Friday, January 30, 2015

Protests on the road to nowhere

Driving back from two weeks at the beach with our dowager mutt Gladys, Stew and I were trapped in a seven-hour live demonstration of the Mexican art of futile political protest: A lot of sound and fury—perhaps justified—but ultimately signifying very little except that our trip to our friends’ place in the beautiful colonial town of Pátzcuaro took eleven instead of four hours.  

The beach resort of Barra de Potosí, located twenty minutes south of Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast, is located in the state of Guerrero, where forty-three students were massacred and their bodies incinerated four months ago under still murky circumstances. This horror detonated a national uproar that has been slow to fade. The latest theory is that the drug gang that carried out the executions confused the students for members of a rival gang.

Easy rider: Protesters? What protesters?
During the entire trip Gladys remained imperturbable but Stew and I were not quite as calm as news reels quietly looped in our minds about much-dreaded bandidos, narco-gangs and assorted miscreants roaming the Mexican roadways—the horror of such stories often enhanced by the rumor mill among jittery gringos in San Miguel.

“Nothing to worry about,” Tito, the cheerful and wiry maintenance guy at the house where we stayed, told me as we packed to head home. The killings occurred about 190 kilometers from Zihuatanejo, he said, and that’s far away. Except that Tito also had told me that a storm surge last year, featuring fifteen- to twenty-foot waves that swallowed some beachfront palapa restaurants, had not been a big deal. Either he's a very calm guy or a practitioner of the old Mexican habit of minimizing or denying bad news. 

Indeed nothing happened during our two-week stay at the beach or during our drive back until we hit the third or fourth toll booth in the neighboring state of Michoacán, which has its own sordid history of drug-related violence. A little less than two years ago seven decapitated bodies, each sitting on plastic chairs, were found neatly arranged around a traffic circle in the town of Uruapan in Michoacán—perfectly timed to coincide with our arrival a day later for an annual arts-and-crafts market and fair. 

But shortly after entering Michoacán we discovered that the first two toll booths on the highway had been taken over a giddy bunch of students who were collecting their own tolls in slotted coffee cans—the toll-takers apparently went home—and handing out flyers explaining the reasons for the commotion.

We'd run into that before driving in Mexico, as well as the unnerving sight of police officers leaning against their cars, their arms crossed, silently watching the ad hoc circus performing just beyond their noses. Tolls in Mexico’s excellent roads are pricey, anywhere from the equivalent of three to twenty dollars, so if nothing else these protests are not nickle-and-dime events for either the highway authorities or the protesters.

Street protests by mainline organizations, but also loony-tunes along the lines of the Union of Maoist Students or some such, are an almost permanent part of political discourse in Mexico, particularly in the capital. If you sit long enough in the central Zócalo sipping a cappuccino a protest march will soon go by. 

Last November, in fact, we ran into an enormous march that went on for several hours, up one of the city's main boulevards, protesting the killing of the forty-three students. That was a huge event as it befitted the horror in Guerrero

The expressway was completely blocked when we approached the third toll in Michoacán, except for truckloads of cheering students, some waving placards, aboard pick-ups going in the opposite direction. Two ambulances and one federal police truck with one helmeted soldier standing on the bed clutching a machine gun raced in the opposite direction too. 

I asked people walking by but no one had any idea what was going on except that the highway was completely blocked.  No one seemed very excited or upset either.

About an hour later cars started breaking loose from the line and racing ahead as if someone had found an escape route or a way around the jam. Instead, cars piled up at the toll plaza where the lanes to Pátzcuaro were completely blocked.

Stew grumbled that if such nonsense took place somewhere say, in Texas, irate motorists packing heat—probably most of them—would have pulled out their weapons and started shooting over the heads of whoever was blocking traffic. I doubt guns would have improved this situation though, or that police in the U.S. would have allowed anyone to close off a major tollway in the first place.

The ice cream truck cometh, and just in time.
But we're not in the U.S. Here, people walked around the toll plaza, visited the newly installed restrooms, bought snacks from walking vendors, walked their dogs and exchanged theories as to what was going on. It resembled an after-dinner walkabout in a small town.

The young driver an ice cream truck walked around too, peddling pints of vanilla ice cream for the distress price of twenty pesos, or about $1.35. Gladys enjoyed three tablespoons of ice cream and went back to sleep.

We called our friends in Pátzcuaro who suggested a Plan B: Go back on the tollway to Uruapan and then take the toll-free back entrance to town.

Five hours after we'd left the beach the detour seemed like a delightful surprise. The recently resurfaced road snaked through a pine forest vaguely reminiscent of Switzerland, or at least Wisconsin. Even the houses, with steeply pitched roofs of red corrugated zinc, seemed un-Mexican. The only local touch were occasional patches of banana trees with their usual droopy, wind-torn leaves.

Yodeling in Mexico: Chalet-type house similar
to what we found on the road to Pátzcuaro.
As we climbed from beach-level to approximately seven thousand feet, the temperatures dropped from 95 to 50 degrees. Smells went from sea-briny to forest-piney. Road signs pointed to towns with impenetrable names like Parangaricutiro, Tzintsuntzan and Purechecuaro.

For the first half hour Stew and I forgot the inconvenience and marveled at our good fortune to be suddenly embraced by such exotic beauty.

Our joy ride came to an end though just as the sun was setting, and the traffic stopped again, this time for good. Stew tried to call our friends to ask for a Plan C, but there was no cell phone or internet service for sending emails.

The end of the road: When we stopped the car we found next to us
this roadside memorial to two twenty-year-old guys who were
killed in a car accident on that spot in 2012.
We stopped the car by a roadside memorial where two twenty-year-olds had been killed in a traffic accident. There was nothing else to do but to sit in the car, sip Coke from our cooler and later—what else?—take Gladys for yet another walk, or “spin” as Stew calls them.

Admiring the combination of cool weather, the silence and extraordinary night spectacle, Stew and I agreed this was not an altogether bad place to be stuck. Better than a Florida traffic jam on a muggy day or skidding through mire of slush and salt on a wintry Chicago road.

All the cars turned off their engines and lights, and a cover of darkness and silence enveloped the caravan of stalled vehicles. 

I got out to gaze at a beautiful starry sky, its twinkling exaggerated by the lack of artificial or even natural light from the moon, which was only a sliver. Stew and I reminisced about a desert night in Morocco when the stars also were equally numerous and bright and also so close they seemed almost within our reach. 

Except, where were the cops or any sign of government authority? Or are we being held hostage by a bunch of Mexican stoners celebrating their version of Easter week in Florida?

Actually at the first “liberated” toll booth we had been given a brief flier, alleging that the forty-three students were still alive; that the Mexican army was complicit in the massacre—whoever the victims were; that the version of the attorney general was completely fabricated and pleading with the drivers to not be indifferent to the sorrow of the students’ parents.

Bring back the students alive and punish the material and intellectual assassins!

Out with (Mexican President) Peña Nieto!

There is scant evidence, from what I've read, that the students are still alive. Far more tragically, I doubt the Mexican government is ever going to pin down with certainty who murdered these forty-three people, students or whoever they were.

The mayor of a town near the massacre and his wife, who allegedly ordered the killings, are on sabbatical at a Mexico City prison, but don’t wait for a formal trial to bring out the facts much less lead to appropriate sentencing. Certainly don’t wait for Peña Nieto to resign over his administration’s bumbling handling of this crime.

To use a Bill Clinton-ism, I can feel these kids’ pain—and rage—but comparable or far worse massacres have taken place in Mexico during the past several years: Hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez, mass graves along the border and other horrors that remain unsolved and unpunished.

Indeed, their day of euphoric and perhaps empowering protests barely registered with the media. Later someone explained that road closings, toll booth-taking, and hijacking of private buses to transport protesters to their destinations were not at all unusual. What we experienced was not really news. 

Bonfires of futility: After a day of protests by blocking traffic,
celebration around a bonfire. 
About nine o’clock on Friday night we finally got through the final roadblock that the students had lifted thirty minutes before. Huge bonfires were lit on both sides of the road. One Federal police vehicle stopped briefly and sped off, as if the officers didn’t want to know what was going on.

We were finally able to talk with our friends in Pátzcuaro who were understandably worried about our whereabouts, and arrived at their home forty-five minutes later. 

After a cautious round of butt-sniffing greeting with out friends’ two dogs, Maggie and Lucy, Gladys ate, went out for a walk and directly to sleep. Not much later, we also had dinner and followed Gladys' lead into the sack.

###
















Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A brief, horrible tale

Bicycling back from lunch today our gardener Félix, who has an unnatural sense of hearing, picked up some noise coming from a plastic bag quivering by the side of the road.

He stopped and inside the bag found seven puppies, a day or two old, with the eyes closed and one with its umbilical cord still attached. Three of the puppies were dead. Apparently someone didn't want any more dogs and decided that tossing the entire litter from a car window was the most expedient solution to the problem.

It was Félix too who found Felisa, the fifth addition to our gang of mutts, almost on the same spot as these puppies, similarly abandoned by someone. Though she was only the size of a large rat, Felisa was big enough to survive and turn into something slightly bigger and just as yappy as a Chihuahua.

Calls to our neighbor Arno, who runs a spay-and-neuter organization called Amigos de Animales; my friend Lynn who runs the Sociedad Protectora de Animales; and our young vet Ricardo Merrill, yielded the same answer—euthanasia. Short of finding a willing surrogate mother there was no other hope of survival for puppies that young.

Even if you factor in the lessened sensitivity to animal life in rural areas, such as where we live, and where animals are constantly born, raised and killed as part of the natural cycle of farming, tossing seven puppies in a bag, as if they were garbage, is a cruelty hard to fathom.

We know that it rattled Félix, who was born and raised barely a mile from here but who was visibly shaken by the sight of the surviving puppies whining and squirming around, worm-like, on a towel Stew fetched from the garage. Félix walked around, his baseball cap tilted back, muttering, "I don't know why someone would do something like that."

So barely three hours after Félix found them, he and Stew went off to Dr. Merrill to have the surviving puppies killed, or as they say, "put to sleep." Félix will bury the litter in our ever more populated pet cemetery.

As far as horror stories go, this was a brief but particularly horrible one.

###





Saturday, January 3, 2015

When Brad almost came to San Miguel 2

[A reposting of a previous blog that may have been jumbled during uploading]

There he was, Brad Pitt, in the lobby of our one local cinema, if only on a huge poster for “Fury” his latest movie which premiered in the U.S. almost three months ago.

On the poster Brad seemed to be brooding about war and peace or some similarly weighty topic, with his arms resting on the cannon of a Sherman tank, his face and army fatigues covered with grease and dirt, his haircut eerily reminiscent of Kim Jong-un’s, the North Korean doofus dictator who looks like a meatball in uniform. Moronic haircut and all, Brad looked pretty buff for 51.

Brooding Brad
More auspicious yet was the banner across the bottom of the poster: ¡Próximamente! or Soon!

The prospect of seeing Brad and his movie, which had received quite favorable reviews in the U.S., raised our blood pressure a point or two. You see, for all its colonial enchantment San Miguel is not a main stop on the international cinema circuit. Often it feels as if we live in French Lick, Ind., pop. 1,801.

Indeed, “Fury” hasn’t come to San Miguel yet. Meryl Streep’s new flick, “Into the Woods” as well as the acclaimed biography of Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything,” and “The Imitation Machine,” about the guy who helped break the Enigma Code during World War II, may not make it here any time soon if ever.

Our hopes for a Brad sighting were dashed again at a street market in Mexico City a few weeks ago when we saw a DVD of “Fury” on sale along with dozens of other recent releases for the today-only bootleg price of three for $10 pesos, or about 25 cents apiece. You’re right, it was a stupid purchase. That price doesn't cover even the cost of a blank disk.

Neither “Fury” nor another movie played at all, and the third movie was not the one on the jacket. And the damned vendor assured me his DVDs were “guaranteed.”

The Brad Pitt chase is a good introduction to the movie market in Mexico, controlled by a few giant chains like Cinepolis and Cinemex—but with a huge bootleg market on the side, despite all the warnings at the beginning of every DVD about how the FBI and Interpol will send you to Guantanamo if you dare show or sell unauthorized duplicates of any film.

Jong-un to Brad: Didn't we meet
at the hairstylist? 

Large movie distributors’ tastes in movies naturally control which ones are shown in Mexico, and judging by their selections the chains must have a pretty low regard for the IQ of the average moviegoer. Anything more intellectually riveting than “The Penguins of Madagascar” might take months to get San Miguel if at all.  

But more baffling is where all the bootleg movies come from. We have an established distributor in San Miguel, the widely revered Juan the Ripper, who for $40 pesos will sell you DVDs of just about any flick or TV show making the rounds in the U.S. Reportedly he also sells some gay videos that he calls "happy movies."

Judging by the crawlers that appear periodically at the bottom of the  screen, some of Juan's originals were DVDs sent to reviewers for Golden Globe or Oscar nominations. Helpful movie lovers sometimes also give Juan legitimate (or not) DVDs that he copies in exchange for four free DVDs of other films.

The rest of the bootleg DVD cornucopia at Juan’s or on the streets of every town in Mexico must come directly from Back of the Truck Entertainment or Over the Transom Productions.

More ominously I’ve read that drug cartels may control the bootleg video industry though it’s hard to imagine they would want any more money to launder. I’m not going to ask around about the narco’s business strategy; those guys are very touchy about their privacy. 

Unfortunately, Juan’s duplication apparatus is not up to snuff yet and while the video comes out perfectly the audio is often garbled. And seldom are there subtitles to help you figure out, say, what’s for supper at Downton Abbey, where the characters speak in a mixture of upper- and lower-class British, depending on whether they sleep upstairs or downstairs.

The bootleg DVD for “Babel” (2006), also starring Brad Pitt, must have presented the biggest language challenge of all time. The characters spoke English, Japanese, Berber Arabic and Spanish. In fact one of the characters was a deaf-mute Japanese girl who communicated in sign language or by pointing at her privates. So if you bought the bootleg version with Spanish subtitles or none at all your head probably exploded halfway through the show.  
  
Where the rest of the millions of bootleg copies of American movies comes from is indeed a mystery in broad daylight. The movies are for sale practically everywhere, along with bootleg CDs, for as little as ten pesos each. From our experience, the majority of street DVDs play pretty well and occasionally have English subtitles.

The Mexican government clearly is not very interested in enforcing national or international copyright laws or busting the manufacturers and distributors of bootleg videos that are as common on any Mexican street as tacos al pastor or ears of corn with mayonnaise.
   
Many Americans here bypass all these problems by downloading or streaming films through the internet, an option not available here at Rancho Santa Clara where we rely on a very leisurely wireless internet connection. Downloading “Gone With the Wind” would take us a week before we even got to the burning of Atlanta.

Instead we send away for DVDs from Amazon—legal and with clear sound and subtitles—or get some from Liverpool, the local department store. It comes out to between five and ten dollars each. That's about as much as going to the movie house, buying popcorn and soda, and a McDonald’s sundae afterward, and it beats watching grainy Claudette Colbert retrospectives on the Turner Movie Classics cable channel. 

In case you’re wondering about Brad’s whereabouts, I checked the Cinemex website for San Miguel yesterday afternoon and it claims that “Fury” is in fact arriving—you guessed it—¡próximamente!

I don't believe it. Brand and his movie already have taken me for a ride twice, and I'm not falling for his hype one more time. 


###

Postscript: While Googling around I found some references that Brad Pitt (along with Julia Roberts and the late James Gandolfini no less, may have actually visited San Miguel in 2001 during the filming of "The Mexican", or that at least some street shots were filmed here. If true, we're not as anonymous as French Lick, after all. So there. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

High Noon by the Trash Dump

It’s been said that politics is not a spectator sport but a rough-and-tumble affair. Mexican politics, at least as practiced in our little town of San Miguel, seems to combine both elements—silly stunts and fun spectacles.  

A couple of postings ago I mentioned the battle over the billboard by the town trash dump, a mano-a-mano epic battle between the PAN, the National Action Party, a pro-business GOP-like operation, and the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which despite its name is about as revolutionary as corn flakes.

For five or six consecutive weeks the two parties fought over control of the billboard strategically located by the entrance to town if you’re coming from Mexico City. One week, the billboard would advertise the wonders of Guanajuato state government, controlled by the PAN, only to be painted over a few days later by PRI operatives, to declare San Miguel a PRI kind of town.

Et tu, Mauricio?
The back and forth went on until Christmas Day when, right when the PAN operatives were halfway through reclaiming the billboard, a bulldozer showed up and reduced it to scrap. I don’t know the political affiliation of the operator but—hmm—I suspect he or she was sent there by someone in the PRI-controlled City Hall, located only a half mile down the road, and the headquarters of our PRI mayor Mauricio Trejo. 

So now we have the out-of-control garbage dump by the entrance of town crowned with the twisted remains of a half-painted PAN billboard.

Elsewhere, San Miguel has become one giant PRI signboard, proclaiming the accomplishments of the PRI at the national and local level, and giving the party credit for everything short of the rotation of the earth.

If only the bulldozer dispatched by the PRI to demolish the PAN billboard had taken a little longer to even out the hills of trash or cover them with black dirt. That almost would have made this silly squabble almost worth it.  
### 

When Brad almost came to San Miguel

There he was, Brad Pitt, in the lobby of our one local cinema, if only on a huge poster for “Fury” his latest movie which premiered in the U.S. almost three months ago.

On the poster Brad seemed to be brooding about war and peace or some similarly weighty topic, with his arms resting on the cannon of a Sherman tank, his face and army fatigues covered with grease and dirt, his haircut eerily reminiscent of Kim Jong-un’s, the North Korean doofus dictator who looks like a meatball in uniform. Moronic haircut and all, Brad looked pretty buff for 51.

Brooding Brad
More auspicious yet was the banner across the bottom of the poster: ¡Próximamente! or Soon!

The prospect of seeing Brad and his movie, which had received quite favorable reviews in the U.S., raised our blood pressure a point or two. You see, for all its colonial enchantment San Miguel is not a main stop on the international cinema circuit. Often it feels as if we live in French Lick, Ind., pop. 1,801.

Indeed, “Fury” hasn’t come to San Miguel yet. Meryl Streep’s new flick, “Into the Woods” as well as the acclaimed biography of Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything,” and “The Imitation Machine,” about the guy who helped break the Enigma Code during World War II, may not make it here any time soon if ever.

Our hopes for a Brad sighting were dashed again at a street market in Mexico City a few weeks ago when we saw a DVD of “Fury” on sale along with dozens of other recent releases for the today-only bootleg price of three for $10 pesos, or about 25 cents apiece. You’re right, it was a stupid purchase. That price doesn't cover even the cost of a blank disk.

Neither “Fury” nor another movie played at all, and the third movie was not the one on the jacket. And the damned vendor assured me his DVDs were “guaranteed.”

The Brad Pitt chase is a good introduction to the movie market in Mexico, controlled by a few giant chains like Cinepolis and Cinemex—but with a huge bootleg market on the side, despite all the warnings at the beginning of every DVD about how the FBI and Interpol will send you to Guantanamo if you dare show or sell unauthorized duplicates of any film.

Jong-un to Brad: Didn't we meet
at the hairstylist? 

Large movie distributors’ tastes in movies naturally control which ones are shown in Mexico, and judging by their selections the chains must have a pretty low regard for the IQ of the average moviegoer. Anything more intellectually riveting than “The Penguins of Madagascar” might take months to get San Miguel if at all.  

But more baffling is where all the bootleg movies come from. We have an established distributor in San Miguel, the widely revered Juan the Ripper, who for $40 pesos will sell you DVDs of just about any flick or TV show making the rounds in the U.S. Reportedly he also sells some gay videos that he calls "happy movies."

Judging by the crawlers that appear periodically at the bottom of the  screen, some of Juan's originals were DVDs sent to reviewers for Golden Globe or Oscar nominations. Helpful movie lovers sometimes also give Juan legitimate (or not) DVDs that he copies in exchange for four free DVDs of other films.

The rest of the bootleg DVD cornucopia at Juan’s or on the streets of every town in Mexico must come directly from Back of the Truck Entertainment or Over the Transom Productions.

More ominously I’ve read that drug cartels may control the bootleg video industry though it’s hard to imagine they would want any more money to launder. I’m not going to ask around about the narco’s business strategy; those guys are very touchy about their privacy. 

Unfortunately, Juan’s duplication apparatus is not up to snuff yet and while the video comes out perfectly the audio is often garbled. And seldom are there subtitles to help you figure out, say, what’s for supper at Downton Abbey, where the characters speak in a mixture of upper- and lower-class British, depending on whether they sleep upstairs or downstairs.

The bootleg DVD for “Babel” (2006), also starring Brad Pitt, must have presented the biggest language challenge of all time. The characters spoke English, Japanese, Berber Arabic and Spanish. In fact one of the characters was a deaf-mute Japanese girl who communicated in sign language or by pointing at her privates. So if you bought the bootleg version with Spanish subtitles or none at all your head probably exploded halfway through the show.  
  
Where the rest of the millions of bootleg copies of American movies comes from is indeed a mystery in broad daylight. The movies are for sale practically everywhere, along with bootleg CDs, for as little as ten pesos each. From our experience, the majority of street DVDs play pretty well and occasionally have English subtitles.

The Mexican government clearly is not very interested in enforcing national or international copyright laws or busting the manufacturers and distributors of bootleg videos that are as common on any Mexican street as tacos al pastor or ears of corn with mayonnaise.
   
Many Americans here bypass all these problems by downloading or streaming films through the internet, an option not available here at Rancho Santa Clara where we rely on a very leisurely wireless internet connection. Downloading “Gone With the Wind” would take us a week before we even got to the burning of Atlanta.

Instead we send away for DVDs from Amazon—legal and with clear sound and subtitles—or get some from Liverpool, the local department store. It comes out to between five and ten dollars each. That's about as much as going to the movie house, buying popcorn and soda, and a McDonald’s sundae afterward, and it beats watching grainy Claudette Colbert retrospectives on the Turner Movie Classics cable channel. 

In case you’re wondering about Brad’s whereabouts, I checked the Cinemex website for San Miguel yesterday afternoon and it claims that “Fury” is in fact arriving—you guessed it—¡próximamente!

I don’t believe it. Brad and his movie already have taken me for a ride twice, and I’m not falling for his hype one more time.

###