Monday, August 31, 2009

four amigos

I am a terrible spontaneous photographer. That is one reason I do not take many action shots.

On Saturday evening Jiggs and I returned from our evening walk. Usually, I would go upstairs to start cooking dinner.

That night I decided to take a look at the beach. Just as I opened the gate, I saw four horses. Not that unusual. There are lots of horses and mules traversing the sands of Melaque.

But the riders were unusual. Instead of the usual adults, these were four young boys.

And they knew what they were doing. Their mounts were wheeling and rearing. And then I saw why. The boys were showing off for some young girls. A universal of the beach.

Two rode east; two rode west.

If you know me well enough, you will immediately know what I tried to do. I tried to shoot a photograph without the rider noticing. He did.

Instead of a glare, he looked at me. Smiled. And called all of his companions over for a photograph.

The result is at the top of the post. I should have taken my time. Instead, I snapped it off -- expecting that the boys would be on their way.

Instead, they sat there and told me their names and the names of their horses. The breed and age of each horse.

Then they asked questions about Jiggs and me.

At one point, my NOB mentality kicked in. "I wonder if they expect a fee for posing?" That happened to me several ties in Brazil. But these boys were simply interested in showing how proud they were of their horses.

(As I write this, I realize they were expecting one thing that I could and should have done: to see the photographs I took. Another lesson to remember.)

And then they were on their way. The boy who spoke the most reared his horse several times for me. My digital camera simply would not cooperate. But his smile says everything.

As they were leaving, I realized I knew these boys. They were my 4-H classmates who had that mystical relationship with large animals.

For a moment, I was transported back to 1950s Oak Grove. And watched part of my past ride away down the beach.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

we're all going to die

Here I sit, a responsible Mexican governmental secretary doing an honest day's work -- and in walks my closest advisor.

Closest advisor (CA): "Bad news, señor secretary. The scientists say we're going to have an outbreak of swine flu this winter."

Respond I (S): "You mean H1N1, don't you? We do not want to get people upset at the pigs, again. We will have the newpapers digging around for those silly flying pigs graphics again."

CA: "Right. I meant there'll be an outbreak of -- H1N1 flu this winter."

S: "Of course, there will. Every winter people suffer from flu. H1N1 is simply the variety that is going around this year. We handled it well in the spring. We will do the same this winter."

CA: "But, señor secretary, the scientists are talking of up to one million cases. That's 50 times as many as we have already had. People will panic. We can tell them a much lower number. No one will know."

S: "People will not panic if we tell them the truth. The scientists predict 'up to one million.' That is not the same as being one million. We will talk with the newspapers. If we show them the facts, they will not do anything sensational. And we will tell them we have a plan. The best way to handle any public issue is to simply be honest with people and assure them that everything is under control."

CA: "But what about the tourists? They're not going to come here with numbers like that."

S: "If we are honest and tell the truth, people will understand."

After briefing the newspapers that the one million number is an outside case and that there is a plan in place, the secretary goes home and dreams of headlines: "Government prepared for possible H1N1cases."

He rises at his normal time, greets his wife at the breakfast table, sits down, and opens the morning newspaper to: "Health secretary says swine flu cases could rise to 1 million in winter."

The secretary wept.

I wish I could say all of this came out of my fertile imagination. The conversation did, but not the broad outline. The headline is real.

Health Secretary José Ángel Córdova Villalobos held a press conference on Friday. Based on the headlines, you would have thought he was boarding a rocket ship to escape the extermination of life on Earth.

What he announced was:

  • the current H1N1 situation is in "a very stable phase"
  • 80 to 100 cases are reported daily across Mexico
  • 184 deaths are related to the H1N1 virus
  • flu cases normally spike in the winter
  • the government has drawn up plans to deal with any possible upsurge in cases
  • there is an outside possibility of up to 1 million cases of H1N1 this winter, but the number will most likely be lower
  • the government is prepared

From that information, the newspaper editors made up a headline that sounds as if very few of us are going to make it through the winter.

Other blogs have discussed this issue before. We have discussed it.

Sensationalism sells newspapers; sentimentality does not.

Why does the New York Times not fill its front pages with stories about faithful husbands, loving wives, and obedient children? Because we see that every day in our own lives.

People will slap down their quarters for a good tale about gore, catastrophe, and death.

The little girl who lived next door to Lizzie Borden asked why none of the neighbors spoke to her. The little girl's mother responded: "Well, dear, she was very unkind to her mother and father."

If a newspaper today had the choice of printing that tale of understatement or the actual details of the axe murders, which do you think would end up as a headline story?

We can rail about it as much as we want, but people are interested in the most God-awful (and I use that in its reverent sense) tales imaginable. Newspapers and television stations would stop relying on these stories the moment people show no interest in them.

I am certain that most of you have friends who forward email to you that contain some of the most bizarre occurrences or arguments imaginable. A person with common sense would look at most of them and say: "That's just nonsense." Or: "What a waste of time." But some people -- a lot of people -- just forward them.

There was a period when I would respond to each piece of stink-mail (as I call it), and either 1) point out that the piece had already been identified as false or 2) ask what the sender wanted me to do with the email. If I got any response, the answer to number 1 was: "I just sent it along. I have no idea if it is true." To number 2: "I have no idea. I just thought it was something."

What does this have to do with our poor health secretary?

He received information that the public needed to know. He attempted to convey it as information and to reassure people. The press, on its own, decided to create a sensation to sell newspapers. The same newspapers who will call government officials liars and charlatans.

I need this warning as much as anyone. Before I pass on information, I want to be certain that I have the correct facts and the correct tone.

We use to call that being a good citizen.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

hurricane jimena

I have had a couple of email asking what effect hurricane Jimena is having on us in Melaque.

In a word -- nada.

I pity any boats out there in its path on the Pacific. It is quite a storm -- a class two hurricane with sustained winds of 105 MPH. There was a time I drove that speed. Now, I cannot even imagine being on the ground and clipping along at that rate.

The storm is south of us and far enough out to sea that when it comes by off shore, we may get some wave activity, a bit of wind, and, I hope, some rain.

The people on Baja may not be so lucky. At the moment, the hurricane is headed toward the southern tip of Baja like an 8 year-old's tongue ready to lick a popsicle. But this meeting will not be that benign.

We continue to watch.

this little piggy

My mother is not a ham lover.

Bad actors are not the issue.

For religious reasons, pork simply was not an entree item in the Cotton manse when my brother and I were growing up. No ham. No pork chops. No bacon. (At least, very little.)

I have made up for that in my adult years. Pork has constituted over half of my protein during the past few years -- mostly in stir fry.

And I have come to be quite a ham connoisseur, as well. There are simply too many good hams to be wasting time on cheap water-filled cuts.

When I moved to Mexico, I was thrilled to discover it was the pork capital of North America. Mexicans love their pig products.

My first trip to the lunch meat counter, I found nothing but sliced ham for sandwiches -- in a bewildering cornucopia of choices.

The young man behind the counter directed me to a large hunk of ham that he lovingly sliced for me. It was great.

When my friends Roy and Nancy visited me in July, we often had at least one meal of ham sandwiches. They liked the meat.

Then, I did something very un-Mexican. Having found a good product, I winged it.

I was standing at the meat counter. A middle-aged middle class Mexican man was placing his order. I noticed that instead of the rectangular ham, his order was round.

Now, I am an adventurous sort. Before the counter man could put the round piece away, I told him I would like 300 grams of it.

He looked at me and asked: "Are you sure?" And I said: "Yes."

The correct answer would have been: "Why?" But I was in my "buy-like-a-local" mode. That was clue number one.

Clue number two was that the total due was less than half of the usual amount. Price is not always a quality guide in Mexico, so I headed off to the cash register.

Clue number three. When I paid the store owner, he looked at the meat and said: "You want this?"

By then, I was committed. I paid, and went all the way home -- where I made a ham sandwich with my 7-grain bread, mayonnaise, mustard, leaf lettuce, Swiss cheese, and cucumber.

With my first bite, I realized why I received the third degree from the store employees.

It was terrible. There was a vague taste of ham. But the meat tasted as if it had been ground, spiced, and reformed.

The next day, I bought new ham, and the store owner started immediately: "Didn't like it, eh?"

I asked him what it was. He said: "Ham."

And he then explained that the lower-priced ham is made very similar to hot dogs and bologna. The meat is smashed up, spiced, and formed into tubes. So, I had that part correct.

I had to ask then why the guy I saw buying the "ham" insisted on it.

The store owner was candid. He knew who I meant. But he said most of his Mexican customers prefer the tube ham. For the same reason they like hot dogs and bologna. They like the texture. They like the taste. And, he said, they also like it because it is less expensive. "We were a poor country for a long time."

This little piggy is not going to have any more of that ham. Nor is he going to have roast beef -- despite the little rhyme.

But he will have plenty of that delicious sliced ham that costs a bit more.

Because a day without a ham sandwich is like a day without pork rinds.

Friday, August 28, 2009

would you like fries with your security-burger?

I have never been able to decide if I dislike the rhythm of the word, its Machiavellian moral heart -- or both.

Either way, I should be pulling out my mea culpas because I have been boating on Schadenfreude Pond all day.

To dislike the wall that is being built to separate the United States from Mexico is morally simple. It is ugly. In the same way that Dorian Gray's portrait was ugly. It reflects some rather nasty ideas.

When my brother and I crossed into Mexico at Lukeville-Sonoita, we paused to look at the project that made Robert Frost a true prophet: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall,/ That wants it down!"

Just to prove I can contradict myself, last April in
high dawn in yuma, I wrote:

I should note that when you cross the border, you are faced with the monstrosity of a wall that stretches futilely over the hills -- attempting to repeal everything Adam Smith taught us about free markets. Some people see the fence and are reminded of Robert Frost or the Berlin Wall. I see it, and think of Krusty the Clown.

I still see Krusty the Clown. But, even my bizarre post-modern mind could not have devised a better Krusty-like moment than what I read in Thursday's newspaper.

There were many reasons for building the fence. And I will concede that every nation must defend its own borders. But one of the chief reasons was to keep out people who were willing to work for low wages to feed their families. The people who are sneeringly referred to as economic refugees.

Thursday's article reported that a group of industrious Mexicans decided, because the American economy was so weak, there was no reason to brave attempting to breach the fence. Instead, they decided to break up the fence and sell it as scrap metal.

Six men have been arrested and will be prosecuted by Mexican federal authorities. The first two were caught cutting into the fence on Monday. An accomplice was captured on Tuesday with 11 pieces of the fence. American authorities turned in three more.

I have not seen photographs of the fence, but I get the impression it now deserves a new sign: "Queso Suizo."

At the end of every war, one of the more melancholy events is watching noble warships being turned into scrap metal.

In the war against illegal immigration, it is ironic to see the people who are being shut out profiting from the device designed to exclude them.

An irony wrapped in a oxymoron inside a red clown nose.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

a watercart named desire

When was the last time Arthur Miller and Samuel Coleridge stopped by your house to write a sitcom script for your day?

That is the only answer I can come up for Wednesday's little misadventure.

Expatriates living in Mexico have plenty of water jug stories. I think one of the first tales I heard about La Manzanilla involved a leaking jug and an embarrassed child.

But, for those of you who do not live in the land of jumbo water bottles, let me give you a bit of background.

Once upon a time there were two groups of expatriates living in Mexico.

The first group was the equivalent of mountain men and conquistadors rolled into one. They feared neither man nor beast, and craved adventurous highs so much that they would drink the adrenalin of puma every morning.

Then there was the second group. Not quite as adventurous. Maybe even cautious. The type of people who move from Minnesota to Mexico for a new life, but who are certain that there are sharks living in any body of water larger than a shower stall.

The two groups differed on water. The first group said: "Sure, there are infrastructure problems. But my people have been drinking this water for 40 years without one sick day." The second group responded: "You can never be too careful. This is how Warren Harding died, you know."

The dispute was resolved when all of the people in the first group mysteriously died of amoebic dysentery. We expatriates now honor the second group by using bottled water for drinking and cooking.

But there is a little trick here. We do not saunter down to the well and fetch a pail of water -- all Jack and Jill-like. No. Just like the crazy Empress Carlotta, we have hired hands fetch it for us.

At our casa, it is a young man who drives around in a truck playing a recording of someone imitating a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan call. You hear the truck, run outside, flag him down, and purchase the water you need.

That sounds a bit easier than it is.

Mexico is filled with all types of sounds. Dogs. Roosters. The ocean. The neighbor's stereo. You learn to tune it out.

But you need to develop a very subtle hearing where you can tune out all of that, while tuning in the calls of the gas man, the bread man, the tamale man, the lime man, the ice man, and, yes, the Tarzan call of the young water man.

On Wednesday, I had used up the second of my water bottles. I needed to get replacements -- soon.

All day, I listened with the laser-like hearing of a presidential candidate. Nothing. Well, lots of sounds. No Tarzan.

So, I decided to take a nap. There I was in the hammock on the patio wearing nothing but my underwear and I hear it. Tarzan is driving slowly down my street.

Experience tells me I have about 30 seconds to catch him.

I jump out of the hammock. Where are the rest of my clothes? Up stairs.

Don't panic. No time to get them. I will hail him and then get them.

Too many seconds wasted worrying about propriety, I dash to the garage gate and flip open the latch.

Or, I try to flip it open. Upon leaving the house that morning, Marta had double locked the gate.

Where are the keys? In my shorts. Where are my shorts? Upstairs. I already knew that.

I have no choice now. I run up the stairs to find my shorts and my keys and a bit of dignity.

I can hear him driving in front of the house. Throwing caution to the wind, I run through the living room and out onto the balcony that overlooks the street. He is turning the corner.

In my best anguished voice, I stood there in my underwear, calling out: "A-G-U-A. A-G-U-A." Sounding like Stanley Kowalski auditioning for a role in the Spanish version of
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Like most sitcoms, I did not get what I was after, but I was appropriately humiliated in the process. (Of course, those of you who know me well know that standing on a public balcony in my underwear would not even rate on my humiliation scale.)

But I do have two empty jugs as evidenced by the photograph at the top of this post.

We will have a new production tomorrow. I was thinking of a novel way to get the truck to stop. Perhaps a remake of Anna Karenina.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

water-colored memories

The year was 1974. August. Richard Nixon was still president -- for one more day.

I was driving from my assignment in Greece to a new one in the United Kingdom. But the night was mine.

My dinner companions, contacts for the past year, joined me in Vouliagmeni. We chose a new restaurant -- one with a deck overlooking the boat basin.

There was something that struck me as particularly special about that night.

I remember the sun setting over the gulf. But almost everything else has faded. Except for one strange fact. I remember the waiter bringing a bottle of water.

Funny. What was so memorable about that?

The next day I was on my way through Greece, Italy, and France to my new job. Gerald Ford was the new president. And before I reached the United Kingdom, two of my dining partners were dead.

Last Thursday my neighbor asked me to join him for dinner in Barra de Navidad. We sat on a balcony overlooking Navidad Bay.

We had a great conversation. Absolutely the best meal I have had in Mexico during the past four months.

As we were finishing dinner, the waiter brought a bottle of water to my neighbor. And that night 35 years ago played out in my mind.

I have no idea why. There were some similarities. But I had almost forgotten about the old memory.

I do know that both nights will be filed away together under the tab "great meals with friends." And I hope to be able to pull both of them out for many similar future nights.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

9 1/2, i would say

American men like comparing -- height, weight, shoe size. Simply to see how we match up against one another.

Of course, we lie about two of those.

So do women -- but a different two -- and for different reasons.

Writers do the same thing. We say we read to learn. But we are always comparing. Just to see where we rank in the pecking order of hunters and peckers.

I have been reading Deja Reviews: Florence King All Over Again -- a collection of her essays and book reviews from the 1990s. That may not sound like a tantalising summary. But Florence King could write copy for toilet tissue covers, and I would guarantee that it would captivate you.

The woman knows her craft. In a 1997 review of Sylvia Morris's Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce, Miss King (as she insists on being addressed) noted that Clare Booth Luce's newspaper columns were successful because they "were models of the personal-essay form -- arresting opening paragraphs, strict adherence to a single topic, closely reasoned arguments leading to neatly turned conclusions."

She could have been writing about her own style. Perhaps, she was.

I decided to put together this post after reading one of her recent magazine columns. Columns require not only that the application of good writing principles, but that they be applied in a set amount of space. And Miss King is the master (because she was quail at "mistress") of the art.

In "Flowering Industry," she writes about how "community colleges are suddenly doing a land-office business" and that training is trumping education.

The entire piece is an exercise in the Lucian principles she described in her review. I found myself laughing through most of it. Thought I: I need to share some of this with my readers.

So, I lifted the paragraph that I enjoyed most. She compares her liberal education with what she now reads in community college course catalogs:

If I had known enough about real life to complain, someone would have said: "You might not make a living out of it, but it will make life worth living." This is what people say to poets. There's some truth in it, but not enough to make up for the misery I knew before I hit the writing jackpot, when I worked at Manpower office jobs. There is nothing worse than being surrounded by machines when you can define deus ex machina ("The Flowering of Greek Classical Drama").

It is witty. Just a bit sly.

But if you are puzzling over the paragraph, there is a good reason. Taking a paragraph out of a Florence King piece is like taking a panda from the wild and plopping it in the faculty lounge at Tulane.

That is because her pieces are so tightly written (what The Cosmo Girl, Helen Gurley Brown, herself called "warpy and woofy"), one paragraph cannot stand alone. It would be similar to cutting a corner off of the Bayeux tapestry, and asking someone to appreciate its beauty.

That parenthetical hanging at the end of her paragraph is a running gag about the courses she took in college. "I was a sucker for any lit course described as 'the flowering of,' or any history course about the era in which epaulets protected the shoulders from saber cuts."

But to explain the process is to lose its mastery. And she is a writer better read than analyzed -- the mark of a master craftsman.

I know I am taller than Miss King. I weigh more. My shoe size is larger.

But she can write circles around me. The best I can do is read -- and learn ("The Flowering of Greek Philosophy").

Monday, August 24, 2009

curly goes to school

I read it while sitting on the patio eating my cornflakes.

It seemed innocent enough. Lying there like a boa sunning itself on the shoulder of the road.

The words in The Economist briefing paper seemed almost neutral:

Venezuela’s parliament, dominated by supporters of President Hugo Chávez, rushed through a controversial education law under which school lessons will be based on “Bolivarian doctrine”.

I wonder how an American expatriate living in Mexico in 1940 would have reacted to a short news blurb: "Today Germany announced plans to build a work camp at Auschwitz"?

The analogy is not entirely accurate. President Chávez is merely interested in killing the past to ensure his future.

Latin America is going through tough economic times -- as is the rest of the world. In past worldwide economic downturns, Latin America has suffered much worse than Europe or the United States. The usual result: loan defaults accompanied by currency and banking disasters.

This time, the Latin American countries who have adopted and applied liberal democratic economic principles are actually doing much better than most nations. No bank failures. No toxic financial instruments. And it appears that they will survive the downturn with their middle class credentials intact.

There are problems. Anti-poverty programs have suffered. But their financial structures are sound. Or most of them are.

The biggest success story, of course, is Brazil. Brazil was well on its way to creating a strong economic base under President Cardoso. When the leftist Lula de Silva, a close friend of Fidel Castro, replaced him, the world watched to see which economic path he would choose.

He chose wisely by applying liberal democratic principles. And Brazil was the better off for it.

Brazil continued to prosper -- making Brazil the mentor for other center-left governments. Chile, Uruguay, and Peru could easily have abandoned liberal economic principles. Instead, they chose to follow Brazil.

Along with Mexico and Colombia, those four countries have central banks that target inflation. And those policies have paid off.

That has been the general tale of success. Latin America is no longer a series of military coup-ridden, central-government-controlled economies.

Well, mostly not. There is Argentina, which has staggered from success to disaster like some populist prodigal son not yet fed up with eating swine pods. And Bolivia and Ecuador wander in the authoritarian wilderness.

But none are as worrisome as their coeval: Venezuela.

I call him Curly (of Three stooges fame). Felipe calls him a Latin American Mussolini. I fear Felipe is far closer to the truth.

We are speaking of that buffoon of the comic opera: Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, smiter of neoliberalism, globalism, and the United States; father of dodgy Bolivarian socialism; president of Venezuela, and yet-to-be-certified crackpot.

I suspect no one would pay much attention to Chávez if he had confined his Cuban-inspired fascist policies within the borders of Venezuela. After all, if the people of Venezuela elect a president who takes away their free press and restricts their economic and political freedoms, who are we to tell them that he doesn't even make the trains run on time.

Of course, he didn't stop there. Like most bully dictators, he picks on his neighbors: Colombia, in his case, by funding narco guerrillas. And then tries to use his big economic tool, oil, to get his neighbors to follow his bidding.

There have been victories. Honduras's Congress and Supreme Court told Chávez's buddy and authoritarian-wannabe, President Manuel Zelaya, that he would probably be happier pursuing a career in time share sales in Nicaragua.

The question is whether there will be enough left of Venezuela's civil society to move on to another government when the majority tires of Chávez. Venezuela's economy is beginning to suffer in the same way Cuba's economy has suffered -- from the imposition of economic principles that simply do not work.

But why should a blog centered around Mexico care what Chávez does?

Because Mexico came very close to becoming a Chávez ally. Three years ago, the Mexican presidential candidate who came in second was a strong supporter of Chávez. The fact that his party almost self-destructed in July's election is some comfort. But the July victors (the PRI) bear watching.

Before they were sent into the political wilderness, the PRI had a rather authoritarian streak. It is the successor party of the coalition that came out on the winning side in the Mexican Revolution, and had the honor of introducing the losers to the honor of a firing squad death.
They took the revolution part of their name very seriously. These are people who thought the Soviet Union had a good thing going.

In the 70s they traded ideology for old-fashioned corruption. That is what eventually lost them the presidency two elections in a row.

And now the party will be back in power in Congress in December.

The chances are extremely good that the PRI will take the same route as President Lula. They will support leftist policies, but they will rely on liberal democratic principles to get there. And that is what they say they are going to do.

If so, we should all wish them Godspeed.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

the devil wore behringer

Our amigo, Juan Calypso, over at Viva Veracruz, has donned his Beelzebub outfit.

So far, he has not tempted me with "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor." But he has come close.

He is in Las Vegas. And one of his first stops was Fry's Electronics.

He described, in almost sensual detail, the joy of walking the aisles of one of the best electronic stores in the United States. I hope to follow in his footsteps next month in Oregon.

One thing I have no intention of buying while I am there is a set of speakers to improve the sound produced by my computer. I use it (once or twice) to watch movies. I brought along two Sony speakers that are better than the internal laptop speakers, but not by much. If I want to risk shutting out the world, I can always resort to my headphones.

But I do miss my full audio system in Salem.

Some of you may recall that Calypso, Felipe, Babs, and I had a long-running discussion on the reduced quality of most MP3 sound files. That was the genesis of my Hamlet routine concerning my speakers.

I have a friend who recently graduated from video school. When I was preparing to move, he tried to talk me into buying a pair of expensive studio monitors.

I demurred. The speakers undoubtedly would produce great sound. I simply did not have the room to haul them down. My plan was to restrict my possessions to the size of my SUV. I want to be able to put all of my possessions in my truck within an hour. Speakers simply did not meet the priority or size limitations.

Well, my friend finally purchased his full setup, and he claims the speakers are better than a new girlfriend.

But here is the irony. We were going to set up a video call so I could see them and hear them.

The seeing made sense to me.

But listening to quality speakers through my little plastic bookends would be a bit like pumping a Placido Domingo live performance through the radio of a 1957 Buick Roadmaster. Interesting, but hardly satisfying.

So, here I sit in Melaque with some great music -- and even better soundtracks attached to actual films -- and I have to wait until I get back up to Oregon to experience some good sound.

Even as I write this, I hear Calypso's whisper over my left shoulder: Buy the speakers. Buy the speakers.

There are certainly worse things I could do with my money.

Now, how do I get them on the airplane?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

a hole in the dike

Message boards all over Mexico are lit up with the news: Drugs are legal in Mexico.

As is often the case with 98% of the information on the Internet: it is simply not true. No. Worse than that. It is a lie. And people should know better.

What is true is that, as of Friday, the possession of limited amounts of five drugs will no longer be a criminal offense.

The correct announcement is: "Mexico decriminalizes possession of small amounts of five drugs. Nothing changes."

And the response should be: big deal.

The only country in the western hemisphere with enough police and snitches to deal with the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs is Cuba. Free societies have trouble paying for enough police to deal with assaults and burglaries -- let alone tracking down dopeheads.

Mexico is no exception.

The police have never had resources to track down Mexico's two largest class of recreational drug users: 1) tourists and 2) middle class Mexican "teenagers."

The authorities generally do not care what tourists do to themselves. If they want to rot their systems with meth and coke, most police could care less. That was true in the past under the old law and it will be true in the future under the new law.

Mexico does care about its growing domestic user market, though. Too many young people (and people who cannot escape the gravitational pull of remaining an eternal teenager) have become users in Mexico. The government wants to stop the problem.

Unfortunately, this law is not going to make any difference.

The limits are not meant to be generous:

  • 5 grams of marijuana — the equivalent of about four joints, I am told

  • 1/2 gram of cocaine -- the equivalent of about 4 "lines," I am told

  • 50 milligrams of heroin -- no idea what that equates to

  • 40 milligrams of methamphetamine -- I doubt a meth-head could calculate it

  • 0.015 milligrams of LSD -- probably enough to make you wish you had skipped this line

And because this law change is designed to show a nation that its government cares about them, all arrests for possession will be accompanied by a suggestion to seek treatment. Caught a third time? Treatment is mandatory. That'll show 'em.

I have talked about the drug wars in several prior posts (drugs -- the summary). There is no need to rehash the principles.

The killing is not going to end until full legalization takes place. Anything illegal creates a falsely-priced market. The government effectively adds a cost to the product, making it expensive enough for criminals to kill their rivals and bribe authorities.

Legalization will drop the price, destroy the monopoly, and people will stop dying over who owns what territory.

Will more people use drugs? Maybe. No one knows. And I realize that scares middle-class American families. But middle-class children will not become addicted to drugs because they are legal no more than teen-aged boys will drive sanely if a speed limit is imposed.

But there will be a trade off. Will fewer people die and will some legitimacy be restored to governments? I can almost guarantee it.

But changing the possession laws does nada for any of those steps. Even the Noble Experimet of alcohol prohibition never attempted to deal with possession of alcohol. People often forget that.

It was the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption that was illegal. The same theory behind drug prohibition.

Rather than waste our time even discussing this insignificant change in Mexican law, we should be pressing the Obama and Harper administrations to grab this opportunity and simply repeal all federal laws relating to illegal drugs. The states and provinces could then take their own courses.

The time could not be better than now.

Friday, August 21, 2009

cerberus takes a holiday

You can't get a porter to help you with this type of baggage.

The emotional kind.

The gut-wrenching telephone call in the middle of the night. Smoke coming over the hill from the valley of your little home town.

Or bloody diarrhea. (Sorry about the word, but there is no way to get around it.)

Last week, I took Jiggs for a walk. He obviously did not want to go very far.

That did not surprise me. His left rear leg has been giving him a rough time. So rough that he needed my help to get up off the floor, and to carry him up and down the stairs at the house.

I had decided to take him to the veterinarian after our walk. But then it happened.

I grabbed a sample, put Jiggs in the truck, and we were on our way to Manzanillo to see the veterinarian.

The veterinarian was very encouraging. Simply an intestinal infection. A week's worth of antibiotics should clear it up.

That was Saturday. Even though he kept drinking his water, Jiggs stopped eating his dry food. I tried everything. By hand. Dampening it. Trying to prime his appetite with bread. Nothing worked.

The odd thing is, he would eat the bread. And he would eat a small amount of canned food.

That went on for four days. On the fifth day, for no apparent reason, he broke his fast. He ate his full dinner. You can see by the photograph that he has his old spirit back -- and a good portion of his Oregon haircut.

Last Sunday in
hello, dollars, I set out my expenses over the past three months. Almost 20% of the total was for Jiggs -- the largest portion going to veterinarian bills.

Owning a senior dog is not a cheap proposition.

Tonight I went to dinner in Barra with my professorial neighbor. We rambled through such topics as Aristotle, how the mind processes information, the future of Mexico -- the usual dinner conversation banter.

At one point, while discussing the dog, he turned to me and said: "You know, you are doing a very noble thing. It is not easy to care for an old dog."

I found the adjective strange. Noble. Perhaps, from the outside looking in, it is.

But I truly have no moral choice to do other than what I am doing. Professor Jiggs has given me the best years of his life. And he still is banking those dollars in his old age. The fact that he insists on being near me at all times is as touching as any experience I have had in my life.

I thought about leaving him behind in Oregon -- because the trip would be too hard for him. And it was a rough trip. Just as this heat and humidity has been rough for him.

But I suspect that if he had a vote in the matter, he would have chosen to come live the adventure.


Nah. Paul Anka knew the answer. It's just puppy love.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

the unfinished sympathy

“Now there's a cloud coming up out of the sea, no bigger than a man's hand.”

It may not have been as dramatic as the announcement from Elijah's servant, but there was the obvious portent of a storm on the way.

All day Wednesday, neither Jiggs nor I could find any place comfortable in the house or on the patio. The temperature was not too bad. But the humidity kept increasing -- and there was no breeze. It was the no breeze part that made us restless.

Matthew Pearl was keeping me enthralled with his latest thriller: The Last Dickens. (Classy author. Classy book. I recommend it.) But even Pearl's well-crafted Dickensian sentences were not enough to disguise the fact, in the words of the immortal (but departed, go figure) Cole Porter: "It's Too Darn Hot."

Several of our fellow bloggers have asked what people prepare for dinner during these New Orleans afternoons. For me, the choice was easy.

Years ago I developed a salad recipe that can easily be modified no matter where I am. I slice 3 cucumbers, 3 tomatoes, and an onion as thin as possible. Sprinkle them with basil, tarragon, oregano, and pepper. And douse it all with enough rce vinegar to dampen it. Then I chill it for at least an hour.


The nice thing about this salad is that it keeps for a couple of days -- marinating away at the vegetables.

I was eating my dinner while sitting on the balcony just as the sun was going down -- wondering if
we would need the air conditioner to fight the humidity tonight.

And then I saw it. Not a cloud "no bigger than a man's hand." But it was an obvious rain squall.

Usually, clouds off to the southwest do not head our way. I look at it longingly -- like another romance that was worth keeping only as it headed out the door.

I should know that being patient n Mexico is not merely a virtue -- it is a life style.

Within the hour, we had high winds, lightning, thunder -- and, best of all, rain. If I had not been working on the computer, I would have gone outside to tango in the rain.

There is a moral in this tale, but it is so obvious that I feel as if I am dealing in doggerel to write it down. So, I won't.

You are all adults. Here is your chance to end one of my tales.

Because, I ain't gonna do it.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

buttery buns on the beach

The movie was Nashville -- one of Robert Altman's best.

The back story is about a politician, Hal Phillip Walker, who has come out of nowhere to capture the imagination of the American voter with such hard-hitting questions as: "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?"

Howard K. Smith, playing his anchorman self, answers: "As a matter of fact, Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me."

As current as that political inanity may be, I agree with both Hal Phillip Walker and Howard K. Smith -- Christmas and oranges are married in my memory.

That bit of film history ran through my mind while I was eating one of Jean Young's home-made cinnamon rolls. (In truth, I ate three of them, but that does not quite fit in with my weight loss goal. So, let's just say I ate one.)

Jean has recently started a baked goods business here in Melaque. She says she is starting slow during the summer season, and will be in full swing when the snowbirds arrive in winter.

Frankly, I think she is ready now.

Cinnamon rolls are one of my favorite baked goods. Primarily because I like them. But they are also freighted with plenty of memories.

Memories of my mother putting the roll dough on our living room stove to let the yeast do its chemistry best.

Memories of the Salem Saturday Market where I would buy cinnamon rolls from a pleasant Mennonite woman -- and share the bounty with Jiggs on our morning walks.*

Jean's cinnamon rolls are good because they are simply good. But they are also good enough to evoke memories.

And they are not puny Cinnabon rolls. They are full-bodied, buttery, sugary, raisiny rolls. Good enough for a blog post.

She is also baking breads and muffins -- both of which I have tried and liked. And she is selling coffee and sausages, which I have not tried.

Those of us lucky enough to live in or near Melaque have a great new place for baked goods. To learn more, go to
Jean's web site.

From here on out, summer will taste of cinnamon to me.

* -- [Gloria -- Jiggs never gets any raisins out of my rolls. Just wanted to let you know that. No pets were injured n the making of this memory.]

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

a pinto in every garage

Mel Brooks is a comic genius.

In High Anxiety, disguised as an elderly man, he goes through the airport metal detector. It beeps. He throws his hands in the air, and yells:

"Is this a game show? What did I win, a Pinto?"

That phrase (with all of its sardonic layers) -- "What did I win, a Pinto?" -- comes to mind every time I hear someone being acclaimed for some dubious accomplishment. For example: the American grade school tendency to give an award to everyone without regard to merit.

Well, if I had a Pinto, I would hand it over (tax-free) to a reader in Mérida, who, at 10 on Monday morning was the 80,000th hit for this blog since April of last year.

We bloggers do this. We start talking about hits. We then acknowledge that most people end up on our pages by accident (and often leave with the same expression of a Lutheran minister who mistakenly wanders into a topless bar). And then we don our Jeremiah outfits and lament over all of those other hits: why don't more people leave comments?

Well, I am not going to do that. Other than, I already did.

I am simply going to take the opportunity to say that I get a kick out of writing this thing. I am also pleased that a number of people read it regularly -- and some are willing to be part of the conversation.

The only thing that truly amazes me is that the people who comment here are capable of disagreeing with me -- and one another -- in civil tones without attacking one another. That is rather rare in civil society -- let alone on the internet.

But enough self-congratulation. Let's get down to our winner.

This is the winner's statistic. If you get in touch with me, I know some children in a parking lot who could probably help us find a spare Pinto.

Monday, August 17, 2009

coasting and camping

I have started and deleted this post several times.

I started it because I wanted to record some thoughts when paradise goes a bit awry.

I have deleted it because it sounds as if I am whining about what happens when paradise goes a bit awry.

If the tone is a bit ambivalent, it is because I am, as well.

I have mentioned that living in Melaque is a bit like camping -- at least, it feels that way to those of us who have been raised in the lap of bourgeois America.

Camping experience number one today was the cooking burn. We use propane for cooking. And there is nothing wrong with propane. Its flame is every bit as good as natural gas -- my favorite cooking method.

The problem with this particular stove is that the line is so narrow, it is difficult to properly sauté. And that is what I was attempting to do on Sunday afternoon -- sauté some vegetables to accompany my scrambled eggs.

Because I could not get the pan as hot as it needed to be, the vegetables essentially ended up steaming. Because I was still flipping and stirring as if the sauté process was working, I must have left my left wrist over the pan too long. I now have a nice burn.

As I sat down to eat, I realized it had been three weeks since I last did laundry -- and I had nothing to wear to Spanish class on Monday. Literally, nothing.

Thus started camping experience number two. I divided the clothes into five separate piles and began what should have been an easy process.

I am lucky enough to have a washing machine -- something I would not necessarily have while camping. But it is not the best of machines. It is a top loader with the temperament of an eight-year old boy. And I just do not expect much from top-loading washers.

The first load caused the machine to overflow twice. I ended up having to break the load down to no more than a sheet and three towels per load.

With towels and sheets done, I went upstairs to hang the clothes to dry. And -- you guessed it. Dark clouds with thunder started rolling in. I thought I could get some things dried, but the rains started right away.

I pulled everything down. The rains stopped. I put it all back up. The rains started. Down it came again.

The house looked as if a laundry truck blew up in the living and dining rooms. Wet sheets and towels were draped over every available surface. And there are still two wet loads waiting in the laundry room. Waiting for mildew, I think.

A few things were dry. As I was folding them, I noticed that they had large blots of water here and there. The source was me. I was not just sweating; I was a river. Sweat-stained or not, the dry clothes were put away.

Just like camping.

And just like camping, the moment the rain started, the flies started doing their Fourth Plague of Egypt impression. They literally drove Jiggs and me back into the house with all of the doors closed -- because the screens do not keep them out.

All in all, Sunday's circumstances were not good. But it was not a bad day. I did read some Florence King and I had a purpose: comforting the dog that the thunder and lightning were not going to kill us.

And the rain and accompanying wind storm cleared out the humidity. For the first time in a month, Jiggs varied his walk and took us on a 2-hour jaunt through the dark streets of Villa Obregon. (At times, he seems to have the soul of a Russian novelist.) We stopped only when he tripped and reinjured his left rear leg.

I do know, though, for our next thunderstorm, we may donate the washing machine to a lightning strike.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

hello, dollars

How much will it take to fill a jar?

Remember those questions from our rhetoric classes in high school?

They were designed to make us think -- to deconstruct the proposition into its components -- before we started to solve what was obviously irresolvable.

What type of jar? What size of jar? Fill it with what?

I think of those classes every time someone asks me: How much does it cost to live in Mexico?

From what I have read on other blogs and on Mexico message boards, that must be the most popular question asked of those who have taken the leap. And I was one of the breed before I made the move. I wanted to know if I could afford to retire -- and still not starve.

I have been an attorney long enough to know that questions of this nature can always be answered in two words -- it depends.

It depends on the life you want to live and where you want to live it. You can live like a pauper. Or you can live like a king. It depends on what you want to spend.

Last month I talked about some of those factors in
luxury of la luz while discussing electricity costs in Mexico. But the best example would be my own expenses for the past four months.

I live in a little Mexican fishing village house-sitting a three-bedroom, two-bath home on the beach. It is just the dog and me. I take Spanish classes as my entertainment -- and education.

Here is the average of our monthly expenses over the past four months.

A few observations on those figures:

First, an obvious point: old dogs can be expensive. I use a veterinarian in Manzanillo, who has been very helpful to Jiggs. But he is more expensive than the local veterinarians.

Second, utilities appear to be inexpensive. Propane is not very expensive. I use it to cook with and heat water for washing dishes. Some people use it to heat water for showers. I don't; the water is warm enough without heating it. Fortunately, I do not use much electricity; it is a very expensive commodity -- based on my Oregon experience.

Third, auto expenses appear low. I did not include the cost of insurance that I bought in The States. Add in $50 a month for that. The rest is mainly fuel, and it is more expensive than in The States. I simply have not driven much in the last few months.

Overall, I save between 10% and 20% on my living expenses in Salem. Some things are more expensive, some less. As I continue my adventures, I am certain I will learn to marginally cut back on some things.

And, of course, if I move to the central highlands, my non-existent entertainment budget line will soar.

Every person's budget differs. It will be interesting to hear from the rest of you about your own expensive experiences.

Gentlemen and ladies, start your budgets.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

calling commissioner gordon

I should run for Congress. I promised you a budget -- and you are about to get another distraction.

I told Kim that we would not have any more discussions about the source of the guano on the patio counter top.

But -- there are new developments.

So new, that I almost did a news flash at 1 AM on Friday. Instead, it will now be its own post.

While I was locking up the house early Friday morning, I decided to take a look up in my batless belfry on the off chance that I could see something.

And it looked as if something was there. Just a dark shadow, perhaps. Poets say they exist in the night.

Not being in a poetic mood, I switched on the little spotlights in the alcove.

And there he (she) was. One bat. But larger than what I had anticipated.

Despite Islagringo's advice to the contrary -- I was standing there a naked blogger. Well, naked in the sense that I was without my camera.

So I ask: Do I bother running up the stairs? This bat does not seem to stick around very long. Undoubtedly, a Bruce Wayne variety.

But, I answer myself: Why not?. Even though I knew that the bat would fly the -- whatever it is that bats fly from -- certainly not coops.

I run up the stairs. Look around for the camera. Run down stairs. Turn it on.

And what do I get? Low Battery Warning.

So up the stairs I run again. Pop in two new batteries. Run down the stairs.

All the while positive that no one is going to believe I finally saw the bat.

And ---

There it was. Awaiting its close up like some Latina Norma Desmond.

And here it is for you for your viewing enjoyment.

At least, that should be one mystery that will no longer haunt the house.

Friday, August 14, 2009

driving the budget

About three months ago, someone asked me what it cost to drive to Mexico from Salem.

Darrel and I kept very good records on the drive down. I could have answered the question at the end of April. I have no idea why I did not do it.

But -- here they are.

Of course, like all expenses, these are very idiomatic. We had a dog with us -- an additional lodging expense.

We also drove rather erratically. The first day we drove for 15 hours -- and covered the entire west coast. The next day we merely drove into Arizona.

But this was our experience. The raw numbers in Mexico are in pesos. I added US Dollar approximations below the pesos.

Just a reminder, our itinerary was:

Day 1: Salem, Oregon to Ontario, California

Day 2: Ontario to Gila Bend, Arizona

Day 3: Gila Bend to Guaymas, Sonora

Day 4: Guaymas to Mazatlán, Sinaloa

Day 5: Mazatlán to Rincón de Guayabitos, Nayarit

Day 6: Rincón de Guayabitos to La Manzanilla, Jalisco

Day 7: La Manzanilla to Villa Obregon, Jalisco

Here are the totals:

What strikes me most -- and I did not notice it at the time -- is that our lodging and fuel costs in Mexico were about the same for 4 days as they were for 2 days in The States. The food in Mexico appears to be expensive because we had a tendency to eat in tourist restaurants.

Overall, though, it was not bad for a six-day road trip: just over $800.

If I am feeling better tomorrow, I will tackle that old chestnut: How much does it cost to live in Mexico?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

a batless belfry

Miss Marple packed her bag and went home. Hercule Poirot waddled off to Belgium.

There appears to be no solution to my sink guano mystery that we discussed on Monday:
weekend mystery number dos.

The comment consensus is that I have a bat or bats leaving me nightly presents. I agree. The counter top has all the circumstantial evidence of being the day-time roost of several bats -- or one bat with a very severe digestive disorder.

The only problem with that theory is that, unless they have been cross-breeding with Claude Rains, they simply are not there.

The photograph at the top of this post is a bit disorienting. Imagine you are standing at the sink. Now, look up. That is what you would see.

But you would expect to see dark brown fur balls up there somewhere. But they are not there.

I climbed a ladder to be certain there is not a ledge up there. Nada.

I mentioned on Monday that I have purposely walked by the area at various hours during the night -- thinking that it might be the equivalent of a bat singles bar. I have yet to see the slightest movement.

But, just like clockwork, the guano shows up every day.

I am simply going to be happy the bats are somewhere. Not only do they fascinate me, they are actually useful with their insect consumption.

And insects we have a'plenty.

Jiggs cannot get up from the ground without assistance. Once up, he gets around fine. But he needs my help to go from being a dog rug to a dog on the run.

On Tuesday night, I was sitting out on the "lawn" with him, and I noticed that both of us were attracting lots of mosquitoes. And not just any mosquito. By their behavior and their appearance, they were easy to identify: Aedes aegypti. The girls that carry both yellow and dengue fevers.

Into the house we went -- after having more than our share of blood samplings -- hoping that the bats would make short order of our nasty little visitors.

Frankly, I do not care where the bats leave their guano as long as they eat the nasties that have been dining on me for the past two months.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

follow the yellow brick beach

My neighbor and I were discussing last night how difficult it is to describe some of the Melaque sunsets to our familiy and friends.

It goes beyond mere perception -- the fact that most of what we think we see is modified by our individual brains. Sometimes, people simply cannot conceive some of the colors we experience each night.

A perfect example is the yellow sky we see only during this time of the year. Most tropical sunsets are famous for their reds. Melaque's best color is almost a canary yellow.

I took the photograph at the top of the post last July when I visited the area. I knew nothing of the yellow sunsets. All I knew was the display was stunning.

The sky turned yellow, but so did the reflection on the ocean -- and on the sand.

Those skimboard lads looked as if they were about to sail off over a large bowl of lemon gelatin -- the veritable Mexican treat.

Melaque is certainly not paradise. But it has its moments. And sunsets like this are some of the best.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

on el camino with los miserables

Your heart would break. Mine did.

He could not have been more than seven. Very thin. Tattered red t-shirt. Pants that were worn-torn, rather than cut off. Bare feet.

With tears streaming down his smudged face.

He held out his left hand and looked up at me pleading with pooling brown eyes.

But I have started in the middle of my story.

Monday afternoon I took a quick drive over to Cihuatlán, the equivalent of the county seat, to buy a few items from our only local "big box" store. I have not been there since I witnessed the Canadian woman's near-loss of her wallet.

I will not bother you with the details, but on the way there I saw an animal road death that heightened my sensitivity for life.

My shopping visit was short. I bought my few groceries, and loaded them in the car. As I placed the shopping cart in the return area, I noticed the boy sitting on the grass strip immediately in front of my truck.

When I first saw him, he was looking straight ahead. The moment he caught my movement in his peripheral vision, his head swiveled up to look at me. His palm came out.

I wish I could say compassion was my first reaction. It wasn't. Perhaps, I have become just a bit cynical about children in that parking lot.

Besides the history, there was something just too stylized about the kid. He looked as if he had just missed his bus for the Mexican road show of Les Misérables. The clothes looked like a costume. The smudge on the cheek the size of adult fingers.

And that look of supplication. As if he were awaiting for the priest to provide him with the host.

But the memory of that animal death on the road overcame all of those doubts. I reached in my pocket to give him a peso note. He leaned forward as his tears began to flow.

Then I saw it. The reason he was holding out only his left hand was simple. He held a screwdriver in his other hand. And my front license plate was dangling by only one screw.

He immediately tracked my gaze, and was on his feet in one bound on his way across the parking lot. He fired a rather exotic name at me that I had to look up when I came home. I am not going to repeat it here.

I went into the store, but I could find no one in charge because the store was extremely busy -- and I was certain I was going to lose my plate if I did not get back to my truck.

As I drove away, I saw him sitting in front of another truck on the grassy parking strip.

A reader provided contact information for the local child protection services. I am going to call. There has to be some Fagin-ish adult behind this. Why would children steal license plates on their own?

When we encounter the Gavroches of thi
s world face to face, our hearts still break -- even (perhaps, especially) when those little supplicating hands are committing crimes.

Monday, August 10, 2009

weekend mystery number dos

Miss Marple herself would abandon this mystery.

There is no death -- at least, not yet.

But there are strange goings on up at the Algodón manse.

You already know I spend most of my time on the patio on the ground level of the Melaque house.

Hammock. Swallows. Sitting area for reading. Jiggs's sleeping bag.

But there is also a wet bar. And the sink and counter are the mystery.

Even before I arrived, very distinct droppings started appearing on the counter. You can see them in the photograph at the top of the post.

Those of you who jump ahead have probably already identified our culprit as a mouse. If you have, you have picked the wrong suspect. The strainer in the sink drain is too small to accommodate a mouse.

The droppings are a bit more exotic. They come from the visiting bat or bats.

Or so I have suspected.

But I have yet to see a bat roosting in that area. I have stopped in at various times of the evening and night. But I have yet to catch a bat using the Talavera outhouse.

Saturday afternoon, I thought I had trapped a new suspect. I heard a tapping sound in the sink. It looked as if someone had placed a ball or something over the sink drain hole, and something underneath was attempting to escape.

Like a magician's assistant, I picked up the "ball," with an appropriate flourish, to reveal -- nothing, nada. Other than an empty drain.

I then looked at what I had in my hand. It was a large hermit crab. "Large" because it was in a shell the size of a fine escargot -- a subtle woman's fist.

So, I now have two mysteries.

One. Is that really bat guano? If so, where are the bats?

Two. How did a large hermit crab make it all the way up on the counter, merely to get trapped in the sink? Are the bats now offering crabby passenger service?

Warning to anyone considering retirement. This is the type of thing that will soon add fascination to your days.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

weekend mystery number uno

I have seen him twice.

My neighbor has seen him more often.

He motors along the beach -- probably within 10 meters of the shore.

He then motors out into the bay and sits there -- sometimes for hours.

The boat bristles with antennae. And I say "he," because I have only seen the helmsman. If there is anyone below, they stay below.

So, what is up? (I used the telephoto lens merely to give the photograph a "Stevenson explains missiles in Cuba" effect.)

The boat has no markings. But with that silhouette, the orange life rings, and the nautical gray paint job, it certainly belongs to some governmental agency -- most likely the Navy. Though, there are other possiblities.

While I was photographing the boat, someone asked me if I thought it was a narco boat. I responded: "Not unless things are a lot worse than the press lets on." And I find that hard to imagine.

But I really have no idea.

Anyone want to drop a guess in the boat pool?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

pirates of the seven DVDs

Most of us who live in Mexico have no direct experience with the drug war we hear about in the NOB press. Some Canadian newspapers give the impression that tourists are daily lured into the valley of death in Mexican resorts -- and that is only the time share salesmen.

Most of us see the occasional helicopter or Mexican Army truck. And that is about it.

That war is as remote to us as the war in Afghanistan.

But it can touch us in surprising ways.

I was having dinner the other day with an acquaintance in Melaque. We will call him Doug.

He is a good soul who actually lives out his principles: will not buy any product made in China (for a variety of reasons); will not eat shrimp because of the manner in which they are harvested; and refuses to be cowed into using politically correct language.

I would never think of accusing him of moral hypocricy. But we do not speak often of politics.

Instead, we talk a lot about old movies. He told me that he had recently purchased a copy of Apocalypse Now on the street in Manzanillo for about a dollar. He started to tell me about how much he admired Coppola's work when I interrupted him.

"You bought it where?"

"On the street. In Manzanillo."

"You bought a pirated copy of a DVD?"

"Calm down, Cotton. Who cares? So some corporation doesn't get an extra ten bucks. Who's the pirate?"

I told him I wasn't worried about the pirated aspect of the DVD (even though it is theft), but I was worried about the pirates who received his money. Being as well informed as he is, I thought he knew a large portion of the receipts from pirated DVDs end up in the hands of La Familia drug cartel.

He was shocked. I believe he had never heard about the DVD-drug connection.

Ironically, this week's Economist includes an article on President Calderón's war against the drug cartels. The article points out that drugs provide only about half of La Familia's revenue. The other half comes from selling pirated DVDs, smuggling people to the United States, and running a debt-collection service. Sounds a bit like the services rendered by crime families in Brooklyn.

Even though it is not universal, most expatriates avoid the purchase or use of illegal drugs. Using them is almost as insane as the laws that makes their use illegal. And I suspect that most of us will not be smuggling anyone north or asking La Familia to help us collect on that late rental installment.

But we may -- and do -- buy those pirated DVDs that gaudily decorate almost every street corner and tianguis. Putting money on the table risks putting pesos in the same hands that shoot policemen and innocent civilians.

Like Doug, I am tired of being a moral hypocrite. I have not bought any of the DVDs. And I am not going to.

Neither is Doug. They now go into his moral bag with China and shrimp.

Friday, August 07, 2009

villa on the tiber?

I have never been very picky about where I live. Buying a McMansion in a west coast suburb was never one of my dreams.

In my better moments, I could easily live in a monastic cell.

And then there are moments like Thursday.

When I visited Melaque last year, I wandered around to get a feel for the various neighborhoods. The west end of the beach offered the best swimming. Because of that fact, tourists tend to congregate there. Along with the mélange of architectural styles that tourists expect at the beach.

But I did not expect to see the house pictured above in a residential area. Several appellations came to mind: the kindest was 1950s bank. Dostoevsky dacha on the Don was not far behind.

On Thursday the estate agent took me to a house she thought would be perfect for me. It was, of course, the "bank" that had provided me with moments of amusement during the past year.

I am no longer laughing. The place is a bit austere inside (in a luxurious Hollywood manner), but its three bedrooms may work out fine for me. There is a small garden for Jiggs. And the swimming beach and good restaurants are extremely convenient.

The rent is more than I want to pay. But it is the high season and I need the place for only five months.

The only thing that needs work is the kitchen. It effectively does not have one -- almost as if the architect forgot about it, and then decided to stuff it into a hallway.

I am a bit leery at renting a house with a promise that modifications will be done n the future. But it could be another opportunity for an adventure in Mexico.

There is something about the place.

If Jed or Granny or Elly May wander in looking for Miss Hathaway or Mr. Drysdale, I am going to feel right at home.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

the tsunamis are coming; the tsunamis are coming

"Emergency. Everybody to get from street.

"Emergency. Everybody to get from street."

With those lines, Alan Arkin, as Lt. Rozanov, attempts to create a diversion on Gloucester Island to get back to his submarine. Of course, the lines are delivered in a cheesy Slavic accent. You need to add your own Tillamook to this piece.

The movie was "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming." One of those 1960s comedies whose script was as funny as its politics were naive.

The ploy, of course, being a mere MacGuffin, did not work.

But the version visited upon Melaque on Wednesday did -- sort of.

The Mexican state of Jalisco has installed a series of 27 units to detect tsunamis on the 290 kilometers (180 miles) of its Pacific coast to give warning to fishermen and coast dwellers. That second category is near and dear to my heart -- and the rest of my body.

If unusual wave activity is detected, a recorded message is supposed to be announced on speakers prominent enough (portrayed above) to restore Winston Smith's trust in the Ministry of Truth:

This is a message from the State Civil Protection System. A seismic shock has been recorded that may cause a tsunami. We ask you to locate evacuation routes and remain alert to further messages.

Of course, that is not the message that I thought would be announced -- at least not with those words. It would be announced in Spanish, not English. Or so I thought.

On Wednesday I found out that I was half correct. The announcement is in Spanish -- then, in English.

Perhaps it is a ploy to convince Americans and Canadians that they will not be left to play extras in an Irwin Allen film if the great flood comes. There is nothing more disconcerting than sitting on your veranda watching the ocean recede while all of your Spanish-speaking neighbors are reenacting The Grapes of Wrath.

Well, there is one thing more disconcerting. Watching the receding ocean change its direction to prove that global warming is not the only way to increase tide levels.

I was on my way back to the house after a morning of Spanish lessons and vegetable shopping when I heard several chords -- as if Gabriel might be sounding the final trump.

I was wrong -- unless God had decided to announce the Second Coming with a bureaucratic warning in Spanish.

The end of days was not upon us. At least, not in reality.

The male bureaucratic voice announced in ribbon and seal tones that this was merely a test of the tsunami and cyclone (I was not aware of that additional purpose) warning system.

The test consisted of ever-escalating code colors and dire warnings. Unfortunately, none of the subsequent warnings were identified as being mere drills. They were authentic enough to cause my neighbors to ask me if we should be doing something.

I checked the streets. Some of the tourists in fact were packing up to leave the area. It was almost as if Orson Welles had been reanimated to plop Grover's Corner in Jalisco. But not quite that panicked.

At least, I feel a bit more comfortable with the warning system. Most of it appears to be well-considered -- with the obvious exception of the drills.

What no one has rehearsed is how to evacuate the 10,000 people who are shoehorned onto this narrow alluvial plain. Hills are close. But the roads are very narrow.

And I do not think I am being ethnically insensitive to point out that queuing up is not a Mexican habit.

Perhaps, I should merely hold out for one of those Russian submarines that Hollywood finds so helpful as a plot device. MacGuffin or not.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

the girl that I marry --

She was beautiful.

Red hair. A smile that would make men weak at the knees.

I fell in love with her the first time I saw her.

And she was nuts.

I, of course, could not see it. I was in love.

My friends would pull me aside and tell me, in Cassius-conspiratorial whispers: "You do know she's crazy, don't you?"

And I would respond: "She's so pretty."

Of course, like all love stories that start with those elements, it did not end happily. I did not marry her.

There were parting telephone calls where she alternated between Doris Day and the Mouth of Sauron. There were more bad days than good days.

And then nothing. As if the moment had never happened.

I thought of her on Sunday. As I was walking into town from church, a woman came running across the street.

She could have been from central casting -- wearing her hat emblazoned with the name of a Mexican resort town, shorts, and what looked like either a table cloth or a rug wrapped around her shoulders. For a moment, I thought one of Richard's gangs had escaped from San Miguel de Allende.

I was wrong. She was a new resident in town. And she wanted to now: "American? Canadian?"

I was not certain what to make of her question. It was her accent. It did not sound Mexican. French? Central European? I could not tell.

And it was not for want of sampling. In the next five minutes I was to hear all about her personal life. And her dislikes. Apparently, they are legion.

  • She cannot stand the heat in Melaque. It is literally killing her -- causing her blood pressure to zoom to levels that would kill a mortal being.

  • She cannot abide the local health clinic. They are stupid because they would not give her medications she had demanded. And she has played a doctor on the stage.

  • Mexicans do not know how to cook Mexican food. Every place she has eaten, she needs to show the cook how Mexicans should cook.

  • She dislikes all of the Mexican people in town because they are stupid. They cannot discuss Sartre and other interesting existentialists with her.

When I asked her why she was in Mexico if she disliked the place so much, she responded -- "for love." She came here to live with a man, but he was trouble.

One can only imagine. And I left it to my imagination. There are things I do not need to know.

What I needed to know was how to get away. I did not need my friends to warn me what was going on.

She stopped at a shop; I went on my way.

I did start wondering, though. We all have things that we do not like about Mexico -- or wherever it is we live. My little encounter was obviously extreme. But do we come off as being simply unbalanced in our observations?

Now, I have something else to watch out for on the streets of Melaque: Glenn Close in a serape. I hope she has not seen A Fistful of Dollars.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

light at the end of the patio

The search for a winter rental began in earnest today.

The plan was to look at three houses that I had pre-vetted. If all went well, I would have my choice by the end of this week.

"If all went well ---"

Over a century ago, von Moltke informed us: "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

Battle plan. Business plan. House-hunting plan.

All the same. You want to make God laugh? Just tell him about that little plan of yours.

And there must have been laughter in Heaven yesterday.

I was to meet the estate agent at the first house -- about three blocks from the house where I am staying. She showed up with good news and bad news.

Bad news: We cannot see house #3 today. There were some unexplained complications. But it was not available today. Maybe later in the week -- Thursday?

Bad news: House #2 is no longer available. Or, more accurately, the owner has made house #2 unavailable.

The owner previously indicated he needed someone in the house for six months. I agreed to the extra month -- to at least get a look at the house. Now, he wants a full year, and the rent for the year will be high season rent.

Off the list the house goes. If I have to keep asking the price, I obviously do not deserve to be the owner's share cropper.

Bad news: The keys to house #1 are missing --or the locks have been changed. But a locksmith is on his way. No, he's not. She has to pick him up. Eventually, we are through the door, and --

Good news: I like the place. It is three bedrooms with the main bedroom on the ground floor. Jiggs needs that. No more stairs. And each room is open and airy.

Good news: The kitchen is large with a full-size stove.

Good news: But I already knew this. The house has a great garden. In fact, it was the garden that attracted me to the place. There is grass for Jiggs to roll in -- and plants to admire.

If I had a family (translate that to "wife"), I doubt the place would pass muster. It has little style and there are details that would drive some people to distraction.

For example, the view of the garden is open to people walking and driving by. But I had the same setup in Salem -- and loved being on stage. All I need is a hot tub.

I have already come to the conclusion that living in Mexico is a bit like camping. I am past the point of those inconveniences bothering me.

If we can come to an accommodation on the rent, this place is a real contender.

But -- there will be more contestants. So says my plan.