Saturday, October 21, 2017

casting the first stone


The question usually comes the second or third day.

When northern guests visit me in Mexico, it takes just about that long for someone to notice the groups of shovel-carrying men filling potholes on the highway. "Why don't they buy some equipment and cut back on their labor costs?"

The question, of course, is posed as an economic one, and I respond accordingly. With an economic answer.

The low cost of labor in Mexico and the high cost of machinery would preclude an employer from recapturing the capital outlay during the depreciable life of the machinery. Even my economic nemesis Paul Samuelson would not disagree with that analysis.

The social answer is a bit more complex. And it is best answered with another question: "Then, what would the unemployed laborers do?" (A question we defenders of liberal globalization too often fail to pose.)

Most of western Europe and the northern portion of North America no longer face the labor cost-capital outlay question. Productivity increases are built into the economic system by the acquisition of more efficient technology. And that is why increases in the minimum wage usually end up with minority young people entering the ranks of the unemployed.

Mexico does not yet have the luxury of increasing productivity with capital outlays. Nor do The Azores.

Ponta Delgada is famous for the black and white mosaics that decorate its squares, sidewalks, and streets. The patterns are created by alternating the cobblestone-sized pieces of the two colors. Even with a limited palette, the possibilities are almost limitless.

But, everything ages. Even stone. Before it is turned to sand and water, the stones can be broken, dislodged, or swept away by its natural enemy: flooding.

That is where human labor comes into play. As far as I know, no one has yet built a machine that can carefully place each stone in a manner to capture the artistic outcome of these guys who repair the Ponta Delgada mosaics.



At least, I hope there is no such machine. I stood for a bit watching them restore a stretch of mosaic sidewalk. I have always admired seeing anything done well by an expert. And that is what these fellows were. Experts. Craftsmen. Artists.

It was almost as satisfying as watching the effortless arc of a Mexican machete clearing away brush along the road. Robespierre could only envy the skill.

One day Mexico will replace its road crews with machinery. After all, the world's 15th largest economy is going to mature soon.

And when it does, even those of us who look forward to seeing Mexico enter a new economic era will feel a bit wistful at the passing of an era.

I have no idea when Mexico moves on if the stone mosaic workers of Ponta Delgada will still be plying their artistry by hand. I hope they will.

After all, all change is good. But it is not always good that things change.

     

Friday, October 20, 2017

azores is portugese for yum!


The last time I visited The Azores was in 2012.

So says my blog (squares in the atlantic). Roy and I were trying to figure out when we were last here. Neither of us did very well at guessing. All I could recall is that I had written a piece on graffiti.

And there we have another reason for this blog's existence. It acts as a journal. The downside is that once I write an essay, the memory itself fades away.

Maybe not this trip.

We sailed out of Copenhagen on Sunday. It is now Friday and I have written nothing in those five days because I have been thoroughly enjoying traveling with my four compatriots.

The common thread in our travel group is Reno. We either have residences there or work connections. I travel often with Roy and Nancy. Karen and Sophie (who have worked with Nancy) are new to me as travel companions.

All of the days when I have not written have been sea days. I have chosen to relax. As a result, I have fallen way behind in reading my newspapers and magazines. But the world is going on just fine without me sticking my nose into its business.

Today was our first of two landfalls. As you have already guessed, we were in The Azores today. A set of islands in the midst of the Atlantic that are part of Portugal. Ponta Delgada to be exact. The administrative capital of the island group.

Like most provincial capitals, Ponta Delgada has retained a aura of another time.

The classic architectural style is white walls framed with black basalt rock. The Azoreans come by the basalt easily. Their islands are the tips of volcanoes that have peaked their way out of the sea.




The port call was brief. Just a few hours. But, it was time enough for Nancy, Roy, and me to re-acquaint ourselves with Ponta Delgada's waterfront.

Maybe this was true on our last visit, but none of us remembered the prices in The Azores being so reasonable. Groceries. Drinks and food in restaurants. Cheese at the port. All were extremely reasonable.

After Copenhagen's prices (a direct result of its high taxation to finance its government services), anything might have seemed reasonable. But the prices in Ponta Delgada were low in absolute terms.

I shot this photograph because of the building on the right. It had a far different mural when we were here five years ago. Coincidentally, later that afternoon, we ended up having lunch in the restaurant on the far left.




It was one of those random choices that has created a memory that will last as long as it takes for me to finish this essay. Possibly one of the best meals I have had in a long time. Even though I went there in search of sardine pate and found none.

That is a bit ironic because the last meal I remember enjoying that much was a scabbard fish plate in Madeira (a shot of madeira)-- Portugal's other island autonomous region. And that was with Nancy and Roy, as well.

Today the dish was arroz con mariscos. And it is the same in Spanish and Portugese. Rice with seafood.

But the name did not do it justice. The seafood was prawns, clams, and mussels. All in their original houses.

The only surprise is that it was not a dry dish. It included a broth that made it akin to bouillabaisse or ciopino. But far better.



The photograph is not my meal. I ate mine so fast that the camera cap did not even come off. Instead, I relied on the kindness of our ship officers who had the table next to us.

It was the only meal on this trip where all five of us agreed that we had made a good choice. Having said that, mine was unquestionably the best.

One rule of Mexpatriate is that I get to be the narrator; I do not appear in person. Today, there will be an exception -- I am taking center stage.

It will be nice to look back on what will be one of my best moments in life. This will remind me.



 

Monday, October 16, 2017

dropping che

"Not only does democracy offer the best hope of progress for the masses, it also protects the left against its own mistakes. It is long past time to bury Che and find a better icon."

So says The Economist in this week's issue, supporting the idea that Che Guevara is exactly the wrong role model for the left to follow. Such are the things that keep me amused on cruises.

Communism is a zombie ideology. Not only is it the very essence of evil, it just refuses to admit that its permanent address is the Dustbin of History.

Take those Che t-shirts. I always assume the wearers have left their Hitler hoodies in the laundry.

The Danes have found a very creative solution for some of Communism's fallen symbols. And Halloween is the richer for it.

While shopping in one of Copenhagen's better supermarkets for a good blue cheese to take along on the cruise, I chanced upon a bit of Halloween paraphernalia. On top of the pile was this re-purposed sickle -- complete with bourgeois blood. For all I know, its fraternal hammer was in another bin. The Danes are that type of utilitarian folk,

Now, if we could put all of those Che t-shirts in the same warehouse with the statues of Robert E. Lee, we would all be a bit better off.

Readers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your change. 


Sunday, October 15, 2017

mad about ophelia


Today is the day we set sail for America.

At least, it is the day we are supposed to set sail for America. But, just like Hamlet, Ophelia may complicate our lives.

If you have not been following Ophelia (the storm, not the drowned lover). it is a category 3 hurricane that is now to the west of the Azores (our first landfall) and heading directly for Ireland and Scotland. If she follows her current path, she should be there by Tuesday. Probably, downgraded to a tropical storm. There is not a lot of hot water off of either coast.

This is the ship captain's issue. How can he cross over the top of Jutland and head south while avoiding the storm. The English Channel is a terrible place to be caught in high winds. Maneuverability is extremely limited. Just ask the Admiral Duke of Medina Sidonia how it worked out for him.

But that is just punter blather. Norwegian Cruise Lines is not going to put one of its newer ships in the path of a storm. There has even been some loose talk about visiting ports in the Baltic Sea to give the storm time to pass. But that is just talk.

Either way, we are about to leave our apartments to board the Getaway (Yup! Commercial ships are now being named as if they were the same as your Uncle Ralph's 35 foot pleasure boat).

Taking into account the vagaries of shipboard internet this may be:
1) My last essay until we get to Florida.

2) My last essay until we get on board the ship.
Or 3) My last essay (because I have made God laugh about my plans).

Whether I write or not, I am planning on a great time at sea -- no matter where we end up stopping for ports. Hurricanes pulled St. Thomas and St. Martin off of our list. Ophelia may do the same for the Azores and Bermuda.

Fear not. There will be tales to share. Some time.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

rainy days and saturdays


Rain alters the way we see life.

I wrote about that phenomenon earlier this year in Sydney (sydney as london). The city my friends Roy and Nancy wanted me to love never showed up. Sydney hid behind a wet London impersonation.

I am glad I saw Copenhagen yesterday in full sunlight. Danes have told me the day was an exception for this time of year. Usually, the sky is overcast with bits of drizzle now and then.

Today was the norm -- with overcast skies and drizzle. So, the three women in our group decided it would be a great day to go shopping.

Copenhagen has a street dedicated to shoppers who want to buy high-end items. Louis Vuitton. Hermes. And a lot of middle brow stores. Victoria's Secret. Foot Locker. The type of retailers you can find in any decent strip mall.

And the shop fronts could be almost anywhere. Until you turn around and look at the view. That steeple is quintessentially Danish Lutheran.



Our shopping tour gave me an opportunity to share an interesting fact about Copenhagen. It is a city filled with bicycles, and bicycles reign in the pecking order with their special lanes and high-speed commuting. Pedestrians are far more likely to be hit by a bicycle than by a car.



The bicycle parking lot is in the midst of several food tents. While the rest of our group enjoyed Danish hot dogs, I visited a salami and cheese stand staffed by Dutch merchants.



And I came away sated. With three pepper salami sausages and a wedge of cheese stuffed with very spicy chili. I managed to eat most of it before I got back to my apartment.

Yesterday, I told you Copenhagen has had the opportunity to rebuild itself after two major fires. But they were not the only fires that damaged Copenhagen's historic buildings.

Christiansborg Palace has been the home to the Danish parliament since 1849. Before that, it was the residence of the Danish monarch.

The current monarch, Queen Margrethe II, still uses the palace's chapel, whose architecture is pure Danish Lutheranism. Like the palace, the chapel has been rebuilt several times due to changes in fashion or as a result of fires.

The latest chapel fire in 1992 caused the dome and ceiling to collapse. The art of building this type of architecture has almost been lost. But, by referring to old records, the restoration was completed using original materials. And here is the result.



But there are two figures that we have not yet visited that define Denmark for outsiders. The first is Hans Christian Andersen, the author of such stories as "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," and "The Ugly Duckling." All of them built around rather conservative moral lessons.

He is honored with a statue in front of the City Hall. So many people have sat on his lap or rubbed his knee that his trousers are looking a bit brassy.



The second Copenhagen institution is Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world. The oldest is 
Dyrehavsbakken, started in 1583 -- also in Denmark. By that standard Tivoli is a youngster, having opened in 1843. Apparently, Walt Disney visited the park in the early 1950s to get ideas for his own parks.

There are two rules of life. The first is that change is always good. The second is that new is not always an improvement. That is certainly true of amusement parks.

Compared with Disney parks, Tivoli is quaint and charming. It is not snazzy and spiffy. It is just fun. And its recipe for amusing people is what has kept it running since James Polk was president of the United States.

Tivoli was dressed in its Halloween finery during our visit tonight.



Many amusement parks decked out their sites with electric arches when light bulbs were introduced. It is a tradition that still thrives at Tivoli.



And then there are rides. A couple are modern. But most retain the park's traditional amusements that seem just a bit quaint. But still endearing. If not thrilling.



I managed to avoid any emotional response until I saw the bumper cars. My brother and I spent hours on the bumper cars at Jantzen Beach and Oaks Park. The smell of the electricity arcing off of the metal ceiling brought back pleasant memories. Most of them built around revenge.



There are also ranks of restaurants in the park -- an idea Walt Disney slipped into his establishments. I am convinced that all foods cost the same in Disneyland. Do you want a large Diet Coke? That will be $40. A five-course Cajun meal?  $40. I did not look at the Tivoli menus to see if that is where Disney developed his food hegemony.

For a day that began (and ended) in the drizzle, Tivoli managed to put a nice spin on the day. And, isn't that what an amusement park is supposed to do?



Friday, October 13, 2017

how do you say tip in turkish?


Some people say returning to Venice is like falling into the arms of an old mistress.

If that is true, returning to Copenhagen is like visiting your banker. In her office.

I am quite fond of the city. But it is not a place to arouse unseemly sentimentality. Like the Danes, it is orderly with classic lines -- and cool (both in the stylish sense and temperature). The type of city you could take home to meet your mother.

Not many of us would consider Denmark to be a major power. Sitting on top of Germany, it looks like a pencil eraser. But, Copenhagen was once the capital of a great empire that included the Kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden along with the territories of Iceland, Greenland, and a scattering of islands.




"Island" is an important concept for Denmark. It still rules the largest island in the world (Greenland). But a large portion of the kingdom consists of islands. The largest of the group, Zealand, hosts Copenhagen. Unlike most European capitals that are near the center of their country, Copenhagen is almost on the border with Sweden.

The island identity is re-enforced by its harbors on the Baltic Sea and the canals that cut through the city. Denmark has thrived on trade for centuries. The canals are the remains of a past where Danes grew rich on moving merchandise. And, of course, there was a bit of wealth derived from those Viking raids on the rest of Europe.




The Viking past seems ancient history when looking on the city today. Its restrained look is rather new. Very little remains of its medieval past. Most of that burned down in the great fires of 1728 and 1795. But, like most natural disasters, destroyed buildings made way for contemporary architects to show off their skills. And they did.



Copenhagen has some of the best examples of neoclassical and neogothic architecture in the world. And its modern architecture is just as stunning.

Like the opera house.




Or the national library's black diamond.




But not everything In Copenhagen is that staid. I suspect there must have been an outbreak of children being locked up and left in abandoned guard houses. What other reason would there be for this sign?




Or for this one on the gangplank to a Russian sailing vessel. What if something fit into both categories?




(I will hear from my mother about that one.)

But, my favorite Copenhagen story happened last night at the airport. After collecting my luggage, I hired a taxi to take me to the hotel.

The driver loaded my luggage without a word. I showed him the address of the hotel. And we were off. Both of us silent. Until his telephone rang.

It was his daughter. She asked him to bring something home. But none of it was in English -- or Danish. But I recognized enough words to understand what was being said. I just could not place the language.

Then, he spoke his first word to me. Kish? It was clearly a question, but I wasn't sure what he wanted to know. He repeated it with a slightly different accent. Kesh? While holding up his hand rubbing his fingers together in that readily-understood international sign.

"Ah," I said. "Dinero." Yup. I started speaking Spanish to a cab driver in Denmark.

As absurd as it sounds, it worked. He knew more Spanish than English. So, we stumbled through a conversation. The type of conversation that could only have taken place in a Berlitz world.

He was from Turkey. His daughter had asked him to pick up bread. He was from the fourth largest city in Turkey -- Bursa. Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He preferred cash to credit cards.

I make it sound as if we had the type of conversation two Spaniards would have over coffee in a sidewalk cafe in Madrid. It wasn't that elegant.

And here is my proof. Somehow, he thought I was from Spain and wished me a happy return trip.

When I told the story to my friend Nancy, she said: "Your Spanish must be getting rather good."

I responded: "As long as I am talking to a Turkish cab driver."

And that is how I hope this trip continues. Just as Henslowe informed us in Shakespeare in Love: "Strangely enough, it all turns out well. . . . It's a mystery."




Thursday, October 12, 2017

flying with hef


People who fly for the quality of airline food are the same people who read Playboy for the articles.

That pearl of wisdom came to me while flying high above the Atlantic. I was reading Hugh Hefner’s obituary in The Economist. The cabin steward delivered my full English breakfast just as I was reading: “Hef in his dotage would retie his silk dressing gown, shuffle into his velvet slippers and get one of his nubile assistants to adjust his hearing aid, since too much Viagra – ‘the fountain of youth’ – had made him deaf.”

Now, that is a sentence with punch.

I could not say the same thing for my breakfast. Or my chateaubriand last night. Even though I flew first class from Mexico City to London, in-flight meals are subject to the “Playboy for the articles” rule. If you want good food, you do not book a seat on British Airways. You book a table at Noma in Copenhagen.

The only true luxury of flying international first class is the seat. The Mexico City-London leg of my trip was just over nine hours in the air. Too long to stay awake the whole trip -- especially, on a night flight.

I have trouble sleeping on aircraft. For a pilot, that is a virtue. For a passenger, it is an annoyance.

I cannot sleep sitting up. And, if I am to avoid wandering the aisles in the night like an air-borne Lost Dutchman, I need a seat that flattens into a bed. That means a first class seat -- along with a duvet and black pajamas that look as if they are from Viet Cong war surplus.



That is the theory. And, it usually works just as it should. But, not last night.

Because a few older passengers complained the first class cabin was “freezing,” the purser stoked the heat to what my father called “cremate.”

They slept. I didn’t. I sweated. Until I started wandering the aisles like -- you guessed it -- an air-borne Lost Dutchman.

After a quick layover in London, I was on my flight to Copenhagen. And that is where I am now.

It is evening, and I have met up with my friends Nancy and Roy. I am ready for bed. But not before I share just one more thought.

One of these days the crankiness that comes with old age will most likely catch up with me. Maybe it has already. Until then, I am going to keep the airlines in shekels and the flight attendants in stitches.

As for Hef and his Viagra-induced deafness, everything has a cost.


Even travel.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

waiting for to go*


I am a terrible waiter.

I don't mean the profession. But I would be terrible at waiting on tables, as well.

What I am terrible at waiting for is things to happen. Anything. And the worst place on earth for impatience is airport terminals.

Most of my flights the last few years require changers of airplanes. My flight today is a perfect example. I flew from Manzanillo yesterday though my main flight is today. Aero Mexico has a tendency to cancel flights out of Manzanillo with very little notice.

My solution was elegant. Or, so I thought. I decided to stay at the Hilton in the Mexico city airport terminal where my flight will originate. I could get a good night's sleep and then have a leisurely day seeing Mexico City before returning to my room to freshen up for the flight.

That sound you hear is God chuckling.

It sounded great in theory. But, I left several things undone for this trip. The hotel room has given me the time to do them. And to sneak in my 5-mile walk this morning without ever once leaving the terminal. Mexico City's terminal 1 gets my second place award for best exercise track -- right after Bogota's.

So, I have not wandered out to see some of my favorite places in this glorious city. And that is a shame. It is a perfect day for strolling. Cloudy. 60 degrees. It could not be better for a walker.

Even though my day has not worked out as I had planned, I highly recommend the airport hotel option when flying. Today, when I get on my long flight, I will be napped out and scrubbed up. And ready to nestle into my little capsule in whichever 747 will be my home for a few hours while hurtling through the atmosphere just below the speed of sound.

I will be my own personal physics experiment.


* -- My apologies to Samuel Beckett.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

excess of seasons


New Yorkers, at least the ones who mattered, or thought they mattered, knew The Season had begun with the staging of Faust at the opera house.

Or so Edith Wharton told us.

If she had taken her refined ways to Melaque, she would have been hard pressed to find a single Mephistopholes or Marguerite. Well, at least, a Marguerite. We may not stage operas, but our Season certainly has started in our little villages. The Northern Tourist Season, that is.

I mentioned in the eye of the storm that Canadian Thanksgiving usually kicks off our social scene.

It is no accident that Canadian Thanksgiving would be the harbinger of things northern. Most northerners here are Canadian. And the first Monday in October is a good indicator when they start arriving.

I have heard estimates that 90 to 80 percent of northern visitors are Canadians. The number seems far too high. But, there is no arguing that the Canadian contingent outnumbers the American.

There were two dueling Canadian Thanksgivings last night. Almost, as if the Roosevelts had taken on the Vanderbilts. One in Barra de Navidad at Señor Froy's. The other at Papa Gallo's on the beach in San Patricio. I was at Papa Gallo's.

I am always impressed with these dinners. Probably because I have created and cooked enough of them to know that results are not always commensurate with effort.

But everything at Papa Gallo's was just right last night. The decorations were understated, and complemented the restaurant's natural setting.

And the food? Pleasant and plenty. What better compliment could a Thanksgiving dinner expect?

Those of you who know me are aware my personality regularly shifts between "pained introvert" and "Hey! Kids! Let's revive French farce." Last night, The Entertainer showed up.

That made the evening quite enjoyable. For me. I cannot build windows into men's funny bones. The rest will have to speak for themselves.

There is something a bit imperialistic, as my friend Doug would say, about these events. Celebrating home holidays on foreign soil. Like celebrating the Queen's Birthday at the British embassy in New Delhi.

But, I suspect, it is just as innocent as trying to take the boy out of his country, only to discover you cannot take the desire to remake the world out of the boy. Even though Rudyard Kipling and Mother Teresa would most likely have felt equally comfortable at our dinner. Which, I guess, is just another way of saying not.

Because I often forget which play I am in and which role I should be playing in life (the very premise that made The Actor's Nightmare such a hit), I started donning my white tie costume yesterday as if I were heading to the opera house.

Good sense prevailed while I was adjusting my waistcoat. Well, good sense and a steady stream of sweat. I switched to far cooler -- in every sense of the word -- apparel.

My white tie is not even accompanying me on my cruise. It will have to wait for Christmas or New Year's Eve dinner to get itself out of the closet.

And that will be the start of a completely different season.

Monday, October 09, 2017

not knowing which way is home


Thomas Wolfe and I must be stuck in one of those eternal grapples that pass themselves off as intellectual chitchat.

You know the model. Like Robert Brown's dual role in that Star Trek episode, "The Alternative Factor," where Lazarus and Anti-Lazarus are forever stuck between universes battling one another about -- well, that was never quite clear. But it gave us budding philosophers a classics illustrated introduction to Manichaeism -- with a bit of yin slathered on our yang.

For Wolfe and me, it is the conundrum of home. And I am facing it again.

A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to apply for Mexican citizenship. One of the requirements is that the applicant can travel outside of Mexico only a limited number of days during the two years preceding applying for citizenship. I would be in the middle of that internal exile period right now.

But, I have decided I am not yet ready to be a Mexican citizenship. For many reasons. One of them is that I want to travel as much as I can while I still am capable -- and before someone shoots me. (But I guess the modifier is a redundancy, isn't it?)

And travel I have. My clock started ticking in March 2016. Since then, I have been to Colombia, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, Nevada, California, Washington, and several other places I cannot immediately recall. And tomorrow I am heading off to London, Denmark, the Azores, Bermuda, and Florida.

Even though I will be boarding an airplane to Mexico City in less than 24 hours, I am reluctant to start packing. The reason is easy. The central garden of my house is so inviting, there is no place I would rather be right now, than sitting here enjoying the day and writing to you good folks out there in the darkness of the eternal ether.

The landscaping around my pool would please a minimalist. There is just enough to give the impression of greenery.

Two of the planters are filed with heliconia -- often confused with bird of paradise. They do not bloom all year, but, when, they do, their exhibitionism would shame both Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. The stems are clown-bright, and they last for weeks.

Unfortunately, the lot will bloom for only those few weeks. And then they will be gone until next rainy season. Here, that will be next summer.

Sitting here in the shade on a warm summer (despite what the calendar says) day with a cooling breezes backed up by the heliconia showgirls, I am seriously tempted to tell Queen Marghrete she can do without me, and sit right here for the next month.

I may not have moved to Mexico for the weather, but I do live here for moments like this.

Stephen Sondheim says it best:

Let the moment goDon't forget it for a moment, thoughJust remembering you've had an "and"When you're back to "or"Makes the "or" mean moreThan it did before

Saturday, October 07, 2017

for whom the numbers toll


It was late and everyone had left the restaurant except for a young man who sat alone in the corner.

He could have been Puzo-written. Olive-skinned. Expensively groomed black hair. And the ubiquitous designer sunglasses.

In another place, he would have been a Gambino soldier. But not here. He was up to something quite different. He was there to deal.

Instead of coming to his table to take his order, the waitress sat down. She handed him several peso notes. He passed something to her.

Then it was the day manager's turn. He re-enacted the same tango. Sit. Money. Something passed.

Several explanations danced in my head -- not all of them licit. But the people involved did not fit those narratives.

What truly bothered me was it all seemed familiar. That I had somehow seen this before. What is worse, I was positive someone had explained the transaction. But, all telephone calls to my memory bank went unanswered.

So, I did what I do when I get lost in Mexican culture. I talked with my friend Julio.

I went to the right person. He is a regular participant in this pass-the-money game. It is called la contrata and is a financial mainstay of our little villages.

Here is how it works. The young man I saw in the restaurant acts as the banker. The banker and 10 other "savers" are assigned a number from 1 to 11. 


Each saver then deposits a certain amount of pesos each week. Usually, $500 (Mx). Each week a number comes up in sequence. The holder of that money then gets back the money he has deposited with the banker -- less the money the banker receives on his week. He contributes nothing other than being the guarantor if a participant does not fully contribute. (I suspect there may be some Gambino moments when that happens.)

The result? In 11 weeks the savers will have deposited $5,500 (Mx), and will receive $5,000 (Mx) when their name comes up.

During his recitation, I realized Julio's predecessor at the restaurant had described the same process. But he described it as a lottery. And that confused me because he said that everyone wins the lottery -- just like a politician describing health care.

But I do not think that was why I forgot the explanation. It simply did not make sense to me why someone would think it was a good deal to pay someone to hold their savings.

Of course, many international banks are now doing that with commercial accounts (and some are considering extending it to individual accounts). Economists call it negative interest. I call it a bad deal.

When I asked other contrata savers why they thought it was a good idea to pay someone to hold their savings, why they did not just put their weekly payment in a shoebox at home and keep all of their hard-earned wages, they answered unanimously. "If I do not save that way, I will spend all of it when I get it."

I understand that impulse. When I was their age, there was no tomorrow. There was only now. It took two changes for me to join the  Josiah Bounderby set. The first was the wisdom of age. Nothing focuses one's attention on the future like the clatter of death's carriage.

The second was money. As the years went by, I started earning more than even my voracious consumerism could gobble. I also worked at a company that encouraged its employees to join tax-deferred savings programs.

If either of those two changes had not occurred, I am not certain I could now play the role of Second Dutch Uncle in my little morality play where I cluck my tongue at contrata participants.

In a society where banks are not trusted (often for faulty reasons), free individuals will devise market systems that meet their perceived needs.

Last week I was talking with an expatriate friend. One of his chief concerns is people who come to Mexico and bring with them what he calls "cultural imperialism" -- the belief that Mexico would be a far better place if everything was done just as it is at home.

I chuckled when I thought about my reaction to la contrata. I fell right into the same trap.

Maybe I should do penance by taking a number this week.


Thursday, October 05, 2017

putting the boo in boutique


"I am looking forward to coming to Melaque at the end of the month for the Day of the Dead celebration. I have never seen it there. Only in Pátzcuaro."

Her name is Brenda. A frequent visitor to the highlands of Mexico, who started reading my pieces when I was scouting for a house in Pátzcuaro. In anticipation of her first visit to Melaque, she sent me an email to ask which cemetery in town would have the most decorations.

I have actually answered that -- or, at least, a similar -- question. Last year, about just this time (night of the dead -- the prequel), I was heading to Pátzcuaro
 this time last year when I summed up Melaque's take on night of the dead.
Our villages do not celebrate day and night of the dead with the same ritual solemnity practiced in certain parts of Mexico's highlands.
That does not mean we do not celebrate it here. When it is honored, it is usually in a far more subtle style. Whether at home or during brief visits to the cemetery.
I had given the impression in an earlier essay that Night of the Dead had not taken root amongst our peripatetic villagers when the government decided in the 1960s Night of the Dead would be imposed on places where it had never been celebrated. For Pátzcuaro, nothing much changed. But it was a stranger to northern Mexico. And, to a degree, in the little villages around our bay.

Hank, an occasional commenter, and Dora, the woman who helps me keep my house tidy, noted my earlier hyperbole. But the argument is still this same. If you want to see Night of the Dead at its peak, head to the highlands.

Here, the cemetery in the municipal seat comes as close to being an open celebration. Otherwise, we have the extreme of private ceremonies at home and somewhat overblown public exhibitions staged by high school students and local businesses.

This year, I will miss even that on my trip to Denmark.

From the merchandise at La Comer in Manzanillo on Wednesday, it looks as if Night of the Dead may be pushed aside a bit more by another American culture invasion -- Halloween.

The photograph shows only one rack of costumes. There were three rows of duds for fairies, princesses, vampires, and a rather-chilling Black Monk. Along with plastic jack-o-lanterns to collect all of the trick or treat goodies the neighborhood may offer. That would not be my neighborhood.

At least, they were not these day-glo jack-o-lanterns I have seen displayed along the road around Morelia during October. But it is the first truck load I have noticed here. Mind you, I usually am not looking for such paraphernalia while I am driving.




If you are interested in Night of the Dead at its best, take Dan Patman's tour to Michoacan. And, if you are looking for evidence of the ceremony here, stop by the jardin in San Patricio.

The students always do a creditable (if eccentric) job of celebrating lives past.  


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

it's hard to siesta if you work all day


Some essays on Mexpatriate almost write themselves.

The current edition of The Economist reports on an extended national vacation declared by the South Korean government in an attempt to pry workers from their desks. Koreans have a well-deserved reputation for being chronic workaholics.

South Koreans, that is. North Korean leaders have an entirely different reputation. Their people cannot afford to have their own reputation.

The following sentence slammed on my reading brakes. "Workers in South Korea toil for more hours each year than those in any other member of the OECD [the 35 richest countries] except for Mexico."

It was the "except for Mexico" that yanked me away from the article to search the OECD website.

It is true. South Korea is third on the list I found, with Costa Rica as number two. But, there it was in blue and white -- in 2016 the "average annual hours worked" by a Mexican worker was 2,255. More than any other OECD nation.

That is about 43 hours a week. But it includes averages for full and part time workers.

To put that number in perspective, American workers (long famed for their workaholic ways) are in 15th place at 1783 hours. Canadians are in 22nd place at 1713 hours.

Now, it is possible to get picky with these studies. I usually do. The most obvious target for skepticism is the definition of "worker." But, for a person who is working, an average of 43 hours (not taking into account vacation days) is a lot of hours when it comes week after week.

I have several northern and European friends who scoff when I point out that Mexico is a world-class economic power. Its membership in the OECD is just an example -- along with the fact that its GDP is the 15th largest in the world.

Even though most of them would deny it, when they hear "Mexican," they think of a sombreroed campesino, wrapped in a serape, napping in the shade of a cactus while his burro waits patiently nearby. Our local shops sell refrigerator magnets and planters of that very image. After all, 20 pesos is 20 pesos.

Between the overtime worker and the siesta king, those of us who have lived any time in Mexico know which vision is the more accurate.

And that is why Mexico's lead in the hours worked chart should not have surprised me. When I head out on my dawn walk, construction workers are arriving on site, and they do not leave until I pass by again in the evening as the sun is setting.

The same goes for the garbage guys. Or the shop owners. They always seem to be on duty. No matter the time of day. For the shops, that usually means staying open until a lot of us old northerners have slipped between the sheets.

That hours worked number carries its own warning. For a lot of Mexicans it is a matter of necessity. The hourly wages here are not high. And, if anyone wants to get ahead economically, the path is working more hours.

But I am not scandalized by that theory, either. I was raised in a household where our family motto easily could have been laborare est orare -- to work is to pray. Work gives us a psychological sense of who we are in this world. And it certifies our self-worth.

I suppose that is one reason I so admire my neighbors. They are a people who know the value of work -- and they do it well.

Good job, Mexico. Keep up the work.


Monday, October 02, 2017

stringing us along


Sometimes, I think I have lived here too long.

I followed this taxi for about two miles before it even occurred to me to pull out my camera to share the sight with you.  You do not see a taxi topped with a white bass fiddle every day of the week.

Of course, around here, you do see practical solutions to transportation problems almost every day. My favorite is the full-grown bull or horse in the back of a small pickup truck.

But this was my first bass fiddle sighting. Usually, musical instruments are transported around town as God intended them -- in the hands of roving musicians whose need for financial support far outweighs their musical talent. Whenever tourists are in town, groups of minstrels are almost everywhere. Especially, on the beach.

I assume that the owner of the bass fiddle needed to be somewhere not within foot power. Of course, it would be almost as easy to imagine it being carried on the back of one of those small motorcycles that transport a large group of friends or family members.

But Mexico is not the only place I have seen images like this. I have run across instrument cases on top of cabs in New York City. Mattresses on top of cabs in Barcelona. Chairs on top of cabs in Cairo.

Those solutions make perfect sense. If you do not have access to a truck and you need to move a large object. taxis seems to be the practical solution. And Mexicans certainly are a practical people.

It makes me wonder whether Uber provides similar services. Having thought of it, I imagine it does. Even though my Uber experience has usually been in vehicles smaller than that bass fiddle.

For some reason, that photograph seemed to be a good way to start the month. After all, the Denmark trip is quickly slipping up on me.