Saturday, October 27, 2012

So close yet so far away

During two recent outings, one a shopping trip a couple of weeks ago to the nearby city of Querétaro  and the other a one-day photo safari last Wednesday led by a professional photographer now retired in San Miguel, Stew and I were again slapped on the face with the realities of poverty and economic inequality in Mexico.

Querétaro greets motorists coming in from San Miguel with a new and extravagant ten- or twelve-lane boulevard landscaped with ground covers, twisty jacaranda saplings, oleander bushes and other greenery still being fussed over by ground crews. Subdivisions of new houses painted mostly a blinding shade of white blanket the hills on each side of the road. A new shopping center, rumored to become the largest one in the country when it is finished, also is going up next to the boulevard, with about five or six gangly cranes swinging buckets of concrete overhead.

Fall landscape we found outside of San Miguel during
our Wednesday photo safari.
The state of Querétaro's ebullient prosperity is not compartmentalized, like so much of the wealth in Mexico City, for instance, where a five-dollar, thirty-minute cab ride will take you from Gucci and Ferragamo boutiques in Polanco to rickety taco stands and tire vulcanizing shops in some slum choked with traffic and fumes.

A year ago we drove quite far into the state of Queretáro's countryside and were dazzled by the reach of its good fortune. Newly paved and striped roads with shiny signage; Mercedes Benz minibuses with   kids headed to new public schools; signs for coming-soon sewage treatment plants, soccer fields or roofed and lit basketball courts flanked with bleachers.

But trip from Querétaro back to the state of Guanajuato is a jarring riches-to-rags slideshow even though the two are adjacent.  Twelve lanes wither down to four, then two and if you head for the countryside, you'll soon be on winding dirt roads with craters, puddles and rocks menacing to anything other than pickups or horses, while brown dust, typical during the dry season, swirls around wherever you go.

Our guide, former National Geographic photographer Robert DeGast, drove his pontoon-like 2000 Chrysler Concorde LX, which he referred to as a "pimp mobile," quite capably, nudging it along through the obstacles with a mix of gentleness and exasperated cursing.

The day-long tour led us to a series of chapels, some brightly re-painted by misguided government historic restoration crews. Others were just ruins in waist-high weeds, with dark and foreboding interiors decorated with barely visible murals of arrows, chalices, birds, crowns of thorns and other enigmatic biblical symbolism that even a former Roman Catholic priest in our group could not quite decipher.

An abandoned chapel. 
One of the last stops took us to the settlement of Ciénaga, population a couple of hundred people if that, where we stopped to see what was left of a chapel atop a small hill. By now my feet were bothering me so I let Stew and the others in the group do the reconnoitering.

On his return Stew was noticeably shaken by what he saw: Women trudging along with buckets of water because the above-ground steel water pipes had long ago rusted and come apart; ten-year-olds, who should have been in school, coaxing small herds of goats with sticks; a man yanking a struggling burro loaded with dried corn stalks. And above all, the silence of a place where not much ever happens except the occasional bleating of a donkey or the whoosh of a gust of wind.

Once again Stew muttered that during our travels some months ago through Cuba, a country besieged during the past fifty-four years by endless economic calamities, both natural and man-made, we never encountered the poverty--make that the grinding poverty--that we often have run into in parts of Mexico.

There's plenty of poverty in other areas of Mexico alright, in places like the southern state of Chiapas. But there it's partly camouflaged by the verdant landscape and the bright outfits of the natives, their exotic languages and beautiful handicrafts, which make the penury of their lives somehow seem a bit quaint and less shocking to visitors.  

In our state of Guanajuato the pockets of poverty are unvarnished and Honduras-like. I'm sure state  government economists would vehemently dispute such comparisons, citing hopeful statistics and pointing to charts with zigzagging lines trending ever upward.

It just doesn't seem that way, however, when you butt head-on into some of the poverty we found during our Wednesday safari.

Or when you talk with our gardener Félix as I did the next day, when I presented him with a small electronic calculator. As I explained the buttons, I gradually realized he'd  never learned multiplication or division, let alone the concept of percentages. Stew, far smarter than me at math, will have to teach Félix some basic arithmetic. Short of winning a lottery, what sort of life prospects does Félix and his family have?

Yet forty-minutes or an hour away, in one of Querétaro's dozen or so industrial parks, right next to the city's brand-new international airport, young Mexicans are assembling components for jets for the Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier.

Why there and not here? A better educational system? More honest and efficient state government? Fate? As far as I know, Querétaro doesn't have any rare natural resources, like oil or uranium. In fact its rocky landscape closely resembles that of Guanajuato.

And thus far Queretaro's runaway prosperity doesn't seem to spreading our way, though a few auto assembly plants have set up shop on the other side of the state of Guanajuato, near León and Irapuato.

I'm sure there are rational economic explanations for these gross inequities though with my mathematically addled brain I doubt I'll ever understand them much less be able to pass them along. For the time being, my stories and pictures is all I can offer.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ahead of the tech curve in San Miguel

On Thursday Newsweek announced that as of the end of the year it will not longer publish a print edition--the one some readers regard as a "real magazine" that you can flip through nervously while waiting at the dentist's office--in favor of a series of electronic blips known as a "digital edition."

San Miguel is hardly a Mexican Silicon Valley, or even a Silicon Ditch, but the realities of geographical isolation and the limitations of transportation and mail delivery have unwittingly pushed expats here into the age of digital reading far ahead of our contemporaries in the U.S. If you live here and want to keep up with current events and the latest best sellers, the web is the most direct, and sometimes the only route there.

Several local entrepreneurs have tried to set up daily delivery of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but as Mexicans would say, ni modo--no way. The last guy who offered to do that asked for the money in advance, kept the cash and none of the customers ever saw an inch of newsprint.

If I'm in Mexico City on a weekend sometimes I indulge on the guilty pleasure of the Sunday edition of the Times but it costs approximately fifteen dollars, and more often than not it never reaches the newsstand at the hotel where we stay.

Magazines, real ink-on-paper editions, reach San Miguel via a private mail courier though often two or three weeks after publication. By the time I got to see the New Yorker cover about the first presidential debate, the one with a cartoon of Romney debating an empty chair, the second debate had already taken place. Magazine readers in San Miguel have to be patient. Either that or fire up their iPads or Kindles.

Books fall into the same trap. You order them from Amazon.com, which may deliver them promptly to the courier station in Laredo, but then they get waylaid in the swamp of Mexican customs for three weeks or more, plus you have to pay courier charges in addition to shipping and handling in the U.S.

Business is slow at the Barnes and Noble on Chicago's Near North Side.
I ordered a book about the Civil War on September 21 and it still hasn't arrived. If I had downloaded it to my Kindle, I would have been to Gettysburg by now.

Except that digital editions may be quick and efficient but any more I resent having to read books, magazines and newspapers on a small screen, on which important elements such as photographs, cartoons and graphics are reduced to tiny, ephemeral fractions of themselves.

Even if I've already read the New Yorker application on my Kindle, I still relish going through the real printed edition, dated as it may be, to check the cartoons and full-page photos, printed on real paper, while sitting on an old La-Z-Boy we brought down from Chicago.

As for books, maps of Civil War battles and photos of Robert E. Lee probably will look far more imposing in the book I ordered--if it ever gets here--than even on my high-definition Kindle.

I doubt the New Yorker will abandon its print edition but you never know. Last time we were in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune in the news boxes was barely recognizable: The paper had shrunk from a broadsheet to a mini version that was actually smaller than what used to be called a tabloid.

Bookstores, where you could peruse and fondle actual books before buying them,  also had nearly vanished. All Borders bookstores were gone and there was only one Barnes and Noble shop left on the Near North Side of Chicago. It looked like it was breathing its last.

iPads, iPhones and Kindles seem to have pushed printed material out of the way. Chicago buses have become surreal conveyances filled with self-absorbed zombies fondling their devices, checking their e-mails or rearranging their apps on the way to work. Where there used to be conversation now all you hear are the clicks of electronic devices or stray bits of music escaping from the iPod of the person next to you.

Like it or not, in San Miguel we're keeping up with the digital age. An English-language bookstore in town called El Tecolote (The Owl) which carried a fair selection of art books and best sellers shut down about year ago, the victim of a decline in American tourism and high prices. The store charged full cover prices plus a surcharge for delivery into Mexico, which made a coffee table book almost as pricey as a medieval manuscript.

One skill I still need to master, though, is texting on my cheapo cell phone. A sign at a bus stop on Chicago's North Avenue advised impatient customers to call a transit authority phone and type in the code for the particular location in order to get an estimate of how long it would take for the bus to arrive.

I fumbled and fumbled with the tiny buttons on the phone and I'll be damned if by the time I was ready to hit "send" the bus wasn't already there.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bee Day arrives

The much anticipated day to collect the honey from Stew's beehive finally arrived last Friday, and a ho-hum feeling buzzed through my spine. The project had been going on since February, with free bee stings for everyone including the dogs, which had learned to flee whenever they saw or sniffed any bee-related doings. Most of the time the beehive just sat there, bees buzzing in and out, without a hint of what was going on inside.

Adding to the anti-climax was all the lore about bees everyone's heard since childhood. About their industry, tight social habits, unimaginably complex society. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee" which celebrates their speed while giving violinists cramps. The 1924 Continental Insurance Building on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, topped by four stone bison that represent strength and also support a huge glass beehive which is lit blue at night and honors the legendary thrift and hard work of bees, while presumably reminding passersby to go visit their insurance agent. Enough about bees.
Smoke calms the bees prior to
opening the hive. The white box
is the one containing the best
honey, made from wildflowers. 

Indeed, the only members of the bee world who've gotten bad rap are the drones, the males who just hang around and do no work except mate with the queen, a crucial function when you think about it. The drones die shortly after mating which makes their gesture the ultimate example of sacrifice for the common good--and of killer sex. Recently, lethal "drones" or pilotless aircraft have become a key part of the U.S. military arsenal, though I can't figure out why they got that name.

My cynicism toward beekeeping vanished, however, when Félix, decked out in a beekeeper outfit that was about three sizes too big, opened up Stew's beehive.

Sincere apologies are in order to everyone--Stew, Félix and particularly the bees--for my lack of appreciation of their work. I was dumbstruck.

The formerly empty wooden boxes--sixteen by twenty inches, each holding eight frames, about five by seventeen inches--were loaded with bright-gold honey and wax, dripping and glistening in the sunshine.

Empty, the boxes weigh about five pounds. Now loaded with the sweat equity of tens of thousands of bees laboring through the summer, they weighed over fifty pounds each. 

Stew extracted the honey from only one box, which had been inserted, late in the summer, into the stack of boxes that make up the hive. Two other boxes are called "honey supers" and were also filled with honey though made from sugar Stew had fed the bees when he first set out the hive, to feed the original crowd of ten thousand bees, plus the queen, and get the party going The final box at the bottom of the hive, about twice as high as the others, is called the brood chamber, and is the home base where the queen and the bees live.

The sugar-derived honey in the first two "supers" is not considered very valuable or tasty. The honey in the last super, however, which the bees made from flower pollen, is the real stuff that we collected. If you add all three super boxes, the bees produced a total of between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and fifty pounds of honey and wax since Stew put out the hive.

Stew the proud beekeeper. 
There aren't enough zeros in a calculator, or cells in my brain, to even begin to estimate or picture what went on in the hive during the summer. Stew started with ten thousand bees and ended with approximately sixty thousand. That final census of course doesn't include the deaths of thousands of the sex-crazed drones or those bees squashed while trying to sting someone.

Making honey is an unimaginably laborious process by tens thousands of bees flitting in and out of the hive hundreds of times a day as they collect tiny bits of pollen that they then combine with some sort of enzyme to create the final product.

How many times did the bees have to go back and forth to create one hundred and fifty pounds of honey? Told you there weren't enough zeros in a calculator and the results would be meaningless anyway even if there were, because the numbers would be so large.

Part of the success this summer must have been the above-average rainfall which led to a rampage of wildflowers, particularly in our ranch where they are protected from livestock by fences.

Extracting the bees from the wax comb is a relatively easy process using electric centrifuges in which you place three or four frames at a time and flip on the switch. But motorized centrifuges can cost thousands of dollars.

Our dog Lucy kept a vigilant eye during the
extraction process for any stray drops of honey.
So Stew and I extracted the honey manually, which took several hours and was a colossal mess in the kitchen. There was gooey honey all over the floor, counters and several sets of bowls, knives, needle-nose pliers and spatulas, in addition to drowsy bees still stuck to the frames. Fortunately our dog Lucy loved the honey and stood guard to lick any droplets that fell on the floor tile.

We separated the honeycombs from the frames and cut them into small squares that we put on a strainer over a bowl. The crystal-clear honey dripped down slowly, like extra-virgin olive oil. For later batches we got impatient and zapped the cubes in the microwave and squeezed them gently through the strainer with a potato masher, which sped the flow but gave us slightly murkier honey.

The very first batch, the "extra virgin" was particularly light and had a tangy taste to it. The inaugural jar of honey went to our friend Billie.

We only got honey from one frame and put the combs from the other seven in plastic bags and into a sealed cooler chest for later extraction. Sealed well, the honeycombs are supposed to last for several months.

By late afternoon the kitchen looked like a greasy spoon diner after a weekend rush.

A myriad details and refinements await Stew's apiculture project. Honey from mesquite and huizaches is supposed to be the best, but I can't imagine how you persuade bees to stick to certain kinds of flowers, particularly since they cover a three-mile radius from the hive during their frantic rounds. I guess you could keep extracting the honey after each wave of flowers.

Ta-dah! One of the first jars of honey. 
Or how to collect the wax. We used pre-made honeycombs to get the bees going but we can't figure out where the new wax went. A rented centrifuge might be in order next time.

But the most pressing question at the moment is also the most basic: What do we do with the thirty-four pounds of honey and honeycombs we have so neatly sealed and stacked in the basement? Suggestions from readers are welcome--particularly other than "I want some."

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

One cheer for optimism

San Miguel de Allende at times feels like Medicare Junction. It can be full of bad news, illnesses and other problems that tax one's optimism while, ironically, reminding us how essential optimism is to a sane, healthy life--however many years of it we have left.

The, hmm, "advanced" demographics of a retirement outpost like San Miguel--hell, among the expats here someone in their mid-50s is considered practically a juvenile--inevitably bring along personal and health catastrophes, including death.

Since we moved here seven years ago, Stew, 65 and I, 64, have learned a lexicon of medical problems, procedures and illnesses we had never heard of or encountered before.

Alzheimer's--naturally--but also Parkinson's, Gehrig's, Chron's, Hodgkins', Bell's and countless other ailments with someone's last name attached to them, plus the gory details of fractured these-and-those, which usually require a Home Depot-full of nuts, bolts and plates to mend, followed by months-long convalescence.

Just like with retirees elsewhere, in San Miguel a simple lunch can morph into an impromptu  symposium on ailments, symptoms, and aches and pains, and the best doctors to take care of them.

By the time dessert arrives your guts are churning as you anxiously palpate yourself for any suspicious lumps or sores. Do I still have all ten toes?

Indeed, when Stew and I moved to San Miguel, we subscribed to the Mayo Clinic Newsletter but recently decided we'd read enough about everything that can go wrong with the human body. It's bad enough to monitor real problems without obsessing about myriad other anatomical malfunctions, of which there are thousands.

Death has crashed our circle of friends in San Miguel during the past six months. One friend died of AIDS at 57, a friend's husband succumbed to cancer at 75. A few other friends await the outcome of  various incurable cancers.

It's easy--and normal--to be pessimistic and downright pissed with all these bad news, specially since you might be the next target. I'm certainly not immune from blue periods or feelings of helplessness.

Except there's no point in embracing pessimism as a life perspective.

It could be my first-generation immigrant genes. Leaving your country and going to an unknown spot--across an ocean or a border, or on the other side of the exit door of an airport--immigration requires nothing if not optimism.

As you await to take that leap you keep whispering to yourself: "I'm not one-hundred percent sure what's on the other side, but there we go."

A few months ago I visited several of my junior-high classmates in Cuba who didn't take that chance and instead held on to circumstances they thought were surer or safer options. I don't blame anyone for their choices, but despite the fears and hardships migration entailed for my family and me--the streets were not paved with gold after all--I'm sure glad we came to the U.S.

Optimism beats pessimism every time.

In San Miguel, Stew and I have learned, almost instinctively, to gravitate not to friends who are worry- or trouble-free--we don't know any of those--but to those who keep looking forward, a key ingredient of optimism.

On a cruise to Antarctica four years ago, we met a woman who is now in her eighties. Her husband didn't want to go on the cruise, so the heck with him, she went by herself. She turned out to be not only one of the most intellectually engaged and well-read people I've known, but one who is also in great physical shape thanks to weekly tennis games, Pilates exercises and three- or four-mile walks around town and, of course, standing appointments at the beauty parlor.

For 2013 she is looking into a trip to Mongolia to visit a friend. Stew and I considered going along  except we don't know what's there to see in Mongolia except taciturn yaks and camels trudging through sand storms.

Even after the grievous loss of her husband of 55 years, another friend is slowly relaunching her life as a single woman. She is going back to her photography, a lifelong hobby she'd put on hold after her tragedy, and is now talking about taking acting lessons. Sometime in high school someone told her she had some talent. I look forward to seeing her on stage. Next year she's also visiting France with some friends.

Optimism--to keep looking ahead--is not a denial of reality or a lack of smarts, but the only choice that makes sense even after some of life's serious blows. Think of it: What other rational choice is there?

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Guess who we are having for dinner

End-of-life issues have been troubling me lately, specifically, What do you do when a hen stops laying?

A recent egg shortage in Mexico has rekindled our plans to build a chicken coop but there are many details and ramifications that need to be explored.

Our gardener Félix is all excited. He keeps a rotating cavalcade of animals in his own yard, including turkeys, hens, roosters, two dogs and two cats, one of them blind, and at one point two young donkeys both of which one day disappeared overnight. Chicken coop, chickens, eggs, no problema, as long as you guard against foxes and coyotes, he says.

Then again, Félix is a farm boy from a family who slaughtered a cow, two pigs and God knows how many chickens just to feed the crowd at his wedding party.

That's not where Stew and I are at in our agricultural development.

Stew says he's excited, or at least politely pretends to be, though he hasn't spent more than five minutes actually considering the details and responsibilities of chicken husbandry, if there is such an avocation or endeavor. He pointed to his favorite chicken coop design--the smallest and easiest to build--from a selection offered in "Building Chicken Coops for Dummies" and that's the last I heard from him about the topic.

Our, or should I say, my, interest in a chicken coop precedes the recent egg shortage. I hate to support factory-style egg producers, like Bachoco in Mexico, which raise chickens in compartments half the size of a shoe box, then squeeze--metaphorically though it wouldn't surprise me if they did it literally--every egg they can out of each hen. After that it's off to the slaughter house for the birds which are crammed in green plastic containers piled up ten-high on a flatbed truck.

At a traffic intersection sometimes you pull up to one of those trucks and catch the pathetic sight of a frightened bird peeking at you out from behind the plastic bars on the boxes.

It's a sad scene that brings to mind Peggy Lee's mournful tune, "Is that all there is?" You wish you could approach the truck and whisper to her (to the hen, not Peggy, who's long gone to the poultry farm in the sky): "I'm afraid so, Sister Hen, at least for you."

But after than fleeting, moving scene, Stew and I might drive to a restaurant and order Pollo a la milanesa, which is the breast of a chicken pounded a quarter-inch thick, breaded and fried. Then we eat it.

Our squeamishness about the killing of animals doesn't extend to embracing a vegetarian diet, something Stew and I have repeatedly tried and failed at after only three or four days.

Sad truth is we don't mind bumping off Sister Hen, as long as someone does it for us and also plucks, decapitates, disembowels and dismembers her and puts the remains on a Styrofoam tray covered with plastic wrap. It's all a matter of degrees of separation between the deed and our plate.

A couple of years ago, we began buying eggs from Félix who collected them from chickens living in his yard. His chickens presumably led happy, fulfilling lives though really, Who the hell knows what goes through the mind of a hen or what her life aspirations are? But ultimately the eggs were not very good.

They were smallish, thin-shelled and with very fragile yolks, nothing like those mutant creations--in various designer colors no less--that Martha Stewart used to flaunt at the TV camera. The reason for the low quality of eggs from Félix, Stew surmised, was poor diet. Félix chickens just scrap along eating worms and this-and-that, and not that much of it either.

Eggs from our own well fed, fancy-pants hens, living in luxurious digs, would provide us with jumbo eggs, ready for collection in a wicker basket. These sassy, productive layers--the fifty-three percent of the chicken world so to speak--would vote Republican if they could.

I still have to get to the part in the "Dummies" book that explains how to find the eggs--do the hens just leave them around the coop, helter-skelter, or pile them neatly and then carefully sit on them?--but I'm sure we can figure that out with Félix' assistance.

But that's the easy part. It gets difficult when the hens stop laying and just spend their days peck, peck, pecking around like some retired gringo volunteers at not-for-profit organizations in San Miguel, just trying to pass the time.

I imagine these post-menopausal birds would keep producing manure which would still be very good fertilizer. But who ever heard of a coop-turned-nursing home for just cranking out manure? And if you keep bringing in young hens without getting rid of the elders, soon you'd either have to expand the coop or it will start looking like Hong Kong at rush hour.

I'm afraid that death followed by a dignified Chicken Fricassee may be the only solution. Friends have suggested we just give the aged birds to Félix--where would we be without this guy?--whose wife would dispatch and "dress" them for us.

Even then, I'm afraid we might start naming the chickens while they're still clucking, which would make them pretty unappetizing when dead. "Here's Southern Fried Chicken," we'd tell your dinner guests. "She was formerly known as Honey Boo-Boo."

This chicken coop business, I tell you, is going to take some further research.




Wednesday, October 3, 2012

At a real Mexican county fair

San Miguel's annual county fair, which runs for three weeks around the time of the month-long Mexican independence celebrations in September, attracts thousands of locals but hardly any foreigners. That's too bad.

It's not the monster state fair in Dallas, or the dazzling, open-air Cirque du Soleil spectacle Stew and I were lucky to see in Quebec City a couple of summers ago.

Our fair is small and inelegantly sited next to the city's landfill, just outside of town. Most rides are tired hand-me-downs from carnivals somewhere in the U.S. and seemingly held together with layer upon layer of enamel paint. And how many miles of duct tape does it take to assemble this show, particularly its labyrinthine wiring?

It costs a little over two dollars to get in and the randy young guys who come wearing their fanciest outfits and their hair meticulously gelled get frisked thoroughly at the gate. Old guys like Stew and I are just waved through the line, making us feel old, harmless and foreign. Gringos. Güeros. 

Despite that recurrent snub, Stew and I have attended the fair for the past three years. Along with the small-town fiestas, and the one-ring circuses that traipse through town, with their motley crew of bored-looking animals, the fair offers the most authentic glimpse of Mexico and Mexicans that you're likely to get in San Miguel.

To continually stoke the tourist industry San Miguel holds endless processions and parades, fireworks displays and other public spectacles, many so overproduced and packaged that for year-round residents they become ho-hum. The four a.m. avalanche of fireworks on the day of St. Michael the Archangel, the town's patron saint? The daylong Good Friday processions? Check and check.  

By comparison the fair is anything but Disneyfied. Strings of colored lights hang almost randomly from crooked posts. Kids shriek with the thrills of the pokey, creaky rides, while the mothers stand by watching, always intently, sometimes nervously. There are pauses in the action, when a fuse blows or a guy has to crawl under a balky ride to fix or tighten some critical component. A multitude of aromas assaults you as you walk around--fresh bread, sizzling lumps of meat slowly twirling around awaiting to become tacos al pastor, and the cloying, old-fashioned smell of cotton candy.

This year we were lucky to go with Billie, a great friend and photographer with a preoccupation about light. She wanted to capture those twenty, thirty minutes just before sunset, when the fading sun gives everything a unique warm hue, a bit like faces by candlelight.

That didn't work out so well this year because the usual fiery San Miguel sunset was partly eclipsed by a gray sky. Even then, I learned to appreciate Billie's fascination with the "right" kind of light.

There weren't many people at the fair either when we went on Friday and we wondered why. It turns out last week was not the final week. It's this week, and attendance and excitement should rev up: The admission price has been lowered to a little over a dollar.

Slow night at the gambling table. 
At those bargain prices, I plan to visit the fair again and see if I can catch a better look at that last light of the day that so fascinates Billie.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Tuning in and out of the presidential race

Among the many benefits of living in San Miguel is its foreigness, its physical separation from the U.S., despite the several thousand American expats who live here. Whether by car or plane, the U.S. and its rancorous political wars, are about ten hours away.

That insulation is not hermetic. There is satellite television and radio, the Internet, the weekly dump of magazines from The Other Side--as Mexicans often refer to the U.S.--plus the dinner party chatter which now invariably revolves around the presidential election.

If you're a Democrat, it's all friendly chatter, and you tend to assume there must not be any Republicans in San Miguel although I know one. Republicans probably have their own dinner parties to which we're not invited.

News from the Blonde Team
But following the elections, and all the attending blather, is optional. You can keep your TV tuned to cooking and travel shows, reruns and nature shows and skip CNN, MSNBC, network news and Fox News. Definitely Fox News.

Occasionally you can dip your beak into the news pool, get a sip--who's ahead?--and skip the rest. And yes, be sure to drop your absentee ballot at our one-man U.S. consulate and then vamoose from the rest of the political racket.

I, on the other hand, wake up swearing to wean myself off from political news, commentators and speculators but never succeed. It's a fierce addiction.

Part of the attraction is sheer entertainment. Take the Republican primary carnival: Even Ringling Bros. couldn't round up a more colorful parade of clowns. At the end, the GOP picked Romney apparently because he was the least ridiculous of the bunch. Except he turns out to be a hollow, mannequin figure with no concrete ideology except to endorse whatever it takes to maintain his candidacy afloat.

His selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate--the boy genius of the House of Representatives--was supposed to be a master stroke. Ryan was presented as a fiscal wizard with a satchel-full of solutions for the federal budgetary morass. Except he either doesn't have any solutions or is unable to explain them to the rest of us tax-paying schlemiels.

I find the quadrennial political spectacle not only fascinating--its protagonists, the zigzags in positions, the occasional revelations and possible surprises--but ultimately useful.

Indeed, the American system, even with its huge wastefulness of time and money, and endless gasbaggery and machinations, works pretty well if not necessarily picking the most capable candidate at least capturing the fractious will of the electorate. (Alright, there was the 2000 election when the Supremes stepped in and preempted the opinion of the majority. No system is perfect.)

The primary contests run forever, but I'd rather have a drawn-out process, and intense scrutiny of the candidates, than the rabbit-out-the-hat method used by so many other countries.

For fifty-four years Cubans have been presented with the choice of the same bearded rabbit. Recently they traded the usual old rabbit for his slightly younger brother, but Cubans are still stuck with a bearded rabbit.

In Mexico, even after recent reforms, the parties anoint their candidates through an opaque hocus-pocus that looks more like a papal conclave than a democratic contest.

Consider that if the recent Republican primary had been sealed and delivered in only two or three weeks, we could have been saddled with whomever was ahead at that point.

It might have been the affable pizza mogul with an eye for the ladies or the born-again Torquemada still grappling with the morality of contraception. Or perhaps Strangelove Newt, musing about travel to Mars or Cowboy Perry who couldn't remember exactly which federal agencies he wanted to eliminate, much less talk about space exploration. Or the perpetually startled-looking congresswoman from Minnesota who got the birthplace of John Wayne the cowboy mixed up with that of John Wayne Gacy the Chicago serial killer.

So after a tedious process that involved umpteen debates, the Republicans picked Romney, the guy who once went on vacation with the family dog in a crate tied to the roof of the car. Dull but safe (though not for the dog).

Brothers and sisters, it could have been much, much worse.

A month before the general election most Americans may be fed up with the interminable presidential campaign and the almost daily opinion polls, but not me.

Another secret video could appear to finally knock out Romney's campaign. Or the principal of a hard-core madrassa in Indonesia might reveal that a young Barack could indeed recite the Koran from memory. That'll give the blonde news attack team at Fox something to cackle about until Nov. 6.

From the relative isolation and safety of San Miguel I can watch it all, or turn off the dial when it becomes too much even for me. For now, I'm staying tuned.