Friday, February 25, 2011

The annual rainless dance

The last time it rained was about four months ago and that's a literal not a relative or comparative statement: We haven't had a drop of rain for four months.

On a few days we've awakened to a dense, almost tropical fog that hid mountains, trees and everything else to within twenty feet of the windows. It seemed to portend rain though it's hard to imagine where the moisture would come from. But by 10 o'clock the auspicious cover had vanished to reveal the mostly sepia scenery, still parched except for the die-hard cacti, mesquite and huizache trees. Whatever haze or clouds there were gave way to the usual unbroken blue sky, with 75 to 85 degree temperatures by noon. The scrawny livestock resumed their listless ambling across the landscape.

Three weeks ago, late in the afternoon, grey, pregnant-looking clouds hurriedly passed overhead. Rain? It's not the season but last year we had downpours and even flooding toward the end of January. But when we returned from town about nine o'clock that evening, the usual dazzling and inscrutable display of planets and stars was all there was in the sky.

Another time, when coming out of a restaurant in town, we and two friends each received exactly three drops of rain each, right on our heads. We all paused and apprehensively looked above, looking for some careless gardener sprinkling a rooftop garden. Then to the sky, but there were no clouds either. No one could figure where the stray droplets came from.

For an off-the-grid operation like our ranch, which relies on the sun for electricity and hot water, this is ideal weather. We've turned on the generator a couple of times since November but just to keep the gasoline from gumming up inside the motor. Otherwise the array of panels on the roof is generating about 14 or 15 kilowatts daily, enough electricity to indulge in such carelessness as turning on the dishwasher at nine o'clock at night or taking a break from the obligatory fluorescent light bulbs.

The hell with it. We screwed in a 50-100-150 watt in the three-way socket that came with a new floor lamp. Conservation has receded somewhat in our heads, as each day we generate more electricity than we need and the storage batteries just gurgle away merrily.

Still, going without a drop of rain for months invariably becomes worrisome, even after living here for five years. Is it ever going to rain again in San Miguel? Is there some ominous spinoff of climate change we neglected to read about?

Say what you will about Chicago's climate, but at least it offers some sort of precipitation, pleasant or otherwise, year-round. Cooing drizzles, blizzards with snow blowing almost horizontally, scary hail and thunderstorms, and sometimes seemingly a combination of everything. Even when there is a drought, you can always look over your shoulder and be comforted by the greenish expanse of Lake Michigan, Chicago's own freshwater ocean.

By comparison, the reservoirs around San Miguel are ephemeral or useless. Swimming holes in the fields on the way to our ranch have all dried up by now, except for one which must be spring fed. Out of our back terrace we can see a man-made lagoon that along with hills, sheep and fields, looks like the centerpiece of an impressionist landscape. But at this stage of the dry season the lagoon has shrunk to half its size and may disappear altogether if the rains don't arrive punctually by mid-July.

San Miguel's main water feature is La Presa or "The Dam," which looks impressive from a distance except its water is a soup of contaminated run offs and sewage discharges that make it unsuitable for anything except as a distant photographic landmark.

A common sight this time of year are acres of burned fields, left after weeds caught or were set on fire. San Miguel's rickety fire department might intervene if the fires come too close to someone's house, but otherwise they are allowed to scorch the weeds and other vegetation undisturbed. The cacti seem to survive, saved I imagine by the water they have stored inside their leaves, along with the mesquites, with their rock-like wood and roots that go deep beyond anything a fire could reach.

Our water supply comes primarily from the 30,000-gallon rain-collection cistern we put under the terrace. When the rains stopped at the end of October, the cistern was filled and we've used only about ten percent of it. Once a week our community well comes alive and delivers water for about four hours, for a fee of $9 dollars a month.

We are resigned to the eventual failure of the community well and being left with only our cistern and the rain clouds that come over San Miguel four months a year, and turn the sepia landscape technicolor, and fatten and cheer up the livestock. The old community well pump has had a few fits recently and it's doubtful that our meager water assessment will be enough to buy a new pump much less drill a deeper well if this one runs dry.

A state government study three years ago showed that the water level of local wells, the primary source of water for San Miguel's rapidly growing population, is dropping alarmingly. And as the level drops, the concentration of hard metals and other chemicals increases, which will eventually make the water undrinkable. Another branch of government, however, apparently approved a new golf course under construction about five miles from here.

But never mind the ominous trends and worries. In another four months or so it will start to rain again, and as far away as that seems, there are clear signs spring is already here. The jarrillas, weedy, four-foot tall bushes are in full bloom with brilliant yellow flowers. The number of customers at our bird bath and feeder is multiplying (and so is our bill for alpistle, a tiny seed locals use for birdseed). Huizaches are turning greener and putting out their own round, yellow blooms. Most auspicious of all, the temperatures are rising: Right now, at four o'clock, it's 86 degrees, 14 percent humidity, clear skies and no wind.

Who are we to doubt the wisdom of the jarrillas and huizaches, the newly arrived finches and other subtle signs that rain is on the way? Meanwhile, we have to settle for what the desert has to offer--beautiful vistas of browns, beiges and spots of dark green under unvariably blue skies. And that's not bad at all.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Murders, he wrote

During the past five weeks two Americans, or maybe three, were found murdered in San Miguel, adding to the smog of bad news and publicity already enveloping the town. In an American or Canadian city of comparable size, two or three homicides coming so close together would have raised public questions or perhaps just one: Who killed these people?

San Miguel, however, is a Mexican town under the rule of a convoluted and ineffective Mexican law enforcement system. As for the expat community, weary of the rat-tat-tat of bad press Mexico has received during the past few years and its impact on property values and the tourist industry, the reaction has been like a reformulated and short-circuited version of the grieving process. Initial shock is quickly followed by denial and finally exasperation: "Do we have to keep talking about this?"

The first victim was an 85-year-old named Peter M. who was found with a plastic bag over his head which presumably asphyxiated him. Or if that didn't kill him, the 15 or so stab wounds all over his chest certainly did. I'd never heard of Peter but evidently he was a long-time and quite notable resident of San Miguel, known for his generosity and good will. In the local English-language paper San Miguel's mayor wrote a letter mourning his passing.

Then the rumor mill kicked into gear and some ex-pats spun the ghastly news into an exceptional event. Peter was a notorious pedophile who had met a just end, likely at the hands of an irate Mexican parent. Just a creepy geezer. The rest of us decent folk have nothing to worry about.

Shortly afterward a young American named Andrew, whose last name and age were not disclosed for several days, was shot to death on a road about 15 miles outside of town. Andrew supposedly had been abducted at La Cucaracha, a local cantina. According to a Mexican paper the murder was fueled by booze and an argument about someone's wife, presumably the killer's.

Barely a week after that, an 80-year-old American, one John F., was found dead. First the gossip was that he had died of a stroke or a heart attack, hardly page-one news in an ex-pat community with so many members at the long end of Social Security. But a few days ago I heard from a friend who had spoken to John's stepson and who said the man had been beaten and robbed in his home.

These incidents compounded the uneasiness gripping San Miguel's foreign community. The crash of the real estate and easy-credit markets in the U.S. already had sent local home sales and prices into a deep coma. In addition, there's the news by the U.S. media about shootings, car jackings, mass graves and other mayhem along the Mexican-American border, an area which thousands of Americans, especially Texans, have to traverse en route to San Miguel's magical climate and colonial ambiance.

Going three years further back, a male couple living in the center of the city was severely beaten, their bodies rolled in area rugs and taken down into the wine cellar where they were left for dead. One lost half his blood but both survived. The assailants allegedly were young Mexicans they had let into their elegant home.

I'm no Jessica Fletcher, and Angela Lansbury is too old to take any questions, but I suspect that in Cabot Cove a crime of such ghastliness would have been filed under "attempted murder" or "assault with intent to kill" or some such, perhaps labeled in bold letters and followed by an exclamation point. In San Miguel it has instead become a stone-cold case file, more likely to be archived under "gringo gay orgy goes bad." Or as the American consular agent Ed Clancy asked rhetorically at a recent meeting on the topic of crime, "why would you let strangers into your home?" A fair question to be sure, but one that doesn't tell us who committed the crime.

About 18 months ago, another gay male was killed in the home he shared with his partner, who was out of town. The intruder, whom the victim supposedly had invited in, got away in the couple's car which they filled with loot from the house. The initial shock was quickly supplanted by gossip that the cause of the victim's undoing was his habit of inviting young Mexican hustlers for sleepovers. Don't worry Ethel, we're OK.

So far you may have noticed the prevalence of hedge words throughout this narrative. Allegedly. Supposedly. Rumor. Gossip. It points to the lack of reliable or concrete information about any these crimes, particularly since dead people don't tend to talk except in Latin American magical realist novels. Instead what we get is a nasty soup of half-baked facts, speculation, wishful thinking, delusion, rationalization and denial.

At the center of this deliberate non-information campaign is the English-language weekly Atención. The murder of the 85-year-old man six weeks ago was duly covered in the paper but with a "news article" on the opposite page, indignantly protesting the coverage of the crime by a Mexico City newspaper on the grounds it was hurting the local economy. In a paper with no holds on cuss words, the headline likely would have been "Shut the hell up already, eh?"

The other two deaths were not mentioned in Atención, not even as statistics in the weekly crime list. One suspects Atención would keep absent-mindedly chirping along about restaurant and gallery openings even as a plague of locusts ate every tree in town.

At a meeting Friday between about 40 expats and U.S. Consular Agent Ed Clancy, it became clear we shouldn't expect anyone to reopen or solve these cases soon, if ever.

In the real world of the Mexican law enforcement system, the arrest and conviction rate in criminal cases is abysmally low. In the narrower world of the local ex-pats, many of whom are already weary of all the Mexico-bashing by the "biased" U.S. media outlets, there's not much enthusiasm to raise a ruckus or press authorities for forceful investigations of these cases.

Clancy, who is fully bilingual and a long-time Mexico resident, is as diligent, affable and unflappable as an activities director in a cruise ship full of gringo retirees. In crime cases involving American victims he acts as a go-between with Mexican law enforcement, and deals with relatives of victims who lived alone. Just as often he serves as a sort of "cultural translator," who reminds Americans that things in Mexican society, including the legal system, function quite differently than back home.

The meeting was held at Cafe, Etc. a tiny, postcard-quaint coffee shop in the center of town. The walls are covered with some art and a far greater collection of kitsch and Mexican tschotkes. The patio holds four umbrella tables. Next to the cappuccino machine by the entrance, owner Juan also runs a prosperous side business that has earned him the nickname "Juan the Ripper": He has a seemingly inexhaustible catalog of bootleg movies which he sells for about $3.50 each. Miraculously, even the latest movies make it into his collection.

Clancy was nothing if not direct in his comments about the recent murders. The Mexican legal system is not too swift in resolving crimes involving Mexican citizens and we shouldn't expect much better simply because the victims happen to be Americans. As for Andrew, who turned out to be about 30, Clancy described him as a ne'er-do-well who had clashed with the law on both sides of the border and was involved in one brawl too many at La Cucaracha. Clancy's summation sounded like "case closed."

Could there be a "gay link" underpinning some of the other crimes, in the manner of "hate crimes" in the U.S.? Clancy said the possibility had occurred to him and he had mentioned it to the authorities. But he added so far there was no evidence of links.

But then think about it: If one person gets stabbed 15 times in one case and a gay couple is wrapped in a carpet and left for dead in the wine cellar in another case, the crime scenes should have been ripe with clues such as fingerprints, blood and hair, particularly if there was a struggle. Of course no links would be found unless the evidence was collected competently and investigators considered the possibility of a hate-crime link in the first place.

At the meeting at Cafe Etc. other refrains and rationalizations were heard. San Miguel is no more dangerous than Dallas or Chicago. The narco war has affected other parts of Mexico but San Miguel has been spared. A grungy bearded guy who said he's lived here for years and years--and years, therefore he is an authority on all things Mexico--wrapped up some of these sentiments with the usual "we are here as guests as ought to stop complaining about the place." It's Mexico Love It or Leave It.

Public attitudes were not as dismissive a few years back when a serial rapist violated six American women. State authorities jumped in and DNA samples were sent to the U.S. for analysis. Ex-pats, particularly the large number of women living alone, were in an uproar--and justifiably so. But the connections between these other crimes, if any, are not nearly as neat as in the serial rapist case, and the victims not quite as immediate or sympathetic.

One concrete outcome of the meeting was hearing about the San Miguel Security Committee, whose website [] has information, contacts, phone numbers and suggestions. Some changes in police investigations to be implemented later this year could expedite the resolution of some of these crimes.

Our ever-resourceful gardener Felix also has been thinking about security at our small ranch. He is lobbying for us to get two medium-large and medium-menacing dogs who would stay outside. Our two dogs, Lucy and Gladys, who snore throughout the night inside, don't qualify for this crucial task. He has selected an ideal location for a dog house and proposed a guy who can do the construction--his brother Juan. Juan just got laid off from his gig replacing paving stones and Felix's other two brothers are also unemployed, waiting until the produce-planting and -picking season starts.

Felix also keeps talking about us buying a gun. One of our American neighbors already has bought one for his night watchman. It's not something Stew and I, who haven't even held a gun in our lives, are willing to consider, at least for now.

Guns are dangerous. Our neighbor's watchman carried his in his pants pocket but reportedly was afraid of the thing going off and blowing off his cojones. So he put it on his shirt pocket and one night shot his arm instead.