Thursday, October 20, 2016

day of the living peso

Where did October go?

Day of the Dead is almost upon us and I have not yet bought my Day of the Dead tree or wrapped my Day of the Dead presents or sent out my Day of the Dead cards.

Before you think I am handling a sacred Mexican holiday with far too much sarcasm, take a look at that photograph. I could have shot it at any discount store in Canada or The States. But it was in the bustling burg of Manzanillo.

Witch hats. Princess costumes. Plastic jack-o-lanterns with handles to assist little goblins in making a fast get-away on their trick-or-treat rounds.

Every year when photographs (or the real thing) show up in these parts, the usual suspects will don ashes, pull their hair, and bemoan the passing of another Mexican tradition. By that, I suspect they mean Day of the Dead.

Well, all of you pearl clutchers, I have a piece of news. Day of the Dead is a regional Mexican tradition. In some regions (such as Michoacán) it is very big. In a week or so, the highways around Pátzcuaro will be filled with pickups and trucks filled to overflowing with marigolds to dress up graves and archways.

Around here (as well as in northern Mexico) you will be lucky to see much other than local schools competing to build altars -- often adorned with vampires and werewolves. They look a lot like a science fair in the school gym gone wrong.

Some Mexican Indian tribes have a long tradition of setting aside a day to commune with their dead. The tradition survived in its home regions after The Conquest.

In an attempt to build greater national pride, one of the Mexican presidents in the 1960s (I do not recall his name, but undoubtedly one of you will), decided it would be a great idea to have another national tradition. His Education minister opted for Day of the Dead. Children throughout the country would be taught the tradition, and another thread would be woven into the national myth.

And like most things in this world that are imposed from above, everyone went on living their lives as if nothing had changed. Residents of Tzintzuntzán decorated their cemeteries and their homes drawing tourists like vultures to a carcass. While, in Monterrey, a tourist would be hard pressed to find a marigold. Ghosts and devils? You betcha. Marigolds? Not as likely.

I am not certain who buys all that Halloween paraphernalia. I do not see many trick or treaters in our small villages. That may be because I am usually out that evening (just as I was in Oregon and Nevada). But I have seen them in the smaller village of La Manzanilla -- just up the road. I susect wherever northerners congregate, the little baggers will follow.

I am not surprised Halloween has started to catch on around here. What kid could avoid a night where all you have to do is ask for candy, and you then get as much as you want?

Mexico is a cultural sponge. Even though the vast majority of the population is Mestizo, the culture has a velcro tendency for foreign cultural bits it likes.

Some remnants of the pre-Conquest culture survive. There are also lots of Spansh and French affectations that crept across the Atlantic voluntarily and involuntarily. The art nouveau and art deco buildings of Mexico City are examples.

And, of course, the cultural giant on the other side of the Rio Bravo has bequeathed as much to Mexico as it has to the rest of the world. Santa Claus. Levis. KFC. Home Depot.

Now, Halloween.

Here at the house with no name, we celebrate neither Day of the Dead or Halloween. But, we will celebrate Revolution Day next month.

Just don't expect any candy. And call first.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

knocking on heaven's door

The fenders on my Escape have taken a lickin', but they go on tickin'.  At least, the Escape does.

When I lived in Villa Obregón, the gates on my courtyard were narrow enough that I dinged up both rear and front fenders more than once. I swore when I bought a new house, I would ensure the garage doors were a bit wider.

Well, I bought a new house, and the garage doors are even narrower. Early last year, I dinged up another fender backing out of my house (filling the well). Two readers suggested I install an automatic door opener. I have been at both of their houses and have used theirs. They made a good point.

But, it took me a bit of time to finally purchase one. And I probably would not have got around to it if one of my neighbors had not put me in touch with an installer.

This is actually old news. The garage door opener was installed in May. But this story has hunkered at the bottom of my in basket. Starting as a news article, morphing into an information piece, and finally settling into the status every writer dislikes -- the dreaded "human interest" story.

I had two major qualms about installing an automatic opener -- one aesthetic, the other practical.

The aesthetic problem was based on my experience with garage door openers up north. You know the type I mean. You buy it at Sears and spend the afternoon getting whacked in the head by loose mechanical connections because "I do not need to waste money paying someone to do what I can do myself." And the result was redolent with DIY. Not what you would like your friends to see regularly.

Above the Rio Bravo, that would not be a problem. Garages are more private than bedrooms.

But not in the house with no name. The garage shares the same stark lines as the rest of the house. And a Home Depot opener bought on sale would merely clutter up the ceiling in the area where I park the car.

That turned out not to be a problem. Mexican craftsmanship often amazes me. The pistons that individually open each door are about as subtle as engineering can make them. I am not certain what I expected to receive, but the result is entirely unobtrusive.

The second problem was security. Once inside an American home, it is usually very easy for a burglar to open the garage door to assist in transforming what were once your goods into his goods. There is usually a push button just inside the entry from the garage to the house. If not, there is a safety rope that will release the door and allow it to be opened.

As you have already figured out, there is no such problem with my opening system. There is no internal button. The doors open only with the remote control.

And, if the power should fail (as it often does in these parts), a key will disengage each of the pistons. The doors can then be opened manually. Once again giving me the opportunity to run my car into one of the doors.

I have not written earlier about the doors because we spent a few months correcting a small problem. The first door would close properly. But the second would close with such force that it would start the opening process again.

The technician came out twice. The solution turned out to be quite simple. But I was amazed at his patience in getting the doors to operate just so. They now close with a varying tempo that is almost symphonic.

There have been other adventures with doors. The most famous you already know with Barco's midnight escape when he found the remote unattended (a remote possibility). He did that twice. I know dogs do not understand cause and effect as we do. But I swear he would intently watch me whenever I pressed the button to open the doors.

Otherwise, my life with my new automatic doors has been rather mundane. I can now drive into the garage with no new dents -- and I never have to get out of my car until I am inside.

To Felipe and Jennifer, thanks for the suggestion. Life in Mexico is filled with a lot of good things. But having friends with good advice is a treasure no matter where I live.

Monday, October 17, 2016

walk on by

I knew it was going to happen.

But knowing a fact and accepting it with gracious contentment are two completely different things.

When I was in the Air Force (both on active duty and in the reserves), I had a roller coaster relationship with my weight. The scale would warn me when I was nudging too close to my maximum, and I would get serious about dropping a few pounds.

I quickly learned that increasing my exercise regimen and cutting back on food portions would let me lose about a pound a day. Up to a point. The first 15 to 20 pounds burned off like lard in a campfire. And then, it would level off for days with no more pounds dropped.

Back then, those 15 to 20 pounds were good enough to keep me in compliance with the weight standards. We were constantly reminded by the promotion boards that complying with the standards was not good enough. We needed to have The Look of an officer. That always struck me as a bit fascist.

Earlier this month, I slipped into another of my weight loss modes. After looking at several books and listening to a long line of friends and acquaintances, who were absolutely certain they knew The Perfect Way to lose weight, I fell back on what has worked for me in the past: exercise and calorie control.

I did shut the gate on several foods I liked, but that I can live without. Otherwise, I am eating the same food, but less of it. I have even cut back on my social life in restaurants -- for now.

The exercise portion has been easy. I like walking. In fact, I had a regular routine before Barco arrived. The day I took him to the clinic earlier this month, I started my walking routine, again. Partly to stop worrying about his condition.

My routine was to walk 4 miles in the morning and to walk as many places during the day that was practical. Eventually, that stretched into 5 miles in the morning and 3 miles at night. With my incidental walking, I am averaging about 11 miles a day.

For the first five days, I lost a pound a day. It was enough that people commented my face looked thinner.

But, then, the weight loss stopped. I have been stuck at the same weight for over a week now. (By the way, this is one reason Weight Watchers warns its participants not to weigh themselves daily. Despair is not on its diet.)

And I know exactly what is happening. My body has sensed that I am putting a double demand on it -- fewer calories and more exercise. Being a finely-honed machine, it is being more efficient with the calories it receives. Before it will burn off any more of its hard-earned surplus, it will eke out of my lettuce wraps enough mileage to make a Prius owner even greener with envy.

That is the reason I looked at using the Rotation Diet. Its calorie regulation is based on the notion of manipulating the body to ignore its natural metabolism cycle. I did not use it, however, because its menu consists of foods that are very difficult to obtain here.

This morning, I ramped up my walk to 6 miles. That is about as much as I can handle in our heat -- and with the inevitable blisters that pop up after walking 4 miles or so. That will keep my metabolism stoking the energy furnace.

As far as food goes, I have cut my portions down to the point where I am constantly hungry. That is not bad. Theoretically, that will convince my body to start burning up some of those triglycerides it has hoarded in my liver.

One lesson I have learned from past weight loss efforts is that I need to be patient. At some point, my body will recognize it is not a bank. It can use its reserves without fear of federal bank inspectors.

The good news is, other than feeling constantly starved and suffering from blistered feet, I feel great. Barco has given me a great gift. And I intend to put it to good use.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

the green fountain pen is stuck in the roasted chicken

The chicken marinated all night in the kumquat mixture.

It sounds like the password from a very bad movie script. But it is actually the fixings for a potluck I attended this afternoon.

For a year or so, I have received invitations to join a group of expatriates for a Sunday afternoon potluck. The group picks a theme, and everyone builds dinner around it. I have never attended, but the photographs of the food certainly tempted me.

With Barco's death, I have decided to honor the freedom he has given me by getting out and socializing a bit more. I have mentioned it before: I am not social, but I am passably sociable.

So, I decided this would be my potluck debut in Barra de Navidad. The theme was foods including fruit. And I knew exactly what I wanted to make. A stir fry with kumquats.

My friend Gary, the owner of Rooster's and Papa Gallo's, grows kumquats in his garden. The only place in Mexico I have ever seen kumquats is in his hand. And I have missed them. The kumquats, that is. Up north, they were a staple in my kitchen.

Gary and I have swapped kumquat stories over the years. He says the first time he ever heard the word was when Lester Burnett told Steve Allen he was settling down on a kumquat orchard. The first time I heard it was in a song from The Fantasticks -- "This Plum is Too Ripe." But I was not to taste my first kumquat until decades later.

The harvest from Gary's trees is rather limited. He had brought a handful into the restaurants to make a kumquat chutney. But he gladly donated them to the potluck cause.

For the past two weeks, I have been trying to lose weight -- through exercise and cutting back severely on my food portions. So, a potluck was not a bad choice. I could simply monitor what I ate.

My contribution was a kumquat ginger chicken stir fry -- with lots of habanero and jalapeño peppers. I marinated the cubed chicken and quartered kumquats in a soy-hoison sauce marinade overnight. Just before I left for the potluck, I stir fried the chili peppers in sesame seed oil along with ginger, garlic, onion, and red bell along with the chicken-kumquat mixture.

It was fantastic. If I do say so myself, it is one of the best meals I have cooked in a month or two. The flavors were properly layered and the dish was spicy enough to remove the skin in my mouth. Fortunately, I had enough left for a couple of controlled-size meals.

The potluck itself was a great success. I had not met about half of the people at the table, but we knew of each other through Facebook. Barco was an appropriately brief topic, but most of the conversation was the type of banter and trivia you would hear in any group of people who were comfortable with one another.

And I was comfortable enough to think about attending at least one more -- next week.

Friday, October 14, 2016

moving in mexico -- bathrooms

Someone should have told us these things.

Probably, our mothers. But they get blamed for everything.

Today's topic is going to the bathroom in Mexico. And I am not talking about the "put-the-used-toilet-paper-in-the-trash" lecture that causes northerners to stare in disbelief -- as if they are waiting for the punchline.

The dirty little secret I want to discuss applies only to the residents of tropical Mexico. You haughty highlanders can talk amongst yourselves.

For the rest of us, we will talk about "how do you get your underwear back up when you use a toilet that requires the sitting position?" For women, that is almost every time. For guys, not quite as often; but it does happen.

So, there you are. You need to take care of nature's call. (There will be a prize for the person who spots the most euphemisms.)

Off you go to the bathroom. Push down the clothes that need pushing (including your underwear), and then do what needs to be done.

You are now ready to leave once you get your clothes back into the position they once were. But the first thing that will not budge is your underwear. What was once a finely tailored piece of cloth has morphed into a tourniquet. No matter how you pull, it remains sweated to your thighs.

And if you can manage to roll it up your legs, once it gets to where it belongs, it is still a wad of cloth. You can pull and tug, but the best you can do is to get out most of the lumps. Until you put on a new pair, you will be stuck with what look like tumors on your behind.

A woman friend and I talked about this problem earlier in the week. She commented: "I bet you thought I never used public bathrooms for sanitary reasons. That doesn't bother me. I simply cannot get my underwear back on. In desperation, I will take them off and stuff them in my purse just to get back home."

So, there you have it. If you visit (or move to) tropical Mexico, be prepared to come up with your own creative method to fight the underwear roll.

Maybe your mother told you these things. If mine did, I must have been asleep on the toilet.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

punching for pesos

Getting pesos around here can be an adventure in itself.

A handful of my fellow expatriates have divested themselves of any northern banking connections. But, most of us, and probably all northern tourists, keep their money in non-Mexican banks. That makes discussions about ATMs a hot topic in these parts.

For eight years, I have been using ATMs in Melaque to perform the alchemy of turning dollars in my American bank into pesos in my hand. It is a marvelous convention. All of the nonsense of keeping a stack of Franklins under my mattress or struggling with traveler's checks is just a bad memory.

But even our digital age has its frustrations. Let's set aside the inconvenience of expiring debit cards and ATMs that simply refuse to read cards for a moment.

Earlier this summer, our big bank in town, Banamex, imposed a withdrawal limit of $6,000 (Mx). At the current exchange rate, the $500 (US) limit on my debit card should allow me to shake down the machine for about $9,400 (Mx).

Now, that is hardly a drastic restriction. After all, $6,000 (Mx) will pay quite a few days worth of expenses. It just means I need to return to the ATM more often. (This is the point where the local anti-bank rant usually begins. Not from me. I am happy to have the service we have, and I think I know the reason for the restriction. It is far more rational than nefarious.)

Yesterday I took a trip to Manzanillo to have my Escape serviced and my dental implant tightened. To kill the extra time, I walked about 10 miles around town. One of my stops was La Comer (formerly Comercial Mexicana, now owned by a former rival). Because I was on foot, I was simply perusing what was on offer.

Knowing I would need a wad of pesos to woo the Ford mechanics to release my Escape, I experimented with the HSBC ATM. One of my pleasures in Manzanillo is having options -- shopping, banking, entertainment. And I was not going to let this opportunity pass.

In went my card. I completed all the necessary punches. Up came the screen: "How much do you want to withdraw?" If I entered anything above $6,000 in Melaque, my card would be kicked back.

I checked the exchange application on my smartphone. For $500 (US), the machine should give me more that $9,400. I entered "$9,300." And, out came my money. Minus a very small transaction fee and the usual Mexican "sales" tax.

My trips to Manzanillo are not as frequent as when I first moved here. But, Barco has now given me a marvelous gift -- the freedom to travel.

Even if that travel is just far enough to get more pesos out of an ATM.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

barco's door

Yesterday, I started writing an essay about Barco. The sky was dark. Real dark. Like a sky from the set of Die Walküre. And then it started to rain.

Considering my topic (Barco's death), my natural impulse was to fall back on kleptomania and steal from The Bard: "
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;/ The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head."

But I could not write anything further. And I now know why this morning. I was still wallowing in self-pity about not having Barco in my life. In your comments, several of you reminded me I should be focusing on what he gave me. And there I was weeping over a corpse when I could have been celebrating who Barco really was.

I owned Barco for nine months. Of course, "owning" was my perspective. As far as he was concerned, he was the prince of the palace, and I was, at best, his majordomo.

I tried to train him. He learned his lessons quickly, but he also learned that not obeying them was far more enjoyable. His intransigence always trumped my insistence.

In his time here, I quickly learned he was teaching me some very important lessons -- far more important than "come," "stay," "eat." Here are a few.

1. Being cute with a beguiling smile will get anything (almost) from anyone (almost).

OK. This is one of those lessons we learned from each other. There is a good reason I like golden retrievers; they are every bit as manipulative in personal relationship as am I.

2. Everyone you meet is a friend.

Barco was the Will Rogers of dogs. You know: all that "a stranger is just a friend I haven't met yet" nonsense. But he lived by that creed. No matter how intimidating the dog or how standoffish the person, he insisted they were about to be his best friend.

Especially children. Most Mexican adults were wary of him because of his size. But children could see he was one of them. They all commented on the softness of his ears. He just smiled and wiggled his way into their hearts.

3. Friends trump everything.

Barco never fully outgrew his puppy stage. Puppies, by nature, are narcissists. The world revolve around them.

As far as Barco was concerned, everyone who came to the house (Dora, the pool guy, the air conditioner installers) were greeted as if they were the best things in life. And he usually led them around with their hand in his mouth to be shown all of his wonders.

The dogs that belong to my neighbors live primarily on the street. And they all have their territory that they defend.

Barco never caught on to those rules. He was friends with all of the dogs -- no matter their gang colors. He would run with one group of friends into the territory of another group.

I would like to say, he taught them all to be friends. That didn't happen. Instead, there were some pretty nasty fights. And he never seemed to understand why.

4. No matter how many times you have done something, it is always new.

Some people call this "living in the moment." For dogs, it is something quite else. For Barco, it was universal optimism. Each crab was the best crab he had ever chased. Each lizard the best he had ever tasted. Every walk was an adventure -- even if we had just been there three hours before.

I insist on variety in my life. Barco found the variety in the moment. Of course, that may be a lot easier when you experience the world primarily through your nose.

5. Circumstances may change, but presence makes the difference.

I first learned that line in a sermon decades ago. But Barco taught me how true it is.

Barco and I shared a lot of good and bad experiences during our time together. We both had our moods. But we were always there for one another when we needed the other. And we knew we were always pals despite what was affecting us that day. 

6. The persistent conquer.

Barco led a good life. Let's be honest: he was spoiled. He was never very good at waiting for what he wanted.

In the morning, after I gave him his breakfast, I would start picking up the leaves and flowers that had fallen in the courtyard. I would never have the task done by the time Barco finished eating.

He had the same routine, he would walk over and nudge my hand with his nose -- letting me know he was ready for his walk. If I didn't get the hint, and I often didn't, he would grab his leash and press it against my hand. If that didn't work, he would walk to the front door and start hitting it with the leash. I gave in at that point.

He was just as persistent when it came to anything chewable -- plastic, coins, peso notes. I would put them as far out of the way as I could. But, as he grew, he found ways to counter my defenses.

7. Grudges are for cats.

As spoiled as he was, Barco did not always get his way. If he had been recalcitrant on our walks, I would occasionally withhold a treat.

He always looked hurt. But, within minutes, he had for gotten about it. And he was living in that moment rather than plotting some form of feline revenge.

8. Life is not a chore; it is a joy. 

That is my first memory of Barco. When I brought him home, he immediately adopted the place as his own.

And, from that day on, my courtyard was a place of wonder -- for Barco and me. His favorite game was to chase the shadows of the flying creatures that inhabited our little garden. He could run almost endlessly in attempting to chase down the most ethereal of prey.

9. Love is not earned; it is a gift.

Dogs crave our attention. I suspect that is because they are so full of unconditional love, they know how it feels when being given and being received.

Barco was just getting out of his puppy stage and was starting to be more of a love giver. Time prevented him from perfecting the art. But I will cherish those moments when he would stare into my eyes as if saying: "Thank you for loving me. I love you just as much."

10. Closed doors always open.

When I bought my house in Barra, the first thing I said was I could not have a dog here. It is all concrete courtyard and tiled terraces. There is no grass. No garden.

But I was wrong. Barco adapted to the place with no trouble.

To a degree. He still hated the doors that divided him from all of his goat, dog, and human friends on the other side of the wall.

He bided his time until one of us would leave the door ajar. He would be gone in a flash -- usually returning in a short time. Often with dog friends in tow. Once with a chicken in his mouth.

He knew that every obstacle was an opportunity just waiting to happen. And he had the patience to wait.

And twice, he took matters int his own mouth by stealing the automatic garage door opener. He chewed on it until the door opened. And then he was gone.

Of course, I learned and shared many more lessons with him. Even though he was with me for only a brief time, he was a puppy. Everything was concentrated. Immediate. For that reason alone, I have no right to feel any self-pity. I am much richer for having known him.

While Barco was in the clinic, I pulled out a CD I had not listened to in a year or so. Jason Robert Brown's Parade.

One song struck me with its poignancy. A young man is describing his memories of a murdered girl he knew.

Did you ever hear her laugh?
When she laughed, you swore you'd never cry again.
Did you ever see her smile?
Her smile was like a glass of lemonade.
The words certainly do not apply to Barco. But their underlying meaning do. My little guy brought a lot into my life -- layering it with his peculiar wisdom.

Seven years ago, I wrote a similar remembrance of Professor Jiggs
(my best friend). It was not until I looked at the dates of Jiggs's life that I realized Barco was born on the same day Jiggs died -- just six years later.

The numbers mean little. But they are symbolic of how these amazing creatures cycle in and out of my life.

Today, I can only thank Barco for what he meant to me -- and to tell him I will miss him.

Barco Rubio
14 September 2015 - 9 October 2016