Monday, March 19, 2018

to beer or not to beer

Lent is an odd season in my little corner of Mexico. We are not smack dab in the middle of it.

The 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter that constitute Lent are very important to Mexican Catholics. Theologically, 

the real aim of Lent is, above all else, to prepare men for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ. The better the preparation the more effective the celebration will be. One can effectively relive the mystery only with purified mind and heart. The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification by weaning men from sin and selfishness through self-denial and prayer, by creating in them the desire to do God’s will and to make His kingdom come by making it come first of all in their hearts.
 If the goal is to wean "men from sin and selfishness," Lent in our little village has a lot of competition.

Yesterday, I stopped by our local Kiosko to pay my electricity bill ($116 (US); not bad for two months of a house filled with family wielding electronic artillery). The first thing I noticed was about twenty people standing in a loose interpretation of a queue where there are usually only one or two waiting customers.

The second thing that caught my eye were the castles of Corona stacked against each of the walls. Just Corona. But lots of it.

I thought it strange. After all, the feast of San Patricio was the previous night capping off nearly two weeks of holy debauchery. Our streets and highways were clogged with buses and cars that should have been taking people home, rather than dropping them off post-festivities. And it was a week too early for semana santa -- Easter week.

Then it hit me. Monday was going to be a federal holiday -- Benito Juarez's birthday. Tourists were stacking their time at the beach. San Patricio plus Juarez's birthday plus Easter week. It is almost as if all eight planets had aligned in their paths around the sun.

Today is not really Juarez's birthday. He was born on 21 March. In 1806. As Omar reminds me.

But, Mexico, like The States, has decided that voters like having their holidays on Mondays. All the better to lump them together with the weekend. The result, of course, is that citizens are far more interested in the time off instead of the man they are supposedly honoring.

And, in the case of Juarez, at least, that is a pity.

Far too many people mistakenly think that Juarez is the father of his country; its George Washington. He isn't.  That honor probably belongs to that scalawag Agustin de Iturbide. And the less said about him in this context, the better. (Though, I do confess, I have a soft spot in my head for him.)

Juarez's name and image are ubiquitous in Mexico. On the 20 peso note. Street names. Schools. Cities. Parks filled with his diminutive form.

And for good reason. Even though he was not Mexico's first president, he is its most memorable from Independence up until the rise of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. OK. Maybe that scoundrel Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is almost as memorable.

But people remember Juarez for the good he did. He helped to put Mexico on a road of national identity. He is probably better known as the Lincoln of Mexico. And, in that sense, he is the father of his country. The very symbol of Mexican nationalism and the protector against foreign invaders.

He came to power during one of Mexico's interminable civil wars. This one the War of Reform, and then resisted and survived the French invasion that put the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexican throne.

Even though many of his reforms were revolutionary, he was not a revolutionary. He was a wily politician with Liberal (in the Mexican sense of the word) instincts.

Those instincts allowed him to strip the Catholic Church of both its revenue-producing property, as well as its churches and convents. He then used that land as a resource for Mexico's first land reform program. A program that eventually left the poor in a worse state. (But that is another story.)

He is the only full-blooded Indian who has served in the presidency. But he did not define himself by his blood.

In that sense, he was a classical liberal. He believed that if he had made his way up the slippery pole, other poor Mexicans could do that same. All they needed was a fair opportunity to advance. That was the intellectual basis of stripping the church of its financial and political power and for his land reforms.

He was also a ruthless politician. He had to be to survive in the political and social environment in which he operated. A lawyer, he played games with the Mexican Constitution. Ruling by decree for a period as an effective dictator and then running for re-election in violation of constitution term limits. Lincoln was accused of the first, as well.

He had the honor of dying in bed -- even though it was a close call. An insurgency had risen against him led by a man whose name would be as familiar in Mexican history as his own -- Porfirio Diaz.

But it is not Porfirio Diaz who we honor. It is Juarez. He is the only Mexican whose birthday is honored by federal holiday.

Flawed? Certainly. He was a human. There is a tendency these days to push historical figures from their pedestals for holding opinions that we now find reprehensible. In the process, we make ourselves feel better with our moral masturbation. But we also lose a lot of the realization of what it is to be human.

So, I am taking off my hat to Benito Juarez today. After all, I used several of his portraits to pay for my electricity.

As for all of that beer? It is still on the wall. Others are welcome to it.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

i am a camera

I have a new camera.

Before those of you who had nominated candidates in The Great Camera Sing-off get too excited, I did not buy a Sony a9 or a Sony a7 iii (the nearest equivalent to my late lamented Sony a6) or even a Sony RX10 IV. In fact, it is not even a Sony.

The winner is a Samsung. The just released (as of yesterday) Samsung Galaxy S9+.

If you think it is just a telephone, it is not. The camera is an improvement over my Samsung Galaxy S8+ (whose screen died an untimely death in a fall from my nightstand two nights ago).

The Samsung has dual 12 MP cameras on the back and a single 8 MP camera on the front. Because I am not a selfie guy (said quickly, the reverse would be true), the front camera does not interest me. It is that dual back camera that is tempting me to rely solely on the telephone camera for shooting, and forget about a stand-alone camera.That will put an end to the lens or no lens debate.

Samsung cameras have long had a tendency to slightly wash out colors in sunlight. But that is easy to correct with the camera's settings. I like fiddling around with them because they offer a great opportunity to take control of what you shoot. (The same reason lots of computer enthusiasts prefer PCs over Apples.)

Where the camera shines is at night. It has an impressive 1.5 aperture to capture low-light subjects. Even capturing almost-true colors.

I have not yet experimented with the telephoto lens. But I will.

For the next week or so, I will use the Samsung for the photographs that accompany my essays. Then, I will decide if I need a separate camera. After all, I have a wedding in April that will require high-quality shots.

Until then, it's time to go shoot some essays. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

wednesday in the river with kaitlyn

Roll Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, and The Last Crusade into a barrel of monkeys, and you will come close to the day we spent yesterday.

It was Kaitlyn's last full day in town. So, we needed to do something special. The choice was easy.

Last year, Ray Calhoun, the owner of The Only Tours, took Darrel, Christy, and me on one of his standard tours.

"Standard" is misleading. In this case, it means one of his advertised tours. But, standard it was not (city slickers duding it up).

The vote was unanimous. We would reprise our adventure. Both Omar and Kaitlyn are motorcyclists, and were looking forward to using their skills on the ATVs.

For outdoor enthusiasts, there is plenty to see in our area. It is an agricultural society. Dirt roads run Kansas straight through fields and orchards of pineapple, papaya, bananas, coconuts, watermelon, truck crops, mangoes, and a few not-so-easily identified crops. And cattle. Plenty of cattle.

The dirt roads are great for bicycles. They are even better for ATVs.

But we did not stick to roads. The major portion of the trip is on an almost dry river bed northeast of Barra de Navidad. And it is perfect driving for ATVs. Lots of sand. Open spaces. 
And amazingly little dust to interfere with bird-sighting.

That is, if you let your attention be diverted from the adrenalin-churning ride up the river. Mine is a motorcycle family. And there are very few things in life that can toss hormones into the body furnace more effectively than a revving engine sliding through sand.

Our ultimate goal was to reach a fall line where the river squeezes into an extremely narrow channel. Narrow enough that we had to abandon the vehicles and clamor over rocks that could have fallen out of Tolkien's imagination.

And, just like Petra, as we turned a corner, the small (but spectacular) waterfall revealed itself. Along with a precariously-lodged boulder acting as a roof over the cascade to add to the Hollywood effect.

This is Christy's favorite spot. On both visits, she said she would be content to spend the rest of the day there. But that was not to be. After all, having made it to our watery Henneth Annun, we still had to return home.

Ray always puts on a good tour. But Kaitlyn and Omar added an element of youth, of style, of playfulness that we missed on our last trip. The fact that we were all drenched from the waist down was proof that we had not had a staid drive in the country.

Kaitlyn flies away today. We will miss her. But I am certain she will return for a reprise.

Like an Agatha Christie novel, we are now down to four. My advise is that no one leave the library on his own. 

Unless they are going for another ATV ride.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

eating through mexico

No visitor to our little pocket of Mexico is spared the mandatory march through the crocodile refuge in La Manzanilla.

When I lived on the laguna in Villa Obregon, leaving home was not required to snuggle up to one of life's most fascinating creations. All you needed to do was to wait until nightfall, grab a flashlight and a camera, and step out my back gate. There were usually one or two good-sized crocodiles lurking just a few feet from my back door.

No more. Now, if I want to show off a collection of American crocodiles, I need to pile visitors into my Escape for a short drive to La Manzanilla. And I do like showing them off.

The crocodiles at La Manzanilla live in a protected reserve. That was not always so. When I first moved down here, the crocodiles freely roamed the beaches and streets around their mangrove home.

But the presence of crocodiles attracted tourists. And that was a volatile mix. Several lap dogs suffered the consequences. So, the local authorities decided to round up the crocodiles, fence them in their own area, and charge an admission fee. It was a perfect mix.

Over the years, the ability to see the crocodiles and the other inhabitants of the mangrove wetland has been improved with the installation of a boardwalk, observation towers, and two suspension bridges right of The Temple of Doom. Disney could learn from this refuge about creating the thrill of true danger.

Of course, what we go to see are the crocodiles. They are not really in their natural setting. Regular feedings cause them to congregate near the chicken table.

But most people would never get to see these magnificent beasts if the refuge did not exist. Their existence was once threatened through hunting and loss of environment. Even though they are still listed as "vulnerable," they have made a steady recovery in Mexico. Mexican efforts to keep the mangrove wetlands undeveloped has been their best survival technique.

And it has provided tourists with a taste of what life is like in the mangroves.

We took our cue from the crocodiles and indulged in our own predatory behavior by driving a couple of miles furthrer north along Tenacatita Bay to one of our favorite haunts -- Chantli Mare, a boutique hotel that offers a great lunch and opportunities for walks on flat beaches.

Of course, it is also one of our favorite stops to play Mexican train -- a version of dominoes that is almost addictive. It certainly stirs up the competitive hormones in our family.

George M Cohan, the perfect showman, always played the sad scene against a happy background. We had one of those, as well, at Chantli Mare.

Most of the guests had left their tables to crowd around a lump at the tide line on the beach. It turned out to be a turtle. A badly injured turtle who looked as if her final hour was near.

She was a reminder, that in this world of joy, tragedy is always present. She probably did not know she was dying. Only that she no longer had the strength to swim in the open water. And her time, like our own, would soon be over.

Maybe that is why we flock to see the crocodiles. They carry the potential of danger. And we cling to our rickety boardwalk hoping that today is not the day we will end up as part of a crocioile's bouillabaisse.

Let me add a coda. We are in the midst of celebrating the feast day of the local patron saint -- San Patricio. That means fireworks. More particularly, the spectacle of the castillo with its spinning wheels and shooting projectiles.

Even though the best castillo will be on Saturday, we stopped by to watch the ritual of young men braving the scars of fireworks. In the video, I particularly like the father in the blue shirt teaching his son how to jump the fire.

No crocodiles are included.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

outing the family

"Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me."

And so he did. Emily had it right.

Yesterday was the day to show off Manzanillo to my niece Kaitlyn. For the past week, we have been familying around Barra de Navidad and Melaque. But Mom flew north on Sunday. So, we are now down to five members.

Our goal was the iguana sanctuary. We had all (with the exception of Omar) been there last year. The place was fascinating enough to call for an encore.

That is, if we could get there. The drive is not long, but it means driving through old town Manzanillo -- with its streets and traffic that would be right at home in a Zeffirelli recreation of medieval Padua.

We were almost there when I took a wrong turn. Not to worry, I would just loop around on a one-lane side street and get back on the main road.

But God had different plans for us. This hearse was parked in the middle of the residential street blocking any forward progress.

There was nothing to do but wait. And consider the meaningless emptiness of existence known as life. (For some reason, to me, hearses are always far more evocative of Kierkegaard than Dickinson.) After all, why was the hearse there? Where was the guest of honor? Would there be noshes at the reception following the funeral?

I only managed to get up to "worldly worry always seeks to lead a human being into the small-minded unrest of comparisons, away from the lofty calmness of simple thoughts" when the driver of the hearse appeared (sans casket or corpse) to pull forward just far enough to let us pass.

It was an auspicious overture to our day. After all, our first stop was one of those cores of human kindness. I wrote about it last year (st. francis of iguana).

Forty years ago, Ramon Medina Archundia decided to open a sanctuary for the iguana in the Manzanillo area. Iguana can live in lots of environments. But, in urban areas, they are subject to sudden death syndrome -- from cars, humans, and other animals. They often star in a rather stringy stew.

To give them a fighting chance, Ramon started taking them in as if he were the embodiment of an Emma Lazarus poem. The injured. The hunted. The healthy. All were welcome.

Four decades later, he has a sanctuary that houses up to 600 iguana. That is the number bandied about by the employees. And last year, it was quite credible.

Not so much this year. There were noticeably fewer dinosaur stand-ins this year. But those that were there were still the subject of the program's on-going educational program that the animals are worthy in their own right to be honored. Kant would approve.

The site is also home to several birds, raccoons, wild boars, and other animals. Some visitors to the sanctuary have written on social media hows the sight of the caged animals reduced them to tears -- followed by the usual "someone other than me should do something about it."

I understand the sentiment. The cages are not ideal. But most of the animals were brought there in an injured state. Several of the birds would be unable to fly if released. Like most things in life, there are hard choices that cannot be resolved by Disney reductionism.

But our day was not over. We stopped at La Marina (a department store in Manzanillo) to get some clothes for Omar. Because we thought one of our favorite eateries (Monster Burger) would not open for another two hours, we bought some game credits for Kaitlyn and Omar, and let them loose on the shopping center arcade.

Darrel, Christy, and I enjoyed the show. Both Omar and Kaitlyn are about as competitive as people can be without turning into one of those skating freaks who seem to lose all contact with reality.

I have probably said it several times now, but having my family with me in Mexico changes me -- and often for the better.

Probably not as much as death. But close. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

sentimental irony

“The tone of your writing certainly has changed since you moved down here.”

So Darrel announced on our walk to the Barra de Navidad ATM (a mission that, as it has on so many occasions, resulted in a dry hole). We had been discussing the possibility of having dinner at Lora Loka’s in La Manzanilla. He loves her baked shrimp enchiladas with salsa verde.

In anticipation, he had searched my blog for references to her restaurant and found one of my first posts after moving to Mexico. The families of two other fellow bloggers were in La Manzanilla and wanted to know if we could all get together for an informal blogger conference. I thought it was a great idea (having just had dinner with two other bloggers in Guaymas).

I suggested Lora’s because I knew her from my stay in La Manzanilla in 2007. It was all going perfectly.

Until the Mexican government declared a health crisis due to the swine flu. People were prohibited from gathering in large groups. Theaters were closed. Shopping malls were closed. And, most importantly for our group, restaurants were closed.

I had not yet been exposed to the ingenuity of Mexicans. A blogger who lived in La Manzanilla talked with Lora. The next thing I knew, we were dining as a group -- on the beach.

She had complied with the closure. We were not in the restaurant.

Darrel pointed out that the more cynical Steve of today would have led with that hook. Instead, I did not even mention it. If I recall correctly, I was still concerned Lora might get in trouble, and I did not want to be the vessel of retribution. I now know the likelihood of that happening was about as likely as Donald Trump signing a rational order on free trade.

But, he said, there was more. Back then, I wrote like a wide-eyed, slack-jawed visitor from Chippewa Falls. Everything was new. And amazing. And enthralling. I write about a place that could exist only in the mind of someone new to an area. There was a good reason for that. I was.

And now, I asked. What is my tone now?

”Ironic with an overlay of world-weariness,” he responded.

”Do you mean sophisticated and mature?”

“Nope. I already told you. Ironic with an overlay of world-weariness.”

I am content with that. Even though it does make me sound a lot like Doctor Ottensclag in Grand Hotel. It could be worse.

And I think he is only half correct. There is no doubt that I love an ironic tone. And my writing often sounds as if I am typing through long sighs.

But I still have that sense of adventure that animated my writing style nine years ago. I still wake up every morning not knowing how I am going to get through the day. And I still search for experiences in which I have never dabbled.

Today is one of those days. Mexpatriate welcomed a new cast member this morning: my niece, Kaitlyn. She will be with us for about a week. She will be a good mix to our older set.

Her arrival presented a minor problem. All of my bedrooms are full. To make room for her, I decamped to the hotel just down the street from my house for the duration. 

While I was in bed last night, I started musing about adventure. The next thing I knew, Nancy Walker was singing in my ear from Do Re Mi. One of those older musicals that had a plot, believable characters, and a heavy slathering of philosophical musing.

While I sit by the hotel pool, I will let you chuckle at a woman trying to justify her rather frustrating life with a husband who cannot find satisfaction in the moment.

I may have a love for irony, but I am also a sucker for sentiment.

Monday, March 05, 2018

the labyrith of solitude

Some things are best done alone.

Walking. Biking. Running.

There are few things worse in life than having to modify your own pace downward for the pace of others. At least, when you are exercising.

When my family was here last year (and I was in Australia), Darrel and Christy bought a pair of bicycles from two Mexican-American brothers who bring the bikes down from The States. The bikes looked good enough that I bought one, as well. And for the rest of their stay, we pedaled all over the area on social rides.

Darrel and Christy headed back to Oregon in the spring, and the bicycles went into storage. I put mine away because walking is my usual exercise regimen. My step counter is set up for a walker, not a bike rider.

That is not quite fair. My telephone automatically starts counting my steps when I start walking. It also has a cycling mode. But it does not start without me taking the telephone out of my pocket, finding the cycle mode, starting it, and stowing my telephone. Then, I need to stop it when the ride is over.

So, I satisfy my jones for numbers by relying on the walking step counter. Even if it does cheat me out of some credit.

Darrel now has all of the bicycles pumped and oiled for this riding season. I took advantage of his generosity by jumping on mine and heading out alone this past week.

From my house in Barra, the number of alternative routes is almost limitless. If I head west, I will end up in the Pacific. South, I will splash into the lagoon. But pedaling north or east takes me through shady lanes where horses, cattle, and goats share the lanes.

This is an agricultural area. Coconut. Mango. Banana. Papaya. Watermelon. Truck crops. Even while pumping my legs off, I enjoy the change of scenery. Even the packs of  dogs that chase me down the road like some threatening beasty out of Revelation.

And it is a nice change. My walking track has been fixed for three years now. The only reason I do not modify it is that I know exactly where the segment markers are and if I am maintaining my pace.

The bike is a little different. I ride until I break through the wall, and once I hit that pace, I can keep riding as long as I like through some of the most bucolic landscape imaginable.

But I need to do it alone.