Monday, January 31, 2011

visiting frog mountain

I have been fascinated with Guanajuato since reading Doug and Cindi Bower's Guanajuato, Mexico: Your Expat, Study Abroad, and Vacation Survival Manual in the Land of Frogs.

When I saw that a Melaque tour company, Experience Mex-ECO, was offering a two-day tour to Guanajuato, I grabbed a seat on the bus.  Admittedly,I had sopped some of the Bowers' impressions about Guanajuato.  But I promised myself to look at the town with a critical eye.

Let's start with the obvious.  Guanajuato is unlike any other town in Mexico that I have visited or read about.  Our tour guide, a native, described it as "eclectic" and "cosmopolitan."  It isn't.

It is as provincial as any conservative town whose present was built on its historical and actual wealth.

Think Venice.  Better yet, think of one of those mountainous hillside towns in Italy -- perhaps, Sienna.

Geography was both kind and cruel to Guanajuato.  The mountains held gold and silver.  But the mountains forced the Spaniards to build their boom town in a very narrow valley.  A valley that flooded regularly and destroyed buildings and lives.

But the Spaniards were miners.  They knew how to handle excess water.  They dug tunnels under the city to drain off the flood waters.  Big tunnels. 

And when dams were built to control the flooding and automobiles arrived, the drainage tunnels were turned into Guanajuato's main streets.  Leaving the narrow lanes above mainly to pedestrians.

The arrangement gives the town the feel of an Italian Renaissance community.  Narrow lanes.  Lots of people rushing about on foot.  And a resultant atmosphere of purposeful tranquility.

The place has the feel of what it is -- the capital of a once-prosperous state.

That prosperity is evident in its public buildings.  One of the best examples is the Juárez Theater. 

President Porfirio Diaz
ordered a theater to be built to honor Mexico's Abraham Lincoln -- Benito Juárez.  The irony of that project is thick enough to cut with a knife.  The dictator honoring the defender of Mexican nationalism -- with a theater that looks as if it had been built in Paris. 

But all of that is political theater.  Guanajuato's churches define its character.

The churches are beautifully designed and extravagantly executed.  In the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, a seventh century statute of Mary stands atop a pillar of solid silver. 

In almost every church, gold leaf covers vast expanses of ceilings and chapel carvings.  The most extravagent being the gold chapels of Tempelo de San Cayetano.  

All of this honoring a man who repeatedly taught of the soul-rotting power of loving material goods.

It is impossible to ignore churches for their architectural and design aesthetics.  And Guanajuato's are beautiful.  But their intended purpose seems to disappear amongst the tinsel.

Having said that, I could spend days examining the beauty of each building.  And Guanajuato offers a new church neighborhood by neighborhood.  Each one more beautiful than the former.

And then there are the historical buildings.

The Alhóndiga de Granaditas -- where the independence war broke out and the heads of the insurgents were displayed for a decade. 

The houses where Juárez and Maximilian stayed -- separately, of course.  (Hope and Crosby, they weren't). 

The house where Diego Rivera was born -- and is now an art gallery.

Then there is culture.  Anyone seeking a slight touch of Stendhal Syndrome will find it here.

The big event is Festival Internacional Cervantino (International Cervantes Culture Festival) in honor of the creator of Don Quixote.

Cervantes has no obvious connection with Guanajuato.  But Shakespeare had no contact with Ashland, Oregon (one of Guanajuato's sister cities).  So, why not claim Cervantes as your cultural icon -- and then rake in the pesos.

And there are pesos to rake in.  For three weeks every October, the town invites international artists (singers, musicians, dancers, actors) to the festival.  The streets are crammed with visitors willing to part with money to have their cultural itch scratched.

The presence of one of Mexico's premier universities adds another layer of vibrancy to the town.  the cultural offerings that accompany any university is an obvious asset.

But the presence of so many young people in the central area of town makes the place simply seem to be a fun visit.  Along with the attendant discos, jazz clubs, and street cafés.

So, there is the data.  I will add some additional impressions soon.

But first -- the mummies.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

putting it together

"When you get to San Miguel, perfect for you, you will simply have your things shipped over. You will abandon the beach. That is my prediction. Don't get sidetracked in the city of Guanajuato. Good place to visit, but you don't wanna live there."

I heard Felipe's Delphic voice repeating that admonition as I walked the streets of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende.

It was an easy warning to heed.  Because I was not going to be seduced by either town.  At least, not on this trip.  Not with a mere two nights in Guanajuato and one night in San Miguel de Allende.

The purpose of the trip was to find a place to seek refuge from Melaque's hellish summers.  I am a bit tired of auditioning for a role in a Hieronymus Bosch triglyph.

But I also wanted to see a bit of the Mexico I know from my histiory stiudies.  Both towns are awash in their pasts.  Guanajuato was (and is) attractive to me for its history alone.

Certainly, other towns have a claim on being an historical barometer -- such as the obvious choice: Mexico City.  But Guanajuato is a bellwether of Mexico's largest post-conquest events.

And to understand the rest of this trip, we need to understand a bit of Guanajuato's (and Mexico's) history.

There are no monumental Indian sites near Guanajuato.  But the Indians were here.  Not to build cities.  They were here searching for the same prize that would attract the Spanish.

Cortés had barely cleaned his sword of Aztec blood before the Spanish discovered gold -- and then silver -- in the 1540s.  The Spanish preferred their precious metals in finished form.  But they were not adverse to digging it out of the ground.  As long as Indian slaves did the work.

Just as the rushes in California and the Klondike would prove, the odor of "get rich quick" attracted all forms of adventures -- some from Spain, some Spanish born in Mexico, some mixed race Mestizos.  And, of course, Indians forced to do the real work.

The work produced results.  Riches almost beyond belief.  Over the years, 300 successful mines were dug.  In the 1700s, one mine, La Valenciana, produced one-third of the world's supply of silver.  The owner of that mine went from no-account to Count of Valenciana, and one of the richest men in Mexico.

As a result, the Spanish crown became wealthier and wealthier because of its colonial jewel -- New Spain.

As so often happens, wealth led to hubris and hubris to paranoia.  King Carlos III, a liberal monarch who improved Mexico's trade policies, began to fear the Jesuits in Mexico and his other possessions. 

They were a powerful independent political force that advocated humane treatment for the Indians and a more Christian administration of law for all.  So, he booted them out in 1767.

The Indians had no power -- other than memory.  And they remembered.

There are always multiple reasons why colonists rise against their mother country.  And most of the classical reasons existed in Mexico in the early 19th century.  

A restrictive class system that prevented the advancement of anyone other than Spanish-born grandees.  High taxation that had already caused an earlier insurrection.  Admiration for the American and French revolutions.  Encouragement from the American government.

The powder keg was already there.  And, Napoleon Bonaparte, of all people, lit it.  After conquering Spain, Napoleon forced the Spanish king and his son to abdicate -- and put his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne.

 That was good enough for a group of Spanish conspirators to put their independence plans into motion.  Anti-monarchists and Borbón advocates joined together and declared Mexican independence in 1810.  Starting a war that would last for another 11 years.

The fighting began in Guanajuato.  When the Miguel Hidalgo, the warrior-priest, and his general, Ignacio Allende, began their march on Guanajuato, they thought they would be leading a well-disciplined armed force.

Instead, the army quickly attracted hordes of Indians who had more reason than anyone to resent the Spanish.  What started as a European-style armed resistance turned into a popular uprising.  (One of many where the Indians provided the muscle and received very little in return.)

What must have seemed like an armed mob descended on Guanajuato.  The Spanish army and the first families (with their loot) scurried into the newly-constructed Alhóndiga de Granaditas -- a fortress designed to store grain.

 It almost worked.  The Spanish held off the lightly-armed insurgents until one of those characters, who always shows up in patriotic narratives, offered his services -- and burned down the door of the granary.  The resulting massacre of the Spanish troops and civilians inside the building inflamed the Spanish.

Within the year, the Spanish had defeated the insurgents and executed the four primary leaders, including Hidalgo and Allende.  After shooting them, the Spanish decapitated all four and hung their heads on each corner of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas -- where they remained until Mexico won its independence a decade later.

But peace did not come to Guanajuato -- or Mexico.  Guanajuato's mines would not return to full operation for decades.

Most of the mines were managed by Spaniards.  And they were expelled at the end of the war.  In addition, a series of internal wars and invasions would keep Guanajuato from doing what it did best -- mine silver.

The Yucatan revolt.  The rebellion of Texas and two other northern provinces.  The Mexican-American War.  Power struggles between Liberals and Conservatives.  All of them kept miners out of mines and in uniforms.

One of Mexico's cherished myths centers around the election of the Liberal Indian Benito Juárez in 1858.  He had a vision of a different Mexico.  But the French had other ideas, and installed a young Habsburg princeling, Maximilian, as Mexico's second emperor in 1864.

But Juárez did not give up.  He set up a temporary capital in Guanajuato until the Conservatives and the French army drove him out.

Maximilian left his mark on Guanajuato with a victory spin through the country -- including a night in Guanajuato.  And he passed through on the way to his defeat and execution (on Juárez's orders) at the battle of the Cerro de las Campanas in 1867.

 But the mines would still not get back to full operation.  The Liberals and Conservatives disputed control of the central government until the proverbial man on the white horse arrived in 1876 -- José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori.  First, as president.  Then as dictator.

He brought order in the same way that it has too often come to Mexico -- through political repression.  But he gave Mexico one gift for which he should be remembered.  He brought the industrial revolution to Mexico.

For Guanajuato that meant new and better mines.  But, with the new apparatus came outsiders.  Americans, Canadians, and Europeans slowly took over the operation of the mines.

The revolution of 1910 put an end to all that.  When enough Mexicans had killed one another and the fighting died down, the mines were nationalized, the foreigners expelled, and Mexico, once again, had an authoritarian government.  A past it is now only beginning to doff during the past decade.

Guanajuato wears its history easily on its sleeve -- and its collar and cuffs.  Rather like Williamsburg, but without the Rockefellers.

In the next post, I will give you my impression of what all this means today.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

early dog days

While I take a day to organize my thoughts about my trip to the highlands, let me share another bit of dog sentimentality with you.

After reading dog days of winter, my mother dug this portrait out of the family album.

That is me (doing my Winston Churchill impression at age 2 -- almost indistinguishable for my current version) with Jiggs.  Not the Jiggs you know -- Professor Jiggs.  This is Uncle Jiggs.

My first dog.  My first golden retriever.

He was my fabled companion when I would wander away from home in my preschool years.  We learned together that danger is just another way of learning life's pleasures.

But most of those tales are the property of my mother -- and best told by her.

As for me, I have some adventures to tell about Mexico's highlands.  We will see how those early dog-taught lessons were applied.

Friday, January 28, 2011

showers of blessing

Sometimes I hate being correct.

And this is one of those times.

I feared that I would not have enough time to enjoy myself on my little trip to the highlands AND to simultaneously write about how much I am enjoying myself on my little trip to the highlands.

And I simply don't.  There is so much to see and my bandwidth is so narrow, I am going to have to wait until I return to Melaque to tell my tales of the road. 

However, Guanajuato is turning out to be a gold (and silver) mine of life and blog material.  And there are times where the two do not share DNA.

If most of my nascent posts were to show up in a newspaper, they would either be in the business or news sections.  (Or relegated to the comics.)

But, there are human interest pieces.  Before I forget about one of them, let me share it with you now.

On our second day in Guanajuato, our group had lunch at a restaurant (Real de la Esperar) perched high on a ridge above the city.  We could see it for close to 15 minutes before we reached it.  (Its photograph graces the top of this post.)

One of my fellow bus travelers is a frequent reader of this blog.  I met her and her husband last year in Melaque during my convalescent stage.

She thought the restaurant looked like a converted chapel.  I thought it was a restaurant tarted up to look like a chapel for the tourist trade.

It turns out we were both correct.  It was a 17th century chapel that was a ruin until an entrepreneur restored it with whimsy.  If there is a color on the color wheel, you will find it on the walls.  Along with Rubenesque cherubs -- who have a Warhol twist.

But I knew I was in for a treat when I saw the sign to the men's rest room. 

I have no idea how the women's rest room is announced,  but this little bit of heresy let me know I was heading toward the correct room.

Now, there may be some saint who likes to display a well-turned ankle.  I am never surprised to run across some campy spiritual mentor in Mexico.  But this piece had me laughing hard enough I was not certain I could do what I had set out to do.

When I opened the door to the rest room, I knew I had merely been served the appetizer with the signage.

The urinals were not immediately in sight.  But the moment I closed the artfully-designed door, I started laughing so hard I had to return to the table for my camera.

And here is the reason why.

There are two urinals (only one is visible in the photograph) -- both installed in a beautifully-tiled shower with a tulip shower head.

I can hear the proverbial mother's voice now.

"Tommy, I hope you are urinating in the shower."

"You bet I am, Mom."

If you are in town, stop by for a look.  The grub and view are worth a try as well.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

high and dry

By the time you read this, I will be spending my second night in Guanajuato. 

I am not going to have enough time to write about this visit as it occurs.  This tour schedule is too full -- and the hotel internet a bit too unreliable.

But I can, and will, put together some brief initial thoughts while I am on the road.  When I get back to Melaque, I will flesh out my impressions.

Earlier this month I ruffled the feathers of an event organizer in the Chapala area.  I told her I probably would not be able to attend for a number of reasons -- one of them being that I was not certain if my truck could make it through the mountains.

I received a curt and librarian-exact response that Chapala is not in the mountains.  It is on flat land near the lake.

I sighed.  She appeared to be a bit offended that I might be mistaking her cultured community for some Ozark backwater.  When, of course, I was referring to the mountains I would have to climb to get where she lived.

I thought of that exchange as we were driving through the mountains on our way to Mexico's central plain.

Geography is not cultural destiny.  But it certainly is a factor in defining cultures.  We did not have to get too many miles from the coast before it became quite evident that I live in one Mexico.  And the highlands are another -- or several.

I have long known that Mexico's highlands look very similar to Spain's altiplano.  It may be one major reason why the Spanish congregated on the Mexican plain.  It made them feel at home.

As we were driving through the countryside (and I must confess I did far more sleeping than looking), it occurred to me that I have seen landscape like this before.  Not only in interior Spain.  But also southern Texas.

And that caused me to chuckle.  I served time in southern Texas, and I never once said to myself: "When I retire, I am going to move somewhere just like this."

While I walked through Guanajuato, I noticed patches of the surrounding hills that are not yet stacked with houses.  But the hills are as bare as any Brownsville cattle ranch.

It was not a challenge.  But I realized that Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende are going to have to make up a lot in culture for what they lack in geographical offerings.  Bare hills are not a fair trade for pounding surf.

But I think both places may be up to the challenge.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

dog days of winter

This month would have been Professor Jiggs's 15th birthday.

I am not much for these events, and I do not think of myself as being sentimental.  But, for some reason, Jiggs's memory has intruded on me several times.

Gloria mentioned him in a comment on Brenda's blog.

My friends, the Lockes, sent me a late Christmas card featuring their young golden retriever -- who is the spitting image of Jiggs at that age.

I saw a golden on the beach here in town that reminded me a lot of him.

I ran into a father and son pair of Irish setters that were his favorite friends.

This week, the pages of my blog with the highest number of viewings were two pages dealing with whether to bring Jiggs to Mexico with me.

And then, my friend Ron Nelson sent me a video clip from a 1981 Johnny Carson show.  The guest was Jimmy Stewart.  He had some poems to read, and ended with this. 

Let me warn you it is sentiment writ large.  But I feel it is a fitting tribute from all of us who have lost dogs who are still close to us.

And Jiggs is closer to mean that I realized.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

leaving on a jet plane

Not really.  But I will be leaving on a bus.  Rather, I have left on a bus.

I am writing this in Melaque.

But, by the time you see it, I will be on my way to Guanajuato.  And San Miguel de Allende.  For about a week.

For two years, I have talked about ascending the mountains to the highlands.  Originally, I was going to scout for my next place to live.  But agendas change.

This trip now has mixed purposes.  I am still looking for a place to escape the heat of summer.  And I will do that. 

But that goal is secondary.  My primary mission is to be a simple tourist.  And the simplest of all tourists.  I am on a guided tour -- on a bus.

I have not joined one of these blue hair lady tours since 1975.  And that was a low-end bus tour in Spain and Morocco.  A tour where I met two of my best British friends.

I do not like touring on someone else's schedule.  But I learned on my trip to Colima that it is impossible to enjoy the scenery while trying to avoid being hit head on by an iron ore truck.

What I enjoy about these bus tours is having the opportunity to meet a new group of people over an extended period of time.  Not unlike the way that friendships are formed in the military.  Or prison.

I have no idea if I will be able to blog on the road.  My experiences of trying to keep up a regular posting schedule while I travel has not been good.  When I travel, I want to enjoy the experience.

But I assure you, I will share whatever I experience.

Museums.  Music.  Mummies.  It will all be there.  And then here.

Who knows?  I may even see one of you along the way.

Monday, January 24, 2011

rumble on aisle three

Last April, in warning! 7-11 at 2 o' clock, I wrote that three Mexican convenience stores had opened in Barra de Navidad, the town across the bay from Melaque.  With all of the attendant horrors that expatriates see in inevitable modernity.

I also noted that no stores of that ilk had yet opened in my village -- even though it has a far larger population.

That was then.  This is now.

When I returned to Melaque, I discovered not one, but two, new convenience stores within a block of each other.  An Oxxo on the jardin.  And a Kiosko just up the street.

They are effectively indistinguishable from one another -- same store colors with almost exactly the same offerings.  Beverages.  Salty things to snack on -- usually with lots of chili and lime.  Small jars of whatever.

I was a bit surprised that my expatriate friends had not told me tales of how terrible these stores are.  The usual indictment is they will endanger the local mom and pop grocery stores in the neighborhoods.

I think I know why I have not heard much chicken yard clucking.  Because the stores are down town, they do not compete directly with the stores we have in our neighborhoods.  The neighborhood places are small grocery stores (ironically called supers).  You can buy a small amount of almost anything you can get in a larger store.

And the potential market is different.  Oxxo and Kiosko stores are oriented toward young Mexicans who want to appear chic.  Nothing smells of middle class respectability like paying far too much for a Coke Light.

It has also turned out to be a place to see elderly pale-skinned tourists who seem to find the places an adequate substitute for their up north ritual of coffee at McDonald's in the morning.

In truth, I am pleased that the stores have found the accommodation that Mexican society eventually discovers.  (Sometimes after a century of shooting one another.)  Oxxo has its people.  And the supers have theirs.

There is no reason why life has to turn into a zero sum game.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

guest hands on the steering wheel

Today I am turning over the helm to a guest blogger.  A lot of you know her from her comments as "Teresa in Lake Stevens."

I met her through two other bloggers -- Andee of Chacala and 1st Mate.  Teresa donated her time as a volunteer teacher at the school in Chacala.  1st Mate wrote about her in Another Side of Chacala.

When I was getting ready to make the move south, Teresa stopped by my house, along with Cynthia and Mike (who had recently returned from Mexico), to give Jiggs and me a proper send off.  As a lovely parting gift, Theresa gave me a very handy Spanish-English dictionary -- that I have put to good use, and should use more often.

I will let her take it from there.


Hi Folks,

I enjoy reading and commenting on your blogs. However, since I don't have one of my own, I don't have a way of sharing pictures with you.  Due to this, I asked Steve if I could be a guest blogger and being the gentleman that he is, he said yes.

The first two pictures are from hikes I went on last summer.  The rest are from the Southern Caribbean cruise my family and I went on over Christmas.  We had a wonderful time and thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful scenery on the islands, not to mention the great food and all the activities on the ship.

Thank you, Steve, for the opportunity to share these pictures!

Teresa in Lake Stevens

A short hike in Glacier National Park, Montana.

North Cascades National Park, Washington -- my favorite hiking area

Steve, and Matt at one of our stops during our safari in Samana, Dominican Republic

The Freeburn Family Four by the same waterfall in the picture after this

I felt like going for a swim.  These last two are also from our safari in Samana

Docked in Tortola -- stunning view

Beautiful countryside in Barbados

The biggest tree I've ever seen -- St. Kitts

Steve and Chris -- the highest point in St. Kitts

Christmas Eve.  I gave the guys these Rasta hats as gag gifts.  Love those expressions!

I hope you all enjoyed the pictures.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

camp following

Before I moved to Mexico, I did not have many expectations concerning my living standard in my new home.  And those I did have turned out to be a bit skewed

I try to remember that when I invite friends to come visit me in Melaque.

My friends who have already visited Mexico have spent vacations primarily in Cabo San Lucas, Cancun or Ixtapa -- in world class hotels with pools, bar service, and cabana boys.

When I invite those same friends to Melaque, I have to manage more expectations than a White House spin doctor.

The problem is evident.  My house is adequate for my life style.  But it is certainly not a world class hotel.  There is no pool.  And if there ever were cabana boys, they have all taken off skimboarding.

The best advice I can give (and do give) potential visitors is to unpack their memories of boy and girl scouting.  Visiting me is a lot like camping.

We don't have sleeping bags.  But the beds are concrete slabs topped with mattresses that feel as if they might be stuffed with unshorn sheep.  Wooly, but lumpy.

Meals will be cooked on a stove that has the temperature control of a Coleman.  Not quite hot enough to attain a boil.  Nor low enough to keep eggs from getting crusty.

Water comes out of bottles.  If you want to drink it.  You can drink from the tap and then spend some interesting down time in the bathroom.  (I suspect this one is an urban myth.  But it is one of the most effective scare tales.  People really want to believe it is true.)

Washing up is just like Camp Meriwether.  The only difference is our hot water comes out of the tap, not out of a pot on the camp fire.  But it still requires treatment.  (See above.)  Wash in the sink.  Rinse in a plastic tub.  Air dry on a rack.  Come to think of it, that is my life as a child.  Pre-dishwasher.

And then there is the shower.  This is the one that causes the most concerns from my American friends -- for a reason that is unfathomable to me.

I am lucky to have a very good hot water on demand water heater.  I can get a good 4 or 5 minute shower with hot water to spare.

That is not the issue.  The issue is water pressure.

I have almost none.  The system is gravity fed -- just like camping when you would shower under one of those contraptions that looked like a bucket with holes in the bottom.  Functional.

For some reason, my American friends seem to believe that a shower has to have the same pressure as a sandblaster.  And that has been the deal breaker for some potential visitors.

In return for those opportunities to expand their living horizons, the guests who do come down get to relax in the sun, visit any number of almost-uninhabited beaches, see as many birds and butterflies as a person can without suffering Stendhal Syndrome -- or just sit and talk.

I have considered a new tack, though.  As a test, I could send this photograph to prospective guests claiming it is my house.  (It actually is a neighbor's house.) 

Of course, as a bonus, there is always the possibility they might spot either Mrs. Howell or The Skipper.  The remainder of the cast members are seldom seen.

Or, perhaps, this one.

I will not tell you which one, but I came very close to renting one of these houses before I came to rest in my current digs. 

I will let you guess which.

I suspect, I would not need to manage any guest expectations with those choices.

Friday, January 21, 2011

my club

Sometimes I feel like Billy Pilgrim.

I have not come unstuck in time, But I recurringly become unstuck in culture.

I have no delusions about learning the subtleties of Mexican culture.  I know a little history.  A little more politics.  And a lot less Spanish.

I get by.

I now know that when I enter a store in Melaque, I will encounter a clerk who speaks only Spanish and will not be able to answer more than a few rudimentary questions about the merchandise offered in the store.

That means I need to have an idea what I want to buy -- and I need to rehearse the conversation in my head.  For me, improvisation is limited to English.

But there are still times I forget where I am, and I let my guard down.  Always to my cost.

The first time I visited the new Office Depot in Manzanillo, I thought I had been transported back to Salem.  With the obvious exception of the armed security guard next to the door.

A clerk immediately came up to me, greeted me, and asked if she could be of assistance -- in English.  I was astonished.  Nothing like it had ever happened to me before in Mexico -- or since.

In Melaque, shoppers are left to their own resources to find what they want and then take it to an indifferent cashier.  (With the exception of hardware stores -- where the counter man becomes your partner in solving your construction problems.)

The Office Depot experience misled me into believing that an American brand name on the outside of a building would mean a cultural nursery thrived in its interior.

The whole idea was silly.  The Manzanillo Walmart has the same type of service as the Melaque stores.  The commercial language is Spanish (as it should be in Mexico), and no one is there to make your shopping experience anything other than an exchange of currency for goods.

Knowing that, I still fell into the same cultural tiger pit on my trip to Colima.

Ever since I arrived in Mexico, my expatriate friends have raved about the wonders of the Colima Sam's Club -- a two hour drive south.  The closest warehouse outlet store to Melaque.  (There is a Costco in Puerto Vallarta.  Four hours north.)

After I spent a good portion of the afternoon tramping around La Campana (stuffing my mouth), I decided to drive directly back to Melaque.  But my route back took me directly past what looked like a nascent Gringolandia.  Office Depot.  McDonald's.  Burger King.  And Sam's Club.

Earlier in the day, I had decided not to try to track down Sam's Club after I discovered my GPS thought the nearest one was in Puerto Vallarta.

But there it was.  Right in my past.  Almost as if the shopping goddess had plopped it in the midst of my voyage path.

Because I had no crew to lash me to the mast, I heeded the sirens' call and stopped at the Promised Land of All Things Material.

I know from past experience that Sam's Club is a members only outlet.  No card.  No entrance.  And my Costco card would do me no more good than flashing my MasterCard.  (I tried it in Puerto Vallarta last March -- the day before I broke my right ankle.)

What I did not know is whether I could go in to take a look around before I decided whether or not I wanted to join.  After all, why join a club when you can buy their merchandise anywhere else?

And then it happened.  I suspect it was all of those American-looking signs that sent me off on an Ameri-thought reverie.  Without any reflection, I asked the woman at the door if I could come in and look around. 

All of that in English.  Without even the pretense of a polite ¿Hablas inglés? And because I had not mentally rehearsed to speak Spanish, I just froze up when she stared at me.  (I had no trouble translating what was going through her mind.)

Inevitably, whenever I get to reenact the part of Steve the Fool, I end up spending money.  It must be some type of control issue.  But that is exactly what happened at Sam's Club.

I ended up at the membership desk doing my best to navigate the maze of application hell.  After more than one humorous misunderstanding (resolved with my driver's license and my FM3), I had a new photo ID in hand -- and in the other hand, an empty shopping cart.

I must confess.  I am a slow cultural learner.  Even after the language brouhaha, I must have thought I was back in Oregon when I started down the warehouse aisles.  Because it looked as if half of the warehouse had already been cleared out.

It hadn't.  The warehouses in Mexico do not offer a wide range of merchandise.  You can buy one of thirty brands of laundry detergent.  But cheddar cheese is as rare as unicorns at an NRA convention.  Almost all of the merchandise was indistinguishable from offerings at Walmart, Soriana, or Comercial. 

No Carr's crackers.  No Hormel pepperoni.  No computer deals.

OK.  I know they were silly expectations.  I told you I was a slow learner.

After a full turn through the store, I had two items in my basket -- a four-pack of deodorant and a three-pack of (tiny) mouth wash bottles.

For my $(Mx)550 membership fee and a two-hour drive, I probably saved about $(Mx)100.

But the peso savings was not the value of the trip.  Its true value was another opportunity to learn Mexico is not Oregon. 

In some ways, it is better.  In some, not as good.  In others, simply different.

And that is why I have chosen to live here.

Of course, it would help a whole lot If I would continue to work on and improve my Spanish.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

travels with my ants

I was watching and listening to Dorothy Loudon's rendition of Losing My Mind and You Could Drive a Person Crazy on Wednesday night. 

The woman could convey madness with a glance.  Carol Channing with a Norma Desmond complex.

And I was just about there along with her this week.

We have been battling leaf cutter ants around here for the past month.  Not just a nest here and there.  We have ant condominiums.

For those of you who have not dealt with these devils, you cannot possibly know how aggravating they are.  For those of you who have (and I know several of you have blogged on the topic), you can sit in the amen corner.

First, let me make on thing perfectly clear (as the opaque Richard Nixon liked to say).  I admire ants.  I like ants.  I even love some ants.  They are an amazing social machine.  And these leaf cutters are unique in their determination to survive. 

A single nest can strip an entire bush of leaves in one night.  I wish I had a better camera to show how magnificent their lines of battle are.  Carrying their leaf trophies, they look like triumphant legionnaires returning to Rome with Celtic plunder.

But what I admire is what signs their death warrants.  Because they are so efficient at stripping leaves, they inevitably attack a plant in the garden that is the visible result of a gardener's love and nurturing.  Tamper there and there is a good death for you.

The problem is that these ant colonies are harder to kill than a vampire.  I have tried powdered poisons, poisoned nuggets to be taken back to the nest by foolish workers, and even the ultimate frustration weapon: Raid.

I have dead ants all over the place.  But they seem to keep right on coming.

I was feeling a bit smug on Wednesday night -- thinking I had wiped out all of the nests in the yard and around the malecon.  To celebrate, I invited The Professor out for dinner at Melaque's best restaurant.

The walk home was made easy by one of the brightest full moons I have seen in a couple of months.

As I walked along, I keep thinking of words associated wit the moon.  Lunatic.  Lunacy.  Things like that.

The words were prophetic.  Because when I got back to the house, the ants were taking advantage of the lit night.  Line after line of them.

I half-heartedly dropped a few pellets for them to take home to their young.  And went to bed.

There is time enough to fight that war.  If I spend any more time thinking about the ants, I will be doing my own Dorothy Loudon impersonation.

Note:  If you want to see the late great star performer in action, you can watch her at:


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

wet birds

Tuesday morning was going to be my birding morning.

I say "was going" because I did not get a very good start.

My plan was to get up at 6 (before our sun rises), have some cereal, and head out to the country to watch the birds start their morning routines.  Such was the plan.

And I was up at 6 -- to discover for the second day in a row the temperature was about 50.

Now, I am the guy who kept his house in Oregon at 55 degrees during the winter.  But, 50 in Melaque is just too cool to be up and about.  So, I wasn't.

Eventually, the truck and I were on our way.  I have birds in my Melaque back yard.  But there are some wetlands around here that are almost avian micro systems.  And I was headed to one.

Because I was already too late to catch the early bird special, I decided to take a little detour.

When I was discussing whether or not to buy a GPS for my Mexico trips, a message board colleague suggested a GPS was a hindrance to adventure.  Getting lost is part of the fun of touring Mexico.  You get to see things you never knew existed.  After all, it was a business model that suited the Spanish invaders well.

Now that I have my GPS, I get a kick out of watching the display show the truck heading off into uncharted hills.

And, as you know, for the past month, I have been been looking for little roads that seem to lead to nowhere. 

That is what I did today.  Dirt track road.  One lane.  Looking as if it was not regularly traveled.

If you are waiting for the revelation that I found the best site in Mexico, you will have a long wait.   What I found were cattle on the road, the ranches from whence they came, several small coconut plantations -- and quiet.

No sounds of machinery.  Just the wind in the fronds.  And bird song -- nearby, in the middle distance, and echoing from the far end of narrow valleys.  Simple beauty.

But the bird song reminded me I was on my way to watch birds in action -- not just in concert.

I have come to really appreciate marsh birds.  They are the monarchs of predators.  Especially, the herons and egrets.

Anyone who thrills at lions bringing down zebra should adore these birds.  Their patience, stalking technique, and striking speed make cats look like arrivistes.

But they were simply the stars.  With a supporting cast of ducks, coots, kingfishers, flycatchers, vireos, and snake birds.  Along with several species I could not begin to identify.

Some of these birds are just spending the summer.  I recognize almost all of them.  But most are year-round residents.  And they are new to me.

I am not much of a birder; I barely qualify as a hobbyist.  My lack of a Life List is proof enough of that.

But I do enjoying watching and attempting to identify what I see.

After about four hours of watching, I came to two conclusions.  (For those of you who say: "Yes.  You need to get a life", I guess that is what the Comments section is for.)

First, I need to purchase a good field guide to identify birds in Mexico.  I have received several good recommendations.  I will probably pick up two or three when I head north for a week in late February or so.

The second is that I need a better camera.  My Panasonic FZ35 was a big step up from my previous camera.  It takes great photographs.  But its zoom is not designed for wildlife shots. 

What I need is a DSLR with a couple of good zoom lenses.  I am certain that Gary Denness and Howard Platt will have some suggestions for me.

Until then, I will stick with my binocular and recurring trips to the internet.

The birds will not mind waiting for better equipment.  After all, they didn't even notice that I was on Mexican time this morning.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

re-tired on the beach

The side road to the Melaque view point was worth the trip (forbidden fruit).

But the reason I was in these hills was to drive over to Cuastecometes for the day.

I have mentioned several times that I moved to Mexico to be near the water.  If I had retired in Oregon, I wanted to live on the coast. 

I have an affinity with the water that I cannot quite describe.  But I like it the same way I like tapioca pudding.  If you don't have the same passion, there is no way I can defend it.

The one thing that Melaque lacks is a good swimming-snorkeling beach.  There is Chicken Beach.  But when the beach in Melaque is crowded, Chicken Beach is packed.

But there is a far better choice.  Just over the hills is a lovely little cove.  At the village of Cuastecomates.


Great sand with a gently sloping shoreline.  Perfect for wading.  Easy to keep your footing.  With my ankle, that is starting to be an important criteria.

And the town is a tourist paradise.  With very good palapa restaurants.  The type of place that loses all human context the moment the sun goes down.

But the thing I like best are the rocks at the each end of the beach.  It is a great place to sit in the sun and read.  I did that the other day with my Kindle.

But I forgot one of the drawbacks of tropical beaches,.  Even though the butterflies are beautiful, their cousins, the mosquitoes, are not as welcome.  If I had remembered my DEET, I would have saved myself a few welts.

I keep forgetting to bring my snorkeling equipment with me on these rare visits.  The rocks should offer some interesting marine life.

Perhaps next trip.  And there will be one.

Monday, January 17, 2011

darwin comes to lunch

The joys of living in Mexico -- especially coastal Mexico -- never cease to amaze me.

Between my breakfast with Babs and the Cisco's Amigos fundraiser (breakfast with babs), I decided to take a look around the laguna.  My neighbors in the upper unit told me they had seen a large crocodile in the main portion of the laguna.

I grabbed my binoculars and camera, and walked over to where they said they saw him.  I saw nothing other than a large mound of floating debris.

When I came back to the house, though, I noticed what looked like offal (probably intestines) floating in the inlet just off the bank.  It is the photograph at the top -- and you do not want to enlarge it, no matter how pretty it appears to be.

I went to the fundraiser, and discovered there are now two large crocodiles in the main channel of the laguna -- Lumpy and Scar.  My neighbors probably saw one of them.

When I got home, I decided to rest in the hammock while pretending to read the newspaper on my Kindle.  It is hard to do that with your eyes closed.

I may have drifted off.  But I woke up when I heard a loud splash in the inlet.  My first thought was that whoever threw the garbage in the laguna had returned for part two of basura disposal.

But I was wrong.  When I got out on the walkway, I saw the source of the noise.  My little crocodile was back.  And he was looking for lunch.

He would approach the offal as if it were alive.  He would then slowly nudge up against it and smell it.  From the looks of it, it probably smelled horrible.

I thought that was going to be the end of this little Marlin Perkins vignette.  But, once again, I was wrong.

The crocodile grabbed the meat and did what I have seen crocodiles do before -- he spun.  Faster than a Kirov ballerina.

He then tried to deal with the long portion of intestine he had torn off by tossing it in the air.  When that didn't work, he smacked his head against the surface of the water until a consumable portion broke off.  No Emily Post rules at that dinner.

I have watched the crocodiles at La Manzanilla feed on the remains of bill fish.  They have all of the same feeding habits.  But they are not in the least bit shy.

This crocodile is shy -- very shy.  Each time I would move, he would freeze.  And rest in the water like a log until I stopped moving.

There may be two reasons for this difference in behavior.  The La Manzanilla crocodiles see lots of people every day.  This fellow does not.  Most of his feeding is nocturnal.

The second reason is his size.  He is quite small.  In his reptilian eyes, I may outrank him on the food chain.  And historically, that has been true.

As it turned out, the only thing higher on the food chain were mosquitoes.  I was so engrossed at taking photographs and video that I did not notice my lower legs were covered by the nasty little beasts.

It is ironic that those mosquitoes are vectors for diseases caused by even smaller organisms.  And yet we fear the crocodile.

The crocodile was still feeding when the sun went down.  Who knows what he started hunting after his offal meal.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

breakfast with babs

This week has been one good thing after another.

Earlier in the week,
Babs called.  She is in town and wanted to know if I would like to join her for breakfast.

As you know from yesterday (
no candles -- no cake), I may have cut back on the amount of food I eat down here, but I have not cut back on one of my favorite pastimes -- social dining.  And dining with Babs is something I would never pass up.

I have known her longer than I have known any of my fellow bloggers.  We started corresponding while I was still trying to make up my mind whether or not to retire.

From the start, she has tried to recruit me into the ranks of the San Miguel de Allende lot -- to become a gang member, as
Richard Lander would say.  And, once again, she put on a full court press. 

All the usual positives of San Miguel.  Music.  Concerts.  Art.  And just plain fun with good dining companions.  I have to confess, she always makes it sound very inviting.

But we talked about other things, as well.  How our personal lives are going.  The growing lack of civility (on almost everything) in American culture.  How the bloggers' conference went.  Updates and assessments of other bloggers.

The time went by far too fast. 

But I will give some thought to San Miguel.  I was hoping to get up there this winter.  I may be heading over to Guanajuato later in the month, but i doubt I will be able to fit in another stop.  At least, not on that trip.


Saturday was also a fund-raising day.  My land lady is very active in Cisco's Amigos -- the local organization that sponsors a dog and cat spay and neutering clinic each November.

The results of their work is very noticeable on the streets.  There are fewer stray cats and dogs than when I first starting visiting this area of Mexico. 

This last November 276 animals were neutered or spayed.  The number may not seem large.  But each year, it is that many fewer neglected animals on the street.

It is good work.  And I like to support it.

The organization has chosen to raise its fund through an annual bingo tournament tied to a silent auction.  The fact that most of the silent auction items are sold for more than their face values is proof enough that the people who attend the event know the value of the organization's work.

I have little interest in bingo, but I always bid on one of the restaurant silent auction options.  And it is always the same one: Victor's Place, where I had breakfast with Babs. 

I was the high bidder last year, and never got around to using the certificate.  And I was the high bidder again this year. 

We will see if I remember to use the certificate the next time I am there.  For some reason, it strikes me as being akin to using discount coupons.

But it was another good day.  Breakfast with one of my favorite people -- and giving a helping hand to the fecund animals of Melaque.

What could be better? 

Well, there was one additional event.  But that will be for another day.  Like tomorrow.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

no candles -- no cake

"How did you celebrate your birthday?"

I had several telephone calls and email in that vein yesterday.  Some from people who have known me for a long time.  They thought I would be celebrating with friends all day.

With the exception of Thanksgiving, I am not very traditional on these events.

So non-traditional that I spent most of the day on my own.  Well, almost alone.  With one nice exception.

It was a day of food and relaxation.

I was up early to watch the sun rise over the laguna.  It was pleasant merely to listen to the early birds singing -- rather than getting their worms.

I do not use the hammock very much in the morning.  There is no reason why I don't.  So, I remedied that little omission. 

I prepared a bowl of corn flakes and poured a glass of water -- and took them to the hammock.  Where I read the newspaper on my Kindle and picked out various bird songs from the early morning chorus.

This past week, Felipe and I had a discussion about meals and meal times in Mexico.  I think I have acclimated to the Mexican meal schedule quite easily.

My usual breakfast is a bowl of dry cereal with milk and a banana.  Plus a glass or two of water.  In Spanish, the meal is desayuno -- or almuerzo for a heavier breakfast later in the day.  What people north of the border call brunch. 

We do not use the term almuerzo in these parts.  It sounds a bit too Mexico City for most of my neighbors.  They are working class people.  No hoity-toity late breakfasts for them.

The big meal of the day (comida -- also the word for "food") is eaten between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.  It is the equivalent of rural dinner time.  It is definitely not what Americans call "lunch" with their pitiful sack lunches and yogurt cups.

Yesterday, I went out for comida at La Rana -- the restaurant just around the corner from my house.  Rather than cook something at home, I decided to have huevos rancheros -- and that is about the usual size of my mid-day meal.

But I also had a special treat.  My former next door neighbor when I lived in the beach house was there.  We will call him The Professor -- Professor of Rhetoric to be more exact.

He was about to leave.  But, in the course of a half hour, we managed to discuss Plutarch's Lives, Ludwig Wittgenstein, concert music for one-handed pianists, Franz Liszt, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Carlos Santana, George Santayana, music theory, sound engineering, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, and Claudette Colbert.

If they had all shown up in person, we would have had a crowded table.

After a lengthy siesta (a true indulgence for my birthday), I decided to prepare something a bit different for cena -- the light meal eaten between 7 and 9 around here.  It is simply something to tide the diner over until breakfast.

Usually, I will eat a small portion of leftovers.  Or do what I did tonight.

I have some roasted chicken (pollo asado) left over from comida several days ago.  I could have eaten it along with a couple of tortillas.  Instead, I decided to make soup.

Chicken and beans always go well together.  I have a bean and chicken soup recipe I picked up somewhere on the internet.  It calls for a chili-mix to be added to a pot of freshly-cooked beans.

And let me put this plug in right now.  Nothing makes a house smell homier than a pot of fresh-cooked beans.  In this case, the little white beans -- alubia chica -- cooked in chicken broth.

The recipe called for one chile poblano.  One chili never did anyone any good.  So, I chopped up two -- along with three jalapeños.  Sautéed with onion and garlic, they were a great addition to the soup.  Along with cumin and oregano.

One bowl of that was quite enough to put me in a mind for bed. 

I can always count on losing weight in Mexico.  Partly because I do a lot of walking.  But the food makes a big difference.  I consume fewer calories -- and what I consume is better for me.

All in all, it was just the way I like to celebrate.

Friday, January 14, 2011

better to give

At some point in this month, I will put another click on my life-ometer.

The day does not matter.

Some will say I am a year older.  Maybe they are correct.  But I like to think of it as being just another day or hour older.   These traditional milestones mean little to me.

But I did get two great birthday gifts this week -- both on the mirador above Melaque.

I drove up there to see if it was possible to see the sun set.  A blogger friend told me the sun would set behind a hill, rather than over the ocean.

But it is still early enough in the year (and the sun's path is still far enough south) for the sun not to be too modest as it slips into its bath.

You can see the result.  Not as spectacular as some of our sun sets -- more clouds would have helped.  But it will do.

The second gift was completely unexpected.  While I was waiting for the sun to start performing, I scanned the bay with my binoculars.

Right at the mouth, I could see a disturbance on the surface of the water.

Bait ball?  Dolphin pod?  Both are regular sightings in the bay.

Then I saw it.  A spout.  A broad flat tail.  Another tail.

Whales.  A pod of whales.

Whales visit our bay now and then in the winter.  It is calving time.  But most whales do not come this far south to birth and nurse.

I can't help but wonder if they may be the same whales I saw off the coast of Oregon in October. 

Probably not.  But merely to see them was a delight.  And I wish you could have see in the photograph what I could see with my binoculars.  (You will need to click on the photograph to enlarge it to make any sense of it.)

They cavorted for a full half hour -- until they submerged when a panga filled with tourists intruded on their play.

Two nice gifts.  But I thought I would share them with you.