Friday, December 4, 2015

Who should be afraid now?

When Stew and I visit the United States we can count on one tedious question to come up: "Aren't you afraid to live in Mexico?" Over lunch, when we visited Chicago in October, a friend asked us that and it struck me as odd, considering I'd just read in the local newspaper there had been five murders in the city the night before, and Chicago and New Orleans were running neck and neck for the title of "Murder Capital of the U.S."

In fact, following a string of mass murders—almost one a day this year according to some estimates—expats from Mexico should be the ones asking that question when we visit the U.S.

This morning's New York Times reports that Americans, stunned not only by the frequency but the senselessness of the mass murders—the lack of any rhyme or reason that would allow you to protect yourself—are now the ones looking over their shoulders in fear. Over five thousand readers reacted to the article, mentioning among other things, their personal escape plans or owning guns in case a shootout erupted around them.

Look out for "transgendered leftist activists" with guns. 
Fears for one's safety are fueled by both facts and perceptions. Several weeks ago, factual reports of a string of murders in San Miguel, enhanced by gossip and extrapolation, set the local expat community on edge. As I wrote in a previous posting, Stew and I are not immune from such vacillation. Someone gets bumped off on the other side of town? Don't worry about it. A stiff turns up close to home? Oh, shit.

But in general we've somehow learned to manage and localize our fears in Mexico. When we drive to the U.S., we stay away from narcomeccas like Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa and head for border crossings as far from them as possible. We don't drive at night or on back roads, no matter how picturesque. One of the considerations in the design of our home was security; someone might still get in—no place is impregnable—but they are going to have to work at it.

What's most scary about the violence gripping the U.S., though, is the randomness. One might get killed at a movie house, while attending church, near a family planning clinic or at an employee Christmas party at a center for disabled people. The shooter could be a Muslim radical, an anti-abortion zealot, a racist dimwit or, most often, just some nut with a gun.

As they say, there's no figurin', though some Americans try to. When we visited San Antonio a month ago, Stew and I were struck by the number of billboards for gun shows, gun stores, firing ranges and other gun-related paraphernalia. I'm sure gun-toting locals will argue that guns make them feel safe.

But to Stew and me, the apparent surfeit of guns in San Antonio made us feel distinctly unsafe. When you walk into a grocery store, how many customers are packing and ready to start shooting over whatever—that they just got fired, thrown out of their house by their wife, or are just intoxicated? Would bringing my own gun make my produce shopping experience safer and more pleasant?

In fact, the growing number of legal and illegal firearms in the U.S.—by some estimates enough for every man woman and child—has made the guns-for-safety argument tragically circular. The more threatened people feel, the more guns they buy, which only heightens the fear of getting shot by someone, anyone, with a gun, either by accident or on purpose, and that fuels the next cycle of demand for more weapons. And so on.

There is usually an uptick in gun sales after a mass shooting incident, sometimes triggered by some local government genius who argues that the only way to make, for example, moviegoing safer is to bring a Glock with you in case the mayhem on the screen spills into the theater.

Governmental authority should be responsible for maintaining public safety but it fails at that on both sides of the border. In Mexico, the entire law enforcement apparatus is riddled with ineptitude and corruption. Army trucks, loaded with soldiers clutching machine guns, periodically cruise through San Miguel, but they seem more like toy soldiers than credible security agents.

In the U.S. the same paralysis obtains. Pres. Obama pleads for Congressional action to control the availability of guns but you can tell by the sad tone in his words and eyes that he's pretty much given up. In Congress, Republicans call for prayers and the intervention of the Almighty but won't even contemplate the most timid gun-control measures. To make matters worse, there have been numerous incidents recently of police shooting people first—usually black people—and asking questions later.

Occasionally, some public official will come up with an original theory. After the shooting of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz suggested that the shooter might have been a "transgendered leftist activist," as if that would clarify things a bit or soothe people's nerves. It doesn't for me.

Hmm. For the time being, my friends, Stew and I are staying in Mexico, which suddenly looks pretty safe. And that's that. For now.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Refugees are knocking. Let 'em in.

Stew and I have just returned from a one-week drive through the immensity known as Texas, where we visited relatives of mine in Houston and in Austin—all of whom, like me, came from Cuba as refugees.

Our visit coincided with the media and political furor against Syrian refugees, who've been battered and demonized mostly by Republican presidential candidates playing a xenophobic game of "can you top this?". Trump has talked about registering all Muslims in the U.S., or perhaps shutting down some of their mosques. Carson compared violent Muslim extremists to rabid dogs, while Huckabee likened some refugees to rotten peanuts.

Not to be left out of this Islamophobic conga line, some thirty state governors have vowed not admit refugees from Syria, even though governors have no immigration say-so whatsoever and, barring the construction of Berlin Walls along state lines, Syrians could take a bus from say, Minnesota to Wisconsin.

Most curious of all are Rubio and Cruz's tirades against admitting Syrian refugees: Their own parents came to the U.S. as refugees from Cuba, a fact one would think should engender a more generous attitudes toward the latest bunch of desperate human beings
María, the youngest refugee in my family, lives in Austin.
fleeing persecution and economic misery. (I particularly resent Cruz, who reminds me of Al Lewis, who played Grandpa in The Munsters).

Indeed, since Castro rose to power in 1959, over a million Cubans have been admitted to the U.S. under special policies, protections and programs not generally afforded to refugees from other countries.

I arrived in the U.S. in 1962 under a program called Peter Pan that was part humanitarian gesture part Cold War propaganda, and allowed fourteen thousand Cuban minors into the country with only a "visa waiver"—in effect no visa requirements at all except the most cursory "come on in" paperwork from the U.S. State Department. In 1970 I became an American citizen.

When I arrived I stayed at a refugee camp outside of Miami for two months before moving in with an uncle in New York. Thousands of Peter Panners were scattered throughout the country, to American homes, orphanages and pretty much anyone who would take them. Many grew up to be rich and famous, a few reported sexual and physical abuse at the hand of their "sponsors."

I wish America were willing to extend if only a portion of the kindness given to Peter Pan kids to the tens of thousands of Syrian children all over the Middle East, Europe, and who knows where, trying to escape the terror and misery choking their home countries.
My second cousin, Adrián, who now lives in Houston, and his family—all refugees—were admitted to the U.S. in 2000 through another peculiar avenue: a visa lottery held by the U.S. embassy in Havana.

It's been a great deal for Adrián—and America. He's a thin, ambitious, high-energy guy, about thirty-years old, who since his arrival has earned a degree in chemical engineering, an M.B.A. and is taking night classes in finance. He works for Exxon-Mobil in Houston. His wife expects to become a registered nurse by year's end. Meanwhile, Adrián's brother, became a pharmacist and works for Walgreens in Miami.

My second cousins in Austin arrived to the U.S. more recently; Julio, the head of the family, arrived early last year, and his wife Odette, and two daughters, one eight years old, the other fifteen, got to Austin just four months ago.

They all arrived through another Cuban quirk in U.S. immigration law called the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. In short, if you're Cuban and somehow get to set foot in America somehow or other—off a boat in Florida or through the U.S. border with Mexico—bingo, you're in. After a year-long "parole" you're entitled to U.S. residency and all the perks that come with it, including citizenship in five years.

The Austin clan worked with a Cuban connection in Cancún, Mexico, who has set up a lucrative business based on the dry-foot provision of American immigration law. Say what you will, Cubans are nothing if not enterprising. The Cancún group charges a hefty fee, to which I contributed three thousand dollars, and for that you get a Mexican working permit that gets you out of Cuba.

After a brief respite in Mexico for a Corona and a taco, the facilitators take you to the U.S. border, give you some coins that get you through the turnstile—and you're in America. Julio came through the El Paso crossing, the rest of the family through McAllen, Texas.

The gang's all here: Odette, Julio, and María, 8, Ana, 15. 
Since his arrival in Austin, where he stayed with friends, Julio, a thirty-something, soft-spoken, gentle-faced guy with sparse hair, has worked—and worked and worked—installing drywall. It's back-breaking work, he says, particularly during Texas's broiling summers, but in addition he moonlights a few days a week as a cook, which was his original line of work in Cuba.

His wife Odette, a dermatologist back home, is exploring coursework to find some medical-type job, probably as a phlebotomist or a nurse's aide. The two girls are attending school. Julio is working to either get a license to drive a truck, a lucrative job, or save enough money to buy the tools to become an independent drywall contractor, which also pays more. There's already talk of buying a small house instead of wasting money on rent.

This gang, as their Houston counterparts, are American Dream-bound. I have no doubts.

Indeed, Cubans have had amazingly good luck at the immigration roulette compared to other national groups, such as Haitians and now Syrians.

For sure, Cubans are far more inconspicuous and "blendable" than the Syrians, most of whom are Muslim, some wearing exotic gear such as hijabs and kufi hats.

Syrians also suffer from the Muslim connection to terrorism, most recently in Paris.

Except that until recently Cuba and the U.S. have had a fractious relationship too, to say the least. Since 1982 until this year, Cuba was a member of the elite "State Sponsors of Terrorism" club at the U.S. State Department, thanks to Castro's annoying support of anti-American governments and guerrilla insurgencies worldwide, from Angola to Nicaragua.

Then, in 1982, there was the immigration debacle known as the Mariel boatlift which brought approximately 125,000 Cubans—some of them convicts or mentally ill folk—to the U.S. For further details, ask former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who lost a reelection bid in part because of his mishandling of riots and looting by Marielitos housed at an Army barracks in Arkansas formerly used to detain German prisoners of war during World War II.  

For better or for worse, though, Cubans have kept on coming, about 1.1 million as of 2013, with nothing like the vetting now required of Syrians.

During the past two years, the U.S. has admitted only 1,800 Syrian refugees, half of them children and one quarter people over sixty years old. In fact, the screening process so thorough that it takes eighteen months to two years for a Syrian refugee application to be approved, if ever.

Some Republicans in Congress, while proclaiming not to be anti-Muslim, want to pile on so many entry requirements that a prospective Syrian refugee would have to explain the theory of relativity while doing the rhumba before getting a refugee visa. In other words, forget it.

Cubans certainly have been an industrious bunch, in part transforming Miami from a ramshackle retirement destination into a glittering vacation mecca with a Latin flavor. But most important, Cubans have learned to develop and use political muscle, with seven Cuban-Americans in Congress at the moment, including senators Rubio and Cruz. Until recently Miami was an obligatory stop for presidential candidates to present their anti-Castro credentials to the Cuban gerontocracy in order to win the Cuban vote—and Florida.

Muslims in the U.S. instead are now terrified by the backlash largely instigated by Republican presidential candidates post the Paris terrorist attacks.

That's a shame both for them and for the U.S. When I see boatloads of Syrian refugees I don't see terrorists although there might be one aboard. Far more likely I see folks who could become another Adrián or Julio, if given a chance. It's a risk worth taking.


Grandpa for the
U.S. Senate?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The tale of the Hens and the Ostriches

In a shocking demonstration of how reality can resemble folklore, a 78-year-old American woman was found murdered in her San Miguel home on October 26, a week before the big Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead.

Road to heaven: Locals on the way to the cemetery pick up
the traditional Day of the Dead flowers.
And as usual, the local expat social media sites, such as the Civil List, and a new Facebook page exclusively dedicated to the topic of public safety, as well as restaurant and sidewalk chatter, buzzed with theories, condolences and other comments, coming generally from two groups—the Hen House and the Ostrich Farm.

As usual, the hens run around in a panic, wings flapping and feathers flying, amid mostly incoherent clucking about how dangerous our town has become, and what are we going to do, and what are we going to do. After this last murder, some gringos even suggested hiring a private investigator to handle the case.

Things are far quieter among the ostriches which, predictably, just dig their heads a little deeper in the sand, and insist there's nothing to worry about. Whatever happened was the result of carelessness or bad luck on the part of the victim, and it happened on the other side of town and, anyway, more people get killed in Los Angeles, Chicago and other U.S. cities.
After living in San Miguel for ten years, Stew and I find ourselves dashing between the hens and ostriches, depending how a spate of bad news affects us personally.

Despite all of San Miguel's charms, its law enforcement system is spectacularly inept, and so is the legal machinery for prosecuting and jailing the guilty which, indeed, seldom occurs.

After a while, you come to regard police officers with snazzy uniforms, reflective vests and aviator sunglasses—the blue and red lights on their patrol cars and motorcycles constantly and uselessly flashing—not as reassuring sights but as hapless figures who are just part of the scenery.

Since we moved here we've heard of over a dozen American and Canadian victims of rapes, assaults, burglaries, home invasions and murders but except for two cases, we know of no one who has been arrested, charged and imprisoned for those crimes.

Several years ago a serial rapist targeting American women triggered a bona fide manhunt in San Miguel after authorities began to worry that national and international publicity threatened the town's image as a tourist and retirement utopia. The other case, involving a mentally unstable young Mexican woman who murdered an American who had adopted her, was closed when the suspect was essentially turned in by friends or relatives.  
Impunity is a familiar concept among Mexicans who generally treat law enforcement in their own country with derision if not outright contempt. When the notorious drug trafficker El Chapo escaped from a maximum security prison several months ago—by digging a mile-long tunnel that will go down as the most awesome civil engineering project of modern times—the reaction of Mexicans I spoke with was either to relate the latest El Chapo joke or, with a shrug of the shoulders, ask: So what else is new?

Give us our daily dead: One trashy local newspaper, sold to
motorists  stopping at speed bumps, features a daily front-page 
murder in the city of Celaya or neighboring communities, 
including San Miguel. This headline: "Death at Dawn". To 
soften the blow of so much gore, the paper also features 
a centerfold of a scantily clad young woman.  
But impunity and its accompanying feeling of powerlessness—the sense that criminals can do terrible things to you or your property with little fear of sanctions or consequences—is far tougher for Americans to swallow. And so the reaction often is panic or denial, depending on whether the latest murder or assault took place near where you live or the victim was someone you knew.

Indeed, several months ago an American couple who live near our ranch were terrorized and the husband badly beaten in their ranch by four armed bandits. A few days later the house of another American friend was burglarized while he was out of town.

That's scary stuff, particularly close to where you live. Our fears since have been compounded by absence of any arrests, despite much forensic fireworks, dusting for fingerprints, interviews, paperwork and such.
It's at those moments that I can understand the alarm and hubbub in the Hen House, particularly among the women living alone in San Miguel.

And at those times, Stew and I can cluck and cluck as loudly as any scared hen would. Following the home invasion and burglary near our little ranch we even looked into getting a firearm, a silly idea we abandoned shortly.

But after a few months passed, and the initial panic faded, we moved back in with the ostriches, primarily because there is really nothing we can do except to make sure that every opening at our ranch, from the main gate to the garage door, is securely padlocked at night, and to hope that our Rottweiler-ish mutt wakes up if someone tries to get in.

The latest murder is really awful, particularly the vision of an elderly person being pounced on in her sleep. But we didn't know her, and she lived clear across town. So, for the time being, we're staying with the ostriches, praying that something terrible like that won't happen to us or someone we know.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

When technology crushes do-it-yourselfers

Stew prides himself in his supernatural do-it-yourself skills which permit him to repair things lesser humans would toss in the trash or the back of the closet. His brother Greg is even more confident of his technical abilities: He often buys things that are already broken, and really cheap, counting on being able to fix them and saving tons of money.

As a back-up strategy, Stew also saves all receipts and guarantees, so he can smugly send back to the manufacturer or retailer those rare items beyond his amazing mechanical talents, and demand a replacement, no matter how onerous the warranty requirements might be, such as "void unless you include the original sales and credit card receipts and a copy of your grandmother's birth certificate." Stew's got them all neatly filed, and more often than not he gets a replacement.

Then came the case of the LG smart phone, which he dropped sometime ago. The keyboard touch-screen went bonkers and would come up with the wrong letters or none at all, making it impossible to type any messages or even enter the password. In Chicago we went to a Best Buy store, where a lethargic "Geek Squad" member at the service desk declared the phone positively dead and gone.

Patient lying on the operating table; vital signs still hopeful. 
Stew would not give up. Back in Mexico he fiddled around until he discovered that, aha!, the keyboard would work if he held the phone upside down, which meant the entire screen wasn't dead, just the bottom half. Could that be fixed? Yes! he said to himself, and ordered a new screen—a "touch-screen digitizer"—from Guangzhou, China, via, for $9.19.

After a few days, he received a cheerful if mostly unintelligible email from someone in China, announcing the imminent arrival of the new screen. Indeed, it arrived in Chicago, and later in Laredo, in six days flat.

Must admit I became a believer when the cigarette pack-size package arrived, containing a new screen plus a set of nearly microscopic screwdrivers, smaller even than those you use to fix eyeglasses, everything you needed to replace the screen on a LG Nexus 4 smart phone—except instructions and a requisite hair dryer.

Stew found a thirty-five minute YouTube video that promised to guide him through the entire process. Let's go.

Stew's index finger and thumb on his right hand don't work properly, thanks to an incompetent Mexican "orthopedic surgeon" here—with a German last name but no German expertise—who bungled the operation to repair carpal tunnel syndrome.

It was up to me to do the surgery on the smart phone, with Stew yelling the instructions from the guy on the YouTube video, which I couldn't quite hear because the volume adjustment on his laptop doesn't work properly and, anymore, neither does my hearing.

Let's see. Pry the smart phone case open, carefully, with the tool provided, and then, using one of the tiny screwdrivers, remove nine screws, about a sixteenth of an inch long, if that. Set aside. Carefully peel back a printed circuit, onion skin-thick and then another. Using tweezers, not provided, unplug a connection at the end of a wire, about as thin as a human hair. Careful now.

With all the pieces spread on the desk, always being careful not to sneeze, you wonder how human beings, even very tiny Chinese factory workers with eagle eyes, magnifying glasses and tiny fingers, assemble these things. Some of the pieces had what looked like Chinese characters, presumably the initials of some quality control person.

After forty-five minutes, this intervention became as nerve-wracking as a vasectomy on a chipmunk, though, astonishingly, it seemed to proceed according to the YouTube video.

The beginning of the end: In comes a hair dryer. 
 "Now you need a hair dryer," Stew said, echoing the YouTube instructor. The hair dryer was supposed to heat the malfunctioning screen to an unspecified temperature that would cause it to peel back from some sort of sensor panel to which it was attached.

"Shit". A fateful last word, uttered by me or Stew, I can't remember. Doesn't matter. The screen didn't peel back properly and the sensor panel shattered, though we also noticed that, anyway, the wires dangling from the replacement didn't match those on the old screen or the picture on the YouTube video.

Stew wouldn't give up—I can't imagine what he was pondering—and so he left the whole mess of wires, circuit panels and tiny screws lying on the desk, as if waiting for a visit by the Angel of Technology.

"Should have done what ninety-nine percent of smart phone users would have done," I said snarkily.

"Which is?" Stew asked.

"Throw the damn thing in the trash and buy a new one," I said.

Which is what we ended up doing, and we now own shiny new Samsung 6 Galaxy smart phone. It has a panoply of features we've just begun to explore. Fingerprint and voice recognition, plus automatic this and that and the other. Don't ask how much it cost, because I won't tell you.

Meanwhile, Stew now has moved on to the solar-powered, motion-activated LED light by the entrance gate, which doesn't seem to work. He mumbled about fixing it until he discovered we bought it nine months ago and it carries a two-year warranty.

And when that's on its way back to the manufacturer, he'll need to check the weather station on the roof which has been registering zero m.p.h. winds and no temperature, for several days. I think it's broken.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Memorial for someone we didn't know

Sally lived in San Miguel but, for Stew and me, she was a bedridden unknown. We inquired about her periodically, but her brother Doug, one of our best friends here, would only mutter, predictably, "Oh, she's about the same."

Sally, 77, died on September 28 from the multiple sclerosis that had kept her barely conscious, in a special room set aside in Doug's house, for the past twelve years. It wasn't until two weeks ago, when we attended an ad hoc, but deeply moving memorial sendoff, consisting of a brief service at a Catholic church followed by a rousing fiesta at Doug's house serenaded by a mariachi band, that we got to know Sally, however fleetingly.

By the entrance: Mariachi fanfare for Sally.
For years, Sally didn't, couldn't, say much. But during her last moments somehow she communicated her appreciation for all the extraordinary love and attention she had received from Doug and his wife, as well as the team of Mexican caregivers who looked after her, round-the-clock.

She mouthed a last-minute "thank you" to Doug minutes before she died. Even Sally's husband Hans, who died in 2000, may have returned to bid her good-bye too.

Neither Sally nor Hans could talk, but somehow each got a few last words in.
We met Doug Lord and his wife Brianne ten years ago at a yoga-for-geezers class in San Miguel and soon became fast friends. None of us drinks. We're all liberal Democrats, the Lords from the San Francisco area, us from Chicago, and we can hoo-hah, or at times groan, endlessly about he foibles of Republicans. We gossip, schmooze and laugh over lunch or dinner for two hours or more, and walk away confident there's plenty conversation left for the next get-together.

Sally's memorial rites were held on October 11 at Las Monjas, one of San Miguel's most beautiful churches, which gets its informal name because of its attached cloistered convent. The services were arranged by Oscar Peña, who runs the home-care service that looked after Sally, and was attended by him, his wife and a few of the other caretakers, plus about twenty-five expat acquaintances.

Neither Doug nor Brianne, nor I suspect most of the other Americans in attendance, were Catholic, and so the young priest wisely dispensed with most of the normal church liturgy for the dead and improvised a set of readings—in Latin and Spanish—that were unintelligible to all but the Mexican attendees yet stirred everyone with their simplicity and cadence.

Recalling Sally's Life: Doug speaking,
Oscar to his left, Brianne sitting. 
As if for added dramatic effect, the priest, in his mid-thirties, read and sang the readings in a high and resonant tenor that echoed throughout the church and was met by the distant responses of soft female voices, presumably coming from cloistered nuns huddled behind the grille in the church's choir loft.

From what I could understand of the five-minute sermon, it was a matter-of-fact exhortation, light on hell-and-damnation, and more along the lines of, "life is a limited engagement, folks, and we'd better enjoy it while we can."

A serious teenage boy clad in white and red vestments, hanging about ten inches above his white sneakers, went around and collected donations. The half-hour service concluded with the priest sprinkling holy water on the container holding Sally's ashes, which rested on a small stand by the communion rail at the front of the church.

At the end, Stew sat there speechless for a minute or so and, visibly moved, turned to me: "I don't understand any of this Catholic stuff, but I want something like this when I go."
Sally and Hans Saxer both worked in the San Francisco area, she as a secretary and he, a hulk of man who was born in Switzerland, as a loan officer at a bank. Doug commented he was a thrifty guy who probably owned only one pair of shoes.

In some ways, their love affair was as unconventional as the memorial service. They dated for seventeen years and finally got married in 1987, about the time when Sally began to show the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease that causes the body's immune system to attack a sheathing of the nerves in the brain and spine, and leads to loss of muscle control and other basic body functions. It often starts with problems walking that turn, as it did in Sally's case, into paralysis.

Shortly after their marriage Hans took Sally on a month-long trip to South America. But tragedy struck again years later when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He died in 2000.

By this time, Sally, incapable of taking care of herself, was moved to a nursing home in Oakland, where she stayed for three years.

Then Doug and Brianne, planning to retire in San Miguel, faced the quandary: What are we going to do with Sally?

For Brianne, it was no quandary. "We're taking Sally with us to Mexico," she said.

So in 2003 they booked a flight to Mexico for the three of them on Allegro Airlines, a Mexican airline now out of business. Sally, wrapped in a heat-saving "space blanket," was loaded onto the plane by the flight crew, and brought down at León Airport near Guanajuato, by another crew of six Mexican guys who also carried on as if this was a routine movement of passengers, Brianne recalled.

She said that gesture, and the care Sally received later, left her with an indelible memory of the kindness of Mexican people.

Sally settled into her own room at Doug and Brianne's home, where she was cared for by a team of nurses and caretakers led by Oscar. Once a week, Dr. Jorge Martínez, long revered locally not only for his medical skills and attention but also his looks—some of his American women patients call him "Dr. Gorgeous"—checked in on her every week.

Life of the fiesta: Mini-mariachi with a maxi-voice.
Doug said he couldn't imagine more attentive care at a nursing home in the U.S., where even twelve years ago, the fees ran at $7,000 a month for a shared room plus incidentals, and the doctor came around only once a month.

Indeed, Sally's stay in San Miguel was a mixture of the tragedy of a lingering, terminal illness and the blessing of the personal attention she received, as if she had been a family member, from Oscar and the Mexican care team.

Ever attentive, Oscar arranged for the service at Las Monjas Church and hired a mariachi band—one of the best I've ever heard—to play during the farewell brunch at Doug's home. The celebration was a mixture of somber, sometimes tearful, stories about Sally's last days, and the festive blaring of trumpets, violins and singing. An amazing solo by a boy, about ten years old, dressed in full mariachi get-up, capped the celebration.

Sally didn't die alone. During her last few hours she slipped in and out of a coma. She was almost pronounced dead by Dr. Martínez only to rally a couple of hours later. When Doug was summoned to her room for the last time, she opened her eyes, looked straight at him and mouthed a silent good-bye.

Two of the Mexican nurses later reported that during those last few days they had individually, and on two different occasions, witnessed a large and distinct silhouette of a person—a palpable presence they said—standing by Sally. Could it have been the hulking Hans, stopping by to pay his final respects?

Even Doug, an avowed non-believer, nodded as he told that story.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Happy Mexican Independence Day!

Mexican Independence Day cavalcade riding past our ranch

A place where May comes in September

In one particularly poignant entry in her "Diary", which Stew and I recently reread in anticipation of a trip to Amsterdam, Anne Frank talks about her remedy for unhappiness, loneliness and fear: 

"The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature's beauty and simplicity."

I wouldn't think of comparing my own occasional bouts of loneliness, boredom, fear and depression with Frank's tragedy, who after more than two years of confinement in a building in Amsterdam with hers and another family, died from typhus in a German concentration camp. 

Her words, though, have resonated with me during the past two weeks, as I have gone on walks around the ranch during this season, which technically should be autumn but here looks more like May in September. It's a time when leaves should be dropping off the trees and the landscape turning shades of brown, but here the opposite takes place. It's an ideal time too, to step out of my mostly trivial preoccupations and admire what's going on around me. 

Early morning foggy landscape

It's been raining practically every day for the past six weeks, though it's an accommodating rain that usually arrives after dark and in the morning surrenders to the sun, for it to shine on the blankets of wild flowers that seem to cover the entire ranch (and more practically, on our solar gear on the roof).
Temperatures range from an ideal, air conditioning-like sleeping weather at night, in the high fifties or low sixties, that warms up to the seventies and maybe low eighties by noon. Indeed, too-cool a breeze, combined with farmyard chorales of roosters, dogs, donkeys and other animals, particularly during a full moon, often prompts one of us to close the windows in the middle of the night.

A more perfect climate, or scenery to wake up to, is hard to imagine. When we were planning this house a friend suggested that we orient the bedroom toward the east, so we could watch the sun rise over the landscape. What a great idea that was.

For the past several weeks we've awakened to a deep fog, as the dampness on the ground tries to dissipate.  Even that early fog can be intriguing if not beautiful. As late as eight-thirty, sometimes even later, it almost laps at the bedroom windows. A gnarled and thorny huizache bush, about twenty feet from the house sometimes is all that is visible. Despite the fog, hummingbirds already are poking the tiny, red mirto flowers at the base of the huizache, and an adventurous bird or two is splashing in the bird bath.

The fog lifts gradually, almost majestically, like gauze gradually pulling back to reveal more distant vistas of a creek, small ponds, neat rows of corn and the most recent addition, a vineyard atop a hill about a mile away. Even after the sun is up, a few clouds may remain, embracing the mountaintops.

The best of the seasonal show, though, are the flowers, tens of thousands of them, a few that we have planted, the rest a gift from nature.

These are called Christmas Candlesticks. We planted
three or four but since they have spread all over.
When we bought the land, it was almost barren, though the views in all directions seemed to make up for the erosion and overgrazing by livestock, mostly goats and sheep. Our first investment was a fence to seal off our three hectares, or a little more than seven acres.

If there was little vegetation there was a surfeit of rocks that we used to build the foundation of the house and also construct small terraces to hold in whatever scarce topsoil remained, during the rivers of rain that want to gush downhill unimpeded.

During the first two years, our efforts, if not in vain, certainly looked like a very long shot. A Google Earth photo of the ranch showed little but scrub brush, with a Mars-like cobweb of trails, created by our dogs scurrying around chasing rabbits and mice, or just sniffing mindlessly.

Now most of the vegetation—plumed grasses, bushes, wildflowers, plus the trees we have planted—cover two-thirds of our land, and is hip- if not shoulder-high.The dogs have to crawl under the vegetation to chase rabbits or mice that, anymore, almost always get away.

Golden Trumpet Vine and Mexican Bush Sage,
by the gate of the front patio. 
In fact, after a walk a while ago, Stew remarked that the majority of the land now looks undisturbed by anyone, even the dogs.

I often call our gardener Félix, who's contributed most of the labor in the replanting of our ranch, to point out how beautiful it all has turned out. Invariably, he adds a few details that I've missed, a bird's nest, a flowering bush with some strange indigenous name, the latest crop of tomatoes.

Early on, in a fit of gardening hubris, Félix and I went around collecting the seeds of wild cosmos and orange sunflowers, thinking we would sow them sometime around May or June, just where we thought they would look best.

But one can't tame wildflowers. That's why they are called "wild."

We thought we had sowed a nice bed of cosmos next to the garage but the flower seeds, carried by the wind, birds or serendipity, went elsewhere. Our cosmos patch this year, dozens and dozens of plants, grows by the compost pile. Where we thought the cosmos ought to go, now is covered with mounds of inch-wide white flowers, visiting from who-knows-where, that'll probably migrate to another corner of the ranch next year.
The compost bins: Where the Cosmos flowers moved to this year
It's as if the wildflowers are saying, "Thanks, but we can manage ourselves. Just keep the goats out."

We've had some big successes, literally, with our trees. Our alder is about twenty-five feet high and ten feet across. A magnolia that started out as a scrawny bush has grown to twelve or fifteen feet, its thick, shiny, plastic-looking leaves cradling huge white blossoms, maybe eight or ten inches across, that seem as floppy and fragile as crepe paper creations. Dozens of evergreens planted three years ago have tripled in size.

Magnolia blossoms look like they are about to fall apart. 
Anne Frank's ode to the outdoors is as beautiful as it is tragically ironic, for she never got to leave her hiding place to wander and wonder freely outside.

During the past two weeks, I've taken Frank's advice and walked around the ranch, sometimes venturing even into the areas now thick with thorny vegetation, followed by our dogs, frantically wagging their tails and sniffing, sniffing, sniffing. I can't sniff as well as them, but still can appreciate the myriad smells of flowers and of some weed or herb—chamomile?—that, in protest, releases a sweet scent when you step on it.

I've come appreciate her prescription. At least for those few moments alone outside, and sometimes for the rest of the day, everything is as it should be.


The pomegranates who came to dinner. This bush popped up by itself by the garage,
and has produced about ten fruits this year. 
Flowering ferrocactus. Bees love these flowers and often will crawl inside and
stay there for several minutes.

One of two flower beds flanking the main gate to the ranch.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

A not-too-modest proposal for reforming the American immigration system

It's been a painful, shameful, embarrassing spectacle, even from the distance afforded by living in Mexico, to watch what passes for a debate on immigration among the Republican presidential candidates, led by Donald Trump.

The more extreme and ridiculous his positions have become—starting with his opening campaign blast promising that he would build a two-thousand-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and somehow "make Mexico pay for it"—the higher his approval levels among Republican voters have risen.

Worse, rather than refute his racist, spiteful rhetoric as nonsense, the other contenders have seemed to nuzzle up to Trump, with their own wall-building or immigrant-bashing schemes, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker musings about building a wall along the Canadian border too. Way to go, Scott.

Hey, would you vote for someone with that hair?
"Anchor babies," for a while the Trumperism du jour, for weeks became the vortex of the debate over immigration, even though it's an overblown and distorted issue.

Depriving the so-called "anchor babies" of U.S. citizenship, and presumably their parents' path to eventual legalization, would require a constitutional amendment.

Far more important, the debate over anchor babies is nonsense: Mexican women, the presumed abusers of the U.S. immigration system, cannot just sneak over the border, drop a baby and shortly afterward claim legal residence.

According to current immigration law, someone born in the U.S. cannot sponsor or facilitate the legalization of their parents or siblings until he or she has reached legal adulthood, at the age of twenty-one.

That means that even the most conniving Mexican immigrant mother or father who had a baby on American soil today could not hope to gain their green immigration card until, hmm, sometime in the year two-thousand thirty-six.

And during that wait the illegal immigrants would be subject to deportation—the citizenship of a minor child notwithstanding.

I cannot speak for all undocumented Central American or Mexican immigrants—an overwhelmingly desperate bunch just looking for any kind of work—but I doubt they plan that far ahead or know that much about all the nooks of U.S. immigration law.
Instead, I would like to challenge the presidential candidates, particularly in the Republican field, to explicitly admit an obvious fact: Immigrants, from high-tech whizzes from India and Europe to farm workers from Mexico and Central America, are an essential component of the U.S. economy.

Their presence is a benefit—not a threat—to the country.

Low-skilled Mexicans fill jobs in agriculture, construction, meat-packing, hotels, restaurants and other low-paying sectors that are shunned by the natives.

Yeah, growers in Georgia could offer fifteen dollars an hour to American onion pickers, and the meat packers twenty-five dollars an hour to genuine Iowans or Nebraskans to work on the slaughterhouse floor, and perhaps dispense with illegal immigrant labor.

But then Vidalia onions would become a luxury item on par with truffles, and Argentine beef —great stuff, by the way—become just as or more attractive to American consumers as steaks from Iowa or Nebraska.

The corollary to admitting that America needs even low-skilled immigrants is, of course, to legalize the presence of those already in the U.S. illegally.

That would involve bringing both illegal immigrants and their employers out from the shadow labor market in which they operate. Also it would lessen the chance for abuses and exploitation of both immigrants and American workers.
Under this new regime interesting things could happen. I'd bet hundreds of thousands of illegal Mexican and Central American immigrants in the U.S. who are too afraid to leave, even for a family emergency back home, would rather retire to a small family ranch back home rather than spend another winter in Duluth, Minn. Immigration from Mexico would become a two-way highway.

A couple of years ago Stew and I visited a town, in the nearby state of Queretaro, that featured crude replicas of American houses, including mini-plantations with columned porticos, built by Mexican immigrants who had returned home. Indeed, a moving statue on the town's  central boulevard shows an immigrant family, suitcases in hand, coming home to Mexico.
admit there's a myriad details unaddressed in my plan, including the ease—even after toughening of U.S. border patrols and the sharp increase in deportations in recent years—with which Mexican immigrants filter into the U.S.

A "coyote," or immigrant smuggler operating in Sosnavar, a misery-stricken village a mile from our ranch, periodically gets requests from employers in the Dallas area, for men to do construction labor.

Unemployed guys, including two brothers of our gardener Félix, simply sign up, pay twenty-five hundred dollars (financing plans available) and take off. You leave on a Sunday and should expect to be in Dallas by Wednesday or Thursday, and on the job the following week. It's that straightforward.

That's a major hole that needs to be plugged. Perhaps if American employers had access to immigrant labor on an open market, that would put coyotes out of business and lessen the exploitation of both immigrants and American workers.
But we're getting too far ahead.

To reform the immigration system the first, and giant, step would be to publicly recognize immigrants as a beneficial, even essential, to the U.S. economy. To recognize them as human beings deserving respect, rather than abuse from demagogues tripping over each other to see who can kick immigrants the hardest.

That first step, I admit, would be a tough sell in the U.S., with its mixed history of both generous immigration policies and periodic fits of xenophobia and immigrant-bashing, the latter often exploited by cheap politicians like Trump.

But, hey, I didn't promise you a modest, or easy, proposal.


Sunday, September 6, 2015

When American consumer expectations met Mexican customer service realities

Not to turn this into a complaining and kvetching post, but during the past eight weeks I came to appreciate Stew's observation about how ungodly convoluted, frustrating and time-consuming even simple transactions can become when you live in Mexico.

Take the oven in our six-year-old stove, which was manufactured in Celaya, a town about an hour from San Miguel, by a company called MABE. The oven and the broiler quit working about two months ago. We called the manufacturer which referred us to a manufacturer-owned service company called Serviplus, the latter based at an undisclosed bunker somewhere in Mexico.

We were told someone would come to look at the stove, at a charge of $250 pesos, to assess—not repair—whatever was wrong. The thermocouple needed to be replaced, we were told by the repairman, something that Stew and Félix—two whizbangs in household repair work, had already suspected. Six weeks after the initial assessment visit, we never heard a word from Serviplus until last Friday.

Meanwhile, we contacted Margarito Galván, who many local gringos tout as the appliance repair genius in town, even though even his most ardent fans will admit he has a chronic problem returning phone calls, showing up for appointments and occasionally walking off with money advanced to buy repair parts, never to be heard from again.

After several calls and no response, Félix and Stew loaded the stove in the trunk of the car and we took it to Margarito's workshop, which looked like what you'd find if you burrowed under a junkyard. We left the stove there, and waited for his expert diagnosis.

And waited. After several days we went back to the workshop and met his wife, who said Margarito had checked the stove and determined some parts were needed from a supplier in Queretaro, about an hour from here. That will be $200 pesos, please. The stove went back to our kitchen, the oven and broiler still not working. We're convinced Margarito didn't even look at it.

Indeed, we never laid eyes on the legendary Margarito, who after several calls from me, to inquire about the status of his search, either learned the sound of my voice or my caller ID and would promptly hang up.

Foolishly thinking he could outsmart both Serviplus and Margarito, Stew went to a parts supplier in town to look for the thermocouple. Stew was used to ordering replacement parts for power tools, cars and household appliances directly from the manufacturers in the U.S., which in most cases have exploded diagrams of their products on the internet, to help you pick out the correct parts.

What he found is that MABE parts are available only through its subsidiary Serviplus, which also gets to install them, and not to interlopers like Stew and Félix. In the U.S. I think that would be considered illegal—dunno, restraint of trade? anti-consumer practices?—but here in Mexico, that's just the way it is.

Enter our friend Doug, who gave us the name of another repairman, David Troncoso.

David actually arrived at the ranch on a wheezing scooter that stalled on our driveway, halfway between the gate and our house. He came with only a toolbox, attached to the back of the scooter with a bungee cord, and proceeded to dismantle the stove and methodically test all the components to pinpoint the malfunction.

If you guessed a faulty thermocouple, you get a prize. David said he'd have to find it in Celaya, through some secret contacts of his because, as we already had found out, MABE parts are not available to anyone outside the MABE-Serviplus circle.

Land o' Goshen! A week later David putt-putted back to our ranch with a thermocouple—not original MABE equipment, but one that works—and our stove is back in business.

Mexican ingenuity trumped Mexican inefficiency and anti-consumer practices.

More mysterious still was the problem with my Gateway computer, which suddenly developed a problem with the video. Hence, no postings to this blog for several weeks.

Our customary and very able computer repairman Charles Miller, a slow-talking East Texan who seems to never leave the house without his Stetson, was vacationing in Europe so we went to another person.

My computer, back in business. Keeping my fingers crossed. 
Bad idea. Should have waited for Uncle Charles to return.

The alternative repairman ordered a new, $200 (dollar) video card from Mexico City, installed it and that sent the computer into all sorts of unusual behavior. Like, "it works but you can't use Google Chrome." Indeed, the computer would fire up and promptly crash, with Google Chrome and a host of other applications, yielding only a gray screen.

Abandon all hope. Let's look for a new computer.

Emails to the manufacturer of the computer and the new video card, and several consultations online, yielded no fixes. The non-Charles repairman offered to refund my money, a nice gesture but hardly a solution.

Three or four weeks into this repair mini-drama, which was running concurrently with the stove debacle, and my having a root canal, a tooth extraction and an abscess in one of my molars, along with trying to get a replacement remote control key for our Ford Escape (that's another story), Charles came back.

Two or three weeks into his patient ministrations, which included cleaning up viruses and malware and tinkering with the new video card and the operating program, only led back to the ominous gray screen.

Charles came up with a final solution, final as in the only thing he could come up with, short of buying a new computer: Replace the new two-gigabyte video card with a one-gigabyte model that more closely matched the one that came with the computer.

That involved ordering a new video card from B&H Photo Video in New York, for $35 dollars plus $60 for expedited shipping via DHL and Mexican customs.

Let's now pause to praise all-American speed and hyper efficiency, albeit at a cost. We placed the internet order at one in the afternoon, it left the B&H warehouse at nine p.m. and it arrived in San Miguel, via Cincinnati and Querétaro, at about five p.m. the next day.

Our heads now filled with equal parts high expectations and doomsday resignation, we delivered the new video card to Charles who installed it along with Windows 10.

It's still working flawlessly. In fact the machine seems to be running faster than it did before.

Now let's pause again, this time for a brief but fervent prayer that nothing else breaks around here before we go on vacation two weeks from now.


Monday, July 27, 2015

How violence looks from the other side

Violence in Mexico is the inescapable question every time we visit the U.S. Aren't you scared? Are you safe? Ever thought of coming back to the good ol' U.S.A.? Surely, you must have considered it! Where would you go?

Ten years ago, when we announced our plan to move to Mexico, Charlotte, a good friend, reacted as if we were headed for Zimbabwe. She has never overcome her skepticism. Other friends refuse to visit us because they imagine Mexico to be a giant, lawless saloon—or drug den—where a stray bullet can blow your margarita right out of your hand in mid-sip.

These fears and reactions are based on, and constantly reaffirmed, by media reports—sensational, unbelievable, yet mostly true—about the sorry state of law enforcement in Mexico and the failure of the joint U.S.-Mexican war against the drug cartels which, aside from a few photo-ops of cops looking triumphantly at a table full of plastic-wrapped bricks of cocaine, heroin, or whatever, is a colossal, megamillion-dollar bust.
El Chapo ("Shorty"): Chiquito pero matón
 A week ago PBS aired a truly scary, ninety-minute special about El Chapo who, despite his diminutive physique, has grown to be the most feared drug lord and all-around criminal in the world, and who recently escaped, for a second time, from a Mexican maximum-security prison.

Whichever side of the border you live on, the show was engrossing yet repulsive, one of those spectacles that make you feel like you need a long shower afterward. Most amazing was an lengthy interview with a young Mexican journalist, a woman, who explained, in gruesome detail, how corruption permeates Mexico's law enforcement, top to bottom, corner to corner.

Whether it's enforcing traffic laws or prosecuting the most wanted criminals, everything and everyone seems to have a price in Mexico. Though it didn't state so outright, the show intimated that El Chapo's escape might have taken place with the complicity—"la vista gorda"—of the Mexican government, as a sort of quid pro quo, to avert a national outbreak of drug violence, led by the hordes of El Chapo's Sinaloa drug cartel.
Nasty stuff, except that looking north at the U.S., from the perspective of one living in Mexico, the televised all-American mayhem of daily violence, murders, mass shootings, and killings of unarmed citizens by rogue cops, looks just as scary—if not more so—than anything Mexico has to offer.

For all the crooked cops we might run into on the way to a Mexican movie theater, at least we're not afraid of getting shot by some loon when the show begins, as it happened recently in Lafayette, La. (three dead, including the shooter, and nine others wounded) or three years ago in Aurora, Colo.  (twelve people dead, seventy wounded).

In fact, last week a Washington Post story noted that during the first 204 days of this year there had been exactly 204 mass shootings in the U.S. or, if you please, one daily. Circumstances vary, of course, as well as the analyses and explanations, alibis and rationalizations, offered by politicians, civic groups and others, depending on whether they are pro- or anti-gun control, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

After the Louisiana shooting, for example, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that one solution to movie theater shootings is for movie goers to bring guns with them to the show. Would you like some ammo with your popcorn? That's about as loony as anything we've heard here in Mexico, but it passes for legitimate political debate in the U.S., worthy of screen time on CNN.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a political
 genius whose mind never rests. 
A detailed listing of all the mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015 yields no clear trends. While clearly there are a lot of guns around, and a lot of dead and wounded people, no clear solution is in sight except the usual: a heap of flowers at makeshift memorials, a usually overweight sheriff standing behind a lectern, droning on about nothing, close-ups of weeping relatives, and TV news anchors shaking their heads.

There's disagreement even about what constitutes a "mass shooting." Do the victims have to be dead, wounded or some of each? How many dead makes it a mass shooting, two, three or four? Was the cause terrorism, racism, easy access to guns, a family row, or mental illness? Or better still, who the hell knows?

I vote for "who the hell knows," and that is what makes these incidents so frightening, when we sit down here in Mexico, reading or looking at news of violence up there—in the U.S.

I had to chuckle when I read that one of the main distribution hubs of the Sinaloa cartel in the U.S. is Chicago. That means that our friends there—the city that incidentally was the U.S. murder capital for a while last year—effectively live closer to El Chapo's drug network than we do in San Miguel, which is an eleven- or twelve-hour drive from the actual Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Maybe when we visit our Chicago friends in September we should inquire, with our brows furrowed by concern, about their safety.
One factor that to some extent equalizes the violence in the U.S. as well as Mexico is their governments' inability to control it. Mexico is crippled by legendary corruption, while the U.S., among other factors, by a fatuous debate about gun-rights that has undermined any action by the federal government, even after the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Conn. in 2012, that left 20 children and six school staff members dead, in addition to the gunman, who killed his mother before the rampage at the school, and himself afterward.

The Economist magazine summarized the political paralysis in America on gun control with it's usual dash of sarcasm: "Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass killings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution."

Come to think of it, while impotent to control narcotics-related crime, the air in Mexico City seems a bit cleaner these days too.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

In praise of ugly, misshapen produce

When two days ago Félix brought in a large container of tomatoes from our garden, few qualified for the cover of a food or gardening magazine. Several grape tomatoes looked pretty natty alright, sassy and red, and one baseball-sized Brandywine turned out almost perfect, except for a small insect nip. But they were the minority.

As usual. the tomato crop this year is delicious but hardly pretty.
The ugliest specimens, and fortunately the most numerous, were a half-dozen heirloom Black Krims, whose dark skins, particularly at the top, had cracked open probably from too much rain.
Most grocery stores would summarily toss most of our imperfect produce, on the assumption that buyers also would snub it, even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Our homely Black Krims are the most delicious of the five or six varieties we plant.

Indeed, as much as half of the food produced in developed countries, including the U.S., is sent to landfills, in a vicious cycle of waste—wasted water to raise those crops, wasted fuel to transport them to market, and finally, unnecessary creation of methane gas at the landfills where the less-that-perfect produce goes to rot. Methane is one of the most noxious components of the climate-warming gas mix.

Worse, while this good food is discarded, a growing population of Americans falls under the category of "food insecure" or people who do not earn enough to ensure an adequate and healthy diet. At Republican country clubs this group may sometimes be referred to as "lazy sons-of-bitches" or "forty-seven percenters."
Fact is that even in perfect years—just the right amount of rain and not too many bugs—very little of our produce grows up perfect.

Many of the four or five types of lettuce we plant end up with holes or nibbles; carrots develop double and triple roots, and zucchinis acquire strange and, hmm, suggestive shapes and lengths. It's a trade-off for not using pesticides.

Still, the peas this year performed splendidly. If you've never had just-shucked peas from a nearby vegetable garden, put it on your bucket list. They're sensational.
Unfortunately, this year's conditions have been less than ideal. At the beginning of May we greedily celebrated the daily afternoon downpours of rain but by now they have become almost a curse.

Our 130,000-liter rain collection cistern is filled. Félix had to dig a small drainage ditch at the foot of a magnolia so it wouldn't rot, along the neighboring cow's foot. Some trees on the ranch seemed to be stressed from too much rain and as a result are shedding their leaves.

What looked like a bumper crop of green beans two months ago succumbed to rot, mold or who-knows-what, the latter being the biggest menace of all for home gardeners.
In France and Canada, some grocery chains have begun offering "ugly" and "misshapen" produce and fruit at reduced prices. The campaign sounds particularly curious for a grocery store in France, where the pursuit of perfect food is guaranteed by the constitution. In the U.S., some community groups also are taking some of this "inglorious" food production and giving it to people who can use it.

Ugh-la-la: An ad campaign by Intermarché, France's largest grocery chain. 
Stew may have the best solution yet to unsightly tomatoes. This morning, just after I photographed them, he corralled a bunch of tomatoes and led them to a large pot, to become tomato soup.

We also have had scads of shallots coming up somewhere in the back of one of our vegetable beds. I gently suggested a shallot flan, from Alice Waters' "Chez Panisse Vegetables" (p. 261).

Stew says that, no offense to Alice, he needs to meditate on that idea.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Great day for Cubans, especially me

Yesterday Stew yelled urgently during the NBC Evening News broadcast, for me to watch an important video clip: Three Cuban honor guards solemnly marching toward the flagpole at the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. to raise the Cuban flag for the first time in more than fifty years.
My own celebration yesterday. 

The choreography was a bit overcooked; the stiff-legged guards looked like characters in a Prussian operetta, except they were all black Cubans. Yet the sight of the Cuban flag going up at the embassy—which for decades had been nominally operated by the government of Switzerland and until recently didn't even have a flagpole—briefly, and unexpectedly, moved me to tears.

And just this morning, news came from my second-cousin Odette, who finally arrived in Mexico with her two daughters, to be reunited with her husband Julio, whom she hasn't seen in two or three years, by week's end. He lives in Austin, Texas, and works hanging drywall with a crew of undocumented Mexicans.

I'd visited the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. more than fifteen years ago, as a journalist, and remember it as a ghostly sight. The building is a grand mansion, much grander than you would expect for such a relatively insignificant country, with a grand staircase and a grand ballroom where, before the endless decades of socialist penury and austerity, grand parties were held, supposedly one of the hottest tickets in the capital of the Free World.

What I found instead was a building and an operation frozen in time, circa 1960. There were coats of arms stuccoed over the tops of the arches surrounding the impressive entrance lobby, one for each of Cuba's six provinces, which have since proliferated to fifteen under Castro's revisionist map making. The desks by the entrance were beat up; the ballroom expectantly holding its breath for the next gala, surely no time soon.
Three years ago Stew and I also saw the U.S. Embassy in Havana, though only from the outside. It's a 1950s-modern building holding a choice spot on the city's oceanfront promenade, and surrounded daily by a line of hundreds of people looking for papers, visas, permits, anything to get out of this socialist paradise.

Flagpoles installed across the street from the
U.S. Embassy in Havana
Just across the street, the Cuban government had installed a jungle of flagpoles to block the view of a rolling electronic billboard the Bush administration installed on one side the embassy, from which to broadcast provocative messages intended to do little more than annoy the Cuban government.

Sanity had returned sometime later, when the U.S. removed the billboard and the Cubans stopped flying black flags, which symbolized some American outrage I can't remember.

For us the most impressive sight was a brand-new, dark-blue armored Cadillac parked in the courtyard of the embassy, awaiting orders not from the ambassador, but the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section, as prescribed by the diplomatic kabuki the two countries played for decades.

According to NBC News, when John Kerry visits later this summer, he'll be the first American secretary of state since 1945 to visit tiny Cuba, which all along has been only ninety miles away from the U.S.
One of my two third-cousins, headed for the U.S. this weekend. 
People ask my opinion about the sudden melting of the ice wall between the two countries, and I say it's great, exciting, hopeful.

What I think it's going to happen to the folks trapped in the island? I have no idea. I suspect rapid economic change, fueled by tourist dollars and a loosening of the socialist straitjacket that has choked the economy for so long, but under some sort of centralized political control, in the style of Vietnam or China.

Raúl Castro says he plans to retire in 2018, when he will be about eighty-eight years old, and Fidel in his nineties or preferably resting in an impressive mausoleum shaded by palm trees. Not a decade too soon, fellas.

I am particularly happy for the two daughters of my second cousin ,who'll arrive in the U.S. this weekend. Happy that the family will be together again, happy that those two girls will get a chance to explore a whole new life, and to do so in the island kingdom of Austin, Texas. Happy that when Stew and I visit Cuba next year, it will be more like a fun family trip home, instead of a tension-filled passage to a forbidden land.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

A brief introduction to how Mexico's law enforcement system operates

Latest attraction at Mexico's oldest theme park.
When Americans can't quite explain a situation or event, they might just say, "Oh, you had to be there!"

And so it is with Americans who might be baffled by the stupendous inefficiency and corruption of Mexico's law enforcement system, which allowed the July 11 escape of the world's most notorious narco-trafficker, "El Chapo," from Mexico's most secure, state-of-the-art, he'll-never-get-out-again, don't-worry-about-it, maximum-est maximum-security prison.

If you lived here, you would have seen how—instead of outrage—the average Mexican reacted to El Chapo's escape with bemusement, derision, resignation or a shrug. What else is new, Mexicans will ask you. Few, if any, high- or even middle-profile criminals are ever captured, tried and permanently put away.

How does the country's law enforcement system work? It's simple, you'll hear: It doesn't.

If we had a comparable system in the U.S., Timothy McVeigh would have been last seen five years ago camping somewhere in Yosemite National Park, and no one would expect that Dylann Roof would serve much time for the killing of nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.

In Mexico, such prosecutions—no matter how high-profile—typically meander along endlessly, get mired in bureaucratic bungling and corruption—and are eventually eclipsed by another, even more scandalous, law enforcement debacle.  

The humor newspaper El Deforma, a close cousin of The Onion in the U.S., hit a goldmine of material with El Chapo's escape.

My favorite "news story" was that the amusement park Six Flags Over Mexico had just inaugurated the "Chapo Tunel," a new attraction over a mile long—the length of the entire park— embellished with such realistic touches as laundry carts, picks and shovels, wheelbarrows and motorcycles on rails. Visitors ride hidden inside the laundry carts, just as El Chapo did in 2001, when he escaped from prison the first time.

Corruption—as in bribes, extortion and payoffs—seems to be at the heart of the system's dysfunction. Kind-hearted American liberals often argue that if the poor Mexican policeman on the beat received a better salary, or equipment, or patrol cars or whatever, he would not be so easily tempted by the lure of "mordidas" or bribes.

Though I have no way of proving it, I suspect that even if San Miguel's street cops were paid $50,000 dollars more a year, the mordida system would abate only temporarily, because even with the enhanced salaries, why not shoot for $60,000 a year, particularly when the entire police department is in on the scam? There's no ceiling to greed and corruption.

My first brush with the mordida system came in Mexico City many years ago, when I asked a transit cop where I could park my car. The official matter-of-factly told me that if I gave him some money, can't remember how much, I could park right on the sidewalk, where he'd "keep an eye on it." I passed on the suggestion.

A while back, here in San Miguel, a pickup with riders on the truck bed—which is technically illegal yet universal because of the erratic bus schedules—was stopped by a local transit cop who, after some throat-clearing, made it clear a nice mordida would induce amnesia.

The driver said he didn't have that much money, and the cop—without pause or shame—suggested the riders should pitch in to cover the entire mordida, which they did.

Or take an American friend who lives about ten miles farther out in the country than us. His lovely Texas-style cottage was broken into about a year ago, and the burglars walked off with an odd loot: Booze, some clothes and a set of silverware—every piece except for the knives. Much police hoo-hah ensued, including dusting for fingerprints and questioning, but the case has languished unresolved.

Félix, our own consultant on matters of ornithology and Mexican forensics, suggested that if our friend contributed several twenty-dollar bills to the investigators, that would greatly enhance their perspicacity and interest in cracking the case.

Félix also said that it was foolhardy for Mexican drivers to turn in crooked cops. All that would accomplish, he said, would be to get one's drivers license taken away or car towed to the city pound, and the financial hit would be far greater than the mordida.

I have one mordida story, my favorite because it involved me. While driving through Nuevo Laredo, a rathole of a town, on the way to the U.S., we were stopped by a man dressed as a policeman, on foot, and wielding what seemed to be radar gun.

He said I was speeding and not wearing seat belts. A fine of about three-hundred and fifty pesos, about twenty-five dollars, was in order. We'd been driving for about ten hours and I wasn't in the mood to argue, so I went along.

The "cop" got on the back seat of our car and gave me directions to an OXXO store, equivalent to a Seven Eleven or White Hen Pantry, about ten minutes somewhere else in town, where we would settle the fine. I paid the "fine" to a young woman behind the cash register, who could barely stifle a laugh. That done, the policeman asked to be driven back to where we'd found him.

About an hour after we crossed the border, it all became clear to me. Shit. The guy was not really a policeman, what he was wielding was a hair dryer not a speed gun, and the babe at the OXXO was probably his girlfriend. This scam took place in broad daylight, in the downtown of a fair-sized Mexican city, a few blocks from the U.S. border.

How could I be so stupid? Hmm. All I can say in my defense is: you had to be there.