Sunday, February 28, 2010

a pollo in every pot

I have not cooked a full meal in the new house since I moved in last December.  And Saturday was no exception.

It did not start out that way.  I was determined to have a dinner at home before the week was out. 

I have been trying to get back on the calorie-reduction wagon.  Two months of American restaurant food has taken its toll on my old body.

So, off I went to the vegetable market to buy something healthy. 

That trip was a success.  I bagged myself four cucumbers, four tomatoes, and two white onions.-- for what I have now dubbed Mexican cucumber salad.  The only thing Mexican is the color -- the three colors of the Mexican bandera.

Of course, they are also the color of the Italian flag and spumoni ice cream.  But this is Mexico, and I have long ago learned to pander to local interests.

A bit of chopping along with a sprinkle of oregano, basil, and tarragon, along with a healthy splash of balsamic -- and voilà (to thoroughly mix today's metaphors): my dinner.

As I was walking home, I imagined just how lonely that salad bowl was going to appear.  It needed some form of dead animal to accompany it.

That thought was undoubtedly directly related to my nose because I was passing my favorite Pollo Kalliman stand -- the home of pollo asado.

Every ten days or so, I visit the stand to pick up a grilled chicken, two orders of rice, some cole slaw (that I give away), salsa, and tortillas.

Today must have been that tenth day because I walked away with my fowl prize.

Here is my chicken drill.  The rice goes into a large bowl.  I strip the meat from the carcass in strips and add it to the rice.  I then eat a small portion on the first day -- along with my cucumber salad.

The second day things get much better. 

I stir fry some vegetables (onion, zucchini, carrots, sweet peppers, a jalapeño) and add that mixture to the bowl.  The combination usually makes at least three or four more meals.

All told, I avoid the fat of local restaurants for two additional days.

And at a reasonable price.  The total?  $29 (Mx) for the salad; $90 (Mx) for the chicken and fixin'; and about an additional $30 (Mx) for the stir fry vegetables.  For a grand total of approximately $11.64 (US).

Not bad for food in your family and centavos in your pocket.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

happy birthday, mom

Today is my mother's birthday.

This is the point that we bloggers usually recite some amusing or heart-felt story about our relationship with our mothers.  And they are always interesting.

But this is my mother's day; not mine.

So let me simply say: Happy birthday, Mom.  I love you.

Note:  Apparently, today was a time for double reflection.

monet makes the world go 'round

Friday afternoon I went hunting.

Not for game -- at least, not the feathered or antlered type.

The day was sunny, and the village was filled with visitors.  Perfect circumstances to capture candid photographs of people.

Shooting people has always been problematic for me.  I can get the perfect shot framed and then take French leave of my courage before I press the shutter release.

I don't know why.

It is certainly not the old superstition of capturing souls in my unholy apparatus.  If it were, I suspect my photograph would be marginally more interesting.

The more likely explanation is I don't want to be lumped in with even the most minor paparazzi.  There is something unnerving about meeting the gaze of a likely target through my range finder.  Perhaps, a vestige of my Air Force days?

After several cowardly back shots, I decided to seek my prey in the laguna.  After all, the animals there are used to being stalked.  The land of talon and fang is not bothered by the moral depravity of paparazzi.

Unfortunately, the wildlife were taking their own siesta.  The only thing stirring was an iguana -- and some very shy herons.

So, I settled for the small spot where volunteers have cleared away a bit of the water hyacinths.  I almost felt like Monet obsessively painting his
lilies.  At least, I stopped well before his 250 shots.

But I did bag a bit of prey for you.


Friday, February 26, 2010

cuarteto de cuerdas

It sounds so romantic in Spanish.  Almost celestial.

One look at the string instruments in a quartet conjures up shadowy curves against gossamer gowns.  Four broad-brimmed hats and some china would make a fine garden party.

I returned from Oregon just in time to put on my best Bob Fosse costume and wander south to the Marbella Salón in Manzanillo for the latest presentation of Bellas Artes del Pacifico.  This time for the St. Petersburg String Quartet.

Four performers.  Eight hands.  Sixteen strings.  And pure joy.

Now and then several bloggers (including me) have started verbal knife fights over the virtues of compressed music files.  Not to mention the arcane differences between analog and digital recordings.

But no one disagrees about the superior experience of live music.  Even the mediocre can soar.

There was nothing mediocre about Thursday's performance.

The program was familiar.  The type of selections you would find on any Russian string quartet's résumé.  Mozart's Quartet K. 458 "The Hunt"; Glazunov's Novelettas; Schulhoff's Five Pieces for the String Quartet; Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 1.

Some things old; a bit new/
Some things borrowed; and no blues.

Despite that bit of doggerel, I had a great time.  Even the familiar, when well-executed, is better than another evening listening to the neighbor's Céline Dion retrospective.

Each member of the quartet showed great technique.  That is not a back-handed compliment.  They were just plain good.

And stylish.  At first, I did not think that compliment would be appropriate.  On the Mozart piece, they simply did not pass their musical phrases around as the imp of Salzburg would have preferred.  They played it as -- Russians. 

No surprise there.  They are Russians.  Russian musicians.  And they were best on the Russian pieces where the darker side of the Volga flows.

Without doubt the bravest (and best) piece was the Schulhoff.  Its atonal intervals caused a bit of program rustling and the furrowing of middle brows.  But it also received a well-deserved ovation.  

While writing this, I realized how ironic it is that I have found the cultural rhythm I was seeking in Mexico just in time to head north for six months.

But there is work to do before I leave.  This week I am going to start putting together a schedule for my audition trip of the next place to live -- somewhere in the bonnie highlands.

The tentative list includes Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende,
Querétaro, Morelia, and Pátzcuaro.

Film at 11.  Or, at least, details to follow.

For now, I will continue to bask in the harmonic tremors of Thursday's quartet.  In my own silver strings heaven.

Cuarteto de Cuerdes -- indeed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

shocking cuts

The President (of the United States, not Mexico) is cutting his budget.

Buckle your seat belts.  Budget revisions are always bumpy rides.  Everybody seems to have a sacred cow in danger of being gored -- to mix my metaphor meat.

But I will not weep over one cut.  The administration has decided to curtail the federal plan to spend $6.7 billion (US) to secure its border with Mexico with a "virtual" electronic fence.

If that term sounds familiar, you are probably about my age.

Robert McNamara and his whiz kids thought they could win a bloodless victory in Viet Nam by installing a virtual fence along the borders between South Viet Nam and Cambodia, Laos, and North Viet Nam.  It didn't work.  That red flag flying over Saigon is proof of how effective the idea was.

The proposed virtual fence between the United States and Mexico is designed for a far more benign presence -- economic invaders.

Let's stick one red herring back in its can.  Most people who turn a jaundiced eye on this project do not support an open border policy.  At least, I don't. 

As long as sovereign nations exist, they are the sole arbiters -- with a few exceptions -- of what happens within their borders.  And who comes across those borders.  A nation that cannot support its borders is not sovereign.

The reason most of us oppose the fence (in addition to the obvious comparison with such unsavory louts as Erich Honneker and Enver Hoxha) is simple: it won't work.  In fact, it hasn't worked.

The idea sounded easy.  In the early 2000s, the border had a series of disconnected electronic devices to detect incursions.  The plan was to integrate and update the existing system, using cameras, ground sensors, and radar, for that fabled $6.7 billion.

After spending $672 million and slipping far behind the scheduled operational date of 2011 to 2014, the pilot system is still not working. 

Software problems.  Video malfunctions.  Satellite link lags.  All have conspired to spike the system.

And spiked it is.  At least, everything is spiked except the still non-operational pilot system.

The tragedy is that until the United States can show some control over its own borders, much-needed immigration policy reform will be politically impossible.

When I left Melaque on Wednesday, I had an interesting conversation with my taxi driver.  He had worked for six years in Colorado in the "services industry."  He returned home when the American economy looked no better than the job market in Melaque.

He said he would eventually go north again -- unless the job opportunities improved in Mexico.

That is the solution.  Not fences.  And it is one Presidents Fox and Calderón has recognized.  Mexico will not stop exporting some of its most ambitious workers until its economy grows.

But that has turned out to be as chimeric as the virtual fence.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

i like abe

So do most of us.

But no one would confuse me with him.  After all, there is the height thing -- and all that facial hair.

Almost everyone's favorite story is the probably apocryphal tale of how he got his nickname "Honest Abe."

You know the story.  While working in a general store, he short changed a customer.  Realizing his mistake he walked a total of 6 miles to return 6 1/4 cents.

On Wednesday, I was in a rush to get ready for my afternoon flight.  One easy task was to pick up two items at the grocery store.  The walk was easy -- about a quarter mile.  The store always reminds me of the grocery stores of my youth -- lightly stocked, a bit untidy.

I gathered up my purchases and took them to the cashier -- a fellow I did not recall seeing before.  I reached for my wallet.  Nothing.  I had left it on the bed.

No problema
.  I would pay in coin.  Of course, I had just given the laundress all of my change.

The total was $26 (Mx).  I had $21 in change.

I offered to put one item back  the usual NOB solution.

He said:  Pay me later.  Well, he said it in Spanish.

I walked home and walked back immediately with the pesos.  He was a bit surprised at my sudden return.  And he would not accept an additional $5 (Mx) for his trouble.

My story does not even come close to our Honest Abe scriptural text.  But it illustrates my Mexican neighbors have relationships based on trust and honesty.

I am not naive.  I know the traits are not universal in Mexico -- nor even in Melaque.  My fellow bloggers have told tales of horrendous customer service.

But the trust factor is one reason I like Melaque.  It reminds me of how people treated one another when I was growing up in the small towns of southern Oregon.

A very good reason why I like Melaque as well as I like Abe.

Friday, February 19, 2010

pumping the house

Wednesday afternoon I heard a chug chug chug behind my house on the other side of the laguna inlet.

I was curious.  But I had duties.  I needed to start packing for my trip north.Task #1 was to walk over to the laundress and pick up my laundry.  And I once again proved to myself that patience is not only a virtue, it is a time saver.

Blocking my walk was a large truck perpendicular with the road.

"Large truck" is enough to catch the attention of people in my small village by the sea.  We do not get large trucks in town.

But this was truck was extra special.  It was a concrete pumper.

Those of you who live in more cosmopolitan cities do not understand how exotic a concrete pumper is.

Concrete is a staple in home construction.  But the usual method is to mix it in the street, and then pack it -- a bucketful at a time -- on the backs of thoroughly-fueled workers.  The number of workers vary, but they look as numerous (and industrious) as a line of leaf-cutter ants.

If it is a high-tech operation, the crew will use a cement mixer with the motor from an old washing machine.

The presence of the concrete pumper means two things.  An expensive house is being built.  And it is being built by one of the areas premier contractors.

Once I saw the sign on the property, I knew both things were true.

Many people resent the presence of such machinery on the theory that it takes jobs away from workers -- the same lament traditionalists have voiced since the first puff of steam escaped James Watt's infernal machines.

In this case, no jobs were lost in the concrete pour.  The contractor had a large crew on site to work the concrete.

Because no one lost a job here, I will withhold my full analysis of that argument -- as if you cared.  Let's just say I disagree for the same reason that we no longer produce buggy whips.  And leave it at that -- for now.

I wish I could have stayed around to watch the full operation.  But I needed to head north.

And I have.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

wheels on el camino

We are what we eat.

So goes the 60s adage.

But we are also what we read.

I have been reading PJ O'Rourke's Driving Like Crazy -- a compilation of reworked articles for automobile magazines.  I just finished an article he wrote about Rent-a-Wreck while he was living in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

The founder of the company rented him a 1967 289 Mustang that PJ quickly learned was a hot little machine on the hilly roads of Benedict Canyon.  He won every race with far "sportier" cars, losing only one -- to "a Mexican in a Chevy pickup full of yard-care tools and cheering children."  (That is a smile of recognition you see on my face.)

On Tuesday, I drove to Manzanillo to pick up my final mail delivery before a quick trip to Oregon this week.

The drive should taken less than an hour.  Two-lane highway.  Several villages.  A bushel worth of topes.

But it can take up to two hours under bad conditions.  Farm machinery.  Farm animals.  Dogs (but almost never cats, an animal not much appreciated in Mexico). Oil tankers.  Local buses.  RVs driven by retirees from Texas or British Columbia.  Any of them can double the drive time.

But not on Tuesday.  The drive down was the usual mixed bag of an elderly farmer moving his John Deere to another field and Juan Gotpesos speeding along at 200 kph in his father's Ferrari.  About an hour to get there.

The drive back was a bit different.  Just before you get on the main highway, there is a long stretch of beach along Santiago Bay sprinkled with restaurants and small hotels.  Everyone speeds on that road -- four lanes, very little cross traffic (but what cross traffic there is is deadly).  But on Tuesday, the Mario Andretti School of Driving must have released its latest graduates. 

I ended up in a group of about five cars -- all sporty, late models -- zooming along at 110 kph.  In town, mind you.

When we hit the highway, it was as if someone had dropped the green flag.  We were off and running -- drafting on one another.

Driving is not a communal sport in Mexico.  In fact, competitive is probably not even the concept.  Libertarian on speed (literally) may be better.

But we drove along as tight as a NASCAR pack.  No need to pass.  Because we were moving along as fast as any group of cars I have encountered on that highway.

When we encountered a slower non-member, we passed as a unit.

If you do not drive in Mexico, you cannot appreciate the exhilarating grace of cars passing one another on a two-lane highway with large trucks racing down on you from the opposite direction.  A German autobahn engineer would say it cannot work.  But it does.  And it did.*

I kept wishing that the kid in the Ferrari would show up again simply so we could clean his gear box.

We went through foothills.  Villages.  Farmland.  Always together.  Always drafting.  Like some metallic beast from Star Trek.  Even one police check point -- where we merely elicited smiles of appreciation and thumbs up.  It really was a guy thing.

Like all good relationships, we eventually broke apart.  Two cars peeled off in a steep left bank to the airport.  I pulled into my taxiway at Melaque.  I like to think that the other two are still drafting north.  Somewhere around Huron, South Dakota, I would think.

* -- I took the photograph at the top of the post while driving along in formation. 
I wish I had a photograph of our passing maneuver.  But it was difficult enough to get the shot I did.  Next time, you can be the passenger -- and photographer.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

four on a string

Bellas Artes del Pacífico is at it again.

If they have their way, Manzanillo will be the cultural center of the Mexican Pacific coast.

As you know, I missed the Russian ballet in December.  But I enjoyed the San Luis de Potosi Symphony in January.

This month, it is Russian strings.  Or, more accurately, the St. Petersburg String Quartet. 

Terms like "distinguished," "world renowned," and "award-winning" fill the publicity material.  This certainly is not some fly-by-night group.

I have not seen the actual program notes, but I know they will be performing some Mozart, Schulhoff, and Dvorák.

Here are the basics --

When: Thursday, February 25, 2010

Time: 8:00 PM

Where: Marbella Salon, Manzanillo

Tickets: $350 pesos each  (available at Juanito’s restaurant, Marbella Salon, Hotel Colonial, or Chantel

And I will give you my impression when I see them -- after I return from Oregon.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

to see -- and observe

I had dinner on Monday night with friends who moved to Guanajuato a few months ago.

It is always good to see them.  They are witty, analytical, observant -- the very embodiment of raconteurs.  When they converse, I listen -- because they always have something valuable to pass along.

The obvious topic of conversation was their impression of Guanajuato.  And their answer was exactly why I like seeing them.

Depending on what you are seeking, there are good things and bad.

Before you reject that as some sort of Zen obfuscation, listen to it.

We are all seeking different things in life (despite what our professors told us in Psychology 101) and we all have individual priorities. 

They love the cosmopolitan feel of the city.  It may be Mexico's most European-looking city.  And it certainly sounds cosmopolitan with the polyglot conversation between its language students throughout the city.


It is also the home of one of Mexico's premiere cultural events: Festival Internacional Cervantino -- the International Cervantes Festival.

Of course, no place is paradise.  They dislike the cold, wet weather this winter.  And they lack adequate internet -- solely due to their current living arrangements.

Every time I speak with a resident of Guanajuato, one topic always arises: walking.

There is very little space in the city to park or store a car.  As a result, daily errands are usually by foot; occasionally by taxi.

If you have not seen a picture of Guanajuato, imagine a large natural bowl with the city climbing the sides of the bowl.  That is Guanajuato.

To walk to my friends' house from the shopping area is the equivalent of climbing the lower ascent of Mt. Hood.

My errand walks in Melaque are flat -- and far warmer.  I thought of that tonight as we walked to dinner and back to my apartment.

If I drove, as I do in Salem, to accomplish the same tasks, I would weigh what I did when I was living in Oregon.

More importantly, if I drove, I would miss the older boy wrestling with his younger brother, and allowing him to win.  The sounds of the local laundry.  The splash of my crocodile as he scurries to safety -- away from me -- back into the silence of the laguna.

I was recently discussing film scores with a friend.  He said music tended to affect all of his emotions.  That is why he enjoys it.

I responded that I have a tendency to analyze music.  I often get a pleasant feeling from a well-executed piece, but music does no affect the external manifestations of my emotions.  Of course, I have four decades on him.  At his age, I may have given the same answer.

We all tend to process our experiences differently.  As much as I admire my friends, I suspect I will experience a different Guanajuato than they have.

I just need to get up on the highlands to see what it has to offer -- and have my own Cartesian experience.

Monday, February 15, 2010

i taw a putty tweet

Mexican politicians want your Twitter.

But not to chat with you.  If some of them have their way, you may be speaking with a federale at your front door, instead.

Every time a new technology comes along, politicians feel threatened.  It is something new they cannot control.

And it is always the same theme: politicians feel threatened when people share information that vaguely threatens governmental interests.

The obvious example is the role personal computers played in destroying the commie-fascist dictatorships of Central Europe.  A lesson that the Red China thugs have learned well -- in their attempts to restrict internet use.

Email.  Cell phones.  Blogs.  They have all put twists in governmental tails -- and tales.

Now, it is Twitter's turn in the barrel of infamy.

You may have seen the story already.  Twitter has been available in Spanish for only three months.  The good citizens of Mexico City quickly put it to a good use -- sharing information on radar speed traps and drunk driving road checks.

At least one politician rose to the bait and said, in his best Gandalf voice: "This will not stand."

I do not want to be accused of putting words in a politician's mouth -- a place I would never willingly place my hand.  So, let's hear directly from federal Representaive Nozario Norberto (of the Party of the Democratic Revolution -- any surprise at that?).

We have to regulate these websites to make sure there aren't people breaking the law, making death threats, or committing crimes via electronic means.

Did you catch that subtle shift?  We jump from the horror of "death threats" to the mundane "committing crimes."  And guess who gets to determine what these informational crimes might be?

He even talks about a
“cybernetic police force” that will help reduce crime.

Perhaps he means the law to be that scary and far-reaching.  But I cannot understand why my neighbors would like to be like Red China or Hugo Chávez.

And that does not even address the common sense objection.  Why Twitter?  Do politicians not know that every technology is a potential -- and current -- tool for crime.  That is what we call freedom in a democratic republic.

Of course, proposing a law and enacting it are two different things.  This one will probably eventually end up where most stupid ideas go to die -- prime time television.

Whenever Mexico tends toward its more authoritarian roots, one saving grace keeps freedom on its stride.  Most Mexicans simply go on about their lives as if there had been no new dictate.

There was an old Soviet Union joke that workers pretended to work and the state pretended to pay them.

In Mexico, the government enacts new laws, and the people go about their merry way.  I offer driving in Mexico (especially, Mexico City) as Exhibit A, and rest my case.

This may be as close to a libertarian heaven I will ever see.

I should twitter you that --

-- if I knew how.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

back -- for a bit

My trip to Los Angeles was interesting.

I watched a camera test, visited Universal Studios and Disneyland, and discovered that Six Flags is closed during the week in the winter.  (I had hoped to feed my roller coaster death-wish.)

One thing I did discover -- or re-discover: Los Angeles can be as cold and wet in the winter as Salem.  The rain: only for one day.  But the cold was a nightly event.  I had almost forgotten how heavily it can rain in California. 

My memory of living there for a year has edited out most of the negative things.  Or perhaps the positive memories have simply pushed out the few negative moments.

But I am back in Melaque -- for three days.  And then I am off to Oregon for a week.

This Sunday is truly my day of rest.  I slept in until 11.  (I am still feeling the after-effects of that cold.)  When I got up, I simply read and got some matters in order for the trip north.  I decided that a bit of Philip Glass on the CD player would set the correct mood: repetition with slight variations.

It has felt good to return to my little oasis on the edge of the laguna.  Even the mosquitoes seem happy I have returned.

For a bit.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

name that stem

I promised a bit of democracy in my last post.

That was not exactly true.  What I need is a self-proclaimed plant expert.

My garden is filled with many plants I have never seen.  One in particular has baffled me -- and most of the people who walk by my place on the malecon.

These are the vitals.  It is a shrub with a stout trunk and leggy limbs.  The leaves are similar to a lilac -- as are the flowers.  But they are not as tightly bunched.  And the flowers are a brilliant red.

The flowers at issue are photographed above.

Any ideas?

Experts need to apply only by making a comment.

come to my garden


The heart of my new house is the garden.

The roof terrace has a view.

The house has living space.

The garden has soul.

The plants have a hodge-podge look.  That is because they were assembled by different owners.  There is no master plan.

One fact that amazes me is that most local gardeners hired to tend these areas have little idea how to garden. 

That is not shocking.  Why would they?  Gardens are not a coastal phenomenon. 

Most locals encounter plants either by hacking back the jungle or burning dry grass.  Neither skill is very helpful in a home garden.

I have taken a closer look at the plants.  There are limes, a sour orange, a mandarin orange, an avocado, a banana, a mango.  I could make my own fruit salad.

And more types of flowering shrubs and plants than I could possibly name.  In fact, I will have a little quiz for you later in the week.  (What good is democracy if it is not participatory?)

The garden suffers from pruning that would make a discount Las Vegas plastic surgeon blush.  Not to mention damage from leaf cutter ants and a lot of overgrowth.  (You would think those two problems could resolve one another.  Unfortunately, the ants tend to eat the wrong plants.)

But none of that really matters while sitting amongst the plants while I eat breakfast on a Sunday morning or read on any afternoon, and the laguna's frogs and birds offer up what might be called aurel therapy.

I once thought the sound of the ocean was calming.  Compared to the peace of my not-so-secret garden, the ocean is a loud-mouthed matron in a woman's prison.

If I had a little more time, I would leave my hand on this garden -- as it has left its peace on my heart. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

one bedroom too many

The design is simple.

Almost Spartan.

A boxy living room with a kitchen to the side, and fronted by two bedrooms with a bathroom in between.

But I liked it the moment I saw it.  It was exactly the size a single guy could effectively use.  Maybe with one less bedroom, even.

Let me show you around.  But first things first.

Wednesday's post was topped by a photograph of the house's small courtyard.  Filled with landscaping, space for two vehicles (if the vehicles were parked by a parking lot attendant), and a laundry area.  The space would feel at home in Barcelona -- where I would feel at home, as well.

But you didn't stop by to see where my truck lives.  Let's talk about my space.

I had hoped to post about three photographs.  But Blogger is not a very photo-friendly program.  Plus my internet connection in this motel is slower than dialup.

You have seen the side of the living area where my computer is located -- and the bedroom next to it.  The photograph at the top of this post shows the rest of the place.  The living room.  The kitchen.

And there it is.  More space than a single guy could use.

On the other hand, I don't spend much time in the house.

We will take a look where I do spend a good deal of my time -- the garden.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

love on the rooftop

I thought Santa Claus would hate Mexican houses.  No chimneys for easy entry.

But I missed the obvious.  Most Mexican homes -- at least those on the coast -- have roofs flat enough to make Air Wolf feel at ease.

Santa could set down his sleigh and offload a year's worth of gifts with no problema -- and pass it off as the work of the Three Kings.

The roofs also make great recreation areas -- especially if your idea of fun is to lie in a hammock, sun yourself, and eat grilled fish that you caught yourself that morning.

It is a nice dream -- but not mine.  The roof terrace belongs to my upstairs neighbors.

The photograph at the top of this post shows what a portion of my neighborhood looks like from that terrace.

When I lived on the beach, all of my neighbors were either Canadian or American -- mostly absentee landlords for the summer.

Not so my current neighborhood.  With the exception of a few houses, none are middle class.  These are the houses you would see in a Peace Corps film.  Poor people striving for a better life.

And it is noisy.  Dogs. Roosters,  Radios.  All noise.  All the time.

Except the radios.  Despite what I hear from my Mexican friends in other parts of Mexico, my neighbors are Ben Franklin disciples -- early to bed and early to rise.

The dogs and roosters have no cycle.  Other than barking and crowing all day, all night -- Mary Ann.  And for no apparent reason.  Other than there is territory to protect and perceived invaders are everywhere.

One of the worst aspects of my comings and goings during the past two months is I have no had an opportunity to meet my neighbors.

I know the owner of the restaurant (The Frog) around the corner from my house.  But I buy his wares.

I met the woman on the corner who lectured me about parking in front of her vacant lot because it is "difficult to sweep" when I park my truck there.  Sweeping trumps or strengthens relationships in our little village.

I did talk with an elderly man, who lives down the street, one of my first days at the house, and stumbled over a very simple word in Spanish.  He harumphed and walked off.  When he sees me now, he simply shakes his head, points at me, and laughs.  I doubt I have enough time left in Mexico to repair that particular faux pas on my part.

And that sentence contains a bittersweet truth.  My year in Mexico is quickly coming to a close.  I have experienced a lot, but I want more adventures.

2011 will provide many more.

I hope.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

not at home

I am a stranger in a strange land.

At least, a stranger in my own house.

I moved into the new place in mid-December.  Within two days I was on my way to Oregon for a two-week Christmas stay -- and we all know what happened there.  I was in Oregon for four weeks.

I then returned to the house for three weeks, and took off for Los Angeles for a week.

By my calculations, I have spent more time in The States since I moved in than I have spent in the house.

So, let me introduce my home to you -- and, perhaps, to myself.

You saw a hint of it when I was trying to decide where I should live from December to April: a moving experience.  But I need to show you a bit more of the place.

Here are the basics.  The house is a duplex with twin two-bedroom apartments stacked atop of each other.  Walking from one apartment to the other is it own déjà vu experience.

As you know, the house is not on the beach.  It sits on the laguna.  And that gives it a far different feel than a beach house.  The laguna provides a serenity that can come only from the presence of still water.

Even though the apartments are twins, they are fraternal twins -- or, at least, a special type of fraternal twins.  Identical inside -- completely different on the outside.

Mexico is an outdoor country.  The upstairs apartment has a roof garden.  The downstairs apartment -- my apartment -- has a garden.

I was thinking about the best way to introduce you to the house.  Here is my suggestion.
  • A tour of the roof terrace will give you an idea of my neighborhood.
  • A tour of my garden will show you where I relax.
  • A tour of my apartment will let you know what the place looks like -- whether I am there or not.

It is time I met my own living arrangements -- before it is time for me to head north on my six-month sabbatical.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

quo vadis?

You know my friend the laguna is dying.

So, why is it happening and what can be done?

This is where the local rumor mill kicks into high gear.  I cannot verify the accuracy of any of the purported causes.  I only report what I hear.
  • Lax local regulations are high on everyone's list.  As an example, Pemex is building a new gas station (What else would they build?  A space shuttle tracking station?) on fill that is currently being dumped onto the wetlands of the laguna.  The allegation is that it violates land use regulations -- even though the local authority approved the permit.  The irony is that a recently disused Pemex station sits no more than 200 meters down the highway from the new building site.
  • Sewage discharges directly from homes into the laguna -- causing the nitrogen level to increase and the hyacinths to flourish.
  • Nitrogen from upstream farms are causing the same result.
  • Local authorities attempted to cut the water hyacinths in 2008.  But they failed to gather up the chopped pieces.  Each piece resulted in a new hyacinth plant.  Thus, the mess we see today.

Without proper studies, no one knows exactly what the source of the problem is.  I suspect, though, that the rumor mill has uncovered most of them.  All of the speculation appears to be based on some semblance of reason.

Those of us who have nursed on the milk of NOB politics will raise a sagely eyebrow and pronounce: "We must deal with the root causes, not just the symptoms."

But, there are times, like this, where the symptoms may actually be the disease.  Getting those hyacinths out of the way would certainly be a good start.  Then someone could deal with root causes.

That means getting someone with authority concerned enough to remove most of the hyacinths.

And there is the rub.  "Someone" who? 

The local government has a very mixed record on issues concerning the laguna.  The Pemex project is a good example.  But a new administration just came to power in January.  Perhaps, there will be some interest there.

The laguna is within the federal control zone.  And it would have the authority to do something about the hyacinths.  But ours would be only one project in a country with a severe water problem.

Faced with a similar situation in Salem, my neighbors would band together and do something.  Our tradition is that personal responsibility trumps government inaction.

I was afraid that option was not available here.  The Iberian-Catholic tradition imposed over the top of Mexico's native culture is that power descends down, not the other way round.

But my neighbors have surprised me.  A local committee formed -- the same group that sponsored Mexico Day -- to save the  laguna.  The people of Melaque decided they could -- and must -- show their civic concern.  From the grass roots up.

I don't think anyone has a good idea how this will all end.  But some solution will present itself.  Perhaps, a private-public partnership.

But it has to happen soon.

Monday, February 08, 2010

camille at my gate

laguna is dying.

I can see that much.  So could you if you came to visit.

What was it Tolstoy said about families?  "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  Of course, it sounds far more bleak in Russian.

Well, waters are similar.  Dying waters die in many different ways. 

I shot the photograph at the top of this post in July 2008.  A year and a half later, this is the laguna.  What was blue is now green.  From the air it appears to be a field.

I shot the photograph at the top of this post in July 2008.  A year and a half later, this is the laguna.  What was blue is now green.  From the air it appears to be a field.

And that green is the problem. Almost all of that verdant carpet is Eichhornia crassipes -- the dreaded scourge of tropical waters: the common water hyacinth.

Water hyacinths do to waterways what my triglycerides do to my bloodstream; they stop the flow. 

In the process, they gather silt that will eventually turn what was an area to catch water into an area that floods homes and businesses. Floods that cause inconvenience, a lot of property damage, and occasional deaths.

However, a dead laguna is far more than a potential flood problem. 

While it is slowly gathering silt to create a new Bonneville Salt Flat, the plant cover starves the water of oxygen.  Dead fish.  Dead turtles.  Dead frogs.  And the hyacinths provide perfect cover for mosquitoes to do what they do best -- plot the elimination of the human race, one bite at a time.

But people are newcomers as far as the laguna is concerned.  Before people arrived, animals ruled its shores.

The laguna is famed for being the home to 75 different bird species -- more during migrations.  The warblers that visit my bougainvillea every morning would not be here without the laguna.  Rumor has it that the bird population has dwindled by half during the last two years.

And that sentence elicits this caveat.  I have been conducting research and interviews the last two weeks to prepare this post.  My hope was to uncover facts about the laguna.  But there are none.  No studies.  No bird counts.  No lab reports.

But there are lots of anecdotes and opinions.  Many of those opinions are driven by the same interests that divide every small town.

When I am told most of the iguanas have disappeared, I can only report that I have seen very few on my walks.  The same goes for the snakes, turtles, crocodiles, and small mammals that usually thrive around tropical waters.  From my observations, they are very rare.

So, here is the question.  You have a friend who is dying.  What do you do?

A good topic for tomorrow's post. 

Sunday, February 07, 2010

on the road again

By the time you read this, I will be in Los Angeles -- for a week.  I have flown up here to consult with a friend about his job interview.

But I intend to keep on posting while I am on the road.  I have several posts I need to complete concerning the health of the laguna.  And I would like to introduce you to the house I will be living in until April.

And who knows what other details I may run across in LA. 

P.J. O'Rourke caught a bit of southern California color when he noted that people in LA buy fancy cars simply to impress people.  "They could have impressed people with a teenage lover or a Lucien Piccard wristwatch, but they couldn't lock these and leave them in front of their houses."

Ah, that P.J.  Always shocking and amusing.

So, I will search for likely targets to lampoon in la-la land.

What my Mexican neighbor calls northern Mexico  -- I think only half in jest.


Saturday, February 06, 2010

survivors on wing

If you are a birder, you would love visiting my back yard -- and the attached laguna.

I have seen birds here that I have seen nowhere else.  Even spotting an American Robin can be a thrilling experience in this exotic environment.

At one time, there were far more bird species residing in the laguna.  Those days may be gone forever.  Because the laguna is dying.

But the birds who have remained are truly survivors.

Chief among those is one of my favorites: the Great Kiskadee.  I have always liked the named -- sounds almost Australian doesn't it?  Kangaroo.  Koala.  Kiskadee.

But its bird family is almost as tantalizing: tyrant flycatcher.  Sounds as if you wouldn't want to go many rounds in a slap-down with that clan.

And if you are an insect, small rodent, snake, small fish, tadpole, or fruit -- you have something to fear.  This bird has the appetite of a teenage boy.  It will eat almost anything.  And like it.

Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment on pornography: You will know this bird when you see it.

  Large (almost 9 inches long).  Colorful (yellow, brown, and white.)  Noisy.

And almost as common as pigeons.

We have lost quite a few species in the laguna due to its overgrowth.  But the Kiskadees appear to be happier than a congressman at a lobbyist fundraiser.

On Friday afternoon, I went for a walk and counted at least 20 of them.  Of course, I cannot be certain that my count is any more accurate than the U.S. Census's.  I probably counted several birds twice.  But there are a lot.

You would think with that many birds, I could have snapped a better photograph.  But birds are great conservers of energy.  It was hot.  And the shade was aplenty. 

Besides, they had been cramped up in their trees for the past three days avoiding our Noahish flood.  No one was going to take their freedom away from them.  Birds have a certain Lockean love of liberty that I admire.

I am going to finish drafting the long-promised laguna piece.  But I wanted to share at least one reason why I love living next to this body of water.

Even if it is dying.

Friday, February 05, 2010

no tears today

Meet my neighbor.

I had heard that there was crocodile near my house.  But until this week, I had not spotted him.  For all I know, he spotted me long ago.  (I say "he" simply because I do not know how to tell the sex of crocodiles, and I am not going to get close enough to tell the difference.  I hope.)

My land lady told me that he had a regular sunning spot just outside my garden gate.  I had never seen him there. 

She also told me that he had another sunning spot a bit further down the malecon.

On one of our rainy days, I decided to see if he was in the other spot.  Please note.  My land lady clearly stated "sunning" spot, and I start my expedition in the rain.  It is a wonder that you folks get to see anything on these pages.

I had just stepped out of my gate when I saw what seemed to be a large shape on the verge of the water hyacinths.  I would say it looked like a log, but that would be a
cliché.  What it looked like was -- a small crocodile.

And it was.  Just as I pulled my camera up, it submerged.  Apparently, crocodiles have better survival instincts than photographers.

But I was patient.  He surfaced, raised his head, and gulped down what I assumed was lunch.

As a result, you get to see what I thought I would not see.  A dining crocodile.

For those of you who come visit, we will do our best to reenact the segment.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

cold comfort

This morning I awoke in England. 

I could hear the soft patter of rain on the pavement.  The brisk damp rising in the bedroom.  I wondered whether to drive over to Blenheim to walk the palace grounds or down to Abingdon to visit the Huxhams.

And then I came out of my Nyquil fog.

I was still in Villa Obregon.  There was rain, but certainly not the light rain of an Oxfordshire morning.

Felipe and Billie report that the highlands have been under a rainy siege this week.  If you pull up a satellite image, you will see a large purple mass stretching from Denver to Oaxaca.  And a lot of us appear to be getting rain.

In our case, it started Tuesday night.  Thunder.  Lightening.  Wind.  Rain.  All of the elements for a great Wagnerian production.  The entire town was alive with the sound of striking lightening -- enhanced by the utter absence of electricity.

This weather is unusual.  We usually get these Götterdämmerung storms in the summer.  Almost never in the winter.  An occasional shower in February is noteworthy.  But Brünnhilde in the tropical Mexican winter is as uncommon as brie at a NASCAR race.

As a consequence of the rain, most of the restaurants in my neighborhood are closed.  Not surprisingly.  Most are open to the elements.  But the real reason is that very few people are stirring on the streets.  Walking and bicycling are simply a nuisance.

I would bemoan the fact that my head cold has hung on as long as it has -- almost a week now.  But the rain would have limited my planned travels.

So, I stay home.  Listening to Wagner.  Drinking Earl Grey.  Watching the rain fall.

My travels to the highlands may need to wait for another week.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

dancing with bulls

I love rodeos.

I grew up around competing cowboys in southern Oregon.  No summer would have been complete without an afternoon and evening watching the latest rodeo circuit.

On Friday I jolted awake from a nap convinced that Kaiser Bill's troops were invading Mexico with Pancho Villa in the lead.*

It was an odd dream.  But even after I was awake I could hear the distinct oom-pahs of a Bavarian marching band.  Well, a Bavarian marching band with a strong splash of pulque.

Putting dos and dos together, I realized it was rodeo night.  Or, more accurately, rodeo weekend. 

Mexico is celebrating the enactment of its 1917 Constitution this weekend.  The document that was the beginning of the end of the 1910 revolution.  The document that prohibits me from being commissioned as the commander of the local Army base or to own outright the house I currently rent.  

So, we party.

The reason the oom-pahs sounded so close is simple: they were.  The rodeo arena (what I had mistaken as a bull ring) is about three blocks from my living room.

I quickly learned that there is as much difference between a Mexican and an Oregonian rodeo as there is between chiles relleno and tuna hot dish.

There are 5 days of rodeo.  I attended a good portion of the first.

The cost is reasonable $50 (MX).  About $4 (US).  As it turns out, quite a bargain.

Here is what you get for your money.  A community party.

Sure, there are cowboy events.  But the whole focus of the rodeo is the stands.  Almost everyone dressed as a cowboy or cowgirl.  No blurring of sex roles at this party.  Young women looking their best.   Young men looking for a handy dancing party.

And music.  More live mariachi music than you could shake a maraca at.  Along with young men twirling a series of beautiful girls in the aisles.

But, of course, there are animals and cowboys.  While we danced and listened to music, several horsemen maneuvered around the arena with their prancing mounts.  Beautiful horses.  Beautiful horsemanship.

Then more mariachi music.

A cowboy did his best to ride a rather nasty brahma bull.  The bull was wise.  He decided his best defense was not to buck, but merely to lie down.  He did.    Apparently following Count Kutuzov's maxim: "Dans le doute, abstiens-toi."  When in doubt, do nothing.  Time and patience are a warrior's best friends. 

It took a good ten minutes for the horsemen to clear the arena of the dozy toro.

Then more mariachi music.

More dancing horses.

More mariachi music.

Another bull with greater activity.

More mariachi music.

You get the general drift.  I stayed for five hours enjoying my neighbors and their fun.

I have not yet developed the amazing Mexican ability to simply have fun.  No matter how much time it takes.  So, home I went.

According to the noise and music coming from the arena, my neighbors did not call the official party quits until about 2 AM.

And there have now been several nights of celebration.

I am going to try to attend another night -- if I can shake my head cold.

It would be a shame if someone put on a rodeo and no one came.

* - The sentence skirts the blood libel that Pancho Villa was a German agent during World War One.  There is no evidence that he was.  Of course, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore could weave a film either way.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

pieces of eight

Music fills Mexico.

As I write, Beethoven's eighth in my living room is vying with a mariachi band in the rodeo arena.  I will give you a five goal spread that Villa Obregon beats Bonn.

Last Thursday there was no battle of the bands in Manzanillo.  Just one band: the illustrious Orquesta Sinfónica de San Luis Potosí. One of Mexico's finest symphonic orchestras.

I drove down to Manzanillo for the latest event on the Bella Artes del Pacifico's calendar.  The organization has worked hard to attract cultural events to the Pacific coast.  And they have been quite successful.

I missed December's Russian ballet.  But Thursday night's concert lived up to what could be expected of a project of this nature.

That may sound like I am praising with faint damns.  But I am not.

Anyone who came to the concert expecting to be challenged by the likes of George Benjamin or Philip Glass came to the wrong hall.  To spread the arts, producers need to put together programs that will attract audiences.  This is missionary work.

That means something lyrical.  Not too long.  No confusing pauses where applause can be embarrassing.  Nothing that requires catching subtle themes and figuring out where they fit into the piece.  Something pleasant.  Safely upper middle-brow.

The fine folks at Bella Artes must have found the correct mix because this event attracted an audience like cats to 2% milk.  It was mainly an expatriate and tourist audience -- with a small mixture of locals and assorted politicians.  The ballroom was packed.

What we got was a full evening (eight pieces) of pops music.  I do not say that disparagingly.  It is what people want to hear.  it is what they got.

The program was designed to celebrate Mexico's double centennial through music invoking the Mexican spirit -- from pre-Colombian times to the present.  and it did just that.  From the opening piece (Noche de los Mayas with its echoes of O Fortuna) to Arturo Márquez's Conga del Fuego Nuevo.

The most popular piece was Márquez's show-stopping Danzón No. 2 -- a piece most people know from the Tourist Board's clever 2009 video.  Shoulders and heads rotated and twitched enough to give the place the look of a grand reunion of Bob Fosse performers.

That piece should have ended the concert.  Instead, the artistic director, José Miramontes, chose a Montavani-laden arrangement of popular Mexican tunes.  But the audience ate it up like flan.  With a standing ovation -- I trust for the entire evening's performance and not merely the Karo tunes of the closing piece.

That, of course, occasioned an encore.  The orchestra served up a bumptious arrangement of "Over the Waves" -- Juvenito Rosas's most popular waltz.  It appears frequently as a theme in mariachi music, as if Strauss had come looking for one of his tubas.

Over all, it was a great evening.

This series proves that Manzanillo can support an on-going winter arts season.

We will see how the next event (The Saint Petersburg String Quartet) turns out.