Friday, January 22, 2016

Canines at the Gate

At the mere clang of the ranch's gate opening, they leap over the neighbor's stone wall, crawl out from under this or that bush or whoosh from down the road in a cloud of dust. On a banner day, there might nine or ten barking and yapping customers. On weekend mornings, though, only three or four might show up.

Hmm, do these campo dogs, as locals call these roaming countryside mutts, sleep in on weekends?

Those who show up mob Stew, who lugs a bucket of dry dog food, as if were a savior which indeed he is, because without his handouts many of these dogs would starve or get run over on the busy nearby road. Just as important as food, Stew doles out affectionate pats on their heads and a bit of conversation that is much appreciated though neither side understands a word.

Benji: Howl are yoo?
No one except perhaps Benji—that's what we've named him—a long-haired, black-and-white number that we think actually understands Stew's gooey gibberish. Benji might even know English. Sometime ago, amid the noisy clamoring for food, Stew impatiently yelled out "Sit!". Naturally, no one paid attention except for Benji who not only obliged but put out his paw too.

Did some gringo lose—or cut loose—this beautiful, gentle dog to fend for himself? If you met Benji and shook his furry paw, the cruelty of someone abandoning him, if that's what happened, would gnaw at you.
Brief bouts of barking and snarling erupt occasionally over who gets which pile of food. But so far not one in this scruffy gang has tried to bite either one of us, though their individual friendliness quotients vary.

We can pick up and hold Malcolm, a fidgety fifteen-pounder, with short, orange fur and a tail perfectly curled like a doughnut, and he'll return the affection with frantic licking. Others, like Whitey, an elegant, long-haired fellow so perfectly white that at first we mistook it for albino, is friendly but not ready for a close-up.

Food call, and Stew forgot to comb his hair.
The biggest curiosity and, increasingly, concern for Stew and me is, where do these dogs come from? And how many more are going to show up at the gate?

In addition to about $50 dollars a month for food; spaying and neutering of anyone we get a hold of; plus occasional emergency trips to the vet when one dog shows up sick or injured, the costs are mounting. Our fifty-pound bags of food come from an animal feed store, with one of the most festive facades in town, called "La Vaca" or "The Cow." Appropriately, its business motto is "Muuu," or "Mooo," for those of you who don't speak Spanish

A storefront you won't soon forget.
The latest arrival are two nearly identical female puppies—Lula and Lola—with short beige fur, long tails and pleading brown eyes, who parachuted into the scene about three months ago. For now, they are at the bottom of the pack hierarchy; not only are they the youngest but also the most timid and clueless, unable to guard their piles of food. As a result, they are the boniest. If he's not in a hurry, Stew will sit on a rock with them until they finish eating. We also call them the Doofus Sisters.
Brenda, one of the old timers.

The two pack elders are Brenda and Osita. Brenda is the quintessential mutt, black with orange spots, and possibly related to Chucha and Negro, who were the original members of the pack but have since died and are buried in our pet cemetery on one corner of the ranch.

All told, twelve animals reside at the cemetery, including our late cat Ziggy that came with us from Chicago, one of Félix's dogs, and a litter of seven days-old puppies he found in a plastic grocery bag by the side of the main road, about a kilometer away. Of the puppies, four were alive but even those had to be euthanized after the vet said they couldn't live without their mother.

After each arrival at the cemetery (or departure, if you will), Félix paints the decedent's name on a rectangular tile we buy from a building materials yard. The puppies' grave he simply marked "Los Hermanos."

Malcolm: Mighty mini mutt
Indeed, one of Félix' most admirable qualities is that he really loves animals. When we found his dog Chupitos, dead and mauled outside the ranch shortly after we moved in, Félix came as close to crying as a Mexican man dares to. In his house he keeps a picture I took of Chupitos alongside shots of his family.

Osita is a another survivor. Her black-and-white, longish, wiry fur earned her the name, which means "Little Bear" in Spanish.  She's been around almost since we moved into the ranch, about six years ago. She showed up pregnant one time and Félix heard she'd later given birth to a litter of eight. Shortly after that she showed up pregnant again and between malnourishment and the burden of caring for her second litter, Osita almost didn't make it.

We asked her nominal owner, a neighbor, if we could have her spayed but he dithered. We suspect he was selling the puppies at the Tuesday flea market in town. So when Osita seemed to have recovered, we quietly loaded her in the truck and took her to be spayed. She's transformed from scrawny and scared to chubby and somewhat affectionate. She'll sit for a rub on the head or a quick backrub but otherwise keeps to herself.

Stew ready to offer some counseling to the Doofus Sisters
Osita: Dowager and veteran mother.
When one of the canine beggars doesn't show up we worry it might have been killed in a fight or other mishap. But we also worry that as more dogs show up out of nowhere, owners might be dumping them at our gate as some act of cheap and quick kindness. Or maybe that the word's spread among the stray dogs—arf, there's is free food at Rancho Santa Clara!—even though newcomers seem to go through a strict hazing and snarling trial before being accepted into the pack.

Stew has reasoned that a daily ration of dog food, and a relatively safe place to hang out away from the busy highway traffic a kilometer away is not a bad deal for "our" campo dogs. We certainly don't want any additions to our private reserve of five dogs and two cats, plus Félix's dogs, Palomita and Luiso, who come to work with him and also get fed.

And we surely don't want an encore of one of our stupidest stunts in animal welfare when we first moved to the ranch. As the winter months ground on, and the green pasture turned to brown stubble, the flocks of sheep and goats wandering outside the fence looked ever
Whitey would be more so if he had a bath
hungrier, or so we thought. We went to the feed store and bought a couple of bales of either alfalfa or hay and dumped them over the fence.

Bad idea, kiddo. Shortly afterward, seemingly every cow, goat and sheep in the county was munching on the stuff—and mooing, bleating and harrumphing for more. Sorry guys, we told them, but there's only so much we can do.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A medical dilemma or a horror story?

Not a week goes by without Félix, with his usual uninflected delivery, tells us a shocking life-in-Mexico story that strikes Stew and me with the force of a blow to the side of the head.

"How can that happen?" we ask, while Félix's response to such day-to-day tragedies and outrages—a reaction I find quite common among poor Mexicans—goes far beyond sangfroid or steely determination. It's closer to profound impotence and fatalism: Life is shit and then you die. 

Félix' most recent story arrived yesterday and involved his twenty-three-year-old niece, Veronica. She had gone into premature labor and was rushed to the local hospital where she delivered a tiny, but very much live-and-breathing baby about five-and-a-half months old.

Rather than place the baby in an incubator to keep it alive, possibly to be transferred later to a more sophisticated facility, the attending physician told the father that the newborn, apparently normal except for its size, could not be saved. It was left lying on the crib while the father watched. The baby gradually turned blue, Félix said, and two or three hours later died without any further medical intervention.
I don't know the full medical details but when we heard that Stew and I felt a similar sadness and outrage gripping our hearts and guts: How could that happen? 

The hospital is but two or three years old and in my exposure to the facilities, when we've taken friends to the emergency room, including Félix' dad, who suffers from diabetes, alcoholism and generally a very hard life, it seemed to be well equipped and staffed. Félix said that his last two babies spent their first few hours with an oxygen mask around their tiny faces, and that there are incubators available.

Yet given the baby's chances of survival, and the medical and financial limitations of the hospital and the government-financed healthcare system on which people as poor as Félix and his family rely, perhaps the doctor had no other options.

Stew promptly said such a thing wouldn't happen in the U.S., that the baby probably would have been kept alive in a neonatology unit even if the medical bills reached hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. I'm not sure.
Stew may be only partly right. If this drama had unfolded at a private American hospital and the parents carried full private insurance, that baby likely would have survived. America's private health care system is justifiably renowned worldwide for all manner of medical heroics—as long as there's plenty of cash to pay for them.

A private Mexican hospital in a larger city also might have saved the baby, assuming the parents had the means to pay for the treatment. Indeed, private Mexican hospitals have a particularly draconian reimbursement system: You have to leave a substantial deposit, in cash or with a credit card, before you're treated at the emergency room or admitted.

If Veronica had shown up at a private hospital in Chicago with premature labor pains and no insurance, she would have been efficiently bounced to Cook County Hospital, a public facility dedicated to treating indigent patients. And at taxpayer's expense, she would have received first-class attention at this multi-billion-dollar version of government health care, precisely the big-government monster conservative politicians love to loath in the U.S.
But what if Veronica, indigent and thus with no health insurance—just like millions of Americans—lived in some Podunkville, U.S.A., where there's no public hospital? What would have been her and the baby's chances? I prefer to think somehow the baby would have had better chances of survival, but I wouldn't guarantee it. Maybe Medicaid? Some "charity fund" at the hospital for patients who can't pay?

And in the U.S.—this is Stew talking again—just the fear of a multi-million negligence or malpractice lawsuit against the doctor, the hospital and anyone involved in such tragedy, if nothing else, might have prevented it. I'm not sure of that scenario either. You'd have to have sufficient reserves of rage and money to hire a competent attorney to do battle with the law firm representing the hospital.

For my part, I would not have waited for the lawyers to do their work. Whether in the U.S. or Mexico I would have throttled the doctor right then and there, or worse.

But Félix and his family don't seem capable of such anger.

"Sí, me sentí molesto," was his response when I asked him this morning how he felt. "Yes, I was upset."

"Pero la vida aquí en México es muy canija," he muttered after a few seconds, looking at the ground. "But life here in Mexico is a real bitch." 

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Friday, January 8, 2016

Escape from Tacoland

Most gringos in San Miguel, even those who profess to be so hip to the local Mexican milieu that they're ready to change their last names from Lynch to López, in fact live in a culinary rut of tacos, enchiladas, tortilla soup and arracheras, the latter a marinated flank steak about as ubiquitous as corned beef in Ireland.

Still, Stew and I are often reminded—and just as often forget—that Mexican cuisine is its own universe, as complex and varied as any in the world, and punctuated by regional quirks that are "acquired tastes" such as Oaxaca's chapulines or fried grasshoppers. Oaxaca is one of the great, if not the premier dining destination in Mexico, where according to Stew, a late-blooming epicure, it's almost impossible to have a bad meal.

There are some limits. During our three or four visits to Oaxaca, and its central food market, we've bumped into buckets of fried grasshoppers for sale, paused for five seconds or so, and just kept on walking. They are supposed to be great snacks, crunchy and tasty like potato chips, but the sight of charred grasshoppers, their little feet up in the air as if they'd been electrocuted, just doesn't look very appetizing.

Two weeks ago Stew treated me to a birthday dinner at Dulce Patria, our favorite restaurant in Mexico City although in truth we haven't tried that many others. Starting with the name, which I translate as "Sweet Motherland," and the chef's proclamation on the website that she "loves being Mexican," the place is all about a genuinely Mexican cuisine that is also as far as one can get from the familiar bowl of guacamole with tortilla chips.

Coming attractions: Cabuches growing
 on the barrel cacti outside our bedroom. 
Instead you're transported to the land of this stuff is amazing; what the hell is in it? Many of the names of the dishes are fanciful but unhelpful. How about a dessert called "María goes to the flower shop," or an entree of "A joyful grilled fish." Better ask the waiter. For starters, we settled on shared portions of oxtail on blue tortillas, and a Mexican take on bouillabaisse.

The hit of the entire meal was a salad with, among other things, lima bean-size pellets called cabuches, which turned out to be the flower buds of the Ferocactus, a type of barrel cactus that—great news—grows wild on our ranch though there are none available at the moment. The down side, I imagine, is that by harvesting them you abort the tiara of bright flowers that briefly pop up atop the barrel cacti once a year. When you bite into one of these guys your mouth is jolted by a sweet and unexpected juice.

The tab at Dulce Patria, including tip, came to one hundred and ten dollars, a cheap deal for a first-class meal, soup to nuts, thanks in part to the plummeting value of the Mexican peso, which has dropped to nearly eighteen-to-a-dollar.

This fall we'll also be on the lookout for tunas, the fruits of prickly pear cacti, also abundant in our ranch in two colors, light yellow and pink. Supposedly one can make marmalade, fruit drinks and deserts with them, though no one seems to know how, including Félix, our gardener and live encyclopedia of Mexican lore.

Open wide: The two chiles Félix keeps harvesting, Tepín (left) and Pequín.
Félix also nurtures a few chile plants that keep producing handfuls of the little buggers, more than we can eat. Through the summer we had several varieties of chilis but now we are down to two varieties, tepín, a little smaller than a marble and bright red, and pequín, gnarled, dark red and about an inch long. That's according to The Great Chile Book by Mark Miller; Félix couldn't tell them apart. As far as Félix is concerned, everything goes better with chiles, no matter what kind.

Both of our homegrown varieties are plenty hot. Tepín scores 8 on the heat scale and Pequín 8.5. Jalapeños get a timid hotness score of 5.5.

A year ago, while eating with friends at a local restaurant specializing in Yucatecan food, Stew—in his new persona of an experienced gourmand—took a innocuous looking chile from atop his pork entree and popped it in his mouth. It turned out to be a habanero, heat index of 10 or the equivalent of gulping a tablespoon of lighter fluid and setting a match to it.

His face suddenly turned purple. That was the here-we-go-again signal to the waitress—who must have also received training in first aid—to fetch a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which along with milk is the usual antidote to gringos shoving chiles in their mouths. I suspect there must be a chile first-aid sign hanging in the kitchen of this restaurant, next to the one about the Heimlich maneuver.

Stew has not given up on chiles. Two nights ago he cooked pasta with some of our pequín chiles which was delicious. He says the most dangerous bits are the seeds, and that the skin has to be minced very finely to avoid an accidental chunk of chile, lurking like a land mine, in a spoonful of pasta.

Last night Stew whipped up some Piri-Piri Chicken, a Portuguese dish of African origin. The recipe called half a cup of hot sauce for the overnight marinade. I had some trepidations but it turned out delicious: moist, with a beautiful char and a taste that was hot and spicy but hardly a five-alarm fire.

As Stew continues his experiments in Mexican cooking and homegrown chiles, though, I think it might be best to keep an emergency pint of Häagen-Dazs vanilla nearby, just in case.

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Late-breaking news: Today's New York Times has a list of 52 places to visit in 2016, and Mexico City topped the list, in part for its world-class restaurants. ¡Buen provecho!