Sunday, November 23, 2014

soothing the savage breast


I came to Mexico to experience the rush of getting up each morning with very little idea how I was going to get through the day. 

Mexico has kept its side of that bargain.  But, in providing adventure, Mexico has also served up some stunning moments of beauty and comfort.

This is day two of our Barra-Filipino fiesta.  For me, it started early in the evening. 

I met my former landlady, Christine, at a restaurant that has recently re-opened under new ownership.  She told me that the food was very good.  The selling point was her announcement that they serve home-made tortillas.

I abandoned ordering beef dishes in Mexican restaurants about five years ago.  Even though pork and chicken here are far superior to their counterparts north of the Rio Bravo, beef in Mexico simply does not make the cut.

Because it is incredibly lean, it lacks flavor and is almost never tender.  There is an old cooking joke that even an old shoe would taste good if cooked piccata style.  Even the best piccata could not save most Mexican beef.

But the Hacienda Agave advertises itself as a steak house.  So, steak it was.  A rib eye.  Complete with a baked potato and grilled onions.  (Lest I forget, the starter was an incredibly delicate, yet robust, bean soup with a good selection of spicy salsas.)

Everything about the meal was great.  The beef was tender and tasty.  The baked potato looked like a variety of Yukon Gold.  And the onions complemented everything on the plate.

As good (and surprising) as the meal was, it paled in comparison to the ongoing fiesta.

The same orchestra that played last night was playing at the south end of the malecon.  I didn't mention the setting in yesterday's essay.

The laguna, on whose shores the Spanish built their ships that re-made the commercial world, is separated from the ocean by a narrow sand bar.  (The "barra" in Barra de Navidad's name.)

As I sat listening to the orchestra play its synchopated Mexican favorites, I could look across the laguna to the Grand Isla Navidad Resort looking as if Samuel Coleridge's words had materialized: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree."



Rather than sit and listen, I decided to stroll.  Where else could I listen to orchestra music blending with the beat of the ocean waves and let my eyes wander across the marvels of dark and light on the laguna -- all while greeting and chatting with neighbors and friends?

Mexico is currently undergoing an existential crisis -- one that has arrived just as the country is celebrating its revolutionary past.  But there is far more than that to this place.

Walking home through the dark, I started counting the ways in this single day that I have been blessed to be able to live long enough and to earn enough wherewithal to enjoy these very special moments.

It is great to be alive in a word where God's daily blessings surround us.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

big shots on the beach


Mexico is a land that loves its history.

Thursday, it was the Revolution.  But the Revolution could be a current event compared to the historical event Barra de Navidad is celebrating this weekend.

Our tale starts in 1493 -- soon after Columbus returned to Europe.  At the time, Portugal was the major maritime power in Europe.  Through its explorations, it had mapped out a route around Africa to establish trading posts in India -- establishing colonies along the way.



You may recall from grade school that Columbus was seeking an alternate route to the East Indies when he ran into the West Indies.  He died believing he had found that route.  But he was wrong.  No one knew it, though.

Without really knowing the extent of the line they were arguing over, Pope Alexander VI assisted the monarchs of Portugal and Spain to negotiate a treaty that awarded the New World to Spain (with the exception of Brazil) and Africa and India to Portugal.  The people in none of those lands were afforded a say.

Spain still lusted for a trade route of its own to Asia.  It had no desire to allow its commercial life to be controlled by Portugal.



Fast forward to 1564.  After Magellan's crew circumnavigated the globe, the Spanish had a good idea what crossing the Pacific would entail.  It could be done.

Mexico (a Spanish colony) faced the Philippine Islands, that had been claimed for Spain by Magellan.  And the Philippines were a perfect trading post for setting up shop with Chinese merchants.

The problem was finding a route there -- and back.  The only known trade winds blew to the east.  No one knew of any that blew west.  In the age of sail that was a rather important point.



So, the Viceroy of Mexico commissioned a financial bureaucrat, Miguel López de Legazpi, to lead an expedition to the Philippines to establish a trade route from the east to Mexico and on to Spain.  Lagazpi had two galleons and two tenders built in the harbor of what is now Barra de Navidad.  He then pressed Indians from the mountains of Jalisco into the expedition as sailors.  They sailed on 21 November 1564.

As unlikely as it seems, the expedition was successful.  But then came the hard part.  Getting back to Mexico.  That task fell to a friar, Andrés de Urdaneta, who was known as an expert navigator and who had accompanied Lagazpi on the voyage west.

Urdaneta had a hunch.  If the southern hemisphere had a circular current blowing east, there must be a similar current in the northern hemisphere blowing west.

With only that hunch to guide him (and a lot of Catholic faith), he headed northwest (almost to the 45th parallel north) and discovered what we now call the Japanese current.  But the voyage took him longer than he had anticipated.



130 days.  12,000 miles.  Fourteen of the crew dead.  Only Urdaneta and another crew member had enough strength to drop anchor in Acapulco on 8 October 1565.

When that anchor dropped, the world was forever changed.  Spain set up an annual trading regime with China -- the Manila Galleon.  In exchange for Mexican and Peruvian silver, China sold Spain silk, ceramics, and other luxury goods that were shipped to Spain through Mexico. 

Columbus's dream was realized.  Spain had its trade route to the east by going west. 

And thus was born one of the greatest eras of globalization.  That is, until Spain debased its currency with a glut of silver and nearly bankrupted itself in all sorts of pointless national endeavors.  Including an ill-conceived invasion of England.  Mexican independence was the death knell for the Madrid Galleon and its attendant mercantilism.

That is why yesterday was a big day in these parts.  We had local and state politicians whose heads were filled with more history than most of us could consume.



And, to our surprise, the ambassador to Mexico from the Philippine Republic was our guest.  It was pleasurable to witness these two Spanish colonies sharing such a strong special relationship.  It is strong enough that non-interventionist Mexico modified its foreign policy to go to the aid of the Philippines when Japan invaded in the Second World War.  The good will remains.

Of course, there were laying of wreaths.  Singing of anthems.  Awarding of blankets to the ambassador (with none of the tainted history that accompanied such gifts in the past).



There were soldiers.  Indians on stilts.  Beautiful women.  Dancing troupes masquerading as Indians.  Pageants.  Pirates (just like the ones who chased away the Manila Galleon from Barra de Navidad to Acapulco in 1587, and saved our little village from becoming just another spot to watch cliff divers).  Monks.  Beggars.  And an orchestra from Chapala that entertained us all with the equivalent of a Mexican Pops Concert.

In short, a great time.



Almost everyone in town must have had a part to play in this re-enactment of our friendship with the Philippines.  And everyone gave due respect to Urdaneta for making it all possible.

I grew up in a small town where the citizens would have done exactly what my neighbors did.  Barra de Navidad had one big splash in the history books.  450 years ago.  And we are not going to let anyone forget it.


Friday, November 21, 2014

suppose they gave a war --


Jack Brock is correct.

In a comment to yesterday's essay, he warned me: " It is time you removed your rose colored glasses regarding the serious crime problem in Mexico. This morning I saw a large band of bandits marching down the middle of the street in your town of Barra de Navidad."

He was correct.  Yesterday afternoon, I saw a similar gang in Melaque.  Not your usual bandits, though.

Yesterday was Mexico's Day of the Revolution.  A chance to celebrate one of the bloodiest chapters in Mexican history where Mexicans killed Mexicans in exchange for an authoritarian one-party state.  A legacy that still haunts Mexico's return to democracy in the late 1990s.



But yesterday was all about fun and make-believe mayhem.  The type of celebrations that is a perfect match for the basic natures of little boys.  And they did not disappoint.

I am an amateur Mexican history buff.  When I started writing this essay, I wondered why 20 November was chosen as the day to celebrate the revolution. 

Historical dates often get a bit scrambled.  Even though Miguel Hidalgo gave his famous el grito exhortation on 16 September 1810, Mexico now celebrates the el grito on 15 September -- the birthday of the dictator Porfirio Diaz, the man who was toppled in the revolution.  (Mexicans have a great sense of historical irony.) 

But it is not ony Mexico that manipulates dates.  Congress declared American independence on 2 July -- not 4 July -- 1776.  But that does not stop Americans from celebrating the 4th.

It turns out that 20 November shares similar flaws.



You all know how the Mexican revolution came about.  The darling of the Mexican liberals, Porfirio Diaz, became President in 1877 (and with the exception of four years) served as president until 1911.  He promised not to run for re-election in 1910.  Francisco Madero took him at his word and started campaigning on the not-so-snappy slogan: "Effective Suffrage - No Re-election!"

Diaz changed his mind and "won" the election through effective ballot-stuffing -- believing that it was good to be president.  For good measure, he arrested Madero during the campaign and sent him to prison in San Luis Potosi -- along with thousands of supporters.



Mexico being the land were influence trumps persuasion, Madero's father posted a bond to allow his son the freedom to ride within the town during the day -- after all, that is what is expected of a man of his class.  And, like a man of his class, he skedaddled out of town at the first opportunity.

He headed north to San Antonio, Texas and issued his Plan of San Luis Potosi, written when he was incarcerated.  The plan was very simple.  He proclaimed the presidential election null and void and called for "violent direct action" by the people of Mexico.  The start date?  20 November 1910.

Madero showed up at the Mexican border on the 20th fully expecting he would be met by an enraged and emboldened populace.  What he encountered was the sound of crickets.  Or the revolutionary equivalent.  His uncle was supposed to show up with 400 men.  He brought ten.  That was not enough men to have a good fight at a wedding.



So, Madero did what many other Mexican exiles before him had done.  He headed to New Orleans to re-think his plans -- or Plan.

Eventually, the war began, and Madero became the thirty-third president of Mexico in November 1911.  And he then became a corpse on 22 February 1913 when one of his generals grabbed power through a coup.

The Revolution (now a petty civil war that centered on no greater question than which general would be president) would run its destructive course through the country for another seven years, and then break out in a series of secular-clerical battles that would not end until 1929.

Historians try to avoid "what if" games.  After all, what did not happen simply did not happen.  But it is interesting to ponder what would have happened if Madero had succumbed to the wiles of the Crescent City and never returned to Mexico? 



On 20 November 1910, we actually had a momentary answer to the question of "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?"  Nothing, as it turns out.  Until everybody (or a lot of Mexicans) did come.  And then there was a terrible war -- a war that still affects the national psyche.  One million dead Mexicans is a wrong no one wants to suffer again.

But yesterday was not a day of not showing up.  Mexicans did show up to celebrate a very sanitized version of the revolution. 

But, isn't that what national myth-making is all about?


These three boys are representing men who would be dead before the revolution ran its bloody course.  Emiliano Zapata, President Venustiano Carranza, and President Francisco Madero.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

i am mexico


One of the funniest songs in the musical The Book of Mormon is a tribute to how native the missionary boys have gone when they sing "I am Africa."
I am Africa...
I am Africa.
With the strength of the cheetah,
My native voice will ring...

We are Africa!
We are the heartbeat of Africa!
I thought of that song the other day while reading an article in The Economist about the sudden death of tourism in east Africa.  The article did not need to tell me the reason.  Tourists are abandoning their safari trips to shoot elephants -- with either a camera or a rifle.  Because of Ebola. 

Or, as the author put it: "Now many safari lodges are closer to extinction than the animals that surround them.  Redundant workers might eventually turn to poaching."

The article was accompanied by the map at the top of this essay.  It shows the distances between the east Africa tourist centers and the three countries on the far west coast of the continent where Ebola is having its way with the local population and with the minds of the highly excitable and neurotic throughout the world.

That "highly excitable and neurotic" may apply to me.  While standing in the immigration line at Heathrow in August (a line that could easily have been used as a stand-in for Ellis Island), I started looking around at my fellow arrivals.  And, because I am who I am, I started wondering just how many of these souls had recently waded through the river Styx in LIberia.  Or Sierra Leone.  Or Guinea.

I felt moderately less paranoid when I talked to a several people on my cruise.  They all had the same thoughts.  But we still traveled.

And that is why The Economist included this article in its most recent edition.  The east Africa tourist areas are as far or further away from the Ebola breakout than European capitals.

Of course, that analysis comes from the meticulously-trained and passion-neutral minds of economists.  I suspect that an Italian or German who worries about Ebola popping up in Rome or Berlin is not going to be comforted by the thought that a vacation in Nairobi has a certain spatial advantage over his own capital.

As I read the article, I wondered why the press has not been publishing similar maps of Mexico to show how limited the areas of violence are.  (To be fair, The Economist has handled that issue quite rationally.  Unlike most other news sources.) 

But, as I have learned to my cost, trying to convince people that visiting and living in Mexico is no more dangerous than living in my old neighborhood in Salem, is a fool's mission.  There are other issues that need to be addressed here in my newly-adopted country, and I will write about them soon.  However, violence for tourists and expatriates is not one of them.  Otherwise, I would not have decided to become a landowner.

Maybe because, just like the Mormon missionaries in the musical (and the rebozo-beclad gringas of San Miguel de Allende), I believe I have become one with this land.

To only slightly paraphrase the lyrics:

Mexicans are Mexicans --
But, I am Mexico*

* -- I rather sadly add this note.  But past experience has taught me that I need to add some voice interpretations in some of my essays.  Those last two paragraphs need to be read as if they came from deep in the kingdom of Sardonia.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

luz lights up my life




I have lived a cosseted life in Mexico.

When I moved down here, I wanted to learn the daily routines of living in my little village as soon as I could.  During my first eight months, I sat a house on the beach.  But I was responsible for paying rent, the telephone bill, the electric bill, and the propane bill. 

There is a Western Union office in town that accepts payments for Telmex (telephone) and CFE (electric) bills.  So, I learned the process of standing in line with lots of my neighbors.  And that I could add additional advance payments on my Telmex bill, but not my CFE bill.  (A trip to the "county" seat was necessary to make advance electric payments.)

Some of the rules made no sense to me, but I learned them.

For the next almost five years, I lived in another rental.  But everything except the telephone bill was included in my rent.  I had to learn very little about daily finances.  In fact, I forgot a lot of the lessons I learned in the first eight months.

It is time for me to re-learn them.  I have now been in my new house for a month.  And the bills have started arriving.  At least, the electric bill has.

Or, I should say, the electric bills.  My house has two meters to split out the various uses.

Unlike The States, my electric bill does not arrive as an email or in an envelope at my postal box.  It is unceremoniously pushed under my garage door.  A CFE worker (fully geared-out in vest and hard hats) brings a vast stack of bills door-to-door through the neighborhood.

(My telephone bill has still not arrived, but threatening recorded calls to terminate my service have.  The Telmex bills should be delivered to my house by the postman.  He has not yet brought it.  So, I made an advance payment yesterday afternoon.  Otherwise, Mexpatriate would have been dead in the water.)

The CFE bill arrives six times a year.  Two months in each billing.

Because I had only been here for one month, I suspected the bills would be rather low.  You can see how wrong I was.

The smaller bill is for $778 (Mx); the larger for $2,294 (Mx).  That is about $227 (US).

One of the first lessons I learned down here is that electricity is expensive.  I came from an area of The States where the taxpayers of the East Coast subsidized my electricity through the Bonneville Power Administration.  So, I am easily shocked by power bills.

But the bills were far more than I had anticipated.

I already told you the bills are for a two month period.  63 days for these bills.  My assumption is that the bills include costs incurred during the month I did not own the house.

That assumption is not reassuring.  It means that the cost for electricity to run an uoccupied house for one month and a house occupied by one person for the second month (plus a week of two visitors) is quite a bit higher than I suspected it would be.

The big cost, of course, is the pool pump.  It runs a couple of hours each day to keep the pool from re-celebrating Saint Patrick's Day.  Otherwise, there is the use of an occasional fan, a microwave, limited lighting, and the pump that brings water from the well.

The average monthly electricity bill in The States in 2012 (the latest information) was $108.  That puts my bill in some perspective.  But not a very meaningful one.

Of course, the bills are the best argument for not making a leap into the world of air conditioning.  I had already concluded that before the bills arrived.  The combination of the ceililng fans and the pool has been more than enough to make portions of October and November quite pleasant.

When Darrel and I were young, we were not very good at turning off lights.  My mother says Dad and she would often return home at night to find every light in every room of the house ablaze.  His response?  "Children light up a home."

I come by it naturally. 


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

back to the showers


That feeling of déjà vu?  It's real.  You really have read a similar essay by me. 

Almost a year ago.  In come take a shower with me.



Even the time span is not coincidental.  Because it is meteor shower time.  And their appearance is as predictable as a presidential speech.

Each year about this time, the earth's orbit takes it through the dense stream of debris left behind by the orbit of a comet named Tempel-Tuttle -- a name that sounds far more appropriate for a British earl.  Probably the guy who invented Marmite.

The result is at least two nights of astronomical fireworks.  A case where littering does serve some social good.  If only to serve the ethereal ways of entertainment.

My roof terrace proved to be an excellent viewing platform.  I could easily see the eastern horizon -- the direction you should be looking if you are curious enough.  Better yet, there was only the faintest moon to dim the show.

The downside is last night's performance was rather mediocre.  As far as Leonid meteor showers go.  In some years, there are thousands of meteors per hour.

Not last night.  There were a few just before dawn.  Certainly far more than on a regular clear night here in Mexico.  But hardly overwhelming.

Tonight will be the high point.  But, don't get over-inflate your hopes.  There will simply be more than last night.  Mainly around dawn.  The comet debris trail we entered this year is rather sparse.  All of the Big Mac wrappers are congregated elsewhere.

My eight-grade teacher repeatedly complained I was a day-dreamer in her class.  Well, there is no Mrs. Meyers to keep you from staring off into space to witness the great creation that surrounds us.

Do it alone.  Or take along a loved one.  There is no such thing as a bad shower.


Monday, November 17, 2014

existentialism comes to barra


Several months ago, my friend Nancy Miller forwarded a link to me.  It was a blog post written by an American living in Paris: "Loneliness or Freedom: The Existential Conflict of the Modern Expatriate."

The title (as any good title should) captures the dichotomy of the essay's theme.  The writer (Cody Delistaty -- I did not make that up) believes most expatriates are torn between the Scylla of freedom and the Charybdis of loneliness.

For the expatriate, life can get quite lonely. The expatriate desires camaraderie, time with people who are like her, but at the same time this is exactly what she’s running away from.
And, thus, the dilemma.
It’s a particularly odd situation because the expatriate wants both loneliness and friendship. It’s nearly impossible to separate the feeling of isolation from the feeling of total freedom, of having escaped a set of circumstances that you were born into, and, without meditated action, would never have left.
I have touched on this topic in Mexpatriate in the past.  It is also a running subtext whenever expatriates meet.  At least, in these parts.

Yesterday I was talking with my neighbor Mary.  She lives in Michigan half of the year and then spends the rest of the year in her Barra de Navidad house -- something she has been doing for years.  As a result she is a fixture in this very Mexican neighborhood.

We were discussing how "odd" our fellow expatriates must seem to our friends and neighbors up north -- and we put our names at the top of the "odd" list.  "Odd" seems to be the word whenever expatriates discuss one another.

Moving here should seem odd.  Most of us have given up seemingly-comfortable lives to live a life in Mexico that is a bit more adventurous, less tidy, and certainly not predictable.

If I wanted to be smug (and I am wont to do that now and then), I could point out that I would not be drafting this essay from the edge -- the wet side of that edge -- of my swimming pool if I had stayed in Salem.  And, though that sentence may seem to undercut my primary argument for moving here (to avoid the comfortable life; to wake up every morning in Mexico and not know how I was going to get through the day), seeking adventure often comes with its own benefits.

Of course, expatriates are going to be a bit odd.  Your typical Babbitt is not going to pull up stakes and move away from hearth and home to start a new life.  (Even though that is exactly what my people have been doing for at least the last 500 years.)

So, we expatriates just leave.  The list of reasons is diverse; there is probably an individual reason for each expatriate.

You only need to read the blogs written by my fellow expatriates to see that.  Some came seeking a low-cost life, and found love, instead.  Some came seeking love, and discovered that being single has a lot of blessings.  Some went into political exile, and developed an aesthetic sense that altered their new lives.

And that is the flaw in
Delistaty's article.  Not all expatriates left their homelands seeking freedom.  That is, unless you want to suck all of the meaning out of that venerable word.

It is simply not true.  The supposed tension between seeking freedom and then giving it up in the need for the companionship of other expatriates is a false construct. 

It is doubly false because not all expatriates seek out others of their ilk.  Many are lone wolves.  After living in this area for six years, I am surprised to discover new groups of expatriates who have lived here well before 2009.  Mary is an example.  Some of us are happy to be semi-recluses.

I had hoped that Delistaty would offer a synthesis to his Hegelian thesis of loneliness and his antithesis of freedom.  But I was sorely disappointed, instead, that he fired off this wet squib of Whitmanesque Romanticism:

It is here, where loneliness gives way to freedom, where your imagination of the life you always desired coincides with reality, that the expatriate finds that while loneliness is ever present, while freedom is ghost-like, and while it may be impossible to run away from yourself, your worries, and your insecurities, you can, in fact, run away.
 So, I guess that is what all of this philosophical hand-wringing and navel-gazing comes down to.  A solution that every four-year-old knows.  If life gets too confusing, you can just run away.

That is why it verges on the edge of terminal irony, that after all of these words griping about the article, Delistay's self-absorbed sentence rather accurately sums up my move to Mexico.

A place where I have freedom -- and where I am never -- ever -- the least bit lonely.