Friday, April 30, 2010

beating a clothes horse

I am suffering from sticker shock on my resuscitated work life.

When I moved to Mexico last year, I gave away all of my suits, dress shirts, dress shoes, and assorted paraphernalia to the Salvation Army.

After all, I was not going to need them any more.  Was I?

Wool suits in the tropics would be laughably uncomfortable in my small fishing village by the sea.  Not to mention inappropriate.  As Belzig said in Raiders of the Lost Ark:  "You Americans.  Always overdressing for the wrong occasion."

I was tempted to keep the white linen suit I purchased in Greece in 1974.  What could be more tropical than showing up in the local fan-cooled watering hole dressed as Somerset Maugham? 

Unfortunately, the suit was tailored for a young man who had not yet gained Sidney Greenstreet proportions.  So, off it went to the Salvation Army closet.

My current wardrobe consists of khaki pants and polo shirts.  Not the costume of choice for a corporate desk lawyer -- unless he is links-bound.

I have not purchased any clothes in Mexico.  But I have haunted the lanes of our movable market that shows up in Melaque every Wednesday.  It has built certain expectations about the cost of clothing.

Now, I will admit that I have not seen any wool slacks or tailored silk shirts amongst the Melaque merchants.  But I was not prepared for the prices that I encountered in my little shopping excursion on Wednesday.

For a pair of dress shoes and two pairs of slacks, I paid the equivalent of two weeks rent in Mexico.  Adding four dress shirts, shot the total past rent for a full month.

And that will be enough for the six months I am here.

I am continually asked why I chose Mexico as my retirement home.  In the last month, I have encountered the two primary reasons I moved south: (1) general cost of living and (2) medical costs.

Based on my experiences in the past two weeks, I will really appreciate returning home -- to Mexico.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

grilling your chicken

If I started a "What I Miss in Mexico Already" list, pollo asado would top it.

I love chicken.  Always have.

Several years ago, I started eating it almost exclusively as my protein.  I have a pretty good tongue for good chicken.

I cannot recall when I began the habit, but several years ago, I would drive over to Safeway and buy a roasted chicken each week.  It would be enough for a meal -- and provide chicken for at least three stir fry dishes during the week.  Price: $6.95 (US).

When I moved to Mexico, I found grilled chicken stands everywhere.  My favorite -- Pollo Kaliman. 

For $85 (Mx), or about $6.80, they provided a chicken, rice, cole slaw, and a bag of chili salsa.  A great deal.

That may not sound like much of a deal.  After all, the Safeway chicken costs about the same.

The deal is that Mexican chicken tastes a lot -- and I mean a lot in the term of acres, not just meters -- better than any chicken I have tasted north of the border.  That includes the much-vaunted organic free-range chickens that spend their afternoons scratching in Seattle coffee bars. 

I am not certain why they taste better.  Maybe grubs and worms are processed into better-tasting chickens.

All I know is I love the taste, and I will miss it for the next six months.

Until I return, I will need to be satisfied with Safeway pullets and Reser's potato salad.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I live in a small fishing village by the sea.

Other than the obvious Garrison Keillor rip-off, it happens to be true.

But it would be just as true if I told people I lived in the middle of farm country.

Because I do. 

The most obvious crop is coconuts.  They are everywhere.  Plantation after plantation.

We also grow bananas.  Bunches of them. 

But, my favorite is when the coconut planters slip into their Thomas Jefferson mode.  There is a lot of bare dirt under those trees. 

The most common combination is coconuts and bananas.  See the picture above.

I can only suppose that the bananas must be harvested and cut back before the coconuts are harvested. 

About two months ago, I noticed a new combination along the road to the Manzanillo airport.  Peppers and coconuts.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

medically stationary

I re-entered the American medical system on Monday morning.

As Houston Control would say: Re-entry was successful.

I never had any doubt about the medical care.  I have known my doctor since grade school.  We played saxophone in high school band.  Besides knowing me, he knows his medical trade.

My concern was cost and procedure.  Two characteristics that are polar opposites north and south of the border.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I have health insurance.  Apparently, my years of federal service have provided me with a plan that allows me to keep my doctor.

My identification card got me through the door.  But I still have no idea what my deductible will be.  I need to follow up on that.

So far, costs do not appear to be an issue.  At least, for this condition.

Procedure is a mixed bag.

Everyone at my doctor's office has always been extremely courteous and helpful.  Monday was no exception.

But I quickly remembered why I like the Mexican medical system.

My doctor conducted a quick review of my records (and my greatly improved blood pressure), and referred me to a specialist -- one of the spin-offs of the American litigation system.  And then set up a lab appointment at the end of the week for blood work.

In Mexico, I would have wandered down the street to my neighbor's lab for a blood test -- that afternoon.

All in all, a good reentry. And far better than I anticipated.

Monday, April 26, 2010

life crutches

Cobblestones and sand.

Perhaps a good recipe for building a garden wall.  But a lousy foundation for cruising Mexican streets on crutches.

After I broke my ankle, several friends volunteered to to ensure my daily needs were met.  Shopping.  Commuting.  Trips to Manzanillo.

But sometimes a guy has to do what a guy has to do.  There is a certain joy in independence.

On the Saturday before I left Melaque, I ran out of onions and limes.  Rather than bother my friends for such a trivial task, I decided to hobble to the local abarrotes.

An abarrotes embodies some of he best aspects of Mexico.   Small grocery store.  Conveniently located (in the case of Melaque, almost every other block).  With limited (but practical) merchandise.

When I was growing up in northern Oregon, there was a similar store on my walk home from grade school.  We would stop by every day to buy a licorice stick or two.

My local abarrotes -- La Nueva Vida -- is about a two block walk from my house.  With two normal feet, a walk to and from the store would be five minutes.

The crutches added a bit of a handicap.  Mexican sidewalks are not sidewalk-friendly.  Cracks.  Holes.  Precipitous height changes.

The best course is to to resort to the street.  And that is where I found the interesting combination of sand and cobblestones.

What should have been five minutes, turned out to be a tiring one hour trek.

These crutches are teaching me humility and patience.  What I can do, takes more time.  What I cannot do, I must rely on others to do.

Later today, I see my doctor.  To see how long this humility and patience stuff is going to last.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

sunday carnival

No big essay today.

I just wanted to share one of the phoptographs from this year's Saint Patrick's week celebration. 

There is something about those looks that captures the fun of San Patricio's big day.

I hope your day today is filled with just as much joy.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

spam wars

I have been withholding information from you.

That means that I have been violating a pact between free citizens.

We need information to make the important decisions in our lives.  Without it, we may as well be -- Cuba.

So, let me 'fess up -- as pilot friend from Oklahoma would say.  Because I have some 'splainin' to do.

Apparently the spam generators have discovered a new way to spread their net of knowledge.  They now pose as commenters on blogs.  And from the exotic alphabets and grammar structure, many of them must live in China, Russia, Romania, and India.

And tyrant that I am, I have been simply deleting the comments.

In my more enlightened stage, I have concluded that I am keeping you from buying inexpensive prescription drugs (of unknown provenance).  Investing in Mexican real estate with a guaranteed return of 175% in 16 months (specific numbers always numb the intellect).  Viagra (even in cream form to avoid any claims of sexism).  And pornography (in every imaginable form -- the grease that keeps the internet spinning).

I beg your forgiveness.  After all, I do not need to end up on a lamp post -- like Hugo Chavez's look-alike.

So, if any of you need this valuable information, just let me know.  Because I have the inside scoop on how to get my hands on a cool million dollars merely by handing over my bank account information to --

Well, you get the picture.

Friday, April 23, 2010

indian in the garden

She sits on the southern edge of my patio.

Next to the stump of a native tree -- long since sent to join its woody ancestors.

She is an Indian.  There can be no doubt about that.

When I first met her, I thought she was an Arctic Indian.  Somehow mixing in with the name of the house -- Casa Nanaimo.

Of course, Nanaimo is not in the Arctic.  But it is closer than Melaque.

But I may have been wrong.  What I took for a parka is most likely a rebozo -- that all purpose piece of fabric preferred by utilitarian Mexicanas.

The mistake is understandable.  Even though the land bridge migration theory has come under anthropological assault, whether she is Inuit or Náhuatl, she springs from a common blood line.


She has never corrected my error.

Because she has not said a word to me in the six months I lived in the house.

She just sits.  And stares.

Teaching me there is wisdom in silence.  In waiting for wisdom.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

urban dreams

Manzanillo has a certain charm.

Not the knockout beauty of a Salma Hayek.  For that, you would go to Querétaro.

Manzanillo is more like sitting next to Ayn Rand at a dinner party.  Challenging and exotic. 

During the past month, I have visited more areas of Manzanillo than I had in the full year I lived in Melaque.  I saw the northern expatriate area of Santiago for mail and supplies.  The port area to renew my visa.  The downtown area for lunch and to see the large covered market.  The southern beaches to experience the city's quiet -- and wild -- side.

Manzanillo is not just a tourist town.  Even though Bo Derek and Las Hadas may be cultural icons up north, Manzanillo exists to support Mexico's busiest port.  And, like all ports, it has muscular charm.  Cranes.  Trains.  Cargo containers.  All moving in some sort of Agnes de Mille bionic ballet.

But there are human ballets here, as well.  Manzanillo is the place I came this past year to fill my cultural void.  Dance.  Music.  Cinema.

All of this has caused me to give a bit of thought about living in Manzanillo.  Every time I visit, I feel its pull.

But there are negatives -- just as there are in any relationship.  It is more expensive than Melaque.  More crowded.  Less relaxed.  And it is merely an hour's drive from where I live.

There is a bigger issue that will keep me from Manzanillo.


For one adolescent year, I was enthralled with Ayn Rand and Objectivism.  She said everything that a 17-year old boy knew to be true.

Then I started listening to what she was really saying and decided not only did she not have answers.  She barely had shallow platitudes. 

A dinner party's worth of conversation is about was much of her as I could take.

And, if you look at her left hand in her photograph, you will see another attribute that would have made Ms. Rand a less-than-perfect regular part of my life.  She was a smoker.  A heavy smoker.  Even during dinner.

And that is where the analogy with Manzanillo holds up.

Manzanillo is home to a power plant that generates electricity from burning oil.

The plumes from the three stacks can be seen from iles around.  And the smoke often hangs in the air like
Joe Btfsplk's cloud.

But not for long.

Mexico has contracted with a Japanese-Korean consortium to build a liquid natural gas plant.  The projected completion date is summer next year.

Who knows.  Maybe Manzanillo will be far more Salma Hayek and less Ayn Rand.

But I would settle for Bo Derek.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

real crocodile tears

John Thorbjarnarson is dead at 52.

His name probably does not mean much to readers of Mexico blogs.

It should.

John was an advocate for endangered species.  More accurately, a specific species.

Not the noble beasts that star in most fund-raising advertisements.  You know the cast.  Whales.  Elephants.  Pandas.  Animals that could raise more money than Margaret Keane's doe-eyed children.

John chose a less lovable group.  Crocodilians: alligators, caimans, crocodiles.

I suspect that most people feel that he chose the Big Bad Wolf over Little Red Riding Hood.

And that is easy to understand.  We have a visceral response to crocodiles -- that death is awaiting us just beneath the still waters.

John taught people around the world that crocodiles were not to be feared and killed. 

Respected?  Certainly.  Any animal with a large mouth, big teeth, and a desire to snack on something more substantial than tofu salad should be given  wide (and wise) berth.  But certainly not hunted to extinction.

And that was the danger.  Fear led to slaughter. 

He had some effect.  In China. In Venezuela.  In Thailand.

I thought of his dedication the other day as I hobbled around the malecon behind my house looking at what my land lady and her crew had accomplished on our small inlet of Melaque's laguna..

Many hours of hard work.  And results.

By opening up that small area, new birds have started visiting.  A fish hawk -- looking for dinner where precariously even his "eagle eyes" could not have spotted any movement.  A limpkin -- who now has plenty of shore to find Mexican escargot.  And fish -- of all sizes.

But there may be even better news.  A construction crew is building a new house on the other side of the inlet.  (pumping the house)  They have watched our work, and have decided to join in making their part of the laguna a better place.

The photograph at the top of this post shows what they have done.

Almost as if one good idea spawned another.

If our other neighbors would show a similar spirit of community, we could at least save a portion of the laguna's diversity.

John Thorbjarnarson would have been pleased.  Our effort is not a lot.  But it is a start.

And I hope our crocodile can spare a smile for him.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

sleep glorious sleep

I love to sleep.

When I was young (during the Peloponnesian Wars), I despised sleep.  It seemed like a waste of time to me.  When there was life to live, my motto was: There will be plenty of time to sleep in the grave.

Now that the grave draws nearer, I am beginning to change my mind.

Maybe it was retirement.  Or Mexico.

"Nap" has always been burdened with the baggage of slumbering babes or drooling seniors.

But "siesta" ushers us into a world of humid afternoons cooled by fans and wooden window shutters.  A place where the musical laughter of women can be recalled in repose.

Maybe I am just trying to justify the fact that during the past year I have slept away hours of my life.  And, now, with my broken ankle, I just sleep.  And sleep.  And sleep.

As it so often does, The Economist has come to my rescue. 

It turns out I am not wasting my life through sleep.  I am fighting off heart disease and improving my memory.

The first claim has long been known.  Siestas have a direct relationship with reducing deaths from heart disease.

But the memory claim is new.  A study out of UC Berkeley has established that an afternoon siesta of 90 to 100 minutes allows the brain to process the information it has gained during the early part of the day while resetting the mind to learn new information during the rest of the day. 

That type of rest can be as beneficial for the brain as a full night's sleep.

It also helps to explain why my young friends in Mexico City can party until the wee hours of the morning and still be up to get to work in the morning.  They recharge with their siestas.

I can hear those doubting Thomases and Tinas among you, saying: "I can't nap.  I get up feeling tired."

The study addresses that, as well.  The effect is called "sleep inertia."  It is caused when the brain wakes prematurely from a deep sleep.

But why does that happen?  Simple.  Lack of practice.  The condition arises frequently in people who are not siesta veterans.

So, there you have it.  The perfect excuse to take a regular snooze in the afternoon.

And if your boss finds you slumped in your chair after lunch enjoying the virtues of a siesta, tell her you are improving your memory -- and avoiding a heart attack for good measure.

Excuse me now while I go off to practice a bit of healthy living.

Monday, April 19, 2010

not in villa obregon any more

I woke up on Sunday morning in Oregon.

On the couch.

No domestic troubles.  After all, no domestic arrangements.  Just me.  Not even a dog.

I am sleeping on the couch because my bedroom (the home of my extremely comfortable Italianate bed) is upstairs.  So far, my experiences with my broken ankle is that Steve, crutches, and stairs can be a volatile mix.  Each stair is a performance art awaiting an Americans with Disabilities Act resolution.

My airplane trip north was a bit more difficult than I thought it would be.  The crutches limited what I could carry in my hands.  That is, if "nothing" can be considered limiting.

But I thought ahead on this one by deciding to limit my luggage to carry on.  I have a small case that zips together with a backpack.  It is great for a week trip.  And, when it is full, it is heavy.

So, I did not fill it.  Even so, I could not carry it with my crutches.

Getting through security in Manzanillo was easy -- as it usually is.  Someone was always there to valet my luggage onto the plane.

In Los Angeles, a wheel chair was waiting for me.  My good friends at Homeland Security decided I needed a lot of hands on searching.  Understandable.  I have that lean and hungry look that so worried Julius Caesar.  Assuming Shakespeare was not being too literal.

But I made it to Portland and off to Salem.  All with the help of some very kind airport staff.

And I have settled in. 

As you can see by the photograph at the top of this post, I am no longer in Mexico.  I had lunch at my favorite burger place in Salem on Sunday: Rock-n-Roger's.  Nothing like a chili burger to welcome me back to The States for the next six months.

But "home"?  I don't think so.

Soy de Oregon. Vivo en Villa Obregon.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

warning! 7-11 at 2 o' clock

Despite its Hopper-esque aura, this photograph fills some of my expatriate friends with horror.  It is the very symbol of the Antichrist in corporate form.

Let me give you a little background.

In my neck of the beach, there are very few convenience stores.  Shopping is a chore.  But a social chore. 

Preparing an afternoon meal often means visiting three or more specialty shops.  Tortillas at one stand.  Vegetables at the corner grocery.  Pork at the butcher.

Very European.  Simply part of the culture that is Mexico.

But Mexico, like the rest of the world, has discovered time is a fixed asset.  Time spent shopping is time taken away from earning money or enjoying oneself (and often the two are the same thing).

Mexico is a middle income nation, and a large portion of its population is joining its middle class.  Those are the people who start looking for convenience stores -- both for status and time.

On my visits to Manzanillo, I have seen Mexican convenience stores (Kioska, Oxxo) mixed in with north of the border favorites (Walmart, Office Depot, KFC). 

If you walked into an Oxxo store, you could easily imagine that you were in a 7-11 -- except Oxxos are far cleaner than 7-11s.  You can buy a wiener warming itself on hot rollers, soft drinks, chips, and small jars of the type of things you need in a hurry.

Every time I walk into one of the Manzanillo Oxxos, the place is abuzz with young Mexicans driving nice cars.

But they did not exist north of Manzanillo to my home.  Until now.

Recently, two Oxxos and a Kioska opened in the neighboring village of Barra de Navidad.  The village is a middle class area.  The fact that three convenience stores showed up within weeks of each other is testament to that.

Their presence has scandalized some of my Canadian and American friends.  The fear is that the little corner grocery store run by an aged widow will be run out of business. 

But, I doubt it.  Expatriates will continue to patronize the boutique stores for their atmosphere.  We can afford to pay for shabby chic. 

But, as Mexicans become wealthier, they are going to want better prices, better services, and more convenience.  The search for excellence is what will destroy the local store.

So far, no one has targeted my poor little village for a corporate convenience store.  So, the poor in my neighborhood will go on paying too much money for the inconvenience.

I suppose it is just a matter of time. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

packing heat

I am in the final stages of packing.

The last time I moved (six months ago), it took me about an hour or so to gather up my belongings and put them in the truck.

And then I had to drive only four blocks to the new house.

You would think this move would be easier.  After all, I am merely packing things for storage.  No transportation required.

But you would be wrong.

It is strange how a broken ankle changes everything.  I can carry a few items at a time with my crutches.  Such as moving my books, volume by volume, across the apartment.

But once the containers are full, there is no way for me to lift them.

Dora stopped by on Wednesday to pull down the containers and my luggage from the storage area.  That helped a lot.  But I now have containers strewn throughout the house awaiting their final destination.

When I was leaving the hospital, I realized that I would not be able to take any luggage with me on the flight north.  The problem will be trying to get through Customs in time to catch my connecting flight.  Even though the airline will provide a wheel chair, I will simplify my life by traveling with a back pack. 

Nothing more.

There is something final about storing all of my possessions.  I feel almost as if I am about to take a trip to some strange land.  Even knowing that I will be returning in just over six months does not completely eliminate the nostalgia I am already feeling for Mexico.

But I will enjoy my respite up north.  Heal my ankle.

And next year -- Mexico.

Friday, April 16, 2010

last of days

I have entered that stage where I am calculating the last of things.

You know.

Last Monday in Mexico.  Last church service in Mexico.  Last camarones a la diabla in Mexico.  Or, at least, the last until November.

Thursday was my last trip to Manzanillo to pick up mail.

Picking up mail has always been an exotic pursuit for me.  It probably started with me impatiently waiting for that special toy Roy Rogers promised on the back of the Sugar Pops box. 

But it did not die with my pre-school years.  While I was in high school,. I awaited responses from senators and representatives to my political missives -- just as avidly as I would await letters from girl friends or banana bread from my grandmother while I was in the military.

When I moved to Mexico, I knew that I would not be very happy unless I could receive my regular pile of magazines.  I initially wanted to set up a mail box at the local post office.

But the woman, whose house I was sitting, convinced me not to do that.  Instead, she suggested that having the magazines delivered to the house would work out fine.

It didn't.  I tried it for one month.  The magazines usually arrived three weeks or so after they were published.

Then, I discovered Mailboxes, Etc.  I concluded that if I had a Laredo mail box with them, it certainly would not take three weeks for magazines to arrive in Manzanillo.  Certainly, they were more efficient than the Mexican mail service.

Alas, no.  For the past ten months, my magazines have been showing up in my mail box about three weeks after publication.  Sometimes, two editions would arrive on the same day.

I would not mind that so much (after all, I do get the enjoyment of driving to Manzanillo) if the service was not as costly as it is.

The only thing that kept me using the service was the two young people at the desk.  They have always been helpful and cheerful.  And it was a joy to see them each week.

When I return in November, I will need to reassess whether I will use heir services or revert to my original idea of a Mexican post office box.

But today was my last day to pick up mail from them -- for now.

And on Saturday afternoon, "the last of days" will end.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

it grows on trees

Saturdays are my mornings to sleep in.

Of course, I can sleep in any morning; I'm retired.  But I have had 61 years of practices with Saturday sleep-ins.

This last Saturday, I heard some commotion in my court yard.  The gardener was there with two other men.  A quick glance at one of them told me the cocos were about to be trimmed.

But the gardener needed me to be a part of this landcapiong morality play.  My truck was parked close enough to the coconut palm that it might get banged up once the palapas and coco cannon balls started falling.

Then, he remembered my ankle.  But no problema.  The third fellow in the trio knew how to drive.

Once the truck was out of the way, the trimmer went to work.  I did not get my camera out in time to see him climb the bottom portion of the palm, but you can see his technique.  Without aid of a rope, he used his feet and hands to scramble up the tree.  His only rope is the tether to his machete.

Once at the crown of the palm, he cuts out all dead growth, cleans up the other debris that collects in palm trees (you don't want to know), and cuts the ripe coconuts.

It appears that the common practice is to pay the trimmer in coconuts.  That does not sound like much, but coconuts are a valuable commodity in these parts -- even though they grow everywhere.  In some places, money does grow on trees.

And it reminds me that I should never complain about the work where I am about to return.  I could be making my living cleaning out bird carcasses.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

prince of scorpions

Sometimes, we are simply careless.

Or complacent.  Or careless because we are complacent.

A number of us expatriate bloggers get very exorcised about the north of the border news outlets. 

You know the stories.  The type that send our friends and neighbors running to their telephones and computers to make certain we have not been kidnapped or beheaded or forced to listen to marathon mariachi sessions.

And, of course, we are always quite well.  Just as if we still lived in Topeka or Medicine Hat.  No drug lords or Marie Antoinettes having crossed our paths during the day.

That is not to say that Mexico presents no dangers to its residents.  Driving comes to mind -- much to my continued enjoyment.

But there are other reminders that as pleasant as Mexico is, it is no Eden, let alone Paradise.

Topping the list for most of us would be the dreaded
alacrán -- the scorpion.  We have a nasty little beige variety here that can make the hearts of the susceptible -- well -- stop.  To put it bluntly.

I have seen only one scorpion in Mexico.  The day I moved into this apartment.  (the wages of hubris)

Full disclosure requires that I now double that count.

On Tuesday evening, I was resting my ankle on the couch while I read Donald Miller's Searching for God Knows What.  (A book I highly recommend.  His style is very reminiscent of Ann Lamott.)

I had been monitoring my computer's attempt to back up my files -- a process that seems to be working.  The screen saver blinked the screen blank, and I was rushing to get over to the computer.

I grabbed my crutches and was about to put my healthy left foot on the floor.  When I saw it.

The movement and shape was distinctive.  Like some armored death machine designed for one purpose -- to kill before being killed.  The silhouette of many an adventure film.  Pure visceral terror.

And hovering barely above it: my bare foot.

Instinct told me to smash it right then.  Common sense told me that using my healthy foot to challenge the venomous was about as wise as taking a Geneva Convention form to the Taliban.

My crutches proved to be a far more effective tool to dispatch the scorpion life force to whatever netherworlds they occupy.

Thus the photograph that looks as if it was snapped by a CIA satellite.  I really need to work on my close-up death scenes.

I live a life of complacency.  Bad things seldom happen to me.  Or, at least, bad things that matter.  As a result, I do not take many precautions in life.

I don't wear shoes in the house.  I don't turn on lights for my nightly journeys to the bathroom.  I often wander in my garden in my bare feet.

The question is whether I have led a charmed life or do the little stings of life simply not matter to me?

Or am I simply turning this into another Zen moment because I am starting to feel reluctant to leave Mexico?

Who knows?

What I do know is, for the next few days, I am looking before I leap.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

taxes -- no death

I decided to spend my Monday performing a patriotic duty: my taxes.

Anyone who knows me very well will be surprised at that statement.

No.  Not the part of the sentence that places the words "patriotic" and taxes" so close to one another.  Even though it is shocking.

The fact that I have waited until April to complete and file my taxes.  I usually have them completed somewhere around the third week in January.

And this year was not an exception for the form preparation.  I had everything ready to file when I returned to Mexico in January.

But when I finished the forms, I had a shock.  I usually receive a nice refund.  Not this year. 

I owed Uncle Sam and Uncle Ted a sizable sum.  The total does not matter.  But I could take a couple of very nice cruises with the amounts I needed to pay this year.

So, today, I sat down to complete the process.  I always file electronically.  And I get my refunds electronically.

I was naive to think people, who need to pay, have it that easy.

For Federal tax payments, it is that easy.  Just set up the account you would like the Department of Treasury to dip its greedy little hands into, and you are done.

Not so the vaunted-progressive state of Oregon. 

If you owe state taxes, you either have to mail your check in or you can pay by credit card (along with what we used to call a "substantial penalty" for the convenience of paying what you would prefer not to pay).

Mailing the check is out of the question for me.  If I dropped the envelope at Mailboxes, Etc. today, I could almost guarantee that it would not be post-marked by Thursday.  (At some point, I will need to put together a post about my experience with Mailboxes, Etc. this past year.)

I took the only choice I had.  I used the credit card and paid the surcharge.

Of course, I could have avoided that step if I had simply written out the check in January when I knew what I had to pay.

But you can list the reasons yourself why I chose not to do that.

I considered simply carrying the check to the reception desk at the Oregon Department of Revenue when I am in Salem on Monday.  I suspect the penalty and interest for late payment would not be as much as the credit card surcharge.  But I hate paying anything late.  Even taxes.

My taxes are paid, though.  I trust that I will be receiving my good citizenship medal in the mail real soon.

Monday, April 12, 2010

drug prescriptions

Most American politicians appear to have flunked basic economics.

One look at the drug policies of the United States could lead to only one conclusion: most of the country's politicians learned their economics in gym class.

If I own a farm, in competition with my neighboring farmers, growing tomatoes, I can usually increase my profits by doing one of two things.

First, I can lower my price and increase my profits by enlarging my market share.

Or, second, I can improve the quality of my tomatoes.  Perhaps, by switching to heirloom varieties.

Drug producers in Mexico are very much like my farm, example.  They produce and distribute a product that has low production costs, but a very high market price.  (In economic terms they garner about an 80% profit.) 

But they forgo basic economics by taking over their rivals' production lines.  War is simply a cost of doing business when the profits to be won are that large.

There is a huge demand from American noses and arms for Mexico's product.  For over twenty years, the American government believed (and apparently still believes) it can stop drug transactions through police and military action.

The internecine drug wars currently under way in Mexico (cleverly induced by President Calderón) and drug interdictions on both sides of the border have affected supply -- a bit. 

But look at that 80% profit figure.  There is a lot of price elasticity there.  And Americans continue to buy drugs even when the price increases.  Just as they did illegal booze during Prohibition and just as they do with over-taxed cigarettes.

Last month, the political poobahs of Mexico and the United States met to conjure up a mutual drug strategy -- to stop the deaths in Mexico and to stop the drugs being exported across the border.  But no such strategy exists.  Nor can it.

This is pure Hans Morgenthau.  If the competing national interests of the United States and Britain almost scuppered their cooperation during the Second World War, how can the two diametrically opposed national interests of Mexico and the United States possibly be resolved?

Stratfor report we discussed yesterday suggested four potential strategies: 1) accept the status quo, 2) reduce drug demand in the United States while keeping drugs illegal, 3) legalize drugs, and 4) send American troops into Mexico to do what Mexico has not done with the drug lords.

The options are oversimplified, but they are a good place to start.  And they each show the interest stress points of trying to cobble together a workable strategy.

Here is my take.

1.  M
aintaining the status quo, even with better-coordinated military aid and training from the United States, is not going to alter the economic equation.  As long as Americans crave drugs and Mexico tries to interfere with the export business, there will be violence.

2.  The second option has been tried and found wanting.  The United States has tried to reduce the demand for drugs in the United States through education, scare tactics, lies, and putting a large portion of the American citizenry behind bars for the possession or sale of illegal drugs. 

The states simply cannot afford to maintain that many people behind bars.  Whatever drives people to drugs, education and prosecution are not going to stop the drug trade.

3.  The most logical option (legalization) is also the most politically impossible -- even beyond improbable.  A president who has already alienated a large portion of the middle class electorate over health care is not going to upset the same voters by raising the specter that their little Muffin is going to become a meth-hag. 

Plenty of journals on the right and the left have reasonably argued in favor of legalization.  But politicians will touch this one right after they privatize Social Security and nationalize the sex industry. 

4.  And the worst option (American troops in Mexico) is far too bizarre (and real) to imagine.  Why not just call it Operation Polk-Pershing and print up posters of Los
Niños Héroes?  I cannot think of a course that would more quickly turn the drug cartels into popular folk heroes.

If the four options are bad, a waste of time, impossible, or terrifying, what is going to happen?

I suspect both governments will continue to muddle through with variants on the status quo.  At least that is what the news outlets are reporting. 

Mexico will do its best to put a fig leaf over its inability (or lack of desire) to stymie the drug exportation trade, and Americans will be satisfied that Mexico is being adequately faithful.  In the interim, many innocent people will die in a phony war on the border. 

"Phony" only because it has no real purpose.  "Real" because blood is being spilled.

If this administration gets desperate enough for electoral affection and decides to put American boots in Mexico, the sorrow of possibilities lost will long be reviewed by military historians.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

economics 101 -- drugs

Poor Mexico.

If a medical patient, she would be assigned to intensive care.  Or, perhaps, hospice care. 

That is, if you believe her detractors.  The old "Mexico is a failed state" crowd.

We talked about their ilk in chicken little meets wolf boy in January 2009.

You may recall the Joint Forces Command report that was supposed to have concluded that Mexico was on the very brink of becoming a failed state.  Of course, the news outlets failed to properly report the story.  According to most of them, the United States was about to have a Somalia on its border -- I guess in addition to California.

As much as Mexico should pray for deliverance from its detractors, its hard-nosed friends can be just as dangerous.

The boys over at Stratfor have disinterred the failed state corpse.  But this time they have distanced themselves from the "Mexico is melting" crowd.  Their report would give you the impression Sauron had been reinstated in the dark corridors of
Chapultepec Castle.

Stratfor's new tack exchanges sack cloth and ashes for Machiavellian finery.

As all good reports, it starts with definitions.  And "failed state" certainly requires one.  But Stratfor's definition is one that would warm the heart of Louis XIV.  It is all about central government power.

A failed state is one in which the central government has lost control over significant areas of the country and the state is unable to function.

Anyone who has lived in Mexico for any period of time knows that Mexico has never been able to meet the literal terms of that definition.  Certainly not since its independence in 1810 -- and probably long before.  The push and pull between local officials and the central authority has been the warp and woof of Mexico's struggle with its own history.

The writ of the central government simply does not run far in Mexico.  And that makes some of us very happy residents of a nascent libertarian experiment in progress.

I am surprised the report does not say the same thing about the application of its definition to Mexico's history.  Because the report is every bit as cynical.

Under the guise of straight talk, the report takes swipes at each level of the Mexican Establishment -- from politicians to banks to the army.  The report concludes that Mexico is not a failed state.  The central government may have lost control of its northern tier states, but only in the realm of drug enforcement.

That seems like a rather level-headed analysis.  But here comes the cynicism -- as thick as peanut butter on a third grader's sandwich.

The analysis boys conclude Mexico is not a failed state in general because drug trafficking helps to stabilize Mexico's central government.

The report claims the export of drugs provides gainful employment for young men.  And it brings in at least $32 billion (US) each year in profit from drug trafficking.  $32 billion that is invested in the Mexican economy, such as selling pirated DVDs to naive expatriates and tourists.

Looked at in those terms, how could it be in the national interest of Mexico to shut down an export business that provides that much hard currency to a faltering Mexican economy?

The report is even too cynical for me.  But it does point out one of the flaws of the current attempts to coordinate startegies between the United States and Mexico.  Until a common national interest can be found, there can be no common strategy.

Of course, Americans have a different national interest.  The past five American administrations were convinced that they could get drugs off of American streets by increasing their retail price -- through strong interdiction programs and effective local prosecution of central criminal drug figures.

So far, after over two decades of that policy, the American national interest has been thwarted.

Tomorrow, let's look at why that is true.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

friday twofer

I threw caution to the wind on Friday.

I decided to try to do two major tasks in one day.

Finish up my FM3 (visa) renewal and get the window in my truck replaced.

I thought the window was going to be done earlier in the week.  But there were problems shipping the replacement glass from wherever it came from.  While we were in Puerto Vallarta, the truck sat in my courtyard.

Friday morning, Lou and Wynn showed up in the early morning to drive me to Manzanillo to finish the FM3 process.  They needed to go to the same office to renew their FM3s.

In the hope that the glass had arrived, we left my truck at the glass shop before it opened -- and headed south.

The good news is that I have my FM3.  All the office needed from me was my land lady's identification.  I am now good for another year.

By the way, those of you who have FM3s, I was told that next year, the application will be online, and starting in May, cards are supposed to be issued.  Both will be a nice change. 

Several expatriates have been stopped by police recently on the highways and asked for their papers.  I carry a copy of my passport, FM3, and tax-free certification in the truck.  I guess I need to update my visa copy -- as if I am going to be driving anywhere in the next week.

As quick as my process was, Lou and Wynn had their renewed FM3s in their hands when we left.  Probably, no more than an hour of processing.  No need to return.

We then did something I have wanted to do for the past year -- have breakfast with friends on the main square in Manzanillo.  It was exactly as I imagined having breakfast would be in a large Mexican town.  People.  Traffic. Life.  All accompanied with a great lingua de res con salsa verde.

I have seriously thought of moving to the central part of Manzanillo when I return.

We then headed back to Melaque to see if task two had been completed.  When we drove up, I thought I could see an open space where a window should be.  I was wrong.  The window was there.

I was a bit surprised at the repair cost: $1400 (MX), or about $114 (US).  The labor costs were minimal.  But some parts can be quite expensive down here.  Including side replacement windows.

But my truck is now ready to face its storage in Mexico during the rainy season.

The shop looked at my radio, but they could do nothing to get it to operate.  I will either take it to the Ford dealer in Manzanillo before I fly out next Saturday or simply leave it for one of the tasks to be accomplished upon my return.

These are the types of days I love in Mexico.  Come to think of it, they are the types of days I love -- even if I had failed with both tasks.

Friday, April 09, 2010

one small step

Three weeks after my surgery, I was back in Puerto Vallarta to have my sutures removed.

Lou and Wynn drove me up in their truck on Wednesday night.  Mine was still awaiting the arrival of its replacement window.

We had a good night in Puerto Vallarta.  Pleasant hotel room.  My first good steak in Mexico.  A relaxing night of reading.

In the morning, Lou drove me over to the hospital.  I forgot my book, so he was off to retrieve it from the truck.  The only reason I wanted it is that I am accustomed to waiting in American medical offices -- even if I have an appointment.  It took him maybe two minutes to do that.

When he returned, I was gone.  The doctor was at the reception desk when I arrived and took me into the emergency room where he removed my splint, examined my foot.  And SNIP SNIP SNIP my stitches were out.

Well, it was a little more painful than that.  But no worse than slight wasp stings as the sutures were removed.

My doctor's prognosis is that I should walk on crutches for the next five weeks, putting no weight on my right foot.  During the next four weeks, I can put some weight on the right foot, but walk with crutches.  Twelve weeks from surgery, I should be able to walk carefully on it.  The screws and pins will remain in my leg unless I want them removed in about a year.

I certainly hope that will be the case.  I have not had any serious pain in my ankle.  But when my doctor unwrapped the bandage around my foot, I could feel quite a bit of pain in the ankle.

But here is the best part.  For the examination, the suture removal, and the consultation, my bill was $130.34 (MX).  Just over $10 (US).

I am preparing myself for the larger bills when I get to Oregon.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

calling howard platt

I need the help of my friend Howard.

He seems to know the names of more birds than Bill Clinton.

From the moment we began pulling the water hyacinths out of the laguna, we saw new visitors to our small patch of open water.

The ibis, pictured above, was one of the first.  Or, at least, I think it is an ibis.  That large, down-turned beak is a pretty big hint.

The open water seems to give some wading birds an advantage at catching fish.  I have enjoyed that same bird-eye view:  watching the fish in the newly-cleared water.

This bird is a bit shy, though.  Every time someone approaches the laguna, it flies off to another spot.  In the case of my photograph, it decided to go on safari on a bed of sea lettuce.  (That almost sounds like a dish that would cost $50 each in a fancy San Francisco eatery.)

I have looked at my bird sources, but I cannot identify it.  Perhaps, it is a juvenile.

Anyone want to take a shot?


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

where there never was a hole

Coming from the hat,
Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that.

So sings Mandy Patinkin as Georges Seurat -- on the joys of creating art.

When I injured my ankle, I was concerned that I could not get out and about to gather up material for the world of the blog.

I needn't have worried.  The material comes to me.

If you look at the photograph at the top of the blog, you will probably assume that you are looking at a truck with its window down.  If so, your eye deceives you.  What you are looking at is a truck with its window up -- with the glass missing.

On Friday evening, my land lady and a friend stopped by to inform me that my rear passenger window had been broken.  She volunteered to pull the truck into the court yard to be certain a thief did not return.

Apparently the thief took only my emergency road kit, two empty CD cases, and the operator's manual.  The manual was in a wallet.  I suspect the thief may have thought it contained something of value.

The thief also tried to pry the radio out -- breaking the electrical connection, but failing to get it out of the dash.

A local glass shop has ordered the window, and it should be replaced this week.  The window was supposed to arrive on Tuesday.  It didn't.

Now, I need to figure out the best way to get the radio repaired.  I suspect that will entail a trip to the Ford dealer in Manzanillo.  There are all sorts of codes that need to be entered once the electrical circuit is interrupted.

Before long, I just may have a new truck -- part by part.

Note: I am heading up to Puerto Vallarta today to have my sutures removed.  That means I will be out of touch for a couple of days.  My dying computer is staying at home.  But I will still post during my absences.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

my easter basket

I have evolved to the Blanche DuBois stage of my life.

Not the descent into madness that only a Tennessee Williams character can experience.  But the part where I rely upon the kindness of strangers.

But, in my case, friends.

Since I broke my ankle, every day tasks take on a patina of difficulty.  In some cases, impossibility.

Simple jobs like cooking or bathing take more timing and balance than a Cirque du Soleil silks act.  But they can be done.

Some, can't.

Because I cannot get my clothes to my laundress, my maid, Dora, has been washing my clothes and hanging them to dry.  She is here only one day a week.  The clothes are hung on Friday.  Even though they are dry by the afternoon, I have had trouble figuring out how to drag a basket out to the line, unpin the clothes, fold them, and get them back in the house.

And that was my problem this week.  On Sunday afternoon, I had given up.  I was going to wait until Dora returned this coming Friday.

On Sunday evening, I decided to take a photograph in the front court yard.  When I opened my door, my clothes were sitting, neatly folded, in a laundry basket.  Topped with a green Easter egg.

You already know I raised in a household where there was no Easter Bunny.  And I knew immediately who my secret benefactor was: my land lady.

I have long styled myself as a rugged individualist.  Probably why I call myself a libertarian.

But this injury has taught me a bit of humility.  To recognize my limitations, and to be thankful for the friends in my life.

Grace note:  When I opened the door, the first thing I noticed was a fledgling weaver finch cowering in the corner behind the basket.  When I moved, it flew to the top of the basket -- right next to the Easter egg.  One of those moments, I wish I had a camera with me.  For a moment, I thought my land lady was St Francis -- in addition to being Florence Nightingale.

Monday, April 05, 2010

lilies in el jardin

I should be in

Or, at least, that was my plan six months ago.  I was going to spend my winter on the coast and then head to the mountains in March.

Somewhere along the line, events intervened.  A job offer.  A broken ankle.

Around December, I decided that I would stay in Melaque through April for one reason -- I wanted to see the much-vaunted semana santa: Easter holy week.

If you have been reading the blogs of my colleagues in central Mexico, you know that Mexico has taken a Mediterranean love of Easter as the big holiday of the year -- and pumped it up on steroids.

During my year here, I have learned that the coast denizens celebrate holidays a bit different from their highland cousins.  Christmas.  Day of the Dead.  Independence Day.  In the highlands, Cecil B. DeMille would feel at home.

On the coast, we celebrate lite.  At least, the ceremonies are light.

San Miguel de Allende has religious processionals that could star Liz Taylor on a mobile sphinx.  In Melaque, we have the type of religious processions that look a bit like the neighborhood kids putting on a show in the barn.

Sincere.  But hardly High Religion.

However, re-enactments of Cleopatra were not the reason I stayed for semana santa.  I wanted to see the Calcutta-size teeming masses on our beaches.  Beaches that through most of the year could act as a stunt double for the sands of Gilligan's Island.

So, here I am -- four blocks from the beach.  I can hear all types of activity, but I am stuck indoors waiting for Raymond Burr to bury his murdered wife.

After church today, we had a potluck at a hotel run by one of the congregants.  When I looked up and down the beach, I expected to see packed crowds.  There were more people than usual, but it certainly was not India.  A few yachts.  The Navy patrol boat.  That was about it.

The Easter Bunny.  Santa Claus.  Mass hysteria in town during semana santa.  Just another cultural myth, I think.

But it was a great combination for me.  To celebrate my faith in a non-processional manner -- and see the crowds that make this town a matter of interest at Easter.

Now, I can look forward to celebrating my next semana santa with the highland clans.


Sunday, April 04, 2010

an easter tail

I have heard a tale of a family where The Mother disliked non-religious symbols as stand-ins for The Real Meaning of holidays -- holy days, for her.

No Santa Claus at Christmas or peeping chicks at Easter.  They simply would not do.

One Easter in what would have been perhaps the twelfth year of the tale relater's youth, the extended family sat down for a traditional Easter dinner at The Mother's well-appointed table.  Cousins galore awaited in anticipation for ham or turkey.

With a flourish, The Mother appeared at the head of the table with the afternoon's main course.

The Father, looking perplexed, asked: "Chicken?  Chicken for Easter?"

She responded: "Father, it is not chicken.  It's rabbit."

The word had barely floated to the table before young cousinly eyes went wide in horror.  The dismembered body of The Easter Bunny was about to be placed on their plates.

There is a rumor that The Mother also served venison roast at Christmas.  And certainly, the presence of a maraschino cherry on top to represent a reindeer nose cannot be true.

One can only imagine what became of such children.

I hope that you each have a blessed Easter.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

a timely reminder


To:  My fellow expatriates and tourists in Mexico

From:  Well, it is my blog.  Me

Subject:  Time

Every year, we get two opportunities to be H.G. Wells's Time Traveler by springing forward and falling back an hour.  It is time to spring forward.

We have finally caught up with our northern neighbors (or those who indulge in the questionable virtues of daylight saving time).  The official ceremony is to reset your clocks at 2 on Sunday morning.  I do not know about you, but I intend to get a jump on the change right now.

I am heading off to dinner.  Before I leave, I am resetting the few time pieces in my dwelling.  After all, no one cares if I am an hour late or early for dinner around here.

Why should today be any different? 

are your papers in order?

Mine are about not to be.

On 17 April my FM3 visa expires.  That is the same day I am supposed to fly to Oregon.

After I injured my ankle, I considered the possibility of letting it expire.  To renew it, I needed to get to a portion of Manzanillo not easily reached without a vehicle.

But that easy solution would result in at least two  problems. 

1) I spent a lot of time getting my initial FM3.  I don't want to go through that full process again. 

2) The tax-free status status on my truck is tied to my current FM3.  I would prefer to avoid any future problems with Customs simply because I took the easy way out.

Lou volunteered to drive me to Manzanillo on Monday.  So, I grabbed my FM3, my passport and copies of each page, a utility bill and my constancia de domicilio to prove my address, a copy of my lease, and the original and copies of my last three bank statements to prove I have adequate income for an FM3.

The process was simple.  The clerk took my copies and filled out the renewal forms.  Lou then went to the bank to pay my renewal fee.  When he returned, we waited about twenty minutes for my temporary visa.

That was it.  The final visa will be ready for pickup on 9 April.

I was about to say that I was surprised at how easily the renewal process went.  Even though I had read up up on what the Manzanillo office was currently requiring for documentation, the clerk surprised me with a new request.  She needed a copy of my land lady's proof of residence.

That will be easy: she is a naturalized Mexican citizen.  She gave me a copy of her voter identification card to drop off when I pick up my final visa in another week.

I once wrote that each border crossing is a performance art.  The same can be said for visa renewals.

But, when I leave in two weeks, I will have a valid visa for my return to Mexico in November.

Friday, April 02, 2010

windows of grace

One of the joys of Mexico is encountering what can only be called architectural oddities.

The door that does not seem to lead anywhere.  The church facade that looks vaguely like an afterthought.  The stairs with uneven risers.

Or this.

I stayed in the Hotel Hacienda when I went north to Puerto Vallarta for my zipline adventure.  It is one of the older hotels in Puerto Vallarta's Hotel Zone.  Not on the beach.  The poor cousin of the swankier resorts with their infinity pools and white-liveried waiters.

But I did not need luxury.  I needed nothing more than Motel 6 convenience.  A place to stay close to the marina to pick up my friends when their ship came in.

The room was adequate.  But the moment I came through the door, I noticed a heavy odor.  Perhaps the room had been closed up too long.

When I unpacked, I started looking around for the source of the odor.  I should have recognized the vaguely rotten egg smell of methane.  It was nothing more than sewer gases venting through the shower stall drain.

I covered the drain with the rubber shower mat to at least cut off some of the gas.

Then, I saw it.  The window.  Curved and stylish as Susana González.  As stark as a Chanel.  Someone poured their art into the design of this hole in the wall.

But, like so many things in this land that I love, form appeared to be everything.  Because the function was merely to open the window into the bedroom.  Or so I thought.

Until I opened my balcony door.  With both windows open, the bathroom window almost becomes another opening to the outside world. 

Really very clever.  While indulging in morning ablutions, you can pretend you are looking into the hotel's inner courtyard.

Architectural oddity?  Sure.

But this one works in beauty and practice.


Thursday, April 01, 2010

angel in the wings

In room with a vista, I mentioned that something odd happened while I was in the hospital.

I said not more only because I am very skeptical of tales like this.  I pride myself on being a son of the Enlightenment.  I dislike superstition.

You know the setup.  I needed help to resolve my hotel and computer problems.  The young woman who showed up to help said that the hotel would need a note to allow her to check me out of the hotel.

I asked for her name -- to include it in the note. She handed me her ID card that was clipped on her lapel.

As I was writing her name down, her first name struck me: "Leticia."

I have known only one other Leticia.  She was a young Salvation Army officer stationed at Salem several years back.  A good friend.

She was one of the most generous and kind people I have ever met.  Prior to coming to Salem, she developed a severe medical condition that required a kidney transplant.  Her husband, who bore no blood relationship, turned out to be a perfect transplant match.  So, he gave up one of his kidneys for the sake of his wife.

The love that the two of them shared was contagious to our congregation.  The few years we shared with them added depth to our lives.

Leticia's condition finally won out over her body.  She died this past year.  And I have been thinking of her and her husband for months.

When the young woman in the hospital handed me her ID, I commented it was a pretty name and one shared by a friend. She responded: "She must be a good friend." I responded: "She is."

The mere mention of her name put me in a good spirit as I waited for part of my life to be set well.
When she returned with all of my goods, she also told me I could stay in the hospital an extra night. With one mission most of my concerns were resolved.

I was so busy, I did not thank her properly.  I hobbled out to the nurses' station and asked for Leticia's telephone extension.

They told me no one named Leticia worked there.

When I described her, they said her name was something starting with an "M." Marta or something like that.
There is no doubt it was the same woman. She acknowledged doing all of the tasks. But her name tag -- what I thought was exactly the same tag she showed me -- clearly had a name other than "Leticia."I do not know what all this means.  There could be plenty of rational explanations.  I just don't have one.

All I know is that I am glad she was there.

More than that, it is a marvelous memorial to my friend, Leticia.  The service rendered is exactly what she would have offered.  Service with generosity and love.

I am not certain I need to understand anything more than that.

Note: You can read more about