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.