Monday, November 18, 2019

Two American geezers in Munchkinlandia

Having arrived to the U.S. in 1962, at age 14, I missed much of the cultural iconography that guided American kids who grew up during the 1950s.

I missed "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) starring Judy Garland and Bert Lahr; "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed; or even some of the mainstream TV fare like "Leave It to Beaver," which debuted in 1957, starring Tony Dow, whom Stew reportedly had an early crush on. I even missed the "Mickey Mouse Club," starring Annette Funicello, which had an initial run between 1955 and 1958.

Since my arrival, and becoming an American citizen five years later, I have put myself through some accelerated cultural acculturation.

I have seen with "All About Eve" (1950) with Bette Davis snarling "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night," as only she could; "Gone with the Wind" (1939) with Clark Gable not giving a damn; and even Joan Crawford flinging chicken and waffles in the 1945 "Mildred Pierce."

Still, when a friend from Chicago, with whom we'll be spending Thanksgiving, included a reference in an email to Dorothy clicking the heels of her "ruby slippers" three times, I was stumped. Stew knew it had to something do with the "Wizard of Oz," but not much else.

Ah, now I know who you are!
So last week we rented the "Wizard" from Amazon, and we both loved it. The production was amazing, particularly for a film made that long ago; the music instantly recognizable; and Bert Lahr and Judy Garland terrific.

(I was left wondering, though, how the producers managed to recruit so many singing and dancing little people, formerly known as midgets, to play a squad of Munchkins.  Or were they children? Anyone know?)

Even with the Wiz under my belt, I was unprepared to encounter maybe 50 or 75 live Mexican Munchkins in Querétaro on Saturday.

We had gone there looking a small chest of drawers at a furniture store advertising "El Gran Fin," or the Mexican equivalent of the American "Black Friday."

As we feared, the furniture store—and seemingly the whole city of Querétaro—was a madhouse of traffic, jammed parking lots, and people lugging 60-plus-inch TVs to their cars. The furniture store even had a group of about a dozen car jockeys, aged circa 18 years old, manning the valet parking franchise.

Next time, read the signs. 
So we went looking for a place to eat and pulled into a Dairy Queen, where Stew had hoped to get a hamburger or such, except this store served only ice cream, sundaes and soft drinks.

"Let's go next door to Chuck E. Cheese," I suggested. I'd never been to a Chuck E. Cheese and thought it was a mouse-themed hamburger joint.

I should have paid more attention to the sign outside, which clearly warned, in English, "Where A Kid Can Be A Kid."

Talk about a clueless old coot (me).

Inside we found instead a huge indoor game arcade, with a cacophony of games, all tooting, flashing and clanging for attention.

Plus a mob of kids, average age about five, running around screaming, like Munchkins on amphetamines, from one machine to another, with most parents looking on from a distance.

Hungry and undeterred, we went in and ordered a pizza, and sat at booth to take in this unexpected spectacle. Food was so-so and a minor attraction at this place anyway, which looked like a casino designed for kindergarteners.

Batman and vroom, vroom need no translation. 
We were the only unaccompanied men in the place, which made us feel just a tad self-conscious. I generally love kids and approach them to ask their names, and in the case of boys, exchange a fist-bump.

Except here, the thought ran through my head, someone might take us for a couple of old perverts and call the police.

I noticed that everything about this place was in English: The instructions on the games and even the public announcements. The only concession to Spanish I found was the sign with the menu entrees.

It was as if someone had plucked a store deep in Wisconsin, parachuted it on Querétaro, and just turned on the electricity.

Push this here, mi'ijo. 
This place was, in fact, a testimonial to the unstoppable power of American culture and language, which made translations and other adjustments largely redundant.

I bet most of the light-skinned, middle-class Mexican parents at this Chuck E. Cheese's knew enough English to show the kids how to play the games.

And from watching American television and movies, the kids hardly needed an introduction to Batman, race cars, or cowboys and Indians.

If this place were German- or French-themed franchise, it probably wouldn't work.

But it was American-themed and, for all the occasional nationalistic, anti-gringo blather, upwardly mobile Mexicans can't seem to get enough of American pop cultural exports. 

On the way in, an attendant had stamped our arm, which she checked on the way out before releasing the latch on the exit door.

She explained this was a security measure to prevent the little monsters from escaping, or leaving with the wrong adult. Chuck E. had thought of everything.

We left, paused for a second to let our ears adjust, and ran to the Dairy Queen for dessert.

Dessert indeed. We spotted a couple of handsome, bearded guys in their twenties, sitting at a table on a small terrace in front, passionately, and conspicuously, hugging and kissing each other, in broad daylight.

Two guys making out in front of a Dairy Queen: That's when you know American culture really has moved into Mexico.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Fanfare for an uncommon man

Expats sometimes shower their help with almost condescending praise for being reliable, honest, polite and some such. Our indispensable man Félix, the central character in many of my blog posts, is much more than that. He's a wiz; a singular person in Mexico or anywhere else.

During the ten years he's worked for us, we've encountered a few bumps, but nevertheless, we're fortunate that we found him—or that he found us. By now, he takes care of just about everything in the ranch, from the dogs and cats, lettuces and radishes, patching and painting, checking the roof for leaks.

We're reminded daily of his resourcefulness, curiosity and plain smarts. Plus a kind heart: Unlike many Mexican machos, he's not afraid to get teary-eyed when he talks about the death of his grandmother, or his beloved dog Chupitos, which was attacked and gored by a pack of wild dogs. He buried Chupitos in our pet cemetery, along with a dozen other dearly departed pets.

Where this unusual bundle of personal traits comes from, I don't know. Sometimes I think it's just the grace of God.
The gang's all here: (clockwise from lower left) Jessica, Alondra, Félix,
Isela, and Edgar, at his kindergarten graduation. 
It didn't spring from his family or upbringing. He grew up in a home where tragedy seems to have been a constant presence. Four of his five siblings are mentally handicapped, illiterate or both. Three or four more siblings died at childbirth or before reaching adulthood. An alcoholic father presided over the home. Félix only reached the sixth-grade and his reading, writing and arithmetic are iffy.

And yet, when we return from traveling, after he stays here alone taking care of the house, he'll often comment on some book he'd found on the bookshelf  or the coffee table. Apparently he leafs through our books—animals, gardening and foreign places seem to be his favorites—even though he can't read English, or had access to many books while growing up. I admire his native curiosity.

I used to feel sorry for him, but no more. Now, I feel admiration, sometimes awe, for his survival instincts.

We met Félix when we were building the house, and he worked as a gofer, mixing cement, moving rocks or whatever. One day, after we'd moved in, he ambushed me by the gate when we were coming home.

"Alfredo, I need a job and want to work for you," he said, using my first name, and the familiar "tú" instead of the formal "usted."

Boy, this guy has balls, I said to myself. That impression was confirmed later as I gradually found out that by age 21, he had already worked at odd construction and farm jobs after leaving grammar school, and made two illegal trips across the border also, to work in odd jobs near Dallas and send money home to his family.

It turned out too that he was living with Isela, a young woman who was already pregnant with their first child and whom he would marry a couple of years later.

As our gardener, Félix has gotten sucked into my fascination with succulents and cacti. I keep buying more specimens, though my ability to identify the different types, much less remember their arcane botanical names, remains uncertain.

No problem for Félix, who's developed a mental archive of the Aloes arborescens, Echinocactus grusonii, Agave Queen Victoria, and their multitude of cousins, sufficient to correct me when I get them confused, which is often. Anymore I write plant id tags in pencil, so I can erase them if they're wrong.

On the Day of the Dead, Stew and I visited the municipal cemetery and I noticed a patch of a particular succulent growing almost rampantly by a gravesite, that was similar to a far more timid specimen we have in the front patio. But what the hell is the name of it?

On Monday, without prompting, Félix mentioned he'd visited the cemetery too and noticed the same batch of Pedilanthus Microcarpus, and suggested ours probably would do better if they had more sun.  

What the hell? Granted, his brain is 40 years younger than mine, but still, his precocious memory is something I'd normally associate, perhaps unfairly, with an extraterrestrial, not a gardener with a sixth-grade education.

His soft heart for animals—except rattlesnakes, which he promptly decapitates with a shovel—has led to many heartaches and unexpected adoptions.

He once found a tiny newborn rabbit, that we unsuccessfully tried to bottle-feed. And a grocery bag with seven days-old puppies someone had tossed by the side of the road, three of them already dead. We took the survivors to the vet, who said they were too young to survive apart from the mother, so they were euthanized.

Another discovery was a small, whimpering puppy, with a gash over her eye, also abandoned by the road. We kept her and named her Felisa, in honor of her rescuer, a gesture I don't think he appreciated. Mexicans are not used to naming animals after people.

Felix' curiosity and nosiness also leads him to follow Stew and other repairmen around, puppy-like, constantly asking questions about how this or that works. In this endeavor he's helped by his talking: He's a schmoozer extraordinaire, who probably can converse with a potted geranium, even if it doesn't speak Spanish.

Jessica, now 4, and Edgar, 8. 
So he's learned some electrical repairs from me and Tim, a Canadian electrician who's come by a few times. And from Solar Brian, some elementary points about how our solar electricity array works. From Stew, how a dishwasher works. Some gardening from me, and some from Manuel, another very bright young Mexican who works at Luis Franke's nursery.

And so on, so now we have a DaVinci of sorts, who can dip in all aspects of ranch maintenance.

Booze, however, has been a recurring problem with Félix. During a weekend fiesta at his village, Félix got so drunk he was still incoherent the following Tuesday. I feared alcohol poisoning.

In fact, in his village, flat-on-your-ass drunken bouts, sometimes punctuated by fistfights and even gunfire, seem to be a thing, particularly during fiestas.

On another occasion, he crashed up an old pickup of ours and had to pay for a large chunk of the repairs. We didn't make him pay for the whole thing because that would have put him in a financial hole for a year or more.

So Félix declared a truce on drinking nine months ago, which held until last week, when he showed up to work smelling of beer. I explained, once more, that there's no such thing as "just one beer" for someone addicted to alcohol.

There's an A.A. meeting house in his village that he will not attend because, he says, he can control the problem on his own. I'm afraid that won't work, but there's nothing I can do about it.

For all his qualities, and the few defects, I can't help feeling bad about Félix sometimes, his future  stymied by a lack of formal education that keeps him from even pumping gas at a Pemex station.

I also wonder what would have become of Félix, and thousands of similarly talented young men and women in the campo, if only he'd had a less chaotic upbringing, a chance at more education, access to books and other learning opportunities. I could see him as veterinarian, a teacher, a horticulturist. . .

A dozen could've and might've beens readily come to into my mind and probably the minds of most people. But that's an ultimately self-defeating game people play, most often leading nowhere, since life's video cannot be rewound to edit out the scenes we don't like.

In Félix case, though, he seems happy and even fortunate with his life, despite its limited horizons.

Yearly, when we give him his year-end aguinaldo, he'll give me a warm handshake or even an abrazo, and thank us profusely for providing a steady, well-paying job and for our respect with which we treat him and his family.

And, for my part, I'm grateful for all that he's taught me too, principally living in the day, and being content with what life has offered you. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

To live and be buried in San Miguel

Expats who have vowed never to leave San Miguel get that final wish by being buried in a special corner of the Municipal Pantheon known colloquially as the "Gringo Section."

It's a lovely spot, manicured and carefully laid out, that would not be out of place in any small all-American town. It's also walled and gated off from the rest of the far more chaotic part of the cemetery where Mexicans come to rest.

In that, the expat section resembles life: Most expats in San Miguel Americans live among Mexicans but never get to quite mix with them, not even in death. It reminds me of a Spanish saying, "Juntos pero no revueltos,"  or, "Alongside but separate."

Stew and I began visiting the expat section several years ago, when we used to attend the Community Church of San Miguel, an English-speaking congregation, which organizes visits to this part of the cemetery on the Day of the Dead, ostensibly to clean up and decorate the gravesites, though in reality the area is so fastidiously maintained there's really no need. 

For us it's a more traditional gesture of remembrance of friends who died the year before. This year we visited Norm Meyer and his son-in-law "Louie" Armstrong, whose ashes rest in simple side-by-side crypts.  

We brought them a handful of flowers we'd bought by the entrance to the cemetery, along with a metal can to serve as a vase. Total cost of the decoration package came to about two dollars. 

In San Miguel we have a not-for-profit organization, the 24 Hour Association, to which expats subscribe. For a one-time, refundable fee, the association will handle all funeral arrangements, including cremation or burial at the Municipal Panteon, or shipment of the deceased back home. 

Given the age demographics of the expat population of San Miguel, the association fulfills an essential need. 

To reach the expat section, one has to traverse almost the entire length of the entire cemetery, which on Day of the Dead is a cacophonous frenzy of activity, with relatives painting and decorating gravesites. 

The music of bands-for-hire mixes with the tapping of hammers and chisels repairing crumbling gravesites, while the sweet smell of floral offerings everywhere clashes with occasional whiffs of liquor or food of relatives celebrating their dearly departed. 

Day of the Dead also has become a somewhat circusy tourist attraction, which I confess partaking in when we first arrived in San Miguel. Now it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable, as if we were crashing a family affair. 

This year Stew and I visited for only an hour, and mostly the expat section, though I admit taking a few photos along the way. 

Below are some of those images.   

Mountains of marigolds, the traditional flower of the Day of the Dead. 
Vendors outside the municipal cemetery sell all supplies, including painted cans
in which to place flowers, for 60 cents or so.

Traffic jam at the Pearly Gates: The Mexican section of the municipal cemetery.

           A little drummer boy at the gravesite 
            of an unknown child. 

A visitor, deep in her own thoughts. 

On the way to remember the dearly departed. 

The calligraphy may be shaky, but the
sentiments are deeply felt.

May he rest in peace indeed, with a Corona Light in hand, in case he gets thirsty.

The Expat Section:
Right by the entrance to the "Gringo Section" is a
memorial to Stirling Dickinson, one of the first
expats in San Miguel, and who's credited—or blamed—
for calling attention to San Miguel as lovely place for
Americans to resettle. A local street is named after him.

Lament for the perpetual student: "She spoke Spanish, but needed more practice."
In death as in life: Relatives of dead expats sometimes hire Mexicans 
to do the job of cleaning up and decorating the gravesites.
The rear admiral sailed away, but
his widow stayed in San Miguel. 
A lonely cross, waiting to be gussied up.
This poodle and I are both named Alfredo, though he goes
by Alfie. I took no offense. 

Double bill: The girl, in front, is called María José, and her boy twin is José María.
Old Glory standing guard.
Stew and I brought flowers for
two friends, Louie and Norm. 
Barbara's still around, and still a fun broad.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

When Mother Nature knocks at the door

Unless you slept through junior high school science class, you'll remember that light travels much, much faster than sound, as in 670,616,227 m.p.h. versus 767 m.p.h.

That's why during a thunderstorm you usually see the lightning first, but not hear the accompanying thunder until several seconds later. Or if lightning struck far enough away, you might not hear the thunder at all.

On the other hand, if a bolt of lightning hit you on the head, or scarily close by, the flash of light and the blast of the thunder would be simultaneous—and your butt would be broiled medium-well.

Kaboom! said Mother Nature to the chimney. 
Deep in the night a couple of weeks ago, after when we had declared the rainy season officially over, a hellacious racket of thunder and lightning broke out, with rain beating on the windows, accompanied by high winds. Lightning and deafening thunder seemed to be hitting almost simultaneously.

The next morning the rain gauge showed two inches of rain, quite a gully-washer.

Then a couple of days ago, we received an email our friend Ron, who lives about six or seven miles from us, with news that lightning had struck his casita, right next to his house, causing quite a bit of damage.

The force of the lightning pretty much demolished the brick chimney, most impressively knocking over a cement lid that must weigh 100 pounds. Inside the house, all the light bulbs blew and some of the light fixtures even came loose from the ceiling. There was no one in the casita at the time.

Call the albañil !
The enormous power of a bolt of lightning is hard to comprehend. It can pack from 100 million to one billion volts of electricity, although I don't know how the magnitude of a specific bolt of lightning could be measured, given that it lasts only fractions of a second, compared to minutes or days, in the case of an earthquake or a hurricane.

The blast of electrical energy unleashed by a bolt of lightning can heat the narrow air in its path to anywhere from 18,000 to 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Plus I imagine anyone standing outside during a thunderstorm, waving whatever measuring gizmo in the air, wouldn't live to report back with the results if lightning struck close by.

I suppose whatever lightning bolt struck Ron's house was a relatively puny one. A billion-volt hit would have flattened the whole place. 

Would a lightning rod be a good idea for our ranch? The thought came up when we were building the house, which sits alone on a small hill.

I might look into it, though I wonder if that would be an invitation, rather than a deterrent, for lightning to blast our chimney. 

Visiting an active volcano has long been in Stew's and mine bucket list. In Mexico, the Colima volcano in Jalisco, and the venerable Popocatépelt between Puebla and Mexico City, are both  grumbling and belching regularly right now.

Volcanic eruptions are often accompanied by dazzling displays of lightning. Now, if we could witness such two-for-one natural spectacle, that would be the experience of a lifetime.

Hell, after that, we could just toss out the bucket and the list.

Monday, October 21, 2019

When is it time to leave San Miguel?

When we arrived in Hendersonville, North Carolina, a few weeks ago, to visit some friends who used to live in San Miguel, what immediately struck Stew and me was the sight of so many trees: Stately evergreens keeping such close company with oaks, maples, cypresses and other varieties that, beyond 15 or 20 feet, the forest became practically impenetrable to the eye. The scenery reminded me of Robert Frost's familiar verses about "the woods being lovely, dark and deep," even without the snow.

Into the North Carolina woods. 
During our four-day visit the weather was unremittingly drizzly and foggy, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest, but even the murkiness could not hide the beauty of the aptly named Blue Ridge Mountains sloping in all directions. An autumn dampness was in the air, although the trees had barely begun to shed their leaves, defying the chilly and persistent breeze rustling their branches.

Coming from semi-arid San Miguel, where this year's rainy season was frustratingly brief (though two days ago we received a sis-boom-bah of an overnight thunderstorm that left two-and-a-half inches of rain) the multi-sensory impact of this corner of North Carolina couldn't have been more dramatic, stunning—and tempting: Should Stew and I follow the small caravan of San Miguel expats that have moved there or elsewhere back in the U.S.?

As we end our fourteenth year in San Miguel, and with crime, traffic and living costs here on the rise, the question is far from hypothetical.

There's always been a revolving door in San Miguel's expat community, but recently we've noticed an accelerating trend of friends decamping to the Hendersonville and Asheville area, plus other couples who have moved to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, N.M., and Kerrville, Texas, most of them with little explanation, except a vague "it was time to move on."

Our friends' house in Hendersonville.
As you continue to talk with these returning exiles, concerns about medical care rise to the top of the list, though they are seldom explicitly mentioned, even among close friends. I suspect that discussion of one's fears of physical or mental infirmities, or those of a partner, is considered too personal, or depressing, for casual tea-time conversation, unless you're already in a nursing home.

Fact is that several large hospitals have appeared during the past few years in San Miguel and nearby Querétaro, capable of providing first-class emergency care, though if you need a major intervention like Stew's recent back surgery, your best bet remains to head for Texas, with its glut of medical facilities and specialists. And besides, hospitalization and complex medical treatment in Mexico can still run you tens of thousands of dollars at these privately owned hospitals—none of which accept Medicare.
The Vanderbilt Mansion in
Asheville, North Carolina.

But there are other factors apart from medical care. San Miguel is not the Sleepyville we found when we came here. A walk in the Centro last Friday night, to have dinner with friends, was like stepping into the midway of a raucous tourist carnival, catering mostly to Mexican twenty- and thirty-somethings. Traffic barely crawled and parking lots, which have tripled rates over the past few years (though at three or four dollars an hour, hardly downtown New York or Chicago rates) were almost filled to capacity.

The couple with whom we stayed in Hendersonville bought a house in a subdivision of beautifully wooded one-acre lots, with none of the noise and hubbub of life in Mexico. No unexplained volleys of fireworks at six a.m. to bother these folks. Someone supposedly spotted a black bear with cub in the woods near their house, while dozens of squirrels, many of the white, romp around the clock. How cool is that?

Another couple's house abutted a creek. A third one had bought ten acres that shared a fence with the ranch where poet and newspaper writer Carl Sandburg retired, and whose wife set up a farm of exotic goats that still functions today.

Another couple we visited has a creek
running by the side of their house. 
The tranquility of life in Hendersonville lowers your blood pressure almost immediately after your arrive. Plus, there are first-rate government services—fire department, police, ambulances, sanitation and such—which are iffy commodities in San Miguel.

Personal safety has become a pressing issue in San Miguel. While we were away, alleged drug dealers opened fire on a funeral procession, killing two and wounding five mourners riding on the bed of a pickup on the Libramiento, San Miguel's bypass road, in broad daylight. A severed head, neatly packed in an picnic cooler was found near "La Vaca," a feed store where we buy our dog food, also near the Libramiento. Whether the head belonged to the deceased in the coffin on the way to the cemetery was not clear. Indeed, most definitive information regarding anything related to crime or public safety in San Miguel or Mexico tends to remain sketchy.

During lunch yesterday, we ran into an elderly German expat and good friend, who told us that five young men, with whom she had been acquainted, had been shot and killed recently in the San Rafael neighborhood where she lives, over drug deals gone awry.

Last night on the way to dinner we walked past El Grito, one of several entertainment venues in the Centro that have closed in the past few months because the owners refused to pay extortion money to narcos.

There were 100 homicides in San Miguel, pop. 140,000, during the first half of 2019—give or take five or ten, because, again, crime reporting here, as in most of Mexico, is a maddeningly inexact science. But according to most recent indicators, our home state of Guanajuato has become one of the criminal hubs in the country.

In years past, San Miguel expats reassured themselves that, while Michoacán and border states were high-crime areas, our quaint little village remained a peaceful oasis. That fantasy doesn't seem to work any more. So now, nervous expats talk about the dead or wounded being involved in narcotrafficking—as in not me!therefore I'm safe! It's a type of magical-realist thinking that doesn't quite sway me.

Then again, this morning—a sunny, 65-degree San Miguel kind of morning—I took our five dogs for a walk on the trails they have trod around the ranch, just to check on things, and think about how I was going to wrap up this blog post.

I was reminded how much work, and money, we've spent on this place which used to be a barren, overgrazed parcel, except for a half-dozen huizaches and prickly pears, plus rocks, hundreds of rocks.

Now, over a 150 trees, some evergreens 25 feet high, and also sycamores, oaks, ash, peaches, and cedars of various sizes, thrive on the land. Not exactly North Carolina, but we're getting there.

I reminisced how much effort we devoted to siting and designing our adobe house, not a big manse but a home specifically designed, just so, for our needs and tastes, and how we thought of it as a forever home.

Over the years we've planted not only gardens but even set aside a small piece of the land as a small pet cemetery where around ten of our dogs and cats, plus some belonging to Felix, and others, most notably Chucha, a grand dame of a stray mutt that we used to feed outside our gate, and carried to our back terrace to sleep on her own box, when it was clear she didn't have long to live. That's where she died that night.

But I must add that Stew and I are not among those expats who vow to remain here until they die, for whatever reason. Different situations or advancing years might prompt us to move back the U.S., which, despite all the current political turbulence, ultimately remains "home" for both of us.

Yet, even though I speak Spanish, and we both have invested a lot money and energy in Mexico, Mexico remains a beautiful but foreign land to us. We don't cry "Viva Mexico!" at sunrise every day, or profess to know the intricacies of this country's culture or, far less, its politics. Mexico remains a flawed beauty where we are lucky to live.

Corrections and clarifications: My Managing Editor Stew says that parking lot fees have gone up only to two dollars, instead of one, which is hardly outrageous.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The brief and tragic life of a dog named Blackie

We didn't adopt Blackie as much as he adopted us. He showed up at our ranch one day about three weeks ago, somehow managing to get under or over the fence, and determined to make himself at home. 

I first I objected, I thought strenuously, to both Stew and Félix, saying that we couldn't adopt a sixth dog. So kept escorting Blackie outside the fence. But he kept coming back, four, five days in a row, wiggling and wagging, friendly as could be—to people. So finally I gave up. 

Stew and Félix, taking Blackie to be sterilized and vaccinated,
shortly after we had adopted him. 
We had him sterilized and vaccinated, and he joined the gang, or so we thought. 

Then he got into a bloody fight with Domino, the only other male in the gang. Domino is about 12 or 13 years old, missing some of his teeth, and a cantankerous, elderly sort. 

Blackie, who was about a year old, damn near killed old Domino, who suffered extensive wounds and nearly lost an eye, and had to stay at the vet overnight to recover and get sutured up. 

A few days after that, Blackie attacked Malcolm, a small, curly-tailed mutt that hangs around outside the our gate, with five or six other dogs, waiting for handouts of food every morning. 

Again, if Félix and Stew hadn't been there to pull them apart, Blackie would have killed Malcolm. 

We consulted with the vet, a very kind sort who is loath to euthanize animals. But in this case, he said, some dogs are naturally and incorrigibly aggressive, and that seemed to be the case with Blackie. 

The only thing that occurred to him, short of euthanasia, was to find a single-dog household that could adopt Blackie, or we could give him Prozac or some other tranquilizer, on a maintenance basis. That last idea, we thought, was ridiculous. 

So we brought Blackie back, hoping that if we kept a close watch on him, he might somehow adjust. 

No dice. This morning Blackie again got into fight with some of his campo cousins outside the gate, and when we returned from the vet, after vaccinating Lucy and Domino for rabies, Blackie viciously attacked Domino. Stew and I broke up the brawl, but not before Stew got bit. 

"That's it," Stew said, and I couldn't disagree. So off Stew went to the vet again to have Blackie euthanized and buried somewhere.

When we've had to put animals to sleep—never a pleasant experience no matter how one tries to rationalize it—I'm the melodramatic one who does most of the blubbering and crying, though Stew puts on a good show also.

In this case, I didn't feel anything. It was as if we were returning Blackie to the pet store. 

And this time Stew was not nearly as equanimous. He came back from the vet crying, saying he was holding to Blackie as the vet administered the fatal injection, Blackie looking at him, with that look of a dumb, uncomprehending animal: "What did I do? Why are you doing this to me?"

Now I'm more determined than ever not to take in any more strays. Two of our dogs, Lucy and Domino, plus a cat named Fifo, are getting on in years, and soon they will move on, which will allow us to reduce the herd by attrition. I hope that gradual transition is not too painful a passage for any of us.  

Many Americans come to Mexico with a bit of an arrogant Supergringo complex, believing that with our superior ingenuity and money, we'll be able to tackle, or at least alleviate, some of the problems here, whether they be the overpopulation of stray animals, or human problems such as hunger, poor sanitation and lack of education.

Truth is most of these problems are beyond the reach of our generosity, concern and good intentions. Even with Bill Gates' money and determination, we could only hope to make a small dent, more like a ding, if we're lucky. The pathologies afflicting the lives of people in the campo, all around us, are, in many ways, intractable. They will continue long after our stays in Mexico. 

And at this point, Stew and I are just damn exhausted. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

The new HEB? Curb your enthusiasm

Expats in San Miguel, for the most part, don't have terribly complicated or consequential agendas. Few of us oldsters are working on a cure for cancer, cracking the mysteries of nuclear fusion, or training for the next moon launch.

So it doesn't take much to get us excited. Take the opening of a new HEB supermarket in nearby Querétaro. Most of our friends have visited it, and there have been several postings about it on the Civil List, the expat internet bulletin board, commenting on this new shopping experience.

Stew and I went there over the weekend, and the HEB store was so mobbed we couldn't get into the parking lot. Apparently, Mexican shoppers are excited too, or at least curious.

So we trekked up there yesterday to satisfy our curiosity and not feel left behind our local friends who had already made a pilgrimage to Querétaro, and keep talking about this new and exciting (read: American-style) shopping mecca.

Yet, our reaction yesterday was a resounding "Meh!". It might have been that we were tired after a long day of Costco-ing and a few other errands in Querétaro, and didn't have the energy of to explore the store. Or that personnel at the store, or at HEB headquarters in San Antonio, are still fine-tuning the operation.

Whatever the problem was, we were not persuaded that it'd be worth it to schlep an extra 20 minutes to HEB, as opposed to the trusty old Mega in San Miguel.

When we ambled into the HEB, we were struck by its size: yeenormous, at first sight, although I don't know if it's actually bigger, in floor or shelf space, than the City Market monster that Mega opened at the Antea shopping center down the road, or a medium-size HEB in Texas.

Bulk grains, spices and seeds, anyone?
City Market appears to be more spacious that the HEB, and has devoted more space to wine, beer and other booze—including a wine-tasting bar—and features a sushi counter, nooks with fancy cosmetics, even at the expense of everyday essentials, such as toilet paper, cat litter and laundry detergents.

Much of the drama and hoo-hah at City Market is lost on Stew and I, but then, we're not big on sushi or French bath soaps.

Maybe Mega's marketers figured the Lady of the House would come to City Market to sniff around for the finer things, and send Juanita the Maid to Soriana to pick up the less glamorous abarrotes.

The new HEB is clearly experiencing opening-night jitters. The dozens of employees walking around were a welcome touch over Mega—who leaves shoppers to fend for themselves—even if many of these roving helpers didn't know where stuff was, if anywhere at all.

It took three smiling and solicitous young guys to determine the store didn't have any Melitta #2 coffee filters, or coffee filters of any kind, even though there was a 50-foot-long display of different coffee makers.

Diagonally at the other end of the store, there was a coffee bean bar that lets you select from a 18 types of coffee beans, but alas, the coffee grinder was out of order or no one knew how to use it.

Coffee beans everywhere, but nowhere to grind them. 
The small coffee shop around the corner was manned by two eager, twenty-something guys.

Zabdiel seemed to have a dimpled smile tattooed on his face and told me his name was Hebrew and referred to one of the angels guarding the gates of heaven. He took the orders but seemed a bit flustered by more than two customers in line.

His equally cheerful buddy operated the espresso machine with the deliberate speed and trepidation of someone disarming a nuclear device. Our two cappuccinos showed up after a 15 minute wait.

Such glitches, caused by lack of experience, will work themselves out eventually. What was more disappointing was the fruit and produce area, which despite dramatic lighting and displays, in quality didn't come near their HEB cousins in San Antonio.

The peaches ("imported") were as large—and hard and tasteless—as baseballs. Apples were bruised. Some of the red onions were rotten. Some of the produce was limp and belonged in a compost pile.

Not a good show. On Wednesdays, when our Mega gets its shipments, the fruits and vegetables are better than that, and a heck of a lot closer to home.

And sorry, Jennifer Rose, no Leepton Tea anywhere. But we'll check the next time we visit.