Monday, August 19, 2019

the full mexican

I am rather particular about my dining choices.

If I go out to dinner with someone, I am looking forward to scintillating conversation. After all, that is the reason we get together. To learn from one another. To develop personal relations.

What I do not want on those evenings is to dine somewhere featuring a band with its eccentric version of "Proud Mary" with the volume loud enough that I cannot hear any of the wisdom my dining partner is imparting. Fortunately, there are a number of local restaurants who respect their customers' desires to actually hear one another.

But there are nights when I want a Full Mexican. Good Mexican food combined with ear-splitting trumpets and singers who capture the ennui of love won and lost. When that mood hits me (and it  does, now and then), I head off to El Manglito on the lagoon in Barra de Navidad -- where you can get all of that, along with an occasional professional dance couple. I usually celebrate my birthday there.

El Manglito is one of those places that has expanded with its success. As long as I have been going there, a part of its more informal past was evidenced by the placement of its kitchen.

The seating area is on the lagoon side of the street -- with one of the best views in town. But, the small kitchen has been across the street. Its size and location slowed down the order-to-plate-on-table time.

I suspect that did not cut into the place's trade. Most people go to El Manglito for the total ambiance, not for fast food. (Impatience over waiting for food seems to be another of those cultural chasms between northerners and Mexicans.)

I found the waiters carrying hot dishes while dashing between passing cars to be a bit charming. It evoked a simpler time in Barra.

But that sight is about to end.

The owners have been re-modeling the front of the restaurant for most of the year. The bathrooms had been moved from the north side of the building to the south a couple of years ago. And a new façade was added this summer.

I now know why. That portion of the palapa is now devoted to a kitchen so modern that even Gordon Ramsey would be challenged to complain. (Of course, he would, just out of spite.) I suspect service time will be cut appreciably.

After watching the completing touches being added to the kitchen, I am not certain what I think about the new arrangement. Barra de Navidad is not Puerto Vallarta, where restaurants rely on churning customers to maximize profits. El Manglito, like most Mexican restaurants here, are happy to rent their tables as long as diners want to enjoy them. No rush. No push.

I have not been eating away from the house very much for the last year. And I have not been to El Manglito for an even longer time because my favorite waiters (Roto, German, and Christian) are no longer there.

But that sparkling stove is an enticement. Maybe I should celebrate my birthday twice this year. It is the prerogative of the aging.  

Sunday, August 18, 2019

waiter, there's a crab in my hubris

I should know better.

Actually, I do know better -- but I go ahead and do it any way.

Basking in hubris may feel good. But it always comes with a price. And, for a writer, there is no escaping the checkout counter.

Last Saturday, in crabby on the half shell, I related a tale of how certain portions of town are in the midst of crab migration season. If you live in their path, it is a bit like being a spear carrier in a Cecil B. DeMille Bible epic. I think the plague of crabs was somewhere between the frogs and the flies.

Of course, while writing that essay, I could not pass up the opportunity to indulge in just a soupçon of schadenfreude. Having spent six years dealing with crabs in every corner of my house during their migration around the laguna in Villa Obregón, 
I was pleased to report I have not seen a crab in my Barra house in the five years I have lived here.

Apparently, the word went out on the Crab Nebula Network (CNN, you know) that I was missing out on one of Barra's August cultural events. I can no longer declare that the house with no name is free of crabs.

Sunday morning is a bit of a rush for me. These days I have the keys to the church gate. That means I need to be there on time. To cut short my usual morning routine, I dashed over to the kitchen to warm up some rather good black pepper beef stir fry I cooked up the other afternoon.

I noticed something odd as I reached for the slider into the kitchen. Something was hanging on the screen. I have seen that silhouette often enough that I did not hesitate in identifying my morning visitor.

Iy was a crab. One of the small migrators. But what was odd was the fact that it was inside the kitchen with both sliders shut tight.

Because I was not writing a murder mystery, I did not bother dealing with the apparent conundrum. After all, I already told you last week that these crabs manage to squeeze into the smallest of spaces.

After shooting it (just for you), I sent it scuttling across the patio. I suspect I will next see it in some unusual spot -- probably nestled between my underwear and socks.

And on a Sunday morning, what better way is there to start the day than rendering a pot of hubris into a bit of homely humility? 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

the postman honks once

The shuttered post office in Barra xe Navidad

Last week I stopped by the post office in San Patricio to pick up my mail.

There is nothing unusual about that. I check my box about once a week to see if the outside world has attempted to contact me. Sometimes, there are greeting cards. But, most often, I receive alumni contribution requests or the odd magazine.

Saul, who had been the postmaster for my first ten years here, retired recently, leaving the place in the hands of his well-trained assistant. When I stopped by last week, there was a new face behind the counter. At least, new in San Patricio. He looked vaguely familiar.

Then, I remembered who he was. The postmaster from the Barra de Navidad office. He was vaguely familiar because I have seen him in the office maybe two or three times.

But he knew me. Rather, he knew my house and address. I thought that was odd because I do not recall him delivering a single piece of mail to the house in the six years I have lived there.

I know the local postmasters have a tradition of substituting for one another for vacations. But the Barra postmaster told me that was not the case last week. He was there because the post office in Barra de Navidad is closed.

That announcement caught me off guard. I usually hear about closures like that before they occur. Granted, I do not hear much news about that post office because I seldom use it.

Thinking my weakness in Spanish verb tenses might have once again caught up with me, I walked down to our rather sorry excuse for a town square where the post office is located. Sure enough. It was shuttered tighter than a Burger King in New Delhi.

I suspect closing the office made economic sense. But I am surprised that the closure would take place under Mexico's current populist president. It is just as likely that so few people use the office that its closure has gone unnoticed.

Like any town wending its way through modernity, Barra de Navidad is changing. Lots of new residential construction -- and even a new Bodega Aurrera in Melaque. Quaintness cedes to upper social mobility. And, somehow, the death of a post office works its way into the mix.

What the consolidation will mean for Barra de Navidad's mail service, I do not know. But I guess we will all find out together. Won't we?

On my walk to the post office, I noticed several changes in town that I will share with you -- along with some old sights seen through new eyes.

Friday, August 16, 2019

better to give

Some moments are too good not to share.

And this is one I want to share with you.

It is just before midnight in Barra de Navidad. This evening had one of those odd weather combinations. Harsh thunder and lightning supported by a brief, soft rain.

The rain has stopped. When heavy rain falls, it momentarily drives down the humidity here.

But not this evening. The warm rain has already started evaporating into what was a comfortably humid day. Within the hour, it will create its own private sauna.

I have finally succumbed to the humidity-reducing virtue of air conditioning in my bedroom. As the years have gone by here, I have become a bit more accustomed to the summer heat. Admittedly the facts that I do not have an outdoor job combined with the fact that I do have a swimming pool have been major contributing factors in my newly-developed coping skills.

None of that mattered, though, as I crossed the patio this evening. The moon, the lines of the house, the various shades of light, all pulled me into a cozy mood. I stood there and appreciated every detail.

I now share it with you. May you enjoy it just as much. 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

kowtowing to the chili

"With 60% of chiles coming from China, NGO promotes domestic ones."

That startling news was the headline of a recent newspaper article passed on to me by a reader in Canada. Startling, not because of the NGO reference (the World Wildlife Fund, in this case), but because of the assertion that 60% of chilies eaten in Mexico are grown in China.

Something did not seem right about that. How is it possible that Mexico, the country that first domesticated the chili pepper and is the source of every Thai, Indian, and Nigerian pepper, is now exporting most of its chilies?

Of course, it would not be entirely inconsistent with current food trade patterns. Even though Mexico was where corn was first domesticated and developed into a food staple for the Americas, Mexico now imports a large portion of its corn from the United States as a result of the good graces of NAFTA.

But, Mexico imports corn because it does not and cannot produce sufficient supplies for its people. That is not true of chilies. Mexico is the largest exporter of chili peppers to the rest of the world. That fact does not correlate with huge imports from China.

So, off I went on some formal and anecdotal research.

It turns out that the "60% import" figure is not new. Agricultural reports and news stories have been using the same figure for well over a decade. But the reference then was to dried chilies.

As part of its export-oriented trade policy, Chinese farmers had started planting Mexican varieties of chili peppers. They would then dry and export their Chinese-grown peppers to Mexico. A decade ago, those dried peppers were undermining the price that Mexican farmers were receiving at market.

This month's headline appears to be a distorted recycling of the old reports. If you want to get the public's attention, grab some old data, modify the information to burnish your sacred cow, and emphasize that whatever is happening is China's doing. (And China is always ready to play its Blofeld role.)

That appears to be what the World Wildlife Fund 
(or the reporter assigned to the article) did. Dropping the reference to dried chilies gave the WWF the apocalyptic tone that is a siren call to the writers of headlines. The goal of the WWF was to preserve the traditional foods of Mexico -- and Chinese-grown dried chilies are not part of the mix.

The WWF does have a point. And a good one. Chilies take on the nutrients of their terroir. And that alters their flavor. Consumers need to be aware where their food comes from.

I did a quick survey of the local grocers. None of them sells fresh chilies from China. They doubt that any fresh Chinese chilies are sold in Mexico. But all of them are aware that the market is awash in Chinese-grown dried chilies.

And that is one of the great ironies of world trade. The China chili pepper headline reminded me of a fascinating story Charles Mann related in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

When Spain opened the Manila galleon route in the 1500s to facilitate Chinese-Spanish trade, goods were shipped from Manila to Acapulco and were then muled across Mexico to Veracruz and shipped to Madrid. Because the system was mercantilistic, none of the goods could be sold in Mexico without first making their way to Madrid where they would then be shipped back to Mexico.

One of the most-prized commodities were the blue and white ceramics manufactured in China. Enterprising entrepreneurs in Puebla pilfered samples of the ceramics in transit, and started copying it with Puebla's high-quality clay. Historians now believe that some of the artists in Puebla were actually Chinese. Some slaves. Some former sailors who had jumped ship, Real Chinese craftsman were creating counterfeit Chinese ceramics.

The blue and white ceramics are still the pride of Puebla. Mann visited Puebla as part of his research for his book. When he interviewed shopkeepers, they "complained the country was fighting an invasion of counterfeits from China -- a Chinese imitation of a Chinese-made Mexican imitation of a Chinese original."

Just like the chili pepper in reverse. Mesoamerican Indians, in what we now know as Mexico, domesticated the chili pepper that the Spanish took to Europe and that the Portuguese spread through Africa and Asia. The Chinese are now growing Mexican-style chilies and exporting them to Mexico.

I am as guilty as anyone for falling into the nostalgia trap. I wish some of Mexico's heirloom tomatoes were readily available at my local markets. We are stuck with the import-ready Safeway variety. On the other hand, I am not certain how I would take to the tiny, yellow tomato the Spanish introduced to Europe -- another of Mexico's domesticated foodstuffs that have spread throughout the world.

My pal Jennifer Rose recently sent me an article that India is undergoing its own back-to-basics cooling methods. The advocates are encouraging Indian cooks to abandon any foods introduced to India by Europeans. Topping the list, of course, are chilies and tomatoes. It is hard for me to imagine Indian food without either one. Oh, yes, and potatoes of all varieties. If the movement prevails, Goa cuisine is doomed.

Both the Indian purists and the World Wildlife Fund come from a different culinary outlook than my own. I am a fusionist. Give me the ingredients, and I will give you a dish. I am not a culinary nationalist. Chinese-grown chilies do not my ping my xenophobia.

Even though I know good cooks use only the best ingredients available, having learned to make great dishes with Safeway tomatoes, I now know when you have to make do, it will be good enough.

Monday, August 12, 2019

the logic of the mad

The artist is undoubtedly mad -- or, at least, mentally tormented.

His name is Jorge. Most of us know him as the disheveled young man who wanders the streets of Barra de Navidad in search of work -- machete in hand and a middle distance stare that sees what the rest of us miss. Or maybe what he sees is simply not there in our restricted frame of reference.

We compliment ourselves by labeling what we see as reality. Jorge sees something different.

He hangs out in a hammock two blocks from my house. Across the street from the Oxxo, where charitable souls buy him the occasional bottle of water. When he is not relying on the kindness of strangers, he will swing in his hammock to the beat of his favorite music played at Mexivolume. Tormented, but content.

I do not know how long his creche with an attitude has accessorized the lot next to his hammock. I probably would not have noticed it had I not stopped to take a photograph of the chair on the opposite side of the barbed wire perimeter. While framing, I saw it.

Combined with the chair, it evinces a certain dadaist air. As if the artist was inviting the observer to sit and ignore his work. Just as most people avoid looking at Jorge. I suspect out of fear that we may discover we are just as tormented.

But ignoring the work misses its power.

It riffs off of a traditional Catholic theme dear to the heart of most Mexicans -- the incarnation of Christ symbolized by plaster of Paris figurines. Or what we northerners call a nativity scene.

Our family had a nativity scene that we would drag from the basement in mid-December. Mary. Joseph. Baby Jesus. Shepherds. Three wise men. Donkey. Cow. Camel. Sheep. All huddled around a cardboard manger. Far more fantastical than scripturally factual. But designed to tell a universal truth.

The Mexican creche is a kissing cousin of its more-restrained and distant European relative. All of the usual suspects will be there. But they will often be joined by Hummel figures, toy soldiers, dogs, crocodiles, and the occasional dinosaur. After all, the idea is to convey the thought that all creation honored the birth of the Messiah whose birth was designed to reconcile a last world with God.

Jorge's version appears to be an amalgamation of the traditional and the postmodern with a bit of green politics thrown in for flavor.

His baby Jesus is not constrained by a manger. With his headband, he is Rambo come to set things right in the world. That Cinderella shoe tells us he is not going to be bound by any cisgender stereotypes. His liberation is for all.

Rambo Jesus has left his meek lambs on the other side of the rainbow bridge while he sallies forth with a far-more appropriate mascot -- a black jaguar. Evil will be put in its proper place. The virtue of recycling is celebrated by the plastic lids and bottles -- some relegated to paradise, others yet to be conquered.

It is quite a powerful work of art.

Now, is that what Jorge intended?

How do I know? How do we ascertain the intent of a tormented mind? Or is the piece designed to remind us that torment may be one of those universal human afflictions.

My interpretation above is, of course, a sardonic take on the critics Tom Wolfe skewered in The Painted Word. But there is some truth buried in that palaver.

Modernist artists may have abandoned "meaning" in their art. When the Belgian surrealist René Magritte was asked what was behind his paintings, he responded: "The wall."

But I still find Marcel Duchamp's observation to be persuasive: "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."

Even Picasso, one of the champions of "l'art pour l'art" was sentimental enough to define the purpose of art as "washing the dust of daily life off our souls." Though, that sounds like something he would say to seduce one of his models.

I will confess that I took Jorge's invitation. I sat in the chair facing away from the postmodern creche and contemplated its elements. For one brief moment, I heard Rambo Jesus whisper in my ear: "You are being sucked into the logic of the mad."*

* -- I have been using that quotation for years -- thinking I had created it. But it is not mine. It is Robert Shaw's.

One of my favorite films is The Man in the Glass Booth. It had been years since I watched it. When I watched it again last month, there it was. Straight from Arthur Goldman's lips.

I highly recommend the film. Come to think of it, it reflects the theme of today's essay.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

sanding my consonants

We are our pasts.

At least, we live our lives as if what has shaped us continues to guide us.

In that respect, I am a classical conservative. We are born into a network of obligations (families, communities, institutions) that, in turn, provide order to our lives.

I have a friend, let's call him Josh, who had a rather troubled relationship with his father. Josh's dad was the quintessential American dad -- the guy who knew almost everything about every imaginable topic.  He knew how things operated, and, when they didn't, how to fix them.

Josh adored him. He would take every opportunity to watch his dad fix whatever needed fixing. But he always dreaded his dad would ask him to fetch something. Usually a tool. Josh usually had no idea what his dad wanted.

When asked for a 1/2" box-end wrench, Josh would likely retrieve a ball-peen hammer or a pair of pliers. Nobody had ever taught him the name for tools.

His dad would call him stupid. Eventually, he stopped watching his dad work.

I had my own Josh moment yesterday.

Dora was at the house performing her cleaning miracles. I had asked her to take a look at the cleaning supplies I had just bought at Sam's Club to see if we needed anything else for the house. We always do.

She inventoried the stash and said that we needed "liqua de agua." At least, that is what I thought she said. It could have been "lika de agua." I asked her to repeat the phrase. When I showed no recognition, she explained it was to clean the bathroom. She pointed at a bottle of toilet cleaner and recommended a specific shop in San Patricio.

So, off I went, The proprietress of the shop looked just as bewildered as I had when I told her what I wanted. She speaks Spanish and English, and we exhausted our mutual vocabularies until we decided what I needed was a bottle of Ajax cleanser.

Well, that was not what Dora needed. She went to the bodega and returned with what looked like a small piece of black construction paper.

The moment I touched it, I remembered buying some three or four years ago. It is very fine sand paper. Dora uses it to abrade the calcification that accumulates on the toilet ceramic.

What I heard as "liqua" or "lika" was actually "lija." "Lija de agua."

For most people, the toughest part of any new language is trying to figure out its spoken form. I can read most newspapers in Spanish because of my high school Latin classes. A lot of the grammar and vocabulary are similar. But, read the same article to me aloud, and I will miss a good portion of it.

I thought my greatest difficulty in speaking and listening to Spanish would be the vowels. But once I learned their sounds, they have turned out to be rather straight-forward.

It is the consonants that trip me up. Our German roots in English lead us to pronounce our consonants quite guttural. Especially, the explosive consonants that turn into mere puffs in Spanish. 

I had a perfect opportunity to clarify the word with Dora while I was standing there. But, like Josh, I scurried off hoping that somehow I would return with the correct item.

Why didn't I clarify my confusion? Probably, because I thought I had enough information to complete my mission.

But I think it was something related to my Y chromosome. It may be a cliché, but guys are adverse to asking too many questions. At least, I know I am. And that life-instilled trait comes with a cost.

In this case, the cost was small. I simply walked down the street to our local hardware store and bought five sheets of "lija de agua."

So, what do I do with this new tidbit of knowledge?

First, I should accept it for what it is. I have been indulging in a bit of hubris lately about how my Spanish skills have improved. Most of the compliments come from my Mexican friends. But, it is not absolutely true. If I can miss the subtle difference between a "k" and a "g," I still have a long way to go. (and, no, I have not dismissed the possibility that age-related hearing loss may be a contributing cause.)

The second lesson is far simpler, but probably more difficult to implement. I need to start asking people to clarify points when I am not certain what they just said. I suppose that could also apply to my conversations in English.

I may be able to learn new subjects, but I am still a product of my life.