. The most productive basil though, has been a variety we bought locally and is cryptically described on the packet as just "Grande Verde" or "Big and Green." Look for it at your garden store.

A small, well behaved zucchini (Thompson & Morgan's "Courgette Defender F1 Hybrid") was also delicious and plentiful though now it's yellowing and shriveling, as if saying "hasta la vista baby." A larger variety of summer squash, which should be sold with a complimentary machete, grew beyond anyone's expectations, pushing and shoving in all directions. Now it's covered with mildew, but still flowering away and getting ready to give us more fruit.

Two canteloupe plants (Burpee's "Honey Bun Hybrid") have produced three perfectly formed fruits which are softball-sized and refusing to grow any larger. In the stunted category I should also include carrots (T&M "Sytan F1 Hybrid") which despite their luxuriant green plumage look like stumpy orange plugs, and radishes (T&M "Rudi") that should have grown to the size of golf balls but never got half that big.

My tomato crop--which I expected to dazzle visitors with its cornucopia of unique shapes, colors and flavors--has instead turned into a nondescript, small jungle. At first I worried that no fruits were forming despite the flurry of flowers. Now we have about a dozen tomatoes of various types that have yet to ripen. So there's hope, though I'd like to make it official: This year's Stew & Al's Tomato Tasting Gala has been cancelled.

On the fruit category, the three olive trees (two "arbiquín" and one "Mission") have produced exactly one olive apiece (one pictured above). A friend this weekend asked me if had recipes for brining and canning olives. Eh, I think that's a little premature, no?

By far the biggest catastrophe, and disappointment, has been the sweet corn. The Burpee "Illini Xtra Sweet" first was attacked by batallions of earwigs, which lodged themselves inside the young ears and prevented them from setting kernels. Félix, our ever-patient and resolutely organic gardener, doused the ears with a hose to flush out the invaders, which he drowned in water, one by one. He then applied an organic pesticide I obtained at a new garden store in town. But the damage was done. In addition, some ears developed a grotesque grey fungus. A week ago Félix finally took all the plants to the compost pile.

Undaunted, Stew boiled three fungus-free ears which were about eight inches long, with a smattering of about two or three dozen kernels each. They were actually delicious, sweet and juicy. "If we only had more of these," he observed dryly.

The other patch of corn (Burpee "Peaches and Cream") is still standing on the other raised bed, though looking stunted. I've picked a few ears and they appear to have a fuller line-up of kernels and could still yield some sweet corn.

Despite all the zig-zags and missteps of my gardening efforts, we're generally happy with the results. I've never liked vegetables and refused to eat them when I was little, with the tacit support of my meat-and-potatoes dad. I also used to roll my eyes when I heard gardeners rhapsodize about the wonders of eating fresh vegetables. However, after this initial exposure to fresh produce--two minutes from the ground to the kitchen--Stew and I may be converts to the cause, a couple of late-blooming Bugs Bunnies.

My agricultural techniques need quite a bit of refining, though.

The timing for sprouting seeds here is much earlier than in the U.S. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and other greens could be started indoors under lights--or perhaps in the raised beds themselves if I cover them with plastic to create temporary greenhouses--as early as January. They could then be hardened in early February and planted out in March to take advantage of San Miguel's early summertime heat.

No offense to Mel Bartholomew and his "Square Foot Gardening" strategy, but planting that many things so close together led to chaos and waste rather than efficiency in my garden. Radishes gasped for sunlight under the unwelcome shade of the monster spinach growing in the next square-foot square. Perhaps because too much watering, the carrot seeds got washed away and mixed up with the chives. Right now beets and bibb lettuce are nudging each other for extra elbow room. Next year these guys will get room to roam; no more sibling rivalries.

And talking about room, next year the corn, zucchini, beans, cucumbers and other ground hogs will be relocated to a ten-by-ten-foot patch we just dug in a far corner of the ranch, where they can flex their roots, tendrils and leaves without bumping into one another. I will not suffer any more ridicule by people asking me, "You did whaaat?" when I tell them that I planted corn in a raised bed, the plants barely six inches apart from each other--and then scratched my head because they didn't pollinate or grow properly.

How many zucchini fritters can a human being eat? Or green peppers? Pasta pesto for dinner, again? These are existential questions that have tormented home gardeners ever since toiling in a garden somehow became an enjoyable pastime. There are no final answers but I know for sure that 12 green pepper plants are way too many and just one cucumber bush is enough to satisfy our needs.

But for now, on to the next planting of Mesclun lettuce.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A "milpa" grows in Santa Clara

The gardening profession in San Miguel suffers from the scourge of low expectations. Most trades bring to mind a set of skills along with the anticipation of a certain finished product. Masons and bricklayers are supposed to know how to mix cement and stack bricks in an orderly manner, so the finished wall is solid and plumb. Carpenters are presumed to know joinery and measurements so the chairs they create don't wobble, limp or fall apart.

Of gardeners, however, most homeowners don't expect much. They are thought of instead in terms of "hole diggers," "weeders," "waterers," or some other function scarcely a millimeter above that of a peon, rather than someone with any kind of special expertise, let alone burning interest, in plant life. Only a select few people can practice carpentry. Practically anyone can claim to be, or be designated, a "gardener" in San Miguel.

The low expectations (and minimal pay) have bred a legion of generally low-wattage gardeners with a tendency to water plants into a stupor or prune a bush or a tree, machete in hand, as if it were an intruder rather than a valued part of the garden.

When we first moved to San Miguel we rented a house that included the services of a gardener twice weekly. His name was José, a sluggardly sort who watered plants right on schedule even if it had rained the night before. Later we discovered that José's true passion was pyrotechnics: We spotted him walking proudly in a religious procession, cradling a large bundle of firecrackers on his left arm, and with his right hand pulling out and setting them off one by one using a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.

A garden club of American expats recently launched a series of workshops to teach gardeners about pest controls, organic gardening, pruning and other basic skills. The workshops have been a hit among homeowners, who pay the modest tuition fee, and also among the gardeners. The series could have been titled "Gardening Beyond Watering."

When we moved to the seven and a half acres of Rancho Santa Clara six months ago I brought a stack of books about desert gardening and a myriad mental doodlings of where plants and trees were supposed to go, along with the vegetable gardens and drip irrigation systems. The fantasies rapidly shriveled under the hot sun, and the need for a gardener became more urgent: Not just any gardener, but one who'd be young, strong and able to wrestle with the rocky, hostile terrain.

Two weeks after our move, we found a young guy waiting by the gate who very forwardly asked me, "Hey, Alfredo , I want to work for you," using the informal "tú" Spanish construction. I recognized him as one of a half-dozen laborers who had worked on the construction and been laid off at the end. Good timing on his part. I said, "Come over next Monday and we'll try you out three days a week."

Other than being hardworking, Félix, 24, met none of the requirements I had in mind. He's about five-foot-seven and no more than 120 pounds--hardly a Mexican Schwarzenegger. He has a dark cinnamon complexion that many pale-faced gringo women would kill for, along with jet-black hair and mellow eyes. He's not much for idle chatter though he has an uncanny memory for anything I say, sometimes even after I forgot I said it. As of late, Félix has been showing up at work with his dog "Chupito" who faithfully follows him around the ranch.

Since we hired him six months ago, his interest in gardening has blossomed from the lackadaisical to the nearly obsessive, and turned him into a gusher of ideas and suggestions for projects, from rooting cuttings, planting seeds, and even grafting different types trees, the latter something which I know nothing about. But evidently he got that idea, and several others, from "Making More Plants," a coffee table book by Kenneth Druse that I lent him. Félix can't read English, but the lavish, four-color illustrations apparently were enough to sprout all sorts of ideas in his mind. My formerly neat front garden now is filled with dozens of cut-off plastic milk and soda bottles filled with a variety of cuttings.

And questions, questions, questions.

His intellectual curiosity and voracious reading--I keep giving him books and printouts of Internet articles both in English and Spanish--are all the more surprising because he has only a sixth-grade education, and reading and writing take some visible effort on his part. Lately Félix has been matching the pictures and the words on the Burpee Seeds packets, and casually pointing to different spots on the raised beds and mumbling: "radish," "carrot" or "cucumber."

A couple of months ago I gave Félix an Internet article about the Native American practice of planting squash, beans and corn together. Known as the Three Sisters, the beans are supposed to climb up the corn stalks and the squash cover the soil as a living mulch. Beans, which are known as "nitrogen fixers," enrich the soil, while the leafy, spiny squash is supposed to deter weeds and small animals from attacking its two sisters.

Some of the indigenous people in Mexico developed an eerily similar cultivation system known as "milpa," an Indian word that can also refer to a small food garden or corn patch. In the traditional milpa, Mexicans add lima beans to the mix. How did essentially the same cultivation system develop among indigenous people thousands of miles away?

So after our disastrous attempt to grow sweet corn ended a week ago--ears turned up with few kernels or covered with a cancerous-looking fungus--Félix and I had a strategy meeting. I suggested that we had planted our corn too closely, which had prevented proper pollination and possibly encouraged the growth of the fungus. I gave him an Internet printout in Spanish explaining pollination.

In his mind Félix put together the pollination problem with the articles I had given him weeks ago about the Three Sisters and the milpas and came up with a solution: A four-meter-square milpa at one corner of the land where the corn would have enough space, and we could put squash, cucumbers and beans in the mix. He assures me we still have enough time and that the ongoing rains are a good omen. A backhoe already dug the patch on Friday. This week we'll start to break up the clods of black soil, so perhaps we can plant the seeds by the end of the week.

The odd thing is that I can't answer half this guy's questions so I keep running back to my computer and gardening books. In fact, it's turning into a two-way learning session, because not only does he force me to get answers but he is also teaching me the names of the local fauna and flora and passing on gardening hints from his family (plus all sorts of gossip about the towns nearby).

Stew is looking for a textbook to teach Félix English but meanwhile some language hurdles remain. When I asked Félix to make labels for some seeds he was planting, he laboriously copied the descriptions on the seed packets, but in some cases not the actual names of the plants.

So some labels now say "A wonderful container plant" or "Ideal for sunny spots" but we don't know what's coming up.

One of them looks like thyme.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Custom made in Mexico

A couple of readers asked about the design of the iron gates. The quick answer is that it was adapted from a photo we found on the Internet, which we then had--as many components in our house--reproduced by a local craftsman.

"Made to order," "custom made" and "one of a kind" all have a ring of something really exclusive or prohibitively expensive. But in Mexico it's the rule rather than the exception: Even when you add on the "gringo surcharge," made-to-order, original work here costs only about half to one-third as much as comparable pieces in the U.S.

In Chicago Stew and I renovated four buildings (two of them three-flats) and the closest we came to custom carpentry were a set of modest pine shelves and a few cabinets that we then stained and finished ourselves. Full-blown custom carpentry was an indulgence only the Architectural Digest crowd along Lake Shore Drive could dream about. In fact Stew can tell war stories from his days as the co-owner of a home inspection company, during which he visited renovation projects where hundreds of thousands of dollars would be poured just into a kitchen remodel starting with cabinets custom built in Maine, England or Italy. Many of the showrooms were open "to the trade only" which sometimes meant you'd give your credit card to the designer and let her whoop it up and present you with the bill when it was all done.

In Mexico, there's often no alternative to the custom made. In the States if you want a media cabinet with so many shelves or drawers, you might leaf through the Room and Board catalog, and pick something that fits. A team of obsessive Scandinavian elves in Minnesota then would build or assemble it, and ship it to you promptly--is there any other way?--usually in about a month. Problem solved. Or if not that, maybe IKEA, Crate and Barrel or Ethan Allen could help.

We went on a fairly exhaustive tour of furniture stores both locally, and in Querétaro and Mexico City, that took us from the primitive to the bah-humbug, and ultimately to the are-you-out-of-mind expensive.

Manufacturers of “rustic” furniture abound in and near San Miguel, but their offerings, usually in pine, are most often so rough it takes a laser-eyed decorating vision to figure out where to go with the stuff.

Though I don't like rustic furniture, I find folk ceramics and textiles beautiful and fascinating regardless of their flaws. We bought four coffee mugs at an indigenous folk arts fair in the neighboring state of Michoacán and put them on a glass shelf in the kitchen. The set looks similar from 10 feet away. But move closer and you'll find places where the colors ran or the design doesn't match. In fact, in three of the mugs the hummingbirds are flying left, but in the fourth the little guy is headed right. You can buy perfectly matching mugs made by Corning but they won't reflect the painstaking individuality of a human hand, even one, as in this case, with a shaky sense of direction. At Corning there would be someone manning the cup-making line, and tossing the ones that were not perfect, but in Michoacán an individual would spend an hour or so hunched over each mug, painting each of those goofy little birds, each of them unique individuals too.

The dimensions in Mexican-made furniture can be a challenging. Mattresses are about eight inches shorter than their standard Beautyrest sisters, I imagine because Mexican sleepers are that much more compact. The seats of couches can be shallower. Sometimes the seats on chairs are smaller too. On occasion, big-assed Americans could notice a difference, like, geez, we seem to have more ass than chair here. (This last problem may be rectified soon, as Mexicans keep gaining weight by inhaling two-liter bottles of full-octane Coke and sugar-covered donitas, and furniture grows to meet the challenge.)

From the rustic you can slide on to the world of Andalusian monastery-type decor, also known as the “San Miguel Style.” Quite often crucifixes, madonnas and assorted religious icons are part of the mix. The furniture and decorative objects are reasonably well made and priced--and they sell like the ears of corn boiled in murky water and slathered with mayonnaise and hot chili powder sold by street vendors.

Indeed, as you gradually make the rounds of San Miguel-style maisonettes you keep running into dark rooms sometimes populated with exactly the same chairs, tables and lamps, likely picked by the same decorator. Your mind starts playing tricks: Am I at the home of the same friend or a different friend with the same kind of furniture?

Then you get on the bus and head for Mexico City where practically anything is available, living or otherwise. I used to think of this astonishing metropolis as a wretchedly poor anthill of 20 million people. Not quite. Now I figure about 10 million may be wretchedly poor, eight or nine million are schlepping along, some more tenuously than others, and the remaining one million or so are piggishly rich.

To serve the latter group, there are opulent boulevards with Ralph Lauren boutiques (maybe with a guard at the door), sidewalk cafes, and here and there furniture and home decor emporiums to match anything in Dallas or Chicago. If you have hankering for Natuzzi or Roche Bobois leather sectionals, no problema, but hang on to your sombrero when they quote you prices--the stuff likely is even more expensive than in the U.S. or Canada.

If you're lucky, you ultimately enter the world of individual Mexican craftsmen, many of them amazingly talented, though timeliness sooner or later will become an issue. It's as if the batteries on these guys' watches died four years ago, right about the time they lost their appointment books, if they ever had one. A family we know was still waiting for the kitchen cabinets four months after the rest of their house had been finished and they had moved in.

The incredibly good iron man, who made the gates and various other pieces, simply disappeared five months ago, with some projects for us still pending. Maybe he had a side job we didn't know about.

Our carpenter, a 30-something guy with handsome indigenous facial features, built all the kitchen cabinets (my least favorite part of the project); the bathroom cabinets and all the closets (including a walk-in with various drawers, compartments etc.); solid-wood interior doors that we specified to be wider and taller than usual; a large dining room table; a media wall cabinet; a wall bookshelf; plus the desk and other furniture in the office.

The media cabinet has specially neurotic custom-made touches, like a drawer for a turntable and another for LPs, plus other storage space for CDs, DVDs and the audio equipment. We still need to hook up the turntable.

In the office, a U-shape desk by the windows is big enough for two people. The wood for the media cabinet is tzalam, a Mexican nogal that is considered exotic in places other than Mexico. It's extremely tough and has beautiful veining. In the office, the furniture is a combination of tzalam with American maple fronts. The office came out particularly well, and has still more neurotic detailing like a shelf for the CPU, slide-out drawers for a printer and some of the electronic equipment, and a separate shelf for CDs.

The cost of all the woodwork from A to Z came to about $25,000 dollars. Design ideas came from the master carpenter himself, and from an interior designer, plus pictures from magazines and on-the-fly modifications from us. We're delighted with the woodwork because it fits our needs precisely and, and for me the best part is that you'll never find anything like it anywhere else.

As for the iron gates, the design came from a photo Stew found on the Internet of an art deco building in Paris. As one reader pointed out, it resembles some of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs, particularly his stained glass windows. When we ordered the outside doors, we added a semi-circular plate around the door handles to match the detail on the patio gate.

The iron work fascinated me because I can't imagine how one works with iron and tame it into so many forms. When it's cool it's totally unyielding and when red hot, you have to bend it or bang it into submission with a mallet--quickly and carefully. Or something like that.

Isidro was the iron man on this project. He was a very soft spoken, talented guy with a wild mane of graying hair, and no feel whatever for appointments, punctuality or deadlines. You'd ask him when something would be ready and he would blink and absent mindedly say something like, "Thursday at four-thirty!" After awhile you quit asking and just hope.

If anyone sees Isidro, please give him our regards and thanks for a job well done--except for whatever he never finished.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The day television died

While "living off the grid" may mean an ascetic or rustic lifestyle to some, we try to use technology to keep the deprivation factor to a minimum. We have two cellular phones and Internet service through the cellular network. A Sirius satellite radio is playing almost constantly through the stereo system. We recently bought two Amazon Kindles that are small wonders: Through the slightly subversive-sounding communications system known as "Whispernet," we can download a 600-page tome in less than 30 seconds.

We even have--or had--a satellite television system that brought us all manner of programming, ranging from the magisterial Charlie Rose to the over-caffeinated wackos on the Food Network's Iron Chef America who run around peeling, slicing and dicing everything in sight as if cooking were some sort of circus act.

Yes, a satellite television has crisis developed in San Miguel over approximately the past two weeks. First we lost the major networks and then several days later we couldn't get any programs at all, except the listings at the top of the screen. About three days ago even the program listings disappeared, though they returned yesterday. This morning MSNBC and CNBC came back only to vanish a couple of hours later.

Losing one's satellite TV connection would not be a five-alarm crisis in most places except that in San Miguel it is the main link to U.S. and world news for many ex-pats who don't speak Spanish. With all the extra spare time retirement brings, many of them also enjoy watching three episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond" back-to-back, or four-year-old Home and Garden TV shows of giggly young couples buying their first home before the real estate market crashed.

Compounding the crisis is the not so minor detail that U.S. satellite TV service in San Miguel is, well, essentially bootleg. It gets here pretty much the same way so many DVDs, CDs, videos and other entertainment options arrive in Mexico: Over the transom, under the table or through the kitchen window, depending on your vendor or technician.

When something goes awry, your customer service options are well nigh non-existent, except to complain to the local guy to whom you paid about US $900 for the hardware, installation and the setting up of a mystery billing address in the U.S. Usually these guys gladly and efficiently fix glitches in billing or programming. When a TV satellite 20,000 miles up over North America starts acting weird, that's another story.

A few days after the satellite signal vanished, a friend phoned the satellite service provider in the U.S. to ask what was wrong. I explained to Ron his query might be considered by some as an example of brass cojones, akin to buying a pirated DVD for 80 cents and then calling Warner Bros. to complain about the picture or sound quality.

Except that in the case of satellite TV we not only pay for the equipment and installation but also a monthly fee of nearly US $70 depending on the programming package. This is full-price bootleg.

News of the satellite crisis spread quickly by word-of-mouth and on the Civil List, an Internet bulletin board where gringos voice all sorts of concerns from lost dogs to clogged sinks. Almost instantly the message string on this topic grew to dozens of comments and hypotheses, with some of the latter becoming more and more far-fetched.

The fact is that in a small environment like San Miguel with no hard local news outlets or reliable sources of information--and many people with too much time on their hands--bullshit grows rampant, like crazed bacteria gurgling out of a Petri dish.

Three days ago Stew and I went for lunch to La Palapa, a modest dining establishment located on a dusty lot under a plastic tent and which serves the best and cheapest shrimp tacos in town. An older gringo at one of the plastic tables loudly drawled on that the problem was that solar flares had knocked our TV satellite out of orbit. Judging by his grizzled, sleepy-eyed appearance he may have developed his theory over a bottle of bourbon the night before.

We've also been told that the errant satellite might bump other TV satellites creating sort of a celestial pinball effect that could eventually plunge North America into the TV equivalent of a nuclear winter. Or that Satellite 119, which apparently provides much of our TV service, had crashed somewhere in Russia. We heard the last one at a party yesterday.

Those hypotheses could have merit except that Stew's brother in Minnesota informed us his satellite TV service by the same company we have was fine, solar flares or not.

That takes us to most prevalent explanation, one involving Carlos Slim Helú, owner of the telephone company in Mexico and seemingly most anything that makes money here on in Latin America. He even owns a substantial bloc of New York Times stock. Slim is one of the three richest men in the world, along with Bill Gates and Warren E. Buffett. Indeed the March 2010 issue of Forbes declared Slim to be the richest cahoona in the world.

Though many admire his business acumen, in Mexico he is often regarded suspiciously and criticized for his monopolistic tactics. Anyone who has that much money, some Mexicans would tell you, must have some shady deal going on.

One of Slim's recent ventures was--aha!--to acquire the Dish TV network franchise in Mexico, a factoid that immediately set local conspiracy theorists abuzzing: That oily billionaire is somehow blocking American Dish TV reception to force folks to switch to his Mexican network instead.

Aside from the fact that the number of subscribers to American Dish TV in Mexico is insignificant to a multi-billionaire like Slim, it's also most improbable that the average American or Canadian ex-pat could be forced to watch Mexican television even if it were the last entertainment option in town and someone had a gun to their heads.

Whatever the real reason, here we are in the tenth or twelfth day of no TV.

Satellite radio offers some relief, including daily broadcasts of MSNBC, with Chris Matthews' screaming, Keith Olbermann's scowling and Rachel Maddow's smirking and eye-rolling--but without having to look at them. Now that's an improvement.

On the other hand, without the diagrams and horrific footage, 60 Minutes' recent exposé of the BP oil spill would have been incomprehensible.

Some have suggested subscribing to a Canadian satellite service, eh, which offers most American TV fare plus CBC and presumably all the hockey a human being could want. On their list of offerings there's also something called the "Sex Channel." Canadian sex doesn't sound very exciting at first but imagine what those eskimos in Yellowknife do with during those endless winters. It could be interesting.

Besides if someone doesn't fix this damn satellite soon, we could get desperate.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Grandma's patio

New or old, grand or modest, there's always a favorite spot in one's house. A family room with a battered La-Z-Boy recliner that over the years has been the victim of coffee spills or cat clawing but still remains the most comfortable place for reading a book or watching TV. Or a workbench in a dark corner of the garage, lined with dozens of cans and jars of screws, bolts, washers and rusty pieces of you-never-know hardware, ready for an operation on a dead vacuum cleaner or some other household equipment. For cooks--I'm not one them--I imagine the kitchen is that sweet spot.

Six months after moving into the new house, the entrance courtyard has become that perfect place for me. Quiet and secluded, it's a great place to drink a cup of tea or just close your eyes. I even mumble to myself occasionally. Not to worry: A shrink once told me that was not a sign of craziness as long as I didn't overdo it or argue with myself.

It's in the courtyard that I wrote part of this blog. At this time of the year the space is half-shaded and cool, compared to the back terrace which is sizzling hot. Two hummingbirds are zipping around, along with several butterflies. The only noise is the water filter in the fish pond and the soft meowing of two of my cats sitting behind the screens, no doubt plotting how to get out and eat the hummers.

This space also has the odd effect of bringing me back to Cienfuegos, Cuba, to the patio in my maternal grandmother's small house, where I spent the happiest moments of my childhood. I'm 62 years old now yet her overgrown, chaotic patio remains a favorite spot in my memory.

There are some eerie similarities between her courtyard and mine. Many of the plantings--elephant ears, crotons, philodendrons, ferns and even an orange tree--are the same. But the plants are the least of my fond images, which have to do more with the emotional warmth and unconditional love I always felt in her house.

And her cooking: If the Michelin guide rated Cuban cuisine, grandma would have gotten a three-star rating hands down.

Interior courtyards are part of most houses in San Miguel and throughout Latin America, even modest ones. They muffle street noises while whispering to the visitor, "Welcome, come on in." They may offer a shady nook with weathered chairs and tables, and the soothing tinkling of a fountain.

A courtyard was always in our vision for the new house. In the seven-and-a-half acres where we ultimately built, noise is not a problem except for the occasional braying burro or gurgling turkey. But this small lush oasis is a welcome relief from the semi-desertic surroundings, which are brown most of the year and can desiccate one's spirits as much as one's skin.

Ours is only 20 by 25 feet, a bit smaller because one of the walls is rounded. As I remember it, my grandmother's patio was no big colonial landmark either.

As I planted our patio I tried to recall all I had read about landscaping small places and container gardening and seen during visits to other gardens. I think I achieved the proper mixtures of foliage textures, heights, flower colors and so on. I'm very happy with the results even though the main event, a 15-foot "trueno" tree (a Chinese privet, according to Google) which was supposed to be the focal point, promptly went into transplant conniptions and lost about half its leaves. During the past two weeks it has miraculously revived and is sprouting new leaves throughout.

Still, my garden may lack a certain element of, hmmm, disorder and spontaneity. It may be a bit too much like one of those rooms featured in home and garden magazines that are perfectly decorated yet off-putting because they reveal nothing about the personality of the owner.

I'm sure my grandmother didn't follow any design scheme when adding plants to her patio. New specimens, which usually arrived in rusty tin cans, were simply those that caught her eye while walking through the market. Upon arrival some were planted on the ground, others stayed in the cans and were placed under other plants or nailed or wired to any blank spot on the wall. In the hot, humid Cuban climate not many plants died though many became terminally scraggly and misshapen in this temple of laissez-faire gardening.

Her house was L-shaped, with the courtyard nestled in the inside of the "L" and walled in on the other two sides. The rooms were organized railroad-style, one after the other, beginning with a sitting room on the short leg of the "L" which faced the street--and where no one ever sat--then a real living room with a small Philco radio, followed by two bedrooms, a bathroom, a dining room and finally the kitchen.

There was no television so the fickle Philco was the main source of entertainment. One memorable program was hosted by a man named Clavelito. He must have been a Caribbean version of Oprah, Dr. Phil and Shirley MacLaine, all rolled into one. Clavelito would counsel listeners, suggest various herbal cures and even channel good "magnetic" vibrations through a glass of water they were advised to place on top of the radio.

Nonsense some of you may say, but to a five- or six-year-old it was part of the old tales and magical realism that made grandma's house unforgettable.

The backbone of the house was the long patio. All the rooms opened to it, and from it received light, air and the aroma of any plants in bloom. Unless it was raining, one traversed from room to room through the patio. The breezes flowing through the patio also carried the smells of my grandma's cooking everywhere.

Grandmother lived with my spinster aunt Estela and their regal, long-haired cat Cachucha. As it was often the case in the old days, from among five siblings Estela somehow was drafted to be the one who would take care of grandma. I never met my grandfather and no one ever talked about him. I couldn't say how Estela felt about her designated-caretaker role; she never married or complained. She just carried on.

Grandma and her beloved Cachucha glided into senility simultaneously, hand-in-paw. Grandma gradually forgot the names of family members though not their faces, particularly mine. Cachucha gradually gave up preening herself and took up absent-mindedly sauntering about the patio with turds hanging from her furry tail like precious mementos from her last visit to the litter box.

At this point I must confess that the center character in this warm scene was...Alfredito. I was the youngest and favorite grandchild and the child Estela never had. All rules and regulations set out by my strict mother were quickly ignored as soon as she and my dad walked out the door. News that I would be staying at grandma's so my parents could go away was like hearing the Three Kings would be making an extra summer visit to bring more presents.

Alfredito also got to enjoy grandma's and Estela's wondrous cooking--whatever occurred to me. Their kitchen was antique, downright rustic. The tiny GE refrigerator, a size we would now call "apartment-size" was constantly clogged with ice and frost. The stove was a combination gas and coal contraption that only the two of them could understand, let alone master. I don't recall seeing a shelf with cookbooks: The recipes must have sprung straight from my grandmother's head, with Estela patiently playing second fiddle.

Grandma's insistence on fresh ingredients complicated things further. Arroz con pollo called for a live chicken whose neck had to be twisted and its feathers plucked in hot water in the bathtub. The final dish required pimentos, peas, saffron rice and God knows what else, and was the arroz con pollo to end all arroz con pollos, even if the effort took hours of pot-banging and coddling of the cantankerous stove, and left the kitchen, dining room, bathroom and back portion of the patio in a shambles.

As I looked proudly at my entrance courtyard a couple of mornings ago, and thought about my grandmother's patio, some improvements came to mind, a few of which will take time. I can't wait for the plants to outgrow the neat areas I've assigned them and start pushing and shoving each other and become a lush, untidy garden like grandma's. I'll speed up the march toward uncertainty by bring up all my pots from storage and filling them with whatever catches my eye on my next trip to the nursery.

Stew had suggested that we sand and repaint the three gnomes so they look nice 'n neat. They do look bedraggled after all that travel; one even lost part of his pipe.

I don't think so. Grandma would just leave them the way they are and wait for the vegetation to cover up any bruises.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Attack of the Mutant Zucchinis

I've never grown zucchinis so I'm not sure what a normal, regulation-size zucchini is supposed to look like. But somehow I fear the ones I've got going in my garden may be E.T./Steven Spielberg hybrids. The second one we've harvested weighs around two and a half pounds, measures 11 inches--and it looks as if it wasn't completely done growing.

Plus there are three or four more coming along just from this one plant. On another corner of this bed there's another plant that is just beginning to flower, though according to my labels it's a different variety so maybe it won't grow as large. What continues to be curious is that everything is this horse manure compost-enriched bed seems to be thriving, almost unnaturally, whereas in the other bed enriched with sheep manure the plants looks shrimpier if not downright unhappy.

At any rate, there's a lot of zucchini down the road and so I'm grateful to blog reader Dinah Ragsdale of Lindale, Texas for sending me a terrific recipe for Honey Zucchini Bread. It's moist but holds together, and is sweet without being cloying. Best of all it's really easy to make, according to Stew.

I tried it on our gardener Felix, a critic always a bit leery of gringo confections (except for Classic Coke and sugar-dusted "donitas"), and he loved it.

Honey Zucchini Bread

3 cups unsifted, unbleached, all purpose flour
1 tsp. each salt and baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
2 cups finely grated unpeeled zucchini
3 eggs slightly beaten
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 2/3 cups honey
1 Tablespoon vanilla

Heat oven to 325. Grease 2 loaf pans (8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 1/2) In a large bowl mix together all dry ingredients. In a medium bowl mix eggs, oil, honey, vanilla and zucchini. Add wet ingredients to dry. Mix only enough to moisten. Do not beat. Batter will look green but don't fear. Add 1 cup chopped nuts if desired. Pour into loaf pans and bake 1 hour. Cool on rack 10 minutes then remove from pan and complete cooling on rack. This bread freezes well.

My twin sons, now 38, loved this recipe and would make it for us. They knew their way around the kitchen...we thought. Only one time did the zucchini bread (sweet enough to call cake) not turn out good. It was a mystery until the next night when, making a Greek salad, I discovered that the cucumber had disappeared.

Note: If you use smaller loaf pans, such as the foil single use kind, you would need to reduce the cooking time. Probably need to test with a toothpick so you don't over cook. It would probably make 3 or 4 of the smaller sized loaves.

Now I must search the Internet for any recipes for fritters, soups--just about anything involving zucchinis--just before the 11-12 varieties of tomatoes start their own riot in the garden.