Saturday, June 16, 2018

laughing at heaven’s door


God has a sense of humor.

And a rather perverse if the tailless whip scorpion is any example.

If you did not blanch when that photograph loaded, you are an exception. Most of my Mexican neighbors would have reached for a shoe.

I have been told repeatedly by Mexican friends and employees that there is nothing more dangerous than these ugly Bettys of the animal kingdom. “The deadliest spider in Mexico” is the usual explanation.

Except, it is not a spider. And, unlike the English name, it is not a scorpion, either. The only thing it has in common with spiders and scorpions is that it has eight legs. Six to ambulate. And two to grab prey (similar to a praying mantis).

My neighbors called it a vinegaron. Because it emits a vinegar smell when threatened.

But poisonous? No. It packs no venom.

Like most animals, it will bite defensively. But it is about as dangerous as a plate of sardine pate.

Not only is it not dangerous, it is beneficial. If you are a creep crawly, you may be the next meal of a tailless whip scorpion. It is quite fond of cockroaches. And scorpions. The real ones.

The one you are looking out was in the patio bathroom last night. Lurking just over the toilet paper roll.

I will confess my first reaction was to immediately withdraw the hand that had reached for the roll. Until I realized it was one of Mexico’s more beneficial creatures.

So, it lives on. Hunting through the night to bump off the Buick-size cockroaches that occasionally munch on me in bed.

I do have one suggestion, though. The tailless whip scorpion could use a public relations makeover. I wonder if Bill Clinton’s agent is available?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

shocking insults

It was a typical Mexican restaurant.

The food was traditional. The decor was spartan. And the television blared to an almost-empty house.

There were three occupied tables. A Mexican couple. A northern couple. And me.

It was not a usual stopping point for me. But I had eaten there often enough to know the family who owns the place. And well enough to know the eccentricities of the infrastructure.

My carne en su jugo had just arrived when the television flickered and went out. I am accustomed to power outages here. But, that was not the problem. The large fan in the center of the restaurant was still turning.

Then I saw the culprit. The woman of the northern couple was fooling around with the electrical octopus that provided power to several devices. Including the television.

The owner's daughter, who has just served me, simply frowned. But said nothing.

I knew what she was thinking. The outlet also included the control unit for the television's satellite service. Unplugging it would take a lot of time to get it up and running again.

"Excuse me," I said to the woman intent in her task. "What are you doing?"

She looked up at me as if I were something she had just scraped off the bottom of her shoe. "It isn't any of your business, but I need to plug in my tablet. And that television is way too loud. No one will eat here with all that noise."

I ignored her Eleanor Roosevelt impression, and tried to stay focused on my concern. "You are going to cause a problem with the satellite reception by unplugging the power."

She ignored me. By that time the daughter had called in the real enforcer. Her mother. The cook. She came out of the kitchen, saw what was happening, and rushed over to the northern woman. Wagging her finger in a way that only a Mexican mother can.

The northern woman retreated to her table, but not before giving me the stink eye. Her husband commiserated with her in a stage whisper directed at me with a studied passive-aggressive tone. "He is obviously an American. They need to mind their own business."

I simply let the irony wash over me. It is not often that an entire anecdote can be written for me that requires no editing.

There has always been a bit of tension between the majority Canadian population here and the rest of us. National stereotypes are tossed around for laughs. But, as my secretary Jamela was wont to say: "Many a truth is said in jest."

At some point, the tone of the ribbing has taken on a harder edge. Talking with friends, I too often hear "Oh, you know her. She's British." Or French. Or American. Or Canadian. And it is always said with a barb barely hidden. As if a person's nationality always predisposes them to some sort of bad behavior.

It is far too easy to blame it all on Trump. Like George Bush, he is a convenient scapegoat for everything we dislike. And, there is no doubt that his tone has decreased the level of civility in international intercourse.

But that is a juvenile evasion. What seems to escape some people is that I am not Donald Trump. Nor are 327,543,113 other Americans. If you want to gripe about him, be my guest. Griping about our president is the great national pastime.

And, if I feel inclined, I will make fun of Justin Trudeau for dressing his family like extras in a Bollywood spectacular on a state visit to India. An act that would have him expelled from almost any first rate American university for cultural appropriation.

But, I won't. Because I really don't care. It has no bearing on my relationship with individual Canadians.

Expatriate communities are just like any other small community. We either learn how to be civil to one another or we will turn into the social equivalent of Bosnia.

And I will start right now. That is why I did not tell you the home country of the electrical meddler. I will tell you, though, that the adjective "northerner" is a McGuffin.

Now, let's play civilly.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

the cock crowed

I was in a Bible story.

The neighbor's cock crowed thrice. Well, I suspect it was more than that. But I only heard it three times.

He is one of those satisfied fowl. Pampered with food and hens. His one job is to announce the arrival of the sun. And, unlike his neurotic fighting brothers who persistently announce their neuroses, this guy sticks to his once-a-day job.

But, unlike Peter's denial of the messiah, the cock did not portend one of my inevitable sins (not that there were no candidates). It was simply time to get out of bed.

Since moving to Mexico, I usually have no idea what day of week it is. With one exception. Sunday. Church at 10 AM is the only regular entry on my calendar.

And Sunday it was. Before I went to bed, I had read the portion of John's gospel that we would be studying. Jesus' arrest in the garden, his sham of a trial, and Peter's denial. That is probably why the cock had me in a Peter frame of mind.

Saturday night, tropical storm Aletta passed by well off of our coast. But she gave us several gifts. Rain. Thunder. Lightning. Lots of lightning.

Because the storm hit us in the middle of the night, I did not rush around the house unplugging electronics. Even when lightning struck within blocks of the house. As it often does.

So, I was relieved when I was preparing for church to discover that everything seemed to be working fine. That is, until Omar told me in the afternoon that there was no internet.

He was correct. The transformer and the modem were dead. And nothing would revive them.

On Tuesday, I finally got through to a Telmex service representative. Or, my friend, Julio did. He has far more patience in dealing with Telmex than I do. And this time, he lost his patience.

When I moved here, Telmex had a great customer service routine for exchanging fried modems. I would drive an hour to Manzanillo and exchange the dead for the quick.

Several years ago, Telmex added a new step. To get a replacement modem, I had to report it to the frustrating customer service representatives at Telmex. (You know the type. They ask for your address and then tell you you have misspelled the street name because they have all of that information on a computer screen.) But, with the report number, I could get a new modem the same day.

No more. After spending 45 minutes on the telephone reciting information that Telmex already had, the representative told Julio that a modem would be shipped to me by DHL.

That was the good news. The bad news was that it would not ship for almost a full week. Next Monday.

So, that leaves me without any internet at the house. I am writing this essay at one of my favorite haunts. Rooster's in San Patricio. But, because it is a favorite, people I know stop by and sit down to chat.

That is not conducive to writing. But, I go out to eat for the socializing. It makes little sense to shoo people away just because I have another purpose right now.

All of that is prelude to let you know that I may be offline for a few days. Not for a lack of material or a desire to write (I have both), but because of technical difficulties.

When I say I moved to Mexico because I wanted to get up each morning and have no idea how I was going to get through the day. Well, this qualifies as one of those days.

If I can, I will rely on the kindness of strangers (and friends) to post musings before Monday. If not, the cock and I will see you at sunrise on Tuesday.

I hope.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

sex is in the air

The signs are impossible to miss. And predictable.

The rains began a bit early this year. For two days, we have had our share of downpours. And when it rains this time of year, I have visitors in the patio. Lots of them.

Because, in the spring rains, to paraphrase Tennyson, a young ant's fancy lightly turns to love. Or, at least, to sex.

Ant princesses emerge from their nests outfitted in Julia Roberts wings and take flight in hopes of encountering their own Adam Ant. If they do, they return to earth as a queen ready to start their own nest.

My patio, of course, is a dry hole. With the exception of my planters, there is little to recommend my patio to the expectant mothers. When the ants land, they start sloughing their now-superfluous wings, leaving them looking a bit more like street ants than royalty.

The first to arrive are the leaf cutters. They are probably not the first, but, because of their size, they are the first I notice.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with leaf cutters. When I lived on the laguna in Villa Obregon, fighting the ants was a daily task. They could strip a hibiscus in one night.

Of course, they always prevailed. And, even  though I hated what they did to the landscaping, I admired their organization and persistence.

When I moved to Barra de Navidad three years ago, the war was over. I had no plants in the patio that interested the leaf cutters.

For a day or two, the pregnant queens wander around the patio until they succumb to the heat. Lopping off another limb of the ant family tree.

But the leaf cutters are not alone. They come in tens. The other ants -- smaller ants -- come in the hundreds.

Yesterday the top of my pool was almost black with the corpses of tiny ants. Spencer's Faerie Queen meets Jeffrey Dahmer.

And, just as quickly as they arrived, they will vanish. Just like love.

"Go to the ant, you lazybones! Consider its ways, and be wise." Proverbs 6:6

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

a hair of the dog

Once upon a time there was a scorpion named Al who lived in Mexico. He once lived in a shoe, but he was booted.

His real name, as I should have told you before, is really El Alacrán. But that's such a fuss to pronounce that we usually call him just Al. The only people who use his formal name are his mother, when angry -- or political "pollsters" who always call at dinnertime.

One day Al was going about his predatory arachnid business when it started raining. And not just any rain. If asked, because he was a noted raconteur, he would have sworn he had just missed getting on board Noah's ark. His smarmy cousin Gordo took the last scorpion seat.

As the flood rose, he relied upon his remnant fish genes to eel his way through the deluge. When he thought he could swim no more, he grasped onto a vertical surface. With his last strength, he edged above the surface of the water, folded himself up, and slept.

That is, he slept until an evil ogre grabbed him. Whether he stuck his assailant like Sam stuck Shelob, he would never know. The ogre smashed him.

The end.

Well, that is the end of Al's story. My version is a bit different.

For the last couple weeks, our daily temperature and humidity readings have been having a race to the top -- and it is hard to say which wins on any given day. The numbers are in the 90s.

It is days like this that the best we can do is to hope that the rains arrive to drive down the humidity -- at least, temporarily. And those hopes were realized last night. With a spectacular storm that was equal parts lightning, thunder, and rain. And plenty of each.

As almost always happens, I had told myself for two days to pick up the leaves and flowers that my cup of gold vines slough. If left on the ground, they clog the patio drains. And that is what happened last night. The rains came down, and the drains clogged up. Sufficiently clogged up to transform the patio into a wading pool.

Because more rain is in our forecast, my first duty this morning was picking up the soggy masses that had clogged the drains. Some of the leaves and flowers were stuck on the walls.

One clump looked a bit different. It was leaf brown. But it looked a bit like a variety of caterpillar known for its sting.

Instead of using a stick to nudge it (which would have been the smart thing to do -- even a monkey would have been smart enough to use a rudimentary tool), I grabbed it gingerly with my right thumb and forefinger.

Fortunately, it was not a stinging caterpillar. Unfortunately, it was a stinging scorpion. A rather large scorpion. And one of the beige variety that pack the worst wallop in these parts.

This was no half-sting. I have experienced that once before in San Miguel de Allende when I grabbed a medicine vial where a scorpion had taken up residence. Both times, my right forefinger receive the brunt of the sting.

I have mentioned before that my scorpion stings have been no more eventful than a wasp sting. And that is exactly what this one felt like.

There was a sharp immediate pain that quickly turned into a spreading numbness throughout my finger as the venom took effect. Had my finger been a cockroach, it could not have escaped.

I did not seek medical treatment. Instead, I self-medicated with ice on the entry point to stop the spread of the venom.

None of the other symptoms that necessitate medical care appeared. No dizziness. No closed throat. No frothing at the mouth (though had that occurred I could have signed up as a sufferer of TDS).

Before I wriote this essay, I rehearsed it with friends. Of course, they all had their own individual remedy. Northerners were big on suggesting large doses of benadryl -- whatever that is.

But my Mexican friends had the best suggestions.

Drink milk. Why? The milk will get in your blood system and slow the spread of the venom.

Do not eat shellfish. Why? The salt will cause the venom to be more powerful.

To be fair, if I asked a northerner for the scientific basis of home remedies, the answers would seem just as quaint. If you think that is not true, try to keep a straight face when someone tries to explain why bags of water tacked to decks somehow manage to frighten flies.

But, this was my favorite. My friend Alan asked me if I still had the exact scorpion that stung me. I did. I bagged it up to take to the doctor if my symptoms worsened.

Here is what he told me to do. Cut off the stinger and put it in a glass of tequila. Smash up the stinger and drink it all. The venom in the stomach will counter-balance the venom in the blood stream.

I laughed. But there is a grain of truth in the methodology. After all, the anti-venom injections offered by medical staff is simply a more sophisticated (and, I should add in all fairness, scientific) approach.

I did not try any of the methods -- either northern or Mexican. Just like a wasp sting, the venom has numbed my finger and part of my forearm.

But it has not numbed it enough to keep me from typing this essay for you.

After all, poor Al gave up his life for your entertainment.

Friday, June 01, 2018

tipping the canoe -- and the waiter

Yup. I am about to poke the bear.

From past experience, discussing tipping is the second easiest way to generate comments in these parts. (I will let you guess the first.) For some reason, people's beliefs about tipping are about as a concrete as a Calvinist's certainty of how salvation works.

What has sent me down this quixotic path of knight errantry was a little slip of yellow paper tucked at the back of our table in a hipster-wannabe restaurant in Portland. My family had stopped there last Friday to have lunch before we attended my aunt's memorial service.

My niece, a Seattle foodie, quickly took the measure of the place. It felt as if it had once been a popular neighborhood breakfast spot, but now wanted desperately to be a hipster magnet in its old age. Similar to those guys who are effectively bald but like wearing their fringe in a braided ponytail.

But it was not the bizarre food combinations on the menu or the self-conscious tackiness of the decor that caught my attention. It was that yellow piece of paper.

Admittedly, I got sucked in by the headline: "Gigi's is Tipless ." I will confess that I seriously mistook the last word. But I suspect the vowel movement was intentional.

I read on.

"We have chosen to become a tipless restaurant to ensure all staff, both front of house and kitchen staff, are paid a living wage, covered by health and dental insurance and a part of  our profit incentive plan."

After all, this is Portland, and "living wage" is one of those code words to ensure the customer knows she is sitting in the lap of compassionate progressivism. (I particularly liked the "front of house" insertion -- to telegraph that the person waiting on your table is actually an actor playing the part of a waiter.)

Having advertised their generosity to their staff and their desire to go tipless, I anticipated the owners would then announce they had folded what would normally be a tip into the prices on the menu, 
instead of customers having to dig for tips. That would be a win-win for everyone.

But, I was wrong. Probably because the answer I just posited would have been a market-driven libertarian solution. And this is Portland. Instead, the owners put the dark underbelly of progressivism in full view.

Instead of leaving the choice of a tip in the hands of their customers, the owners decided that a tax would be a far simpler solution. "A 20% surcharge will be added to each ticket (in lieu of gratuity), and used entirely for staff benefit."

"For staff benefit?" I assume that means to solely pay for those lauded benefits the owners are so generously providing to their help.

None of that bothers me. After all, customers pay for every single penny in pay and benefits that businesses provide to their employees -- assuming that the business does not have a dollar tree growing in the break room.

So why all the hairshirt business of going tipless? Anyone with a nodding acquaintance of economics knows how the process works.

Or do they? I suspect the reason the restaurant went from voluntary tipping to imposing a tax is that not enough people were tipping to help the staff maintain a "living wage."

Of course, if customers are unhappy with the service charge, they can choose to eat elsewhere. As will my family in the future. Not because of the tipping policy, but because of the food.

And that brings us to Mexico where tipping continues to be a topic of discussion amongst tourists and expatriates.

The waiters in the restaurants in our little fishing villages are in the same position as waiters in most small American restaurants. Their wage is minimal. They count on tips to scrape enough pesos together to make a "living wage."

That is why I am a little confounded at diners who seem to develop very odd tipping behavior while they are in Mexico.

The range of tipping is astounding -- from nothing to the customary 20% in northern restaurants. Let me share some anecdotes.

Several years ago, I was dining at my then-regular restaurant (La Rana -- The Frog) with a long-term tourist. During dinner he mentioned how inexpensive it was to eat in restaurants in Mexico. "I can afford to eat out for about two-thirds of my meals."

When the bill arrived, I noticed that he had left about the equivalent of a 5% tip. Out of curiosity (because it was really none of my business), I asked him if he had miscalculated.

"Oh, that. No. I only leave 5% at restaurants here. I figure the meals are so inexpensive and that living costs are so low here, that half my normal tip is sufficient."

I started to explain how percentages work in absolute terms, but he was not interested. He thought he was leaving enough.

A second story.

A woman who grew up in England had a discussion here with me about tipping. She is opposed to it. Her feeling is that if she leaves a tip, she is encouraging owners to pay sub-standard wages. (She is not an aberration. I talked with cruise staff on a ship that was stationed out of England. They said the English simply do not tip.)

The culture we tuck in our suitcases when we visit or move to Mexico has a big factor on our tipping practises. For example, some long-term visitors are on a restricted budget. They will splurge to eat out, but then save by cutting back on the tip.

Not everyone, of course. But enough to create a credible stereotype. Stereotypes that waiters are willing to share.

I am a realist when it comes to tipping. Especially, when it comes to tipping at places I often frequent.

My rule in Mexico is that I will leave a tip of 20 pesos for any restaurant bill up to 100 pesos. If the bill is above $100, I leave 20%. Here is why.

I have no delusions about buying friendship with the tips I give waiters. What I do buy is good service in the future. And a bit of gratitude that gives me some very good sources for conversations and blog material.

I refuse to join the debate about what the proper percentage of a tip is. That is an argument for bureaucrat-minded. People should allow their moral compass to determine how much they should leave on the table at the end of a meal.

But part of that moral compass should always incorporate the concept that the waiter who took your order and brought your food to your table, and the cook who prepared it, are trying to make a living in this world. And that can often be very difficult in Mexico.

It is not only God who enjoys a joyful giver.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

what do the pope and a bear have in common?

Some questions continually plague travelers.

Such as, why do some Mexican rest stops (such as, the one at the volcano just outside Colima) have urinals installed so high on the wall that Wilt Chamberlain would struggle to use them? Did a governor's mathematically-challenged cousin get the contract? Or are they for the exclusive use of an unknown group of Mexicans (la raza alta?) who travel only under the mantle of darkness?

For about a year, I had asked my Mexican friends why the urinals are often set so high in public bathrooms. No one had a good answer. My friend Alan (you may recall him from cart of laughs) provided the most practical response. "Who cares? I always use the toilet."

Unlike Alan, I am always attuned to the peculiarities of roadside bathrooms. And I found a doozy last week in Oregon at a rest stop just south of Portland on I-5. I know that several of you have stopped there.

I thought in my absence Oregon had turned some sort of green corner. Men #1? Men #2?

Now, where I was raised, #1 and #2 have very specific meanings in this context. Had recycling actually gone that far with our -- waste? And how do we avoid commingling our recyclables? It reminded me of one of Mr. Burns's wittiest lines: "Yes, well, it does sound delightful! I can't wait to start pawing through my garbage like some starving raccoon!"

It turned out that #1 was closed. But that was not a problem. After all the rest stop sits in a copse of Douglas fir. And men have been resolving that number amongst the trees from time immemorial.

Or, at least, that was the excuse I was going to use if any of the police, who usually stake out the place for people indulging in blind date sexual trysts, tapped me on the shoulder in mid-stream. I could see the magistrate's face beaming at my bon mot.

While I was working out that scenario in front of the sign, my sainted brother tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that the #1 and #2 designated the presence of two bathrooms, not their function. He and Alan must have taken the same problem-solving class.

Rather than spending time in the local hoosegow, I am back in Mexico pondering those thyroid-case urinals.

I may take a soap box with me on my next trip passing the volcanoes. You know the one. I am standing on it right now.