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.