Sunday, December 25, 2016

The most beautiful Christmas tree in Mexico and possibly the world

Last night was Christmas Eve and there was nary a light around our ranch except for millions of stars dangling like crystal ornaments from the pitch-black sky and the multi-colored LED lights Félix and Stew had wrapped on a perfectly shaped evergreen we planted near the house several years ago and which has grown to about ten, maybe twelve, feet high. It's our official Christmas tree.

It's a sassy, plump and straight evergreen, I believe a member of the piñón pine family, but with no unruly branches. It stands like a sentinel awaiting its year-end star turn when it becomes the most beautiful Christmas tree within miles and miles.

A most beautiful tree, lighting up the desert night. 
By nordic standards, of course, it is woefully out of place. We have no snow unless you count the silly millimeter that fell three or four years ago. Our tree is tucked amid rocks, huge agaves, organ cacti, a carpet of succulents and what remains of the delicate plumes of a clump of pampas grasses. During the summer the grasses rise gracefully over their clunkier neighbors but in fall they wither and seem shaky and fearful, aware the next afternoon gust likely will blow down their plumes and scatter their seeds.
The idea of a designated outdoor Christmas tree arose from our loathing of using "real" evergreens—which around here come from as far as Canada and the U.S.—simply to decorate our living room for fifteen days or so. It takes so long for an evergreen to grow to Christmas-tree size only to be tossed in the backyard. What a waste.

So three years ago Stew picked out this specimen that we had planted years before near the house by the driveway, and he and Félix began wrapping lights and hanging silver and blue ornaments around it. As the tree continues to grow, quickly and perfectly, we are going to have to buy additional strings of lights and a few more ornaments for next year.

Yesterday I caressed the tree branches find out if they had that piney aroma. The branches don't smell at all but they are tipped with tiny bundles of acorns getting ready to turn to needles next year. What I definitely felt from this beautiful tree was its sense of importance: Somehow it knows its seasonal role during Christmas, when only it and the stars dare shatter the darkness.

Tiny acorns awaiting next year's Christmas.
The simplicity of our annual Christmas decor fits that of our Mexican neighbors who may hang some lights, assemble a nativity scene or prop up a small, hastily decorated tree here and there, but nothing fancy. The most involved rituals are the posadas, small house-to-house pilgrimages in the towns meant to reenact, with songs, prayers and candles, the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter as Jesus' birth approached.

That's it. There are no neighborhood competitions to see how many thousands of lights one homeowner can hang on a house without burning up the electrical grid, the blare of "seasonal music" or inflatable Santas tumbling drunkenly in front yards.

Shopping centers in Mexico have taken up the clue from their American counterparts and install shrill, commercially designed light displays and Christmas trees. Several years ago the federal government began promoting a nationwide weekend shopping spree shamelessly patterned after Black Friday in the U.S.

But one doesn't feel any shopping frenzy as Christmas approaches. There is a one-night burst of shopping the day before Three Kings Day on January 6, when parents buy toys for the kids, but otherwise no real fervor to the Christmas shopping cycle. Have you ever heard of a horde of crazed Mexican shoppers trampling each other at a WalMart pre-Christmas sale? In the U.S., maybe.

Inside our home, Stew's childhood cardboard creche, which he bought at a Woolworths in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, some sixty years ago, made its annual appearance. The figures in the nativity scene still have their price stickers, ranging from five to ten cents. The only enhancements are a pine garland we bought a Norwegian gift shop in New York, and some sheep and farm animals made of sugar, left over from the Mexican Day of the Dead.

For the past sixty years or so, direct from Woolworths in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 
It has been even quieter for us as we maintain our boycott of most television programming, to avoid news about what the incoming president of the U.S. might inflict on the country, assuming he knows. Christmas carols occasionally waft in through our internet radio, but mostly from a Dutch-language Amsterdam classical music station. It's the perfect filtering system: soothing music interrupted only briefly by incomprehensible commercials and news reports.

While talking to expat friends earlier this week about Christmas-in-exile experiences most agreed that what they liked most was the simplicity. No airport or expressway jams, no constant blare from retailers to buy, buy, buy. We might buy a gift for a special person, or have a nice quiet dinner at home.

While in Texas two weeks ago, we bought Félix's girls stuffed toys, his boy the inevitable soccer ball, plus a blender for his wife to use in her newly remodeled kitchen and a Felix the Cat tee-shirt for Félix, who turns out never heard of the cartoon character. Ever so Félix, he was appreciative of the thought.

Last night we attended a Christmas Eve service and dinner afterward with friends. This afternoon we're having dinner with friends who have relatives visiting from Britain.

Other than that, I just plan to take a quick walk at night to admire one more time the stars, and our perfect Christmas tree that we will keep lit until January 6.

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas everyone.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Long lived Fidel—for way too long

I won't pretend to add anything to the torrent of obituaries marking the death of Fidel Castro, Maximum Leader Emeritus of Cuba, at age 90. For the definitive good-bye, read Anthony DePalma's piece in today's Times.

I can add some very personal reminiscences, though, because for nearly 58 years I've lived with Castro's words and deeds echoing in my head, alongside the sound of my parents' anguished and implacable rancor toward him which I could not comprehend until we all grew older.  

Indeed, during my long-haired college days, when I was taken by the lefty-ish, hashish-enhanced fervor gripping American college campuses, I pored through Ché Guevara's rhapsodies about the new Socialist Man being fashioned out of the revolutionary clay in Cuba, and even some of Castro's hours-long harangues, as if they were holy texts.

It was exciting, fantastic stuff, in retrospect a childlike naivete on my part fueled by a secret pride in how Castro had transformed our otherwise insignificant island of six million, known mostly for whores, booze and sunshine, into a volcano of worldwide revolutionary inspiration, or mayhem, from Bolivia to Angola. Everywhere I've ever visited, except Antarctica, I've found Ché Guevara tee shirts, posters and books celebrating some aspect of Cuba and its revolution. What other Latin American country can claim that? How many other Latin American dictators have received a front-page, twenty-one gun sendoff from the New York Times?
Fidel, during his prime poster days.

Sometime during the sixties I bought three large colorful propaganda posters commemorating Castro's 1968 campaign to produce ten million tons of sugar, which ultimately was a disaster.  I reverently kept the posters as if they were precious mementos, and later had them framed, thinking they might be worth something someday.

For a while they hanged on one of the walls of our dining room in Chicago, as so much conversation pieces, until my mom came to visit. She didn't say much except she insisted in sitting at the table with her back to the posters. The posters have long disappeared, worth nothing to me except that, ironically, her silent, pained reaction, and my thoughtlessness, helped me appreciate the impact Castro's revolution had inflicted on my parents and on so many Cubans.

My parents left Cuba in 1965, three years after me, and after spending several months in Madrid, living on charity handouts at a shelter for refugees, joined me in New York. Except for the singular, and significant, achievement of sending me through college and graduate school, their life in New York was no Horatio Alger replay. Both in their mid-fifties, with no mastery of English or marketable skills, they survived on low-paying jobs, my dad for decades at a non-union printing shop that at age sixty-five sent him off to retirement with no more than a pat on the back and a Social Security check. My mom, a public school teacher in Cuba, only got as far as a working as an orderly at an old people's home despite her ferocious determination to get herself ahead and me through college. Hers was a union job that at least provided a meager pension and some medical insurance until she died.

To my parents Castro was as an incendiary a subject as Donald Trump was at many Thanksgiving family dinners this week. I once found a crinkled picture of my mother shaking hands with Castro when he visited Santa Clara, except that after their love affair soured she had taken a pair of scissors and meticulously excised Castro from the picture, as if a tumor, leaving a photograph of herself shaking hands with a hole. As for my dad, I once asked him what he thought should be done in Cuba and he said, "Mi'jo (my son), the only solution is to go back there, machete in hand, and kill every communist in the island." No room for detente or compromise in my dad's world when it came to Castro.

For years I chuckled at my parent's Cro Magnon politics but as we all got older, and I retired at fifty-seven, I learned to understand and appreciate how devastating it must have been for them at a similar midlife pivot to lose everything they had spent a lifetime building to the communist hurricane that ravaged the island. Just as they thought they'd had reached a modest level of middle-class comfort, including a baby blue 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air and my dad's printing and stationery business in the somnolent provincial capital of Santa Clara, it all vanished overnight.

Dreams of my parents: A 1954 Chevy Bel Air 
Communists dying at the blade of my dad's rage? I could finally comprehend.

Still, I'm awed too at the impact Castro and the Cuban revolution have had on the world, even though back home the island's economy is still spinning its wheels in the muck of one failed socialist experiment after another. American visitors are now enthralled by the old American cars farting black smoke around Havana— in my living room I have a photo I took of a Havana-plated 1957 Chevy—but I wonder if the tourists grasp how indescribably depressing it must be for the classmates I left behind to find themselves living in a decrepit tourist curio shop after nearly sixty years of revolutionary privations.

I keep a shelf-full of books about Cuba, as a shrine of sorts, ranging from antique history tomes, early takes on the revolution, Andrés Oppenheimer's spectacularly premature "Castro's Final Hour"—published in 1992—plus memoirs and historical fiction mostly by Cubans in exile. Amid the books is a small pewter reproduction of the capitol building in Havana.

My favorite writer is Mirta Ojito, who for a while reported for the New York Times and wrote "Finding Mañana: A memoir of Cuban Exodus," and more recently Richard Blanco, who read one of his poems at Barack Obama's 2013 inauguration and later on the occasion of the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. In 2014 he published Prince of Los Cocuyos, a delightful memoir of growing up Cuban in Florida.

But by far my most memorable and tragic writer was Reinaldo Arenas, who dared to live an openly gay lifestyle in Cuba and defy the crush of government censorship and persecution. He left the island in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and committed suicide in New York at age 47. His stirring "Before Night Falls" memoir was turned into a movie starring Javier Bardem.

So the old man, the one Cubans once admiringly called El Caballo, or The Horse, to signify his outsize physical and personal presence, is finally dead, his body cremated instead of mummified like Lenin, Mao or Ho, to be venerated by the faithful at an imposing mausoleum. I expect many reverent memorials to be held around the world, including here in San Miguel de Allende, where a small cadre of faithful Marxists sponsor occasional tours of the island to marvel at Castro's achievements.

I must confess a certain pride in all the talent, literary and otherwise, that has emerged from the small Caribbean island during the past sixty years. I'd even admit to a perverse admiration for Castro, who put Cuba on the world geopolitical map by defying the odds, the U.S., cut-offs of Soviet aid and innumerable other calamities that would have vanquished a lesser man.

Except any such admiration is quickly extinguished by the realization of how much destruction Castro's megalomania brought to so many people in the island, most especially my parents.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Two weeks after the Apocalypse

Yesterday morning I spoke on the phone with Rogelio, a mellow, slow-talking childhood friend from Cuba who after I mentioned Donald J. Trump raised his voice several decibels and erupted into a torrent of expletives not suitable for a family blog like this. He said he hadn't slept the night of the election and had felt nauseous the day after, before skidding into nearly a weeklong depression.

His reaction was typical but probably the most extreme was that of a friend who said she was so upset she ate a whole pecan pie right out of the box. She is still cursing Trump, two weeks after the election.

To say we are all just sore losers is a false and unfair equivalence. I was disappointed when George Bush Sr. defeated Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, particularly after the racist Willie Horton ad aired by the Republicans; dismayed when the U.S. Supreme Court handed the election to George W., in 2000 even though Al Gore had won the popular vote; and doubly dismayed when Bush was reelected in 2004, with the catastrophic, multi-trillion-dollar Iraq War already thundering in the background. I'm sure Republican friends were angry too when the Kenyan-born Barack Obama was elected and reelected. But we all accepted the results and moved on.

This is different. For all the faults and misjudgments of the Bush father-and-son team, and later Obama, they were basically honorable people with political agendas we didn't agree with. Now we've turned the presidency to an out-and-out racist, xenophobe and misogynist, who lies almost as often, and as casually, as he breathes. It feels as if he is about to desecrate the highest office and the White House, bringing along, for added insult, a former topless model to pose as First Lady.

Michelle and Barack, whatever your faults, we're going to miss you.

The first reaction Stew and I experienced after the election was the usual stage of grief—denial. Not that we didn't believe Trump had won but that we could shield ourselves against that reality by not watching or reading any news. We even abandoned the PBS News Hour, then headed by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, our favorite news team. To worsen matters a notch, Ifill died unexpectedly a few days after the election.

Then, for a moment, I embraced the "accepting the things we cannot change" fatalism proposed by some. But I don't buy that. I like Rogelio's rage much better—if only a bit more focused than yelling at friends on the phone, and seasoned with some historical perspective and even optimism.

Indeed, both Rogelio and I came to the U.S. in the early sixties and since then have witnessed this American democracy that is now our home go through some awful, seemingly catastrophic crises that would have plunged a lesser country into dictatorship or civil war.

Think of it: Today is the fifty-third anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, which was followed by the killings of his brother and of Martin Luther King, and attempts on two more presidents. The political fabric of the country was ripped by race riots, wars, domestic terrorists, and seemingly unbridgeable political chasms. All this may seem like distant history but should reassure and help us get through this latest low point.

A starting point is a searching, bipartisan post-mortem of how our political discourse has turned so poisonous and illogical. How did working class Americans, who for decades were well served by labor unions embrace a Republican party—think Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—that has set out to undermine or destroy labor unions? Or how did Democrats—think Bill and Hillary Clinton—join hands with Republicans to become shills of Wall Street interests that led directly to the economic debacle of 2008 that punched middle-class Americans right in the gut? Why do Republicans, historical supporters of open markets and free trade, now talk about walls and trade wars? And hey, didn't Sen. John McCain and liberal Democratic paladin Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsor a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005? And didn't Ayn Rand—libertarian goddess and guiding light of Rep. Paul Ryan—vehemently defend personal freedoms, including the right of a woman to choose whether to have abortion?

It's a screwy political era we live in, no doubt, in which winning at any cost trounces reason, principles or comprehension of other points of view. As Toni Morrison eloquently wrote in The Nation, "...when the political discourse is shredded by an unreason and hatred so deep that vulgar abuse seems normal, disaffection rules. Our debates, for the most part, are examples unworthy of a playground: name-calling, verbal slaps, gossip, giggles, all the while the swings and slides of governance remain empty."

To pull political discourse from the present swamp we'll need new leaders, probably some unknown to us right now. I wouldn't dare to propose any Republican candidates except there has to be a better lineup than the cavalcade of clowns we witnessed during the primaries, like Texas vacuum tube Gov. Rick Perry and others who just refuse to go away. Republicans need candidates who can articulate an economic and political platform that stands on something other than attacks on groups of Americans deemed to be different—be they immigrants, gays and lesbians, blacks or Muslims—that promote the discord that has led us to the present conundrum. If the emerging Trump cabinet is any indication, Republicans are a long ways from that ideal.

The Democrats too, need to find some new leadership and quit pretending that a jigsaw puzzle of special interests equals the national interest. Clinton, smart and capable as she may be, was no such inspirational figure. Instead she was a bruised and battered warrior with a sense of entitlement that it was "her turn." Millions voted for her with resignation rather than enthusiasm. To paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and Hillary, you're no Jack Kennedy."  Who the new Kennedy might be isn't clear. The Democrats have just four years to find him or her.

But perhaps the most essential but challenging ingredient to a political renewal is a sense of individual and communal compassion. The coal miners in West Virginia are not "deplorables" or white trash, but working folk desperately clinging to the only way of making a living they know. Mexican immigrants, even those who are undocumented, are not rapists or criminals but people who work to bring you the cheap and wonderful fruits and vegetables that you demand at Whole Foods. Muslims hanging on to sinking boats in the Mediterranean are not all fearsome terrorists but the latest image of souls trying to survive a horrible situation, just like the boat people from Cuba, Haiti or Vietnam, or the Ellis Island hordes that included Stew's parents from Norway.

If the rage, disgust and exhaustion most Americans feel after the recent presidential cycle is channeled into compassion for each other and a faith in the proven history, it can pull us out of this mess, I'm sure. We've done it before.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How should we remember the dead?

Despite the reading of some irreverent and even humorous poems by Billy Collins about death and dying, Sunday's Unitarian Fellowship service for the Day of the Dead was a somber affair. We commemorated the passing of both, prominent members of the congregation as well as people known only to individual congregants. About a dozen people,  their words often drowned by sobs and tears, spoke briefly about relatives and friends they had lost.

I sympathized with their grief. When my mother died, I couldn't stop crying loudly and sometimes uncontrollably, for about a week even though, in truth, we didn't have the warmest of relationships until her final two or three years.

It may be that the sudden absence of someone—not distant memories, pleasant or otherwise—is what unleashes the grief. A couple of years ago, a friend told me that waking up to a half-empty bed after her husband died was the toughest ordeal, that it felt as if some part of her had been torn away.

Remembering the dearly departed. 
While I appreciate and respect others' mourning, I've gradually embraced the more celebratory tone of Mexico's Day of the Dead, when the dearly departed are said to come back for a visit to exchange memories with the friends and relatives they left behind.

On November 2, either at homes or cemeteries, altars are assembled containing pictures of the departed and some of their favorites items, even a fifth of tequila if, to be honest about it, Uncle Pepe was known as a bit of tippler. At cemeteries, in a tradition that may resemble a picnic with food and drink and even songs, some relatives congregate around freshly cleaned and decorated graves to reminisce about grandma and others who've moved Upstairs.

To someone raised in Catholic traditions that glorify death, suffering, blood and tears as essential signposts along the road to eternal salvation—just walk around a Mexican church and check out the expressions on the statues—the festiveness of the Day of the Dead may seem scandalous, sacrilegious.

It's not that Mexicans are incapable of grieving for lost ones. A month ago, Félix reported that a brother-in-law in his forties had died overnight after a long fight with kidney disease. His eyes filled with tears and it took all of Félix's macho self-control to avoid outright crying. I shook his hand and gave him a quick hug, after which he told me all about José María, his family and how long he'd been sick. Félix and his the family will go to the local cemetery tomorrow to visit with José, and also one of Félix' sisters who died from a tumor when she was just twenty-one, and two other siblings who were stillborn.

After an initial period of grief—of detachment—I like the idea of celebrating and reminiscing about the dead, warts and all, rather than mourning them in perpetuity. Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously explained the contradiction in Mexicans' attitude toward death and grieving as ultimately one of acceptance.

"The familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: He looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony." 

So this year Stew and I have put together our own Day of the Dead altar over the mantle of the fireplace, with the requisite orange marigolds, votive candles and photos of our dead relatives whom we will remember: Both of our parents (Mario and Georgina, and Thorleif and Frances); our grandmothers, mine maternal (Herminia), Stew's paternal (Verda); my paternal uncle Alejo and my cousin Gustavo, a lovely, dog-loving human being who succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide while still in his forties. Naturally we've also included some of our pets that have gone on to claim their eternal reward of kibbles.

We don't expect to be chatting with any of them or pretending that we don't miss them. In one of his more ironic poems, Collins notes that people die in order to make room for the next generation—to get out of the way—so younger folks can step up with new ideas presumably for improving this world. Next in line at the departure gate will be us.

That reality is not necessarily sad or joyful, just our turn in the inevitable cycle of life. I just hope to get a chance to visit Downstairs once a year to peek on how everyone is doing.



Friday, October 28, 2016

'Tis the season of the spiders

Just in time for Halloween, and the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, spiderwebs have appeared all over the ranch. Some are small, maybe six inches across, others can span gracefully and grandly for three or four feet, sometimes from one bush or tree to another. A few are works in progress, just a lone strand between two bushes, as delicate and perilous as the wire that carried aerialist Philippe Petit between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

All in a day's work.
It's an awesome display, particularly early in the morning when the sun, barely peeking over the horizon, backlights the spiders and the dewy landscape. It's as magical as it is ephemeral: You've got to put off your breakfast for a hour or two or you'll miss the show. By the time it warms up most of the spiders and the glistening dew will vanish, as nothing more than a vision.

Both Stew and I are entranced by the beauty of the cobwebs. That makes us arachnophiles, or "spider fans" though our affection has its limits. Last year we were introduced to the dangerous brown recluse spiders, one of which almost killed one of our dogs.

Apparently we are a small minority in a world dominated by arachnophobes—spider haters. Seeking to unravel some of the mysteries of spiderwebs I looked in Google and before anyone had any kind word about spiderwebs I had to suffer through three or four pages of comments, questions and suggestions on how to kill, smash and otherwise get rid of them. Some of the posts were hysterical, with four-letter words as if spiderwebs were monsters poised to destroy people's homes.

The dawn's early light, before the fog dissipates, it's the best time to admire spiders.
Around here, spiderwebs are clearly seasonal. They appear just as summer is letting out its parting sigh and most every plant and animal is readying for winter. The patches of rambunctious zinnias, that this year grew four feet high, are shriveling but not before scattering their seeds in preparation for next spring. As the flowers vanish so do the butterflies, which two months hovered in small flocks but now are down to a few laggards picking over whatever flowers are left.

Bees seem to be hunkering down too, though they don't know that next week Félix and Stew will be disrupting the hives to harvest the honey. For some reason last year we had a very meager honey harvest but these year they have peeked in the hives and it looks as if we should be back to four or five gallons of honey. We have boxes of jelly jars ready to be filled.

Dueling webs. 
British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, not exactly a chirping bundle of cheer, described man's existence as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." And have a nice day, Tom.

Spiders' existence may be solitary and definitely short but none of the other. According to the OregonLive site, spiders shed their skins four to five times a season, before the adult females begin building the webs in late summer or fall to lay their eggs and, alas, die, presumably the eggs to lie dormant until spring to start the cycle again. No word about the fate of the males.

One of a number of spiders in our ranch. Not sure of its exact name. 
A  few more engineering points. A web's filaments, made of liquid protein—and which comparatively speaking are as tough as steel—are secreted by the spider at night and blown by the evening breezes until one sticks to something. The spider then goes back and forth on that initial strand to strengthen it and from there build the concentric web. Towards evening, many spiders eat the web and start building anew. Spiders, aside from their astonishing engineering skills, are excellent insect predators too.

So next time you see a spiderweb don't go running for a broom or start recycling childhood horror stories. The same thing for bats, another voracious insect-eater. These guys are much better than harmless—they are actually very beneficial.

Just go out early in the morning, stand back and admire the spiders' astonishing handiwork because in a few more weeks, it will all be gone.

A week after this post, the Washington Post published this article about a young girl's fascination with a spider:

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Then there were five (mutts), again

After our dowager mutt Gladys died several months ago, under sad and questionable circumstances, Stew and I made a solemn pact not to adopt another dog. I knew it was going to be a fragile promise, though, what with a canine chorale that assembles outside our front gate every day howling for food, a reassuring pat on the head and a back scratch—and admission to The Other Side.

No more stray mutt, mister. From now on, it's Señorita Ellie to you. 
This ensemble is made up of seven to ten members, of all sizes, colors and appearances. There's a scruffy Benji look-alike that knows English commands that he must have learned from his previous owner who likely abandoned him by the side of the road. I'd like to think that he got lost; I can't fathom how someone could dump an animal that gentle and beautiful and just drive away.

There's also Malcolm, a small orange number with short hair, a mutt from central casting, with a tightly curled tail and a squeaky bark calling for attention whenever someone approaches the gate. Malcolm practically lives outside the gate under a bush, with Poochito, a smallish, twice-removed relative of a Border Collie, with long black matted fur. Stew named him Poochito because he looks like a small replica of our Chicago dog Pooch.
We have tried a few times to wean the dogs from our food handouts but it's impossible. They keep gathering at the gate, skinnier by the day, their howling gradually turning into a desperate dirge. So after several days we say, okay, okay, okay and get more bags of dog food that right now run about a hundred dollars a month.

We've sterilized all of them but when one disappears a replacement promptly joins the pack after a brief audition by the other members. That's how an orange Chihuahua-nese female appeared about three weeks ago, at first crawling timidly but then leaping, licking and nipping at our pants. She would not be ignored.
She timed her appearance well. Stew, Felix and I still miss Gladys, who died at the vet's office we suspect of bungled or negligent treatment. Gladys left a glaring vacancy in our pack of five dogs.

Left is my best side. 
I tried to be firm in my arguments against taking in another dog but neither Stew nor the little orange mutt—a genius at self-marketing—would give up. I knew it was game over when Stew started writing possible names, most of which began with "e", as in Edna, Ethel, Ellie.

Ellie (and Stew) won and after a trip to the vet for shots, de-worming and spaying, she's doing delirious figure eights inside and outside the house. She must have been someone's pet, because her tail was chopped off and she seems to be housebroken. The vet figures she's about nine months old and in the middle of teething which means a gnawing frenzy, including pant cuffs, with her piranha-sharp choppers. After a few growls from the resident dogs and two cats—which seemed unnerved mostly by her energy—Ellie seems to be fitting in well.

If any readers are interested in adopting—please, I don't want any more dogs—e-mail me and I'll introduce you to the outside pack: Malcolm, Benji, Poochito, Brenda, Osita and Doofus #1 and Doofus #2 (also known as the Doofi sisters), and any others that may have shown up by the time you get here.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Tourism in the Age of Anxiety

What are people addicted to the thrills of foreign landscapes and cultures to do when news from many of those places is ominous or at least unsettling? Get travel insurance in case trips are cancelled because of terrorism, popular uprisings or other mayhem? Look into medical evacuation policies in the event they get shot by angry natives? Or should they stop traveling altogether to be completely safe?

It used to be that dangerous places were remote too—Bangui, anyone?—or obvious kamikaze destinations like Damascus, Baghdad or Mogadishu. But by now the list of high-risk locations has expanded to include legendarily civilized places like Paris, where one-hundred and and thirty folks got blown up in various terrorist attacks late last year, or Brussels, that drowsiest of European capitals, which morphed into a terrorist hotspot earlier this year after thirty-two people were killed at the airport and a metro station downtown.

The list goes on and it gets scarier the closer you get to home. Should we visit bars in Orlando, Florida? Historic black churches in Charleston, South Carolina? Or Chicago, home of the Cubs and also one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S.?

Even closer to us is Mexico, the world capital of criminal impunity, where you can mow down a dozen people and unless you're a singularly hapless gunman, never worry about spending a night in jail or even going before a judge. Get even closer: Did you hear about two bombs that blew up recently in downtown San Miguel de Allende, of all places?
So last month, amid flak from everyone we knew—aren't you scared?—Stew and I took off for Egypt for two weeks and we found it far more peaceful than Mexico or even many places in the U.S., thanks to an authoritarian regime not afraid to lock up anyone for just looking at a cop cross-eyed, and also a population desperate to revive the vital but comatose tourist industry and coddle the few tourists that dare visit.

Admittedly the omens were strongly against visiting Egypt. On October last year a Russian plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb shortly after takeoff from an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea, killing all 224 people on board. Hmm. Then in May of this year an EgyptAir plane spiraled to a crash in the Mediterranean, killing 66 people on board, cause yet unknown except it was caused by a fire on board supposedly unrelated to terrorism. Oh boy.

Yet after some serious head-scratching Stew and I decided to go. The cost of the tour was very attractive ($3,650 each) considering it included round trip airfares from New York and within Egypt, all meals and tours, lodgings at first-class hotels and a four-day cruise down the Nile, plus a camel ride that we skipped. Business class upgrades were about $4500.

The tour operator was Road Scholars, an educational travel outfit that we had used to visit Israel and Jordan two years ago (weren't you afraid?) and Morocco (isn't that place full of Arabs?) seven years before that. We figured, or assumed, that Road Scholars had scouts on the ground in Egypt that would pull the plug on the tour at any sign of immediate danger.

Our ever-present pal, Ahmed Oddjob. 
It turned out that no one was more concerned about security than the Egyptians themselves. Airport security at JFK and within Egypt involved triple X-Ray and thorough manual checks of passengers and all their luggage. Entry to hotels and all historical sites required similar searches.

In addition, we were accompanied during our bus travels by a beefy, unsmiling gentleman whose gun sometimes poked from under his suit, and who bore an uncanny resemblance to Goldfinger's sidekick Oddjob sans the steel-brimmed bowler hat. To be completely sure, our bus was escorted by a police car with four guys carrying long arms.

If such security measures evoke images of a dour police state, a la North Korea, you'd be way off the mark. I made it a habit of greeting everyone—vendors, hotel workers, passersby, policemen, young and old, men and women—with a hearty "Hello!" and my gesture was invariably returned with a smile, except for women bunkered behind black veils who acknowledged me with a modest nod. Some younger guys added an enthusiastic "Welcome!" and oddly, "Obama! Obama!" after discovering we were Americans.  (Quite different from what you get from some Mexicans here who spit out "Troomp" with a tone that makes it sound like a social disease.)

Two weeks under the wing of a guided tour is not conclusive evidence of the popular climate in a foreign country. But none of the thirteen travelers on our group detected even a whiff of danger or hostility by anyone we encountered. It could be either the tight security or the Egyptians' desperation with their economic travails, aggravated by the collapse of tourism, one of the top sources of foreign earnings. Or both.

Prices were very reasonable too. The best advice I can give to potential visitors, aside from "Go!" is to carry a wad of single dollar bills. Whether to buy a trinket or tip someone for having their picture taken, "one dollar! one dollar!" seemed to be the most common way to seal a deal.


For my slideshow of Egypt, click:

(click on each image to get captions and other information)

For a New York Times slide show of Egyptian exiles, click here:

Monday, September 19, 2016

Escape from Gringo Gulch

While a friend of ours and I had a French Dip sandwich at a new restaurant Friday, and Stew and another friend enjoyed a cheeseburger and steakburger, all with sides of crispy French Fries, a question popped in my head: Are we in Mexico? Neither the sandwiches nor the fries had anything to do with France, and the hamburgers were definitely all-American.

Actually the question had germinated the weekend before when a friend invited Stew and me to an all-Mexican lunch at his ranch prepared by a Mexican woman friend of his. On the menu was a beef broth with chunks of sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots and what-not. Terrific as any soup I've ever tasted, to rival some of Stew's inspired creations. It came with rice with an assortment of vegetables mixed in and decorated with sprigs of cilantro. The main course was small chunks of slow-cooked pork. You put the pork on warm tortillas, accompanied by any or all of a selection of condiments—jalapeños, a red (or green?) sauce, cucumbers, grated cheese, chopped onions and cilantro and others I can't remember.

Caldo de res mexicano: Hmm, hmm good. 
 All-Mexican and all delicious. Why don't we eat Mexican food more often?
Despite vehement protests to the contrary, one of the dirty little secrets of why so many Americans love San Miguel is that it allows them to live in a comfortable gringo bubble. Thanks to an influx of tourists and expats mostly from the U.S. but also Canada and Australia and even a few from New Zealand and Britain, San Miguel has gradually become Mexican-ish or Mexican-light, and less genuinely Mexican. Perhaps that's the inevitable price of living off the tourists.  

You can live here with no more Spanish than "Buenos días" and "Gracias." I've witnessed Americans become miffed with waiters or other service personnel who don't speak English to their satisfaction. Others complain that a recent "invasion" of San Miguel by "chilangos"—weekend visitors from Mexico City—might be ruining our little San Miguel. As pretentious and annoying as young chilangos can be, we momentarily forget that this is, after all, their country.

Indeed, English speakers attach themselves to English-speaking venues like barnacles on a pier. We socialize in English-speaking bridge clubs, churches and volunteer associations. For entertainment we have English-speaking theaters and movies. A small grocery store regularly imports American indispensables like canned Texas chili and even grits.

The self-segregation by Americans is most noticeable in restaurants. Hecho en México is probably the busiest in town and on many days it's packed with nothing but Americans attracted by such delicacies as reuben sandwiches (my favorite) and fish and chips (Stew's). On Mondays you can get meatloaf at the American-owned La Frontera restaurant, on the way in or out of the all-American bridge club venue next door. Variations of Italian restaurants abound, offering the all familiar pastas and sauces but nothing Mexican except the waiters.

Reuben, we're going to miss you. 
Before getting too preachy, let's admit that, even after almost eleven years here, Stew and I are very much trapped in that gringo bubble. For one thing, we don't have any Mexican friends that would invite us to dinner or vice-versa. Stew has surprised me recently with his growing command of Spanish, but it manifests usually when he has no choice but to string some words to get what he wants—or when I decline to play translator.

Our very predictable choice of restaurants recently has been Hecho, Firenze (a quite good continental restaurant), a place called The Restaurant, Cafe Monet, and Fat Boy, a new motorcycle bar with an incidental restaurant attached to it. There are some exceptions, such as El Vergel, outside of town, that offers some good and original Mexican dishes. But in general, Mexican cuisine enters our gullets only accidentally, such as during the wonderful and unexpected Mexican lunch we had at our friend's ranch.
It's only natural to try to soften the inevitable alienation of moving to a foreign country by hanging out at familiar places frequented by people like yourself. But it also negates the excitement of learning new ways of living and celebrating life in a foreign country. Isn't that why we came to Mexico?

Most noticeable to me is our insulation from local celebrations or fiestas, which come and go often without us knowing even what's being celebrated. Just this weekend, on the main road past the ranch, we saw groups of people on horseback going and coming back from San Miguel, probably something to do with the Independence Day celebrations all this month. On other occasions I've seen religious processions of some sort passing by, with people carrying banners and statues of saints while singing or praying. Who or what were they honoring?

On one memorable occasion, I spotted a young couple decked out in full Mexican attire riding a horse, also decked out with a fancy saddle. The guy was as handsome as the girl was gorgeous. Were they on the way to get married or going on their honeymoon? I should have stopped and asked—and congratulated them.

I mentioned to Stew this morning we should accelerate our halting efforts at cultural acculturation. First, we should try restaurants that are not expat hangouts, including taco carts and smaller venues in town preferably those favored by the locals. I'll miss Hecho's reuben sandwiches, but we'll survive.

Second, I'm going to try to keep track of local celebrations, including fiestas in the nearby localities and find out what they're about. Are they marking some religious holiday or secular celebration? We've attended a couple of fiestas near the ranch but mostly looked around and left after an hour or so. We should stay long enough to talk to a few people (but before some of them begin to fall face-down drunk, sadly a common occurrence).  

Finally I'll try to encourage Stew to shift his efforts to learn Spanish from first to second gear. That may prove to be the most difficult step in this program. But there's hope: This morning he was checking a Spanish-language cookbook and found a recipe for a beef broth soup just like our friend served at his ranch. I can't wait.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Dropping in on Holy Death

In most of Latin America, and particularly in Mexico, Catholicism is a double helix of institutional dogma intertwined with popular invention and fanaticism. When the hierarchy and encyclicals imported from Europe don't quite address the spiritual needs of the local folk, some just create their own, often more vivid, embellishments of the traditional Catholic canon.

On each of our trips to San Antonio, Texas—a mind-deadening, twelve-hour driving marathon through mostly barren landscapes—we'd noticed signs pointing the roadside Chapel of the Holy Death and had intended to stop and check it out. It's hard to miss: a squat, bright-blue mini-church missing only the usual crucifix on top.

C'mon in, you lily-livered non-believers. 
What went on in the chapel? Why would someone pray to or worship Death? Isn't that against usual human instincts to live? Do Death's devotees solicit help with their daily vicissitudes? And by the way, is Death a He or a She?

Even though I've grown into a grumpy agnostic borderline atheist, I still hesitate to proclaim my skepticism too loudly about either one of the two strands of Catholicism—the formal church or the outlier cults and superstitions like the veneration of Holy Death, quite widespread throughout Mexico, or santería, even more popular in my native Cuba.

Other Latino non-believers often conceal similar doubts and fears with a really lame caveat: "No creo en eso, pero sí le tengo respeto."  "I don't believe in all that, but I do respect it." In other words, you never know.

So each time we went past the shrine to Holy Death, a scuffle broke out in my head between curiosity and fear of whatever went on in the chapel. Fear invariably won. We just kept on driving, weaving through the caravan of semis clogging the highway. Whatever it is, we'd better not mess with it.

Last Saturday, curiosity finally won and it brought to mind some of the mixed-message religious beliefs with which I grew up in Cuba, where staid old-world Catholicism mixes with the feverish, drum-beating African beliefs brought to the island by Nigerian slaves. The result is santería, which thrives despite the scorn of the mainline Catholic church.

Even Fidel, and his deposed predecessor Batista, were said to have their personal santería priests, to help them navigate through the turbulence of Cuban politics. It didn't work out so well for Batista, though he slipped out of the island and on to a very comfortable retirement in Spain.

At home my mother kept a small but centrally located altar to Santa Barbara, a versatile saint who was a central figure in both the Catholic and santería pantheons. Our statue of Santa Barbara was about eighteen inches tall, decorated with a tiny metal crown and chalice, plus a sword she held on her left hand and could be set to point up or down, I suspect depending on my mother's spiritual moods or in case of some family emergency.

Santa Barbara supplies available
from a vendor in California. 
Along the traditional Catholic iconography, at the foot of the small altar, my mother occasionally placed bananas, apples or other fruits in compliance with santería traditions. You never know. So you cover all the bases.

Growing up I developed chronic bronchial asthma, a wheezing, relentless malady I wouldn't wish on anyone. I went to doctors who prescribed inhalers and other medications, in addition to shots of penicillin, the cure-all back in the fifties. All to no avail.

So my parents consulted a santera—a santería priestess or practitioner—who proposed an unorthodox cure. I imagine that by now my parents had given up on the usual Catholic prayers and invocations.

So at sunrise the next Easter morning we went out to the countryside and stood at the foot of a ceiba tree, one of the largest trees in the island. There, the santera, after mumbling what sounded like some Catholic prayer, probably spiced with ñáñigo, a language brought from Africa by the slaves, cut a lock of my hair and solemnly tucked it into a cut she had made on the trunk of the ceiba. She predicted my asthma would be cured when the incision healed.
A giant ceiba tree, similar to the one
that cured my asthma. Maybe. 

It worked.

Or did it? My asthma went away just about the time I came to the U.S. Maybe I was allergic to something in Cuba. Maybe I grew out of it. Or maybe yet, santería might have done the trick. Hence my allegiance to both agnosticism and back-of-the-head respect for religious mumbo-jumbo, even some of the more far-fetched beliefs. You just never know.

The Chapel of the Holy Death, is located about two-thirds of the way home between the exits to the cities of Matahuala and San Luis Potosí in a landscape that is fittingly dismal. The soil is a whitish clay that resembles cracked plaster. Vegetation is sparse except for mesquites and a species of tall cacti tilted in all directions as if they were periscopes peering through the dust for a way out of this unforgiving patch of nature.

Signs of human habitation were equally scarce, mostly a few dingy cafes and restaurants and a vulcanizing and tire repair shop, the typical establishments in parts of Mexico where even bare survival is a daily struggle.

Your choice: Lunch, some freshly vulcanized tires or a live chicken.
We overshot our exit by about a kilometer, where a short and frail woman, carrying a bare-assed two- or three-year-old boy and two other children, promptly approached the car and asked us if we wanted to buy some cacti. Instead of a restaurant or a tire shop she had set up a cactus nursery. Give her credit for ingenuity.

Most of her sere offerings were pathetic but I found a couple of specimens I didn't have. She asked $150 pesos, a ridiculous sum that I promptly paid, so shaken was I by this family's misery. As Stew so often says, such are not rational commercial transactions but acts of income redistribution.

Heartened by our generosity, the woman took us to the patio of her ramshackle dwelling and offered to sell us songbirds, pants, socks, shoes and even a three-inch coyote fang she produced from her pocket. It would make a fine necklace, she said. I passed.

OK, how about a coyote fang?
As we turned around and approached the Chapel of the Holy Death, my trepidations ebbed. It was a bright-blue, almost cheery building that someone kept meticulously painted, with a palapa in front under which a young guy was working on a battered 1997 Ford Taurus. He was installing a string of lights over the windshield, surely the last thing that vehicle needed.

Even before we'd exited the highway I had warned Stew not too giggle, point or show any disrespect to anything or anyone in the shrine. I didn't want to piss off Holy Death, or more immediately, some of his or her followers who might be offended and come after us with a machete.

After a brief and grumpy conversation with the young man working on his car, an attractive bosomy woman carrying a four- or five-month old named Darwin approached us as if to ask about the nature of our business.

I introduced myself and politely, rather obsequiously, asked her if she was a believer in the cult of the Holy Death and could she provide any details. Though she lived next door to the chapel she claimed not to know anything about its function, except that believers came by occasionally to pick up a statue from inside the chapel and take it home for a fiesta.

"Why would you bring a statue of Holy Death to a fiesta?" I asked. She explained that the fiestas were religious celebrations on important religious holidays.

The chapel included a kneeling bench. 
The inside of the chapel was no more than four hundred square feet. The walls were lined with rows of statues, some three or four feet tall, most decorated with lavish costumes that included a hood to cover—you guessed it—a skull. Some of the skulls, life-sized and amber-colored, looked like they once belonged to someone. Bony fingers protruded out of some of the sleeves. The only light came from a skylight and dozens of candles flickering at the foot of this bone-chilling line-up. What looked like a small stone birdbath or baptismal font sat in the middle of the room, and held a handful of wilted red roses.

In addition, one of the walls was filled with framed prayers, testimonials and declarations by people who apparently had been helped by Holy Death. One testimonial was a photo of a tanker-truck driver beseeching Holy Death for his or her protection.

May we help you?
I kept a safe distance from all the testimonials while Stew began checking the backs of the pictures, as if this were a flea market. A passport-size color photo of a handsome thirty-something man fell out from one of the pictures. Was he dead? Or had he been saved from some horrible fate?

Stew was baptized in a small-gauge church in Iowa that unlike Roman Catholicism did not burden him with any sense of religious guilt, fear, hell or damnation. The chapel was no more than a curiosity.  Lucky him.

I respectfully, almost fearfully, put the photo on the shelf—I couldn't tell which framed testimonial it had come from—and urged Stew to keep his hand off the relics, followed by "let's get the hell out of here."

Testimonials or pleas to Holy Death
On the way back to the car I was confronted by a potentially existential dilemma: A spray-painted sign offered votive candles for twenty pesos. Which would it be? Should we risk dissing Holy Death by not buying a candle? Or incur the institutional wrath of the Roman Catholic Church which harrumphs at the cult of Holy Death as sacrilege or worse, and could put me on the wrong side of the Pearly Gates for all eternity?

I paused for a second before my Guardian Angel helpfully whispered in my ear: "Get back in the car and go home, you fools."



Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The burden of the might-have-beens

Might-have-beens are a bitch. They make you wonder about and sometimes regret many of the decisions you've made.

Might-have-beens can be constructive, yes, but less so later in life. Earlier on, and assuming one has an active learning curve, might-have-beens can remind you of the bumps on the road so you don't drive over them again.

Later in life, though, might-have-beens can feel fruitless and even disheartening, hindering rather than aiding one's ability to deal with present challenges. They can be a distraction as well as an opportunity.

After a ten-year lapse, I recently started attending A.A. meetings once a week. In a strangely counterintuitive way, going back to meetings is akin to rekindling one's toxic love affair with booze. I don't know precisely why I decided to go to meetings again, but I did bring a certain smugness into the room, feeling as if I were repeating high school English composition or some other subject I thought I'd mastered years ago.

Yep, this the a fork in the road. 
Instead, attending meetings again has been a whack to the side of the head, a reminder of how little I have changed even though I haven't touched alcohol or cigarettes for over thirty years. Listening to others talk about their daily struggles to stay sober—while reciting the all-too-familiar A.A. slogans, jingles and bumper stickers—took me back to my first meeting, immediately after I quit drinking.

I don't drink anymore but I'm still burdened by some of the circular patterns that led me to alcohol in the first place. Might I be in a different place today had I stuck to meetings all along and paid more attention, instead of abandoning that project earlier on because I "didn't need meetings" any more? Maybe, even probably. All I can say is that at least I don't drink or smoke today and that much must qualify as progress. And I'm still open to suggestions I hear from other recovering alcoholics.

An unexpected visit recently from a friend I'd met in my first job right out of graduate school in 1972, a year after Stew and I got together, led me to more second-guessing, mostly about my zig-zaggy career in journalism.

I actually didn't start working in magazines and newspapers until 1978, after I'd quit a cozy but stultifying stint deep in the federal bureaucracy—at the long-gone U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, of all places—and enrolled at Northwestern University.

Along with leaving Cuba and coming to the U.S. alone at age fourteen, quitting the feds was one of the most drastic decisions in my life. It wasn't just thinking outside the box, but going at the box with a chainsaw and starting over, with no job security or even job prospects in sight.

Even in the best of circumstances writing is a precarious way to make a living and yet the only way to get ahead is to keep taking chances. If your last novel bombs, you have to write another one, and if the best newspaper job you can land is in Carthage, Miss., or a relatively obscure publication in a big city, you go there and hope in a couple of years you discover a better gig or someone discovers you. It's the opposite of a job at the post office.

I'd always dreamed of joining the foreign service or getting a gig as a foreign reporter: There's a certain buzz I still get from landing in strange places and trying to figure out how people there live and work, and how they've developed their own versions if not of happiness, at least of reconciliation or resignation with their circumstances. Even today for me traveling is equal parts mindless sightseeing and a chance for a first-hand, albeit fleeting immersion in the politics, history and culture that has brought a country to where it is.

I was offered several opportunities to move to foreign places for various jobs and actually have travelled to numerous countries. Haiti was the one that intrigued me the most because of its intoxicating and unique brew of African and Western cultures, even its peculiar patois. Haiti was as fascinating and inexplicable as voodoo itself.

But every time an opportunity to pursue my foreign dreams arose, fear and endless what-ifs got in the way. My occasional foreign ventures ended up only whetting an appetite never quite fulfilled.

None of this says that by any means my career in journalism was failure. On the contrary, I have quite a collection of awards for my work that used to hang on a wall of my office until I got tired of looking at them: They reminded me of both my successes and my might-have-beens.

But the biggest of my might-have-beens—one I don't recall explicitly discussing with Stew—
is what it would have been like for us to raise a couple of kids. I'm quite certain they would have received as much love and attention as any child raised by a "normal" straight couple, perhaps too much so. I probably would have spent endless night trying to avoid the mistakes my parents made with me. The most attentive, insomniac parent in the world; that would have been me.

It's another might-have-been, which as all the rest cannot be relived. Life is video with no rewind button that allows you go back and edit—or redo—the scenes that didn't quite work out. All you can do is try to plan your next shoot a little better.

Before anyone think I'm on the edge of despair, worry not. I'm quite conscious of my good fortune, most of all having a loving husband and companion for forty-four years even if we weren't allowed to formally marry until three years ago, when the powers that be decided it was alright for us to get married, and no longer live marginalized in some second-class limbo called "domestic partnership."

We're comfortable; we live in what people keep telling us is beautiful home, and for the moment we have no financial or health worries.

So why do might-have-beens keep coming up? Maybe they are just markers, some times upsetting, other times inspiring, to remind us of where we are, where we came from—and what we need to do to best use the time ahead.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Medical breakthrough in San Miguel!

It's tough to imagine an upside to the story of a friend from New York who while visiting San Miguel last week fell down in her room and broke her left humerus, the big bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow. And it wasn't a hairline fracture you had squint at the X-Ray to notice, but a clear break a layperson could see even after three tequilas.

But indeed there was an upside: The accident led Stew and I to realize how much medical care in San Miguel has improved since our arrival ten years ago, during which we'd worried about all the what-ifs surrounding a sudden illness or other medical emergency here.

Here's looking at your humerus, sweetheart. *

Our friend's first recourse was the woman in charge of the bed-and-breakfast where she was staying, who in turn called a doctor who ordered an X-Ray of the arm. The X-Ray cost a whopping thirty-five dollars. After that, the doctor summoned an orthopedic surgeon from the nearby city of Queretaro.

The surgeon, a bearded, burly guy in his thirties whose first name was Zeus and who spoke enough English to ask all the pertinent questions, arrived later in the day and examined my friend. He put on a temporary cast and without further delay, loaded my friend into his own car and took her to the local private hospital and scheduled surgery at nine the next morning.

The hospital, now called H+ and completely refurbished, used to be called De la Fé or "Faith Hospital," an appropriate name for such an iffy operation.

Iwas a scary-miserable facility, lacking the most rudimentary modern equipment. I had an X-Ray with a machine that looked like surplus equipment from the Korean War. My friend Billie compared the ambiance in the waiting room of the doctors' office suite to a dingy bus depot. After an emergency landed him to De la Fé, the U.S. consul remarked to Stew and me that he wouldn't bring his cat there for treatment.

The most ballyhooed, and ridiculous, feature of the hospital was its hyperbaric chamber, a pressurized-oxygen machine used primarily to counteract decompression sickness resulting from scuba diving, an odd piece of equipment for a hospital several hundred miles from the ocean.

Except it must have been a money-maker: One of the hospital doctors suggested to Stew that he sign up for a series of hyperbaric "treatments."

"Would it help?," Stew asked the doctor, whose gloomy office looked more like a curio shop.

"Well, it couldn't hurt," the doctor replied.

A billboard on the approach to the hospital, since removed, advertised all manner of medical interventions for just about anything short of a brain transplant—plus the hyperbaric chamber, just in case.

Hmm. No thanks.

Despite its dilapidated interior, and refulgent exterior—the squat, two-story building was a shade of electric blue one would expect to find at a midnight paint liquidation at Home Depot—many expats never ceased to extol the miracles that unfolded daily at De la Fé. Given that for years it was the only game in town, perhaps such sanguine denials were the only way to imagine the possibility of one being taken there in an emergency.

But when Stew and I visited our friend following the surgery to install a metal rod to realign her humerus, the hospital we encountered was like a vision. Thanks to multi-million peso investment by an out of town chain, the old hospital had been completely gutted and refurbished. Brand-new equipment anywhere we looked. A hospital elevator installed to replace a steep ramp between the first and second floors that would have sent a patient on a wheelchair flying into the lobby if the attendant lost control.

Gone and best forgotten was a sad altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, located on the second floor hallway and decorated with flickering votive candles and wilted flowers, that was not reassuring to non-believers like me who'd rather bet on modern medical science.

My friend, who stayed for two days in a private, air-conditioned room, couldn't stop talking about the excellent, first-class care she received, from the surgical team to the nurses. She had been through some serious medical crises and said the care she received here was comparable—and in some respects better, particularly the personal attention—to what she experienced at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

When we went to pick her up, I was afraid what the bill would be. I figured for such major surgery, operating room charges alone would be several thousand dollars. But the itemized statement, for the entire stay at the hospital and all the tests, came to only three thousand dollars—a bargain at three times that.

Now, I'm not encouraging anyone to fall down and break their humerus or a leg. But if you plan to, San Miguel may be the best place to do it.


*BTW, what's that faint shadow between the skeleton's legs??

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A cure for Trumpinosis

Coming on the heels of our two recent encounters with serendipity mentioned in my last posting, I may have discovered how to tune out the constant din of "news" about the presidential election scheduled to take place exactly ninety-seven days, fourteen hours, five minutes and two seconds from this writing. In other words, not a second too soon.

Leading up to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia Stew and I had been diligently, almost obsessively, reading the New York Times and Washington Post and watching the PBS NewsHour. We supplemented such serious reporting with peeks at CNN, with its usual lineup of six or eight babbling bobbleheads, a format reminiscent of the Hollywood Squares but without the humor. Then we had been checking the online Huffington Post which is to news what potato chips are to a balanced diet—addictive but of little nutritional value.

Finally, for perversity's sake, we've occasionally tuned in to Fox News for a dose of magical realism, such as Bill O'Reilly's timely observation that, after all, the slaves who built the White House were well fed and received decent lodging from the government. He was responding to Michelle Obama's speech at the convention, in which she mentioned how awesome it was to wake up in a house built by slaves. I guess O'Reilly couldn't bring himself to say that it was a beautiful speech and just leave it at that.

But following the Democratic Convention, political news has become a hailstorm of bullshit largely thanks to Donald Trump. The worst of it is not that he blurts out something offensive, ridiculous or just plain false, but that news providers feel obligated to repeat it, massage it and hold it up to the light as informational nuggets that need to be pondered for several days.

You're fired.
So we listened, ad nauseam, to reports about Trump saying Putin would not go into Ukraine, even though Russian had already annexed Crimea, which used to be part of Ukraine, in 2014. And on and on, sliding from one idiotic statement to the next, adding nothing to our knowledge of what needs to be done to address the U.S.' real problems of racial inequality, wage stagnation, the financial squeeze on the middle class and such.

It was at this moment, when Stew and I had nearly overdosed on potato chips, that Providence intervened with an unexpected solution—heavy rains, road construction and new and excellent Internet service at our home.

The rains and road construction have increased driving time to town from twenty minutes or so to over an hour, as traffic has been rerouted onto a muddy, out of the way detour that has the feel of driving through some remote part of West Virginia. So we've cut down our visits with friends in town, during which politics and much moaning and groaning about Trump is the inevitable topic of conversation. Zot!

A flash wireless Internet connection also has enabled us to download movies, documentaries and dramas that have preempted the constant political yadda-yadda from our TV schedule. We still record the PBS News Hour but fast forward past Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill and all the political hubbub and go directly to Jeffrey Brown, who's usually reporting about global warming or unusual plant species from the Maldives, Tahiti or some place where no one talks about Donald Trump.

Reading the Times and the Post online will require more self-control to slip past the political bloviation that consumes much of the news and opinion pages and go straight to book and movie reviews, science, travel, recipes, fashion, theater and other topics not likely to get us riled up.

In our reading, it's fiction all the time. No more "Black Flags: The Rise of Isis," by Joby Warrick, a terrific but depressing book that unfortunately reminded us of the war without end in Iraq and Syria, and the biggest debacle in U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam.

Stew instead prowls Amazon for detective or crime stories while I have settled on "Miss Jane," by Brad Watson, a novel about a girl in Mississippi born with chronic incontinence.

"Whoa! That sounds depressing!" some of you may say. Let me assure you it's a beautifully written and inspiring work, certain to take your mind off the presidential election in ninety-seven days, twelve hours, thirty-four minutes and thirty-six seconds. Make that thirty-one minutes, four seconds.

Just don't forget to vote.  


Friday, July 29, 2016

The beauty in serendipity

"Serendipity," with its musical ring, is a word that sounds like fun even before you know what it means. Literally it means "unexpected good luck" or stumbling into something terrific that you didn't imagine. Yet we often turn away from serendipity, our demand for certainty preempting many pleasant, even wondrous, surprises.

During a recent trip to Spain, and more recently during a walk through our garden at the ranch, I've come to appreciate the wisdom of serendipity—to simply to step back and allow plenty of open travel time and soil space for whatever. It turns out the fun and beauty of surprises more than make up for the initial trepidation of letting go.

When a rose bush ran into nasturtiums, a large rock and a prickly bear cactus,
an unexpectedly beautiful arrangement resulted. 
Before going on a two-week trip to Spain a couple of months ago, we ordered Rick Steves' travel book, plus a couple of almost scholarly explorations of the history, architecture and artistic significance of legendary landmarks like the Grand Mosque of Córdova and Granada's Alhambra. I even read Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra." I wanted to be fully prepared.

Then I put together what I thought was a airy day-to-day itinerary, a lot of it inspired by Steves' rather marathonic walking tours and estimated times of completion that alas, don't make allowances for the age of the person doing the walking.

He instead ought to provide sliding time estimates. For instance, the hike from Madrid's Plaza del Sol to the Prado Museum? Twenty- to thirty-year-olds, you should allow thirty minutes; folks over sixty, with ten to fifteen pounds of extra weight, grab a cab.

Even in Europe's giant museums there is only so much great art your exhausted tourist brain and feet can absorb. Our friend Gerard commented that after four or five hours meandering through Amsterdam's monumental Rijksmuseum, the endless collection of Rembrandts became a blur of pictures of "old Dutch guys with big black hats."

Rather, you should check out and admire some of the highlights that you studied in the obligatory college art appreciation class (Jason's "History of Art" anyone?) and then go out for a nice lunch. After that, try a museum with a collection of objects you know little or nothing about. The hell with Jason. Be surprised.  

In Spain, the Alhambra, Córdova's Mosque and Seville's cavernous cathedral are certainly worth every bit of their fame and then some.

Stew (l.) with a new old friend from the Moroccan town of Chefchaouen.
Yet the most memorable moments of our trip were unplanned, such as finding a tiny Moroccan restaurant in Granada, near the Alhambra, run by a short, bubbly guy who was born in Chefchaouen, a tiny psychedelic town in Morocco we had visited in 2007, where every house is painted the same shade of electric blue. The owner was thrilled someone recognized his hometown and we had terrific conversation and chicken tajine. 

For two days my itinerary provided for just "driving around the countryside," a splendid idea that took our us in our turbo-diesel VW Polo, with a manual transmission Stew wouldn't touch, to two towns we'd never heard of: Medina Sidonia with its tumbledown church and Grazalema, the ultimate "postcard-beautiful" village, one of dozens in the "white villages" region of Andalucía.

While looking at the valleys and mountains surrounding Grazalema, Stew proclaimed it to be one of the most beautiful places he'd ever seen. It was a truly serendipitous moment, or if you're religious, a moment of unmerited grace, as in how did we stumble into this place? 

The unexpected beauty of Grazalema, in Spain's Andalucía. 
Back home, daily rains have greened the landscape around the ranch, and despite much planning and seed-ordering from the States, serendipity has, once again, overtaken much of my landscaping schemes.

I planted our seeds too early and upwards of fifty percent of them died, victims of my impatience. Adding to the confusion is Félix's refusal to pull up and discard any plants, flowers or small trees no matter how out of place they may be. So flowers and vegetables have germinated in odd places after lurking in the compost pile for the past several months. Flowers and vegetable seeds have arrived air mail, wrapped in bird droppings. To boot, there were handfuls of seeds left from last year that Félix saved in envelopes with enigmatic labels like, "big zinnias?" No matter, into the ground they went; nothing must go to waste is his gardening mantra.

A lone zinnia deep in the ornamental grasses. 
The result is serendipitous and charming, a colorful joke at the expense of those gardening gurus who insist one must first make a scaled plan of the areas in the garden to be tamed, followed by careful selection of plantings according to color, textures and heights.

Indeed I have noodled the idea of turning the garden over to chance, Mother Nature or Félix, given that any one of the three options probably will yield much the same results.

Quite often he comes up with ideas at first strange but that ultimately win you over. "Hmm, that's kind of clever!" or "I never thought of that!" Zinnias abutting the agaves? Roses surrounded by nasturtiums? A peach tree—where did it come from?—in the middle of a patch of English lavenders? A dahlia fighting its way through a succulent groundcover? Who would have imagined?

That and more, thanks to the gifts of serendipity.