Sunday, December 18, 2011

Brimming with memories

Half-hidden behind a hedge at a gas station on the way to San Miguel, it was barely visible as we sped by. When I saw it again though, its features were unmistakable even if marred by layers of bad paint and stickers slapped on like makeup and tattoos on an over-the-hill hooker. Particularly cruel was the iridescent red paint sprayed across the nose.  

But the huge grille, menacing as a shark's teeth, was still there, in between the two undersized headlights set too far apart, which give the car a vaguely disoriented, wall-eyed look. Also intact was the bumper, including its protruding cones called "bullets," looking more like two impressive but useless chrome breasts. The scandalous front didn't go at all with the puny, demure tail lights.

General Motors' promotional one-liner for its 1954 Chevrolet was "Brimming with Beauty!", a typical adman's delusion. The '54 was no beauty. It was halfway between the matronly models of the early '50s, all curves but no sex appeal, and the late 1950s, when car designers lines fell in love with wings and fins. Just check the rear end of the 1959 Chevy with its three-piece, elongated tail lights framed by enormous swooping eyebrows. From behind the car looks permanently startled. 

The '54 Chevy sitting forlornly at the gas station was especially unbeautiful. Not only had it not been restored but several add-ons, like plastic sideview mirrors and rubber bungee cords to keep the hood and the trunk lid shut, showed no respect for the original design. 

It was a particularly sad sight to me because a baby-blue 1954 Chevy was our last family car in Cuba. I remember it well because it arrived when I was seven years old and a boy's car mania had begun to stir in my head. 

My dad was a lonesome and taciturn man, not one to take the family on a jolly spree to look for a new car. The car just appeared in front of our house, and like him, it was a sensible and prudent choice. No red convertibles or sporty two-doors. Ours was a four-door sedan in a reticent color, with a manual transmission. I don't know when the Powerglide automatic transmissions arrived in Cuba but we certainly didn't get one. 

Despite its lack of pizzazz, the new Chevy looked as sleek as a barracuda compared to our family car during the previous six years, a constipated-looking 1948 black Chevrolet my dad had bought shortly after I was born. 

I never got to drive the 54 Chevy, just as I wasn't supposed to touch his hi-fi system and collection of classical LPs. "Supposed to" because, of course, I did play his records when I came back early from school and that's how I learned about Chopin, Beethoven and all the long-haired guys. 

Though Cuban exiles like to go on and on, and on again, about how wealthy they were in Cuba--as if the entire country was a quilt of lush plantations and mansions before Castro showed up and ruined everything--our family's situation in fact was nothing if not modest. The car, the LP collection, our two-bedroom house, and my dad's printing shop was about it for our our net assets.  

I don't remember ever driving the Chevy, but my dad did put me on his lap and point to all the dials and buttons on the dashboard and of course, the horn. I think this was his idea of a man-to-man talk.

The biggie were the gears, which he demonstrated while driving. Out and down for first gear, then straight up--past neutral--for second, and straight down for third. 

First gear was the trickiest, my dad explained, because of the car's tendency to lurch and choke unless the play between the clutch and the gas pedal was performed seamlessly. Reverse--out and up--was inconceivable and scary to me. I've retained a preference for manual transmissions. 

We also went under the hood and learned about the distributor, radiator, spark plugs and the fan. Tires frequently went flat, so I learned about the jack--make sure the emergency brake is on and loosen the lug nuts before trying to jack up the car--a lesson that has come in handy in later life. 

My dad's loving care for the '54 Chevy was matched only his obsession for the record collection. He washed and waxed the car constantly and his only accident, when he was lightly rear-ended at a gas station in Havana, made him swear off ever venturing into the maelstrom of traffic in the capital. 

After that, the Chevy stayed in the snoring provincial capital of Santa Clara where we lived, except for occasional jaunts to my grandmother's or to the beach. Even then we had a tragic experience, when we were the first to arrive at an accident involving an overturned flatbed full of poor farm families returning from a day at Rancho Luna, a beach near the later-famous Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba.  

Bloodied people clamored to get in the car and be taken to the hospital. Their faces were green from panic and from grass stains. A woman sat next to me with a wailing child who later went silent. I found out when we got to the hospital that the kid had died in transit. 

My dad's twin obsessions ultimately went for naught. Castro took power in 1959 and he and my mother had to leave Cuba, and everything they owned, in 1965. In retrospect he should have used the records as frisbees and taken the family for one last, mad drive in the baby-blue Chevy and crashed it into a tree, all while flipping Castro the bird. 

The records went somewhere. I hope someone enjoyed them. 

As for the car, that '54 Chevy by now must be coughing and wheezing, its innards full of cannibalized parts and improvised fixes, conscripted into the army of '50s cars still rolling around in Cuba. In fact it may be in better shape than its cousin at the San Miguel gas station.  

Friday, December 16, 2011


Not arthritic knees, shrinking hairlines or buzzing hearing aids seem to keep the politically correct expats living in San Miguel from raising a little leftist ruckus now and again, just like in the old days.
Barely two weeks ago a debate erupted on the Civil List, the internet sounding board for expats in San Miguel, over the proposed opening of a McDonald's restaurant in the town's historic center, a few blocks away from the main square.

McDonald's on and off the grill.
On Wednesday a protest march was convened in front of the proposed restaurant by the Steering Committee Protejamos de Centro Historico de SMA (sic), which on the Civil List claimed to have collected about 800 signatures from people opposing the project.

The anemic turnout--about 15 gringos, four Mexicans and one Irish setter of unknown nationality--was upstaged by a raucous religious procession, whose exact theme I could not determine but which meandered by at just about the same time. It included about a dozen dancers in full-feathered Indian attire, four people carrying a small statue of a saint in a glass case, a flat-bed truck with additional costumed participants, followed by a drum-and-brass ensemble that detonated periodically. It was not much of a contest.

As its name suggests, the anti-McDonald's group waves the banner of historic preservation, a sacred cause not likely to attract much, if any opposition. San Miguel's colonial beauty and history are its chief assets; to undermine them would be suicidal, both culturally and economically.

Yet as you read the furious arguments against the restaurant what starts to transpire are not so much historic or aesthetic concerns but the old anti-capitalist, anti-corporate refrains from American lefties for whom "McDonald's" is a bloody shirt, along with "Wal-mart" and a few others corporate demons.

Colonial lattes in San Miguel.
It's not what harm a McDonald's restaurant could do to the appearance or feel of the historic center of San Miguel--likely very little, to judge by the tastefully done Starbuck's restaurant across the street--but what McDonald's has come to symbolize, by the sounds of it, a vision of the anti-Christ.

According to some of the comments on the Civil List, a McDonald's burger indeed contains the ingredients of an eventual apocalypse: Globs of grease and cholesterol; exploitation of Mexican workers; rapacity by transnational--read "American"--corporations; too much salt in one's diet; inhumane treatment of animals; rampant obesity; tainted meat; disregard for Mexico's cultural values; unhappy cattle; imperialism; landfills crammed with styrofoam; greed; depletion of the world's water resources. The list sounds like a trailer for a movie about Mayan predictions of the end of the world--exactly a year from now.  

Yet as some of the Civil List litigants noted, franchise joints are not anything new to San Miguel. In addition to Starbuck's, which prospers thanks mainly to a young Mexican clientele, within a few blocks of San Miguel's main square one can find Harry's New Orleans Cafe and Oyster Bar, in addition to Century 21, Re/Max and Coldwell Banker real estate franchises. Before that we had a dingy Dunkin Donuts store right on the main square and a Subway sandwich shop up the street, both of which are now defunct.

If the municipal aesthetic police continues to do its work, there's nothing to worry about the defacement of the historic center. Harry's, Starbucks et. al. thrive behind discreet and carefully restored facades. If anything, Starbuck's ought to get an award for its sensitive and tasteful renovation of a colonial building, both inside and out.

But behind the balls-and-strikes in this debate lies an attitude that effectively infantilizes Mexicans and assumes they need foreign guidance and counseling so they can make the "right" decision about siting a McDonald's in their own downtown.

Shouldn't we trust the workings of the San Miguel's historic preservation authorities to make their own decisions? Shouldn't Mexican consumers be able to decide by themselves whether they want to eat at a McDonald's restaurant without foreigners lecturing about the evils of greasy hamburgers or what San Miguel's colonial center should look like?

The quick death of the Subway sandwich shop showed that local consumers can spot overpriced, tasteless mush when they bite into it. On the other hand the success of the McDonald's in the shopping center on the edge of town presents a nightmarish precedent for those opposed to a restaurant downtown: It's not that we may have a McDonald's downtown but that Mexicans may like it, just as they--and a good number of Americans--like the nearby Starbucks.

The project downtown already has been approved and disapproved by the municipal government, and now opponents say the mayor has expressed her opposition to it, so they have "won" this "struggle."

American radicals in exile should back off, let the Mexicans play this one out according to their own lights--and stick to possibly less annoying pastimes like, say, quilting, bird-watching, taking photographs and writing blogs.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Metropolis on the move

Mexico City, known among Mexicans as "D.F." (for "Distrito Federal," a jurisdiction comparable to Washington, D.C.) or just plain "Mexico," is tantalizingly close to San Miguel, promising what Stew calls a "big-city fix."

"Angel of Independence" on Paseo de la Reforma.
Discounted fares for people over 60 are about 20 dollars round trip in luxury buses with two bathrooms, air-conditioning, sometimes a Wi-fi connection, plus lunch and a bottle of soda. Two American movies usually are shown, though the trip ends before the conclusion of the second feature, leaving passengers with an unsatisfying feeling of cinematus interruptus. So who really was the killer? people mutter as they claim their luggage.

Travel time is about three and half hours, relaxing enough until you get in a cab at the North Bus Station for the run to the hotel. This last leg can last anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes and provide amusement park-style kicks, depending on the temperament or mood of the driver. This past weekend we also found out that the seismic faults running through the city center's mushy subsoil can offer their own thrills.

As you approach the city its size is inescapable, a population mass of about 20 million give or take a million. Except for trolleys, Mexico City has every mode of mass transit known to man: trains underground, at street level and on elevated tracks, double- and triple-car articulated buses running on dedicated lanes, regular buses ranging from deluxe to belching rattletraps, plus some that run on electricity from overhead lines. Neither the abundance of mass transit or the ridiculously low fares, about 30 cents a ride, have an impact on the number of cars jerking in every direction like crazed ants.

Over the past decade air quality has either improved or that in competing cities like Beijing and Shanghai has worsened so much that Mexico City's looks pretty good by comparison. City officials say that the capital is no longer on the top ten of most polluted metropolises in the world. Residents add that on a really clear day you can actually make out the mountains that encircle the city, though I doubt it'll look anything like the Swiss Alps.

For its size, however, Mexico City lacks the ethnic and cultural variety so typical in places like Toronto, New York, Chicago, London and other large urban centers. No matter where you go, Mexico City seems and feels all-Mexican. In the streets, subways and buses you won't spot saris, turbans, Hasidic felt hats, or Muslim women wrapped in chadors like you see in Chicago or London, hear foreign languages or for that matter--except for tourists--see many African or Asian skin tones.

Lovers' altar on a park tree.
Economic differences evident in any major urban areas are much starker in Mexico City. We generally stay in a touristy area, near a Paris-like boulevard with imposing fountains called Paseo de La Reforma that was in fact designed to evoke the Champs Elysees. There's Fifth Avenue-style shopping in the Polanco neighborhood and walled mansions in various other areas. In the new Santa Fe area there's a huge shopping center surrounded by luxury high-rise condominium and office buildings that would fit right in Dallas or Houston.

Stew and I haven't even begun to explore all the different areas of the city but glimpses from the bus or the air tell us that La Reforma, Polanco or Lomas de Chapultepec are but tiny samples of a much vaster, almost impenetrable, urban expanse.

As you walk around the city constantly teases you. There's a neat little altar mounted on a tree on a park, with a spotless white lace cloth and a blue vase with flowers and the etching: "Juliana y Mauricio, 19 June 2003". A wedding memento? Did they die here? Who keeps this personal monument neat and tidy? Abandoned mansions, sooty and ominous yet still fabulous are also sprinkled on Reforma and the side streets. What happened to the rich people who lived here? Why were these mini palaces abandoned?

Jogger stretches on a street sculpture depicting
four electric chairs.
Still,  our searches for typical big-city ethnic neighborhoods--think Little Italy, Greek Town, Little Havana or Saigon--with their authentic, immigrant-run restaurants haven't turned up anything in Mexico City. There's a tiny Chinatown near the center, but hardly worth visiting. A large and very good Lebanese restaurant near the old colonial center hints at the sizable population of Lebanese descent in Mexico City that includes Carlos Slim Helu owner of most of the country's telephone system and one of or the richest man in the world, depending on the hiccups of the stock market. There's a large concentration of Jews in Polanco too but as far as we know, not a decent kosher deli serving an excellent pastrami sandwich on rye.

In front of the stock exchange, Mexico City's version 
of the Occupy Wall Street protests. 
Despite the occasional rancor Mexicans express toward gringos and anything American, the most significant foreign influences in Mexico City ironically come from the U.S. Mexicans love American movies, and just like in the U.S., the more lame-brained the better. American-designed clothing, genuine or rip-offs is ubiquitous, as are the stores selling it. A Mexican newspaper this weekend introduced me to the newest Spanglish terms, such as Twittear, Facebookear and Clickear.

During dinner on Saturday night, right about the time my flan con cajeta arrived, Mexico City pulled one of its scariest stunts: A 6.8 earth tremor that lasted for 40 seconds. Everyone at the restaurant dropped what they were doing and dashed for the door, with our Mexican dinner guest and the two of us not far behind. My last sight on the way to the parking lot was the Christmas tree in the lobby, decorated with garish blue lights, merrily swaying back and forth.

After ten minutes of nervous chatter and giggling on the spot in the parking lot designated as a gathering place in case of an earthquake, we headed back inside. We vacuumed our desserts and asked for the check right away.

Next day's Milenio newspaper reported a minor artistic panic at the Bellas Artes theater, a performing arts palace near the colonial center. A pianist was playing Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, specifically the third movement titled "Funeral March." As the ground started to shake, the performer fled the stage and the audience headed for the doors. Tremors and funeral marches: That's a scary mix.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Planned puppyhood

Aside from the widespread poverty, both rural and urban, one dispiriting aspect of living Mexico is the visible mistreatment of animals, some of it by commission but mostly by just neglect.

There's an obvious connection between human and animal misery: When folk have barely enough to feed themselves and their families you can't expect them to buy salmon cat food or perfumed flea powder for dogs--even though the pet supplies aisles at the local supermarkets gain more linear footage every day.

Osita shortly after her operation.
It's not necessarily willful cruelty toward dogs and cats but a zero-sum game dictated by survival. If there is any money or food left over to fatten animals it's most likely to go for chickens, cows, sheep, pigs, goats and other critters that can be turned into tomorrow's taco filling. Occasionally some stale tortillas are set aside for a pregnant bitch whose puppies her owner hopes to sell for some extra cash.

When we moved to the ranch, the first howdy-how-do-you-do visit was from Chucha, the archetypal "campo" or "country" dog, meaning that she technically belongs to someone but is not fed or cared for by anyone in particular. Naturally we started feeding Chucha. (More about her, one of the most endearing mutts this side of the Rio Grande, in a later blog.)

Bad idea for our animal food budget, great idea for Chucha and her six or seven amigos who now show up punctually every morning to be fed and to begin the day with a hearty barking and snarling fest with our dogs on the inside of the fence. Then we took up feeding Félix' three (now two) mutts. And our two (now three) house dogs. That comes out to, hmm, ten or twelve dogs or thereabouts. Everyone is fat and happy; no ribs showing.

But as we travel back and forth to San Miguel every day it's clear the problem is not food but sheer numbers of strays. Every day some dog between our ranch and the town shows up as roadkill though we've noticed some kind soul goes around moving the carcasses to the side.

Overpopulation--more dogs and cats anyone needs or can take care of--is at the heart of the problem. No matter how many animal shelters are built there's no way they can keep up with a number of abandoned animals that increases geometrically.

Amigos de Animales mobile clinic
The overpopulation issue came to our front gate shortly after we moved in. Brenda--that's what the owner named her--we suspect is one of the offspring of Chucha's long and rather promiscuous life. If so, Brenda didn't inherit any of her mom's smart genes. She's certifiably "taruga", or Mexican slang for "dumber than a bag of manure." A lovable but clueless creature.

About a year ago, we decided to have Brenda spayed, an idea that got messy and complicated: She was already quite pregnant with eight puppies and the operation turned into an abortion.

Then early this year Osita showed up pregnant. Osita is a ten- or fifteen-pound, black and white wire haired something-or-other. Her dubious pedigree is accentuated by her ears--one up and the other one down--which also give her a distinctive "woe is me" appearance. She bloated alarmingly during her pregnancy, during which we gave her side portions of canned food. Finally the puppies arrived--six or eight we heard--which we understand our neighbor sold.

Another litter came about four or five months later, even as we tried to explain to the owner that letting a bitch  get pregnant time and again was cruel and may eventually kill her. He blamed it on his wife. Finally they relented and we took Osita to be spayed by a vet from Amigos de Animales, a local animal welfare group started and funded by expats in San Miguel.

To his credit, the neighbor also thanked us profusely for feeding all his dogs and as a token gave us some firewood, a precious commodity in this mostly barren part of the world. He also said he wanted to spay his other dogs because he didn't have any money to feed the ones he had and didn't want any more. That's an encouraging breakthrough in his thinking.

Since 2004, Amigos' chief mission has been to spay and neuter dogs and cats free of charge, by holding sterilization "blitzes" in poor neighborhoods. Over a weekend, volunteer veterinarians can sterilize as many as 150 animals. The latest addition to Amigos is a van that has been converted into a mobile spay-and-neuter clinic, with its own operating room and recovery area.

Since its founding Amigos has sterilized approximately 11,000 dogs and cats. The arithmetic is obvious and compelling. Even if only half of those animals had gone on to have their own litters--and so on and on--there would thousands more abandoned animals in San Miguel by now.

As for Osita, she is fully recovered and back out begging for food. To our eyes she looks healthier and  happier. Maybe it's her ears: Now they seem to go up and down in unison.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Arrival of the Little Man

As is the case with so many events in Mexico, the arrival date of Félix' new baby was only a rough estimate, with a variance of one to four weeks. He and his wife had consulted with three doctors, who predicted delivery anywhere from the first week of November to sometime in the middle of December. I told Félix that although I didn't know much about birthin' babies, those estimates seemed somewhat sloppy.

The only thing the doctors agreed on was that the baby would be delivered by Caesarean section. I suggested to Félix that he ask the doctors why so, but they just gave him an explanation he didn't understand. So a C-section it was going to be and he was told he needed to round up two blood donors before the operation.

Stew donated one pint and Stew's brother, who was visiting from Minnesota, offered to donate the second pint. Why didn't Félix donate the second pint? Pssst: He's scared to death, and so apparently is everyone is family. Félix rather melodramatic explanation was that he had been rejected as a donor because "his defenses were down" and he might need a transfusion himself if he donated. Or some such cockamamie story. Finally, he rounded up a friend to be the second donor.  

Stew and I went to Peru for a week and left Stew's brother Knute in charge of the animals, the house and keeping track of the imminent, or not so imminent, arrival of Félix' baby. Though Félix fancies himself a what-me-worry, cool as a stale enchilada type of guy, he was visibly worried about the arrival of the baby.

The baby boy arrived on November 8, a mite weighing 2.232 kilos or 4.9 pounds. That's small, but so is Felix' wife, who couldn't weigh more than 100 to 110 pounds herself. The baby and the mom were sent home two days later, and I took Ysela--and Felix, their two-year-old daughter and his tough-as-nails mother-in-law--to the local clinic to have the stitches taken out last week.

Shortly after the birth Knute began asking for the baby's name but Felix didn't seem to be in a hurry. When I asked Felix, he just said it was just an hombrecito, "a little man." I didn't expect the impassive Félix to jump up and down with joy but he was clearly pleased with the new baby, and also that it was an hombrecito rather than another girl.

It wasn't until this past weekend, when I went to their house to photograph the baby, that the new name was revealed: Edgar. I acted supportive but in my head wondered where that name had come from. Edgar Allan Poe? Felix insisted that he didn't know, that it was just a name he'd heard and liked.

Besides the three saints on the birthday, which some Mexican families use to name babies, were Martín, Severino and some other weird-sounding guy. Edgar sounds pretty good by comparison.

Officially registering the baby birth, which Félix still hasn't done, will take another trip to City Hall and the attendant paper shuffling. Maybe days, or perhaps a few more weeks. Baptism is not even in the prospective schedule yet.

The important thing right now is that the tiny baby is healthy and naturally, cute as can be.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in a different language

There's no holiday that more reminds us expats that we're not in Kansas--or Illinois or North Dakota--than Thanksgiving. That's not a bad thing.

Start with the holiday itself. The Thanksgiving story is anchored in American history, real or mythical, and not at all portable to a different country. You can dress Mexican kids as little wizards and pretend to celebrate Halloween. And besides, the Day of the Dead, with its own air of ghoulishness, almost coincides with Halloween.

Christmas and New Year's fall roughly on the same dates worldwide and with some adjustments for local climate and cultures, they are celebrated universally. Of course we have a few awkward moments, like the pathetic sight of those poor Mexican guys at the shopping centers sweating inside a Santa Claus suit, but the general idea is the same.

Thanksgiving on the other hand doesn't travel well. Pilgrims with tall hats and Indians with feathers on their heads gathering around some fairly bland dishes like roast turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie are hard to explain to someone like Rocío our cleaning lady or Félix the gardener.

Let's see. There were some people in Europe who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs and they came over on a boat, and once ashore set up shop in the New World by taking land belonging to the folks already quite settled in Massachusetts. Then one day everyone got together to have a lovefest of a dinner and give thanks for the harvest and everything.

By now I can imagine Félix screwing up his face and asking why the Indians would break bread with a bunch of paleface strangers who'd ripped off their lands and possessions and eventually would either kill them or push them into exile somewhere near Bayonne, New Jersey. Then there's the business the huge inflatable cartoon characters in a parade in New York and the football games, and... nah, forget it, Félix.

American Thanksgiving in Mexico is like Ramadan in Bozeman, Montana--a non-event--except for the few Americans who live here. A few frozen turkeys and spiral hams appear at the Costco for Americans to buy and Mexicans to examine with curiosity, but that's about it.

A few enterprising San Miguel restaurateurs have tried to cash in on the Thanksgiving dinner tradition but generally with disastrous results. A couple of years ago we invited a couple of Australian friends to Thanksgiving dinner at the Sierra Nevada Hotel, one of the fanciest in town. It was one of the most expensive and wretched meals Stew and I have ever had. The guys in the kitchen clearly had no clue.

For many of the expats, Stew and I included, the lack of family here leads us to community dinners organized by churches and other groups. These are really pleasant events, requiring enormous amounts of work by the hapless volunteers. They deserve lots of good karma, papal indulgences and a free pass out of purgatory.

The weather is generally gorgeous. Dress casual. English spoken. Lots of friendly hug-hug, kiss-kiss and chit-chat. But after two hours or so, you drive back into the general population, who is coming back from school, getting their shoes shined and who otherwise has no idea what Turkey Day is all about. C'mon, doesn't anyone know it's Thanksgiving?

It's just as well. Since the holiday doesn't exist, there's no aerial bombardment on TV about sales or projected retail volumes on Black Friday with additional prognostications about how it will impact economic recovery and blather-blather-blather. Retailers in Mexico fired their first Christmas salvos back in mid-October, but these are feeble campaigns compared to the offensives mounted by their American counterparts who for two months assault all your senses, all the time.

If you retain your self-control you can also escape television specials of some ideal Thanksgiving get-together as envisioned by Martha Stewart or Paula Deen, when everything is cooked expertly and there are no drunken  uncles to wreck the otherwise perfect family occasion.

So with all that noise missing, expats in San Miguel indeed may be more able to focus on true thanks-giving and gratitude, perhaps one of the most underestimated spiritual exercises in the U.S., where public attention seems to be focused on what people don't have--and ought to buy--and lately on fear: of terrorists, immigrants, Muslims, economic calamity, foreclosures, Democrats, Republicans, Fox News and pretty much life in general.

During a walk-around on Thanksgiving morning, I marveled at our house and the gorgeous landscapes that surround it, thought about our good fortune to be healthy, of life together with Stew for nearly forty years, the numerous friends we've met since we arrived here--just as most of our acquaintances in Chicago inevitably have faded away--and the bumper crop of leaf greens Félix has scared up from the ground in our raised beds.

There are always problems with life . Right now the most annoying is our new dog Domino, who inexplicably has fallen off the housebreaking wagon and decided to pee on all corners of the house as if it were in flames. But even that'll pass.


Monday, November 21, 2011

New demographics, new menu

Contributors to the Civil List, the local internet bulletin board for San Miguel expats, frequently drool and rhapsodize about a new dining discovery, a place with better fish than any in San Francisco or steaks every bit as tasty as those in Houston or Omaha. The raves keep flowing like bad coffee at a roadside diner even though, really, restaurants in San Miguel--except for a few you can count with some of the fingers of one hand--range from just "OK" to "fugetaboutit."

Many of the good ones, like Doña Diabla, a tiny Oaxacan joint run by a young Mexican, for some reason open and shortly afterward fizzle. Or if they go on, the quality of the food and service are inconsistent.

Some of the Civil List posters even talk about San Miguel as a new gastronomic center of Mexico and a "heaven for foodies," forgetting many hardly-shabby restaurant towns like Puebla, Morelia, Oaxaca, Yucatan and even Mexico City. Still, if not remotely world-class, our town's collection of ho-hum restaurants, and the few good ones, compare very favorably with nearby towns. Visit Celaya or even the state capital of Guanajuato, and you'll be singing hosannas to our local eateries on the way back, flawed as they may be.

On Friday, to celebrate Stew's Medicare birthday (65!), we went to a one-seating culinary extravaganza at the Hotel Matilda, featuring star chef Enrique Olvera, 33, of Mexico City's Restaurante Pujol.

Well, shush your mouth. The evening, though hardly a cheap treat, was memorable, from the setting, to the service, and certainly the food. It may also have been a preview of what San Miguel is becoming.

I don't know enough about high cuisine to say whether Olvera's cooking qualify as "molecular gastronomy," but some of the portions were so miniscule they may have qualified as "subatomic."

A tiny ear of corn at the end of stick, dipped in some exotic sauce that arrived in what seemed a hollowed-out pumpkin. A few sprigs of nopal cactus leaves with a dash of some intense dressing. A corn mushroom tamal, with a dollop of some sort of cream on top and a green tomato sauce on the side. For a "whaat?" touch, there was a taco, or more properly a taquito, with a fish called "escolar" and dusted with "ceniza," which means "ash." Ash on an oily fish we'd never heard about. Who knew? A really wonderful piece of slow-roasted lamb followed, and at the end came my favorite, an amazing dessert of glazed sweet potatoes in a sauce with four or five little cubes of white gelatin (according to Stew; the waiter didn't really know).

My consistent use of the singular throughout my description of the dishes is not an accident: These were single and very small servings of very nicely prepared food. Molecular gastronomy supposedly involves unusual treatments of ingredients, bordering on lab experiments. I don't know if Olvera's cooking qualifies as molecular, but it tasted wonderful. I'm certain he does not do bronco-busting steaks, Dallas-style, or two-kiloton deep-dish Chicago pizzas.

Matilda also was a revelation. It's one of several super deluxe hotels to open in San Miguel, with prices to match. This used to be the site of the Jacaranda, a tired hotel, in Mexican-rustic style, that showed movies every week for five dollars, one drink and a bag of popcorn included. Some weeks, the audience--mostly gringos--looked as old and tired as the hotel. Now Matilda is a super modern facility with a plexiglass roof over the outdoor dining area, automobile tires hanging in the lobby--and not a trace of the old Jacaranda or even anything remotely Mexican-looking.

The sell-out crowd was a revelation too. Only about 20 percent of it was foreign, judging from the rat-tat-tat of Spanish and the fashions in the room. Men wore casual-shabby jeans and dress shirts open to showcase the many hairy chests. Men were also accessorized with expensive watches and the ubiquitous iPhones. In the minimalist spirit of the evening women favored micro, high-water skirts. This was not just a dinner but a coming-out scene for well-to-do, 20- and 30-somethings from Mexico City, and possibly a snapshot of San Miguel's new crowd.

How much, you ask. About $175 US for the two of us, a hefty portion of which--our one complaint--went for six open-ended servings of liquor after every course. Because we don't drink, the waiter was kind enough to replace the alcohol with sodas and juices. But that still was way too much booze for a meal, enough in my opinion to muddle the taste of the lamb or the dessert.

A thin and quite attractive, older American woman sitting at the next table methodically posed during the earlier courses for pictures by her husband and a roving photographer, flashing a just-so smile while holding very non-molecular glasses of wine, also just-so. Alas, by the end of the meal her posing technique had crumbled a bit, as she leaned to and fro, like a palm tree after a hurricane.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Didn't see nobody cryin'

So strange are Mexico's Day of the Dead traditions that there's little chance a foreigner will ever be able to fully comprehend them.

Elsewhere in Latin America, people celebrate the Día de los Santos Difuntos alright, roughly the "Day of the Saintly Deceased," with tightly-wound decorum. Dirges and whispered prayers waft in churches filled by women wearing black dresses and veils. A hushed procession to the cemetery may follow, for more prayers, kind words, stifled tears and flowers in memory of grandma Josefina or uncle Rigoberto.

In the U.S. whatever religious significance All Souls' Day ever had long ago succumbed to the commercial hustle of Halloween and three weeks after that, Thanksgiving. Still, on Memorial Day some families wearing their Sunday finery will decorate the graves of their dead relatives and place small American flags on those who were in the military.

There's none of that propriety and restraint for Mexicans. Their directness starts with the name of the feast day: Forget "souls," "saints," "departed," "passed away" or other pious euphemisms. On November 1 and 2, Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead. Josefina and Rigoberto are not up on a cloud benignly spying on their progeny below, but dead 
--though hardly forgotten.

As if to underline the point, Mexicans bring out into play all sorts of death-related paraphernalia--bones, skulls, skeletons--that in other countries would be considered morbid, in bad taste or downright gross. What's the story with Mexican children nibbling on skulls made of sugar?

Recently, along the blood-splattered states near the U.S. border, where the narco wars have killed tens of thousands, some Mexicans have minted a new saint, "Santa Muerte" ("Holy Death") though the Catholic Church disavows any such creature.

Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously asserted that the word "death" burns the lips of a Westerner while a Mexican caresses it, celebrates it, and jokes about it. "It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love."

As many times as I've read the "Day of the Dead" chapter  in "The Labyrinth of Solitude," and marveled at Paz' silver prose, I still can't fully appreciate what he is talking about. How can anyone celebrate and caress death?

My perplexity mounts every time we visit a Mexican cemetery on the Day of the Dead, which has become a well-trod tourist spectacle. This year we skipped the crowded main cemetery and went to smaller one on the outskirts of San Miguel, closer to the ranch.

There was a festive country-fair air as we approach the cemetery, or panteón, as Mexicans seem to prefer. Vendors sold food, flowers--thousands of brilliant marigolds are the standard--plus balloons and toys. Visitors arrived with plastic chairs and shopping bags full of food, as if heading for a picnic, and in some cases also brought cans of paint, brushes, and picks and shovels for last-minute gravesite remodeling or maintenance.

There were several for-hire duos and trios too offering quick, spirited bellowings of Day of the Dead favorites, and a few larger combos playing more elegant serenades by singers accompanied by accordions, guitars, bass fiddles, and drums.

A young guy lost in his memories,
perhaps of his dead mother or father.
What we didn't see was anyone crying.

Yet there was nothing disrespectful or crass about the celebrations, except for an occasional drunk stumbling by. Some families huddled around a grave eating lunch and presumably talking about the dead relative. Others read from dog-eared bibles or prayer books, or touched up the paint.

No amount of music or chatting though could soften the impact of the disproportionate number of rows of baby-sized graves, marked with little angels of stone or concrete, and signs noting lives that may have lasted only a few days, weeks or months, if that.

Behaving like a couple of Mexicans-for-a-day, Stew and I bought a handful of Day of the Dead marigolds and put them in a vase next to the urn containing the ashes of my mother who died nine years ago.

For the requisite touch of frivolity I then placed the urn and the flowers next to clay figures of a couple of Day of the Dead bandoleros who look like Bonnie and Clyde each clutching a rifle, except these are skeletons wearing sombreros.

My mom probably wouldn't appreciate the humor. Not mom.

If I were dead, though, I'd be flattered by such festivities around my gravesite. All I ask is that the musicians tune up and practice just a little bit, and that visitors, please, clean up after themselves.


Below are others photographs we took during our visit. 

The children's section of the cemetery. 
One offering for a dead child.

Multi-tasking: Painting the tombstone while listening to the music.

A prayerful vigil amid the festivities. 

A kind gesture: Some visitors drop marigolds on
gravesites otherwise unattended. 

Two parakeets get to visit the cemetery,
maybe to chirp for their dearly departed owner. 


Monday, October 31, 2011

Fall falls on the ranch

Autumn is the time of year when we're especially reminded that we no longer live in the American Midwest. Here jack-o'-lanterns will go on sale by the side of the roads in mid-October, even if most Mexicans really have no clue what Halloween is all about. And a few restaurants will advertise Thanksgiving dinner specials. But none of it rings true.

Fall in the northern tiers of the U.S. is a curtain rising on winter, the final act of the year. Spent leaves cover the ground with a moist and colorful carpet that squishes underfoot. Trees turn into stark wire sculptures outlined against the unnaturally clear skies.

The entire cast of nature seems to be in a frenzy to take cover from the imminent onslaught of winter. Millions of birds fly overhead, the vast majority fleeing to somewhere more hospitable. Squirrels frantically hide nuts and fruits even though they'll immediately forget where they put them.

The entire spectacle of fall says "run for cover, winter is coming!" At retailers, gardening tools and pool supplies disappear overnight and are rudely replaced by heaters and insulation wares, while the media rhapsodize about comfort foods and families gathered around a roaring fire.

Immediately after Thanksgiving comes the Christmas avalanche of trees and ornaments, while carols play nonstop everywhere, from elevators to parking lots. Ho, ho and more ho. The only encouragement to go outside is the need to hang Christmas lights or if you have enough money, to dash to the airport for a vacation somewhere else.

In San Miguel, the definitive sign of autumn arrives in early October, when it stops raining--abruptly and utterly--and the humidity plummets. It will drop down to the single digits by mid-December and your skin will feel sere as rawhide.

Lack of rain will turn the landscape to various shades of gold, even though most of the trees will stay green, along with cacti and other desert plants that shrug at the arrival of the dry season.

Most of the trees here--mesquites, huizaches, pirules--have tiny leaves that hardly perspire and that's how they survive without moisture for months on end. Also their roots. Ever try to dig up a mesquite? Even a young tree is likely to have tap roots going fifteen or twenty feet straight into the earth in search of any buried drop of water.

For the farmers, fall is judgment time when nature reveals the results of all that ground work they put in earlier in the season. This year nature was stingy, even cruel. Early rains around May and June filled farmers' heads with visions of bumper crops but in the end we only received half the normal rainfall. So the crops withered, and most of the dreams of plump ears of corn, bean pods and squash never materialized.

All that's left for farmers, like Don Vicente, whose ranch abuts ours, is to collect the dry stunted corn stalks and gather them in tepee-like piles that will later be used to feed livestock. It's an all-manual job that involves men and women of all ages, and even young kids, hunched over with machetes under a sun that  now mercifully sags over the horizon rather than blasting from directly overhead.

Our temperatures drop significantly at night. We've already had a couple of nights of below-freezing weather that left a half-dozen jalapeño and serrano chiles we had finally coaxed out of the ground looking like they'd been electrocuted.

Our herbs--an odd collection of basil, parsley, rosemary, marjoram and thyme--were hastily transferred to clay pots and are now huddled in a corner of the terrace from where they watch the sky apprehensively. Basil and parsley surely are not going to survive many cold nights.

But during the day, temperatures rise to a near-perfect mid-70s, with constant breezes and sparkling skies. Day after day, for weeks on end. At night there are so many stars dangling above you feel like you're living in a planetarium.

There's no reason for anyone to hide inside during the day. Hummingbirds are arriving, not fleeing. In fact Félix the gardener has a mini bumper crop of lettuces and other leaf vegetables already going in raised beds whose only protection is plastic sheeting after dark.

No need to fear snow either, though a couple of years ago a freak storm dumped about an eighth of an inch of the stuff on the startled vegetation. I barely got a chance to take pictures before it had all melted around 10 a.m.

If there is anything here reminiscent of Midwestern autumns is the resetting of the clocks for Daylight Savings Time, but even that ritual comes a week earlier in Mexico. That means that our three dogs who are used to licking our faces at 6 a.m., clamoring to go outside, now do that at 5 a.m., despite all efforts to ignore them. Some things don't change.

[P.S.: Some readers say they are unable to post comments on the blog. I don't know why that is. If you have that problem, send me your comments and I'll post them myself. My e-mail is ]


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Following the bouncing exchange rates

For many Americans in San Miguel tracking the exchange rate of the Mexican peso vs. the U.S. dollar is a pastime with potential payoffs as well as guilty feelings.

When the dollar goes up, or the peso down, expats whisper excitedly to one another about running to the bank to exchange a bundle of dollars and take advantage of a mini windfall. In fact if the exchange rate goes from 12 to 14 pesos to the dollar, our cost of living as reflected by the greater buying power of the dollar, theoretically increases by nearly 17 percent.

When we were building our house, the value of the peso kept dropping during the nine months of construction, which we figured reduced the cost of the project by a significant amount.

There were also some favorable (for us) turns in the exchange from the time we put a down payment on the land to the actual closing six months later, that we figured saved us about $3,000US. In this case, the deal was denominated in dollars which had gone down in value.

But Don Lucas, the 85-year-old rancher who sold us the land, was a cagey sort whose abilities to make a buck have not been at all eroded by age. I suspect he sensed he had somehow been screwed out of some pesos and later refused to repave the right-of-way to our property, as promised in the sales agreement. That cost us nearly $5,000US.

Then again, Lucas has a well established reputation for trying to shaft everyone he comes in contact with--Mexican or American--whether he's selling a piece of land or a burro. For him, it's just a way of doing business.

Point is that whatever we "saved" in the buying of the land pretty much was eaten up by the unexpected expense of paving half a kilometer of road.

Exactly what propels the dollar or the peso up or down is a mystery to me.

From where we stand, the American economy looks dim and prospects of an early recovery even dimmer given the political impasse in Washington, which could be described as, ahem, a "Mexican standoff."

Meanwhile, the Mexican economy grew by 5.5 percent last year and is expected to go up about 4 percent in 2011. At the moment Mexico's is the 11th largest economy in the world, according to the World Bank.

Visit the neighboring state of Querétaro and there is so much housing, road and factory construction you can almost hear a mariachi version of "Happy Days Are Here Again" playing in the air.

So why is the exchange rate almost 14:1 now compared to 10:1 in 2008? Why is the peso going down and/or the dollar up?

I dunno.

How a favorable exchange rate benefits Americans is also hard to figure out. Bananas and onions at the produce market suddenly become cheaper, a boon to foreigners and certainly a bust to Mexican vendors whose currency and merchandise suddenly is worth less.

But not quite. Large Mexican enterprises--the telephone company and retailers like supermarkets and Costco--have the sneaky habit of raising prices when the dollar goes up, supposedly to compensate for higher import costs.

Our monthly internet fee with the telephone company went from around $599 pesos in June to $698 this month--with no explanation or warning from Carlos Slim, the owner of the phone company and the first, second or third richest man in the world depending on how the Dow Jones market is doing.

In his defense, Carlos might argue that increased costs for imported equipment or whatever justify the 16.5 percent price hike, which neatly follows the approximate fall in the value of the peso since June. Except his labor and other local costs didn't go up that much.

No point in calling TelCel, the company that sells the wireless internet gizmo that we use, to demand an explanation. Whomever you get on the line won't have an explanation or share it with you if they do.

At the end of the afternoon, though, it's the rank-and-file Mexicans who get the worst deal. The costs of many sundries go up but their income generally doesn't. And once large companies or retailers raise peso prices they are not likely to reduce them later to account for currency fluctuations.

Americans in San Miguel, some of whom never cease searching for things to feel guilty about vis-a-vis Mexicans, will somberly lament the impact of the falling peso on poor people.

A few years ago we  gave our maid a raise to make up for the shrinking peso which had gone from 11:1 down to 13:1 between 2006 and 2009. Of course, the peso subsequently went up and Rocío got herself a deal, ending up earning about $5US an hour which is a very handsome pay for a maid. So we don't do that anymore.

Soriana, one of two large supermarkets in town, recently installed digital price labels on its shelves complete with a sensor, a system which presumably allows easier changes in prices.  It's hard to tell if the prices are changing up or down. I'd bet on up. 

As I write this Stew is on a shopping blitzkrieg at the Costco in Querétaro, another instant bellwether of rising prices on account of changing exchange rates. I'm betting on increases there too.

So much for any windfall from the rising value of the dollar.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Looking at the bright side

At the suggestion of my friend Billie, a couple of days ago I began plowing through "The Artist's Way," by Julia Cameron. "Plowing" is not used loosely. What I got from is an anthology of her three books about creativity, a tome which looks and feels as formidable as the Koran.

In fact, the first 100 pages or so of it may lead some readers to quietly walk over to the bookshelf and put Cameron in their New Age or Wu-Wu collection, next to the "Road Less Traveled," "Buddhism in Three Easy Steps" and the Dalai Lama's greatest bumper stickers.

Except I'm neither an atheist nor allergic to 12-step programs or Wu-Wu-ism in general, and after the good money I paid for the book, by G-d, I'm going to read it. Too early to guarantee I'll finish it, but so far so interesting.

Cameron's plan is to release the bottled-up or blocked creativity that's in our heads, specifically the right side of our brain, or for that matter all around us.  A myriad factors block our creativity, particularly a chorus of finger-wagging Censors telling us to remain on the safe, logical, left side of our brain, because our creative impulses are for some reason impermissible, impractical, foolish.

Law and medical schools are full of people who may have been better off--certainly happier--if they'd stuck with playing the flute or becoming a chef. The Censors may include parents, cousins, siblings, partners, one's own trail of bad experiences or failures, fear or what-have-you.

My own chorus is not quite the Mormon Tabernacle Choir but large and loud enough to stifle many of my ideas and ready to strike up a tune at any time. By the sound of Cameron's book, I'm not alone.

The first step in her book is to write a three-page "morning paper"--long-hand and unedited--of anything that comes to mind. Every morning. Gripes, stories, observations, wishes and whatever, that you just file away unread in an envelope. As a career writer, one thing I'm told to avoid is "writing" the morning paper by noodling or pre-editing what goes down on the page.

It's easier read than done. The Censor wakes up bright and early, I think earlier than the rest of me. The first day it took ten minutes before a word landed on the page. Ballpoint or fountain pen? Why doesn't the fountain pen work? I should unclog it before I start no? Let me find a notebook. Nope, don't have one, need to get a special notebook at Office Depot. Maybe I should put out my new dog first before he poops somewhere. All this and other mental detours before I started.

As I understand it, the purpose of the morning papers is to help you jot down all the "logical" stuff in the mind and with that out of the way start tip-toeing to the right side of head, the creative, subconscious side, presumably a storage bin or stifled or censored notions. Indeed, from what I recall, my first morning paper had a lot of should's rather than I will try this or that, or just plain W.T.F.'s.

But hey, one mustn't massage this too much, lest logic and censors and choke spontaneity and creativity.

By the way, I did unclog the fountain pen after the first morning paper, and went for a yellow pad.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

A night at the General Hospital

At around 7:30 p.m came the call, just as Stew and I were ready to have dinner. Félix, our gardener/handiman/watchman, wanted to redeem my offer to take his wife, who is eight months pregnant, to the hospital if an emergency came up. She'd been having pains since that morning and had not been able to reach the doctor at a nearby health clinic.

Not the most articulate guy even when he's calm, Félix now sounded like he was speaking in Morse code.

Félix lives in Sosnavar, which he calls un pueblito, "a little town," five minutes from our house. It has only about a thousand residents, most of them straddling the line between poverty and misery.

At night Sosnavar becomes a true terra incognita to outsiders when they discover there isn't a single inch of paved street or sidewalk, much less street signs, and only a half-dozen street lights. Ruts weave around rocks and trees and lead you to an open space which must have been set aside for a town square that never materialized.

Towering over Sosnavar, quite incongruously considering the surrounding penury, is the white dome of the Catholic church, with a cross at the very top that is lit up at night. We can see the dome from our kitchen window.

So intent was I in avoiding trees or rocks on the way to his house that I missed Félix, his wife Ysela and two-year-old Alondra standing in a dark corner waiting for me, and I had to drive back.

Not wanting to retrace my way through Sosnavar's Martian landscape, back to the main road, I just gave Félix the keys, asked Ysela to sit in front, and Alondra to come on the back seat with me. This was the start of a three-hour, first-hand glimpse of Mexico's public health system and the serpentine logic and traditions that guide reproductive decisions by poor Mexican families.

San Miguel's General Hospital was built by the state government about three years ago. It is impressive. I had been there twice before, once to get Stew an X-ray of his foot and on another occasion emergency care for a gringa who lived in our condo complex and had taken a bad mix of prescription drugs. The attention was prompt and professional, with shiny, fresh-out-of-the-box medical machinery  standing at the ready, including a CAT-scanner. No problemas except the staff was unable or not in the mood to even mumble a single word of English.

By now, signs of wear-and-tear, and general weariness, already permeate the waiting area of the combination outpatient clinic-emergency room where people wait, and wait, to be seen by a doctor. It has the glum ambiance of a bus station with no definite arrival or departure times.

There was no waiting for Félix' wife. Pregnant women feeling pains and other people with ominous symptoms are escorted immediately into the emergency room through a pair of glass doors guarded by a couple of short but imposing female guards in uniform with nightsticks dangling from their belts.

Félix, Alondrita and I now just had to wait for one of the guards to announce Ysela would either be admitted to the hospital or for her to walk out on her own and go home.

Alondrita readily killed time with some giggly playing and running with a boy her age whose parents, along with dozens other people in the courtyard in front of the hospital, also waited for word from one of the guards.

Chit-chatting with Félix for hours can be challenging. He's not one to have an opinion about the Republican presidential primary or climate change. I once tried to explain the Irish potato famine and he just looked at me politely but blankly.

He's a very bright guy; it's just that he and I look at the kaleidoscope of daily living from different ends. Of necessity his perspective is one of day-to-day survival.

So he told me about Ysela's first and rather complicated pregnancy. It turns out she has epilepsy and high blood pressure and Alondra had to be delivered by emergency Caesarean section at a government hospital in Irapuato, a mid-size city about two hours from San Miguel. Ysela was hospitalized for eight days during which Félix sat and slept on the benches in the emergency room.  

This time around Félix and Ysela, aware of the potential medical complications, frequently visit either a small clinic in Corralejo, a Sosnavar-size town a couple of miles away, a doctor in San Miguel, or in this case the general hospital. 

Félix clearly worries about his wife, enough to ask his boss for a ride to the hospital at 7:30 on a Monday night, but he seldom has shown any emotion to me. At age 25, he seems to have the impassiveness, stoicism--or resignation--of someone twice his age. 

The only time I've seen Félix choke up was when Stew found Chupitos, his favorite dog, dead on a field across from our land. They had to load the mangled carcass on a wheelbarrow, cover it with a black garbage bag, and wait for a backhoe to come and dig a grave. Félix was visibly shaken. 

After a couple of nervous pauses, Félix talked about the size of Mexican families, and who-had-how-many-kids. Take the case of Lucía, a Sosnavar woman with 74 grandchildren. That's 7-4, or seventy-four. He calmly explained that Lucía, one of his father's sisters-in-law, had, hmm, 12 or 13 children, so given the laws of addition and multiplication, 74 was not a number that difficult to fathom.

Last weekend too, some woman in Félix' vast cobweb of a family had buried a seven-month fetus, her second still-birth in as many years. The woman already had six daughters and a boy, but she and her husband insist on having another boy. Both of the dead babies were boys, Félix pointed out, suggesting I don't know exactly what. That she continue to get pregnant until a baby boy survives?

On the next breath, Félix mentions that none of his brothers has a job at the moment, despite several children to support.

I fight the impulse to ask questions, much less preach, as I listen to these Sosnavar family tales. How can someone living on the edge, if not chest-deep, in poverty end up with 74 grandchildren? Why doesn't the couple with seven children, and two consecutive still-births, just quit? And by the way, after Ysela has this one baby, shouldn't she quit too, given her potential complications arising from her history of blood pressure and epilepsy? I'm not a doctor, but hers could be considered high-risk pregnancies.

But out of respect for Félix' privacy I don't ask. He's one of the most thoughtful and decent guys I've ever run across, capable of making his own decisions. Besides, as a childless gay man I feel singularly ill-qualified to pass judgment on questions of who-should-have-how-many-children-when, specially in a foreign land with its own cultural mores and customs.

Beginning in the 1970s Mexico has had an aggressive birth-control campaign that has drastically reduced the national birth rate to a level comparable to that of the U.S. But those macro statistics haven't necessarily filtered down to the level of pueblitos like Sosnavar. Indeed, Félix noted that birth control information, pills and condoms are readily available at the small clinic in neighboring Corralejo, but some people don't want to deal with any of it.

For one thing, given the paucity of pensions among the poor, having a sizable brood is one way of ensuring someone takes care of you when you get old.

The night air cooled rapidly and I moved into the waiting room.

On the way in I noticed a rickety man in his 60s with a mangy beard, hunched over on the floor holding his head between his knees. I recognized him as Don José--I never got his last name--whom we had hired to plant the first dozen trees on our property before construction began. I remembered he had a slick line of bullshit and a major drinking problem and that one day he just disappeared. Most of the trees he planted died as their roots strangled themselves because Don José had not dug holes large enough.

I didn't last very long in the waiting room when I realized it was a cauldron of germs with wheezing and sneezing all around me, and noticed a man sitting next to me holding a colostomy bag.

Finally Ysela came out through the glass doors, still holding her belly but now with a faint smile on her face. She handed Félix the prescription and he ran next door to the pharmacy to fill it, also at no cost to him.

The diagnosis was cystitis, an inflammation of the bladder usually caused by a bacterial infection. The prescriptions were for an antibiotic, an anti-spasm medication of some sort, and generic Advil. The day after she was feeling much better.

As we headed back to the truck, Félix pointed out that Don José had moved, or someone had moved him, and was now lying just outside the waiting room, covered with a blanket and sound asleep.

We all climbed in the truck. Tired from a long night of playing, Alondrita huddled close to me on the back seat and immediately fell asleep, and we headed back to Sosnavar.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Annus mirabilis

That's Latin for "a miraculous year", such as 1905 when Einstein published his theory of relativity. About an hour ago a San Miguel municipal official in a pickup stopped by to deliver news not as earthshaking as E=mc2, but astonishing nonetheless.

The road connecting the ranch to San Miguel, never a main thoroughfare even in the best of times, had developed crater-size potholes, some three or four meters across and 20+ centimeters deep. So in a burst of civic optimism I took pictures of one of the potholes and attached it to a letter to the mayor, asking her to have the road fixed.

I mentioned my initiative to Félix the gardener and Rocío, a woman who comes to clean our house twice a week and they both had a hearty giggle at my naivete. Either there's no money to fix the road or if there was, someone probably stole it, they agreed.

Letter and photo in hand I went to City Hall early this week and was not encouraged. The place was a cacophony of citizens petitioning city officials and other functionaries for something.

Leaving my petition felt like tossing a wine bottle in the Pacific Ocean with an SOS note inside hoping it would reach New Zealand.

That was two days ago and this morning--zowie!--a hand-delivered written response from City Hall.

Alright, alright, the road hasn't been fixed yet. If that happens 2011 may become a magnum annus mirabilis, if there is such a thing. Albert would be jealous.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Pointer-ish sort of guy

It's always a dangerous thing to let my partner Stew wander unsupervised around the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, San Miguel's animal shelter. Sooner or later one mutt will make goo-goo eyes at him and Stew will be ready to put it in the back seat of the truck.

This time around a beagle named Jack caught his eye, but once the dog let out a beagle-type howl it set off bad memories of our late beagle J.D. Named after Jerry Donald, someone we knew at the time, what J.D. lacked in brains he made up in stubbornness. He was never housebroken and as if to spite us, lived to the ripe old age of 17. We didn't hate him, but J.D. was a tough guy to love.

After Jack, Stew zeroed in on another smallish S.P.A. dog named Chino. It was friendly enough, a short-legged guy vaguely reminiscent of a corgi, with a thick mane of black curly fur. Chino and I didn't hit it off. It looked to me like a nursing home lap dog.

Undeterred Stew began working his way up a row of cages at the shelter, with the encouragement of Lynn Weisberg, a friend who volunteers at the S.P.A. Then Stew met the guy above, named Domino. Lynn came up with the odd name because its black spots reminded her of a domino tile.

Domino is about 18 months old and had spent a year at the S.P.A. As far as shelters go, dogs there have it pretty good: They get a couple of meals a day, three hours of romping with the other dogs, and the rest of the time they sit in a clean cage. Some dogs sit and sit waiting to be adopted for as long as five years. The S.P.A. won't euthanize any dog unless it is terminally ill or dangerous.

Disturbances--visitors, a stray cat walking across a nearby rooftop, or another dog walking around loose--inevitable sets off an eruption of howls, barks and whimpering from the 50-odd canine population. By the time Stew had finished his tour every dog seemed to be clamoring: Take me! Over here! Look at me!

I'm not sure why Stew picked Domino, a pointer-type mutt, but off he went into our pickup, to join our other two dogs and three cats at the ranch. He's about forty pounds, with a splatter of spots on his white fur and an enormously long tail.

The first day was not a good opener. Domino refused to come in or let either one of us come near him, so he spent the whole night outside in a pouring rain. The next day we asked Lynn to come by and see if he could get a hold of him.

She did, and counseled patience. Domino had spent most of his life in a cage. The sight of two complete strangers trying to approach him and seven-and-a-half acres of open space was bound to jangle Domino's nerves.

It worked. Domino has settled down considerably over the past four days though housebreaking is still a work in progress. If initially he didn't want to come in the house or have anything to do with us, now he likes to stay close by and we have to shove him out the door to go play with the other dogs.

Best of all, Domino doesn't care about our cats, which return his indifference. Our last attempt at an adoption, a Doberman we named Desi, almost killed one of our dogs and at one point had the head of one of our cats in his mouth. Desi went back to the woman we adopted him from. It was not a happy experience.

Whenever we adopt an animal Stew says they must feel as if they've won the lottery. I don't know how Domino feels but I do feel good about adopting him. I'll feel even better when we come up with a different name.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuning in to the cacti

The precocious cactus and its lute. 
Sometimes we need to accept pleasure when it comes and not ask questions.

On Sunday, with nothing else to do, we invited a couple of friends to go to El Charco Botanic Garden, a small jewel just outside San Miguel, to check out a demonstration of, yes, a cactus playing a lute.

Initially the demonstration left me mystified, but as in Whaat?!  rather than Wow!

A sensuously shaped string instrument made of beautiful carved woods indeed rested at an angle on a small platform covered with Mexican shawls. From the lute two thin wires went to a pot filled with cacti, about five inches high. One of the cacti was pierced by acupuncture-type needles attached at the end of the wires.

Thin needles and wires connected
the cactus and the lute.
And yes, from inside the instrument, which was described a Plasmath Lute, came soft, delightful and random plicking and plucking sounds. Nothing to whistle on your way out, but I could buy a CD of this talented duo to help me relax or even fall asleep.

The signs, in Spanish and English, credited Ariel Guzik of the Laboratory of Research of Resonance and Expression of Nature, for this creation, but shed no light on what it was or how it worked.

An Internet site described Guzik as a Mexican who "designs and produces mechanisms and instruments to enquire into the various languages of nature."

How does it work? How does it work? Is this for real?

I followed a thin white wire going from  underneath the lute to the nearby wall, over the roof of the greenhouse and on to the other side, where it went into a solar-powered box with a small transformer inside. At the lute end there were no signs of speakers or any other sources of the entrancing music.

Finally I gave up as my curiosity surrendered to the music. Whaat!? became Hmm!

These four potted cacti were described as the "audience."
The night before our visit there had been a serious downpour that  awakened the flowers and other plants at the garden just as they were ready to slip into winter dormancy.

We're not supposed to have rain this late in the season and cacti are not supposed to play lutes.

But it was all too beautiful to ask why. So I just enjoyed it.


An unseasonably late downpour the night before seemed to have awakened the plants at the botanic garden.
Dramatic combinations of succulents and cacti turn up where you least expect them.