Thursday, July 31, 2008

when a house is home

The house. That was the reason for this trip. Of course, I wanted to see if I could adjust to the heat and humidity. But what I really wanted to do was to spend a week in the house where I may begin my Mexican adventure.

I knew quite a bit about the house before I left Salem. I knew it had three bedrooms, that the living quarters were on the second story, that the back yard fronted the beach, and that the roof afforded amazing sunset views. I had also seen photographs -- some of which I
shared with you.

My first view of the house did not surprise me in the least. It is the white house with the cupola and brown gate. I have already written about gates and walls and the practical reason for them. I should point out, though, that there is a very nice patio on the second floor behind the tree.

This is the view from that patio. Even though Melaque does not have the type of neighborhoods (or neighbors) where people sit on the porch in the evening greeting all passersby, the patios and sidewalks serve the same purpose.

The interior of the house is very functional. The living room, dining room, and kitchen flow into one another very easily. But, even better, they all flow out onto a floor-length patio that looks right out on the Pacific Ocean.

The house is designed to maximize outdoor living. On the ground floor is a large covered area to park the car and enjoy the breezy shade on hot days. (Good grief! That sounds as if I cribbed it from a real estate brochure.) There is a table and chairs, a wet bar, a bath room, and, most important, hammock hooks. Michael Dickson should ignore the fact that swallows have taken up residence in the garage area. I spent hours watching them come and go.

Every morning I was greeted with this view from my bed:

One of the things I liked about the house was it clean lines. Those lines also made little details seem that much more interesting. Such as the combination of the dome and the grill on the entry door to the roof.

So, what is my overall assessment? I like the house. It felt very comfortable during the week I was there -- even though it really heated up whenever the ocean breezes died down. (That makes me wonder how the houses just a bit inland from the ocean survive without the steadybreezes.)

I now need to work out the details of living there next year. And if not there, I will need to look for another home to begin the journey.

Before I summarize this trip, we will discuss a few odds and ends that did not fit into any of the other topics.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

key to culture

If you cannot speak Spanish, you will never live in Mexico.

Well, those eleven words should arouse some comment. The corollary is: You may reside in Mexico, but you will never live there.

Language is a tricky topic. I will skip over the theory of what language is and get right to the practical point.

Every society communicates with a language. Until you can speak in that language, you will miss out on everything that people say in that language. Until you can think in that language, you will miss what people really mean. Only when you learn to think in Spanish will you be able to understand the Mexican culture.

Right now, I am still in the category of barely learning to communicate at the level of a four-year old. Two anecdotes from this last trip prove the point.

When I arrived at the Manzanillo Airport, I purchased my taxi voucher and headed off to meet my driver, Agustino. He knew very little English, but I was prepared to have the type of deep conversation any child under five can have.

We both had great fun in trading words for wind and rain. Green hills. And my favorite: coconuts and bananas. I can always rely on agriculture to save the conversational day. It also helps that I know a bit about growing bananas. By translating just a few words, I can learn new ones.

And then I got cocky. We talked about growing corn. Putting on my best South Dakota attitude, I tried to ask if the corn was sweet corn or silage. For the life of me, I could not remember the word for cattle. The best I could do was talk about bulls and what they eat. But I think I asked whether I could eat a bull. We laughed almost the full half-hour ride to Melaque. I tried to learn more, and I did -- letting myself be the butt of the joke.

My second tale has a different spin. I walked the two or three miles over to Barra de Navidad in the morning. By the afternoon, the heat and humidity forestalled the option of walking back to Melaque. But I knew that was not a problem. I had ridden the bus between the two towns last December.

I waited at what I thought was a regular bus stop. (Yes. Yes. I know there are no real bus stops. But I had seen other people waiting for the bus at the spot.) The bus pulled up. I hopped on, and said in my best Spanish: "Cuánto cuesta?" In the universal bored voice of all public bus drivers, he responded, what sounded to me like: "Seven thousand." Now, I am from out of town, but I knew that was not right. I must have heard wrong. I asked again. This time the subtext shifted from boredom to irritation. My mind translated his curt response as: "A thousand children."

I then did what every defeated warrior does. I surrendered by holding out my handful of pitiful coins. He took one with nary a smile. As I walked to the back of the bus, my fellow passengers showed the same compassion you would show a child who mistakenly missed the short bus -- by keeping their eyes glued to the floor.

The lesson is the same from both stories. I need to study more. It is impossible to pick up a language merely by being around it. I laugh when I hear people say "I'll just pick it up" -- as if Spanish were a quart of milk or the flu, rather than a language. (Well, I guess it was also a flu, but that is a different story.)

Because osmosis will not work, I need to get back to my formal lessons -- especially those from the Learnables. And then I can venture into the world of taxi and bus drivers -- and actually have a conversation.

On my first night in Melaque, I allowed myself to be so intimidated by the thought of going out to buy food that I remained hungry in the house. That was doubly troubling because when I went to the market the next day, the clerk had a very nice conversation with me in a mixture of Spanish and English.

I need to first learn Spanish that I may start thinking in Spanish.

The only place I did not need Spanish was in the house I test drove for the week in Melaque. That is the next post.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

culture in a dish

Mexico is not Oregon. And Melaque is not Mexico City.

A recurring theme amongst we bloggers is that foreigners who come to Mexico expecting to find a familiar way of doing things are in for a shock. Let me start this post with two facts.

Fact one: I am moving to Mexico to add some adventure back in my life -- and that adventure can come with both good and bad circumstances. Mexico will not disappoint me.

Fact two: I am not a novice at living in new cultures. In the early 70s, I lived in Greece for a year. In the mid-70s I lived in Great Britain for two years. I know that flexibility and patience will need to inform my personality if I am to enjoy this move south of the border.

What I am about to list are some cultural differences I have noted during my visits to Mexico since the early 70s. Some of them are general to Mexico. Others are specific to the Melaque area. I am just an observer, not a sociologist. But I would be very pleased to read your observations. Please add to the comments below.

Gates and Walls

I have always been astounded at the number of walls and gates around Mexican homes. Rather, I should say the homes of wealthier residents. The poor areas of Melaque are as open as my little home town of Powers. Children play in the street. Families are outside. Neighbors talk with one another. Often, there is no front door -- let alone a locked gate and wall.

I know that this distinction is historical. The Spanish brought their traditions of fortified rural haciendas and atrium-centered urban homes with them. And the tradition lives on.

But it is a very clear symbol. The poor have nothing to lose and are open. The wealthy have much and fear losing it.

I am not a Pollyanna. I know there is good reason to have walls and gates and barred windows. The recent rash of burglaries in Melaque is evidence of that. And Melaque is not alone. Other bloggers have written about their travails with thieves.

I, of course, could choose to live amongst the poor and not have a gate. But I am neither Mother Teresa nor St. Francis.

This is another fact I must merely accept.

Tourists and Locals

I have already written briefly on this point. As a beach town, Melaque is crowded with strangers. And like every beach town in the world, the tourists add their own vibrancy and vice, but they are transient.

Several blogs have recently commented on how stupid American and Canadian tourists can be -- especially, young people. My brief exposure to Melaque is that young Mexican tourists can hold their own for unsafe and reckless behavior.

Partying young people (and older people, for that matter) do not bother me. They cause me to shake my head at times, but I welcome the spirit that evidences itself occasionally in stupidity.

Roman Catholicism

Mexico is Catholic. No. That is wrong. Mexico is a secular nation according to the Constitution of 1917.

Mexicans are Catholic -- the second largest group of Catholics in the world. And they show their faith in some very public ways. I sat in front of the Melaque Catholic church for about an hour. Almost to a person, people crossed themselves while going past the entrance -- even scooter drivers.

Festivals and holidays are built around the church calendar. Baptisms are an important for babies and their relatives.

When I talk with Mexicans and tell them that I am a Christian, but that I am a Protestant, they seem to be universally mystified. Almost as if I told them that I am a human just like them, but I eat cars rather than food. The look I get is one of pity: the same look I get when I tell them I do not have children.

As I stated earlier, I should have no problem with this issue. Even though mystified, no one has challenged my religious beliefs. My observation is that is just the way Mexico is.

Just a note. Mexican Catholicism can be a bit eccentric. The photograph above is not from Ireland. That is indeed St. Patrick (See the Celtic cross?) -- the patron saint of Melaque, or, as it is more properly called: "San Patricio Melaque."


This photograph symbolizes what every visitor or resident of Mexico experiences over and over: the feeling that time runs differently in Mexico than it does in northern European cultures.

The photograph is of a large resort complex that was destroyed in the 1995 earthquake. I took the photograph last week. There is another resort north of La Manzanilla that was destroyed at the same time and sits there just as dateless as Charlie Sheen.

A resort abandoned on a great piece of beach? Can you imagine the same thing happening on Oahu or Madeira? Both hotels would have been razed within a month and a new place would be up and running within the year.

So what is the difference? One factor is that both places are on ejido land and investors have no interest in tackling that problem. But there is a broader issue. Time and priorities are different -- especially in a semi-tropical resort town. People find places to stay. When the town really needs that type of complex, something will happen. The right amount of money will change hands and a new resort will eventually appear.

Patience and tolerance. They are two virtues that can be learned and exercised in Mexico. If applied, the foreigner's character will improve. If they cannot be exercised, Mexico will prove to be nothing but a daily struggle.

I want to be clear about one thing. I do believe Mexico can learn a lot about liberal democracy and the free market. Since I have been coming to Mexico in the early 70s, I have seen vast improvements. But Mexico will move at its own pace -- no matter how much blood I try to pump into my plump germanic face.


Rule #1: Animals are generally treated worse in Mexico than in America, Canada, or Great Britain. (I do not know enough about this issue in the rest of Europe to offer an opinion.)

Rule #2: Foreigners cannot change Rule #1.

This is a tough one for me. Brits, Canadians, and Americans have so sentimentalized the issue of animals that it is hard to discuss the topic. Let me confess that I am one of the greatest sentimentalizers. Any of you who have read any of my posts about Professor Jiggs know where I stand on animals.

I keep reminding myself, though, that I am only one generation away from where Mexico is today. Animals were simply not allowed in our house when I was very young. They lived in the unfenced yards and ran free through the town. I do not recall any dogs as poorly-nourished as the street dogs in Mexico. But dogs lived on scraps and what they could find.

I doubt the Powers Market sold very much dog food. (Even by the scoop as in the photograph above where el gato ignores the playful advances of printed pups.)

For every stray dog I saw in Melaque, I saw other owners who truly cared and loved their dogs. The two Irish Setters I discussed earlier are great examples.

The expatriate community in Melaque is very active in offering and sponsoring a spat and neuter clinic each year. By all reports, the number of strays is dropping.

And then there is this issue: bull-fighting.

There are two small bull rings in the Melaque area. I must confess that the closest thing to a bull fight I have ever seen is midget bull fighting. I told that to a friend from Barcelona. The horror in his eyes was enough to let me know that I had said the equivalent of "Hot dogs are far better than any food sold in France."

Will I go see a bull fight? I really don't know. If given the opportunity to go with a local who could explain the subtleties -- I might. If I can try menudo, I can certainly see the national sport of Mexico.

I have left out the one cultural aspect that continues to give me difficulty -- and the one I can do the most to remedy: Spanish. Let's discuss that in the next post. This one is already too long.

Monday, July 28, 2008

since we're neighbors ...

Stephen Sondheim is having his way with my blog today. I started writing about the importance of having good neighbors -- even while seeking adventure. I have seldom found a better lifeline in my 60 years.

I barely got that sentence on paper when I heard Sondheim's refrain from "Moments in the Woods." While searching in the woods, the baker's wife has an affair with Prince Charming. When he leaves, she sings longingly, but wisely, about life's moments.

Oh. if life were made of moments,
Even now and then a bad one-!
But if life were only moments,
Then you'd never know you had one.

I have always found Sondheim's poetry to be knowingly bittersweet. It is true that those of us who long for adventure would find that even Paris is ruined by repetition. For that reason alone, I need good neighbors. And I have already found some.

I mentioned earlier that I met a retired French archaeologist when I stayed in La Manzanilla last November. Archaeology is a hobby of mine and he was more than helpful in mapping out lesser-known archaeological sites. It turns out that he lives withing blocks of the house I am considering renting.

When I was in Barra de Navidad in December, I met five people who attended a church (above) in Melaque with English services. I attended while I was there. To say that the congregation was small would be an understatement. There were 13 of us -- and 6 were visitors. But I had a very good time visiting with all of them. This will give me a place to worship and another base of people who share common interests.

I am very interested in settling somewhere near a university. Melaque does not even come close to meeting that requirement. However, my neighbors do. The house is next door to a couple who are professors at a large midwestern university. (I do not make this stuff up.) On a visit to their home, I noticed that they were working on a jigsaw puzzle with their two sons. Jigsaw puzzles are one of my favorite family pastimes. And then I saw what the puzzle was: Raphael's The School of Athens. We started discussing why Raphael had chosen certain contemporaries as his studies for the painting. I was literally in academic hog heaven. What an opportunity this will be.

Just before I left, the woman who owns the house told me to go meet two other Oregonians. I was surprised that any Oregonians were there in the heat. It turns out they decided to leave Oregon to lead a more sedate life. They are not yet to retirement age, but they are making a good go of it by living economically. I can certainly learn some lessons from them.

While compiling this list, I notice that I have not yet made any acquaintances with local Mexicans. I hope that I can. On this short one-week trip, I did not try as hard as I should have to meet new people. Instead, I picked some low-lying fruit.

What I do know is that I have a good base of neighbors to add a new layer to my adventure.

But I cannot close off without throwing in one more Sondheim lyric. This one is about the impermanence of Manhattan residents. But it seems to apply to the little beach town that will be my home for at least a few months.

Another hundred people just got off of the train
And came up through the ground,
While another hundred people just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane
and the bus
Maybe yesterday.

One day I hope to be looking as a resident -- not a tourist.

But that will only be true once I come to grips with the culture that is Mexico.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

the luckiest people in the world

Adventure. That is what I tell people when they ask why I want to move to Mexico. For that reason alone, the place I choose to live should at least have some opportunities to experience adventure in the people I will meet.

Melaque, like every beach resort town in the world, has two very different groups of people living side by side: residents and tourists.

Even my uneducated eye can see the difference. The tourists come to town for as many reasons as there are tourists. Most are simply there on a brief package tour from Guadalajara with their families. They are the calm, decent folk who you can see walking the beaches or through the beach shops with their families.

And then there are the hustlers -- some local, some tourists -- who are there to provide what the non-family tourists are seeking. I was a bit surprised to see how drug and sexual transactions could be made so openly. Subtly: yes. But still open enough that I could tell what was taking place.

The locals could live in almost any beach town around the world: realtors, shop keepers, waiters, small entrepreneurs. And nothing can bridge cultural barriers better than money.

Every person in a service trade -- whether male of female -- would talk directly to me, look me in the eye, and engage in personal conversation. Not so, people on the street. If I greeted a man, I usually got the Latin macho stare in return. If I greeted a woman, I would be answered with a shy glance to the ground. I know most of that is cultural. And it makes all the difference in the world if the person you are greeting knows you. But I found it somewhat reassuring that if money was a possible outcome, all cultural pretences disappeared. Another good argument for free trade.

Here are the realities. As much as I love social intercourse with strangers, that is simply not going to happen in a beach town. It does not happen in Oregon. It will certainly not happen in Melaque.

I made the point, however, of noting earlier: "it makes all the difference in the world if the person you are greeting knows you." That is why neighbors are a very important part of this mixture.

Let's talk about them next.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

beaches and cream

I have always loved the beach. I grew up in a small town in the Oregon coast range. Even though the ocean was very close, we did not always have the money or time to drive there. But, when we did, it was like walking through the gates of Oz.

Some of my best memories from grade school, high school, and college are connected to the beach. Not to mention the fact that the beach is Professor Jiggs's favorite place in the world.

I fully understand my attraction to the beach. If the beach was a woman, I would have married her when I was in my 20s. That may explain why, over the past 10 tears, I have been tempted on several occasions to buy a house on the Oregon coast. I have avoided the temptation only because I can get Jiggs to the beach with a short one-hour trip in the truck.

For that reason, alone, I knew that I could not objectively judge the beach at Melaque. By any standard, it is a beautiful beach. It stretches in a crescent shape for about three miles from the harbor at Barra de Navidad to a point just west of Melaque.

The crescent creates multiple types of beaches. A large stretch of the beach is not well-suited for beginning swimmers. The sand has a very steep pitch. As a result, the waves do not lap the shore; they literally slam down hard. Hard enough to wake sleepers in the night.

The waves are not large. But they attract surfers and skimboarders. Each ready to catch the waves that break very close to shore.

At the west end of the beach, the waves almost disappear. This is where most families swim with their children.

Those last two paragraphs sum up one of the reasons I like the beach: people. There is something vibrant about families and young people throwing caution to the wind on the sand and in the surf. Some people claim to feel that same electric thrill at various religious shrines. I feel it at the beach.

Was I in any way disappointed with this beach? Not at all. It has everything I would expect a beach to have.

It also has all of the negative things a beach would be expected to have. Sand gets in everything. Bugs seem to appear out of thin air. And the most obvious: the sea air is one of the most corrosive substances for man-made objects. The microwave surrendered to the sea's assault while I was in Melaque -- in one big papal-election puff of smoke.

Here is an example. This is the front gate to the house where I stayed. It is nicely-designed with bright colors -- and it is beginning to rust away. Even the aluminum rails had begun to corrode on the sea-side veranda.

None of that bothers me. It will be something to work around.

If weather was not a factor in moving to Mexico, being close to the beach is. I do not need to live right on the beach. But I may have an opportunity to do just that -- at least, at the start of this adventure.

But what about those people on the beach -- and the people who live in Melaque? What type of neighbors will they be -- and will I be? Next post.

Friday, July 25, 2008

fish in hot water

Hot. But more humid than hot. If I had to summarize the July weather in Melaque that would be it. It was what I expected. And it was what I got.

But it was not a surprise. Every book I have read concerning the summer weather on the Mexico Pacific coast warns of both the heat and humidity -- both so high that even the locals avoid being outside in the afternoon.

But let me confess. Almost every expatriate I have met in person or on a message board, lists the weather as one of their top three reasons for moving to Mexico. I am not one of those people. The weather is not a factor in my move.

At most the weather could be a reason not to move to Mexico. My idea of a perfect day is 55 degrees with an overcast sky and a slight drizzle. That is only a slight exaggeration. For summers, it is hard to beat Oregon where the temperatures are usually in the 70s with relatively low humidity.

I am not going to find that type of weather in coastal Mexico. One of the main reasons I chose this test run last week was to determine if I could acclimate to the summer weather in Melaque. I never expected to like the weather.

And the weather did give me a good test. During the day, the temperatures stayed around 88 degrees. When the breeze blew off the ocean, it was not unpleasant -- to sit and enjoy the breeze. However, the temperature in my bedroom did not drop below 82 the full week. Without the luxury of fans overhead, I doubt I would have slept. I went through half of my shirts on my first day in town -- soaking them through.

I never did get an opportunity to get into the local cycle of the day. Most locals arose early in the day to get their chores completed before the sun got too hot. And that was just about the time I was getting off of the bed. Almost everything I experienced was during the heat of the day.

The other weather issue was the thunderstorms. We had several while I was there. And each one was a wonder to behold. I have never seen lightning strike the ocean. I can now say that I have -- and I was impressed. On my second night in Melaque, we had rain so heavy that I was positive that the town would flood. Looking at the bedroom slider, I felt as if I was living under a cataract. The streets had plenty of very large pools of standing water, but business went on as usual the next day. Locals informed me that the storm was relatively mild.

So, how did Melaque do on the weather test? The threshold was low, but I do believe that I can learn to acclimate to the summer weather. I will just need to follow the same basic rules as the locals. The bottom line: weather will not stop me from starting my move to Mexico in Melaque.

But what about that beach? Is it the paradise that it appears to be? A great topic for the next post.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

my kind of town

You know the basic facts, I am certain. They are all there in the guide books and on the web. But let's salsa our way through a few of them.

What is commonly called Melaque is really two separate villages that have grown into one town: San Patricio Melaque on the west and Villa Obregón on the east (at this point, the Mexico coast basically runs east to west).

Both villages stretch along the Bahia de Navidad on the Pacific coast. Though you would hardly know it, the combined villages of 10,000 people are the largest concentration of population between Puerto Vallarta to the south and Manzanillo to the south.

Like Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, Melaque is a resort town. If that conjures up high rise condominiums, expensive restaurants and half-dressed fully-drunk college students, you have the wrong town.

Melaque is a Mexican resort town -- as in resort town for Mexicans. A constant stream of buses brings Mexican tourists from Guadalajara and disgorges them into parallel lines of bungalows on the beach. For that reason, there is a certain sense of impermanence to the town -- as there is in any resort town. Today's group will return home in a few days to be replaced by another indistinguishable blob. And the rhythm of life throbs on.

While I was there, the town was relatively quiet for a resort town. I have been told that the party volume pumps up in the winter and spring.

With the exception of one walk over to Barra de Navidad, I spent the entire week exploring the details of Melaque on foot -- just as the Mexican tourists did.

I was raised near towns like this when I was growing up in Oregon. The infrastructure looks very familiar. In the main part of town, there is a jardin where everyone strolls in the evening -- with tourists and locals making up their own obvious groupings. In this part of town, the streets had pavers. Out toward the edges of the commercial area, the streets gave way to a mixture of cobblestones and dust -- until the cobblestones ran out and there was nothing but dusty streets.

Some of my friends at work were literally startled at the notion of dirt roads. Not me. The little town I grew up in had a few stretches of asphalt, but most of the streets were dirt. Mix that in with the sand on the beach, and dust was everywhere. But dust simply is not a factor in my move to Mexico.

The rest of the infrastructure is just about what one would expect -- a mixture of sewers and septic tanks; a reliable municipal water supply; spotty street lighting. And a depressing number of bars over windows and doors -- not for decoration, but for the basic reality of every vacation community: residential burglaries.

There had been a recent rash of break-ins netting the usual cameras and cash. But the big new thing (just as in the States) is copper wire theft. Residents leave for part of the afternoon and return home to discover all of the copper wire has been stripped out of their house. But crime is not a factor in my move to Mexico. After all, the same crimes occur in my bucolic Salem.

Melaque has provided its guests and residents two excellent malecons. One leads to a rocky point at the west end of town -- with great views the full length. The other stretches along the lagoon on the west end of town -- filled with birds and crocodiles (the lagoon, that is, not the town). For me, both spots would be a great place to spend more time to exercise two hobbies: bird-watching and photography.

I would have spent more time doing both of those last week, but for one factor: the weather. And that will be the topic of the next post.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

carts akimbo

"You know how I'm sure they're finished out there?

"The carts. They're using carts to move their wounded and the supplies."

I could hear George C. Scott's voice as clear as that. In my mind, of course. The George C. Scott who transformed himself into George Patton, that is.

But why that quotation? There I was in the Los Angeles Airport waiting for the next leg of my flight. This time to Manzanillo. And a week of confirming whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Mexico.

What would make me think of one of the most famous war movies of all time -- at that moment? And then it struck me. Just like George Patton knew that the Germans had lost the war when they needed to resort to carts, I could see what was happening around me.

I have written before how flying is no longer an adventure. At one point, I referred to it as the penance we must serve for our enjoyable vacations.

But that penance has the sense of being a war refugee. In the waiting area, there was almost no noise. People stared blankly into the middle distance. Not really looking at anything. Just waiting, Waiting for all of this to be over. And, in the background, the uneven clicking and clattering of luggage wheels.

But George Patton was wrong. Some of us were on our way to new adventures. Adventures that would include:

  • A new town

  • Some challenging weather

  • The joys and travails of the beach

  • New neighbors

  • A new culture

  • The challenges of Spanish

  • Lessons of a new house

Over the next few days, I will share what I learned -- and put some questions to those of you who have been through this.

So join me as I toss my bag aboard the 10:45 to Manzanillo, and we will share a week of experiences together.

Monday, July 21, 2008

dog days in summer

I must apologize for not getting anything uploaded this evening, but I have been spending most of my time with my good old Professor Jiggs. And there are two reasons for that.

The first is pictured at the top of the blog. While I was in Melaque, those irish setters were on the beach every day along with their owner -- a local, probably in his late 50s. He would bring the pair of dogs to the beach. Never on a leash. But they were two of the best-behaved dogs I have ever seen. Other dogs would join them on the beach and leave very reluctantly with their owners. In town, I never saw another street dog show any aggression to this pair.

And they were at bliss on the beach. The evening I took their photograph, they had found a coconut in the surf and had been playing with it as if it was the best dog toy on earth. The one on the right is meticulously removing the husk.

What I learned is that a big dog with a heavy coat can lead an active and happy life in Melaque. But I also learned I can have that same time with Jiggs now.

The second reason for spending time with Jiggs is one that many readers have recently experienced. I read Ted Kerasote's Merle's Door while I was in Melaque. I have rather mixed feelings about the book. It is not often that I can enjoy an author's work when he makes himself so unlikeable in the book. Fortunately, the story was not about his elitist ways; it was about a dog he found on a river trip, and how he pushed the envelope to see how far the dog could accept personal responsibility. In Merle's case, he could accept whatever was offered, with a few painful exceptions.

Every book of this nature ends in the same way -- the dog dies. It is almost as if Old Yeller has set the trend for every dog tale. And Merle's death is described in every noble and painful detail. For me, it was a reminder that my dog is going through those end times as well. And I need to spend as much time with him as I can.

So, dear readers, that is why there is no Melaque story posted today. Instead, I am enjoying a beautiful summer day with my golden-haired boy. And he has been enjoying every moment.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

online and ready to post

I am back at my computer. As you can tell, I did not take my lap top on the trip -- and the ways of the internet cafés are still foreign to me.

That means I now have a week's worth of blogs to read. And, of course, I need to start posting some of my thoughts about the trip to Melaque and my future there.

It is good to be back. If I do not post anything today, I will start tomorrow.

See you soon.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

gone fishin'

At 3 AM, I will be headed for the Portland airport to begin my day-long trek to Melaque. But it will be worth the effort to take the next step toward retirement.

I have decided not to take a lap top. The hassle for one week is more than I want to deal with. However, I am taking along some tools that may assist me in getting up some posts through internet cafés during the week.

And here I make a confession. I have been hooked up to the internet since the early 90s. But I have never been inside an internet café (other than on a cruise ship).

Be gentle, readers.

Friday, July 11, 2008

why we travel

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

-- James Elroy Flecker

They attended school together -- not as contemporaries, but only as the British can. Decades separated James Elroy Flecker from Stephen Fry, but they may as well have shared the same caning chair.

English schools do that. Or as Stephen Fry put it: "All of them had experienced this eminently Victorian fustian world of black musty cloaks and public school hymn books and the smell of the chapel and its wooden pews, and the talk of sin and Jerusalem."

I cannot recall if Stephen Fry introduced me to Flecker or if I knew Flecker from the famous couplet from The Golden Journey to Samarkand. I think I knew parts of the poem when I was around 8 or 9. For me, it summed up everything that was exotic about the silk road and the turkish nations. (To this day, the flag of Kyrgyzstan is my favorite.)

About seven years ago, my office was going through one of those managerial shifts that cause colleagues to become unsettled. In an attempt to show a positive and adventuresome side to my personality, I put the couplet on my white board. A management colleague came in, read it, and scampered off to tell my boss that I was contemplating suicide.

Suicide? How could she misconstrue the very essence of camels, silks, and rifles as being a cri de coeur?

But that is the problem with asking questions like: "Why do we travel?" Our answers can be very unsettling to those who ask. They ask because they do not understand.

For me, my current tip to Melaque is to test drive my potential rental house in Mexico. This is not going to be a trip solely for pleasure. I want to learn about my potential neighbors. The weather. The rhythm of life.

And when I return, I will know more than when I left. Whether I have travelled "[f]or lust of knowing what should not be known," we shall see.

What I have not yet decided is whether this will be my last post until 20 July, or whether I will take along enough equipment to stay connected.

Now, there would have been a good blog poll. But not today.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

... not like the others

Juan Alvarez chuckled. I told him about a fight that broke out on a Mexico message board over the term "real Mexico." At first, he thought someone had advocated the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. When he realized I meant "real" in English, not "real" in Spanish, he laughed again. "It wouldn't surprise me if there were some Mexican monarchists still hanging around. We seem to grow people who simply like fighting with one another."

Juan is a sage. He has one foot in Mexico and one foot in the States. As a result, he sees things that I would easily miss. But this "real" Mexico business really bothered him.

"We have a history of division. It seems every time we are about to get ahead, we start shooting at one another. What is the first thing we did when we got rid of the Spanish King? We created one of our own. Then we started shooting one another all over again. We finally got rid of a dictator and what do we do? We hire an Austrian to be emperor -- just like California today -- eh?

"It has been one set of angry men shooting at one another. Then we solve that by setting up a one-party state than ran almost as long as the Soviet version. The worst part is that when we started shooting at one another, you Americans, French, and Brits were all too happy to help yourselves to what we left on the dinner table."

Juan is usually not this introspective. When I asked him what the trouble was, he responded: "This darn drug war. To me, it looks like the same thing all over again. Some people think Pancho Villa was a hero. He was a thug. Just like these drug lords. We are going to end up drawing a line and choosing sides. And more of my Mexican brothers are going to die."

His reading of history may be a bit pessimistic, but you can see Mexico's divisions in its flags -- just as easily as you can see the American rift in the Confederate flag.

Three flags begin this blog. All three were republics that seceded from Mexico during the 1840s, and mainly for the same reason. The dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna suspended the Mexican constitution, disbanded Congress, and centralized power around himself.

That was more than Texas, some of the northeastern states, and Yucatan could stomach. They each formed republics: Republic of Texas, Republic of the Rio Grande, and Republic of Yucatan.

We all know what happened to Texas. They succeeded in seceding and eventually joined the United States -- just in time to get embroiled in the civil war.

Santa Ana had better luck in militarily defeating the Republic of the Rio Grande. Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas were reincorporated into Mexico.

The Republic of Yucatan had greater military success, but it could not withstand the economic loss that accompanied independence. It came home honorably and made a good political deal with Mexico City.

To this day, you can see an occasional Republic of Yucatan flag -- probably flown by the same type of guy who flies the Stars and Bars. But there is no doubt that the people in each region of Mexico see themselves as being a bit different that their brothers in other regions.

And that is not surprising. Ask people in Colorado what they think of Californians or what people in New Hampshire think of their Massachusetts neighbors. Then there is Québec and Ontario -- or France and Brittany (the region, not the singer). That does not make one region more real than the other.

Is Juan correct? Are the drug wars just another practical joke History is playing on Mexicans?

I hope not. Mexico is on the verge of overcoming several very bad episodes in its past. I am putting my money on the country developing into a mature liberal democracy based on a free market system. If that happens, you can stuff your Republic of the Rio Grande flag in the back of your closet.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

people of the cloth

This beauty flies proudly in front of the Manzanillo airport.

According to an early entry in my baby book under "favorite amusements," this entry appears in my mother's distinctive angular penmanship: "Can spot a flag where ordinarily people would miss it."

Nothing changed over time. While my friends were collecting baseball cards in grade school, I was collecting flag cards. My friends might know Ted Williams's statistics, but I knew the design of the Cambodian flag.

To this day, I love flags; I even have a small collection. I often choose a flag at random to display. Wednesday? How about Trinidad and Tobago? Arbor Day? How about Liechtenstein? Independence Day? That Union Jack might create a bit of chat.

Even though a Baby Boomer, I am more of a Traditionalist when it comes to flags. They are not merely designs: they are the symbols of the best of every nation.

A Spanish newspaper, 20 Minutos recently challenged the world (or a portion of it) with the question: "What is the most beautiful flag in the world?" While the contest was underway, one of
Peter Rice's students started canvassing reader's of Peter's blog to vote for the Mexican flag.

Jennifer Rose now reports the results are in, and the winner is: the flag of Mexico -- with Peru and Guatemala as the runners up.

All three flags have a common general design, but each carries its own national pride. The design is simple and easily recognizable. No one ever said of the Mexican flag: Is that an Indonesian flag or a Polish flag signalling distress or is it Monaco?

The flag has three vertical stripes of green, white, and red. But what makes it truly Mexican is that engaging Aztec omen: the eagle on a cactus eating a snake. The colors were inspired by the French tricolor -- and all that it stood for. (A bit ironic when you consider what the French did to Mexico a mere forty years later.)

I find it odd and heart-warming, in this post-modern world, that anyone has taken the time to do something so old-fashioned as to honor national pride. To the post-modernist, symbols are symbols; they are not real. Therefore, they have no place of honor in society.

Over the years (and this year, in fact), politicians have ignored symbols to their cost. Pretending that people do not honor the things for which symbols stand is to ignore human nature. You may as well make fun of their religion.

That attitude was best demonstrated by one of my left-wing friends (a person who would never vote for Democrats because they are all too conservative for his taste), who expressed his disdain for the Canadian flag in the presence of two Canadians. "Looks like the label off of a syrup can," he quipped, and was then offended that all three of us were offended. "It's just a piece of cloth" was his best defense.

He was wrong. Flags are not just pieces of cloth. They represent the best in who we and our neighbors are.

I say congratulations to Mexico. Job well done. May all of the dreams that the flag stands for come true for all of her people.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

look, puppy, no hands

July may be the cruelest month for the dog. His left rear leg collapsed while he was trying to climb the stairs to the second floor -- merely to be with me. I was not certain he was going to be able to stand.

When we take our walk, he totters -- like a card table walking down the pavement -- with two dodgy legs.

And then he insists on climbing on the brick decoration that skirts the creek. The photograph flattens the drop off on the creek side. It is at least a ten foot drop -- and I know I could not catch him if he tripped over his gamy rear leg.

But I let him do it every day. Part of the reason is that he is old and he takes pleasure in being able to walk on a ledge that would give me trouble. The second reason is that there is little I can do to prevent his antics. He is the most willful dog I have ever owned. And he would dispute the assertion in the second half of that sentence: I do not own him.

As I walk along with him, I hear Patti LuPone singing "Look, Mummy, No Hands." The tune is a poignant memory of a girl growing up and watching her own child be careless. "Look, mummy, no hands/ I called as I passed her/ faster and faster/"Hold tight my darling, "she cried out in fear/ But I laughed and pretended that I could not hear ."

And I gave a bittersweet smile.

Billy Collins catches the flavor, but with a quite different net. His "The Revenant" is a poem in the voice of a dog who has been put to sleep, but returns with a message for his master: "I never liked you -- not one bit." One stanza should give you the flavor:
I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.

I was going to save this poem for the day I put Jiggs down. I knew that I would react badly, and I thought this would be as good as any anchor. I am convinced that Billie Collins is a poetic master of turning what could be mawkish sentimentality into wisdom. So, dear readers, we most likely will share this poem again.

But not today. Because the carousel just goes faster and faster. And Jiggs has taught me that life is about shouting out: "Look. No hands."

Even if he does not like me -- not one bit.

[You can read "The Revenant" here.]

Monday, July 07, 2008

one potato, two potato, three potato, more?

I added a hit counter to this site in April. In the past three months, I have had 6000 visitors. I would say it is time to celebrate, but I am not certain what I would be celebrating. 6000 is just a very odd number.

The counter gives me only a vague idea where the reader's server is located, and that is often misleading. For instance, a friend just outside of Salem shows up as viewing in northern California -- because that is where her server is located.

Even so, it is interesting to see the all of the countries where people view this blog. Not surprisingly, the largest group is American. But Mexico and Canada are close behind. And then there is the international crowd. I have seen hits from Germany (especially my good friend, Hollito), France, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Sweden, Argentina, Brazil, Finland, Greece, Turkey, Israel, India, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

I say "hits" because not all of the 6000 hits on this page are readers. When Babs of
Babsblog discovered the number of hits she was getting each day on her blog, she wrote: "I thought I was a voice talking to the wilderness, but heck there are 'beings' in that wilderness reading and not commenting - like over 140 in one day! OY VEY."

Michael Dickson and I have discussed these statistics. If you take a close look, you can see that many of the"hits" are people who have managed to dredge up the site in a Google search or who linked over to see why this site was on another site's blog roll. Most of those browsers take a quick look and depart the store -- the same way I react when I accidentally end up in ladies' lingerie at the local department store.

I did a quick informal survey to discover the type of Google searches that lead people to my blog. Surprisingly, it was neither "Mexico" nor "retirement." It was "Billy Collins." As strange as the result is, I find it rather comforting that my favorite poet would create that number of informal links with strangers on the internet. Maybe that is why we write blogs. We are trying to convey the poetry of life -- our lives.

I only know that I am happy to be in this moment connecting with others through this almost magic medium -- especially those who stay to read a few words, and have a cup of coffee while we chat about things that are blue or why Mexican paper towels are so thin.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

the answer is blowin' in the five-e

I do not need Madam Zora's crystal ball to tell me my future. I have NOAA.

In less than a week I will be flying to Melaque to look at the house I would like to rent when I retire in Mexico. On Wednesday, the town was hit with heavy rains that caused some minor "flooding." Here, it would be flooding. In Melaque, it is "flooding" because the streets did their best Venice impression, but life went on. Just north in La Manzanilla, the same storm pushed the sea past the first row of houses and shops on the beach. Some furniture did its own Noah impression.

It appears that nature has planned a reprise for this week, At about noon on Monday, Melaque could be hit with another "weather event". The last one was a storm named Douglas. This one is a depression. Apparently, weather events that fall into the same category as a DSM-IV diagnosis are not allowed to have the same names you would use for your first-born son or as a nickname for a body part.

The current threat to Melaque has the odd appellation: "Tropical Depression Five-E." I cannot figure out if it is meant to sound like a viral infection or a diminutive number, similar to Cincito.

What I do know is that these weather events can be very serious. Last year Hurricane Henriette (she of the real name and real wind power) flooded (even in the Melaque sense) a good portion of the town. If you want to see how bad flooding can get,
Scott Parks has some photographs to show you.

I said that I wanted to see Melaque during the time of year when it was offering up some of its worst weather. I meant humidity and heat. I guess I will soon know just what it is like to retire on the Pacific coast.

henny penny goes to hacienda

One of the disadvantages of aging is that I have recurring Henny Penny moments on the same topic.

Yesterday "
Eddie Willers" posted a piece on his blog concerning a new Mexican tax. Effective 1 July 2008, Mexico will impose a 2% tax on all cash deposited in a Mexican bank during a month in excess of 25,000 pesos. The tax is called Impuesto de Depositos en Efectivo (IDE). And, just like the United States, the bank will act as the tax collector and send it off to Hacienda.

I remember reading about this reform earlier this year -- and ran around as if I had been bonked on the head by an acorn. From a personal standpoint, I was worried that my buying power in Mexico was going to be reduced by another 2%. My plan had been to have my retirement checks electronically deposited in an American bank account and then I would electronically transfer whatever amount I needed to qualify for my FM3 visa to an affiliated Mexican bank.

It looked like a very clever plan. After all, quite a few expatriates do just that. It keeps a minimal amount available in a pesos account and the bank can then provide the necessary statements for the annual FM3 renewal.

But the loss of 2% would be a big financial hit to take merely for the convenience of some paperwork.

Now -- go back up to the third sentence of this post. The reason I should not worry is right there: "2% tax on all cash deposited." The electronic transfers will not incur the tax. Only if I redeposit money as cash in excess of 25,000 pesos per month will the tax kick in.

I had read earlier that the Mexican government is attempting to find methods to increase its tax base. Economists love terms like that. To the rest of us, it means that the government is trying to smoke out the tax cheats -- and to take more for itself.

Anyone who lives in or visits Mexico knows that the place is a cash economy. Rent? Cash. Groceries? Cash. Gasoline? Cash. A check? Sure, as long as it clears before you accept delivery of your goods. Credit cards? As rare as an honest politician in Illinois. And, as in any economy where cash changes hands, very little gets reported to the tax man.

This is a rather blunt weapon that will affect small businesses more than large corporations. But the obvious attempt is to force Mexico into a more modern economic model. And that translates into a system where the government can better track the flow of money to ensure that Hacienda can touch it for one brief moment and make a portion its own.

My libertartian spirit mourns the loss of another bit of liberty. But, even we libertarians realize that government needs a minimal amount of money to provide services. I would like to believe that is where this money will go. But I may as well believe that I will not act like Henny Penny the next time I hear about this issue.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

why I can't speak greek -- o español

I lived for a year in Greece back in the 1970s. I have little to show for it. A few photographs. A peasant shirt I can no longer wear. And a Greek grammar book. If I look hard, I could probably find a little Greek dictionary.

The two books were my companions wherever I went. I took lessons from a beautiful young woman -- Sia was her name. I read Greek newspapers. I studied -- hard. And I was great at reading the newspaper, at translating from my grammar book, at reading almost anything in Greek.

What I could not do was speak it. In my village, an older woman ran a restaurant. She spoke no English, but she was one of the kindest souls I have ever met. I could listen to her and understand almost everything she said. But when I tried to speak Greek -- well, it was all Greek to me -- and her. (I was going to apologize for diving into that cliché temptation, but you would have all done the same.) She simply could not understand me.

I don't think I felt self-conscious -- not with her. The fear that adults have of making a mistake in the presence of another adult.

However, most Greeks and Parisians have at least one thing in common: they do not like anyone misusing their language, and, if it happens in their presence, they feel free to mock the linguistic miscreant.

I once stopped at a gas station in the afternoon and greeted the elderly Greek men from central casting that sit in front of almost every open doorway from Athens to Patras. "Kαλημέρα," said I. They stared and started laughing aloud, repeating my mistake louder with each repetition. The man I took as the ringleader fixed me with a Socratic stare and informed me that it was past noon, and I should either say "
καλό απόγευμα" -- or say nothing. It was the nothing that stung.

I am reading David Sideras's latest book: When You are Engulfed in Flames. He has written several essays on his inability to learn and speak French -- even though he lives in France. He writes that he has internal conversations where he wishes that he could put together a complex sentence like: "Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the glaze I've applied to my shapely jug?" Instead, he writes, he will often resort to reducing anything complex into something like:

"Look at the shapely jug."
"Do you like the glaze?"
"I did that."

When I read that I literally roared in laughter. Startling the dog. I know exactly how he feels.

I have started my Spanish lessons again. I have learned all types of interesting information. I now know the doctor eats the bread. (El médico come el pan.) That the girl has a ball (L
a chica tiene una pelota.) That the ball is blue (La pelota es azul.)

What I want to know is how I go about getting the doctor to talk to the girl about whether John Locke had a good grasp on the intricacies of property ownership or what are the odds of a recession in Veracruz?

Of course, what I really want to do is to be able to speak Spanish with the same fluency I have in English. I may as well wait until I invent the perpetual motion machine. It just is not going to happen. My goal is to be able to talk with my neighbors in Mexico. And I know I will not gain that fluency until I actually put my few skills to practical use.

For the moment, I will put the mocking Greek grandfathers out of my mind -- and be happy for the girl and her blue ball, and that the doctor has his daily bread.

Friday, July 04, 2008

un cañonazo se oyó alrededor del mundo

1776. The year of American independence. At least, the year a bunch of cocky Americans told the Hanoverian King George that they did not need a bunch of dukes and earls telling them how much tax to pay on their tea. And then came the price for taking on one of Europe's greatest powers.

Five years later, they had their freedom -- and a nation torn by sectional strife, barely limping along economically. But a small group of colonists had beat the European tyrant. And not just to exchange one group of power-grubbers for another. They fought a war because they held "these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

And those words were heard around the world. When a French dictator invaded Spain and toppled the monarchy, patriots in the Spanish Americas rose in revolt -- against Spanish rule. If the British colonists had a grudge against their British overlords, the Spanish colonists had a far greater case.

If you want to read some inspiring biographies, read about the warrior priest, Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo y Costilla Gallaga Mondarte Villaseñor, and his military ally, Ignacio José de Allende y Unzaga. Both were inspired by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and both died traitor deaths just as their war for independence began.

Mexico has not had a happy history. Even when independence came, there was no George Washington to inspire a nation and show that power could be peacefully relinquished. Instead, Mexico took an emperor and then suffered a series of assassinations and usurpations.

But on September 16, 1810, when the priest raised his Grito de Dolores, Mexico dreamed of a better future -- one it is beginning to find. The map at the top of this post is generally what the Americas looked like 1n 1776. If things had gone differently for Mexico, what might that map look like now?

Today is a day we can all celebrate that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Happy Independence Day to all.

el jacuzzi vive

I do believe that my hot tub is toying with my superstitions.

I called yesterday to set up a repair appointment for the hot tub for next Tuesday. Just out of fun (because I do not really believe that inanimate objects have recuperative powers), I pushed what was a non-responsive button this morning. It engaged and the pump to the filter started up.

Of course, I cannot call off the repairman. Holiday tomorrow. Not open on Saturdays. Need 48 hours to cancel.

But, I am happy to be in hot water again -- as soon as it warms up. I think I did see Maria Callas dart out the back gate earlier today.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

el jacuzzi está muerto

If this was the opening scene of a costume drama, the high priestess would slash open some poor small critter, and pull out its entrails. The crowd would gasp. The omens are bad.

Well, I am not launching a thousand ships to assist in fetching the wandering wife of a minor Greek potentate. I am simply planning on moving to Mexico. And I am not certain what the omens are telling me.

Let's start with the prop in the center of the stage. You have all met Mr. Hot Tub. I dine there. I read there. I relax there.

It was the first item I bought for my move to Salem in 1993. In fact, the hot tub was set up even before the remodeling on the house was complete. If I were ever to describe myself as a person of place, the place would be the hot tub.

And you may recall my cries of anguish when I thought it was dieing. In
tub with a view, I concluded that the tub had stopped heating water. In tinkering with tomorrow, we learned that I think I have no handyman skills. In smug as a bug in a tub, we learned I am handier than I thought: I fixed the heater.

But maybe not. Now I have lost all power to and through the tub. Nothing works. Nada.

And here is where the omens come into play. To get a repairman to simply come out and look at the tub: $150. Then there will be the cost of replacing aging electronics.

If the hot tub is the symbol of why I came and stayed in Salem, my decision to not resuscitate it may be the omen that it is time to move on to Mexico. But we already knew I was going to do that. It just feels good that everything is pushing me that way.

If I see the spirit of Maria Callas hanging out at the hot tub, I will know why she is here. She is merely auditioning for another stab at Medea.