Sunday, January 14, 2018

clowning with age

Happy birthday to me.

This was not going to be an essay about me. Not that I am above doing such a thing. Most of the words that appear here exist exclusively in my head.

But, this essay should not be about me because I have a far more important announcement. The rest of my family is here.

My mom (Marilyn), brother (Darrel), and sister-in-law (Christy) arrived on Saturday afternoon to stay an indeterminate number of months. However many it is, it will not be long enough.

The fact that today is my birthday made their arrival even better. Or, is it the other way around? Whichever, I am glad they are here.

To celebrate this rather oddly-numbered birthday, we went to one of my favorite places in Barra de Navidad -- El Manglito. It has a great view of our lagoon. And good food. I indulged in a favorite. Chicken molcajete.

And, like all good meals, this ended with a round of "Happy Birthday" played by the band, and a cake with a Roman candle served by a clown. What could be more fun than that?

Our dinner put me in high spirits. Well, high enough to divert me from writing an essay that I think about how our days are numbered each week when I fill my medication dispenser. That would be an essay for an old man.

But this will be my last outing for a few days. I volunteered to participate in the cultural awareness classes sponsored by our church in Villa Obregon. Two years ago, I talked about the creation of the Mestizo myth that offered Mexico an opportunity to create a unifying national identity. This Thursday (the 18th), I will update that lecture with some of the issues that were left undone in forging a Mexican national identity.

If you are interested in attending, it will be at 5 PM at the Costalegre Community Church in Villa Obregon. I look forward to seeing you.

Until then, the Mexpatriate theater will be dark.  

Thursday, January 11, 2018

going green can be a dirty business

China has just made it more difficult for greenies who enjoy being smug about their ever-smaller carbon footprint.

One of the stars in the recycling crown has just taken a hit. China has decided that it is tired of sorting through other people's garbage like a rabid raccoon.

For years, China was one of the world's major recyclers. Of the garbage that was exported from one country to another, China took half of the load.

It was a good deal for a country short on resources (especially, petroleum). By recycling plastics and electronics, China was able to build its economy. Now, that it is the second wealthiest country in the world, it has decided to let the rest of the world keep its own garbage.

On 1 January, China banned the export of two dozen types of waste. The reason is simple. If China is to show any advancement in cleaning up its deplorable environment, it needs to get rid of pollution-causing sources.

I was surprised to find out that recycling is an incredibly dirty business. I knew the manufacture of electronics created huge problems. And I should have realized that recycling electronics would be just as polluting. Lead poisoning in particular.

It turns out that recycling plastics creates massive pollution problems, as well. As a result, China has banned all consumer plastic waste from entering the country. For some countries this will be a major problem. Britain ships 80% of its waste plastic to China.

Now, what does this have to do with Mexico?

Our little corner of the country has several plastic collectors. The one at the top of this essay is just a few hundred feet from my house. I take all of my bottles and plastic products there, rather than tossing them in the garbage to go to the dump.

During the recession, there was a field on the drive to the county seat that was piled Himalaya high with mounds of plastic bottles. I stopped to talk with a guy working there. He said most of the bottles went to Manzanillo to  be shipped to China for recycling. But China's economy had slowed enough that it was no longer buying.

Yesterday I asked our local collector if his bottles usually went to China. He did not know. And he had not heard that China had banned consumer plastics. He sold his plastics to a man who picked them up from his lot.

If there is money in recycling the plastic, some country, with less money than China, will start stoking up the furnaces. But probably not Mexico. It is on the verge of becoming an upper middle income economy with a large interest in minimizing pollution. Recycling plastic does not fit in that picture.

As for me, I may start minimizing my use of plastics -- though that is rather difficult when most food products here come in plastic instead of glass. A choice I have lauded when I drop the plastic container of mayonnaise that bounces off the ceramic tile rather than shattering like a Syrian grenade.

But, my smug level of recycling plastic has just been taken down a notch.

Monday, January 08, 2018

hoping for change

My village has a change problem.

Not that the village is opposed to change. Quite the contrary. The villages around our bay live off of tourist pesos. And the residents are constantly looking for new ways to entertain tourists while receiving pesos in exchange.

It is the pesos that is the problem.

Most of the residents and visitors rely on access to money through two Banamex ATMs. One in Barra de Navidad. The other in San Patricio. During high tourist visits, long lines form at each of the ATMs -- when they are working.

And what comes out? If I request $6,000 (Mx), the machine gives me two $100 notes, four $200 notes, and ten $500 notes. The bank's explanation is that the reliance on $500 notes is to cut down on the number of times the machines need to be refilled during high usage periods.

It is the $500 notes that cause the problem in our economy. Very few purchases add up to $500. That leaves customers in the position of handing a large note to the proprietor of a small shop. And the customer (often a northern tourist) cannot understand why the shop has no change. The answer to that is because the previous customer paid with a $500 note and then wandered off with all of the shopkeeper's change.

I was having lunch today at a local restaurant where the staff knows me. One group of northerners at a table next to mine paid for their bill with a $500 note. The restaurant did not have enough change. So, the waiter asked me to change it.

A few minutes later, the same waiter stopped at my table holding a portrait of Miguel Hidalgo. Another group of northerners were paying for their meal with a large note -- this time, a $1,000 note. Same routine. I changed it.

I was doubly surprised by the $1,000 note. First, that it existed in our little town. It is only the second one I have seen here in the nine years I have lived on the bay. (They are as common as tortillas in places like San Miguel de Allende. But not here.) Second, that anyone could have imagined that a little restaurant would have change for a bill that size.

Because I live here, I do not bother carrying around $500 notes. They are a nuisance to everyone. And are almost as useless as currency as carrying around Confederate script. Granny Clampett does not live here.

As soon as I get my handful of $500 notes from the ATM, I immediately get in line at the bank and convert all of them into $100 or $200 notes. It takes a little extra time, but it also keeps me from over-complicating other people's lives. People who are usually eking out a living as entrepreneurs.

Admittedly, my solution has its rough spots, as well. Three times last month, I went to the bank to get change and I was told the tellers had none. Sure enough. The teller opened his drawer. It was filled with nothing but $500 notes -- just like the ATM.

So, that is my suggestion. Be a good neighbor and get your change at the source. It takes a little more time, but you will be seen as a courteous customer rather than someone draining a shopkeeper's meager change reserves.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

moving to mexico -- driver's license

I have been driving in Mexico for almost a decade -- without a Mexican driver's license.

That is not as bad as it sounds.

I really do not need one. I have a valid driver's license from Nevada, and it is all I need to maintain my car insurance and drive legally here.

I have been teaching a young Mexican to drive. He is at the point where he needs to get a license, and I thought I would get one, as well. So, we both headed off to the county seat on the same day I dealt with other financial matters (moving to mexico -- caesar's cut).

My friend had been told that we needed to schedule an appointment online. That was not true -- unless we were getting our licenses in Guadalajara. We weren't.

I knew we would need proof or residence and I would need my passport and visa. But, as is often the case when seeking something from the government, there was more.

When we stopped at the Transito office, the police officer in charge rummaged through a stack of papers and gave us the appropriate list of documents required to get a license. Mexican citizens, not surprisingly, have to provide different documents than do expatriates.

Here is what I need to take back to the office next week to support my request for a driver's license. The original and a copy of:

1. My permanent resident card.

2. A certification of my CURP number -- CURP is a unique identification number for all Mexican citizens and residents of Mexico. I got it online at:

3. My passport.

4. Proof of residence -- a bill containing my name and address. I will use my electric bill. That is the most common form used by my neighbors.

5. A medical form showing my blood type. The officer sent me across the street for a medical consultation. 50 pesos after being weighed and measured, I walked out with my form.

Now, all I need to do is return to Cihuatlán next week with my car. I assume there is a physical driving examination based on that requirement. And I think there is also a written examination in Spanish. I will find out.

It all seems quite simple. To this point, it certainly has been far easier than dealing with departments of motor vehicles in Oregon, Texas, Colorado, California, Nevada, and Great Britain.

If all goes as planned, I will pay my $558 (Mx) next week and be just a little bit more part of the community in which I live. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

moving to mexico -- caesar's cut

Happy Schadenfreude Month.

January is the time of the year when I mine my wallet for pesos and feel smug that I am not making the same governmental payments in The States.

I started this morning by stopping by the local government office to pay my water, sewer, and garbage bill for the full year. That is how we do it here. All the services in one lump sum paid at one time.

This is government, so, there was a cost increase. 6%. Just about the same as last year. But the cost is worth it. Our garbage service arrives almost daily. Without it, we would be awash in the detritus of modern life.

Our area has massive problems with the sewer infrastructure. But, other than the occasional flow in the streets, those problems do not manifest themselves in ways that would cause people to be upset enough to fix them. For me, I flush the toilet and something keeps everything from backing up into my library.

As for the water, even though I pay for it, I know nothing about the service. My house is not connected to the system. I rely on a well.

Even with the 6% increase, I get all of that for $1,655 (Mx). For those of you who need a comparison, that is about $86 (US).(Mx) That was about my monthly bill for water in Salem.

But the deals kept rolling in. I drove over to the county seat to pay renew my car registration and to pay my property tax.

Most of my driving career was in Oregon -- a state that had the enviable reputation of being one of the least expensive places to register a vehicle. Those days are long gone. A series of governors and single-party legislatures have hiked the fee. But it is still less than most other states.

In Mexico,
Even with a 6% increase over last year, I paid $510 (Mx) for 2018. That is about $26 (US). Less than Oregon. And I will bet that for most of you that would be a bargain -- especially for those of you who pay your governments extra fees related to cars.

With my new decal attached, I drove over to city hall to pay my property taxes. And I am willing to bet donuts to dollars (which may be an even bet in The States these days) that my property taxes here are lower than yours.

I live in a 4,000 square foot house with four bedrooms, six bathrooms, and a pool. I have no idea what the house would be assessed in value in your neighborhood.

But, for me, my total property taxes for 2018 are $1,958 (Mx). There are no additional assessments. That is about $101 (US). Not per month. That's for the full year.

Now, all of you who have been waiting to serve me up your small slice of schadenfreude, start dishing it up on this cold plate.

Because I am a foreigner living in the coastal forbidden zone (Yes. Yes. I know it is officially called the restricted zone, but I have a certain preference for the Trekkie-esque appellation.), I cannot hold free title to my property. A bank holds it in trust for me. Bancomer, to be exact.

Every year, the bank sends me an email (usually, ten months prior to the payment date) reminding me that my annual payment is due. The tone is distant and formal. But it does not contain the usual "we know where you live" subtext so infamous in the communications from northern banks.

For the privilege of the legal fiction that a foreigner does not own the house, I pay the bank $522 (US) each year. And what the bank does for that amount of money, I do not know. I do know the banks had enough clout a couple of years ago to spike legislation that would have repealed the restriction on foreign ownership of real property.

Since I had the money in a non-interest dollar account, I decided to pay the fee early while I was in Cihuatlán. It is now paid through September 2019.

All in all, it was a good day. I owe nothing more in 2018 for my water, sewer, garbage, car registration, and property taxes. All for the cost of dining out for one week.

Several of my blogger pals have commented the primary reason they moved to Mexico was its relatively reasonable cost of living. That was not why I moved here. And I am not certain it would rank very high on my list.

But I am certainly pleased to be a recipient of the bounty. Even with that bank trust fee.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

touring costalegre -- grab bag

OK. So we have taken Robin to the mountains. To the beach. Out to sea. And to the salt pits.

East, north, west, and south. What else can there be to do when a visitor comes to town?

Well, there is Barra de Navidad itself. And, even though a wag once said (with some justification) that "the place looks like what Six Flags would build as a Mexican village," there are activities to be had in town.

I like to take guests across the lagoon to the town's major resort hotel -- Grand Bay. Or whatever name they are using this week.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about the place. Rooms that would not be out of place in a Holiday Inn. Pools that are -- well, pools. And some rather pedestrian food. (I make that last comment with only one reservation. I had the best breakfast I have ever eaten on the veranda three years ago. The experience has not been replicated.)

What the Grand Bay has is a view. Lots of them. Of the lagoon. Of Barra. Of the full circumference of Navidad Bay.

When walking the streets of Barra, it is easy to miss how the hodgepodge of buildings add up to a coherent whole. But it does. Order out of chaos.

The nice thing about Barra is that you never know what you might encounter. One day, it is boxing between pre-teens in the plaza. The next, it is nativity on parade. (Admittedly, the type of activity that may be a bit cloying unless you have DNA in the game.)

And then there is food. Probably, Robin's most memorable meal was the chicken molcajete at El Manglito on the lagoon. If only because of its exotic provenance. I felt the same way with my first -- in Mazatlan.

I have lived in this area nine years now. When I first arrived, I was told I had to go to the bar on the top of the Alondro Hotel to see the sun set over Navidad Bay. But I never went.

For two reasons. One, it was a bar. Two, because people said I had to.

Robin had been there with my sister-in-law and brother when they were all here last January. So, I swallowed nearly a decade of high dudgeon, and went.

Of course, I had a good time. The views of the town complement the view from the Grand Bay.

But, the real reason for going is to see the sunset. Even though we went there most of the nights he was here, what we saw mostly were overcast skies.

However, we were rewarded on a couple of nights with the free show that makes Barra a place to remember.

In truth, the bar is not a very good place to enjoy the sunset. There are too many buildings in the way. The malecon offers non-obstructed views, and has been my choice for sunset views for years.

So, there you have it. A few activities to divert your guests while they are here. Or, they could do as my friend Leo did: spend their time floating in the pool while reading whatever it is they like to read.

And that is the real answer. Instead of telling people what they will enjoy, let them find whatever fits their needs.

There are plenty of choices.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

touring costalegre -- on the beach, tenacatita style

Most of my visitors to the house with no name love the beach.

Some even refer to visiting me as "going to the beach." At least, I think that is how they are pronouncing the last word.

The sentiment is understandable. Both Melaque and Barra de Navidad leverage their beaches to prise pesos out of tourist pockets.

If you listen to the Chamber of Commerce types in town, you would believe no better beaches exist in the world. But that is just grandparent talk. You know the type. With an SD card filled with photographs of the most intelligent and stunning grandchildren in the world.

But, not all grandchildren are photogenic -- and not all beaches are paradise. That is also true of our beaches around Navidad Bay. They certainly have their charms. But there are better on offer.

A half hour drive to the north and west will put you on one of Mexico's most stunning beaches. Tenacatita Bay.

Actually, there are a series of beaches broken up by rock formations. But the bay has the best Mexico has to offer.

A wide bay peppered with sail boats. Steep cliffs surrounding miles of flat beaches. Fishing villages that would look at home in a Medvedev. And an eternal law suit that long ago strangled hope in its cradle.

The bay was what initially attracted me to this part of Mexico. When I flew down in 2007, I fully intended to buy a house on the hill above La Manzanilla where I could sit each morning and write my essays while watching the activities on the bay.

It didn't happen. What did happen is that I try to visit the bay as often as I can. I never miss the opportunity to show it off to visitors.

So, Robin and I were off for the day to my favorite spot on the bay's beach -- Chantile Mar. A boutique hotel with all of the assets found in good resorts. But scaled down to family size.

When my family is here, we usually set up recreational shop at a corner table on the deck. Out comes Mexico train and the lunch menu.

I almost always order Pasta Diablo. Despite its name, it does not have a tinge of spiciness. It would be far better if it did.

But it is sufficient to meet my lunch needs. Shrimp, tomatoes, bell peppers, and spinach in a gorgonzola, white wine, and cream sauce over a bed of fettuccine. For $180. Inexpensive and filling.

Between the food and the view, we will sit there for hours, occasionally getting up to walk short miles to La Manzanilla and back.

Walking on the beach surrounding Navidad Bay is a chore. It is either too soft -- or the tilt is to great that only an Alpine cow would find it comfortable.

Tenacatita offers wide, flat beaches of compact sand. (I suspect the mud content is rather high.) And the walk is filled with plenty of diversions.

Nature offered up this oyster shell. I think it is the first one I have seen with the mantle still partially intact.

And, the walk would not be complete without another hotel ruin to remind us that, just like the rest of the North American Pacific coast, this is earthquake country.

One reason I chose not to live in La Manzanilla is that, even more than Oakland, there is no there there. There is lots of solitude. And long lonely walks that 
give an opportunity to contemplate that the existentialists may have been correct about all of that meaningless of life stuff.
But, I leave that reverie to you classically-educated scholars.

Me? I simply like to walk along the beach picking up the thalassic flotsam and jetsam that the GOP (grand old Pacific) sends my way.

And, in just eleven more days, I will have a family to take there.

Monday, January 01, 2018

we shall never be younger

There is something about Cole Porter.

His lyrics are not simply words to accompany music. They are poetry. He had a knack for capturing the human condition in just a few words.

There are plenty of mawkish sentimental songs that clutter the bridge from new year's eve to new year's day. Porter would have none of it.

Even though "We Shall Never be Younger" was not written as a new year's song, what could more realistically sum up the transition from one year to the next than: "We shall never be younger/soon the spring will tire singing her song."

New year celebrations in Mexico are what a lawyer (at least, this lawyer) would call sui generis -- a thing unto itself. I have celebrated the day in several countries around the world. But Mexico has its own unique take on the day. At least, in our villages.

The evening started traditionally enough -- at Papa Gallo's, one of my favorite beach restaurants in San Patricio. All the bones of a great evening were present. Charming people. Interesting conversation. Good food. Classy gold, black, and white decorations. I could have been at the Copacabana. If it had not closed 25 years ago.

Most of these holidays at Papa Gallo's are celebrated by tables of northerners. Not last night. The revelers were primarily Mexican, and most of them did not start showing up until after 10.

The reason was obvious. They were there to celebrate turning over the earth's odometer from 2017 to 2018.

This is the first year I celebrated new year's on the beach in Mexico. And I am glad I did.

Our beach came alive. Not only because of all of the people on the sand, but because of what they were doing. Throwing firecrackers. Lighting bonfires. Releasing small hot air balloons (with candles supplying the lift) into the air. When released, they looked like lost souls migrating out to sea on strong air currents.

And fireworks. Just like at Disneyland. And just as many.

Well, they were not quite like Disneyland. They were like Disneyland without any of the anal retentive planning.

The fireworks came from every section of the beach. Some were sponsored by businesses. Others were fired off by individuals who had brought their own show with them.

The combination of the fires, firecrackers, lit-up balloons, and fireworks made the beach look not so much a celebration, but a re-enactment of the bombing of Baghdad. That may be because all of the light was accompanied by bursts from automatic weapons. It was far more awe than shock.

But the night was not over. I hooked up with a group of Mexican friends who took me to a local dance club. Even though it was well past midnight, the place was loud, but almost empty -- and it did not start filling up for another two hours.

When I finally made my way home, I was temporarily deaf from the music. Remember those good old days of rock concerts where you could not hear annoying voices for a day or two? Well, I managed to re-live a bit of my misspent 20s.

We always hope that if we have a real good time on 1 January, it will somehow rub off on the rest of the year. It won't.

No matter how hard we party and lie to one another, 2018 is going to have its share of disappointments, losses, and deaths when we will reminded ourselves of Plato's injunction to "Embrace your losses as fair payment for the surplus of being alive."

But there will also be joy, accomplishments, and, if we are lucky, moments of grace and even love.

2018 is going to be just like 2017. With one big exception. We shall never be younger. And that is why we will seek the contentment that each moments offers us.

Happy new year to each of you.