Sunday, July 29, 2012

Long live the Queen

Their labors, right outside one of our bedroom windows, went on for about two years but during the initial two or three months the nest never grew much larger than a golf ball-sized lump of mud, neatly and firmly stuck under the wooden lintel. 

The paper wasps kept working right through eight seasonal changes, though, their numbers increasing to several hundred, along with the size of their mud emporium which got to be slightly bigger than a basketball sliced in half.  

The empty nest as we found it this morning.
If you figure the nest was built by each wasp bringing a tiny mouthful of mud, paper bits and other debris and methodically spitting it on the existing pile, this project becomes as awesome in scale as any ancient pyramid even though it's far more ephemeral.  

We expected the wasps would abandon the nest and move on last winter; that's what we had read. But this bunch kept at it, the brown blob growing daily as wasps frenetically shuttled in, dropped their load and flit out for more. 

That is, until this morning, when I found the huge nest totally deserted--pfft! from one day to the next--except for two or three straggler wasps woozily hovering about. 

Its suddenness reminded me of huge Maya or Inca cities that went from grandeur to abandoned ruins in the course of just a few years. 

I had hoped for the wasps to leave because their nest kept us from opening a window. But this morning I was instead a bit sad to see they had so unceremoniously left us. 

The entrance, with a couple of honeycombs visible inside. 
Stew put on his beekeeper costume once more, just to be sure, climbed on the ladder and loosened the nest from its moorings on the window. There was no sign of life inside the honeycomb structure, as least from what we could see through the opening that served as entrance. 

We were scrupulous not to bother the wasps during their two-year tenancy on our window. Unless some critter is aggressive or dangerous we adhere to a live-and-let-live tact with regard to the nature around us. 

In the case of the wasps I had read they wouldn't bother people if left alone. As a thank-you for our tolerance they would hunt down mosquitos and other noxious pests, as part of a larger ecological symphony we'll never begin to understand.  

For all its size--about twelve inches long, ten wide and about eight deep--the nest weighed only one and a half pounds. It's very delicate, like some ancient papier-maché work of art made of layers of paper far thinner than onion skins. 

The meticulously symmetrical honeycomb layers partly visible through the entrance and on the back of the nest yield no clues, at least to me, of what went on inside all those months.   

Neither do I have any idea what caused the sudden and total abandonment of the nest. According to a couple of web sites, winter is the usual cause, but here we've been having very moderate temperatures in the low 80s during the day and down into the 60s at night. In its location under the lintel, the nest was protected from the rain too.

So it must have the death or departure of the queen that caused their hundreds of subjects to leave overnight. She didn't leave a farewell or a suicide note so the reasons for this rather operatic finale will remain a mystery also. 

Two years' worth of work won't be in vain. A friend of Stew at the apiculture club collects paper wasp nests that she converts into some sort of handicraft. 

It's amazing what people will do to pass the time when they retire. 


Here are a couple of links regarding paper wasps.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Speaking in tongues

Engl-ish                     Mexican-ish                        Cuban-ish

Tray                            Charola                                Bandeja
Bus                              Camión                                Guagua
Screwdriver                 Desarmador                        Destornillador
Washer (plumbing)      Empaque                             Zapatilla
Truck                           Troka  (Troca)                    Camión
Sidewalk                      Banqueta                             Acera
Swimming pool            Alberca                               Piscina
(To) crush                    Apachurrar                         Aplastar
Rug                              Tapete                                 Alfombra
Owl                              Tecolote                          Búho, lechuza
Turkey                          Guajolote                            Guanajo, Pavo
Say what?                     ¿Mande?                            ¿Cómo? 
Eyeglasses                    Gafas, Lentes                     Espejuelos

If you think of speaking a language as gymnastics, then bilingualism is more like wrestling, a sport more inexact and difficult to follow particularly when you are dealing with English and two variants of Spanish.

Rancho Santa Clara's multicultural flagpole. 
Although I can converse in English and Spanish, my Spanish effectively became stunted when I came over to the United States fifty years ago at age fourteen, and went on to speak English almost exclusively from there on. Things got even more complicated when we moved to Mexico seven years ago and my Cuban-ish clashed with Mexican-ish.

The Spanish of the educated classes is understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world, transcending differences in vocabulary and colloquialisms. An educated Mexican and a Cuban--and a Chilean and a Spaniard--can all agree on autobus, aplastar, lentes and piscina and converse accordingly.

But when you drop in the local hardware store or San Miguel's Tuesday market, you'd better keep your Mexican-ish handy if you expect to transact business quickly.

Of course, one Spanish variant is not "better" than other. It's not like Parisians scoffing at Quebecois  French, a pretty silly exercise. (Then again, Parisians can be quite silly and self-important a lot of the time.)

In fact, Mexican-ish, with its sing-song quality spiced with Indian words, is much more pleasant to the ear than Cuban-ish, which is a faster, staccato, and often mangles individual words.

Many American friends think I have it made, being a Spanish-speaker in Mexico. But in fact I  have to learn new words every day. Just a few days ago, after reading a road sign, I learned that acotamiento means the shoulder on a highway. A dirt road in Mexico is called a camino de terracería. 

Stew's brother may have figured out the best way to learn Spanish when he visits us: In his pocket he keeps a word list that he constantly updates and is not embarrassed to inflict his Minnesota brand of Spanish on the locals.

My informal bilingualism sometimes can be hard on the brain. A conversation about a complex topic, like science or economics, can strain my teenage-level Spanish grammar and vocabulary.

Then I slip into a sort of mental acrobatics--listening to a sentence in highfaluting Spanish, translating it, or in effect processing the concept into English in my head, and finally trying to formulate a response back in Spanish.

It can be an express route to a migraine. And my interlocutor may notice a split-second delay in my responses, like TV correspondents in Afghanistan being interviewed via Skype.

I stand in awe of professionally trained translators of the type who work at the United Nations, who dash back and forth between two language worlds, while being exquisitely careful with regard to nuance and diplomatese lest they start an international incident with a clumsy turn of phrase.

Translators of fiction are also remarkable, in how they can accurately express not only the factual details of a story but also the style, rhythm and other quirks of the author. And linguistic virtuosi like Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende, whom I have read in English and Spanish, can have plenty of quirks.

During my two weeks in Cuba I was happy to discover that my everyday Cuban-ish is pretty much intact, including some untranslatable Cuban expressions and a full complement of obscenities.

But occasionally I still got stuck if someone dove into a discussion about, say, the future of the proletarian revolution, even if it really doesn't have any.

As I collect and digest my daily quota of new words, both in English and Spanish, I've noticed one needs to be careful, very careful.

Subtitles in American movies can have huge discrepancies in the translations. I almost suspect that Spanish subtitles are prepared by nuns cloistered somewhere in Mexico who feel obligated to soften the blow of purple English.

So "mother****ing something-or-other" in the subtitle comes out as maldito, or "damned," which doesn't quite capture the impact of the original dialogue. 

A final warning about local patois when you travel: Some words can be dangerous. Papaya is a fruit in Mexico but ask for it in Havana and the waiter may excuse himself while he goes around the block to find a young girl with lust in her eyes.

You better stick with fruta bomba until you leave the island, unless papaya is really what you are looking for.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bee Bob Buzzes By

Yesterday, San Miguel's roving apiculture ambassadors, Bee Bob and his ten-pound mutt, Pepper, buzzed by the ranch for an emergency consultation.

The actual emergency occurred about two weeks ago when Stew once again try to answer that perennial question, "What is going on with the bees?"

Honey? Buzz off, we're not in the mood. 
He had donned his official beekeeper costume and, bee-smoker gizmo in hand, lifted the lid of the beehive to take a look. 

It was a really bad idea though the bees seem to be thriving.

They went after Stew in a frenzied swarm that sent him to the garage screaming for me to get the can of insect spray from under the kitchen sink.

I gave Stew what I thought was a good dousing to no avail. I guess I missed the microscopic warning on the can that says: "This crap doesn't work on bees."

Instead the bees became even angrier and took after me in the garage, sending Félix running in one direction and Domino, one of our dogs, in another.

Domino once again displayed his amazing deductive powers by dashing to the living-room door, tapping the lever with his paw to open it and running under the bed where he remained for about an hour, his nose barely sticking out from under the mattress. 

The casualty report was serious. Stew got bit several times on the legs and on the face. I got it a couple of times near my right eye and Félix on the head. Domino didn't want to talk about it.

Bee Bob would have come earlier but he was in the throes of his own existential crisis. He had quit smoking a few days before and was feeling as short-tempered as the bees.

There's a lesson to be learned from this latest apian debacle, Stew says.

First, one is supposed to wear light-colored clothing when approaching the beehive, according to Bee Bob. I don't know why that is.

Second, one should never open the beehive during cool, cloudy or rainy weather. The sun must be shining and the temperatures at least 80 degrees. I don't know why that is either.

Third, one should fold the pants cuffs tightly and secure them with rubber bands and I do know why that is: To prevent bees from flying up your legs, possibly way up there. 

In his capacity as San Miguel's apiculture empresario, Bee Bob recently secured a grant from the local Audubon Society to host a series of four Spanish-language seminars on beekeeping to promote  apiculture among Mexicans.

We volunteered Félix to participate though after being attacked by angry bees twice his enthusiasm for apiculture is definitely muted these days. We mentioned he will get his own beehive after completion of the training.

After mumbling and grumbling for a while, he finally agreed on one condition: He doesn't want the beehive anywhere near his house.

So we'll be setting up his beehive at the ranch, making it three. Three? Yes, undeterred by his mishaps, Stew had ordered yet another beehive from Bee Bob.

There is one silver lining to this latest incident. The original beehive is loaded with honey and it is delicious--or at least that's what Stew says. 


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Waiting for Stephanie

The subject of anyone's sleeping arrangements is a delicate one, but we couldn't help but wonder about Felix's. He and his family--wife and their healthy three-year-old girl and nine-month-old boy--live in a one-room house with no indoor bathroom facilities.

Moreover, the entire family slept on one double-size bed. Never mind how can anyone sleep in such tight quarters, but how does a 20-something couple, you know, play Parcheesi, sip tea and do other things healthy young married couples are wont to do?

It's not as if they can tell the kids to watch TV for an hour or two in the family room or get some fresh air in the veranda.

I didn't explicitly bring up such matters or any other indiscretions but instead offered to help Félix build a separate bed for Alondrita, his increasingly independent-minded daughter. We agreed on a daybed that could double as a place to sit during the day, since they don't have any sofas or armchairs either.

To sweeten the deal I said we'd buy the mattress if he would pay for the lumber. Deal closed, though we ended up paying about seventy of the one-hundred dollars the project ultimately cost. 

I pulled up a dozen designs from the internet, which we kept winnowing down on the grounds that I didn't know much about carpentry and Félix knew even less.

The more complicated and ambitious the piece became, I explained, the more inept and ridiculous it was bound to look.

Think of that junior high shop class, the one in which you got a "D" because you could string three two-by-fours together. That's what I feared.

So we trimmed and trimmed the rough blueprint, erasing features such as armrests and anything with curves on it. After grinding down at least one pencil's eraser, we finally came up with what I thought was a simple yet elegant design, a late masterpiece of minimalist furniture ideally suited to our comparably minimal carpentry skills.

It was then that Félix brought up the matter of Stephanie, his sister-in-law.

The piece had to be substantial enough, he warned ominously, to support Stephanie should she come to visit and plop herself on the daybed for a nap or a long session of gossiping.

Félix's wife Isela is a slip of a woman, shorter than him, probably about five-foot-three, and quite thin.

I mentioned that Mexicans are rather short--chaparritos--and Isela couldn't weigh more than a hundred pounds. How big could Stephanie be?

"Big," Félix said worriedly, putting one hand about a foot over his head and then both hands about a foot on each side of his waist.

"Hmm, that's pretty big," I said.

Some of the woodworking plans I downloaded warned that the most common mistake of amateur carpenters is to overbuild everything and waste lumber in the process.

That's pretty much what happened. Between our limited carpentry skills--and the specter of the day bed collapsing under the heft of his sister-in-law--I estimate we put in about twice as much lumber as needed.

The final product was a small jungle consisting of six four-by-four-inch uprights as legs and to hold the back section; meters and meters of two-by-three's; and an even larger collection of one-by-three's to hold up the critical section under the mattress.

To that we added pounds of screws going in every direction and most of a container of wood glue. One old horse somewhere must have given his life to make all the glue that went into this project.

The daybed turned out to be rather graceful, considering our skill level and the fact it weighs nearly as much as an upright piano. Félix sanded the hell out of every piece of wood, in the process creating a sawdust blizzard in the garage, applied a redwood stain and then two coats of polyurethane.

Stew then gave Félix two pillows with covers that we didn't use, and a set of sheets that are queen-size, but what the hell. Not bad at all.

Up to the last minute, though, Félix kept fretting about whether we should add angle brackets or triangular wood reinforcements in all the critical corners, or perhaps another round of nails and two-and-a-half-inch screws, just for good measure.

We finally agreed on a contingency plan. If Stephanie visits, he'd have her sit on the daybed but keep eyes and ears open for any signs or sounds of wood in distress. At the sound of any ominous creaks, he would offer to show her the flowers outside--while someone goes to get a sturdy chair for when she returns.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tiny miracles

As I trudged through fresh mud this morning to photograph the nearby dry creek, which is finally gurgling and gushing downhill, I ran into another gift left by the heavy rains we've had during the past three days: hundreds, make that thousands, of wildflowers.

Flowers popping up in the spring shouldn't be a revelation anywhere, except they seem like  a particularly special gift here. For two-thirds of the year the landscape is stark and desert-like. Stew's brother visited a few months back and he said he couldn't imagine that it would ever turn green. I e-mailed him a picture this morning to prove that it does.

During our first spring at the ranch hardly any wildflowers showed up, most likely because of overgrazing. Our neighboring farmers, all of them very poor, won't resort to bales of hay or alfalfa until the livestock is damn near starving, usually around May and June.

Until then, sheep, goats, burros and cows just meander around ever more desperately looking for the last bite of green. I've seen goats nibbling on huizaches and other thorny desert plants that to me seem inedible, but then I'm not a ravenous goat.

Shortly after we bought our three hectares we fenced them to keep our dogs in and all those hungry mouths outside. Our new land was not only rocky but scalped of any wild vegetation, except for the bigger cacti and the huizaches.

During the first two years some grasses and flowers grew tentatively during the rainy season, but not many.  But last year the wildflower show began its run in earnest.

The wildflowers I noticed this morning are not Dutch tulips or any such spring show-offs, but tiny, timid flowers that barely rise above your foot or peek through the foliage of larger plants. I could try cutting a few and putting them in a vase but suspect these untamed specimens won't stand any captivity.

That doesn't take away anything from their beauty; I noticed several hues of blue and purple that I don't think are very common among flowers.

To enjoy these blossoms you have walk slowly, look down and venture out every day from now until the wildflower show is over in a few more weeks.

When it's finished there won't be any reason to feel bad. These tiny miracles will be back next year with an even more stunning display. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Adventures of the Three Nature Boys

Last night we had another face-to-face with nature, when Stew found a snake, about three feet long and an inch wide, placidly wrapped around itself on the kitchen floor next to the stove.

Judging from a split-second glance, after which I took one picture and ran away, it seemed to be a beautiful specimen. I don't know how it got inside.

This fairly typical brush with nature by the Nature Boys went something like this: 

Nature Boy #1 (Stew): "Jeeezus, there's a snake in the kitchen!"

Nature Boy #2 (Al)  goes to get the camera and runs back into the kitchen: "OMG, Stew, what are you going to do with it? Don't look at me!"

So NB#1 goes in the garage, grabs a plastic storage bucket big enough for a nine-foot anaconda, and nudges the snake, by now fully extended and a bit annoyed, into the bucket with a stick. NB#1 nervously slaps the lid on and takes it outside.

In extreme cases, when it's necessary to climb a ladder, reach into a bush or actually grab a creature bare-handed, we summon NB#3--Félix the gardener--who obliges, while grinning and shaking his head at the unmitigated wussiness of his two gringo employers.

While building the house we didn't consider the teeming animal life we'd be sharing the property with, which during the dry season looks deceptively barren, or the critters' insistence in coming inside for a visit, particularly when it starts to rain.

Two weeks ago NB#2 opened the gas grill and discovered a tiny mouse, its eyes wide open and pink nose twitching, sitting in a nest of leaves it had built on one corner of the grease pan.

NB#2: "Hey Stew! There's a mouse inside the grill! Really cute! Now don't hurt it!"

NB#1, goes to the garage to get a spatula and returns to take apart part of the grill. He chases the mouse and moves its nest to the base of a nearby pot. "OK, I moved the mouse. Are you happy now?"

Mice are not only really cute but also enterprising and  stubborn, and they don't cotton getting wet. Another mouse insisted on setting up a nest inside the dashboard of the truck, and NB#1 has had to take apart the glove compartment and clean out the heater fan several times. The truck now sits down the driveway, away from the house and the mouse.

The grill mouse was back at it last night rebuilding its nest, so NB#2 had to cook a steak inside, on a cast iron pan.

NB#2: "What are we going to do? It's probably getting ready to have babies inside the grill."

NB#1: "So what are we supposed to do, wait until they go off to mice kindergarten before getting rid of the nest?"

NB#2 is not very good at dealing with any of these fauna encounters, except to call the other Nature Boys and look for the camera. Using a piece of cardboard NB#2 will collect spiders and other bugs crawling inside the shower stall and take them outside. But that's about it.

Indeed, NB#2 is of the Marlin Perkins school of wildlife management. If you recall, old Marlin used to stay two-hundred feet away from any snarling, writhing or remotely threatening creature, while Jim Fowler or the cameraman closed in for that winning footage.

A month ago, a hummingbird got trapped inside one of the skylights and NB#3 had to get a ladder, cup his hand over the tiny bird and escort him outside. Frantic, flapping birds are something even NB#1 refuses to deal with.

And a month before that, NB#3 pulled a young rattle snake from the mouth of our dog Lucy and killed it. NB's #1 and #2 object to killing any animals unless they are a threat. NB#3 is not quite that picky or squeamish.

In this case, the snake bit Lucy which then developed a swelling the size of a golf ball on the side of her mouth, a pathetic situation she milked for all the sympathy and table scraps possible.

Luckily she wasn't poisoned by the young rattler because we discovered there is no snakebite antidote in San Miguel for anybody, even people.

Our pets often deal with animal encounters in their own way. Several months ago, Paco the cat caught a mouse and solemnly deposited the tiny gray carcass on the living room floor. He kept a vigil by it as if waiting for the miracle of resurrection.

Then there was Gladys' memorable rabbit stew. We came home and found her with rear half of a small rabbit--fur, cotton tail and two legs--hanging out of her mouth. We imagine she had already eaten the front half.

NB#2: "Jesus Christ, Gladys's got a dead rabbit in her mouth! You better do something, Stew!"

NB#1: "Like what?"

NB#2: "Hell if I know. Just get it out of her mouth and put it somewhere!"

So NB#1 went and got a plastic bag for the half-eaten rabbit and put it somewhere. NB#2 didn't ask what NB#1 did with the rabbit remains.

As you can imagine, NB#2 is sure grateful for NB's #1 and #3 sure-handedness in dealing with marauding animals.

Otherwise, this place would be a zoo.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Waking up to an inch of rain

What with droughts and heat waves in the Midwest, floods in Texas, droughts and forest fires in Colorado and other weird climatic contortions, my hopes for a somewhat normal rainy season had risen steadily during the past three weeks.

Rain in this area is a one-shot, three-month-long event, beginning in July and ending in September. We've had rains in January but they are not something we can count on.

The other nine months of the year are dry and sunny, with predictable late-afternoon winds sucking whatever moisture there is in the ground and the plants. Watering the trees we've planted becomes urgent, almost desperate, just before the rainy season. Around March many of our evergreens had started to yellow and the diagnosis from the nursery man was quick and to the point: Those guys need water, now. 

There are deep wells in this area but nowadays they are yielding bad news along with water, as aquifer levels drop precipitously. At one well about five miles from here, the water level has dropped about one and a half meters in the past two years. In the town of Los Rodríguez, in the opposite direction, earlier this year some wells dried up altogether.

And that's it. Other than rains and wells, we don't have any Great Lakes or great rivers to tap to get water.  

Early rains in late June and early July were promising but frustrating. Dark, thundering clouds would advertise more than they delivered, a quarter-inch one day, a half-inch two days later, but not the gully-washer Stew kept hoping for.

We remember last year when it rained early on in the season and then quit. The farmers had hitched up their horses and plowed and seeded the fields, only to see their the crops wither and die in August and September.

So far the grass has turned greenish, not green, and the thousands of cosmos in bud remain stunted and indecisive, unsure whether to explode in a lavender wave or wait for the rainy season to begin in earnest.

Last night we received a full blast of rain, beginning with thunder, lightning and hail. It slowed down to a gentler rain that went on for hours. By this morning we'd received a full inch of rain, and by two o'clock today another shower had started.

It's looking good but I won't stop worrying until we get so much rain that the dry creeks near our bedroom are filled and running, the whooshing of the water putting us to sleep as it rushes past to fill the reservoirs downhill.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Star-Spangled Beauty

The Fourth of July Festivities in San Miguel last week, sponsored by the Democrats Abroad group, was well attended, about 250 people I'd estimate, and predictable. Most all the attendees were retired geezers and the event was only loosely organized, pretty much like Democratic Party itself. 

For about US$15, there was a choice of hamburgers or hot dogs, condiments and, I believe, some sort of potato salad. Memorable cuisine is not why people attend these things. 

An excellent Mexican singer with guitar accompaniment inexplicably vanished after the third song. There was a piñata, its belly perhaps reinforced with titanium plates because none of the kids could bust it open even after taking off their blindfolds. Adults finally succeeded but only after ten or fifteen minutes of flailing with broom sticks. 

And just as a huge sheet cake came rolling out on a cart, it began to rain and everyone scampered to the patio of the hotel or a small tent, while just as many people simply gave up and went home. 

Attendees were as focused as a flock of cats at a church service: They didn't pay much attention to anything that was said and promptly disbanded after snarfing down their food.  Hope this is not a preview of the Democratic campaign in November.

Then, just before we left, I spotted this woman, who despite her wrinkles, frailness and even a small bandaid on her nose, struck me as a beautiful face.

Her blue eyes sparkled like her vest, and were almost mischievous. That and her rather sly smile made her seem as if she were noodling a slightly naughty joke she was dying to tell you. She had wrinkles galore along with an archipelago of spots and blotches, like you'd expect on any old person.

Her weathered face, though, didn't betray the sadness or weariness of a person approaching the end of a tough life. This Democrat stalwart looked calm and content. 

Sometimes, particularly in here in Mexico, old folk can look fifteen or twenty years older than their age after years of sun, hard work and harder luck. 

I asked for permission to take her picture but forgot to jot down her name, so I don't know who she is or if I'll ever see her again. I hope I do.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Motorcycle diary

Back in March when I wrote about getting a motorcycle, Phil commented about the exhilaration of riding a bike, the freedom you feel, the wind whistling through your helmet and other Easy Rider-type folklore I suspected could be a bunch of hoo-hah.

Now that I have been riding the bike for awhile, I'm starting to agree with Phil even if  I'm not ready to take off on a cross-Mexico jaunt. On our Suzuki 200cc trail bike any such trek would take a hell of a long time and a jumbo bottle of backache pills afterward.

But I've been taking off in the morning regularly, for one- or two-hour rides to nowhere in particular  and finding it a relaxing though noisy, gasoline-scented form of meditation.

The geography around our ranch is ideal for meandering. There is a main paved road toward the town of Jalpa that dissolves into dirt roads and then into trails. Sometimes these side trips lead to tiny, one-donkey towns with names like The Tiger, The Small Palm Tree, The Bell, Barrel Cactus, The Small Corral or The Gully.

Other times the dirt trail leads to someone's front gate, or the foot of a hill where the trail becomes a foot path. Or maybe nowhere: someone's idea of a joke played on strangers. I've been on a stone road that a first seems to lead you to a town called San José of Something-or-Other, but in fact comes around full-circle to exactly where you started. What happened to San José of Something-or-Other?

But who cares, really. This time of the year, the spring season in San Miguel, erratic rains tease green grass and tiny wildflowers out of the arid soil and the views are so beautiful it doesn't make any difference where you go.

No matter how insignificant, every hamlet has a church, sometimes hundred or more years old. I pity the itinerant priest who has to schlep around celebrating mass for ten people here, listen to five confessions there or marry a couple ten miles down the road.

Occasionally you spot some employment activity nearby, like a cactus or broccoli field, but most often the towns just exist in an apparent economic void, its residents solemnly wandering around at midday, rounding up some chickens, chasing a stray burro, or going to a tiendita, a tiny storefront, to buy some tortillas.

Of those people who work full-time, I imagine most commute by bus to San Miguel for jobs as housekeepers or to sell their farm's products, or to Querétaro, a thriving city about an hour away with a burgeoning manufacturing sector.

Or maybe not. Among the dozens of family members of Félix, our gardener, he is the only one who seems to have steady employment. How these folks pay for food and clothes remains a mystery, one of many of Mexico.

Yesterday my road trip took me to La Palmita, of The Little Palm, about forty-five minutes from here, off a road that should be a shortcut to Querétaro but doesn't quite make it.

There's indeed an excellent paved highway coming from Querétaro, but pfft, it vanishes as it crosses the state line into Guanajuato, and for a motorcycle rider turns into a first- or second-gear rocky and dusty mess. Guess Querétaro has more money for roads than Guanajuato.

There's an ancient church in La Palmita, with a mangled TV antenna perched atop the bell tower where one would expect a cross. Some old people shuffled around and three young horses paced nervously inside a round corral.

The only noise came from a giggly group of kids in front of the primary school, waiting for it to open. When it does, I bet you it will be totally quiet again in La Palmita. 

Why did the chicken cross the road in La Palmita? Probably because
there wasn't anything else to do.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Parting shot

What to do about such pesky car problems as a defunct fuel pump or a leaky gas tank?

In Havana, during our last few hours in Cuba, I spotted this clever solution, which is fairly common on the island according to our driver. You just take a plastic jug, fill it with gasoline, set up a syphon with a piece of hose--and just feed gasoline directly into your carburetor or wherever it's supposed to go. Just be sure to hang on to the plastic jug--and stay away from anyone smoking.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Home for the last time

The heat, exhausting, and magnified by constant rain and the lack of even a wisp of a breeze, made our third and last day in Santa Clara a long one. Sweat stuck to our skins, and in turn, our clothes to the sweat.

For me it'd been an emotional visit and for Stew a revealing one. He'd been hearing about Cuba from me for forty years yet had never set foot on the island. Still, weariness had set in. I wasn't sure I'd ever want to come to Santa Clara again.

Then on our final afternoon in town, almost as a time-killer, we stopped by again to chat with the elderly couple who now own my family home. As it turned out, if I come to Santa Clara again it will be to visit these folks.

During our first two days here we had visited four of my classmates who stayed behind in Cuba when our school closed in 1961 and many of us left for the U.S. 

The Marist Brothers school we had attended, an art-deco, three-story fortress, has deteriorated nearly beyond recognition: The sign over the main entrance--"Colegio Champagnat" sculpted in the masonry--was the only sure indication this was the place I had attended from first through ninth grades. 

The old school. 
The two light fixtures flanking the entrance were long gone, with wire stumps poking out of the holes in the wall like bits of the building's entrails. Many if not most of the windows were covered with plywood, zinc panels or other improvised fixes to keep the tropical rot from completely devouring the place. Some third-floor windows were missing altogether, leaving gaping holes better to gulp the sun and rain. 

Yet the building was still a functioning school, with shrieking kids running around and hanging out from some of the windows. It seemed odd that a government one of whose chief claims to history are its accomplishments in public education would allow its children to study in such near-squalor.

When I tried to enter, two stern guards, a man and a woman who had already spotted me taking pictures from across the street, told me no visitors were allowed. I explained politely, and while flashing my most disarming smile, that I was an alumnus from many, many years ago--visiting from far, far away--but that didn't elicit any sympathy or exceptions. The man said he was afraid of people "who would do harm or slander" the school [gente que vaya a perjudicar la escuela]. He cut off another plea in mid-sentence. Abort visit.

Visiting a few of my classmates was more cordial but equally discomfiting.

One, a year older than me, had been someone I looked up to. Francisco was elegant and graceful from an early age, had green eyes--uncommon in Cuba--a thin, long nose and wavy dark hair that he combed straight back. His slight effeminacy didn't faze me much because I regarded him as one of my smartest classmates.

After some hesitation on his part, Francisco had agreed on the phone to meet us at the restaurant in the center of town where he worked as a piano player and singer. I didn't recognize him. Stew had to poke me: "I think that's your old friend from school."

Fifty years after I had last seen him, his appearance was indeed startling. His hair, now dyed jet-black and straightened, swirled over his head in an intricate comb-over. He wore some makeup, most noticeably liner on his eyebrows, along with copious jewelry and a flowery silk shirt. He beat back the heat by waving a Spanish-style fan, the kind you'd see in "Carmen."  His carriage was regal and operatic, an unexpected stroke of glamour in this otherwise unremarkable, backwater Cuban town.

Stew suggested an uncanny resemblance to Quentin Crisp, the outlandishly gay British writer and actor. I agreed.

Francisco, or Fran, as his colleagues at the restaurant call him, and I chatted awkwardly at the bar for a bit and then he took off for the piano and a full-throated  rendition of the sentimental, and beautiful, Cuban song, "Noche Azul" which he dedicated to us. It was deeply moved by this gesture. 

The next day at his home, Francisco filled me in the details of his surprising career and showed me a couple of sequined, Liberace-style jackets he used in some of his performances. He had become a lawyer but didn't practice for long, moving on to what he called the artistic phase of his life.

At the restaurant he makes the equivalent of forty dollars a month, supplemented by tips and fees from private music lessons. He said he has a partner who is nevertheless married with two children. Francisco added that he wouldn't consider living full-time with someone also openly gay.

His daily life in Santa Clara, he said, was uneventful but he complained about being assaulted and robbed while walking back and forth to work. As if anticipating my next question, he said the incidents were not caused by his being flamboyantly gay but because of his expensive jewelry and attire attracted attention.

As I listened, the urge to feel sorry for Francisco gradually gave way to awe for his courage--the cojones--to live his own life the way he wanted to, especially in a cultural and social setting as confining as Santa Clara. Quentin Crisp at least had the hugeness of London as a backdrop to his colorful life.

I found myself still looking up to Francisco.

Two other classmates I visited led lives of quiet conformity and resignation. They had survived military service, erratic and irrational government policies, disastrous economic times and other vicissitudes that ultimately had led them nowhere. Both receive government pensions of about fifteen dollars a month, and survive on small side jobs and remittances from relatives in the U.S. I wouldn't nominate either one of these guys as happy poster children of the revolution.

Perhaps the classmate with the most prosperous gig was Francisco's younger brother, Augusto, who held the post of "honorary consul" for the government of Spain. Their late father was a Spanish citizen and now Augusto, from an office in his house, prepares papers for those Cubans claiming Spanish citizenship on account of parentage.

It's a thriving business: Cubans who can prove a Spanish bloodline can claim a Spanish citizenship and passport that permits far freer travel abroad and other perks. Augusto doesn't get a salary from the Spanish government but fees from applicants provide him with a steady income.

He travels outside of Cuba occasionally, visits a daughter in Tampa and by all accounts should be reasonably content. Instead there was anger and resentment in his conversation. He kept needling me to imagine what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Santa Clara, as if saying "how come you got to leave and we got stuck here?"

Though I never reacted directly, in my mind the answers to his question were clear. No, I could not imagine living in Cuba during the past fifty years. And yes, I was deeply grateful--to whatever or whomever--that I got the hell out of Santa Clara.

I doubt anything else I could have said would have soothed his anger or frustration.  He hasn't replied to two e-mails with photos I had taken of him and Francisco. 

At my former home, I received a far warmer greeting, from Edilberto González Pérez, his wife and his mother-in-law, all of whom I had just met briefly two days before. This was nothing like the icily polite "hola" I got from the previous owners in 1998.

Meet the new owners.
Until very recently Cubans could not buy or sell houses to one another. People instead swapped houses among themselves through a murky transaction called permuta, in which one party sometimes paid the other some amount of money if one house was considered more valuable. So Edilberto had traded his house in the countryside for our former home in Santa Clara. 

Edilberto, 77, welcomed both of our visits with a toothless, ear-to-ear smile, and assured me how much they enjoyed their house. On our second visit his wife, whose name I neglected to jot down, arrived with one scrawny bag of groceries, probably food rations provided by the government. Her mother, 90, greeted us warmly too though she didn't say much.

Life has been hard on both Edilberto and my former house. Routine upkeep seemed to have ceased with the departure of the previous owners. The fancy furniture I had found in 1998 was gone and the kitchen in particular had turned into a grungy alcove. The big window in the living room was covered with black plastic. I suspect these folks are flat broke.

Hard times in the kitchen. 
We talked about the Battle of Santa Clara and Edilberto went on to chat casually about Fidel and Raúl Castro, Ché Guevara and other revolutionary icons as if he had known them personally, which in fact, he did.

It turns out he had fought alongside the original band of revolutionaries in the eastern part of Cuba, and ultimately rose to the rank of major in the rebel army. As one proof of his story, Edilberto pulled up one leg of his pants to show me a deep scar.

By his own account, Edilberto was a hot-headed 20-year-old making a meager living as a traveling salesman in Oriente province. He and a handful of buddies, tired of the poverty, inequality and abuses by the Batista government, and particularly the police, began their revolutionary career first by carrying out small-gauge terrorist stunts, like spreading nails on the highway to impede traffic, and then graduated to planting bombs and blowing up bridges.

On February 1957, when someone ratted on him to the Batista police, Edilberto decided to join the small band of rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Castro and eighty-one others had landed in eastern Cuba in December 1956, crammed aboard a pleasure yacht called Granma. The landing was almost a total disaster and only a handful of men lived to make it to the mountains.

Edilberto went on foot to join Castro and the incipient rebellion. "What do you want to do?" Castro asked him. "The same thing you are doing, to fight against Batista!," Edilberto replied. There was no stash of weapons to be distributed to newcomers, so he had to somehow earn his own in his first skirmish with the Batista army.

Ché Guevara later invited Edilberto to join a group of fighters who were going "on a long trip"--probably toward Santa Clara and eventually Havana--but Edilberto declined and stayed in eastern Cuba. According to him, he and Celia Sánchez--one of Castro's closest advisers and perhaps his lover--became close buddies and even planned a birthday celebration for the then thirty-three-year-old commander in chief.
Old comrades: (from left) Castro in the middle, an unknown man, and
a  beardless Edilberto on the right, wearing a cap.

"Happee Bert-day to Yoo! Happee Bert-day to Yoo!," Edilberto sang absent-mindedly to remember the occasion.

Perhaps sensing my growing  incredulity about his war stories, Edilberto's wife went to what used to be my bedroom to fetch a weathered cardboard box containing a handful of documents and photographs.

One was a creased photo of Castro, triumphantly entering Havana, with a young Edilberto at his side. Another document was a 2011 certificate recognizing his partipation in the force that fought off the "Yankee imperialists" at Playa Girón (to Americans better known as the Bay of Pigs) in 1961. Edilberto's eyes glistened with pride.

Bay of Pigs certificate, marking the defeat of
the "imperialismo yanqui" in Latin America. 
From my conversation I sensed that Edilberto, an Everyman who happened to join a historic military campaign at an early stage, probably wasn't destined for a high-visibility post with the revolutionary government.

But neither could I figure out how he had been apparently forgotten to retire in near poverty. Perhaps the house was his reward for his meritorious service to the revolution. Edilberto and his wife appeared profoundly flattered that anyone would stop by.

His wife added they hadn't been invited to a reunion in Havana of veterans of the Sierra Maestra campaign. A brief but awkward silence paused the conversation. Maybe the government thought Edilberto had died.

As we began to leave, the old guerrilla asked me all sorts of technical details about the house--where was the cistern? how old was the water pump?--that I couldn't possibly answer. His wife talked wistfully about their plans to arrest or reverse the house's deterioration, though we both knew it wasn't likely to happen.

Finally I asked how much it would cost to replace the glass in the front window and so remove the disfiguring black tarp keeping out the rain. Stew suggested we give her the equivalent of $50 dollars to get the work going, and so we did.

One last look at the old homestead. 
I wished them a long and healthy life in my former home and last this stop in Santa Clara dissolved into hugs and tears by both Ediberto and his wife.

Next time we're in Cuba I'm going back to check on them and the work on that front window.