Monday, January 30, 2017

Desperately seeking Oscar

Our lone eight-screen cineplex in San Miguel is modern and air-conditioned but it has limitations: Understandably, it largely caters to local audiences who seem to prefer wham-bam action movies played loud enough to rattle the ceiling tiles, or blood-and-gore horror flicks that give horny teenage boys an excuse to cuddle their shrieking dates.

Accordingly, this week's offerings include "The Return of Xander Cage," "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter," "Monster Trucks," "Assassin's Creed," and "Shin Godzilla."

Hardly appropriate fare, is it, for expat geezers long past their dating-and-groping phase or not interested in Vin Diesel muscle-man action epics

So let's pause right here to thank San Miguel's thriving industry that produces and distributes pirated flicks in various forms and helps us keep up with Hollywood during the crucial weeks between the Oscar nominations and the actual awards.

Unfortunately this being a "don't ask, don't tell" type of enterprise, I can only give the scantest details.

One might ask, for instance, where these movies come from—the Mafia, drug cartels or just enterprising guys trying to make a living? It's not as if ripping off movies is legal in Mexico. Sometimes hints appear right on the screen: "For awards reviews only", "Not for distribution" or warnings to that effect. But who knows what that means.

This fuzzy image was downloaded from the internet. 
In San Miguel we don't know or ask where the pirated flicks come from and if we did, we wouldn't tell you.

Without these free-lance purveyors, we wouldn't know for sure what Meryl Streep is nominated for this year, except she must be nominated for something. We hear it's "Florence Foster Jenkins," which is supposed to be hilarious but, alas, never made it to our local cinema.

A few ethical souls in our community refuse to buy these movies on grounds that it's tantamount to stealing, no better than shoplifting. Picky, picky. Stew and I don't have such exacting moral standards so occasionally we'll indulge in a over-the-transom DVD, but not too often because the quality, especially of the audio, can be iffy. A garbled dialogue that sounds like Hungarian makes it difficult to follow the plot.

I can only reveal that at the center of this dynamic operation is Juan the Ripper (a pun on Jack the Ripper, get it?) who appears to have access to practically every movie making the rounds in the U.S., particularly those up for some award. Customers can consult a list Juan keeps of all the nominees for the various awards and which DVDs he has available.

Juan is a soft-spoken, sleepy-looking fellow in his forties, who runs a cafe downtown that serves inexpensive meals and excellent Oaxacan coffee and sells movies—hundreds of movies and even PBS documentaries such as "Downton Abbey." The DVDs are just forty pesos, or less than two dollars each, a price Juan has valiantly maintained even as the peso's value against the dollar has plummeted.

I can't reveal the address of Juan's cafe or his last name. Sorry.

Another entrepreneur named Daniel—can't reveal his last name either—offers a more permanent and complicated solution to movie-starved expats by hooking their TV to some sort of gizmo or software that lets you bring in Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming options otherwise unavailable in Mexico. One of those pieces of software, or IP blocker, is called Enough said.

There can be some hiccups in Juan's DVDs, produced at a manufacturing facility rumored to be located somewhere in his cafe. The video portion is usually excellent, the audio a little more problematic. Subtitles is something Juan's engineers haven't mastered yet.

Occasionally a DVD will fail, such as the copy we tried to watch on Friday at some friends' house, of "Fences", starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. About twenty minutes into it, when Denzel was sawing lumber with his son in the backyard of their ramshackle house in Pittsburgh, the DVD jammed. After several attempted fixes, including a couple of whacks to the DVD player, the show was aborted. Although one of our hosts—a serious cinephile—volunteered that the Washington character, Troy Maxson, seemed to be "very bitter," we never learned about what.

But hey, whaddya want for two bucks, Blue-ray with Dolby sound?

Besides, Juan will replace any defective DVD. You can go back, and back, and back again, until you get a good DVD. Meanwhile "Fences" might pop up at the local movie house, and we'll finally be able figure out what Troy Maxson was pissed about.

I think it had something to do with baseball.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women tackle Trump

Although living in Mexico we're about six hundred miles away from the nearest handful of American soil, distance didn't diminish the shock here of Donald Trump's election: A vulgar, vile and dishonest man had become president of our country, defying opinion polls and predictions. Just before the election, over dinner at the local Firenze Restaurant, a journalist friend from New York had warned me to remember how the Brexit vote in Britain had confounded experts and pollsters. Same thing could happen in the U.S., he said. I should have paid attention.

After the initial shock, most of the San Miguel expat community, a largely liberal bunch, sank into despair followed by dread. Two friends talked about applying for Mexican citizenship: The American most hated by Mexicans had become president of the country Mexicans fear most, and that could complicate expats' lives.

A few days after the election, at another restaurant, a visiting minister at the church we attend occasionally, was visibly shaken as he talked about the implications of Trump's election for immigrants and civil rights.

Off to the barricades: Our neighbor Grace Lovelace protesting in
 San Miguel's main square a few days after the election of Donald Trump. 
Indeed, despair and dread fused into one, as folks speculated about the fate of hard-won advances in environmental policies, women's rights and a myriad other liberal policies, with Trump reigning with few if any constraints by Congress.

A friend said he was teary-eyed watching Obama's farewell speech.

Stew and I had a tortoise-like reaction and retreated into a news-free carapace that we thought would protect us from more bad news, depression and a sense of powerlessness.

Only a woman neighbor, Grace Lovelace, refused to cower in silence. She kept sending irate emails and shortly after the election joined a small group of people at San Miguel's central square to protest Trump's election. Grace, a former archeologist, and her husband George, a former epidemiologist, run a permaculture ranch where they raise goats and produce cheese, along with soaps and weaving such as scarves, and organic produce. They wear identical eyeglasses, braid their long gray hair and lead a generally unconventional lifestyle.

Vickie Behm, a gifted artist who publishes
a weekly illustration in her Sunday Evening Post, created this one
after attending the Women's March in Washington.
I admit my first reaction to her flurry of emails was to roll my eyes. I warned her that her head might explode with all her anti-Trump fury. You need to settle down, I counseled, maybe try meditation. Instead she continued preaching to me against doing nothing. At the minimum I should sign online petitions and donate to environmental and women's rights groups.

Vickie, an old friend from New York, was similarly irate about the election and vowed to attend the Women's March in Washington the day after the inauguration. She even gave me a preview of a poster she was going to bring, describing in unflattering terms the size and prowess of Trump's male endowment.

These women, and over a million others who marched to protest Trump in the U.S. and abroad, were right to protest and agitate. There was even a Women's March in San Miguel's Juarez Park that attracted about a thousand demonstrators, both Mexican and expats.

While many of us men bitched and fretted, women took to the streets. Indeed twice as many protesters flooded the streets or Washington as did celebrants at Trump's inauguration the day before. Good for those courageous women.

The media seemed to find its cojones too in its coverage of Trump. Sunday's headline in the online edition of the New York Times read: "Trump Falsely Hits Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift," while other vehicles, including some conservative organs, condemned Trump and his press secretary for a flurry of lies about the size of the crowds at Trump's versus Obama's inaugurations. Forget "misrepresentations," "misstatements" or "disputed narratives." The Washington Post used the old-fashioned term "lies" and it awarded the Trump team Four Pinocchios or the "Pants on Fire" designation for its statements. Trump's spokesperson Kellyanne Conway instead described them as "alternative facts."

Three days after inauguration I don't feel quite so glum about the future of the U.S. thanks to Saturday's Women's March.  That demonstration should inspire similar protests by other aggrieved groups. Newspapers and broadcasters might  designate truth squads, similar to the Washington Post's Pinocchio team, to call out Trumps lies and distortions. That plus a series of scandals and disclosures about our new president still brewing—where are his tax returns?—might shorten his time in office. Just two days after moving to the White House, the Trump era now seems like a bumpy but not interminable ride.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Nine months and counting

Give or take five minutes, Félix arrival each day is as predictable as the sunrise. Our five dogs gallop up to the gate at around eight-fifteen and when he arrives with his own two mutts you can hear the thundering welcome from our kitchen. He'll dismount his bicycle, lock the gate behind him and slowly walk the five-hundred feet to our house followed by a romping, barking conga line of canines.

Mini cowboy at the fiesta. 
So it's a bad sign, usually a serious case of la cruda—a hangover—when Félix comes in late or not at all. The worst case came last year, following the weekend of his village's annual fiesta. Félix didn't show up for two days, so I drove to his home late Tuesday to find out if he was all right.

I ran into Félix' thin, weathered dad sitting on the stoop of his home who, with a sheepish smile, warned me his son was borrachito, a little drunk, a condition I'd heard the old man was well acquainted with.

Félix was far more than borrachito: His normally quiet wife apparently had exiled Felix to his parents' to sleep off the hangover. She went to get him, and when he finally emerged Félix was wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, a black eye and a few other bruises.

"What the hell happened to you?," I asked.

"I fell down coming home," he mumbled.

Félix returned to work on Wednesday morning, and sullenly and abjectly apologized and promised it would never happen again. We docked him one day's pay.

One the eve of this year's fiesta, with a sly half-smile, I urged Félix to take it easy at the celebrations.

He just said, "Don't worry about it Alfredo, I haven't had anything to drink in nine months."

I thought it was remarkable that he was tracking his sobriety, something common at A.A. meetings.

Félix has been working for us for over seven years and the topic of his drinking and the aftermath has come up several times. I'd mentioned that Stew and I have been sober for over thirty years, which Félix at first had some trouble comprehending—that's about as long as he's been alive. I even mentioned that I had attended an A.A. meeting in his village. He knew about the meeting but politely dismissed the A.A. "cure" as something for weaklings, men without sufficient resolve. Not him.

A.A. club in Felix's village.
On other occasions he volunteered stories about the ravages of alcoholism on his village and his own family. For years his dad was a down-in-the-gutter drunk who'd disappear for days at a time and ultimately quit only when he found himself too sick and broke to continue. Félix also has told me about liquor-fueled car accidents and even killings in Sosnavar, and finding, along with the usual beer cans and liquor bottles, empties of denatured alcohol scattered about, warning labels intact.

Though Félix often talks to me with the candor usually reserved for very close friends or relatives, he's never mentioned what happened nine months ago that caused him to lay off the booze. I'm not going to ask.

Yesterday, when Félix showed up for work twenty minutes late, Stew expected the worst. Instead Félix, with a proud smile, announced he'd survived the fiesta without "any problem."

We offered congratulations and to take him and his family out for dinner in April to celebrate his one-year anniversary. We'll be going to Pollo Feliz, I proposed, a broiled chicken restaurant he and his family visit on very special occasions.

Félix shook my hand and gladly accepted the challenge.



Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Mayhem and death on our neighborhood's killer road

At approximately eight o'clock on Sunday, as we turned onto the half-mile-long dirt road that goes from a paved but cratered two-lane highway to the gate of our ranch, we froze momentarily at the sight, barely visible in the distance under the moonlight, of twenty or more people and two pickup trucks, one brown the other light blue, stopped at awkward angles on the right and left shoulders.

My first response was curiosity—what the hell?—immediately followed by fear—let's get out of here!—but I didn't say anything. Stew, who was driving, proceeded slowly up to the second pickup which had the hood and the drivers door open, with the group of strangers milling about.

I repeatedly asked a young guy, holding a beer can and standing unsteadily by the right side of our car, ¿Qué pasó? ¿Qué pasó?, but his mumbled, bleary-eyed response was unintelligible. We thought it had been an accident but no one approached us for help and instead the crowd silently parted to let us get through.

When we got home I tried to look through our kitchen window but couldn't make out anything. So we wrote it off to a bunch of kids getting drunk in anticipation of the fiesta at the nearby town of Sosnavar this coming weekend.

On Monday morning Félix filled us in on the details which were too bizarre and gruesome even for this part of the world where, since we arrived seven years ago, approximately twenty people—probably more—have been killed on the road near our house that goes from the busy highway to Querétaro and San Miguel to the backwater town of Jalpa, fifteen kilometers away.

Photo of the SUV, courtesy of "San Miguel Sin Censura,"
a local internet publication. From the photo one can see
how the passenger might have escaped but the
driver was not so lucky. 
According to Félix, his wife and two other locals, two hours before we arrived a pickup driven by an inebriated twenty-one-year-old and carrying a passenger had veered sharply to avoid a pothole about a meter wide. Instead, according to witnesses, the vehicle flipped and tumbled a few times, flinging the driver into the air. It was a violent accident likely at high speed, judging by the oil slick and busted truck pieces, including the battery, air filter and pieces of the dashboard, scattered on the right side of the road.

The driver suffered major injuries to his head, and his left arm and feet were nearly severed. Amazingly, the passenger, another young guy returning from a soccer game, came out of the truck uninjured (was he wearing seat belts?), and ran to Sosnavar, about a kilometer away, to seek help. An ambulance arrived along with fire truck and a vehicle of the Civil Protection department. By the time he arrived at the hospital, the young driver was dead.

Then things got strange. The father of the victim arrived at the scene and insisted that what was left of the silver SUV be pulled away from the scene immediately so the police would not get a hold of it. So the young guys that had gathered at the scene (apparently) hitched the busted-up vehicle to another pick-up and dragged it diagonally about five-hundred feet across a field—a trail of tire tracks, truck parts, knocked-down fences and flattened prickly pear cacti and huizache bushes was still visible Monday morning—to the corner of the dirt road where Stew and I ran into the blue and brown pickups and the drunken observers.

Photo of the wreckage
I took Monday morning
But the silver SUV involved in the accident was nowhere to be found. Félix heard it had been dragged over to Sosnavar but he doesn't know where. There are conflicting stories regarding why the father of the victim was in such a hurry to get rid of the pickup. One story is that he didn't want to pay for the police to have it towed away and stored as evidence; another is that the victim was carrying a gun. Neither the driver's wallet nor the gun have been found.

Whatever the reason, Félix says, the police have lamely washed their hands in the case. With the crashed up vehicle missing and the accident scene trampled, they've argued, there's nothing to investigate, though they have fined some of the suspects in the disappearance of the SUV.

As in most accidents on the road to Jalpa, a drunk driver, usually a young man, was the protagonist in this case. The other common link is the absence around here of even any routine police presence whatsoever, never mind check points for breathalyzer tests or any other effort to combat an obvious public safety problem.

Two kilometers away, on a particularly sharp turn on the Jalpa road, at least ten people have died when they missed the turn and their trucks, usually carrying passengers on the bed, turned over. When the road was repaved two years ago, the state government installed a half-dozen warning signs on each side of the dangerous turn, but alas, local entrepreneurs ripped off the signs and traded them for cash at the recycling center. The signs have never been replaced.

Five kilometers in the other direction, a young man who had recently returned from the U.S. and was carrying five thousand dollars in his wallet was killed in another truck accident following a soccer game. First responders helpfully took the guy's money before calling for an ambulance.

Post-game brawls at soccer matches, when most everyone is good and plastered, have led to at least one fatal shooting.

For my money though, the most horrific accident took place three years ago a kilometer from our ranch, when a young boy riding home at night was hit by a drunk driver; both the boy and the horse were killed. The ambulance came and removed the boy, but the city's Ecology Department never came to pick up the horse carcass even after repeated requests. So the horse lay there for about a month while feral dogs and vultures feasted on the remains.

Félix left work early this afternoon to attend the funeral mass and burial of the latest victim of our killer road. The dead guy was somehow distantly related to Félix, as it's usually the case in Sosnavar, a town of about a thousand people, most of them apparently related to one another. At two o'clock the afternoon silence was punctured by six or eight lonely fireworks marking the end of the mass.

Félix came back at around four-thirty, almost speechless, to return our truck and report that most of the victim's family and friends had shown up drunk at the church and then at the cemetery, and that for some reason the family had decided on an open casket service for what was left of the young man.

I was planning to attend Sosnavar's fiesta this weekend, still scheduled to go despite the tragedy, to hang around and take some photos. I think I'll skip it.