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.