Wednesday, June 28, 2017

a life well-shared


Life repeatedly teaches us the same lessons. Sometimes, we learn. Sometimes, we don't.

One of those lessons is that everyone who touches our lives has some lasting effect on us. And that effect may not be apparent until long after they have left our lives.

This morning, I read in The Oregonian of the death of Roberta B. "Robbie" Bocci. I am at that age where I at least scan the obituaries -- just checking if anyone I know has recently died. Inevitably, I see a familiar name. Usually, friends of my mother.

"Robbie" Bocci was not a friend of my mother. She was a woman who briefly slipped past my life in the early 1990s. And, in that passage, there is a story.

I ran for the Oregon legislature in 1988. It was a close-run affair, but, in the end, I lost. I also lost my law partnership.

I was absent from the firm for almost a full year campaigning for a job I probably did not really want. But that absence convinced my law partner that the "and" in "Cotton and Gray" should be erased. We divided up the goods, and I was on my way.

1989 was my wandering year. I briefly opened a practice with a large house-moving firm as my primary client. But, most of the year, I flew around the world acting as an adjunct attorney in various Air Force offices. By the end of that year, I found a job I would keep for the rest of my professional career.

I was just getting my feet on the ground in my new job when I received one of the most dreaded letters an American can receive. The IRS wanted to audit my income tax return for 1989.

That was not a surprise. The IRS always has an eye out for income-dodging professions -- doctors and lawyers are amongst that lot. And my major change in income undoubtedly caused a red flag to raise.

The letter very kindly informed me I could bring my tax preparer with me. Unfortunately, I had prepared my return myself in the false hope of saving money. It was the most difficult return I had ever completed.

So, I gathered up my boxes of records and drove to Portland for the audit appointment. The auditor was "Robbie" Bocci.

She was incredibly professional and thorough. As we walked through my return line by line, she would ask me for any record that supported the amount listed. I discovered my record-keeping had been rather lax.

As she plodded through each entry, I started calculating just how much I was going to owe in taxes. When I went past $10,000, I stopped adding.

She must have known what was going through my head because she very kindly reassured me that this was just a preliminary review and that I could bring in any additional documentation. There was something almost maternal about her approach. I now suspect it was empathic. Her son, with whom I was acquainted, was an attorney.

After almost two hours, I felt drained. But Mrs. Bocci, while retaining her professionalism, kept smiling to let me know, that even if I ended up owing a wad of cash to the federal government, life would go on.

I never did find any additional documents. I just waited for the inevitable dunning letter to arrive in my postal box.

It did. Six months later. As I opened the envelope, I started calculating how I would arrange a payment schedule.

The letter was brief. The audit was complete, and I owed -- nothing. I must have re-read the letter five times before it truly sank in that I was free.

Mrs. Bocci has long been in my memory. She was the perfect public servant. I would like to say I am not so mercenary as to color her memory through the filter of the "no amoiunt due" letter. But I am not. On some things, I can be a very small man.

But, I am also honest enough to remember her as the very essence of fairness. Her virtue was not only one we appreciate in public employees, it is one that we should cherish when we find it in the people who cross our paths daily. They all leave their hand prints on our lives.

To her family, I pass on my condolences. She is a woman to be remembered.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

missing dora


Gentlemen, start your wind machines. Hurricane season is here.

The last few days, we have had scattered showers with minor thunderstorms. Some of my acquaintances have blamed them on a hurricane that is a couple hundred miles off shore. But the weathermen are more nuanced in their approach. There may have been some tangential effect, but very little.

The storm's name is Dora. (I am always a bit startled when I recognize these storm names. Dora, of course, is the woman who helps me clean the house with no name.) She (the storm, not Dora the cleaner) has now passed north of us and should be blowing her way toward Hawaii in a couple of days.

But, here we are, still in June, and we have had our fourth named cyclone off the western coast of Mexico. And not one has yet been good enough to bring us a major dousing of rain.

The local farmers complain about the lack of rain last year. And this year is no better. We have not had rain since December -- with the exception of the dribbles this past week. More than a few of the farmers wished Dora to play a closer visit -- without moving in too close. She did not oblige.

It is not unusual for the Hurricane Weather Center map to show a new storm brewing in the Gulf of Tehuantepec whenever a storm passes by us. This morning, the map is as empty as a Kathy Griffin monologue.

 I guess we will just have to wait for Ernie or Filia -- or, even, Godot.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

summer is here


Yes. Yes. I know. That sounds as if I am ignorant enough to have missed that little solstice we had five days ago.

But summer can start with a number of events. For school kids, it is summer vacation. For astronomers, it is the summer solstice. But, around here it is the temperature of my pool water.

One of the reasons I bought this house was to have a place where I could read, eat meals, and cool down. The pool serves those functions all year. This is the first place I have lived where swimming outdoors in the winter was something other than seeking my inner polar bear.

During the winter, the temperature of the pool hovers in the low and mid-80s. Perfect temperatures for some brisk exercise or to cut the heat of the day.

I know summer is here when the pool thermometer records 90 degrees. And, it did yesterday afternoon. I twiddled my day away in the pool. 90 is a practically perfect temperature to do whatever you like in the water.

But, it will not stay at 90. As the air temperatures rise in the summer, the temperature of the pool water will accompany it. In the case of the pool, it usually tops out around 98. At that temperature, it is still possible to cool off. In August, I actually feel a bit chilly when I get out of the pool.

One reason I chose not to live in the highlands of Mexico was the inability to use an outdoor pool year round. Some wag will probably point out, pools are not necessary in the mountains; the climate is so pleasant, there is no need for the obligations that follow concrete ponds.

Rather than indulge in that fruitless conversation, I am taking my Kindle and a glass of ice water to the pool -- where the proof is in the paddling.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

walking on the slant


I thought I had had a stroke.

While walking on our local bike-jogging path, I was listing notably to port. It felt as if my ballast had shifted.

A closer look at the path reassured me. I was not stroking out. The path had a slant.

Admittedly, as you can tell from the photograph, the slant is subtle. Certainly, not as bad as the slope of our beaches that are steep enough to confound a Swiss cow. But it was noticeable enough that it slowed down my walking pace. More as a matter of interest, than as an impediment.

The path has turned out to be one of the best local government infrastructure improvements. Bikers, skaters, runners, joggers, walkers. It gets used all day -- and often by people who are simply commuting to and from jobs.

If it has a flaw, it is its foundation. We are on the beach. The beach means sand. And that is what the path rests upon. Sand. Or, rather, a combination of dirt, gravel, and sand. And because we usually get our fair share of water from the sky, the foundation has shifted. So has the path. It has a slant.

Up until earlier this week, "slant" was one of those words that those of us in polite society had learned years ago not to use -- even in the privacy of one's own bedroom. It was one of those words that has a very acceptable use (just as I have used it in the paragraphs above). But it also was a vulgarity for an ethnic group.

An Asian-American rock group decided it wasn't going to play that game. They wanted "to reclaim a term that was seen as a slur." So, they named themselves, not too subtly, The Slants, and applied for trademark protection with the federal government.

The Patent and Trademark Office threw itself in front of this Orient Express and said "stop." There has been a long-standing regulation that a trademark cannot be issued if it "[c]
onsists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute." The federal pearl clutchers thought Slants disparaged Asians.

The Slants responded it was their slur and that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution allowed them to slur themselves. And, in that argument, was buried a poison pill for the vestigal virgins who protect us all from our own natures by telling us what we can and cannot say.

The Supreme Court, as you undoubtedly know, has now decided The Slants are correct. But the decision is nowhere near as interesting as the court's reasoning. The poison pill is loose.

Justice Alioto's opinion hones in on the nature of the dispute:

[The idea that the government may restrict] speech expressing ideas that offend … strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.”
The distinction is important. Even speech that is hateful is protected by the First Amendment. But that is not a surprise for anyone who has studied the jurisprudence of the First Amendment. Free speech is far more than allowing only speech that is popular.

Justice Kennedy, in his never-ending search for pragmatic remedies, got to the nub of the matter.

A law found to discriminate based on viewpoint is an “egregious form of content discrimination,” which is “presumptively unconstitutional.” ... A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.
There it is. In a free society, we do not react as the fascists and authoritarians of Cuba, China, Russia, or Venezuela do. We do not attempt to control ideas through legal restrictions. We believe that free and open discourse will lead to the truth. That is the very philosophy behind the First Amendment.

And it is the very antithesis of attempting to control opinions with the label "hate speech." The speech codes on many campuses, designed to carve out a "safe space" for students incapable of hearing opposing views, certainly are not part of the Supreme Court's announced philosophy. (And, yes, I do know that private colleges are not protected by the First Amendment.)

I have always been a liberal on matters of free speech. I remember being scandalized in high school when we studied the Supreme Court's 1940 flag salute case -- along with carving out other rather broad exceptions to the amendment's protection. It was there that I learned that anyone who says "I support free speech, but --" is really saying they support freedom of expression if they happen to agree with the expression.

Until last night, I had decided not to write an essay on this topic, even though I consider it to be one of the Supreme Court's most important decisions. What changed my mind was a movie.

I wanted to watch something funny. The choice was easy. Blazing Saddles. One of Mel Brooks's best movies. The movie never fails to lift my spirits because of its outrageousness.

Last night was no exception. I laughed my way through most of the movie.

And then it happened. When Sheriff Bart offers the help of the railroad workers to save the town from destruction (in exchange for a plot of land), Mayor Olson responds: "We'll give some land to the niggers and the chinks ... but we don't want the Irish."

Offensive? You bet. Hateful? Without question. Should the words be banned by the government? Only if we decide we are capable of building windows into men's souls.

I cannot imagine the movie surviving on many American college campuses -- or even being shown in some cities. Simply because of those two words.

The irony is that Mel Brooks specifically used those words to unmask prejudice, and then to disarm it with humor. Doing exactly what Justice Kennedy has described as the remedy to hate -- "
our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society."

Now, I know the Margaret Dumonds of the world will not be happy until every sentiment that makes some people uncomfortable is shunted away in the closet. That road leads to masking the piano legs with doilies.

Rather than gasping and rioting, let's accept the conservative tenet that there is evil in the world and that it, like the poor, will always be with us. But let's marry it up with Justice Kennedy's liberal assumption that truth in a democratic society can be arrived at only through free and open discussion.

The Slants may even write a song about it. I'll bet some of the words may even offend someone. 


Thursday, June 22, 2017

these shoes were made for walking


And I think this pair has just about worn out their welcome.

Or their welcome has just about worn them out. That sock-clad pinkie toe is proof enough that these shoes are about to take a short trip to the dust bin.

The hole surprised me. Admittedly, our streets are a bit rough on walking wear. Between sand, dirt, cobblestones, uneven curbs, and various sharp and pointy things, my little village does not coddle my shoes.

And this pair seems as if they are new. Just six months out of the box and they are about to meet their unmaker.

If I have counted correctly, this is my fourth pair of walking shoes since I started my exercise regimen in August two years ago. (You may recall that my initiation into walking was accompanied by three hospitalizations for cellulitis.)

But this pair of shoes has accompanied me on each of my journeys this year. My visit from my brother and sister (and nine other guests), my cruise around Australia and New Zealand, my trip to Colombia, my extended stay in Oregon, and lots of steps here in Barra de Navidad.

I was curious how many miles I have put on them during these six months. And, thanks to the wonders of electronics through my smartphone and my Gear Fit, I know the answer to that question. 1,867 miles.

To put that in perspective, that is further than the distance between Barra de Navidad and Los Angeles. Admittedly, it took me six months to rack up those miles. But it is a lot of walking steps. And I am quite proud of the accomplishment.

When I was in Oregon last month, I bought another pair of walking shoes. I am breaking them in gradually in the hope I can avoid a reprise of my bed rest days in cellulitis land.

But my new shoes will undoubtedly figure in another "I have not come to praise shoesers, but to bury them" in a mere few months.

The good news is that I am daily getting out to see areas of Barra de Navidad I have not previously explored. My favorites are the farm roads through the fields where men with real jobs do something to keep our little village running.



I have re-discovered how much I enjoy exercise. Well, exercise of my choosing. Just as long as it does not involve other people.

A friend in San Miguel de Allende sent me an email this morning about ticket information for the music festival in August. Maybe I will walk there.

Just for a change.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

green is not my color


I have been considering installing solar power ever since I bought the house with no name nearly three years ago.

But, like getting married, it is probably not going to happen. At least, not for me.

Like most aspects of our lives, it helps to know why we want something. In this case, what hole in my life was solar power supposed to fill? I am beginning to think I was simply seduced by the mau-mauing effect of popular culture.

Whatever the reason, I am now faced with a decision.

I had responded to several email inquiries about installing solar panels on my house. "Just send us a copy of your electric bill, and we will show you how you can be swimming in money." Or something like that.

My response was always the same. "I am not as interested in saving money on electricity as I am in preserving the architectural lines of my house. Will your system do that?"

No one responded. No "yes." No "no." Nada. Zilch. Just a buzz on the other end of the line.

Two weeks ago, I finally convinced a solar salesman to stop by and look at the house. And he had good news. Because of the flat roof on the pavilions on the upper terrace, the array could be installed at an angle to avoid any sight of it.

With that assurance, he took photographs of my two electric meters, examined the switch boxes, and explained to me how he would tie the two systems together. With that, he photographed my last two electric bills.

Friends have a similar system. I had hoped that a solar system would provide power during our infrequent outages. But I knew it wouldn't.

The system is designed to generate power only when the power is flowing. The idea is that excess power is sold back to the electric company, and then drawn against during periods when the demand is less than the supply.

He did suggest, though, that if I was interested in a backup that I should purchase a propane-powered generator. I had not thought about that option. I will now.

I have now received the three-page proposal for the solar power installation. And I am a bit disappointed.

Let me get a rant out of the way. The entire proposal is denominated in US dollars. And that makes some calculations bothersome.

For instance, the proposal estimates that I spent $414 (US) this past year for electricity. Of course, I spent zero US dollars for electricity. I am billed in Mexican pesos, and I pay in Mexican pesos.

And that makes the currency conversion a bit tricky. Depending on which calculation I use, I paid $6,854 (Mx) ($378 (US)) in 2016, and $9337 (Mx) ($515 (US)) for the last twelve months. (That last figure is a bit deceptive because I still have a large deposit with the company on which I am drawing.)

So, let's give the proposal the benefit of the doubt and increase the annual usage to $500 (US). The question then becomes: if I install an array under this proposal, how long will it take me to recover my capital outlay?

This is where things get a bit confusing. The cost of the full installation would be $9,842 (US) -- even though I will be paying in Mexican pesos. It is the currency where I live.

Using simple mathematics, it would take just under twenty years to recover my capital.

Actually, it would be longer than that because the electric company requires a minimum monthly payment to be part of its system as a service fee. But twenty years is still a long time. The system itself may not last that long. I know I won't.

Here is the dilemma. According to the proposal, I will recover my capital outlay in less than ten years. Obviously, there is some 'splainin' to be done here. I suspect the proposal fails to take into account the current cash value of the investment in its recovery. But, we shall see.

So, I came, I saw, but I was not conquered. I am sending a request to the salesman now to see if I can resolve my obvious confusion.

The cost of solar arrays has decreased since my friends installed theirs. It appears this is almost one-third less than theirs.

Maybe time (and cost reductions) will eventually make solar a worthwhile investment for me.

As of now, it just does not pencil out.


Monday, June 19, 2017

why are the trunks of palm trees painted white?


If you think you know the answer to that question, you don't. Or, you might.

Almost every tourist, when first encountering palm trunks outfitted in pancake makeup, has asked the question. I know I did.

The best thing is that there are plenty of answers. The problem is that no one really knows what the correct answer is. In this world of terminal relativism, maybe they are all correct. Or maybe none are.

These appear to be the top five theories. You pays your money and you takes your choice.




1. The white background exposes dark insects and makes them visible to birds. The birds eat the insects and the tree is freed from predation by crawling critters.

This explanation has a nice green feel to it. Humans are simply helping Mother Nature keep her balance.

2. The second option deals with insects, as well. But a notably darker relationship between man and nature.

The paint is designed to kill insects. We will call this the better-living-through-chemistry option. Dow would be pleased.

The paint is not merely paint. It is latex laced with lime to snuff the bugs -- or latex mixed with a sticky substance to trap insects and let them die a lingering death. Like a puma caught in a leg trap.

There is a great divide in advocates of this choice on whether the insecticide option actually works.

3. The third option smacks of a mother's hand on the cradle. The paint reduces the danger of sunburn in young trees. If the bark is damaged by the sun, it reduces the tree's natural defense against boring beetles. But not boring creators of painted bark explanations.

4. There is the possibility that one of the other options, in the past, was the reason for painting palm trunks. But, now, the primary reason is aesthetic and cultural. Let's call it the Ivanka Trump option.

We have come to expect palm trunks to have a bit of makeup -- or to look as uniform as a line of Rockettes. Without a lot of kicking.

5. But this is my favorite. There is a tale --undoubtedly apocryphal -- that the palm-lined highway in Bermuda from the Officers' Club was the first to have painted trunks. Apparently, after tackling a full bottle or two of Tanqueray, officers driving home were losing battles with palm trees. And the British military was losing officers.

Some brilliant thinker (undoubtedly an enlisted man) came up with the idea that if the trunks were painted white, the officers might have a fighting chance. Apparently, no one thought of the option of hiding the gin.

I like it because it is such a tidy tale -- and has the stamp of authenticy based on my experience with military officers. If there is any truth in it, though, the original story most likely involved a highway safety bureaucrat in Mallorca who had a excess supply of paint for highway lines and could not sell it back to his scoundrel brother-in-law. So, he used it to paint trees.

Even though there is reason to support the highway safety option (you may have already noticed the electricity poles in the second photograph are also painted white), it cannot be the sole answer. Otherwise, why would the trunks of these palm trees on the beach be painted white?


Whoever came up with the Bermuda officer club story would point out that drunks know no boundaries. The trunks are painted white for inebriates who miss their turn and end up driving on the beach.

There is an answer to the question: "Why are the trunks of palm trees painted white?" It is: "How long is a string?"

There are mysteries in life that will forever be mysteries. And this is just another.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

traveling man


Some fathers are men of place. My father was a man of the road.

He was the guy Willie Nelson sang about in "On the Road Again." He had no greater desire in life than to be behind the wheel of a truck driving somewhere.

Most of my earliest memories of him involve trucks. Logging trucks. Pickups. Semis. That was what he knew how to do. What he liked doing. And it was a quintessential American dream. To be free from the humdrum life of daily drudgery.

I suspect part of that came from growing up essentially as an orphan. His mother was institutionalized for what was described as "health reasons." And his father could not raise him. So, he ended up in the care of his mother's sister -- my great aunt Madge -- and my great uncle Noble. I always saw Noble and Madge as my grandparents on his side of the family. And I guess that is what they were.

But it left Dad with a sense of rootlessness that he worked out in a driving life. Constantly tracking down the better life as if it an elk running down the middle of a never-ending highway.

And it made him happy. He did not really care whether or not his businesses made money. Just that they provided him with a truck. He worked to enjoy life, not to be rich. And he faced life with a laugh -- leaving my mother to deal with the results of that carefree life.

His humor led to one of his greatest attributes -- his charity. My mother never knew how many people would show up for holiday dinners -- or just family meals. Dad would meet someone on the road who had no family or place to go, and he would invite them to our house for a meal and the friendly banter of our family dining table.

He died almost 21 years ago. In his eulogy, I called him a common man. A friend of his took umbrage at the characterization. She said he was a great man, not a common man.

Great he was. But he was, at heart, a common man. He found pleasure in the simple things of life. Freedom. Humor. Charity.

We could all use a larger dose of that in our own lives.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. Keep on truckin'.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

spelling it out


Melaque is going Chinese.

In its never-ending quest to become The International Restaurant Capital of -- well, Melaque -- we now have a new Chinese restaurant just off the San Patricio town square.

Of course, we have at least one more Chinese restaurant and two more Japanese restaurants in town. But you can never have too many good oriental food eateries.

I have no idea if this place falls into that category -- a good eatery, that is. I have walked past several times when it was open. The best I can say is that its appearance is unassuming.

It is nice to know there is another spot for Christmas dinner.

Friday, June 16, 2017

going wild in colombia


We have all done it.

We fly off to somewhere exotic, and, as we are signing into our hotel, we pick up a brochure festooned with photographs of howler monkeys, toucans, and crocodiles. Eco-nature tour, it promises. See the animals in the wild.

Having just watched one of those nature documentaries, we sign up with visions of jaguar stalking capybara. Most often reality does not live up to the hype. At most, we hear howler monkeys howling, see shadows of what was supposed to be a toucan in the jungle canopy, and hear the splash of a crocodile.

Dan, Patty, and I were more fortunate than that on our nature hikes. But we often ended up peering into the underbrush to catch a glimpse of what our guide assured us was a very rare sight.

But we knew where we could find wildlife. At a private nature reserve just outside of Pereira. Ukumari.



The entrance was promising. Tidy and well-designed.

No matter how you try to change the name, even these preserves are a type of zoo. Usually, far more enlightened. And, without them, most people never would see some of these creatures. I try to support the good ones.

The preserve has two parts: animals from Africa and animals that can be found in Colombia.

I have seen enough African animals that I was ready to give that part a miss -- until Patty climbed into this pot.



Any zoo brave enough to display this type of humor is worth a look. And I am glad I did.

If we hadn't slipped into the African experience, I would have missed this meerkat that was doing everything it could to coax a snack from us.



The preserve has three elephants -- all of them rescue animals. One was from a circus. And the 37-year old bull (on the left) was once the prized position of Pablo Escobar, probably the best-known of the cartel bosses.



We then slipped off to the Colombia animals. The preserve's collection is so large, we could have easily spent the rest of our day there. I will share only a sample.

When we were hiking in the wax palm forest, Paula, our guide, did her best to point out a crestless curassow hidden in the branches of a tree. I saw only a shadowy curvature.



Thanks to the preserve, I had an opportunity to get within touching distance of one in an open aviary.

Along with this small wading bird whose name I do not know. I called him Marty Feldman.



But the most colorful was this scarlet ibis.



I have not seen the large flocks of flamingos in the Cancun area. For now, I will be satisfied with this small group. They look as if they would be comfortable stuck in a suburban Miami lawn.



The star of the bird show was this chestnut-mandibled toucan. I have only seen one toucan in the wild. In Veracruz. There were three or four in the aviary -- all of them them willing to strut their beaks.



I have long-known that parrots are a jealous lot. This little fellow did his best to attract attention by hiding the toucan sign.



Here he is: posing on his own.



And a fellow parrot waiting at the door to the monkey compound.



If anyone could compete with the toucan, it was this pair of macaws from the Amazonia region of Colombia.


Because Colombia is a land of monkeys, the preserve is populated with several species. Such as this brown capuchin with his mod hairdo.


Or this playful white-fronted capuchin.


My favorite monkey, though, was this old spider monkey. He was world-weary enough to have seen it all before. Let the young spider monkeys flounce around. He could have been a character out of a Bertolt Brecht play.


At the other extreme was this river otter -- the compulsive obsessive of the animal world, who could not stop playing.


Preserves may soon be the last place it will be possible to see these white-footed tamarins. They are currently endangered because their forest homes are being cleared of timber. Patty told me they are beloved of most Colombians. Watching them, I could understand why.

I was going to end this essay here, but I have another experience to share. Mainly in photographs.

One of the primary reasons we visited the Quindio Biological Gardens was to see the butterfly house. Seen from above, there is no guessing what is inside.


There are almost 1600 species of butterflies in Colombia, and we saw a good sampling. I do not know the scientific names of these beauties, and our guide did not intrude with that type of information.

She just let us enjoy the experience. I will give you that same luxury.







One of the butterflies took a real liking to Dan. She rode on him through most of the tour.


So, there you have the wildlife of Colombia from our brief visit.

After compiling these summary essays, I am ready to return. And I suggest you do the same. Colombia is a memorable experience.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

dear diary


The summer rains arrived today.

It sounds like a line from one of those Victorian explorers. Richard Burton, or perhaps, Hugh Clapperton, sitting on a crate in camp on the African savanna.

This morning around 4:30, my fan started a familiar on-off tango. No necromancer could have offered a more reliable omen. A thunderstorm was on the way.

And so it was. For the next hour, we were treated to one of those shows only the tropics can produce. Lightning. Thunder. And a brief cascade of rain.

There was no hope I could sleep with the storm raging. These sound and light shows are far too entertaining to waste time in bed. And there was no hope of sleeping with the fan motionless and the humidity rising in my room.

So, I slipped on a pair of sandals and stepped outside just as a bolt of lightning zagged its way across the sky. Thor must have been very pleased with himself.

The great benefit of rain here is the precipitous drop of temperature and humidity outside. Had this first storm of the year arrived during the light of day, my neighbors and I would have been dancing in the street.

The downside of these storms is that whenever it rains, we lose electricity. I suspect the infrastructure is not up to handling the Southern Baptist experience of full water immersion.

But, once the rain stops, all of the conveniences of the 21st century return. Fans. Lights. And, of course, the internet. That is why I can write to you as the last rain drops are dripping from my landscaping. Otherwise, I would be stuck with my fountain pen and diary -- just like Burton.

Summer may not start officially for another five days. But the weather is not bound by a piece of paper on the wall. With this storm, summer is here.

May we have many more. Rainstorms, that is.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

dog street


I live in a world of dogs.

Almost all of my neighbors have at least one. Some have several. From chihuahuas to pit bulls.

It was the perfect environment for Barco. During the year he lived with me, he never lacked canine companions. And, being a golden retriever, he liked them all -- and they liked him.

But like all friends, he had favorites. Lucky, the pug. La Guera, his nanny. Astrella, a huge black pit bull with an angelic nature. Paloma, a medium-size mogrel as white as her name would indicate. And, the youngest of the lot, Luna. That is her playing with Barco.

Luna came into Barco's life when she was just a puppy. She lived around the corner from us and was thrilled whenever Barco showed up.

From her lines, she must have had either whippet or greyhound heritage. She was a dead ringer for Santa's Little Helper on The Simpsons. And the most passive dog I have ever met. But her disposition was that of a puppy. Sweet and cuddly.

Against my better judgment, I would take Barco off of his lead whenever Luna and Paloma were playing. The three of them would run as if they were chasing kudu on the veld. They always made me laugh -- until Barco would get it into his head to run into someone's house or tease one of the dogs tied by chain in the yard.

But, life on our street takes its tolls on dogs. Estrella died from cancer. Someone poisoned Paloma for barking. (I trust there is a place in Hell for souls that wretched.) Since I moved here, I am aware of at least a dozen dogs that have died far too young.

Around February, Luna went through a major change. At first, I thought it was from the trauma of having gone into heat the first time -- with the attendant attention of every male dog for blocks around. Where she was once The Happy Dog of the local pack, she became more introspective. I racked that up to passing into adulthood.

I did not see her very often the first half of this year because I was travelling. But when I returned, I asked her owner, Jaime, how she was doing. He told me she seemed to be very ill.

When I saw her, I almost felt sick myself. She had a terrible cough and, even though she had never been a muscular dog, she was mere skin and bones with eyes that showed none of her lust for life.


Jaime said he had no money to take her to the veterinarian. I knew how to fill that gap. Yesterday, Jaime and his wife accompanied me to Barco's former veterinarian, Andres. He knew Luna from previous treatments, and asked us to leave her there until the afternoon. He needed to run some tests.

When we returned at four, I could tell by Andres's posture the news was not good. An x-ray revealed Luna had a severe case of heartworm. He explained there were limited options for treatment at this stage of infection -- all of them less than perfect. She could be treated with arsenic to kill the heartworms. But, in her weakened condition, there was little hope it would work without the treatment killing her.

She would also need to be kept away from any mosquitoes. Heartworm is spread just like dengue -- through the bite of a mosquito. Luna would be a risk for any other dog in the neighborhood.

Jaime's wife was ready for the last option -- putting Luna down -- and she immediately chose it. She wanted to avoid any more suffering for a dog she loved.

And that is what happened. Andres went into the back room, gave Luna an injection, and it was done. I paid, and we took Luna's body back to her house.

For me, it was another milestone -- not only because I really liked Luna, but because she was another reminder of the joyous experiences Barco experienced in this neighborhood.

On my way back to my house after my evening walk, Lucky and Guera greeted me. I hugged them and gave each a dog bone. I am not so sentimental as to think they knew what had happened earlier that day. But their presence meant a lot to me.

Because I am back in travel mode, there is no possibility I will buy another golden retriever. What I do have, though, is memories -- and a street filled with dogs who are always willing to fill the gap temporarily.

Even so, we will miss you Luna.


Monday, June 12, 2017

rooting for colombia


Last night I watched one of those nature documentaries that look as if they had been produced by film students for film students.

You know the type. Stunning photography. Tacky narrative. The Onion would simply (and truthfully) label it as Marx for Dummies. Cows bad. Trees good. Monkeys even better.

The title was Colombia: Wild Magic. You might guess why I was watching it. I was in the midst of writing my essay on the flora of Colombia -- and I had an urge to see some of the places I visited just seven weeks ago.

When it comes to nature, Colombia is a champion. It is one of four nations with the most biological diversity.

That seems quite a boast for its size. Colombia is only the 26th largest country by area. That is due to topography.

Rain forests. The Andes Mountains. Tropical glaciers. Wide plains. Tropical coasts on two quite different bodies of water -- the Caribbean and the Pacific. Deserts. Coral reefs.

Colombia has more bird species (almost 1900) than any other country. But we are not here today to talk about birds. We are here to admire Colombia's plant life.

I have already made passing references to Colombia's national tree -- the wax palm. At 150 feet, it is the tallest palm in the world. And they truly are one of the wonders of the plant world.



We took a hike through one of the largest stands in Colombia in the Cocora Valley (coming to jesus). Usually the palms grow interspersed in the forest. But cattle ranchers have cleared the forest to provide grazing pasture for their livestock. As a result, we could easily see just how tall these noble trees are.

What struck Dan and me as being odd is that all of the trees were adults. There were no younger trees to replace their elders.

We were witnessing a slow motion disaster. The wax palms reproduce by dropping "nuts." The "nuts" sprout  and a young palm emerges. In the forest, the young palm would be protected by undergrowth, and some would survive to be adults.

Without the rest of the forest, the "nuts" drop on open ground. Those that sprout are soon eaten by cattle.

The trees you see in the photograph are over 100 years old. When they die, they will not be replaced by others. Only the wax palms in the uncut cloud forest will survive.

And that is a good reminder. "Cows good; trees better" may be simplistic, but it does carry a "nut" of truth.

Having seen the palms in the wild, we decided to visit the Quindio Botanical gardens just outside of Armenia. We primarily went to see the butterflies. It turns out that the birds and trees were just as interesting.

I mentioned guadua in sipping my coffee. The weepy groves of the green bamboo were ubiquitous in the Coffee Zone. And we saw plenty of guadua in the botanical garden. It also gave us an opportunity to talk with our guide concerning the use of the stalks as building material.

After all, bamboo is just a grass. A giant grass, mind you. But, just grass.

We had seen it used to build shelters, fences, and even the support structure for this metal and plastic covering for a toll booth.



There is a map of the region Quindio (the smallest region of Colombia) in the garden. It brought home to me just how rugged the Coffee Zone is -- and how difficult it is to raise crops there.


Anyone who has visited the haciendas of Yucatan is familiar with henequen -- the sisal hemp that made many planters rich during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yucatan henequen was the primary source for high quality ropes on ships.

Colombia has a cousin plant. And it too was used to weave fiber -- but mainly for the bags in which green coffee beans are shipped. The fiber is much finer than its Mexican relative.



One of my favorite sights, as we were driving or hiking, was to spot orchids. Colombia is a champion of orchid varieties. But most of those are in the Amazonia region of Colombia. And we did not go there.

But orchids were everywhere we did visit. These were in a patio restaurant in Sevilla.




Somewhere, a herd of formal-attired young women are awaiting these corsages-on-the-hoof.


I spotted the same variety in a tree in the square of the village where I had my first taste of Colombian coffee. (The moment is now immortalized in my profile photograph.)



But the orchids were not the only reason for that shot. As we drove around the Armenia area, our host pointed out a tree with yellow flowers. The tree sets its leaves only after the blossoms have fallen.

Here in Mexico, we have a tree with similar characteristics -- the primavera. I did a bit of research and was a bit disappointed that the two trees are not even in the same family.

I was ready to point out to certain readers in Mexico, who had chided me for missing the primavera season on the costalegre, that I was not missing anything. I guess I still could.

That is a just a taste of what Colombia has to offer with its flora. I was going to toss in some butterflies, but that will have to wait for my fauna essay.

And it will soon be here.

  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

eating my way through colombia


My love affair with Colombian food is long and sporadic.

It all started back in 1972 when I was stationed at Castle Air Force Base just outside of Merced, California. One of Merced's greatest assets was its close proximity to Yosemite National Park.

A group of us from the base would regularly get up early to drive to the park to spend the day skiing, hiking, or just standing with our mouths agape at the beauty of the glacier-gouged valley. On the way home, we almost always stopped at a Colombian restaurant in Cathey's Valley -- the name has long slipped into that dark crevasse in my mind where the calculation to convert fahrenheit to celsius lives.

The name may be gone, but not my memory of the food. I have mentioned this before, but before I ate there, I would have suffered the same misconception Jack Ryan had in 
one of my favorite scenes from Clear and Present Danger. Agent Murray asks Jack what the food is like in Colombia. Ryan responds: "It's like Mexican food."

Ryan was completely wrong. Colombian food is nothing like Mexican.

Let's start with the most obvious. Unlike Mexico, Colombians do not base their cuisine on tortillas. Instead, the basic "bread" item is the arepa -- a corn cake about the size of a large biscuit. They accompany almost every meal, in various forms.



You can see one on the upper edge of the plate.

And that photograph is a great place to start our conversation. The combination of food is known as bandeja paisa, and it reflects the genesis of a lot of Colombian food.

Almost all national cuisines have their origins in the countryside. French and Italian food may have become refined, but each dish started out as a filler on a farm house kitchen table.

A bandeja paisa fills the same purpose. We were served this meal during our visit to a coffee plantation (sipping my coffee) -- the implication being that this is what the coffee harvesters would eat. And filling it was.

In addition to the arepa, the meal includes ground beef, chorizo, chicharron, an egg, rice, and a large bowl of Colombian red beans. The only thing missing was a fried plantain and blood sausage.

I have never been a fan of chorizo. That is not surprising. I am not a fan of most sausages.

When we stopped at one restaurant that served nothing but chorizo, I thought I was going to go hungry. Instead, I decided to tackle my prejudice. I was surprised how mild and meaty the chorizo was. The grilled chorizo, that is. Another piece had been cooked in a broth turning the casing into a very unappetizing gelatinous mess. It was not quite so good.

My grandmother loved chicharron. Fried pork rind or belly. Even though it is quite tasty, my tolerance level for fat only goes so far. But Grandma would have loved it.

Of the lot, my favorite was the Colombian red beans. Mexican frijoles pale in comparison. They are usually cooked with inexpensive cuts of pork and spiced just enough to bring out their beany flavor.

I ordered the dish as often as I could. It was a treat with some fresh Colombian avocado.


Colombian food is not built around fruits and vegetables. But if you like meat and starch (and I do), you have come to the correct country.

My first meal in the Coffee Zone was one of my favorite food combinations. Chicken and rice. With a token tomato thrown in for color, I guess. And, as was true of most restaurants in Colombia, the serving was more than ample. (Yet, most Colombians are as svelte as the French.)



When meat is not grilled in Colombia, it is breaded and fried Milanese-style. Including this fish with its breaded head and tail.



On our hiking trip to the wax palm forest (coming to jesus), we stopped at a restaurant noted for its creative renditions of traditional dishes. Mine was grilled pork in a cheese and cream sauce -- a combination that worked far better than it sounds. Accompanied by a disk of fried plantain as large as a dinner plate.



Americans eat nachos while watching football. Colombians know what a man (and woman) really needs while watching real football -- meat and potatoes.



We stopped at a hamburger place in Bogota to watch Real Madrid play Barcelona in a Spanish league match (climbing the greasy pole). Patty thought we needed a nice platter of Colombian snacks -- blood sausage, longaniza sausage, Argentine chorizo, Santarosario chorizo, and, by far my favorite of all Colombian foods, the small oven-roasted Andean potatoes known as papas crillos al horno.

I am still not certain how we each avoided having a cardiac arrest before the final goal.

You may have noticed, in my photographs, the almost complete absence of fruit and vegetables (with the exception of the odd tomato or cup of cole slaw). I do not know why that was true because Colombia has plenty of both -- as this street vendor can verify.



Most of the places we ate served up rather traditional country food. And that was fine with me. I like walking away from a table feeling as if I had experienced a hearty meal.

But we did have several meals that were not what most people would expect when they hear the phrase "Colombian food." One of the most memorable was a very simple breakfast at the patio restaurant in Sevilla pictured at the top of this essay.



The cook prepared an egg with a slice of tomato in a pot the size of a sugar bowl, and then basted the combination in an oven. The result was simple and delicious, proving once again that complex dishes are not better simply because they have more ingredients.

Sometimes, though, they are better. During our trip, we saw several Crepes and Waffles outlets around the country. Two college students started the restaurant chain in Colombia in 1980. It has now expanded to Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Spain, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. There are seven in or near Mexico City.

The restaurant stuffs almost anything imaginable into a crepe. In my case, it was hoisin chicken.



What I have not discussed is dessert. The reason is obvious. I am not very fond of sweets. I am like this little boy. Show me sugar -- and I will walk on by.



   
Well, that is not exactly true. Because our stop at Crepes and Waffles was one of our last meals in Colombia, I decided to indulge in a treat I have not had in years -- a banana split. It was a way to enjoy Colombian bananas in a non-fried state.



Like most forbidden indulgences, the anticipation far outweighed the enjoyment of the experience.

That certainly was the food exception on this visit to Colombia. Cathey's Valley introduced me to Colombian food. Now, I have had the real thing.

And, if I want more, it is just an airline ticket away.