Friday, March 23, 2012

Uneasy rider

s, Two news bulletins most mothers don't want to hear are "I'm having a baby," from an unwed teenage daughter, or  "I just bought a motorcycle," from a son, probably of any age.

When you think of bikers, sober-looking CPAs or Episcopal ministers don't come to mind. Bikers are more like Hell's Angels and other greasy n'er-do-wells, with beefy mamas tagging along. Worse, cycles evoke images of horrific accidents, even if the bike in question is just a pansy Vespa for going back and forth to school.

After much delay and consultation with anyone we thought could be an expert, last week Stew and I bought a Suzuki 200cc mountain bike. It's not a roaring, fire-breathing dragon, but fast enough to get us around the country roads surrounding our ranch, and farther afield as we get more used to riding.

Stew and our dog Gladys who
 says: "Get me off this thing."
Our moms are long gone so we haven't had to deal with their tut-tutting or their faces wracked with worry as either one of us vrooms off on the bike in a could of dust, albeit that's fanciful image given the modest size of our machine.

Yet our friends haven't hesitated to assume the loco parentis mantle and shower us with horror stories about the cousin twice-removed who was riding his bike and got run over by a semi loaded with broccoli, or the poor neighbor who literally lost his head in a brain-splattering horror worthy of a Mexico City tabloid.

Truth is that Stew and I--and particularly me--are a couple of old chickens unlikely to recreate any Evel Knievel jumps or embark in a pot-smoking cross-country road trip. Indeed, unless I become way more comfortable and relaxed on the Suzuki, I don't think my back or my butt could take those kinds of feats.

So far getting on the bike early in the morning and riding around on the country roads near our ranch, with no particular destination or schedule in mind, has turned out to be a lot of fun. Warnings and horror stories aside, I highly recommend it.

The origin of our motorbike venture probably goes back to a case of sibling envy on Stew's part. His brother Knute has been riding bikes for so long I'm beginning to think he slid off his baby crib right onto a 750cc Kawasaki. A couple of years ago Knute rode a Honda Gold Wing, with I don't know how big an engine except it was really big, from Minnesota to San Miguel and back, a feat that seems as awesome as wind surfing across the Gulf of Mexico.

For my part I went along for the ride because I believe learning something new--a new piece of software, an  unknown bit of history or how to ride a motorcycle--keeps your mind and body functional, or at least a bit more so than sitting in front of the TV watching Martina Navratilova doing a cameo on Dancing With The Stars.

The learning curve has been a bit steeper for me because Stew had some motorcycle experience. At first the array of controls, which keep both of your hands and feet engaged in something or other, can be a bit daunting. Consistently getting into first gear without stalling is still a work in progress for me, even though I can drive a manual car. Perhaps it's time to deflower the Owner's Manual and look for some helpful tips.

But I've only been at it for a week or so. The sight of hundreds of motorbikes in San Miguel, at the hands of all types of people, many of them not too swift-looking, fuels my optimism. "If some of those fools can ride a motorcycle, we certainly can too," I whispered to Félix the gardener, who's discreetly lobbying for some lessons.

A few days after the Suzuki arrived Stew triumphantly blurted out he might like to try a bigger bike later on. How much bigger isn't clear.

For the time being, I'm going to keep on practicing on this bike every day and begin looking in for books on how to build a chicken coop. That sounds interesting and productive, and a bit less nerve-wracking than a bigger motorcycle as long as I follow a friend's advice: Don't name the chickens in case you need to turn them into chicken soup.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cuba on my mind

Omens and premonitions about my homeland have been tap-tapping on my mind, and also on my heart, for the past several weeks. They want attention, resolution.

On Saturday night Stew and I walked through the kiosks of the annual Festival of Cuban Culture in San Miguel's main square. The wares were generally predictable and sad: Dusty books about arcane topics, overpriced cigars, junk posing as arts and crafts, videos and also recordings of Cuban dance tunes, the latter, as usual, attracting a few discreetly swaying young Mexican couples. As an export, dance music is to Cuba what bourbon is to Kentucky.

I always try to greet one of the guys manning the kiosks, ask him what part of the island he's from, and flash a knowing "hey we're both Cuban!"-kind of grin. On Saturday, the man from whom I bought a DVD about Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, was in his fifties and had thick, gray wavy hair combed straight back, and large green eyes. He was from Havana and gave me a cordial nod and smile when I told him I was from Santa Clara.

Hey, we're buddies! Not quite. It's all my imagination.

For about a month I've also been reading a biography of William McKinley, who was president when the Maine blew up in Havana's harbor, which led to the Spanish-American War, the ousting of Spain from the island and the debut of the U.S. as a world power. It was a story central to our history lessons in Cuban grammar school though I never could quite decide if the island really had been liberated or just changed hands from one imperial power to another.

Two weeks ago a friend who came over for dinner studied a framed collage containing my old Cuban passport--in its picture I look like a dorky13-year-old with immense brown eyes--along with my Pan American Airlines ticket stub and baggage claim when I came from Havana to Miami. The one-way ticket cost $25 dollars, and the date was February 8, 1962. Fifty years ago almost to the day. How could I miss the golden anniversary of my arrival to the U.S. of A.?

A far less subtle omen has been Stew, who's been lobbying for a trip to Cuba for months, it seems. He can be as persistent as a woodpecker who keeps at it until the tree topples over.

In Southern Florida, briefly the home of Elián González and for 53 years the headquarters of the Perpetual Anti-Castro Action League, going to Cuba is akin to treason unless perhaps to attend a funeral.

My dad punctually cussed Fidel and his mama every morning, like an ancient sunrise ritual, until he died a few years ago at age 94. Any mention of anyone going to Cuba just to travel and check out the joint would set him to angry stammering.

But that's not the reason I haven't visited Cuba before, except for a too-brief trip in 1998 when the newspaper I worked for sent me for a few days to cover the pope's historic visit.

I never lived in Southern Florida for any length of time or were infected by the political passions that wrench the gut of Cuban exile community (less so every day as old-timers just pass away).

I'm not a communist, Castroist or socialist, mind you. I just don't react with the fury expected of a Cuban exile at the sight of Cuba's official government newspaper, or Ché Guevara's picture on a wall of the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. The Spanish embassy no doubt has picture of the king and queen and of the Alhambra.  I figure that's how embassies fill wall space.

Portrait of the artist as young man, ca. 1956
Yet as far removed from Miami and Americanized as I have become, Cuba has never left my mind. No matter how many other things occur to me, Cuba remains a gauzy backdrop to my life, constantly inviting me to take a peek behind it, confront fears and resolve, or at least put to rest, unresolved questions.

Following me as I've moved around the U.S. during the past 50 years have been boxes labelled "Cuba," containing the expected family photographs but also postage stamps, posters, a gym tee-shirt from fifth grade, and a diary I wrote during the final days of 1958, when Ché Guevara and other revolutionaries were attacking Santa Clara, a battle that ultimately toppled the Batista dictatorship. The diary is written in a labored, almost childish, handwriting, and illustrated with drawings having to do with Christmas. I sound delighted when the revolutionaries finally win on New Year's Day.

This haphazard collection of Cubanalia by all rights should have been fatally misplaced some time ago but instead has followed me like a puppy wagging its tail, begging "look at me, I want attention, you need to sort this out."

I became a U.S. citizen in 1970 and travel with an American passport, except in Cuba. Cuba doesn't recognize U.S. naturalization or citizenship, and insists that all Cubans born in the island visit with a Cuban passport. It's as if Cuban citizenship is as immutable and irreversible as circumcision.

Stew and I have traveled quite a bit, and our travels typically are preceded by excitement and chaos. We may pack so much that it looks as if we're part of Liza Minnelli's Twelfth Farewell Tour. Or we may just pack a camera bag, jeans and some underwear and wonder at our destination what happened to the toothbrushes.

But for me this trip is a constantly changing mix of excitement and trepidation. I've fussed over details like I've never done before any other trip.

My former home in Santa Clara holds some good memories of my dad building me a bench for my chemistry set, and of my various dogs, cats and the parrot. But it's also like a civil war battleground: My last couple of years there witnessed my parents' scorched-earth divorce, with me, an only child, bounced between the two sides like a volleyball.

My family was not remotely rich--more like members of a wobbly middle-class--but even then the government took all they had: my mother's job, my dad's small print shop, the house and everything in it, the 1954 Chevy, that prized possession. Even the damn parrot disappeared one day.

By the time I left, the old neighborhood looked as if it had been hit by a neutron bomb. The real estate remained standing alright but most living beings, our friends and neighbors, were gone.

What will I feel at the sight of the old 'hood, no doubt looking more alien and forlorn now, after 50 years?

I plan to visit the Catholic school I attended, right up to the American equivalent of seventh grade. The building is still there, I checked in 1998, a formidable three-story, corner edifice painted a pukey shade of pink that had never been refurbished by the glorious revolutionary government. The large, wooden jalousie windows were rotting or gone altogether, leaving gaping holes that invited the tropical rains to blow in and ruin our desks, with our notebooks and pencils neatly tucked underneath.

Though some of the classmates are still in Santa Clara--the son of one of them is going to drive us around the island--others, perhaps the majority, have ended up abroad, in Miami, Spain, Honduras and me in Mexico. A few have died.

A classmate who lives near Atlanta has methodically documented the diaspora, though some classmates haven't been heard from or don't want to participate in any nostalgia-fueled census. I'm doing some research of my own to track down other survivors when I'm in Santa Clara though I wonder: What will we want talk about once I find them?

The fact that Stew, "mi compañero"--my partner--of nearly 40 years, will accompany me will confirm the suspicions of some of my former classmates who, by the fifth grade, already had tagged me as the class fag and made me the target of endless bullying. I don't remember myself as particularly effeminate but rather timid, keep-to-myself type, which in some minds meant--quite accurately it turns out--"queer" or maricón.

Yet this maricón left and did quite well, while some of his tormentors--I remember one in particular--got stuck in Cuba condemned to live through decades of grim Soviet colonialism, the horrific "Special Period" after the end of the multi-billion Eastern bloc subsidies, and generally to lead lives that haven't gone anywhere. Or maybe they have.

Our stop in Cienfuegos, a city on the southern coast of Cuba, will involve tracking down the only cousin I have left in the island and making arrangements to bury my mother's ashes in the family plot, if such a thing still exists. If Stew and I don't find my cousin or the family plot, I'll just scatter her ashes over the sea.

The other two stops, Havana and the colonial city of Trinidad, near Cienfuegos, will be purely for touristing and taking photos. We'll be staying and eating in people's homes, "casas particulares," which should give us more of a taste for life in Cuba than one gets at overpriced government hotels, particularly if my "Hey, we are all Cubans!" cordiality works and I can fire up some good conversations.

Despite all the questions and what-ifs, excitement and curiosity are gradually overtaking my fears. Stew, for one, acts like we're  going to the moon. I hope he packs properly.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

About the birds and the bees

If the level of partying and fornication--and the number of stings inflicted on nearby humans and animals--reflect the health of a beehive, then Stew's is a doozy.

He had installed the bee box, custom-made by a local carpenter, six weeks ago but the actual bees, about seven or eight thousand of them, didn't arrive for another two weeks, along with the queen bee and six "assistants" in a separate container about the size of a matchbox. The dimensions of bee boxes are pretty much standard the world over with the exception of Mexico, which uses its own measurements.

The queen bee and her attendants travel
first-class from Veracruz.
Following that, the tiny chamber with the queen bee and her cortege went into the beehive. One end of this "queen cage" had a three-eights-inch hole plugged with a sugar putty that kept this group alive while in transit by bus from Veracruz. Once in our beehive, the other bees would gnaw at the putty until it was gone and the queen was able to get out and mingle.

Bob Lewis, or Bee Bob as Stew calls him, replaced four empty panels in our box with others already covered with thousands of agitated bees. Then Stew filled a container in the beehive with a solution of half-water half-sugar, almost like asyrup, to feed the bees until the landscape had enough flowers to sustain them.

Bee Bob replaced the top and that was it, until a week later when the sugar syrup container had to be refilled.

Armed with his smoke gun, filled with smoldering pine needles, his bee bonnet and elbow-length gloves, Stew hesitantly approached the beehive, lifted the top and pumped a few shots of the aromatic smoke at the bees.

It turns out that the amount of smoke makes a difference: You need to pump just few whiffs of smoke to mellow out the bees a bit while you futz around with the bee box. Add too much smoke and you have one pissed off bunch of bees.

The other bees travel steerage. 
Guess which happened. Yes, ma'am, an angry swarm of bees buzzed threateningly enough to send Félix and me, and one of Félix's dogs, running in the opposite direction, with bees flying all around us. By the end of this initial experiment, Stew had been stung on an arm, me on the ring finger, Felix on the nose and his dog, Palomita, right on the butt.

So Stew called Bee Bob for an emergency consultation. He arrived the next day in his tired VW Beetle, which has a large decal of a bee on one of the side windows, and the back seat filled with a chaotic heap of beekeeping paraphernalia. Bee Bob doesn't take his trade lightly.

He usually travels with Pepper, a four- or five-pound schmoozadoodle mix which is a show all by herself. Bob picked her up as a puppy after she had apparently survived a bout of distemper which left her with a unique waddle: Instead of her rear legs moving parallel to each other they crisscross, which creates a rear-end wiggle reminiscent of a Brazilian samba. Ask her to sit and she will comply but promptly fall over because she can't quite get those darned rear legs synchronized.

If you're going "awww!" and feeling sorry for Pepper, don't bother. She dances through life quite merrily with a self-esteem that's beyond delusional. She snarled at our dog Lucy, who's about 12.3 times larger, and the day before had picked a fight with a pit bull.

Bee Bob determined Stew's beehive to be very healthy, damn near exuberant. The drones apparently had been mating with the queen quite a bit, which he could tell by some pattern left on one of the panels inside the hive. The queen also had been laying eggs, which is all good.

In its division of labor according to gender, a beehive can be eerily similar to traditional human societies. The male drones sit around the hive for the first half of their month-long lives doing nothing. Then they fly in large groups, called "congregations," to loiter around a cactus or some other interesting place, like dopey teenagers hanging around a shopping mall, shallow-dragging on Marlboros and talking jive.

Then the queen buzzes by and a couple of dozen drones may mate with her before she returns to the hive. The drones--many of them now grinning, sucking deeply on their Marlboros and comparing notes--go back to doing nothing.

Meanwhile the worker bees, all females, are flitting around frantically around the ranch, collecting pollen, nectar and generally doing all the work, like Betty Crockers on speed.

Bee Bob rigs up panels for the "super" to 
go atop the main hive. 
Stew's beehive is doing so well that this morning Bob brought a "super", a half-height extension, with its own set of panel inserts with wax honeycombs, which is stacked on top of the original beehive. Presumably the bees, already cramped below, will readily move into this extension. On Thursday, Bob and Pepper will bring another super.

If the hive continues to thrive, the bees will begin to feed on the flowers that are popping up all over the ranch, on the fruit trees, prickly bear cacti, huizaches, aloes, lavender, and some early wild flowers. The mesquites, which produce the bees' favorite flowers, also are getting ready to bloom. At that point Stew will quit feeding the bees and they will be on their own, feeding on flowers within a three-mile radius from the hive.

Wish I could bring you more astonishing close-ups of the latest activity in the hive, but after the last altercation Felix and I had with the angry bees, I've decided to stay clear away. I don't have a telephoto long enough for that kind of up-close coverage.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Inca contraband

One of the biggest surprises during a trip to Peru several months ago was the breadth of its cuisine including one of its signature dishes, broiled guinea pig. We both tried it. It doesn't taste like chicken.

Actually I don't recall what it tastes like. It's one of those dishes you order on a dare--"I'm here, might as well try it"--but then when it lands in front of you, you squint as you put it in your mouth, try to swallow as quickly as possible without choking, wash it down with water, beer or whatever is handy, and end up not remembering what you ate. Except that you ate guinea pig and you can brag about it to your friends back home or put it in your blog.

One small consolation was that the chef had already cut up the little critter into anatomically unrecognizable pieces. The authentic presentation, which we saw at another restaurant, was a small rodent-like animal on its back, gutted, its four little feet plaintively pointing up in the air. Eat me, I dare you, you omnivorous monster.

The poor guinea pigs aside, "cuys" they are called, Peruvian cuisine turned out to be terrifically complex and unique, and one of its ubiquitous ingredients was corn, dozens of varieties of it in just as many colors, and which appear  everywhere, from appetizers to desserts and drinks.

One of the typical features of Inca archaeological sites are farming terraces girding the mountain peaks like stone collars which, before the Spaniards showed up and ruined everything, were serviced by intricate irrigation systems. If Machu Picchu is an awesome sight today, it must have twice as much so when it was inhabited, its terraces teeming with tens of thousands of corn plants swaying in the cool mountain breezes.

Supposedly thousands of varieties of corn once existed in Peru but today only about 55 types are seriously cultivated and consumed.

One of them is some sort of purple corn, almost black, that we found at a display in a restaurant in Cusco. I asked for an ear, put it in my pocket and then packed it deep inside the luggage, far from the sniffing mutts employed by Mexican customs inspectors. The ear of corn made it through and sat on the kitchen window sill for months. Then on another lark, like eating guinea pigs, we planted some of the kernels, which look like raisins.

They germinated. Not every third or fourth one, but practically all of the seeds we planted, and this Inca contraband is growing merrily in our garden plot. I imagine that our high altitude, about 7,000 ft., may somehow resemble some of the Peruvian sites where it's usually grown, though Peru is far closer to the equator, and I believe much wetter.

I'm not looking for recipes for Peruvian purple corn yet, though I remember a drink called "chiche morado" made with it that was very good, along with some sort of pudding-like dessert. But before then, these Peruvian interlopers have to survive the bugs, rabbits and what-have-you's that vegetables have to endure around here.

If in fact we get some purple corn,  braised guinea pig may be a logical accompaniment. Or not, even cut up into little pieces.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Misión imposible

One of Stew's most annoying habits--to retailers and manufacturers of all sorts, that is--is his meticulous filling and filing of all guarantee cards, along with the documentation required for any claims. Quite often a nearly microscopic message at the bottom a "lifetime guarantee" card may warn that to claim any refunds or replacements you need to submit the sales receipt, the piece of the package with the bar code--plus a certified copy of your grandmother's marriage license.

Stew keeps them all. So when a critical component of his OXO cheese slicer, which came with a guarantee of "lifetime satisfaction," broke a few months back, he returned it to the manufacturer, along with the receipt and a note saying in effect that he was quite alive but not satisfied. A customer service factotum at OXO Central agreed to replace the slicer but sent a snippy e-mail telling Stew he technically was not entitled to it because of some reason or other.

Screw 'em: He got a new cheese slicer.

His consumer rights campaign--"our" campaign really since I get to do all the arguing in Spanish--has scored a few successes but has mostly stalled in Mexico. It seems that the most favored expression by customer service clerks here is imposible, often uttered before I even get to make my case, or accompanied by some non-sensical rationale for dismissing it.

Shortly after arriving in Mexico we bought some energy-saving bulbs from Home Depot, at around eight dollars apiece, that came with something like a ten-year guarantee, clearly mentioned on the package.

One bulb blew up a few minutes after I flipped the switch, so I went back to Home Depot, dead bulb and receipt in hand. "Imposible," said the clerk, three seconds into my explanation. I asked why, and she  paused--you could see her trying to pull a reason from some interstice in her brain--and then said that the guarantee on those bulbs was valid for only for 12 hours after purchase.

"¡Imposible!," I countered, pointing to the wording on the package. Besides, twelve hours was hardly long enough for the bulb to blow up and me to bring it back to the store. I requested to talk to her supervisor and when that didn't work, I asked for the department and then the store manager. I finally got a replacement bulb, much to the astonishment of an assembled group of clerks and other retail dignitaries by now gathered at the customer service counter.

Most other times, our impersonation of Ralph Nader doesn't work so well. To start, many U.S.-made products come with the aggravating caveat "guarantee valid only in the U.S. or Canada." It's ¡Vaya con Dios! if you live in Mexico.

Why Mexican consumers put up with such second-class treatment, from domestic or foreign retailers alike, one can only speculate.

While there may exist a stereotype of the angry Mexican--of a glowering, mustachioed Pancho Villa, bandoleers crisscrossing his chest--in my experience Mexicans consumers more often choose resignation over confrontation.

Waiting at a McDonald's in nearby Celaya, Stew was told that his order would be delayed because of some problem with the hamburger, though his French fries were already on his tray. When the hamburger arrived about six or seven minutes later, Stew said that his fries were cold and he wanted fresh ones. The hamburger technician initially looked at Stew as if he had a grown a rhinoceros horn, but ultimately brought new fries--and tried to unload the stale ones on the Mexican customer next in line.

At first the Mexican customer said nothing but then Stew, embarrassed by the slight, told him in his unique English/Spanish dialect, "you don't have to take that, you should get fresh ones too." The fellow diner reacted with surprise, as if someone had revealed a secret to a happier life. "No I don't," he said with a proud smile, in English a hell of a lot better than Stew's Spanish. The fries, limp by now, went back and the Mexican diner got fresh ones too.

Mexico boasts of a federal Consumer Protection Agency, though like so many rights-enforcing bureaucracies in this country it is useless to aggrieved consumers, particularly this far away from the capital. I have found nothing resembling independent consumer-crusading groups or magazines here of the caliber of Consumer Reports in the U.S.

In fact, tort or liability law for consumer claims, if it exists at all, is something of an occult art. If a doctor amputates the wrong toe, you're as likely to get financial compensation for her incompetence or negligence as you are to get a new toe. ¡Lo sentimos. Vaya con Dios! To libertarians and medical practitioners in the U.S. who gripe about runaway litigation and malpractice awards, Mexico may sound like a piece of heaven. But wait until one of them has the wrong toe cut off.

There is a civil court system alright, where theoretically suits and filed and resolved. But for an individual, even one with bottomless patience and pockets, embarking in such litigation would be like doing the breast stroke in a pool of molasses. A class-action suit against a business giant like the telephone company, the government-owned electric utility or a major manufacturer, for fraud or other unfair consumer practices? That's more than imposible; it's downright inconcebible.

Indeed if you get too testy or go public with your complaints against a service or product provider, the plaintiff may counter-sue for defamation under Mexico's curious libel laws, under which the validity or truthfulness of your complaint is immaterial. Think of such laws as adding injury to injury.

Things may be changing, perhaps as a result of, oddly enough, the example shown to consumers by American retailers like Costco which will accept returns, exchanges and issue refunds with a minimum of fuss. After our lightbulb incident, Home Depot has accepted a couple of our returns, though hardly with a smile.

Even the major local grocery stores now recognize returns and refunds as a part of doing business, but not without having to explain why and then waiting for an OK from the manager who is usually rearranging the radishes at the opposite end of the store. But in ten or fifteen minutes you'll get your money back.

These stores are still a long way from the ultimate "the customer is always right" policy we once encountered at a Treasure Island supermarket in Chicago. An older, well-heeled customer there plunked a half-eaten can of peaches at the customer service counter and said, "I don't like them!"

A less-accommodating clerk would have asked a perfectly reasonable question: It took you half a can to figure that out? Instead the clerk just issued her a cash refund along with a weary smile and a thank-you.