Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A very quiet week at the beach

Calling a week away from home a "vacation" is redundant when you're retired and your life has no fixed schedule to begin with. So we avoid the word and call our vacation-like outings "trips."

Last week we were on one of our trips, this one to Barra de Potosí, a beautiful beach located in a cove a half hour south of the Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa resorts on Mexico's Pacific Coast, and a seven-hour drive from San Miguel.

The weather was perfect; breezy, sunny and in the mid 80s. The beachfront house we rented was equally idyllic, located barely one hundred yards from the water. Two longtime friends from Chicago joined us and everyone had a great time, mostly eating, thinking about eating, reading, playing Scrabble and talking, with no TV or radio to get in the way. A five-minute walk from the house three or four small restaurants offered fish so fresh it practically jumped out of the water and onto your plate.

Stew tried to play a couple of movies on his laptop but it didn't work. Something was wrong with the audio. Just as well. The only disturbance was the relentless pounding of the surf though after the third of fourth day we didn't even notice that.

In fact it was the quiet that after a while started to get to us. This is supposed to be the peak of the high tourist season and yet there was hardly anyone there. Up and down the beach there were empty hotels, beach houses and condominiums. Scores of cheap white plastic chairs at the beach restaurants looked similarly forlorn, half-stuck in the sand.

Even Ixtapa, north of Zihuatanejo, one of those ready-made resorts developed by the Mexican government and offering a Miami-style skyline of hotels and condominiums by the beach, the ambiance was palpably downcast. Across a six-lane boulevard, a shopping area had several holes where stores used to be.

Where is everybody? Where are the boatloads and planeloads of American tourists that normally crowd the area's hotels and roads? The answer, as far as we could figure out, is that the gringos are afraid. Afraid the U.S. economy may not recover; afraid of losing their jobs or their homes; afraid of the present and the future.

But most of all probably afraid of what is generally called "Mexico's security problem." Bullets, narcotraffickers, drug cartels, beheadings and general mayhem, made ten times worse by the fact that Mexico is a foreign place with a salty reputation for bandidos, cheap hookers, lawlessness and who-knows-what. Think Tijuana and other honky-tonk border towns. No matter how calm Mexico is or may become, for many American it'll never be quite as comfortable as the more familiar Tampa or Dollywood, Tenn.

American media can be blamed for not parsing the bad news coming from Mexico--indeed the U.S. media really doesn't parse or analyze much of anything--but you still have the fact that during the past five years 45,000 people have been killed as a result of the country's drug wars, give or take a few thousand. That's an awfully big pile of bodies.

Yet Stew and I keep on going on regular road trips, to Mexico City, the beach, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Xilita, Chihuahua and the Copper Canyon. We're planning other jaunts to Mérida and a resort south of Mexico City, a tour of cheese factories near Querétaro. For some reason, we don't feel afraid.

Part of it is familiarity. Last summer we went to Chicago and later read that during our five-day visit twelve people had been murdered. But we're not afraid to visit because we know the place and where to go and what to avoid. Stew and I lived there for thirty years.

Same thing may be happening with us in Mexico, as we enter our seventh year here. We've found out through interminable rides on buses and cars that Mexico is a huge place and that there are spots in which you don't want to linger, like the towns along the border where the overwhelming majority of the drug-related killings take place, or the hinterlands of Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located. Outside of those areas, Mexico feels safe to us.

Every report I've read also says this is an intramural war within the narcotrafficking world, that hasn't spilled yet onto the general population, as was the case in Colombia several years ago where kidnapping folks off the highways was a national pastime. In Mexico we drive with our car doors locked and will resolutely turn down any requests to transport cocaine or methamphetamines in our pickup.

These explanations and nuances hardly add up to a credible marketing campaign to revive Mexico's tourism sector. If nothing else there are a lot of other beaches and warm spots all over the Caribbean and Central America where there are no drug wars or killings--or at least none Americans have heard of.

In Barra de Potosi we should have been happy there were very few other tourists to block our views or mess up the beach. And frankly, we were. But it was still a bit sad to see the worried looks on so many people who depend on tourism to survive. Even the beach mutts who live on handouts seemed to be working extra hard.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Overture to a rain dance

It is ungrateful for anyone in San Miguel to complain about the weather here, which is about as mild and even as you can pray for. No Chicago-like deep freezes or Houston-like saunas. Particularly in the past couple of years, when there have been floods, tornados, blizzards and other disasters in the U.S., our weather, with slight seasonal blips, has remained pleasant.

As I write this, at 10:23 a.m., the skies are hazy, temperature 78 degrees, relative humidity 44 percent, and the winds calm.

Ungrateful yes, but I'm going to complain anyway. At just about the midpoint of our dry season, when we can still expect four more rainless months, I'm growing tired of the browned and flowerless landscapes and the scorched hillsides which by now look like they are suffering from a creeping mange.

There have been some gray clouds loitering above in the past couple of weeks, accompanied with some gurgling noises, but pfft. We even had teaser raindrops some days ago but so few and brief the dogs didn't even bother to come inside. Their noses pointed contemptuously at the sky, they scoffed, "You're not fooling us!"

There's a certain apprehension around here this dry season. Last year we only received about 12 inches of rain, about half of normal. Shouldn't complain about that either given the drought that has seared  much of Texas and northern Mexico for the past two years, killing hundreds of thousands of cattle and pushing small farmers closer to ruin.

Still, the holding ponds, lagoons and other artifices to help man and beast survive our eight-month long dry season were only one-third full this year and by now are bone dry and dusty.

Gov. Rick Perry's showboat religiosity and prayers for rain don't seem to have had any effect on either side of the border.  Maybe he should have spent more time in Texas praying and brushing up on the number of justices in the U.S. Supreme Court. It's nine, not eight.

As far as I can tell, San Miguel sits perilously at the southern edge of the drought that is beating down on the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Will it spread toward us or retreat northward?

The gray yet barren clouds we've had could be a good sign, say the farmers, an auspicious warm-up, an overture containing tunes hinting of things to come. Farmers also quote experience to assure everyone that the lack of wind, a fixture usually late in the afternoon, is also a good omen. Indeed, some of them are already plowing their plots, making them ready to receive the usual seeds of corn, squash and beans as soon as the clouds finally open up.

Another comforting sight, aside from our still-green trees, is our vegetable crops chortling in our two raised beds, oblivious to the withered surroundings.

Though I buy the seeds, this tiny oasis is Félix' creation, which he nurtures daily, raising the plastic covers when it gets warm outside, watering the plants and sowing more seeds, and lowering the plastic when he goes home. It's his baby and he is justifiedly proud of it.

A half-dozen types of lettuce, spinach, arugula, a tasty little weed called mizuna, mustard greens, kale, and radishes make up this tiny jungle. Stew and I are eating more vegetables now than ever in our lives.

Bill Barnes, a blog reader from Florida, recently visited San Miguel and dropped off a bunch of seeds, many of them unavailable locally. Thanks Bill. He also wrote me that he's already busy planting his garden plot with onions, peas and carrots. He's encouraged me not to give up on growing different varieties of tomatoes. Between the uncooperative soil and the iffy rains, my impulse is to stick to the same-old crops. That's not much fun.

An hour after I started writing this blog, the temperature has risen to 86 degrees, the humidity shriveled to 28 percent and there's not a cloud in the sky.

The rains will come, I'm sure, but not today.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A date with Doña Huesera

Hueso in Spanish means "bone" and in Mexico, a huesera is a healer who works with bones, massaging, twisting and manipulating them in the style of a chiropractor, albeit without the patient information questionnaires, fancy examination tables or insurance forms.

After a week of soreness in both of my feet, caused by chronic tendonitis, I heeded the advice of an American friend and Félix the gardener--that inexhaustible source of Mexican folk wisdom--and headed for Doña Remedios, the local huesera, for some treatment. My gringo friend had had a nagging hip pain cured and Félix a left foot he had dislocated while playing soccer coaxed back into place.

And hey, Remedios is Spanish for "remedies" and she has a busy enough practice that appointments are recommended. Those two omens were enough to convince me to give her a try. There might be something to this.

When I got to her clinic, actually a combination treatment room and a tiendita--a tiny store usually attached to someone's home and selling mostly sweets and soft drinks--I had to wait outside because she was currently assisting another patient, who eventually emerged. She was an unsteady and dazed-looking woman in her forties, hanging on tightly to the arm of a teenager, probably her daughter.

Get a Pepsi and a bone realignment here
When I finally I entered Doña Remedios clinic I realized this was not going to be a quickie medical treatment, but a peek into a world that combined religious fervor and magical realism with gritty reality, and a thriving micro business with a genuine concern and understanding of other people's suffering.

Doña Remedios was a small, bossomy middle-aged woman, with a round face, sparkling brown eyes and an easy smile that revealed several gold teeth. Her hands, the main instrument of her healing trade, were chubby and small though quite powerful, as I was to discover. She was wearing a bright-green blouse of a shiny material that was almost iridescent. If you believe in personal auras, hers was one of kindness.

The small courtyard on the way to her treatment room had not yet recovered from Christmas. Decorations still hung from the trees, and a weather-beaten Nativity scene, with some of the protagonists missing, sat atop a bed of straw.

The actual examination room was maybe twenty feet square, with a cloth curtain for a door. It was an inner sanctum recently built apart from the main house and the tiendita, with a half-dozen folding chairs lined up outside as an outdoor waiting room for patients and their relatives.

Inside, the only furniture was a small dresser, with some bottles and potions on top and a grisly picture of Jesus hanging on the wall, all bloodied and contorted in pain. It struck me as an odd picture for sick people to look at. I would have picked instead a radiant, smiling Jesus ascending heavenward. Or maybe the two side by side, as a more auspicious before-and-after tableau.

A grungy sleeping bag, a pillow and some rags laid on the floor, next to a metal folding chair. She asked me to lie down but then changed her mind when I said the problem was with my feet. So I sat on the chair and she knelt at my feet, rubbing my left foot forcefully with an unguent that smelled like Ben Gay.

Then the serious treatment began with a glass cup, about the size of a large shot glass. She poured a liquid, probably alcohol, out of bruised plastic soda bottle that also contained what she described as "healing herbs," and set the content of the glass on fire. When the flame died off she applied the glass to my foot, which created a vacuum and sucked up the skin. She repeated the treatment throughout my foot, while explaining she was sucking "the cold"--el frío--out of my feet.

Much to her credit, Doña Remedios pointed out right away there was something wrong with the tendons and shape of my left foot, an accurate spot diagnosis considering she had no equipment but her eyes and experience.

Far more interesting though were the stories that poured forth during the treatment. She had learned healing in San Miguel and had been practicing for many years and apparently had developed quite a reputation in the tiny village of Sosnavar, where Félix lives with his family. In fact, she is somehow related to his father, and also to the rancher who lives near our house. In Sosnavar everyone seems to be related to someone else somehow, which may explain the visibly higher-than-normal incidence of mentally handicapped folks I had noticed before.

The patient just before me was an alcoholic, Doña Remedios lamented, a rampant problem in Sosnavar among both men and women who drink not beer or liquor but pure rubbing alcohol provided by a couple of "irresponsible" vendors in town for about ten pesos (ninety U.S. cents) for a large shot glass.

I don't know how a huesera treats alcoholism though, again, Doña Remedios had a keen understanding of the ailment. She observed that the first step toward a cure was for the person to admit they had an out-of-control problem and needed outside help. Whether she realized it or not, she was quoting the first two steps of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 Step Program.

AA meeting houses are ubiquitous in San Miguel there are none in Sosnavar she said. It occurred to me that a recovering alcoholic who brought AA to town could become a life-saving hero.

In fact when I later told Félix the stories I'd heard from Doña Remedios he said deaths from alcohol poisoning are not uncommon and that an alcoholic woman in La Biznaga, the town closest to our ranch, had been buried this past weekend. Previously Félix had confided that his father was an alcoholic who had almost died of it, a cautionary history that perhaps explains why we've never seen Félix drunk or hung over.

On to my right foot and Doña Remedios' fervent Catholic faith. For the past several years she has participated on a nine-day pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, in the state of Jalisco. She went on about the several thousand pilgrims who travel there on foot, on horseback or pickup trucks, and become a blanket of humanity covering the surrounding mountainside.

They march, pray and sing, many of them praying for miracles and making promises to the Virgin in return. Doña Remedios turned serious for a second and warned that people who failed to make good on their promises would be held to account after they die.

She repeatedly urged me to join the pilgrimage next year, telling me of the regocijo--Spanish for "joy"-- that fills the air and the souls of the participants. Visibly moved, her eyes glistened as she told the story. On my way out she lent me a video someone made of the pilgrimage last year.

The treatment and the stories went on for about 45 minutes and cost me five dollars.

Do my feet feel any better? Thought you'd never ask. As a matter of fact they do. Somewhat.

We're going to be out of town next week but when we return I'll be back for more treatment and an additional dose of Doña Remedios' stories.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chucha the survivor

As soon as we began coming regularly to the land were our ranch was to be built, about three years ago, so did Chucha, which immediately became our most devoted and solicitous neighbor. Hers was not the gradual approach to romancing new friends, or at least that wasn't the case with us. It was more like, "Hey guys, can we get this house finished so I can move in?"

Her looks are not her biggest asset. Even before we started to feed her regularly she was a matronly sort, with a beefy torso and legs splayed slightly, which produces a loopy waddle rather than an elegant strut. Old age or perhaps arthritis also make Chucha walk at a slight angle, like an old pickup that was rear-ended and the chassis never quite straightened out.

No matter. Her tail wags constantly and in various directions, depending on the occasion: Up and down, right to left or at times of extreme delight, all around in a whirligig-like motion.

Her nose is grayer by the day and a nervous tic makes her left lip and ear twitch nervously. Her eyes are beginning to cloud up though she seems to still see quite well. She also hears well. And if you insist, she'll let you check her teeth and discover that alas, there aren't many left, basically just a few grungy canines.

Then you have her teats--hence the Ms. Titties nickname we gave her--which dangle from her belly like a rack of medals for "Outstanding Achievement in the Propagation of the Species Canis Domesticus." Indeed two of her progeny, one a male named Negro with identical markings--all black except for a white blotch on the chest and white tips on all four feet--and a female named Brenda, still hang around with Chucha. Feed one and you have to feed all three. Rub one on the head and immediately you have what Stew calls a "group hug." We have no idea how many litters Chucha has produced except she's a veteran mother.

Even if you could pin down her breed, Chucha would never win a ribbon for her looks. But she surely would win something for something: Personality, lovability or just sheer grit. Of the six farm dogs that come to our gate daily, Chucha is by far the oldest--ten or eleven years old at least--a most venerable age for a dog that was born and has spent her entire life outdoors, her owners good for no more than a couple of stale tortillas a day in lieu of food, and living under constant threat from predators, other dogs, cars, disease or human cruelty.

The Darwin Award for survival of the fittest or at least the most determined. That would be a good award for Chucha.

Chucha actually belongs to Don Vicente, a rancher who lives in a ramshackle house downhill from us, with a wife and fourteen children, not all of them from his wife as we understand. He told me that Chucha is special to him because she was a gift from a "female friend."

From the beginning Chucha followed us around and rested her head on either one of our laps if we sat down. Any sign of affection from us triggers a belly-in-the-air routine until we give ten or fifteen seconds of rubbing.

Chasing her away was useless, so we started thinking of adopting her which just didn't work out. For all her sweetness and gentleness toward us, Chucha was definitely an alpha bitch who wouldn't tolerate any competition from other dogs, including our Lucy and Gladys.

Any sight of each other would trigger frightening bouts of growling and snarling.  In fact her aggressiveness is most likely the key to Chucha's longevity. When we used to feed the other dogs, including Negro and Brenda, they would all give Chucha the right of way.

But over the past six months Chucha's supremacy is noticeably fading. Other dogs no longer stand back and let her eat first; now some will even challenge and chase Chucha away. In a touching sign of family loyalty, only Negro and Brenda will still let Chucha eat first; indeed Negro, the biggest member of the pack, occasionally chases and snarls at other dogs bothering or threatening Chucha.

Chucha has had a couple of health scares recently. One of her nipples swelled up grotesquely but the day before we planned to take her to a vet Don Vicente reported that the inflammation somehow had burst and drained by itself. Then a bright red growth about the size of a golf ball appeared dangling from Chucha's rear end. Again, it disappeared. Maybe it fell off or she bit it off. Whatever it was, in a couple of days she was back at our gate looking for food.

Unlike the other dogs, Chucha is no mercenary. She shows up punctually at our gate whenever we come and go, not necessarily looking for food. A quick back rub and a "Hi Chucha!" and a couple of minutes later she's on her way back to wherever she sleeps or hangs out.

Her punctuality has given us a few scares. If she doesn't come, has something happened to her? At her age, we realize one day she's not going to show up for good. We'll miss her and be sad and most likely will say something trite like "for a country dog on her own, Chucha had one hell of a run." In her case, every word will be true.