Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Buying a new pickup the Mexican way

Our trusty 2000 Nissan Frontier 4x4 pick-up, which has served us well and saved our butts on several occasions—most recently facilitating our escape, literally, across an adjoining neighbor's ranch when a too-enterprising land developer blocked the entrance to ours for several days—is near the end of its useful life, at least for us.

In rural Mexico, of course, vehicles can live almost forever so we expect the Frontier will undergo several reincarnations, patches, repairs, paint jobs, and many more years of service before it lets out its final puddle of oil, somewhere under the Mexican sun, stripped of every useful part.

I'd give the Frontier at least ten more years, given that we maintained it very well, and the deliriously happy new owner is Félix, who got the truck for free, including the six months remaining on the insurance.

Our new pickup is a 2018 Chevy Colorado, which at first looks enormous but isn't really. Not compared to monsters like Nissan Titans or Ford 150's King Ranch, panting impatiently alongside you at a traffic light, their drivers sneering at your puny wheels. 

In Mexico, a seemingly impregnable backwater of capitalism, there is no bargaining over the sticker price—indeed, no competition whatsoever among dealers—so you just go by whatever features catch your fancy.

In our case we wanted a four-wheel drive, in case we had to make another escape, and a touch screen with navigation, internet connections and other gizmos.

Made in the U.S.A.
It became clear Mexican new-car dealers have yet to have their #MeToo moment, and so showrooms are often decorated with mini-skirted young women, tip-tapping around in their high heels offering you a soft drink or a cup of coffee along with a big smile.

Shopping for a vehicle also confirms the irreversible march of globalization. Pickups are assembled all over the world, from Argentina to Thailand, sometimes with bodies made one place and engines shipped in from three thousand miles away. 

Even with our short spec list, our shopping soon became complicated. A Toyota Hilux 4x4 only comes with a diesel engine, and it's sold throughout most of the civilized world except the U.S. A Ford Ranger 4x4 also had a diesel version that was not sold in the U.S.  Nissan Frontier came with a gasoline or diesel engine but had antiquated and clumsy electronics and a wheezy engine. 

After some test drives, we zeroed in on a third consideration: The new pickup had to be serviceable in the U.S. in the event we drove it back home and some mechanical problem arose. That ruled out the Hilux and the Ford Ranger diesel.

At the last minute we tried the Chevy Colorado which is manufactured, YES!, forty miles outside St. Louis, Mo., as in the ol' U.S. of A.!

The happy—and bashful—new owner.
The delivery of our new truck was an unexpectedly festive event. The truck was hidden under a blue tarp and the nervous woman in charge of deliveries—this was her first week on the job— walked over with a boombox blaring a triumphal Mexican oom-pah-pah tune. She let out a sigh, as if relieved her Wheel of Fortune cameo would soon be over, and pulled off the tarp while the entire staff clapped and cheered.

Then Stew was handed a celebratory cardboard frame for him to hold while having his picture taken. Most people would have been too embarrassed by the hoo-hah, but not Stew.

The inside of the truck was filled with balloons the cats back home enjoyed popping. Felix lovingly washed his new/old Frontier and got a pretty good shine on it. Stew tentatively fiddled with all the knobs on the dashboard, without bothering with instructions which are in Spanish anyway. 

All and all, a good time was had by everyone.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

On diversity, I say the more the merrier

Enchanting as San Miguel is to us—the intimacy, climate, our beautiful ranch and the dear friends we have here—it still does the mind and soul good to escape periodically to the larger playpen of a bigger city, a really big city.

What is it about a big city that thrills, despite the obvious drawbacks of crowds pushing and shoving or a blast of northern winter like we experienced in New York when we went there on New Year's to celebrate my seventieth birthday?

Expensive cultural attractions, like "Tosca" at the Met on New Year's Eve, or Bette Midler knocking them dead in "Hello Dolly" are certainly part of the mix. There was also the spectacular new Whitney Museum, overlooking the gray and frigid Hudson River, and the Neue Galerie, home to Gustav Klimt's famed painting, nicknamed "Woman in Gold," a shimmering and enigmatic Mona Lisa, made [even more] popular by the film starring Helen Mirren. Plus restaurants, restaurants, restaurants.

Hey, there, mein Freund.
Our most recent "big-city fix," as Stew calls them, was our hometown of Chicago a month ago, hardly as big as New York but certainly one of the world's great cities. There were musicals ("Hamilton") and the premiere of a play at the famed Goodman Theater, plus a memorable performance of Mozart's "Requiem" by the Music of the Baroque at the Harris Theater, a new venue we had never visited and which made up with near-perfect acoustics and sightlines what it lacked in warmth (the lobby looked like a cross between a bunker and subway station).

A ninety-minute architectural cruise on the Chicago River, during which we oohed and aahed at the old and new buildings like a couple of rubbernecking hayseeds, coupled with perfect weather (read: San Miguel-like) all eight days we were there, and we had the perfect antidote to the stress back here surrounding the legal wrangling over someone trying to steal a piece of our land.

What's with our fascination with bustling big cities? Buildings are great, culture is edifying and food always exciting.

But at the heart of all the excitement is one element—if you pardon the damn cliché—called "energy". And that comes from the multitude of faces and nationalities.

It's called diversity—of skin colors, languages, dress, cuisines and experiences—a concept recently thrown into disrepute in the U.S. and Europe, by forces of nationalism, closed-mindedness, intolerance and even racism.

Some people have developed an adverse reaction to anyone who looks or dresses differently from the face they see on their bathroom mirror every morning.

Some conservatives bemoan the erosion of some golden age of ethnic homogeneity in the U.S. Fox commentator Laura Ingraham ominously noted that "[I]n some parts of the country it does seem like the American we know and love doesn't exist anymore," the sort of dog-whistling that makes white nationalists' ears perk up. In Europe, similar close-the-borders messages are gaining traction in France, Italy, Britain and Eastern Europe.

Stew and I, on the other hand, seem to revel in racial and cultural diversity when we travel abroad or to large American cities like Chicago and New York, and it's difficult to pinpoint why.

We lived in Chicago for thirty years and the crush of different people and faces aboard a rush-hour train was expected, natural. Within a ten-minute walk from our house near Wrigley Field there seemed to be an endless variety of restaurants and shops. Mama Desta (Ethiopian), Helmand (Afghan) and myriad other cuisines I can no longer remember but miss nevertheless. Even Iva Toguri D'Aquino, a.k.a. "Tokyo Rose" during World War II, had an Asian curio shop near us until she died in 2006.

That's certainly not the case in San Miguel, a charming fish tank populated by only two kinds of guppies—expats and Mexicans—who generally keep to themselves. Mexico City is home to more nationalities but hardly as diverse as the typical American metropolis.

The Chicago friends we stayed with during our last visit live in Edgewater, near the Granville "el" stop, a beautiful neighborhood with its own cornucopia of ethnic grocery stores and restaurants. We ate at a terrific Eritrean restaurant that was empty at dinner time; we learned that rush hour is around noon when the place is mobbed by Eritrean and Ethiopian cab drivers looking for home cooking. Greek. Somalian. Mexican (of course). The Assyrian Civic Association. Kosher delis. Indian. Pakistani.

Next year in Tirana!
Perhaps the most curious was the "L. Woods Tap and Pine Lodge" in Lincolnwood, an establishment designed to resemble a "supper club" like the ones Stew and his family frequented when they lived in the northern Wisconsin tundra, near the Arctic Circle. Stew was tickled by the memories.

Another showstopper was the Cermak Supermarket, a huge and fastidiously neat and tidy operation, that seemed to have every ethnic edible imaginable, organized by sections. The Mexican produce corner, Stew noted, actually had a greater variety that we find at the Mega supermarket in San Miguel, from huitlacoche, zucchini blossoms and a rainbow selection of tortillas. Stew bought a package of some sort of Indian soup that we tried here and found really awful.

Another stop was the Devon Market (stress on the "o" according to Chicagoese), selling newspapers in Cyrillic (Russian? Ukrainian?) and a news weekly for homesick Bosnians and Herzegovinians. We bought some bath soap from somewhere, a "I love Albania shopping bag" and made some small talk with the Iranian cashier.

All the news it's fit to print in Russian,
Ukrainian or whatever this is. 
When Stew came out from a visit to the ophthalmologist at Northwestern Hospital, a woman patient went in, dressed in a head-to-foot black garment except for a narrow slit for the eyes, accompanied by her watchful, bearded husband. I wonder how you do an eye exam or try on eyeglasses with all those layers of fabric in the way. Or what difference the style would make if your face is permanently covered.

In our travels we've found all our foreign encounters interesting, novel and curious, an opportunity to find out other people's take on life and the pursuit of happiness. In Egypt, for example, people were friendly, despite a strange warning "to watch out for the Muslim Brotherhood" from a friend in the U.S. If anything, Chicago's Southwest Side right now is far more dangerous than other places we've visited, such as the West Bank or Turkey. We've liked some places more than others but have never felt threatened.

In Chicago we wondered what would happen if all those immigrant and foreign enclaves—the shops, restaurants, places of worship—were suddenly erased from the map. Economically the city would suffer and it certainly would not be such an interesting place to visit.

Nationally, it'd be folly too to advocate a return to an ethnically homogeneous American utopia that never existed. "Et pluribus unum" is not a very catchy bumper sticker but it has served America well.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Of crime, impunity and powerlessness

Last Tuesday I attended a funeral mass at the church in Sosnavar, a hardscrabble village two kilometers from us, for Eduardo Arzola Chávez, age 30, whom I'd never met but somehow felt some connection to. He'd been shot to death a couple of days before.

The small church was packed. Seemingly everyone in town had shown up, in addition to a few mangy dogs that hung around in the plaza in front. Hovering over this somber event too was the pall of impunity, that handmaiden of most violent crime in Mexico. 

Eduardo was taken to the local cemetery in a late-model Lincoln Navigator hearse with Mexico City plates, whose roof was covered with white and yellow flowers. At his grave he will be remembered again by his disconsolate family during Day of the Dead commemorations at the end of the month.

The chances, though, that his killer will ever be arrested, much less punished, are well-nigh zero.

Let us pray. Again and again. 
I found out about Eduardo's death through Félix, who'd shown up for work on Monday, long-faced and quiet, and said that he would have to take part of Tuesday off to attend the wake of a close buddy who had been fatally shot three times in the chest the day before in broad daylight during a party at the nearby ranch of La Campana. I still don't know what caused the shooting, which occurred after Félix had left the party, shortly after noon.

The assailant took off full-gallop on his horse, bandido-style. No one seems to know where he went, though everyone present knows who he is, according to Félix.

Both Eduardo and Félix are part of the dense Arzola family tree. According to Félix there are four or five predominant last names in Sosnavar, population twelve-hundred people or so, and Arzola is one of the most common.

Félix was particularly shaken because Eduardo left behind a seven-year-old son, almost the same age as Félix's own son Edgar, plus he and his friend were roughly the same age. Though he didn't articulate it, I suspect an ominous thought echoed in Félix's mind: "It could have been me."

"He was a nice guy, not a troublemaker," Félix said. "We were talking and joking Sunday morning, and that evening I find out he was dead."

I didn't know Eduardo but was saddened, even pissed, not only by Felix's loss, but by the recurrent theme of crime and impunity around here.

Last year an estimated thirty-two thousand people were murdered in Mexico—the highest number since 1997—while more than an estimated ninety percent of those cases were never solved, according to the Mexican think-tank Zero Impunity.

"Félix, I'm sorry you've lost such a good friend," I said, both of us standing by the kitchen door. "But what's really awful is that all sorts of shit keeps happening and you folks seem resigned no one is ever going to be arrested or punished. You accept killings and all sorts of crap, as if it were an act of God."

My perhaps arrogant American optimism rising to the surface, I offered to work with the widow, whom I don't even know, to demand the police investigate this latest murder and nail the guilty.

"There must be something that can be done," I said.

Félix cracked a weary smile at my naivete, and said the murderer was probably well on his way north to The Other Side—the United States—and will never be heard from again. Once more, Félix ingrained sense of fatalism and powerlessness left me stumped.

That's happened several times, Félix explained, though in one case a local thug from El Tigre, another nearby town, was arrested when he applied for an ID card at a Mexican consulate somewhere in Texas, and an astute clerk somehow figured out he was wanted for murder in San Miguel. He was arrested, shipped back to Mexico and is now serving time at the local jail. Miracles do happen.

Before this latest horror, two years ago, I'd accompanied Félix on a visit to his friend Pablo, also a guy in his thirties, who had been shot by a drunk during Sosnavar's annual fiesta. The bullet entered a couple of inches above his friend's right eye and went out the back.

I found Pablo bedridden and almost completely paralyzed in his dark bedroom, while his grief-stricken wife mechanically related the details of the shooting, and their litter of  kids, none older than eight of nine years old, stood by uncomprehendingly.

I was completely at a loss for words, in English or Spanish, and all I could think of was to offer to bring a wheelchair, which Félix and I delivered in our second visit, so Pablo at least could get out of bed, go outside and catch some sunlight. 

The worst though, came when I asked Pablo's wife if she intended to press charges so they could nab the dirtbag who left her young husband paralyzed.

Surely, I said, the shooting occurred in broad daylight in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and the crime should be resolved in no time at all. I was carrying on as if this were a case out of Law and Order San Miguel, in the hands of a crack local detective in the style of Lennie Briscoe.

The woman slowly shook her head, her eyes fixed on the ground, as if she were listening to a hopeless dimwit. No, the guy is never going to spend a day in jail, she told me. And so he never has.

I can readily think of several unresolved crimes near the ranch and in San Miguel proper. A kid on a horse got run over nearby by a drunk driver one Saturday night, killing both the rider and the horse. In another case, two teenagers died when the inebriated driver of the pick-up they were in lost control and it rolled over.

No one was ever charged in either tragedy. The only memory of these two events are crude roadside memorials decorated with plastic flowers.

I only stayed at the memorial for about twenty minutes. I felt out of place, for one thing feeling self-conscious about being about ten inches taller than anyone in the place.

I also felt like an impertinent gawker at the scene of a private tragedy.

The bearded Fr. Gerardo listlessly intoned some unintelligible Roman Catholic boilerplate for the dead through the crackly public address system. He's probably presided over dozens similar tragedies and repetition has dulled any noticeable sensation of tragedy, anger, frustration or even emotion in his voice. Likewise, the congregation repeated the canned liturgical responses mindlessly, drowning out the sobbing of Eduardo's family.