Monday, July 31, 2017

Elon Musk's Tesla pulls into San Miguel

Electric vehicles are headed for San Miguel.
That surprised the hell out of me.

Sometime last week, with as little fanfare as organ cacti popping up in the countryside, six shiny Tesla electric car chargers appeared in the parking lot of the Luciérnaga shopping center in San Miguel, by the Office Depot store.

We of course had heard of billionaire Elon Musk, and his rockets and electric cars, but we never expected to see any of his creations in Mexico, much less in San Miguel, in our lifetimes.

Oh we of little faith.

Be still my heart, and my checking account too. 


(Amid all the Trump-inspired palpitations and wing-flapping over immigration, I can't resist mentioning that Musk is one 12 billionaires who came to the U.S. as immigrants. He came from South Africa. Others on this list are Russian Sergey Brin (Google); French-Iranian Pierre Omidyar (eBay); Israeli Isaac Perlmutter (Marvel Entertainment); and Hungarian-born financier George Soros. I could have made the list (Cuba) if I had only paid more attention in school.)

Stew and I saw a Tesla at a showroom in Amsterdam two years ago, though before that we already had noticed the growing presence of electric car charging posts in other large European cities.

Sitting under banks of halogen lights, that Tesla baby was a vision. It had a mirror-like paint we had never seen on any other car. That and its futuristic lines made the vehicle look as if it were gravitating six inches above the showroom floor. Otherworldly.

Still, when we saw the Tesla charging stations in San Miguel our reaction was eye-rolling mixed with snarkiness.

Plug me in Scottie.  
After a bit of research, though, the vision of Teslas in San Miguel doesn't appear that far-fetched.

Tesla already has a dealership in Mexico City, in the hyper-posh neighborhood of Polanco, on Calle Presidente Masaryk, Mexico's equivalent of Rodeo Drive. Whether it's a Tesla, a Brooks Brothers shirt or a Cartier diamond, it's no problema in Polanco.

In fact, when the dealership opened last year, it quickly received deposits for fifty units.

As for some logistics: The long-range Tesla now on sale ($44,000) can go 310 miles between charges.

San Miguel is 170 miles from Mexico City, so even if you run into traffic or a dead burro blocking the road, you should be able to make to the Best City in the World with no problema at all.

One missing detail: How do you pay for
the electricity? I assume by credit card. 
Conveniently, the highway from Querétaro/Mexico City feeds right into the Luciérnaga shopping center. You can pull in, adjust your Ray-Ban mirrored sunglasses, fiddle with your rakish Hermès ascot, wave condescendingly at the less fortunate souls ogling your car—and plug her in.

Assuming the posts at Luciénaga are superchargers, the batteries on your Tesla should be charged in about a half-hour (for 170 miles), long enough to stretch your legs and have some churros or empanadas at Chocolates & Churros, owned by former soap opera actress Margarita Gralia and located next to the Cinemex theater.

You can also plug in your Tesla to a conventional outlet, in which case a full charge will take overnight.

However, this being Mexico—where aspirations sometimes run ahead of reality—you must make allowances for the superchargers at Luciérnaga being out of order, or if you arrive in the middle of thunderstorm, the electricity being out altogether.

Still. Gimme one.

###

Friday, July 28, 2017

Waking up to Donald Trump

These days perusing the headlines first thing in the morning often is like taking that first sip of coffee and discovering someone has laced it with Tabasco sauce. You gag. You spit. You say "What the hell?" or worse.

Wednesday and Thursday were Tabasco days. Via one of his early morning tweets, which have come to resemble lightning bolts from a demented Zeus, Trump banned transgendered people from serving in the military. In a separate action later, the Justice Department intervened in a discrimination suit filed by a gay employee and took the side of the employer.

The transgender ban shocked most everyone, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and gay activists but most of all the military. No one had lobbied for the ban—certainly not the Pentagon—and there are no studies or reports to justify the action.

Trump said he had "consulted with my generals and military experts" but none could be identified by the White House or the media. Another day, another lie by our president.

Trump's tweet stated that "our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."

"You're fired!"
Except there is no evidence anywhere. nor complaints by anyone, that the estimated six thousand transgender military personnel—out of some 1.3 million people in uniform—had disrupted any of the country's security objectives.

As for the costs, someone already figured that the military already spends more on Viagra than on any transgender-related medical interventions, which amount to a gnat on the butt of the mammoth Pentagon budget.

Any more, I've developed a knack for defensive newsreading which guides my thumb and eyes to slide down my tablet, past the headlines about the cyclonic lunacy that grips Washington, and on to calmer waters such as book and movie reviews, travel stories, even the business page and daily recipes.

But the news about the transgender decision was a thumb-stopper. I first felt anger at the gratuitousness of Trump's decision—an arbitrary edict based on no facts and purporting to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

Politically it didn't win Trump many friends even among Republicans. There wasn't any cheering sweeping the country.

And pity those long-suffering gay people in the Republican Party, some of whom even support Trump, and who now find their efforts to fit in more daunting than ever.

The only logic may be that Trump once again, and not unlike authoritarian rulers, tried to distract public opinion from his crisis-prone administration's other problems, by creating a phony issue. Fake news indeed.

All that aside, what I felt most was sadness for the transgendered people in uniform who have served loyally and now face possible expulsion from the military or a tortured coexistence within it as second-class soldiers. They deserve better than this.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Victory! Vinyl LPs live!

Comments on my blog yesterday, about whether I should keep my collection of vinyl LPs, leaned in favor of keeping it with an outlier voice from Pátzcuaro grumbling that I should toss it.
Stew and three of our highly-trained dogs
looking under the stereo cabinet to
assess the nature of the problem. 

Vox populi won and Stew and I today spent the better part of three hours digging through a nest of wires in the stereo cabinet, dusting, checking, rechecking—even reading instruction manuals—trying to figure out what went where.

Before lunch we had all the wires reconnected and the components working—the bulky Harmon-Kardon amplifier, the Nakamichi CD player, even the four cheapo outdoor Radio Shack speakers.

Everything whistled along except the fancy-schmanzy turntable, which generated a bad hum plus a terrible scratching sound whenever the needle landed on the record.

We were ready to order a replacement needle-cartridge assembly, which on Amazon sells for $80 and is described as sort of a relic you ought to be grateful to find, even though the turntable is only about ten years old. That's how fast sound reproduction technology has evolved.

"Ground control, the stereo situation looks hopeless."
 I also thought of taking the turntable to a stereo repair shop in Querétaro, the most advanced city near us short of Mexico City. But I feared I would only find a tattooed nineteen year old with numerous body piercings who would politely look at me and ask, "What does this thing do?"

Except that in my experience, whether it's cars, motorcycles or refrigerators, Mexicans have a preternatural knack for fixing things even when they have no idea what they're doing, which is often.

But just when I was ready to give up, Stew came into the office and yelled: "I fixed it!!"

The answer appeared at the top of page five of the turntable manual, which indicated that under the rubber mat on which you place the records you would find a switch for "phono out" and "line out". Flipping it to "phono out" solved the problem and everything now is working for the first time in years. (Picture below)

We are not sure what the magic switch does or how it got switched to the wrong setting.

While going through the records I found some real oldies I'd forgotten. One in particular I might mail to Felipe Zapata to help him break through gloomy fog that sometimes envelops Pátzcuaro.

It's a 1965 recording of Joan Baez singing anti-Vietnam War songs.

Does anyone have his address?

###

The turntable, up and running. 




Monday, July 24, 2017

Is it time to toss my vinyl LP recordings?

I don't need my old LPs but
somehow I can't let them go.
In the beginning there was the vinyl LP recording, and the LP became high-fidelity, stereophonic, quadraphonic, "360 Stereo" and more, with a detour for tape cassettes, compact discs and most recently MP3 files. Except for cassette tapes, I still have most of these media and equipment to play it, except I hardly ever use it.

Growing up my dad had a custom-built stereo system—an unheard-of extravagance for a lower middle-class family—that looked like a sarcophagus with four legs. It had a huge speaker and two smaller ones hidden behind a cloth screen, a turntable, an amplifier and about two linear feet of storage space for his treasured LPs, almost all of them classical music.

He even owned, but seldom played, a handful of 78 rpm records, scratchy and brittle in brown-paper envelopes and dating back to the Stone Age of music recording.

When he found a new recording, a special occasion in our backwater hometown, or received one he had ordered from Havana, our family of three would gather solemnly in front of the record player as if we were about to participate in a seance.

Any takers? Or should I keep them?
Officially only my dad was allowed to use the record player, which he did after the requisite ritual spritzing of the LPs with some liquid cleanser and polishing with a small felt cloth.

But when he was at work I would sneak in a few raucous, full-blast concerts of my own. He pretended not to notice. I think he was glad I shared his taste for long-hair music.

My dad died almost ten years ago, shortly after our move to San Miguel.

When the Fidel took power in Cuba and the island's middle and upper classes stampeded toward Miami like a herd of frightened buffaloes, families were supposed to turn over their houses and everything in them, except personal belongings that could be squeezed into a duffel travel bag.

If we were going to abandon our country, Fidel said, we'd have to abandon everything in it.

Families sold or gave away all they could during hushed, nighttime transactions. Weeks before the departure date homes became strangely denuded, except for a chipped serving plate on the dining room table or a lone picture hanging on a wall where faded squares clearly betrayed the presence once of a gallery of family photos.

Meanwhile, the houses of trusted neighbors and friends turned into souks crammed with two or three sets of china, mismatched furniture, dozens of throw pillows, multiple saucepans.

My mother, with her more bourgeois preoccupations, fussed over every piece of decor no matter how tacky. It was hers and she was not going to let some goddamn communist have it.

But what hurt my dad the most, a stab at his heart, was the loss of his record player and the modest collection of records he had so painstakingly amassed over the years and now was disappearing, one by one. A treasured recording by Arthur Rubinstein, one my dad had played over and over, his fingers sometimes fluttering over an imaginary keyboard, now gone, along with all the other LPs.

He never said who was getting them or the massive record player that one night vanished too. There was nothing left and he was clearly devastated by the loss. He never tried to rebuild his record collection after he came to the U.S. I don't recall that he ever owned a decent-quality stereo again.

That would become my unwitting responsibility. In college I began to buy and upgrade stereo equipment regularly and collect LPs, along with some music tapes, a hobby that frequently exceeded my meager budget. Those records travelled with me to graduate school and then to Chicago where Stew and I settled in 1972, and to San Miguel where they reside in a custom-made entertainment center.

Several years after college compact disks appeared, and so I started collecting them, followed eight or nine years ago with an iTunes library of MP3 recordings playable in iPods, all neatly stored, I hope, in my own tiny sliver of the "Cloud" somewhere over California or Oregon.

Except that with most technology, including recording and recording media, additions and improvements almost immediately become redundancies.

The CDs and the CD player made LPs and my turntable obsolete. Now my iPod, loaded with nearly four thousand "songs," is about to be nudged aside by the smartphone that can hold my music plus appointments, telephone numbers, weather reports, grocery lists and seemingly all the mundane data of my life.

My new friend, the tiny Bluetooth speaker.
When we built this house we wired it for speakers which are now superfluous with the arrival of a baby bright-red Bluetooth speaker that can turn into a speakerphone, or stream, via the Kindle Fire tablets or the smartphone, music from distant radio stations. So we have four unused outside speakers, plus a fairly expensive pair of indoor speakers that gets dusted but never used.

I have contemplated getting rid of the LPs at least, possibly also the CDs. Among the LPs would be the Beatles' Abbey Road album, in mint condition, which some of my friends in college played backward, for hints to the supposed disappearance of Paul McCartney. (You would have had to be there—and quite stoned—to understand what that was all about.) Also, Ravi Shankar, two Santana recordings, plus the box set of Georg Solti's recording of Beethoven's nine symphonies.

Probably a couple of hundred LPs, all in perfect shape because just like my dad, I always spritzed and wiped them before playing.

Somehow, however, emotion trumps practicality on this decision: No, I really don't need all those LPs but tossing them would somehow violate the memory of my dad, who's probably whistling some classical tune somewhere.

A better though not simpler solution would be to untangle the wires now choking the hardly used amplifier, CD player, DVD player and speaker routing box—a maddening task—dust off the turntable and let Paul, Ravi, Carlos and Georg stop by for an encore performance.

###

Saturday, July 22, 2017

By the dawn's early light

It pays to get up early
to catch an unexpected show

A day's first and final hours of sunlight, the "magic hours," are supposed to be the best time to take pictures. It's true. 

At around seven-thirty this morning I went out with my camera, followed by our dogs, to take pictures of the ranch. 

At that time sunlight comes in timidly, at a lower angle. Later it will beat directly from above and flatten everything, making you squint.   

Early on, dew makes the foliage sparkle and a passing puff of fog might add a bit of mystery. 

Birds are beginning to stir amid the early-morning stillness and fresh smells come from the wet grass crunching under your feet. 

Dogs have no time for contemplation. Their hyper noses glued to the ground, they do figure-eights as if this were their first time outside and everything was new. 

Even without a camera, you're in for quite a show. 























--The End--

Friday, July 21, 2017

Of matzo balls and arroz con pollo

How the dots of Cuban Jewish history
finally came together for me in San Miguel
In 1998, more than thirty-six years after leaving Cuba, the newspaper I worked for sent me to cover the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to the island. It would be a trip filled with revelations, a return to a place that to me looked and felt cozily familiar but also alien, even scary. I recognized the stately palm trees of my childhood but found them battered by almost forty years of Communist ideology and privation.

The first revelation was reconnecting with relatives with whom I'd lost touch, or others I didn't know even existed such as the Afro-Cuban branch of my family tree. The details of how the Laniers became a biracial corporation didn't come clear until a few years ago while talking with white relatives in Miami. But that's another story. 
The second revelation came from another Cuban I'd communicated with before my trip and whose last name was Levy (or Levi), which to my ears sounded more Jewish than Cuban. 


Chevet Ahim is the oldest synagogue in Cuba, founded in 1914
He told me there had been a small Jewish community and even a synagogue near the main square in Santa Clara, my somnolent hometown deep inside the island. Unfortunately, after returning to Chicago I lost track of Levy and his story. 
Growing up in New York I had many Jewish friends—including Al Linsky, an unforgettably kind gentleman who sponsored my parents so they could come from Spain to the U.S.—but it had never occurred to me there would have been a Jewish community in Cuba.

Two weeks ago, and almost twenty years later after meeting Levy, I met Ruth Behar, a Jewish Cuban-American anthropologist visiting San Miguel who during a lecture at the Jewish Cultural and Community Center filled in the missing details about the long presence of Jews in Cuba that indeed dates back to Columbus' arrival.

The only hint about the presence of Jews in Santa Clara, which I didn't grasp as a child, was hearing my dad, who owned a printing shop and stationery store, occasionally mention polacos, with whom he had some business dealings.

Congregation Beth Shalom in Havana founded in 1953.
The polacos, Spanish for Polish, provided me with the missing link—the Jews Levy had talked about and Behar mentions in her book "An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba." The polacos were Santa Clara's Jews.

The first Jew to set foot in Cuba may have been Luis de Torres, a translator Columbus brought along who knew four languages, none of them of any use in communicating with the indigenous Cubans.

Or was it Columbus himself, as some researchers claim? It's not far-fetched: The year of Columbus' departure from Spain coincided with the reconquest of Spain by the Roman Catholic crown and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Catholicism. So, many Jews converted or pretended to and emigrated from Spain.
The original trickle of Jewish migration to Cuba gradually increased and diversified. Turkish Jews fled the tottering Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, and were later joined by European Jews fleeing persecution, many from Poland—including, I'm sure, some of the polacos in Santa Clara. Many European Jews moved to Cuba as a second-best option because restrictive immigration laws would not allow them to come to the U.S.

Behar estimates that at its height, the Jewish community in Cuban numbered around fifteen thousand.

Though most of the Jews settled in Havana, a substantial number went on to other places in Cuba, including Santa Clara, where a synagogue was established in 1929 in the city center, not far from my dad's business. 

In one of the moving sections of her book, Behar profiles one David Tacher Romano, for whom restoring Jewish presence in Santa Clara has become a mission. She calls him the Moses of Santa Clara. 

He has restored Santa Clara's Jewish cemetery, which I'd never heard of, and with the help of a Jewish Cuban-American woman living in Atlanta, even built a Holocaust memorial containing stones brought from the Warsaw ghetto. Tacher also planted a pine tree using sand he brought from the Negev along with water from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. 

Tacher's story, as told by Behar, connected the dots, sketchy in my mind, of the story of the polacos in Santa Clara.
David Tacher Romano, a Jew who led the reconstruction of the Jewish cemetery in
Santa Clara, and the installation of a Holocaust Memorial, the only one in Cuba. 
Behar and her family departed as part of the first Cuban exodus during the 1960s and she didn't return until 1979. Her visits since then have become almost compulsive as she has sought to trace the Jewish story in Cuba through the triple perspective of an anthropologist, a Cuban and a Jew.

In fact, listening to her emotive presentation rekindled my interest in revisiting Cuba for a third time, a project I keep putting off even though Stew is ready to return at a moment's notice. The eastern- and western-most provinces which I've never visited would be on the itinerary, as well as the beautiful port city of Cienfuegos where I still have some maternal relatives, and now Santa Clara's Jewish cemetery and Holocaust memorial.

Several years ago I ran across news that the Spanish government had released a list of purportedly Jewish last names helpfully compiled by the Spanish Inquisition. "Quinonez" was on the list, which would be a close-enough spelling of my maternal last name "Quiñones".

I emailed my cousin in Cienfuegos, whose name is also Alfredo, to ask if he knew of any Jewish roots or connections in our family or Jewish presence in that city. He'd never heard of any.

###

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Little League graduation


Think herding cats is difficult?
Try kids doing a graduation waltz

Last Saturday Félix' five-year-old Edgar graduated from kindergarten and there was a celebration so incongruously elaborate—and irresistibly cute—you'd have to be dead not to smile. 

About forty kids graduated, a third more boys than girls for some reason, and the dress code was equally formal but hardly equal. The girls wore green tight-fitting, custom-made dresses, with frills, ruffles and endless embellishments, topped with cascades of curls and a usually a tiara. 

The boys arrived in "one-size-fits-no-one" baggy gray suits with clip-on ties that quickly became undone. 

Even at this early age it was fun to notice the difference between the girls—tallish, flirty, self-confident and even a little bit vain—versus the boys—clutzy, self-conscious and generally clueless.  

The ceremony began with an honor guard that escorted the flag around the covered school yard, and then led everyone in the singing of the Mexican national anthem, a rousing piece of music a little reminiscent of Le Marseillaise. 

After that, I can't remember in which order, there was a waltz-like dance, with some girls assigned two boys, plus other bits of choreography that fell apart at the hands of the young kids charged with executing it. Here are some pictures of the event:

The ceremony began with an honor guard duly stamping their feet. 

She may become a soap opera actress. He, hmm, maybe a politician.

Decked out in earrings, necklace and a tiara, she was ready
for the show. He wasn't sure.

Edgar's "date" was taller than him and not at all camera-shy.

Edgar (c.) marching around with his classmates.

One of many mini beauty queens.

Edgar in his regulation ill-fitting gray suit.

Not sure, but Edgar didn't seem very
impressed with his diploma.

The grand finale included an elaborate dance that
could have used just a bit more rehearsal time. 



Monday, July 17, 2017

Bad news rains on San Miguel

What to do when nasty rumors
suddenly come true? 

Recently I've received news of outbreaks of San Miguelophobia, particularly in the picturesque mountain town of Pátzcuaro, where the sun goes up and down every day, and in the heavily air-conditioned Pacific Coast resort of Barra de Navidad, where in August even iguanas wear sun protection. There might even be a case of it in Redmond, Calif., wherever that is.

Those afflicted keep knocking San Miguel for being a formerly beautiful colonial town now overrun with tchotchke stores catering to obnoxious American tourists. There is no basis for those stereotypes.

Alright, maybe some. Several years ago I attended San Miguel's solemn Good Friday procession, with its long lines of veiled women dressed in black, clutching rosaries and crucifixes and whispering prayers.

Then I noticed that an amply proportioned, middle-aged woman, wearing hot pants, a too-skimpy Texas A&M sweatshirt and a cowboy hat—all in shades of pink—had climbed on a lamppost to get a better view of this most sacred spectacle.

I cringed and for a second wished that a bolt of lightning from an angry God would hit the lamppost the woman was perched on—or at least that I'd been wearing an "I'm Canadian" t-shirt.
And now the flood of American tourists, which had ebbed following the 2008 financial crash in the U.S. and reports of rising drug cartel violence in Mexico, may resume following a bizarre report in Travel and Leisure magazine that its readers had designated San Miguel de Allende as "Best City in the World." In the whole, wide world. On the entire earth. En todo el mundo. 

“San Miguel is one of the most authentic, creative and cost-effective destinations we’ve visited,” says a T+L reader of the colonial city, a part of which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Over the years we’ve discovered more great restaurants and activities, but the town still maintains its Mexican heritage, culture and charm.”

Move over Florence, San Miguel is Number One. 
Who is this reader? Is (s)he afflicted with some cognitive disorder? Does (s)he ever get out of the house? Perhaps a mezcal overdose during the visit to San Miguel?

Yes, San Miguel is very nice but how does it come ahead of fourteen other destinations on the list, such as Florence, Barcelona, Rome, Cape Town or even Oaxaca? 

The article in T+L mentions that San Miguel is cost-effective, which I guess is true compared to Italy or Spain. Or that it has some nice restaurants and hotels, also true—but compared to Rome or even Oaxaca, famed for its cuisine? 

What I fear now is a double-whammy: Hordes of T&L readers coming to town in addition to the swarms of Mexico City chilangos, most of them hiding behind Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and driving Porsche Cayennes, BMWs, Range Rovers and even an occasional Lamborghini, that already choke San Miguel on weekends  

The badmouthing by those San Miguelophobes might come true.

Dear reader, pray for us.

###

Sunday, July 16, 2017

From sere to jungly in two weeks

It's time to plant now that 
the rains have finally arrived 

As Saturday Night Live's premier journalist Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, "It just goes to show you, if it's not one thing it's another." 

A month ago the ranch was tumbleweed-dry, the levels of the rainwater in the cisterns had dropped down to eighteen inches and brush fires rolled across the weedy fields, uncontrolled. Nearby a brush fire reportedly consumed most of eighteen square kilometers and fried nearly all the vegetation at a friend's ranch. 


A patch of Aeoniums amid Agave tequilana ("Tequila agaves")
Meanwhile, farmers fooled by last year's early rains had plowed and planted their fields in late May and now muttered about a looming drought. 

Then two weeks or so ago it started raining, seemingly non-stop. In reality our rains have a perfect sense of timing, starting around six or seven in the afternoon and through the night, but allowing several hours of sun in the morning and early afternoon to charge our solar batteries. 

Still, the sudden deluge is a challenge for the dry-weather or xeric garden I'm trying to create. Two or three weeks ago the ground was cracking and almost impenetrable, even with a pick, and now we have small lagoons, small streams zigzagging toward the low spots and soil turning into something with the consistency and stickiness of chewing gum.

A drop of rain looks like a diamond at
the center of an Echeveria plant.
Anyway, it's time to launch my landscaping plans, which I'd been noodling in my head for weeks. 

First task was weeding and chopping down dead plants, no small a task that required the temporary hiring of Félix's young brother Esteban. Many of the cacti, particularly the old prickly pears, had rotted leaves and branches, and even the agave's lower leaves needed to be pruned off.

But there is only so much clearing we can do without hiring a backhoe. Some weeds and bushes, such as mezquites, huizaches, gatillos and a weed Félix calls "sandredago", are thorny, desert-tough customers with roots a meter or more deep. They are nearly impossible to dig up so we let them stay and work around them.

Some succulents we're trying to propagate in our small greenhouse.
Then comes the even harder part: What do we plant in the blank spots left by the clearing?

Landscaping design I would argue is as difficult as high cuisine. Good chefs have a vast repertoire of spices, ingredients and condiments in their heads, in addition to techniques and experience they can summon to create a great dish.

The same with a good landscaper's knowledge of different plants and where they grow and how they'll look when grown.

As an amateur gardener, my plant palette is very limited. I rely on about a dozen books and magazines  I've collected on succulents, cacti and desert gardening. The latest addition is The Bold Dry Gardening, which I bought while visiting Santa Fe's Botanical Garden.

A garden we began last year. The prickly pear in
the foreground are Indian Ficus that we
found by the side of a local road. 
Then I shamelessly borrow, plagiarize or steal any ideas that catch my eye—hey, why would they put so many photos in gardening books if they didn't want you to steal the ideas?

We also make adaptations for the soil and climate in our ranch, and the limitations of nurseries in San Miguel which don't seem to stray too far from the same-old combos of geraniums, English lavender and daisies, year after year.

One exception is a nursery run by Louis Franke, an American who introduces new plants every year. For the past few years he's been introducing new varieties of ornamental grasses that remain unknown to other local nurserymen. This year he is selling a bright-red grass which might be a Japanese Blood Grass, though I'm not sure and neither was the young guy who waited on me.

I've also spotted a couple of good no-name nurseries I know only by their location near a landmark. One is located near La Luciérnaga shopping center and is the most disorganized, jungle-like operation imaginable, spread over a couple a acres. Yet if you explore you can find clusters of succulents waiting for adoption.

The tall grasses are Mexican Feather Grass, one of my favorites. In
the foreground is a rampant, low-growing plant with
yellow flowers called Bulbimia. It'll take over the garden if you let it. 
Another nursery is near a place where we pick up our mail and is also run by woman who keeps bringing up new varieties (new to me at least) of succulents available nowhere else, the names of which she doesn't know.

Indeed finding the name of the plants can be a challenge. In San Miguel there is no neat labeling or pricing of potted plants like you find in the U.S., so nursery people often just make up names ("Shrek's Ears Cactus")—and prices—and I negotiate a small discount at the end, though in truth plant material in Mexico is dirt-cheap.

Sometimes I find plant names in one of my books, other times I go with made-up names such as "fox tail grass," a short ornamental with beautiful white plumes. There is no such variety in my books, so Félix and I have settled on "the grass with the white plumes."

So it goes with dozens of other succulents and other plants in our gardens. Besides, to remember all the different varieties of euphorbias and opuntias would be as taxing on my old brain as learning all the different kinds of sparrows.

The most inexpensive source of plants, particularly cacti, certainly has to be a nursery we could call "The Here and There." Last year Félix spotted a different-looking type of prickly pear cactus that had been nearly flattened by a car at a nearby road. We picked up and planted some of the pieces and now we have a thriving patch of Opuntia ficus indica, a type of thornless prickly pear with smooth, shiny leaves.

So between the pictures in the books and magazines, our own ideas and recollections—and a trial-and-error system of placing potted plants next to each other to see what they look like—Félix and I gradually fill in the garden areas, which we have delineated with rocks.

Rocks of all sizes and shapes are the most plentiful natural materials in our ranch, sometimes, it seems, more so than even topsoil.

We planted some gardens last year that have come up nicely. One however, where I pretended to create a rose garden, is not working out at all. A year ago I ran into a nursery having a sale on rose bushes (a dollar a plant, how cheap is that?) and bought about ten, which now are not looking very enthusiastic about life.

The bedraggled rose garden reminds me of a line in the Woody Allen movie "Midnight in Paris," when one of the characters advises her daughter, "cheap is cheap, you get what you pay for."

So true of my would-be rose garden. I might have to break down and buy better specimens.

Next post: Preparing the soil, selecting and placing the plants.