Tuesday, October 15, 2019

margaret mead, call your office

Our little expatriate community could use the services of an anthropologist.

Margaret Mead. Or Claude Lévi-Strauss. If they were not so nconveniently dead.

Calling our foreign community "expatriate" skews the category. We usually think of expatriates as being people who live full-time outside of their home country (with the implication they will one day leave). The type of artists who sat around Paris tables smoking bad cigarettes and worse poetry.

Immigrants are expatriates who live full-time outside of their country and plan to stay where they are. We have both categories here. Despite the title of this blog, I am an immigrant. Now that I am rooted, I have no plans to live anywhere else. Visit? Yes. Live?  No.

The categories then get a little trickier. The vast majority of the foreign community shows up here in the winter. Some stay a few days. Most stay for five or six months.

Words like "tourists" and "visitors" have a pejorative patina in these parts. Calling sometime a "visitor" can easily lead to an invitation to step outside to settle the matter. Let's just call that category "non-expatriates." I realize it is a rather ugly word, similar to the "non-Hispanic white" so beloved of the American census folks. But this discussion requires a bit of peace-making.

Even though the foreign community is made up of people from Asia, Europe, and Britain (my Brexit stance may be showing), most of us are either from Canada or The States. I did a quick survey of Mexican businessmen who service foreigners. Their best guess is the Canadian-American split in the winter is about 80-20. That feels about right to me.

Immigrants around the world pack up their culture with them when they move to another country. Language. Food. Holidays. What they knew in the old country, they try to replicate in their new home. But after a generation or two, the old dies out as children and grandchildren assimilate into the culture around them. One of my favorites, the Hanukkah bush, is but an example.

I thought of that last night when I joined a group of Canadian friends to celebrate their Thanksgiving at Papa Gallo's. With the exception of  the tropical heat and humidity (and the obvious background of the Mexican Pacific), it would have been easy to imagine the group had assembled in Edmonton.

There were Canadian flags galore. Red and white table decorations. Plates filled with turkey, dressing, Brussels sprouts, sweet potato, mashed potato, and cranberry relish. We could have been first-generation Italians celebrating Ferragosto in East Harlem.

No turkey for me, please.
And it is at this point we could use the services of Margaret or Claude.

Because most of our foreign community will not be here long enough to create new generations, the social rites of the old country will remain carved in granite. Canada Day. The Fourth of July. Remembrance Day. Two Thanksgivings. Celebrations that have no parallels in Mexican culture. Because those holidays get repeated, they endure amongst us as appropriate customs. Even though they seem incredibly out of place in Mexico.

Anthropologists talk about the tension between assimilation and diversity, but they will also readily admit they categories are not contradictory. Only politicians seem to be comfortable treating them as immutable categories.

Immigrants eventually assimilate into their new culture while retaining some of their own traditions that are adopted by their new culture. Mexico is a perfect example of a culture that retains its own traditions while readily sponging up aspects of other cultures. The mixture of Night of the Dead and Halloween was probably inevitable.

The unease I feel at northern functions is exactly the same feeling I get when I hear foreigners complaining about barking dogs, crowing fighting cocks, cohetes, and garbage. (I have to raise my hand to that last one.) It is not the complaints that annoy. It is the oft-stated rational: "This would not happen at home." That desire to make everything like home (but with heat and the ocean) is what riles many of our Mexican neighbors. And they are right to feel that way.

If we were to be honest with ourselves, there is a word for that phenomenon. Colonialism.

It is too bad the term carries so much political baggage because it is an almost-perfect descriptor of how many of us approach our lives in Mexico. Foreign enclaves created to cater to northerners for six months out of the year -- where familiar food is served, there is no need to learn Spanish, and northern holidays can be celebrated as if they had sprung from local soil.

Do not get me wrong. That is not necessarily a criticism. If it were I would be a hypocrite because I indulge in the fruits of colonialism as much as the next northerner. And I celebrate some of those holidays knowing the manner in which we celebrate them may not only be in violation of Mexican law, but is probably offensive to Mexicans over-hearing the practice of our public rites.

But the Mexicans are not alone at taking offense at outside cultures. I hear Canadians complaining about Sikhs in their country. Or Americans eating tacos and whinging about Mexican flags at political protests.

We cannot live our lives by constantly modifying everything we do for fear of being criticized. (It only empowers bullies like the political correctness crowd. Take a look at Katherine Timpf's "Defiant Dave Chappelle" in the current edition of National Review.)

But we can be cognizant of the effect our lives have on our neighbors. Sometimes, speaking softly and carrying a branch is a far more alluring way to live our lives.

Margaret might put it: a little less Kipling, and a bit more Gandhi.

Monday, October 14, 2019

kumquat may

Philip Yancey and I share common backgrounds.

Sharing may be too bold. But, at least, they rhyme.

When he was young, growing up in rural Georgia, his family attended a pentecostal church -- a denomination noted for its outward signs of righteousness. To show their devotion to God, his family would read nothing in the newspaper on Sunday except the sports page. They thought they were true sabbath-obeyers -- until they discovered their neighbors did not read anything in the newspaper on Sunday. Their righteousness was replaced with a sense of relative sinfulness.

You do not need to be pentecostal to feel the sting of that story. We all have a tendency to get on our moral high horses about almost every human endeavor. Religion. Politics. Employment. Even where we buy our food.

My essay on the progress of our new Bodega Aurrerá in Jaluco (bodega aurrerá on the horizon) caused an avalanche of comments on the Facebook version of Mexpatriate, ranging from "only buy local" to "mind your own business." Neither of those bumper sticker positions had anything to do with the theme of the essay. But that is often the case with comments. And, as is always the case, when people indulge in rhetorical reductionism, misunderstandings occur as often as at a family picnic.

I ran into one of the "only buy local" cohort on my walk in Melaque. I told her I was a little confused by the phrase. How local must something be before she will buy it? Her answer was that it had to be made or grown in the community.

The restriction was a bit more restrictive than I had imagined. When I asked her if she ever buys anything made somewhere other than Melaque, she chuckled and confessed that most of what she buys was not made locally, but she thinks the idea is a good one. I could feel Philip Yancey smiling somewhere.

I suspect she would approve of my recent acquisition pictured above. Even though kumquats are not a native Mexican fruit (they hail from south Asia), they are grown here for people with a taste for exotica. These came from the garden of my American-Canadian friend Gary.

I guess that is about "buying local" as one can get. Other than the fact the kumquats are a gift. And a very special one.

My taste in fruit is limited. If it is sweet, I will pass it by. If it is tart, it will show up in my cooking. And these kumquats will.

Kumquats combine well with a lot of meats and vegetables. Pork, of course. Kumquats are a great substitute for sour oranges. And with chicken and several serranos and habaneros, they form the perfect foundation for a vegetable stir fry. But my favorite use is to simply pop them in my mouth.

One day we will have a serious discussion here about "buying local" and the economic consequences (positive and negative -- there are both) on the local economy. But today is a day to talk about local treats like kumquats -- and what we are going to have for dinner.

Not tonight, though. Tonight is Canadian Thanksgiving, and I will be joining my further-north expatriates in one of my least favorite meals -- turkey. (In truth, I may just skip eating; instead, I will enjoy the conversation.)

And tomorrow we just may discuss the issues of assimilation, separation, and colonialism that surrounds the celebration of these non-Mexican customs. That should be fun.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

bodega aurrerá on the horizon

Any good journalist will tell his readers the who, what, where, and when of a story.

This story will not do that. The best I can do is to share some photographs and observations -- like a distant grandfather thumbing through his wallet.

Just over a year ago, rumors began that Bodega Aurrerá (a Mexican discount store) was building an outlet on the highway in Jaluco where a hill once stood (where there never was a hill). It started as speculation by a group of old men at breakfast. But, within a month, the news was verified by a local figure whose information is usually true, if not factual.

I drive or walk by the building site almost every day when I am in town. Like any new construction, it plods along on a steady pace until you realize: "Wow! They are almost done." Then you realize it is one of those false thrills.

It is true that the outer shell of the building is almost finished. It is easy now to imagine what the place will look like.

The front will not face the highway. And it will have a parking lot just as adequate as the Bodega Aurrerá in Cihuatlán -- currently the closest store in the chain. Which is another way of saying, it will be too tight.

It may be a matter of perspective, but the facility looks tiny to me. That may be caused by the absence of context provided by surrounding buildings. But, if it is smaller than the usual store, so is its market in our area.

That would be consistent with the chain's philosophy. The first store opened in Mexico City in 1958. Since then, its corporate group has diversified into other areas -- such as restaurants. With NAFTA on the horizon in 1991, Aurrerá created a joint venture with Walmart that led to Walmart buying a majority holding in the group in 1997.

Even though Walmart has added some of its marketing expertise to Aurrerá, the stores have retained their orientation to marketing to the Mexican middle class. There are now almost 400 Bodega Aurrerá stores in the country.

And this will be one.

Like most new construction around here, there is no sign advertising what the building will be and when it will be open. I asked two of the workers if they knew when the building would be completed. They did not know.

One of them must have been asked that question before because he asked if I was looking forward to the McDonald's that would be inside. It was a good joke. For some reason, the suggestion of a McDonald's seems to drive northerners into armed camps of animosity.

I suspect this store will have a similar effect. When its construction was announced last year on Facebook, the well-rehearsed arguments involving anything Walmart were tumbriled out and slipped under Doctor Guillotin's blade.

Most of the Mexicans I have talked with either don't care about the arrival of Bodega Aurrerá or they are looking forward to it. Admittedly, that is a very small sampling. We will see how it works out. People will either shop there -- or they won't.

Before that, though, the building needs to be completed.

I will keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

dengue as jaws

You would think that Jalisco has had an outbreak of ebola.

The internet is alive with all kinds of chatter about the "dengue epidemic" that has hit our home state of Jalisco.

The governor, Enrique Alfaro Ramírez, the unfortunate author of the "dengue epidemic label, has been accusing his political opposition of telling lies and the press of printing fake news. The opposition claims the governor has failed to appropriately implement an anti-vector spraying program, and people are dying as a direct result.

But you probably could have guessed that scenario already. Just substitute the names for personalities in your home country, and you have heard it all before.

One unfortunate spin-off of the political dispute is that the facts are quickly getting muddied. There are four strains of dengue fever. Mexico has all four. But the mildest forms are what we usually hear about in our area.

What everyone agrees on is that the numbers of serious cases of dengue have increased. People have died of the most severe strain. But there is confusion as to how many. 2. 3. 13. All have been bandied about by the press and government agencies.

There is no dispute that this year is a record year for reported cases of dengue in Jalisco -- the vast majority in or around Guadalajara. By some reports, the number of reported cases is higher than the last three years combined.

It is time for a little less hysteria and a bit more rationality. Dengue is a problem. But it is not as if the house is burning down. There are steps people can take to avoid being infected.

There is only one way to catch dengue -- to be bitten by an Aedes aegypti mosquito that has bitten another human who carries the dengue virus in his bloodstream. No bite. No infection.

Knowing your enemy is important. The Aedes aegypti has some very distinct habits. Unlike many mosquitoes, it is active all day, but primarily in the morning and evening. The female has developed an interesting feeding habit. Her primary human target is the human ankle. She is also easy to identify -- larger than marsh mosquitoes with white markings on their knees.

Like all mosquitoes, they breed in still water. Emptying pots of water is a wise choice. But they often breed in pools that form where palm fronds join their stems. Spraying is often the only option.

The Aedes aegypti has a very limited range. She will spend her life within about 400 meters of her birthplace. Unfortunately, there are enough pools of standing water here in the summer, that our villages are all within range of the mosquito.
If killing the mosquito at birth does not work, there are steps all of us can take to avoid infection. The list is standard:
  • Wear long, loose fitting, light-colored clothing (so you can see your enemy), covering as much of the body as you can. Mosquitoes easily can bite through tight clothing like jeans.
  • When outdoors, apply insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin and always follow instructions on the label. I use the highest level of DEET I can find -- and that means bringing it with me from up north. The highest DEET I have found here is 25%. It is better than nothing. Be wary of "natural" applications. Mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide and alcohol expelled through the skin. If a "natural" remedy cannot mask both, you will still be open to an infection-injecting bite.
  • Mosquito coils can help protect from mosquitoes when outside.
  • Place mosquito-proof mesh on doors and windows. And be certain they seal. Mosquitoes have an uncanny method of smelling your target scent. They are also great hitchhikers on clothing.
  • If you notice mosquitoes in your bedroom, use Raid or some other insecticide.
  • Some people go so far as to cover their sleeping areas with mosquito nets. That seems to be overkill to me. But it is their comfort level, not mine.
One final word. If you start experiencing the classic signs of dengue fever (fever, fatigue, headaches, joint pain, nausea), see your doctor immediately. A quick blood test will verify whether or not you have dengue.

I do not know this for certain, but I suspect some of the people who have died this year may have let the disease progress without seeking medical help. The doctors here know the disease. Rely upon them.

Dengue is not new to our area. Its presence here has preceded any of our visits -- and it will remain here after we are all dead. Most of you probably already take these precautions on your visits here. The only thing that has changed is that the incidence of infection has increased. That does not change the fact that the old defenses are still the best defenses.

Several readers have contacted me to ask if they should return to the area this season. I have given each of them the same answer: Why wouldn't you? You have always protected yourself from mosquitoes in the past. That is all you need to do this year.

Come back and enjoy our villages. You have nothing to lose but your worries.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

storming through the intersection

Everyone seems to notice the havoc in big things that storms wreak.

Toppled trees. Drowned plantations. Roofless houses.

But it is often the small changes that live on. Sometimes noticed. Sometimes not.

Signs are a good example. Almost all of the free-standing signs passing along helpful hints of better living were humpty-dumptied in the hurricane. What Lorena did not take, Narda did.

But it was not only billboards. Highway directional signs fell like Persians at Thermopylae. Do you know the way to San Jose became more than just an irritating song title. Along with the highway signs went the traffic control signs.

It has taken me weeks to notice, but if you look at the photograph at the top of this essay, something is missing. This is the intersection where the road to Barra de Navidad enters Highway 200 -- the major north-south highway on Mexico's Pacific coast. Usually, there is a stop sign at the tip of that point on the right-hand side of the photograph.

We do not have many stop signs in these parts. They are not really needed. Drivers are quite intelligent enough to decide when it is safe to enter a stream of traffic.

I would venture to say the presence of the sign, rather than the wont of its absence, has been a major contributing cause of several accidents at that corner. Inevitably, the collision is between a local driver and a tourist (Mexican or northern, usually northern).

Local drivers treated the stop sign as if it were a yield sign. At best. A driver would approach the intersection and quickly clear left and right. If there was an opening (or the semblance of a opening), the driver would rush through onto the highway without slowing.

That is the local custom. But, people who do not live here do not know that. They see a stop sign and do what they believe is logical. They stop. Often to their cost.

I know a guy from Ontario who did exactly that. Saw the sign and came to a full stop. The driver behind him lived here. He was clearing left and right as he approached the intersection, not even considering the outlandish possibility that the driver in front of him was going to stop his SUV.

The rear-end collision was bad enough that the police stopped to investigate -- and insurance agents were called to the scene. It is for this very reason drivers pay for insurance. Without an agent, the police may impound both vehicles until a satisfactory settlement is reached.

In this case, the guy from Ontario was quite smug. He was in the right, and his agent would argue his case.

The smugness disappeared when his agent informed him he was responsible for the damage to both vehicles because the accident was excluded by the terms of the policy.

The insurance was conditioned on the premise that the driver did not break the law. It was true that he had obeyed a posted sign, but he had neglected to comply with local custom -- a concept that was included in "complying with all laws."

The guy from Ontario ended up paying 4000 pesos to the man who rear-ended him -- and immediately cancelled his insurance policy. As he put it: "That explains why it was dirt cheap."

Now, I do not know how true that story is. I heard it from the morally-indignant Canadian. My insurance background makes me wonder if the agent was pulling something on him -- or if he might have misunderstood what the agent said.

Most automobile insurance policies in Mexico include a clause that coverage applies only if the vehicle itself complies with all laws. The classic example is where a person with a permanent visa drives a non-taxed vehicle. But I have never heard of an exclusion clause for traffic law infractions -- let alone slipping the surly bonds of mores and customs. What would be the point of an extremely limited policy like that?

Lenora may have helped decide that inter-cultural friction. With the stop sign gone, visitors may avoid the temptation to throw out the anchor -- unless circumstances dictate. Both the motorcycle and the car in the photographed barreled right through the intersection without a moment of pause.

It is nice to be treated as a thinking adult. Now and then.   

Monday, October 07, 2019

taking the cycle out of recycling

There was an old hombre who owned a small lot.
Storing plastics and bottles, which he had not bought.
To China I'll sell them he gleefully said,
Until China sneered bluntly: re-cycling is dead.
OK. I know it is not T.S. Eliot. But neither was the original doggerel.

I wish I knew the man's name, but I do not. But, he has run a plastic recycling operation in Barra de Navidad for years where I have dropped off my empty bottles.

Well, not really a recycling operation. He is the first step in turning used plastics into something useful other than for crab rafts in the middle of the ocean.

Neighbors bring their broken lawn chairs, empty bottles, cardboard boxes to him. But primarily plastic bottles.

No longer.

I took him a bag of plastics late last week, and he informed me he is no longer accepting plastics. He cannot find a buyer for his goods.

I was afraid this day of reckoning would hit our area. Last year, China announced that it would stop accepting garbage from the West for recycling (going green can be a dirty business).

My neighbor was just the first step in an international chain of recycling. He would sell his plastic to a buyer who, several steps later, would cram it into a shipping container and boat it off to China. In China, it would be used for all manner of things.

The rub is that recycling plastics is a major pollutant. China realized that it could not meet its agreements under the Paris Accords if it was a recycling hub. And because it is a Communist dictatorship, when the leadership decides to do something, like cutting off the internet or heads, it just does it.

The news caught the West by surprise. Britain had very little notice that it needed to come up with a method to handle the 80% of its garbage that went to China. It is too bad someone did not work it into one of the Brexit plans. Trashit, perhaps.

Last year, when I talked with the man who owns our local plastic-gathering operation, he told me he had not heard of China turning off the plastic recycling tap. He has now. And a lot of us will now need to find another spot for our plastics other than leaving them on the street corner. The woman who used to pick the bottles out of my trash no longer does. There is no value in them for her, either.

I know there are alternatives. After all,the bottles that are gathered in the giant fish containers on the beach must be going somewhere. And I am certain someone will be happy to volunteer that information.

For now, though, as the man who owns the lot told me, his stacks of plastic are merely an arsenal for the next hurricane that blows through.

That is probably not the concept of recycling that the Davos crowd would like to impose on us.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

through a mind darkly

Our minds are amazing tools.

I just woke up from a nap thinking I was in the north of England, and I had to dress for dinner to meet my hosts downstairs.

Of course, none of that was true. I was in Barra de Navidad with palm-framed sunsets and Mexicans on wakeboards pulled by ski-doos. I would be hard-pressed to come up with two settings that were less alike.

Therefore, it was a bit jarring when I looked at my telephone and found a message from my friend Hilary in England. She would have been the hostess that I would have met for dinner in that Lancashire house with the staircase.

She was thanking me for a birthday card (postmarked 9 August in San Patricio) that had just arrived today in Thornton-Cleveleys.

Odd that. Waking up thinking about a place that has always had a special spot in memory -- and, for a brief moment, actually being there.

Maybe this is another of those blissful side effects of aging where the best moments of our lives reside in a glass darkly. Constant reminders that what our parents told us is true -- that everything does turn out well in the end. And we get to live them over and over as if our best experiences were trapped in a silver heaven of film that plays on reel after reel.

Or maybe I simply ate too much sugar before I took my nap.

Either way, it is a lovely Sunday evening, I have friends who think about me, and the world is filled with possibilities.