Friday, July 20, 2018

the sunburned zebra

Yesterday, we were talking about Nueva España, the main commercial street that runs through my part of Barra de Navidad (did a minotaur just get out of that car?).

But double parking is not the only challenge facing drivers. There are at least fourteen topes (speed bumps) on the first half mile of the street. Unmarked topes that blend into the surrounding concrete without betraying their presence until one dislodges the right front strut of your SUV.

From time to time, someone paints the topes in the busiest portion of the neighborhood. I think it was December last year when the topes were last painted. Or, I should say, the south half of each tope was painted yellow.

My brother and sister-in-law were late in coming down in January. About 6 weeks after the painting started. The week they arrived, the painter was back painting the northern halves.

By then, the paint had faded so badly on the southern halves that there was only a hint of yellow left. Like one of those Pompeii murals painted 2000 years ago. By the time they flew north in April, all of the paint was gone.

Someone must have thought the earlier experiment was worth repeating, because the painter is back. This time, a yellow zebra pattern is the motif.

Mexico is a practical country. The street is far too busy to block off to allow the painting to go on unmolested. The painter works in the midst of the chaotic traffic, using some caution tape to block off half of the tope for painting.

Earlier in the week, it was the turn of the southern halves to get tarted up. Today, the painter finished off the northern halves.

Of course, within a few weeks, there will be no proof that they were ever painted. Omar says that is because too much water is used in thinning the paint. He may be correct.

What baffles me is why anyone bothers with the paint job. Even though the topes are rather subtle, there is one at each corner of the street. If you are nearing a corner, you should be slowing for a tope.

Whether the whole concept of a tope is wise is a completely different discussion. They are designed to slow speeders. But the greatest speed violators are motorcycle riders -- and they simply zip around the ends of the topes on the verge of the road.

But, for a bit, my main street will look just like a street in one of those highfalutin big towns.

Can a McDonald's be too far behind?

Thursday, July 19, 2018

did a minotaur just get out of that car?

The mysteries of the church often pale in comparison to the mysteries of Mexico.

The trinity is a snap to interpret; understanding the driving customs in my little village, just like comedy, is hard.

I have told you about the main commercial street through my neighborhood -- Nueva España, Mexico's married name when it was still part of the Spanish Empire. It is a street only in the most rudimentary use of that word.

Sure, it is paved and wide enough to allow parking along ts curbs and still permit two-way traffic. Vehicles then just need to be conscious of the various pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, skateboarders, baby strollers, boys chasing footballs into the street, goats, horses, and assorted dogs and cats with whom drivers share this main thoroughfare.

And if those were the only obstructions in the street, driving on Nueva España
 would be a pleasant, but adrenalin-driven adventure. But, there are other topes -- including real ones, at least 14 speed bumps -- on a regular day.

I do not know if it is true in the rest of Mexico, but double-parking seems to be an art form here. If you want to buy a plastic cup of agua fresca, why bother pulling two car lengths ahead into an open parking space? Turn on your flashers and stop in the street. Or to go to the paper store. Or the grocery. Or to have your hair cut.

The result is that the two-way traffic is often reduced to one lane requiring drivers to dig deep into their transferable skills bag. Now, where did I put my Theseus labyrinth map?

There are times when the vehicles are parked so close together that buses and Coke trucks back up like salmon waiting to vainly tackle Grand Coulee dam.

Earlier this week, I was driving my Mexican friend Alan to Melaque. (You remember Alan from cart of laughs. My friend who finds hilarity in foreigners displaying their national flags in Mexico.) 
Nueva España was humming along -- well, as well as it could hum along in its sclerotic mode.

I was just about to start my weave pattern when I saw a large pickup had already entered the maze. There were five double-parked cars that we both needed to maneuver our way around. Tennyson urged me on. "Half a league, half a league,/
Half a league onward,/All in the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred."

But, because he was already on his way and the laws of physics precluded two vehicles from simultaneously occupying the same space, I pulled over to let him pass.

For some reason, that agitated Alan. He started yelling: "Go! Go! Go!"

When I pointed out I couldn't because of the pickup, he looked at me as if I had just arrived from Pakistan. "Go! Make him back up!"

By now, the pickup was out of the way, and we drove down the street. But, I was curious what had just happened.

In our own patois of Spanglish, he told me that what I had done was weak and all the people on the street now thought I was a weak man.

It did not placate him when I said I was merely showing courtesy and practicality; the other driver was there first. More importantly, giving deference to another person is a sign of personal strength, not weakness.

He was not buying it. "You were weak. You have to force people to respect you."

I have heard that last line from several young Mexican friends. One went even further in telling me that no one will respect you unless you have beaten them in a fight.

One of the weaknesses in deductive reasoning is that people tend to generalize from their own specific specifics to the general without having sufficient data to draw the conclusion. I am not going to do that.

But, as far as Alan and some of my other friends are concerned, that incident on the street has given me a template to try to understand why the occasional standoff occurs on the street when neither vehicle will yield to the other.

Of course, it does nothing to help me understand why the traffic labyrinth is created in the first place.

But that is the theme for another essay. And I just may write it if I can get past all of these cars today. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

from one bowl to another

While we enjoy our lives (as we should), the inevitability of death circles us daily. Like a lean leopard waiting for that one little slip that will turn us from yesterday's toast of the town to today's lunch.

And, no, John, I have not been reading too much Thomas Hobbes.

I have simply been getting my health back on a regular course. It all started, as you know, with my recent bout of gastro distress. (That is what we will call it so as not to disturb the Victorian gentleman in the back row reading his Kindle.)

My digestive system is a marvel. Someone once said of Thomas Jefferson, in his old age. that he had the digestion of a teenager. And I have felt that way about my well-run bowels. Until recently.

On my long walks, I frequently find myself urgently in need of a rest stop. There seems to be something in the movement that confuses my intestines.

That is simply an annoyance. The more serious problem lately has been long bouts of -- and let us be adult and use grownup words -- diarrhea. Once I realize my system will not clear itself, I head to my doctor who will give me a bout of antibiotics, and I am as right as drain -- so to speak -- within a few days.

My latest bout persisted for a month through a regimen of conservative treatment and two rounds of antibiotics  My doctor gave up and referred me to a specialist in Manzanillo.

There were some worrisome results in my lab report. But the earliest appointment I could get was 10 days away. So, I waited. And three days before the appointment, all was back to normal in digestionland.

But I went to my appointment on Monday. The doctor ruled out a number of causes. Cancer (most Mexican doctors are refreshingly honest in their accurate use of words). Food allergies. Food intolerance. He was even dubious that a parasite or bacteria would give the results in my lab report.

Like many Mexican doctors, he took a conservative approach prescribing some nature-based drugs and asked me to come back in 6 weeks or so.

In the back of my mind, I could see neither a good reason to take the medications nor to return. My stomach was fine.

That is, until I got home and had to run from the front door to the nearest toilet. My hubris was not well-rewarded by my bowels.

OK. There is a little more to that story. I stumbled onto some Rainier cherries at Sam's Club just before my appointment. Worried that they would not keep in the heat (I will use almost any handy excuse), I ate the entire kilo of cherries before I got home. I suspect I would have made the same run had I not had an earlier problem.

Under my current food plan, those cherries probably contained enough sugar to fulfill my weekly requirement. I am trying to cut down as much as I can on my sugar intake.

I do not like sweets. Even fruit. Cherries being the exception. My sugar downfall is carbohydrates. Primarily pasta. But, there are plenty of other culprits, as well.

Two years ago, I altered my food intake to rid myself of a lot of foods I can do without. Combined with my walking regimen, it worked. I felt better. I looked better. I acted better.

Salads have never been a favorite food item for me. They simply do not fill me. But I have learned some new tricks from my reading.

I am easily bored by food. If I eat a dish three times, I am not inclined to eat it again.

Salads are the perfect meal to avoid that rut. The possible combination of vegetables is almost limitless.

Take my salad this afternoon. I combined leaf lettuce with basil and mint leaves, topped it with cucumber, tomato, habanero, red, and yellow peppers, onion, celery, Kalamata olives, feta, and walnuts.  And then sprinkled it with a lime-balsamic-oregano dressing of my own invention. Amazingly, it has kept me for the full afternoon.

If I ever become one of those people who feel they have the liberty to bang on about how everyone else in the world is poisoning themselves with the food they eat, I hope a sane and good-willed soul will punch me in the face until I come to my senses.

But, I may share some of my own discoveries with you on my road back to good food and good company. If you make a fist, I will stop.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

mr. moto takes a vacation

Something was happening.

As part of my afternoon walk today, I ambled down to the Barra de Navidad malecon. It is quite an attractive hunk of concrete and landscaping mounted atop the barra (sand bar) that separates Navidad Bay from a nifty little harbor. It is the bar in Barra de Navidad.

When I was last down there, it was a set for which the Spanish word tranquilo was made. There were very few people on the malecon. And even fewer on the beach.

Not so this afternoon.

My first hint were the number of motos -- motorcycles -- parked at the start of the malecon. The most I have ever seen there is two. This afternoon, they were as numerous as horses in front of the Rock Ridge saloon on Lili von Shtupp night.

And the motos were not there alone. But let me tell you two brief stories before we proceed.

Several years ago, I was standing in a long line waiting for the ATM to disgorge pesos into my pocket. In front of me was a woman I have known since moving here. But, unlike me, she spends only a few months each year in Mexico.

She looked at all the white-haired northerners in line in front of us,and said: "I really feel sorry for the Mexicans when we leave. There will be no money in town for them."

The second is not unlike the first. Last week, I received an email from an acquaintance in Canada. He wrote: "Thank you for your stories. I truly enjoy reading them because they remind me that even though we are not in Mexico for six months out of the year, life still goes on there."

And part of that life was on the malecon. The place was filled with vendors selling sugary treats to families made up of three or so generations. All enjoying a comfortably warm day in the sun.

What startles me each summer is to approach of a group of who I believe are Mexican teenagers, and hear them speaking English. A lot of American citizens come here to visit their relatives -- and to enjoy their vacation.

A young woman from Victorvile, California told me she was jealous that I live here. I told her I fully understood what she meant.

What struck me most though were the number of people in the water on both sides of the sand bar -- in the bay and in the laguna.

Some of the grumpier northerners have rattled on about how the beach at Barra de Navidad no longer exists, Plenty of culprits are blamed, but the dirge is the same. It isn't what it used to be.

That did not seem to be bothering the Mexican families that found the beach exactly to their taste on a Sunday on the sand.

I suspect all humans have a tendency to believe if they are not in a place they enjoy, somehow that that place folds up waiting their return. As if it were a freeze frame in a bad movie.

But that is not how life works. My friends in Salem are going about their lives without any regard to whether I am there or not. As is my family in Bend. And my friends in British Columbia -- and England -- and Germany. Life does not stop just because I am not there.

I suspect that is one of the flaws of existentialism and Cartesian logic. In truth, we can know that life does rely on our personal validation.

So, dear readers, do not worry. Life goes on here. And Mexican tourists are doing their best to see that the local merchants fill their cash registers with pesos.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

where do you get your ideas?

It is a fair question.

And my usual answer can sound a bit flippant, for the major part, I just open my eyes.

Even after living here for ten years, I am often awed by what goes on around me. Some things are amusing. Others charming. A few metamorphic.

I am awed because I am a fish swimming in a foreign sea, A rainbow trout in the Indian Ocean.

It is the interpretation where the nub of the narrative lies. And even though I can figure out some cultural vagaries, most stump me. I either misinterpret them -- or I go to one of my Mexican guides to unravel the paradox.

Those are my existential essays. But, there are other sources. I stumble across things on the internet. Northern friends send me articles.

And, from time to time, readers bring great ideas to me. That is the genesis of today's tale.

Wade lives here part time in my neck of Barra de Navidad. While going to the bakery one day, he walked past some new construction on the main street of this part of town. He said he had noted something very peculiar about the new building -- and included a photograph.

I thought I knew the building he meant. It is so close, I can see the top of it from my terrace. Looking a good deal like the Moorish domes of the remnants of Whitehall Palace seen across the duck pond of Saint James's Park.

I wrote about the construction in February 2016 when the foundations were being laid (mexico knows best). Back then, it was supposed to be a storage area. It has now morphed into commercial space -- though it is still unfinished.

So, I hiked over there -- earning a few more of my prized steps. And, sure enough. Just as Wade had pointed out. There was something very peculiar about the building.

At that point on the street, the utility poles is concrete. The electric company recently replaced the wooden poles that had a tendency to rot and come down in mild tropical storms and the occasional car crash.

The building is built very close to the street, and the first and second floor terraces jut out further. It is that jut that causes the "peculiarity," Here it is.

At some point during the construction, the building met the utility pole. Rather than alter the building plan, the building was built around the pole. I suppose they have a symbiotic relationship of support. We might call it Donald and Andrés.

But my northern mind conjures up some questions. What happens when the pole needs to be replaced? What happens if the terraces need to be re-modeled? What happens if a fiery asteroid collides with the Earth and ends life as we know it?

Of course, none of the questions relate to facts happening right now. The present problem was how to complete the building with the pole where it was. And that problem is solved. Any others are merely hypothetical.

There is one fact I have withheld from you (just like Agatha Christie). The owner of the lot and building is a Canadian. A citizen of British Columbia. Certainly, he must have shared some of my questions. If so, it is a fact not in evidence.

The point is: it works. And worrying about the future is just wasted energy.

I will confess, though, I will be interested to see how it all plays out over the coming years.

And we have Wade to thank for it all.

Wade -- Your royalty check will be on its way. Of course, that is dependent upon Mexico winning the World Cup.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

all hands on deck

I just realized I have not invited you to my upper terrace recently.

There is a reason for the slight. Not a very good one. Even though it is one of my favorite areas of the house, I tend to take it for granted.

The Mexican-French Canadian architect, who designed and built this house as her dream home, had a good eye for Barragánesque line. (Luis Barragán is the Mexican architect who is credited as the father of Mexican modern architecture.) The lines of the house are Enlightenment-logical.

The lines were what attracted me to the house. I probably did not even notice the upper terrace. I certainly had no particular plans for it.

When my artist friend Ed saw the terrace, he saw the perfect venue for an art collection. And he was correct. The angular walls almost beg for the presence of large canvases.

Ed is an abstract expressionist. Well, he paints in that style. And his work is quite good. But I was not certain until I saw the paintings mounted on the walls (the good life). It was almost as if the architect had these paintings in mind when she conceived the walls.

Since then, the upper terrace has become part of family life around here. The breezes make it a great place to read -- or to play Mexican train, which we do when the rest of the family is in residence.

But I now have a new use for it.

The house is square, the rooms surrounding a patio with a swimming pool. The terrace is essentially built on the roof of the other rooms forming a complete path around the upper level of the house.

Early on, the terrace struck me as being similar to the deck of a cruise ship. The deck just above the swimming pool. On most ships that is also the sports deck with a running and jogging track.

I do not know why I did not see it earlier, but the upper terrace is built to serve the same purpose. And, over the three years I have lived here, I have occasionally used it for my walking regime. Especially, when the summer rains make our local streets impassable. Or simply to be avoided on foot because of the sewage overflow.

Lately, I have had my own sewage overflow problem. For the past month, I have had a lower intestinal issue that gives me very little warning before my system turns into Old Faithful. As a result, I have created my own Elba in the house.

Admittedly, it is a self-imposed exile. But, I do not dare get very far from the comfort of ceramic without the possibilities of a catastrophe spiking.

At the onset, I really did not feel like walking. I was too tired. But that was only for a day or two. My energy quickly recovered.

It then occurred to me that I have the perfect solution at hand. I can complete my daily walking regime without leaving the house. 100 laps is the equivalent of 5 miles.

Is it boring? You bet. Walking in circles makes me feel like a neurotic gnu wandering methodically but without purpose. But it is better than no exercise at all. And I have worked back up to walking 7 miles each day.

When I lived alone, I would play music while I walked onthe terrace to at least keep my mind active analyzing it. Now that I have a son, his television played at Mexican levels tends to drown out everything else.

This diarrhea problem will pass. I can then invite you back to the terrace for something a bit more entertaining. Maybe a game of Sorry?  

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

not ready for prime time

I really should talk to someone about this obsessive disorder.

For some reason, I keep picking at the scab of our local OXXO store. You know the one. I have written about it twice (does that translate to hugs and kisses?; hugs and kisses). And that is just about the number limit of guest appearances on Mexpatriate. Well, unless you are a scorpion.

I had decided I had OXXOnerated myself of the topic. That is, until last week when the store opened. Some of you mentioned in your comments that you hoped Mexicans would support their local abarrotes instead of buying their beer and ice at OXXO.

Last Monday, the store had its grand opening. It was to be quite the event. Invitations (with discount coupons attached) were stuffed under front doors. Unfortunately, the invitation arrived under my door the day after the opening.

That was just as well because the store was not really ready for the event. The contractor had told me the date and time. When I showed up, the store was open, but the staff was busily gathering up the required paraphernalia of such sacred rites.

Balloons. Posters. Ear-piercing music blared from a speaker placed just right to blast the eardrums of anyone who had the temerity to join the celebration.

I went inside. And I was not alone.

The store was not packed. There were perhaps 15 of my neighbors looking at the merchandise.

My Telcel (cellular) bill had just arrived. So, I decided to take advantage of one of the best benefits of Mexican convenience stores. Financial services. For me, it is a place to pay my telephone, electric, and cellular bills. For my neighbors, it is cash transfer point. These stores help fill the gaps left by Mexican banks.

To be a good neighbor, I grabbed a bottle of mineral water, and got in line behind a young woman with two small children who were fascinated with all of the small sweets just at their eye level. Like mothers universal, she was haggard.

The clerk was not quite so focused. Or, maybe she was just frustrated. The customer wanted to purchase one item. Toilet paper. But the clerk was having trouble. When confronted with a credit card, more problems ensued.

I stood there for just under 10 minutes and decided my transaction could wait. (I should note I have seen similar problems at one of the other OXXO stores in Barra de Navidad.) By then, there were about six more people in line. I returned my bottle to the cooler and left.

Since then, I have noticed a steady stream of customers at the store. Lots of young mothers. But the main demographic seems to be young Mexican men on motor bikes. The front of the store looks as if it could be in Saigon in 1971.

I was positive I knew what that last group was buying. They tend to be a beer crowd. But, when I went inside, I discovered the beer coolers were locked. 

The only unlocked alcohol cooler had a sign asking customers not to open the door.

It turns out there is a licensing problem. If I understood my informant correctly, it will be another month before the matter is worked out. Maybe.

For a company that bases its revenue on the sale of Corona and Victoria, that seems to have been an odd detail for OXXO to overlook in choosing an opening date. Or, maybe other sales will meet the company's capital recapture scheme. Who knows?

What I do know is that the store was not quite ready to open. A week later, the clerks are far more confident in manning their stations -- even if they are OXXO-slow. As yet, my attempts to build a personal relationship (similar to what I have with the owner of our local grocery and with the Kiosko staff in Barra de Navidad) have been rebuffed. But everything takes time.

Because of my continued need to be close to a bathroom, I have been taking my exercise on the upper terraza of my house. 100 laps gives me 10 miles.

A few nights ago, I noticed a bright light shining through one of the architectural features where there had once only been darkness. It was the OXXO sign. Doing its best imitation of John Winthrop's shining city upon a hill.

It was startling when I first saw it. Now it is just part of the background of my little village rolling into the twenty-first century.

I suspect in another week or two, I will not even notice the home of the moto cowboys.

Monday, July 09, 2018

insulting my country

Saying nasty things about Mexico will irritate me. Saying ignorant things will bring out the mother bear in me.

I have been friends with Al for years. Since I moved to Mexico, we stay in touch through email. Not frequently, he will send me something he has recently read. Almost always about Mexico. He is interested in my take. I suspect because he is still a bit baffled that I would have moved here.

Yesterday he sent me an article from an online magazine that I would not usually read. The writers are a mixed bag. But most are former conservatives who have given into a nationalist and protectionist philosophy.

The article Al sent me was about AMLO's election as president of Mexico and what it means to both Mexico and the United States. I would have anticipated the author would have been appalled at the election of a socialist in a neighboring country. But I was wrong.

The world of politics is changing. The old left-right divide is starting to make little sense. The new paradigm of "inward-looking" and "outward looking" makes far more sense. Or, as the British would have it, "somewheres" and "anywheres."

AMLO falls perfectly within the new political paradigm. The author points out AMLO ran "not as a socialist, but as a national populist skeptical of globalist neoliberalism." Having run twice before for president as a social democrat, he remade himself this year into a national populist. The author's prediction is that the new Mexican president and the American president will be able to work well together because they share a lot of the same interests.

Take this gem, for example. "
AMLO critiques NAFTA for banning Mexico's traditional tariffs that protected its small corn farmers, whose ancestors had been growing corn for thousands of years. The beneficiaries were massively efficient Midwestern American farmers, whose cheap corn imports pushed huge numbers of Mexican peasants into illegally migrating to the US over the last quarter century."

We will skip over the factual errors in that statement because I am far more interested in its comic book view of economics. He builds on that to point out that the celebrated Trump-AMLO telephone call was a success because both of them have a deal in mind: trading American investments in Mexican infrastructure for Mexico's help in lowering Central American immigration.

The idea is interesting. After all, in congress, AMLO will depend on votes from his coalition partner, the Social Encounter Party (PES), a socially conservative Christian party with views similar to the Christian right in the United States. And AMLO shares a few of those views -- opposition to gay marriage, opposed to abortion.

But, that is not what really caught my eye in the article. In discussing American investment in infrastructure in post-Revolution Mexico, the author noted: "Mexican elites traditionally resisted the threat of American dominance, but at the expense of tolerating (and even promoting) a culture of mediocrity and accident-proneness in its population. Mexico’s superb real estate would attract an influx of Americans, but Mexicans have managed to make their country boring and distasteful to most Yankees besides Jeb Bush. Mexico’s shoddiness successfully repels gringos, but also limits its potential."

There is a lot of vitriol in that paragraph. The sharp elbow to Jeb Bush is an example. And there are a lot of good reasons why American businesses have been reluctant to invest in Mexico. But, I really take exception to the gratuitous insult that the country in which I live has purposely been created "boring and distasteful to most Yankees." Those adjectives are born of a nativist mind.

It is true that some aspects of life in Mexico may be distasteful. Cartels. Corruption. Drug addiction. A violent crime rate that continues to climb despite the promises of politicians.

But the positives of living here are tasteful (if that is the proper antonym). In fact, delectable. For most of us, the negative aspects of Mexico are a distant echo. (With the exception of the recent scourge of methamphetamine addictions that has repeatedly touched my life through Mexican friends.)

Those of us who choose to live here have done so for many reasons. For me, it s the challenge of living in a new country. The weather, the availability of fresh ingredients for meals, the ability of my neighbors to accept what life offers with aplomb. Those are all sweeteners on top.

And "boring?" That is obviously the opinion of a man who has not spent any time truly taking in the life of Mexico. How can any country based on fiestas, faith, and family be boring?

What AMLO and Trump decide to do with their relationship is something I am looking forward to. But, I am going to do it in my country of choice where every day is to be celebrated.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

blowing up jiminy cricket

It is cicada time in our neck of the jungle.

But you would not know it just by listening for them. Usually, the neighborhood is abuzz with the love calls of one of nature's oddest-looking insects. With their oversized eyes, Lane Bryant bodies, and disproportionate diaphanous wings, it is no wonder they have to sing so incessantly to find a mate.

I know they are out and about because I run into them (literally) every night on my terrace repurposed as an exercise track.

They are attracted to the light at night. When they are not mooning away staring into the light (which must be far more attractive than a mate), they are battering their bulky bodies against the sconces.

The sconces win. In the morning, the bodies of the cicadas are scattered across the equivalent of the Little Big Horn. And that strikes me as a rather odd way to conduct a reproductive cycle. Suicide rather than procreation.

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a friend in Salem. Like me, he loves playing with words.

"I am reading the memoir of Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road.

"Ms. Thurston, a black woman, grew up in Florida in the early 20s, amid people of great simplicity and little nuance.  As a child she would go out into nature, talking to trees, birds, and lakes.  One day she returned home and told her mother about having spoken to the lake, which allowed her to walk upon its surface without being drowned.  She recounted how she was able to look down upon the fish below and to see the life in the lake.

"Her grandmother overheard her stories and cautioned the mother that the child was lying and that if she didn't beat the lying out of the child now, it would only get worse."

I often meet people who confuse the use of the poetic with lying. And who are impoverished by their inability to see the world through different eyes.

When I visited Colombia with my cousin and his Colombian wife, she told me of a cricket that would sing one last song and then explode.

I knew she was referring to cicadas because we had been listening to them. But I had never thought of describing their life cycle as singing and then exploding. Like something from a Monty Python skit.

The genesis of the tale is obvious. After cicadas dig out of the soil where they have spent most of their life, they go through several stages of molting. My planters are currently filled with the husks of cicadas who have flown away to mate.

Sons of the enlightenment see the remnants of a life cycle. A poet sees an insect whose joy at being alive cannot be contained. It dies in one last burst of song. It is a very Latin view of life. Joy and death walking together toward the inevitable.

I probably scoffed when I heard the Colombian myth. I shouldn't have. There are things in life that are better explained by the music of poetry than the sterile language of facts.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

a paul harvey moment

Some stories are simply not ripe to write.

So it is with my essay on Thursday (not minding my own business). Had I waited one day to tell you the story, it would have had a completely different ending. That is, if any story really has an ending.

On Thursday, we left off with me slinking away from the door of my neighbor, who had rejected a chicken peace offering in way of apologizing for getting angry at her children. When I learned of her immigration status, her reaction made far more sense.

Yesterday, as I was returning from a medical trip in Manzanillo, I drove past our neighborhood grilled chicken stand. Something down deep told me to stop and buy two chickens. One for each of the mothers involved in Wednesday's passion play. My head said: Why bother? But that little voice -- the one that talks to us in whispers whenever we are about to do something we know we should not -- said: Try again.

And, so I did. I bought two full chicken meals and took them next door. My knock on the Central American mother's door was a mere tap. Her son was out in the hall with what has become his game face when I show up -- pure disdain and anger. I asked if his mother was home, and he just glared.

When I turned around, she was standing in the door with a perplexed look. I apologized again for my anger of Wednesday. And offered the meal as a reconciliation gift. (Yup. I used those words. In my overly-practiced Spanish.)

I could not have anticipated what happened next. She started sobbing softly looking at the food I had given her. "We have nothing to eat. Thank you." She started to give me a hug and thought better of it.

The other mother, hearing the exchange, came out of her apartment and asked if she could have the other chicken. I chuckled and told her I had brought it for her and her family.

Now, I do not believe that the rift I created has been healed. Transactional gratitude seldom works that way. Just ask any husband who has given his wife a guilty gift of flowers.

But, it is a start. Had I taken the time to get to know them when they moved in (as I usually do), the fallout would have been minimal. It is very difficult for me to get angry with people I know. Certainly over some torn plants.

Every church I have ever attended has a weekly magazine filled with stories to inspire congregants in exercising Christan virtues. They have their purpose. But, most of the stories have a similar story arc.

I lived next door to a grumpy man who hated me. The only thing he loved were his roses. One day, he fell in his garden. I helped him into his house and nursed him for a week. The day he was better, four dozen of his prize roses were on my porch.

Those "I was kind and received gratitude" stories have always grated me. First, because that is not how life usually works. And, second, because we are not virtuous in hope of praise. We are virtuous to soften our hearts to the needs of others.

Had my Central American neighbor refused my chicken a second time, it would still have been the right thing to do on my part. As it turned out, she had a need unknown to me -- and a need I would probably have missed had this tale not started in anger.

I am not certain if this really is a Paul Harvey moment or not. Because there may be more to this story in the future. I hope there is.

But for now, it is sufficient to say this is the rest of the story.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

not minding my own business

Boyé Lafayette De Mente needs a new chapter for his book. That is, if he were still alive.

You have probably read it. There's a Word for it in Mexico. De Mente wrote it is a dictionary to assist northern businessmen in their Mexican dealings. He not only defined the word, but did yeoman work in putting the word (or phrase) into a cultural context.

Such as the importance of properly executing the abrazo (embrace). Or why dignity comes first and the law last with personalismo. I always hear echoes of De Mente in Jorge Castañeda's writings about Mexican culture.

I wish De Mente had included a chapter on "No es asunto tuyo" (It's none of your business) -- a phrase I hear often and experience more frequently.

My neighbors are very private people. When I explain to some of my young Mexican friends what I write in my essays, they are surprised I would be so open with my life. (I usually retort that some of their Facebook postings are far more personal than what I write. They retort Facebook has a purpose -- to attract girls.)

I ran into the privacy attitude yesterday afternoon and today.

Last evening I was heading to a Fourth of July party when I noticed four children outside of my house. When I came out the front door, there was a pile of plant leaves. I did not think much of it until I noticed the children were pulling up my landscaping and tearing it into pieces.

And here is where I made mistake number one. Instead of stopping the car and asking the children not to molest the plants, I jumped out in my angry old white guy mode and asked what they were doing.

They are kids. They immediately lied claiming they had done nothing with the plants even though they were each holding the evidence in their hands.

I marched them to the apartment building next door where we ran into the mother of two of them. I told her what happened. She slapped the oldest boy across the side of his face. It was not the reaction I expected.

When I returned home, I had calmed down enough to realize I owed the children an apology for my outburst. So, again I went next door. The other older boy was there. When I started talking with him, his mother came out (not the slapping mother) and asked why I was talking to her child.

I explained what had happened earlier and that I was there to apologize. I told her, the children are free to play in front of my house, but they should not bother the plants.

I asked the boy if he would agree to that. His mother glared at me and told her son that he was to avoid white people because they will steal his organs. He immediately ran away. When I protested to her, she told me to leave.

Later that day, I talked to another of the apartment building's dwellers. I had heard that people in Central America believed that Canadians and Americans came to their country to take the organs of children for transplant. But I had never heard that calumny in Mexico.

Then it was clear. He told me she is from Central America and is living here illegally. She was afraid I was there to arrest her and her children and to deport them south.

There was so much to unravel in that story that I did not know where to begin. But I do know that food is often the universal language of reconciliation. I bought a dinner for her and her family today.

I showed up at her door with a grilled chicken dinner in my hands and a smile on my face. The only thing missing was a white flag.

I am not certain what I was expecting, but I was caught off guard when she pushed me away from her door and slammed it. I did get that message.

Not every story has a moral. But this one does. Had I minded my business and ignored the children's activity (my brother and I were guilty of far worse at that age), I would have had a different detente with my neighbors.

The unslapped boy now watches me with a combination of contempt and fear. My attempts at greeting him are met with stares that bear the seeds of revenge.

Is there anything particularly Mexican about this tale? Not really. Personal relationships do not lend themselves to syllogisms -- or even inductive reasoning. What happened here could probably happen anywhere (except for the odd organ thief motif).

In the future, I am simply going to take "No es asunto tuyo" to heart.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

happy fourth

This has been a week to show off the best patriotism of the NAFTA Three (as they will undoubtedly be known come the revolution).

Mexico held what may be a landmark election on Sunday. Canada celebrated the origins of its evolutionary birth on the same day. And, today, of course, is the day Americans have chosen to celebrate its Independence -- even though John Adams preferred the second, when Congress actually approved the resolution.

It feels a bit odd celebrating national days outside of the country that gave them birth. Election day here was the exception. It was easy to share in the excitement of choosing a new government just by watching the voters as they lined up in some very unforgiving heat. But it was an event taking place in the borders of the celebrating country.

The Canada and American holidays were the days with the odd vibrations. I have celebrated the Fourth of July in several foreign countries. The strangest was in Britain where touting a divorce while living with the other partner in the marriage had its sardonic moments.

There is always something of a colonial feel about tooting the horn of one's country while living or visiting in another. Or of celebrating Mexico's national days.  Especially when singing the Mexican national anthem:

But should a foreign enemy Profane your land with his sole, Think, beloved fatherland, that heaven gave you a soldier in each son. 
That "foreign enemy" was my country when the lyrics were written. And soon came to include Canada at the time of the Mexican Revolution.

I am prone to playing pranks on the Fourth of July. In Salem, I would fly the British flag merely to make the neighbors lift an eyebrow.

But, today there will be no pranks. Partly because flying foreign flags in Mexico without permission is a law violation.

Instead, for various reasons, I am reverting to my exercise and revised diet that I started a couple of years ago. I was supposed to attend a party this evening, but, for reasons of my own, I cannot.

Instead, I made a good start at putting together two healthy meals today.

For lunch, I made a sardine pâté of sardines, onion, serrano pepper, sweet pickle, tarragon, and olive oil. It was quite good on a bed of leaf lettuce.

For dinner I made an egg concoction. My nutritionist had recommended two poached eggs on a bed of sautéed spinach.

That struck me as something I would be fed in one of those old people holding pens just before being stuck in the ground. Instead, I 
sautéed onion, serrano pepper, tomato, kalamata olives, and spinach in olive oil along with two eggs mixed with marjoram. Because it sounded very Greek, I added some feta cheese along with a splash of balsamic vinegar.

I have been quite successful with my revised diet (more vegetables, fewer simple carbohydrates) whenever I am cooking for myself. My son, Omar, is a good cook in his own right. He has the choice of joining me or making his own. That will also mean far fewer trips to restaurants.

So, that is how I am celebrating the Fourth of July. No flags. No political speeches. No hot dogs.

Instead, I am celebrating the birth of a nation that I will honor as the place of my own birth. Where generations of citizens have had the great honor to bask in what Jonah Goldberg calls the Miracle -- 
the utterly unprecedented explosion of wealth and freedom that accompanied the emergence of liberal-democratic political arrangements and capitalist economic arrangements.

Let me lift a toast to the Miracle. Long may it thrive despite what successive governments have done to it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

i'm not an actor; i'm a movie star

I have been stuffing fistfuls of pâté down my nostalgia gullet the past few weeks while I recover from a stomach disorder.

Movies are a favorite personal pastime. I brought over 300 with me on the trip soutn, and I have accumulated more during the past ten years here. But, they were not apparently sufficient for my home theater.

So, through the graces of Amazon and DHL, I now possess a score more. All purchased during the past two weeks. (And, I should add, all delivered far more efficiently that my Telmex modem. Telmex could learn a lot from Amazon's customer service.)

My purchases have been a mixed bag. Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi has proven conclusively that Disney is capable of sucking the life out of any film franchise -- even when it is doing nothing more creative than slapping together a remake of the most popular first three films in the series. It was painful to watch. Especially, since it now a purchased edition to my collection.

But, there have been true hits. From Russia with Love. Chicago. The Stuntman.

Tonight, though, was my favorite of the lot: My Favorite Year. If not my favorite movie, it is certainly one of my favorite comedies.

The film is set in 1954 -- the narrator's "favorite year." He is the junior writer for one of television's golden age comedy-variety shows -- Comedy Cavalcade -- starring Stan "King" Kaiser. The narrator's favorite movie star -- Alan Swann -- is the show's guest star that week.

If you hear echoes of Sid Caesar, Your Show of Shows, and Errol Flynn, it is no accident. Good nostalgia pieces are always derivative.

What makes the movie a success is turning what could easily be two-dimensional characters into real people with real problems and talents. And you care. There are at least three scenes the direction of Richard Benjamin catches right on the edge of emotion -- without indulging in bathos or sentimentality. Well, maybe a little sentimentality.

The narrator's hero worship of the dashing hero Swann gets a full shellacking. When Swann is faced with some relatively small inconveniences, he melts. And melts in just the same manner as many of us would.

When Swann confesses he is afraid and he is not the hero he portrays in movies, the writer responds: 

To me you were! Whoever you were in those movies, those silly heroes meant a lot to me! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked! So don't tell me this is you life-size. I can't use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them!
And let me tell you something: you couldn't have convinced me the way you did unless somewhere in you you had that courage! Nobody's that good an actor! You are that silly hero!
I think of that line whenever I hear someone rattle on about how their favorite politician will make all the difference in their lives if he is elected. And it is always a setup for failure. I was just thinking today about how much expectation some Mexicans are placing on their new president's shoulders. No man can bear that burden.

Nor can Swann. Being an American movie, he gains redemption by becoming a true hero. Putting himself second.

"The way you see him here. Like this. This is the way I like to remember him. I think if you would ask Alan Swann what was the single most gratifying moment in his life, he might have said this one right here."

And you would have to have a heart of stone to not feel a catch in the throat accompanied by a recognition that indeed we all have the potential to be heroes. Especially, if we are flawed.

I also relearned a cultural lesson. I had turned on the Spanish sub-titles to assist my son in watching the movie. But fully understanding the words did him no good in understanding what is a quintessential American movie. A realization that makes all the time I spend on my Spanish lessons  seem just a tad ironic.

This trip down the nostalgia cul-de-sac got me thinking about the type of things I brought with me to Mexico. When I sold my house in Salem, I left 98% of the possessions that had accreted in the 60 years of my life either at the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or the dump. Now, there is symbolism writ large.

What I brought with me fit perfectly into my Ford Escape. And it was an odd lot.

My coffee mugs are perfect examples. I tossed a full cupboard of them. What I brought was one each from my nephew Ryan, my friends Ken and Patti, my friend and co-worker Beth, and the inimitable Linda. Each one is important not for the ceramic, but for the memory.

For years, only I used them. Now that new people are using them, they are no longer quite as pristine as their memory might suggest. They are stained. Chipped. Cracked.

And that is the way they should be. I long ago decided I would no longer keep anything that needed museum care. If it could not be put to use by anyone at anytime, it had no place in my house.

That is the utility of nostalgia. We are not its slave. It is our servant -- to be trotted out when we want to think of those who cared enough to share their lives with us.

I guess, that, in itself, would make it my favorite year. 

Monday, July 02, 2018

the sun also sets

I am amused at what will change my daily cycle.

Back in December I had a regular routine. I would get up at 6:30. Complete my DuoLingo lesson. Read the newspaper. And make certain that my son was out the door on time to get to his job.

I would then take my morning walk. But you know that already. I have written about it before.

What I enjoyed most was watching the sun come up over the laguna where Spanish galleons were outfitted for their world-changing voyage in 1542. The cruise that finally realized Christopher Columbus's dream.

For the past month, my walking has been on hold due to what could be politely called "stomach difficulties." I cannot venture far from the security of porcelain. That means no sunrises to admire in the morning.

And, because I am pretty much confined to my compound, there are no sunsets, either.

My house was designed in the style of the Mexican contemporary architect, Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín. Barragán houses have a notable feature in common. Like their Moorish progenitors, his houses are inward-looking. I have no windows that look out onto the world. It is a house with a huge narcissistic problem.

Last night, I went out to pull my car into the garage just as the sun was setting. Most people here claim sunsets are the best here when viewed at the beach. And I do agree the ocean always acts as a good stage for watching the sun drown each night.

But, sunsets can also be appreciated from afar. The photograph at the top of this essay is from the street in front of my house. Just under a mile from the beach.

I have seen the view before. Or a similar one. Sunsets are like snowflakes. No two are quite alike.

Last night, with the combination of the palms and technicolor, the sunset reminded me of the feel that Hollywood tries to capture for itself. And, as Hollywood does in most everything visual, it cheats at sunsets with the addition of urban pollution.

Yesterday was an interesting end to the week. Canada Day for my northern acquaintances. And an election for my Mexican neighbors.

By the time the sun was setting, Mexicans had elected a new president, who will take office in December. And, today, it appears as if his new party has also taken the majority of seats in the federal senate and chamber of deputies. That means AMLO will now have a free hand to enact the policies he said he favors without the need for any compromise with the opposition.

It also means that AMLO has just a few months in 2019 to get some of Mexico's problems sorted out before Mexicans start indulging in the "I really dislike this guy" game.

And, for those of us who do not allow political obsessions to rule our lives or conversations, there will be another sunset to enjoy.

I intend to do that tonight.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

happy 151st something, canada

Happy Canada Day to my Canadian acquaintances. Or Dominion Day, if you have trouble turning loose of things.

151 years ago today, Queen Victoria allowed her North American possessions that had stayed loyal to her German family to unite as the Dominion of Canada. Well, at least the colonial parts we now know as Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The other provinces joined later. Newfoundland and Labrador held out until after my birthday in 1949.

Even though the date is often mistakenly called "Canada's birthday" or "Canada's Fourth of July." It isn't. Canada was still a colony controlled by Britain (a legal reality that remained until two acts of the British parliament in 1931 and 1982). Its status was simply upgraded to being a kingdom within the empire. Of course, that monarch was a Hanoverian.

Unlike its southern neighbor who gained its independence in an 8-year war, Canada's independence was evolutionary. And, even now, Canada's head of State is Queen Victoria's great great granddaughter, who appoints a governor-general, her viceroy, to act on her behalf.

All of that regal flummery (as British prime minister Charles Fox called it) is a bit perplexing to American eyes. But we know a good party when we see one.

And parties there will be today in this Canadian colonial outpost. 
It appears I will be sharing a picnic of hot dogs, corn on the cob, potato salad, and french fries with the few expatriate Canadians who are here in the summer.
We may be in Mexico (where displays of national anthems and flags are severely restricted), but there will be plenty of both. Including today's essay. 

I have shared this recording with you twice before. But it is one of the most dignified (without being mawkish) that I have heard.

So, happy Canada Day. Wherever you are.


Friday, June 29, 2018

shaken to the point of stirring

Last February, our little village had a 5.8 earthquake.

There was no missing what it was. There was the characteristic sound of a freight train roaring through town. And a good bit of shaking. Enough that members of our household appeared in the patio in various shades of undress. As if we were rehearsing for a family murder mystery.

Tonight, we went one up. Or, as the Richter scale goes, quite a bit up. To a 6.0.

The last quake was nearby -- out in the ocean. As was this one. Just 44 kilometers to the WSW of us. Out there in the Pacific where the plates grind against one another like teenagers.

The first question everyone asks is whether there was a tsunami. And the answer is no. That is true only because of the type of slippage. Earthquakes at sea always have the potential to release their energy in wave form.

The map I cribbed from the internet has a rather good graphic of how the energy is released through water (concentrically) and then through land (breaking up as the shocks encounter rock formations).

But, all of that is science. And knowledge does not often calm the primordial fears dished up by Mother Nature. Or, so I am told.

My girlfriend Linda once asked me, "Did the leaders of your planet tell you when they sent you here that humans have feelings?" She thought she was being funny.

But I get her point. As the double jolts passed through the house, I was on my bed reading The Economist. When the house started shaking, I considered heading out to the patio (our designated gathering spot). But, I was in the middle of an article about elections in Zimbabwe.

So, I finished the paragraph. By then, it was all over. And I felt a bit silly standing in the middle of the patio by myself listening to the neighborhood dogs announce that something exciting (and a bit scary) had just happened.

The moment having passed, I resumed reading my magazine. My mother would have been very proud at my aplomb.

I suppose the people who thought moving here was a problem because of our scorpions may want to think again. For me, it is just another reason to stay right where I am.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

reflections in a golden eye

Plastic bags filled with water will repel flies.

If you have an email account, you already know that. Or, more accurately, you have been told that.

I have a cousin who is a true believer. She was ready to go ten rounds with me (though she could have decked me in one) when I had the temerity to announce my skepticism of this Internet-inspired home remedy.

Admittedly, the plastic bag nostrum does not fall into the "Windex cures liver cancer" category. But,its advocates have been unable to tell me the science behind it. Why would a bag of water scare away a fly?

The most common reason I have heard is that the light passing through the bag causes the complex eye of the fly to disorient itself. I suppose that is why you never see flying insects anywhere near large (or small) bodies of water.

Part of my skepticism is born of the various denominations of the Church of Water-induced Fly Confusion. Some communicants swear the whole thing is an exercise in futility unless four pennies are included. The trinitarians advocate three. The aluminati propose flecks of foil. The puritans believe the others are heretical. Nothing will suffice other than pure, unadulterated water.

Considering the popularity this urban (and rural) myth, you would think some sort of scientific study would have been conducted to test the efficacy of the theory. And there are some. Sorta.

A study at an egg-plant in North Carolina concluded water in plastic bags attracted flies rather than repelling them. A Mythbusters episode concluded the presence of the bags was a wash. They did nothing.

But, there is a wealth of anecdotal testimony. All conducted without scientific controls.

You can find plenty of people (you may be one) who are willing to hold up their hand and swear: "I had a lot of flies on my patio. Just one day after I put up the bags, all of the flies were gone. And the arthritis in my right foot has greatly improved."

People who make such claims (and I am amongst their number) are absolutely sincere. They report what they think they perceive. But, they may actually be seduced by confirmation bias. We often want something to be true so much that we see what we want to see.

Confirmation bias is what concerned Thomas when he challenged the assertion of the other disciples that Jesus had appeared to them.

I saw it in operation this afternoon in San Patricio. I stopped at my favorite butcher and ordered chicken breasts. While she was retrieving them, I looked up and saw three clear plastic bags filled with water. I had never noticed them before.

What I did notice today were the four flies on the bag nearest to me. By the time I had pulled out my camera, they had fled to a long string chorizo just behind the bag. I was able to capture only one before I felt self-conscious about photographing sausage.

When the butcher gave me my chicken, I asked her how effective the bags were. She smiled, and gushed: "We have not had a fly her since we put them up."

Now, she was either more sardonic than your correspondent or something else was going on. I realized all of the flies were on my side of the counter where I could see them, and she could not. At least, that was my confirmation bias for the afternoon.

I considered telling her about the magical powers of washing her counters with a 3 to 1 solution of Windex and WD-40, but I let the moment pass.

She has an email account. Undoubtedly, she already knows that helpful tip.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

it can happen here

AMLO is a close personal friend of mine.

If the initials do not mean anything to you, AMLO is Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And, unless some miracle (or catastrophe) happens between now and election day on 1 July, he will be Mexico's next president.

The "close personal friend" part is mainly my invention. But I do have empirical evidence that it could be true. AMLO and I have had daily telephone conversations about his campaign. Sometimes, twice a day.

I have asked him if he has seriously backed away from his earlier position of withdrawing from NAFTA. Or rescinding the petroleum investment agreements with non-Mexican companies. Or reversing the education reforms of the current administration.

I do a lot of talking. But, so does he. And he always says the same thing. How much he needs my vote. That, through him, there is hope for Mexico. These politicians are so robotic.

That is true here because my close personal friend uses a recorded message with robocalls. It does lack a bit of the personal touch.

This morning's poll shows AMLO almost 20% ahead of his nearest competitor. Those numbers look like the percentages racked up by PRI in its day of one-party dictatorship. Or, as its defenders would say: "strong leadership."

The only worrying factor for AMLO is the high number of undecided voters four days before the election. 22%. Thus, the incessant robocalls.

AMLO has run twice before for the presidency. As a fire-breathing leftist. If he had not scared away the middle class in the last election, he would probably have been elected.

But something odd happened this election cycle. AMLO has tuned down the rhetoric to almost sound like a center-right politician. His leftist programs of six years ago have been sugar-coated and dressed up as conservative solutions.

What has not changed is his basic instinct. He is a national populist who has racked up support by portraying himself as a man who will not let the world push Mexico around any more. His adoption of another presidential candidate's relying on baseball caps has not gone unnoticed.

He speaks of exorbitant tariffs on the corn that Mexico imports from the United States. He sells the old bromide that Mexico must be self-sufficient in growing its own food. And his money maker is reminding his audience that Mexican oil is for Mexicans. The only thing he has not done is to propose a wall on the Guatemala border.

I have a friend in Mexico City who has long been a supporter of Mexico's center-right PAN party. She detested AMLO in the past. This year, she (and a lot of her wealthier friends) are voting for AMLO. When I asked her why, she said: "We have tried everything else, why not give AMLO a chance. After all, you have a Trump; we will have a Trump."

One of the most interesting statistics in the polling is that AMLO leads by a large margin amongst all three income groups. But, his greatest lead is amongst the wealthiest voters. Like my friend in Mexico City.

On Tuesday, I had breakfast with an expatriate friend. She obtained her citizenship just after the 2012 election. While we were discussing that election, she told me she would have voted for AMLO.

I was not shocked. Her politics are garden variety leftist. She thought Hugo Chavez was good for Venezuela. That Daniel Ortega is a hero in the same category with the Castro boys. That Sunday was a great day for Turkey with the reelection of Erdogan. And that Jeremy Corbyn will be the best prime minister Britain has ever had. (Churchill, in her estimation, was one of the worst.)

So, I went way out on the plank when I said: "Let me guess. You are going to vote for AMLO on Sunday?"

"Of course, I am. There is no choice. And I hope his party takes control of Congress. The rich will learn that they no longer control Mexico."

"That surprises me just a bit. I would think that as a lesbian, you would find it distasteful to vote for a candidate who is opposed to abortion rights and gay marriage. You are far more flexible than I thought."

I wish I had just made up the part about abortion and gay marriage. I tend to do that to get reactions in political conversations. But it is true.

No one should be the least bit surprised that a Mexican leftist would hold those social views. Outside of Mexico City, the constituency for abortion rights and gay marriage could probably meet in a very small convention center. Catholicism and evangelicalism inform a majority of Mexican voters on social issues.

If AMLO were running for city council from Manhattan, he might have different views. But he is running for president of Mexico. At least, he will give some of my expatriate friends the opportunity to broaden their political credentials.

And it will give me more opportunities to spend time on the telephone with my new-found friend.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

hugs and kisses

Construction seems to come in two speeds in my little village by the sea.

Some buildings (mostly residences) are built in spurts. Lots of activity will occur in a few weeks. And then -- nothing. A second story addition may repose as a single story house for years.

Adam Smith could explain why. My neighbors build when they have saved enough disposable income to purchase materials. If thereare no savings, there is no construction.

The second category also has a Smithean whiff about it. Commercial construction, like bungalows, can go from concept to completion in a few months. And it needs to be completed quickly. Alter all, it is impossible to recapture capital investment if the building sits uncompleted.

I have a new neighbor that is encapsulated by the second category. I told you about it just a month ago (does that translate to hugs and kisses?) when the walls were under construction. A new OXXO store.

For those of you who do not live in Mexico, OXXO is a convenience store. Almost indistinguishable from a 7-11. Their life blood is beer and cigarettes. With chips and sodas thrown in as runners-up.

Just before Darrel and Christy left for Oregon in mid-April, Christy noted the lot across the street from the guy who collects plastic was being cleaned up. She thought it might be a civic  beautification project. It turned out to be new construction.

I stopped by today to talk with the contractor and the people who will be running the store. If all goes well, the store will be operating next week. The shelves and coolers are installed. They just need some inventory.

Fast construction is one of the benefits when your corporation is in the same holding company as Coca-Cola FEMSA.

The OXXO store seems to be oddly located. Around here, OXXO (and its local competitor, Kiosko) cater, in large part, to tourists. There are already three convenience stores in the heart of the tourist section of Barra de Navidad.

My neighborhood is not a tourist magnet. Or, at least, I don't think it is. But, I may be proceeding from a false premise (as Mr Spock would, and did, say). Maybe tourists are not the target market for this particular store.

The main street that runs through this section of town is well-served by small mom and pop grocery stores (as well as a large grocery store). Every country has them.

When I was in grade school, I would stop every afternoon at a combination garage-grocery store, run by Mr. and Mrs. Persyn. where I would spend the few pennies I had squirreled away from my milk money for one or two pieces of black licorice.

The place was ramshackle and filthy. The hands selling the licorice were so caked with grease that it was hard to discern where the finger stopped and the candy began. You almost expected Mayella Ewell to walk out from behind the pickle barrel. Yes. There was a pickle barrel where hands were washed only by dill brine.

Our little grocery stores here are nowhere near that gothic. All of them are run by family members who fight like Canute to repel the tide of dust that settles hourly on their products.

Why there are so many of these small stores, I have no idea. There are several more scattered throughout the inner part of the neighborhood.

One answer is to provide convenience to their customers. The stores stock the basic staples to cook a daily meal -- but, usually, not meat. A trip to the butcher is required for that.

Today, I was cooking hot dogs and discovered someone had used up the last two buns. Rather than jumping in the car and driving to Safeway, as I would have done in Salem, I merely walked two blocks to the local grocery and picked up the same package of buns. For a slightly higher price.

So, what will OXXO add to our neighborhood where we already have convenience stores aplenty?

Economists tell us that businesses can offer their customers one of three things: 1) price savings, 2) quality, or 3) service. Since our little grocery stores sell the same quality products at the same price, they exist because they can provide service that customers do not find elsewhere. That is why grumpy store owners run the risk of scaring people away to friendlier climes.

Oddly, every Mexican neighbor (we will leave the northerners out of this sentence) I talked with is excited about the opening of the store. Well, "excited" may be a bit of hyperbole. Let's say, they are looking forward to the store. The only ambivalence came from the owners of the current grocery stores.

Most of my neighbors said they were happy to see that Barra de Navidad is becoming modern. They also see the store as a place for new jobs. For the community, it will be nice to have a business actually chipping in to the tax base.

The only naysayers I encountered were my fellow expatriates. Or, some of them. They do not like seeing what they fled from up north following them to their "paradise."

I will not respond to that. Instead, I will let a Mexican take the talking stick.

I met Maria on a message board in 2008. She lives in Mexico City and works for a large transnational telecommunications company. I posed the northerners' opposition to her. This is her response.

"I would like to respond politely to arguments like that, but, it is difficult for me. I run into a lot of people who move here from Canada and the United States. For some reason, they seem to have trouble with modernity. They would like my country to be frozen in amber for their personal pleasure. As if, serape-clad peons siestaing against a cactus while their trusty burros patiently wait is what Mexico should be about.

"That is not Mexico. Mexico is a proud member of the first world. It has the tenth largest population. The thirteenth largest in size. And, some people are surprised at this, it is a member of the OECD with the world's fifteenth largest GDP.

"We work in glass towers at well-paying jobs where we deal daily with colleagues throughout the world. We are growing larger and better every day.

"I am proud to be a modern woman in Mexico. I do things my mother would never have imagined back in her village as a young girl. Modern Mexico has given me the opportunity that would not exist if northern prejudices prevailed.

"If you want to stop time, please feel free to do it in your country. For me, OXXO is a place to get a coffee at a fair price and to enjoy it in an air-conditioned building."

I was going to edit some of the tone. But that would have been unfair to Maria.

And she does make a good point. Maybe it is the air-conditioning that will attract customers.

That may have been the business plan all along. The ultimate service provider. 


Monday, June 25, 2018

are your papers in order

No. Not those papers. The immigration papers that are causing such a tizzy these days.

Not that I mind countries requiring outsiders to have proper documentation to enter and stay when they cross a border. At times, I wish Mexico was a bit more proactive in tracking down people who overstay their visas.

But, as I said, today's essay is not about those papers. It is about the other papers we daily receive in Mexico. Let me explain.

Last week, I was having dinner with friends when they informed me they had just had a conversation with our local postmaster. He had locked access to their postal box because he had no record of them paying their annual fee. The wife was certain she had paid, but she was just as positive she had not received a receipt.

That, of course, in Mexico that translates into not having paid. Without documented proof of payment, the fact that money may have exchanged hands is a factual nullity.

I learned that lesson from a Mexican neighbor. She keeps every receipt for her purchases. She then puts the receipt in a plastic bag and tapes it to the gadget. Her living room looks like a clearance sale is under way. But she knows exactly where the receipt is when she needs it.

I felt rather smug because I knew I had paid my annual box rental early in January -- even before the notice was placed in the box. And, having been well-trained by my neighbor, I knew I had kept the receipt.

All of the documents I save are placed in a large plastic bin with separate file folders. Electricity. House telephone. Cellular contract. Water, sewer, garbage. That sort of thing. There is also one entitled "Post Office." I knew that is where my receipt should be -- if I ever needed it.

Well, it turns out, I did need it.

On Saturday, I stopped by the post office to check my box. I no longer receive much mail there now that my magazines arrive electronically. I keep the box to receive greeting cards and the occasional letter I receive from friends.

As well, as my monthly copy of Imprimis, that contains excerpts of speeches delivered by some very bright people who address the students at Hillsdale College. And, then there are the occasional legal notices that require my attention.

When I stop at the post office, the postmaster usually retrieves my mail for me. But, not on Saturday. He told me he would not look until I paid my fee.

If I had not had that same conversation with my friends two nights before, I would have been taken completely off guard. I told him I had paid. He said the computer says I had not.

"I have a receipt." I thought that would end the conversation. But I was wrong.

The postmaster instructed me to return with the receipt (his tone reverberated with that "if you have one" accusatory tone so beloved of those with power) along with my permanent resident card (and a copy of its front and back), and a copy of my electric bill showing my current address. I told him I would see him on Monday.

When I got home, I pulled out my file box. The receipt for 2018 was not in "Post Office." That surprised me. Then, I remembered I had not done my filing for a couple of months. Maybe it was still in the "to be filed" pile.

It turns out, I have not filed for more than a couple of months. I had excavated to November 2017 without finding the receipt.

But I did not give up hope. I had another pile of documents that included the payments I make on the first of each year. Property Tax. Car registration. Water, garbage, sewer.

And there it was. I had paid on 2 January. So, I made a copy. Copied my permanent resident card. And printed out my latest electric bill.

That last point is important. Electric bills are the universally-accepted proof of residence -- at least, in this part of the universe. And the rule is almost always the same. It must be the latest billing.

But, this is Mexico. I knew I was follish not to have a backup plan.

This morning, I took my documents into the post office. The postmaster looked sceptically at the receipt. He finally accepted its authenticity. He then took my copies of my visa and the electric bill.

His eyes lit up when he looked at the bill. He told me I could not use my latest bill. I needed the latest bill in existence when I paid on 2 January.

I was ready for that. I had printed it thinking that eventuality might arise.

But, we were not done. He printed out a series of documents as if I was renting a box for the first time. That was fine. All I had to do is sign in three places.

Keeping the receipts saved me paying another annual fee of $300 (MX) (just over $15 (US) at today's exchange rate). But I still would have spent the same amount of time gathering my documents and signing agreements.

I was prepared to answer my rhetorical question of whether my papers are in order with a resounding "yes." After all, I found my receipt.

But, as you can see in the photograph, they definitely are not. I know where I will be spending part of my afternoon.