Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Rain, roaring creeks and wildflowers

After four or five days of one- to one-and-half-inch rains the ranch is swamped and glorious.

The same over-grazed, almost scalped land we found ten years ago now is covered with wildflowers. Amid the stolid agaves, which not even a hurricane could budge, the delicate wildflowers constantly dance and sway to their own music at the slightest breeze. Several varieties of ornamental grasses, some four feet tall and most of whose names I don't know, join the garden party too.

Downhill from our house the normally dry arroyo has become noisy and unruly. We can see the nearly torrential flow though all we hear is the soothing whoosh of the water, last thing when we go to sleep at night and the first when we wake up in the morning.


Are birds color blind or picky critters?

Birds may have small brains, but they have it 
all over people when it comes to colors.
     While engaging in one of those mindless and expensive habits that keeps the U.S. economy going—wandering around a Lowe's home improvement center looking for nothing in particular—I ran into a bright-blue metal bird feeder to replace the old and battered plastic model that has been hanging from the tree outside our bedroom window for years and lately held together with piano wire.

There was nothing functionally wrong with the old feeder, except that as I walked by the shiny new model sitting on a shelf at Lowe's it irresistibly whispered to me, "Psst, take me home!". And so I did to the tune of twelve dollars.

"Here, birdie, birdie."
     Contrary to what Félix thinks, I don't feed wild birds to keep them from starving. I know there's plenty of flowers and other food out there right now.

It's just that I enjoy seeing them flutter about and splash in the birdbath first thing in the morning, a cheerful show sometimes supplemented by rabbits and rats scurrying underneath.

When Félix noted that birds would not like the color of the new feeder I told him in an authoritative tone of voice not to worry, that birds were color blind, like most other animals like dogs.

Then the birds snubbed my shiny new feeder. Only after we put a plastic saucer underneath and filled it with seeds did they hesitantly start to check it out.

"You ungrateful bird-brains," I thought. "I bring you a new feeder and you turn up your beaks at it!"

     But this morning i found out—in Google, the source of all wisdom—that in fact not only can birds see colors but many species have more color-detecting cells in their retinas than humans.

Dogs can see colors too, but in a more limited range than people, though canine sniffers are unbelievably sensitive.

I finally retired the old plastic feeder and now birds are using the blue model, but grudgingly.

Indeed, I was walking by yesterday and heard a couple of sparrows snobbishly chirping to each other: "What's wrong with humans? Are they color blind or what?"


Monday, September 25, 2017

Taking the road not usually taken

Los Rodríguez is one butt-ugly town, particularly if you don't like topes, or speed bumps, and more particularly if you've been driving for hours and this miserable place is all that stands between you and your warm bed at home.

I have no idea how the town came to be. Apparently one day the Rodríguez clan claimed it as their slice of paradise—sort of like The Smiths—settled here and dispensed with such civilized frills as a town square or a clump of trees.

And now we have Los Rodríguez, straddling a road with wide dirt shoulders that trap swirling trash during the dry season and rivers of mud after a downpour. Plus thirteen unmarked topes—count 'em—over a stretch of just one or two kilometers. Kata-plunk, kata-plunk, kata-plunk. 

One might surmise that the founding fathers and mothers installed the topes so that motorists would slow down and partake of the charms and retail opportunities of the place, except the locals seem to take exception to strangers, especially gringo-looking ones, who are greeted with what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here glares.

Félix adds that any pop-pop's you may hear on the last night of Los Rodríguez's annual fiesta are just as likely to be the sounds of cheap fireworks as angry drunks shooting each other.

Take my advice: If you want to visit San Miguel and are driving in from the north, avoid this place.

The proper way to come home after a long trip.
 That's what Stew and I tried to do last week returning from San Antonio although we didn't know where we going. It was a splendid move, a gorgeous winding-down after a long trip.

Skies were clear blue and the temperatures had dropped from the 100s we encountered in northern Mexico to a breezy and dry low 80s. And suddenly we were surrounded by mountains and kelly-green farm acreage, plus open land that at this time of the year is covered with millions of wild lavender cosmos and yellow daisies, popping out of the ground in unison after the rainy season.

If New England has its turning leaves of autumn, in Mexico we have the equally stunning fall riot of wild flowers.

We had been told one way to avoid Los Rodríguez was to approach San Miguel through the historic town of Dolores Hidalgo. Unfortunately, the navigation systems in the car and the phone decided to play dueling banjos and give conflicting directions. Finally, Melinda, the disembodied but authoritative voice of Google Maps in our phone told us to take Hwy. 37 to avoid some congestion or construction up ahead.

Why not, even though the location of Dolores remained elusive. Neither GPS would accept just "Dolores Hidalgo". They wanted a specific address or establishment.

So I entered "Carnitas Vicente," a restaurant in Dolores known for its carnitas, and Melinda took us to its front door. Another stroke of luck.

The remains of a very nice day. 
Carnitas are shredded pork that you season to your taste by adding any one from a selection of salsas, ranging from innocuous to five-alarmers. Then the whole drippy affair is wrapped in warm tortillas. We quickly dispatched half a kilo and ordered another kilo to take with for Félix, his wife Ysela and their three hungry munchkins.

We also ordered a side of guacamole which was one of the best we've ever eaten. Rather than the usual insipid green glob of something, this one was freshly made and had a potent but pleasant spicy afterburn that shut you up in mid sentence and made you reach for the lemonade.

The waitress, Mary (máh-ree) recognized us from previous visits. A pretty thirty-something woman with a shy but flirty demeanor, greeted us with her beautiful smile which for some reason she is trying to enhance with upper and lower braces. Why did you do that, Mary?

Dolores is Mexico's "Cradle of Independence" and the town was decorated curb to curb with flags and other patriotic paraphernalia, commemorating September, Mexico's independence month. Even so, the town lacks the colonial charm of Pátzcuaro, San Miguel or San Cristóbal in Chiapas, perhaps because it has been overrun with stores selling its famous pottery.

Still, the town is a fun place, buzzing with traffic, friendly people walking and chatting. Vicente's two-story restaurant is open to the street and shares its noise and buzz.

During our comida, a white Hummer stopped briefly and disgorged a small gaggle of giggly girls wearing jeans so tight they looked sprayed-on.

Were they Vicente's daughters? Could well be. He has one or two restaurants in town in addition to the main one where we ate, so he could well afford the wheels. Indeed, carnitas have been very good to him, though I can't say the same for the pigs within a square mile of Dolores.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ross Perot's approach is what we need to break the muddle over health care reform

Won't someone please inject some
facts and figures into the health care debate? 

The more the debate trudges on in Washington over health care reform, also known as the campaign to repeal Obamacare, the less I understand even the basic contours of the ruckus. 

So confused am I that I woke up this morning thinking about Ross Perot, the short and very wealthy Texan with a squeaky voice who ran for president in 1992 on the promise of bringing businesslike rigor to the perennially chaotic federal government. The "Straight Talk Express" Perot called his campaign and John McCain borrowed the phrase in his 2000 presidential run.

Perot went on television, on his own dime if I recall correctly, armed with colorful bar graphs, pie charts and other teaching aids, plus a short pointing stick, to buttress his arguments. 

Now, lookee here people.  
Perhaps at this baffling juncture in the health care debate we need Perot's didactic style of politics to bring together both parties and have them explain to the American people just what the heck is going on. Three years after his failed campaign Perot even wrote a little-noticed book on health care reform.  Maybe there's something in it we should reprise.  

These televised teach-ins could be conducted by Rep. Paul Ryan, or perhaps Sen. Rand Paul—both devout followers of Ayn Rand's catechism of minimalist government—or some other prominent Republican leader, and televised nationwide to probably a limited but curious and motivated segment of the American public. 

President Trump definitely would not be qualified—even Republicans would admit as much—because other than continually calling Obamacare a "dee-saster," he doesn't seem to have a clue about what's specifically wrong with the program or how to fix it. You're fired. 

Democrats would be expected to put on their own health care reform show too, presenters yet to be determined.   

My assumptions are that there is something seriously flawed with the U.S. medical system that cries for urgent attention: It's monstrously expensive, more so than comparably developed countries. Worse still, it leaves out millions of Americans (twenty, twenty-five million?) with no access to basic health care. Lots of money for not-so-great results. 

Sorry, Fox News, shunting sick but uninsured people to the nearest emergency room is not anyone's idea of cost-effective or rational health care. 

The cynic in me must confess that I, soon to be seventy years old, don't have a dog directly in this race. Basic Medicare, plus some add-ons, pretty much covers my health care expenses, and Stew and I have enough resources to cover other costs here in Mexico or back in the U.S.

Yet I cannot write off the plight of millions of mom-and-pop-and-three-kids American families squeaking by on minimum wage or thereabouts, and trying to find health insurance that won't kill them with high premiums or deductibles, or critical exclusions in coverage. That doesn't seem fair. 

So here is what I would like to know:

1. What exactly is wrong with Obamacare? Republicans talk about it as if it were some dreaded fungus about to eat America's brain. Obama being a Democrat and black, and an all-purpose voodoo doll for Republicans, hasn't made an objective debate any easier. 

Still, I don't honestly understand what's wrong, perhaps because I've never fully understood how it works. 

Obamacare's elimination of pre-existing conditions clauses sounds like a good idea, though I can appreciate how it exposes insurers to more risk and potential expenses. But that's what insurance pools and actuarial tables are for, no?

In fact, when we retired but were not old enough to qualify for Medicare, Stew and I took a stab at buying individual policies in the much-vaunted "free market" and what we found were not only sky-high premiums but explicit exclusions of anything that might actually afflict us. 

I had a retina operation: So insurance policies wouldn't cover anything related to my eyes. And so on to the point the policies didn't seem to cover much of anything other than getting run over by an eighteen-wheeler.

Obamacare is expensive alright, and someone has to pay for it. Obama tried to cover the cost by taxing the very rich and requiring individuals to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Taxes of any kind, particularly on the wealthy, are a mortal sin for Republicans, but what else is there? I'm listening. 

Time for Ryan, McConnell or Rand to have their Ross Perot moment and pull out their pie charts—or maybe flashy PowerPoint presentations—and explain why Obamacare is the worst, followed by the better ideas they have to replace it. 

Or if they believe in leaving health care up to the push and pull of the free market, I'd like to hear how that's going to work too. We need specifics rather than sermonettes about the horrors of big government. 

Cost-containment in health care must be part of the discussion. How's that's going to happen without some sort of government intervention? I want to hear how we're going to manage the clash of insurance companies, drug companies, hospital chains and other special-interest icebergs out to protect their profit margins. 

In fact, we have scant details about a Republican grand vision for health care for America. We hear rumors about obscure and contradictory legislative maneuvers, and last-minute fixes taking place but without the benefit of open hearings or public debate. It sounds like bubble, bubble, toil and trouble rather than an honest plan.

Democrats should get their show together too. How do we control federal budget deficits while adding another hefty line item to the expense side? What is wrong with Obamacare and how do you propose to fix it? And what about all those lobbyists for the medical-industrial complex banging at your door? 

So far Democrats have adopted the old tactic of standing on the sidelines watching the Republicans shoot each other. Recent talk about a single-payer system also sounds like fodder for a college bull session over pizza and beer, not a realistic plan. 

Who would present the Democratic vision? Please, no Nancy Pelosi, Dick Schumer or, God forbid, Hillary Clinton. There's got to be a new player in the Democratic bullpen. Looking for new faces and ideas itself would be a healthy exercise for Democrats.

Ross? Nah. He's 87 years old and happy somewhere in Texas counting his money.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

The debate over medical care in Mexico

There aren't many sure shots in life.
Medical care in Mexico is not among them. 
     The constant chatter among San Miguel expats about medical care reminds me of the fleet of old American cars cautiously sputtering, wheezing and farting along the streets of Havana.

Invariably there is something wrong with one of them and opinions abound, expressed with much gusto, about the best way to fix a malfunctioning carburator or gallbladder, and punctuated by a horror story or two about how someone's '57 Chevy expired recently, never to be revived again. Or the shock of a dear San Miguel friend who went in for a routine colonoscopy at nine in the morning and was dead by five in the afternoon, for reasons never cleared.

"If he had taken that car to my mechanic Víctor, he could have fixed it, I'm sure!" someone would offer during a post-mortem comida, only to be contradicted by another equally vehement person who'd argue that the best mechanic—or orthopedist or dentist—is not Víctor but Manuel or Dr. Gonzáles.

     One indisputable fact is that medical attention is very inexpensive in Mexico compared to the U.S.. That prompts many medically uninsured Americans to cross the border to get care, or sometimes to seek exotic treatments not available or illegal in the U.S.

Fancy this: Picture of the new MAC Hospital in San Miguel,
taken from its Facebook page. 
An eye exam with my our excellent ophthalmologist, for example, runs about fifty-five dollars. It would be at least double that in the U.S.

The flipside is that all medical and hospital care here is cash or credit card only, while in the U.S. Medicare would cover most or all of the bills, outrageously high as they might be.

     The imponderable clinker is competence: Does the doctor know what he or she is doing? Is the quality of care and facilities here comparable to those in the U.S.?

That's where opinions and experiences vary wildly among San Miguel expats and also what drives the popularity of medical evacuation insurance.

Doubts over competence are aggravated by lack of governmental or professional oversight. There is no malpractice insurance, a much-criticized and expensive safeguard in the U.S. that does push costs up—but also runs incompetent bozos out of business.

Expats often mention English fluency as a guarantee of professional competence. Having someone you can communicate with is reassuring but not necessarily a substitute for skills and experience.

In addition, there are no internet-based or other sources one can consult to determine the professional credentials of a medical practitioner or his malpractice record, or the medical specialties or mortality rates at a particular hospital for certain procedures.

In this fog of factual information, word-of-mouth and blind faith rule. Patient beware.

     Recently two medical facilities have appeared in San Miguel. One is a mid-size hospital on the outskirts of town; the other an "urgent care" clinic at a strip mall.

We don't know anything about either one except Mexican or multinational medical investors must perceive a viable market in San Miguel with its burgeoning population of expats and wealthier Mexicans. These are private, for-profit operations.

Our diminutive mayor during the opening ceremony.
  (From Correo newspaper)
During the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, San Miguel's mayor Ricardo Villarreal pointedly mentioned the city's growing population of foreign residents who'll surely take advantage of the new hospital.

New buildings and shiny machines, of course, are only as good as the people who operate them. And for testimonials about miraculous treatments or near-death experiences at these two venues we'll have to rely, again, on the grapevine.

     After living in San Miguel for more than ten years, Stew and I would rate medical care here as C-plus. We're confident enough with our medical contacts that we don't lose sleep about receiving appropriate emergency care. But anything more complex or long-term than that would take us to medical facilities on the Other Side. Pronto.

Stew suffered the worst mishap when a much-praised orthopedic surgeon—who spoke perfect English!—botched a carpal tunnel operation on his right hand that had to be redone in San Antonio. Stew's is hardly the only report of bungling by this guy. If he were practicing in the U.S. either his license or his malpractice insurance would have been cancelled long ago.

Apart from that we've run into botched treatments and just flat-out wrong diagnoses that have given us pause. Screw-ups occur anywhere and medicine is not an exact science. Still, we don't want to be part of someone's learning curve or take undue chances.

So here's our current plan. First we have established a relationship with a young doctor at the local hospital whom we would call in case of an emergency. We've used him before and he seems competent, thorough and most important, ready to call for a second opinion if he has any doubts.

We are also establishing a primary care relationship with a doctor in San Antonio whom we can visit for our annual physical and who will keep our medical records. Finally, we both have air evacuation insurance for an annual combined premium of approximately $1,000. Air evacuation to the U.S. runs about $35,000 and is not something you can haggle about in the middle of an emergency.

Meanwhile, Stew and I will be traveling to San Antonio next week to meet a potential family doctor at a major hospital who could be the new Dr. John Glynn, our primary physician in Chicago for about twenty years.

We expect to be doing some strategic shopping, restaurant-hopping and movie-watching too in between appointments.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Why is Mexico Mexico and Iceland Iceland?

The differences are legion, but respect for
the rule of law may be the most telling 

     Whenever Stew and I travel to a so-called First World country, returning to Mexico, our home for almost 12 years, is invariably a shock.

The taxi ride from the Mexico City North bus station to the airport, or vice-versa, is an hour of hopping and bouncing, and high-speed weaving and zigzagging, with scenes of urban grit flashing past the windows like a fast-forward slideshow. The first time the experience is a bit exotic, even exciting. Lately, it grates.

The views from the bus that takes us to San Miguel are no less jarring. As we approach San Miguel, on the right-hand side—and a stone's throw from the municipal building—we catch sight of the city's ever-expanding garbage dump—with no fences or boundaries, along with busted road markers and other signs of dilapidation, indifferent government, or both.

That hackneyed expression crosses your mind: We're not in Kansas any more, or Amsterdam, Lisbon or even San Antonio, Texas.  
     Definitely not Iceland, where Stew and I recently spent close to two weeks. It's a spectacularly beautiful, Kentucky-size island, with just 320,000 residents, that seemed so orderly and peaceful it could have been Switzerland as interpreted by Walt Disney. 

Reykjavíc, not Mexico. 
The topic of comparative politics and economic development has always been fascinating to me. Why does tiny Costa Rica prosper placidly in the middle of the perpetually violent and impoverished Central America? How come Haiti is such a pit of poverty next to the not-nearly-as-bad Dominican Republic? Why is there such a difference in per capita incomes among Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, which are next to one another? 

Certainly Mexico and Iceland are vastly different along every vector imaginable: size, history, natural resources, ethnicity, not to mention predatory neighbors and climate.

But for all their unfathomable differences, by all rights Mexico should be far more developed and prosperous than Iceland.
     Iceland brushes against the Arctic Circle and is kept from freezing solid by the Gulf Stream that comes up from Mexico, ironically enough. It straddles uneasily across two of the earth's tectonic plates, the North American and the Euro-Asian, that constantly shift this way or that and sometimes announce their moves by belching magma along with ash, smoke and rocks the size of midsize sedans. The climate? On a merry Christmas Day Icelanders might get five hours or less of diffuse daylight, never mind sun, and it'll take several months before the wintry penumbra dissipates and the night/day ratio is reversed. 

Unlike Mexico, Iceland doesn't have many natural resources except cod fishing—an ancient and perilous occupation—and more recently, tourism. Early this century Iceland suddenly erupted as a international financial casino, with billions of dollars, yens and euros flying in and out, a free-for-all that ended just as quickly as it began when all its three banks went bankrupt, presaging the worldwide financial crisis of 2008. 

An economic depression followed that lifted, miraculously, a couple of years later when the country took all the "wrong" steps toward recovery. It let the banks collapse rather than bail them out, and the government guaranteed the accounts of Icelandic depositors but stiffed foreign speculators, in addition to a number of other unorthodox measures. Unlike their colleagues in London and New York, banking executives were sent to prison for their role in the economic catastrophe.
     That last point may be the most symbolic and significant to Iceland's success: The country took the unusual step of sending crooked bankers to a remote prison, at the foot of a glacier and an extinct volcano, to work on their memoirs. That was gutsy move neither the U.S. nor Britain dared to take.

In you've lived in Mexico for a while you probably have gotten inured to top-to-bottom corruption and rampant disregard for the law.

There's the quotidian grind of spectacular killings and gang wars alright, but more corrosive is the lack of transparency, an element of civic morality that leads businesses to deal confidently with the government and each other according to established rules, and citizens to trust the authorities. There are rules clearly enunciated and respected by all the players.

In the 2016 Corruption Perception Index conducted by Transparency International, Mexico scores a dismal 30 points out of a hundred, and ranks 123 out of 176 nations studied. Tiny Iceland scores 78 points out of 100, and ranks 14 out of 176 countries—not as high as the hyper-straight Danes but miles ahead of Mexico.

The connection between lack of a rule of law and poverty—and which comes first?—is hard to unravel but seems elemental.

José Ugaz, chairman of Transparently International neatly described the problem: "In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity.” Amen, José.

Mexico however might take a some solace in one regard: Icelanders seem to have discovered Mexican food. One restaurant we visited had a large section of the menu devoted to enchiladas, tacos and other Mexican delicacies and another offered tortilla chips and guacamole to nibble on before the main course. The guacamole—how far did those avocados have to travel?—tasted realistic enough.


A slideshow of my photos of Iceland is available at