Wednesday, September 29, 2010

seeds of construction

Summer is having a fitful death in Oregon.

The last few days have started out cloudy.  But the humidity promised high temperatures by noon.  And Mother Nature delivered.

Septembers are usually pleasant in the Willamette Valley.  What is missing this year is that sharp coolness in the morning.  Reminding us that Jack Frost's wand is not far off.

But it also means great tomatoes.

One thing I have missed in Mexico is high quality tomatoes.  Melaque offers excellent fruit and vegetable choices.  With the noticeable exception of tomatoes.  Most of the tomatoes are as tasteless as the sad choices at my local Safeway.

And, of course, most of the year in Oregon, that is what we are stuck with.  Tomatoes that are indistinguishable from the hard and tasteless nectarines on the neighboring shelf.

But not in September.  That is when the heirloom tomatoes are at their finest.  And, usually, at a premium.  When my Safeway has them, they usually run around $12 (USD) a pound.

The best place to buy heirloom tomatoes is at the local Saturday Market -- a few blocks from my house.  The tomatoes are fresh from the field.  But they usually cost about the same as Safeway's offerings.

Not this last Saturday.  Due to some unseasonably early rains, the tomato (and wine grape) harvest suffered.  I ran into one small retailer who was trying to move the last of his inventory -- at $2 (USD) a pound.  A real bargain.

I grabbed a few treasures and scurried home with them -- where they became the star attractions in a Greek salad.  The best I have had on my trip north this year.

What I now need to do is grow some of my own heirloom tomatoes in Mexico.  Jennifer Rose found some heirlooms in Morelia.  She saved the seeds and started her own crop.

The last thing I need in Mexico is to be tied to a vegetable garden.  After all, I have put off buying a dog until I get the travel bug out of my system.  But I should be able to deal with a few tomato plants.

This weekend, I will pick up a few overripe tomatoes, dry the seeds, and slip them across the border in November.

It may turn out to be the best of both worlds.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

peter, paul, and mary take a trip

 Nostalgia can be an eccentric tour guide.

Yesterday I was making my final plans for my return home to Mexico.  Plans that turned out to be a bit more convoluted than I had anticipated.

Maybe it is my age.  Maybe it is my love of music.  But the more I tried to focus on setting up my airline reservations, the more I could hear Mary Travers's warble:  'Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane/Don't know when I'll be back again.

I thought my return to Mexico would be rather simple.  I was going to buy a motorcycle and head south around the end of October.   

That plan fell through when my right ankle refused to heal enough to handle the weight of a nice road bike.  There would be nothing more humiliating than dumping an eighteen thousand dollar piece of machinery simply because I had the ankle of a ninety year old anchorite.

That left airplanes.  And I knew snowbird season would quickly limit my options.  About six weeks ago, I look at flights to Manzanillo for 30 October and 6 November.  Almost completely full on both days.

My return date depended a lot on the Latin American Bloggers' Conference in mid-November.  Because the conference is on the other side of Mexico (in Merida), I decided to fly -- until I saw the prices for internal flights in Mexico.  I could fly to London from Portland for the price of a ticket.

But I remembered a little trick used by a Mexican business friend.  He often takes flights from one Mexico city to another by adding a leg to a city in the United States.  His advice was sound.  I could save $500.

So, here is my drill.  I will be flying to Cancun from Portland on 10 November where I will meet up with a blogger friend.  We will drive to Merida for the bloggers' conference, and spend a few days touring Yucatan.  There should be plenty of blog tales there.

Then I will fly to Los Angeles from Cancun -- and on to Manzanillo.  Even flying first class, I will save money.

There is a lesson here about the downsides of airfare regulation.  But that is for another post.

For now, I am simply happy that I have plans to be heading to Mexico on that elusive jet plane.  Fueled with nostalgia.

Monday, September 27, 2010

capitol fog

The walk to work this morning could not have been better.

Well, it could be.  I could be enjoying retirement, instead.  But everything else was a Goldilocks morning.

The temperature was 60.  Nice shirt sleeve weather.

More like an early summer morning.  No nip of fall.   Just right for sitting outside drinking coffee and eating croissants.  As some are wont to do.

When I left the house, the sky was perfectly clear.  And the sun was just beginning to peek over the Cascades.

Despite the warm morning weather, though, it is fall.  By the time I started walking through the state government campus, an autumn fog rolled in from the Willamette.

My walks to work are starting to become utilitarian.  How I get from A to Q.  As a result, I am losing my pedestrian instinct to enjoy my surroundings.

Today was no different.  My head was already at work.  But, as I walked past a fellow drudge, he looked past me with a bit of amazement in his eyes.

I turned around to see one of those sights that makes walking a joy.  The sun was just above the horizon shining through the fog around the Capitol dome -- reflecting everything in a fountain pool.

One of those moments that remind me that Oregon is great place to live.

And there I was without my camera.  But my BlackBerry can operate as a camera.  So, shoot I did.

The resolution is bad.  Flat.  You cannot see the depth of the fog and the interplay of light on the water.  My Panasonic could have done justice to the shot.

But most things we photograph reside in our minds, not in our photographs.  And that is where this one will live.

Not a bad way to start a Monday morning.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

ups and downs in so cal

I am back in Oregon after a week in southern California.

And a truly American week it was.  Disneyland.  The roller coasters of Magic Mountain.  Warner Brothers Studio.

Lots of activity.  And lots of life to digest.  But I will pass on only a few hors d'œuvre.

You have already heard the tales of Disney.  Even with the small disappointment involving the room reservations, it was a nice time.  All shiny and orderly.

Driving from Disneyland to Magic Mountain is like traveling from Sweden to Italy.  Where Disneyland has an aura of neurotic tidiness, Magic Mountain is as spontaneously disorganized as a Sicilian wedding.  And while Disneyland is fun, Magic Mountain is awash in adrenalin.

I remember the first time I saw Magic Mountain.  I was driving south to Los Angeles on I-5 in 1972.  Middle of the night through the San Gabriel Mountains.  And there it was.  Off to the west.  An amusement park.  All lit up.  In the middle of nowhere.  It looked as out of place as a harlot at a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

It took me 38 years, but I finally got there.  And it is not the same park I originally saw that dark night.

Magic Mountain is one of the meccas of the roller coaster cult.  From kiddie coasters to teen fright machines, they are all there.  17 roller coasters.  14 operating when we visited.  And we rode most of them.

At the top of the scream heap is X2 -- "the world’s first 5th dimension roller coaster," in rolliespeak.

Whatever that phrase means, and I think it means X2 will unloosen joints you never knew you had, it is an engineering marvel.  The seats extend off the track to the sides and hang mid-air --allowing them to rotate 360 degrees around the 3,600  feet of steel track.

Imagine being in a rotating chair on top of a 20 story building and being pushed off backwards.  At 76 miles per hour.  And then being rotated upside down through a cork screw turn.

I haven't felt a rush like that since my pilot training days.  And, like all good things, it is over far too quickly.

But that wasn't the only adventure.  The Terminator is a modern coaster disguised as a wooden one.  It may look classic, but it has the soul of a Ferrari.

If I lived in southern California, I would probably visit the park regularly -- even though the drive to and from Valencia is almost as exciting.

Hmm.  I wonder if there are any roller coaster parks back home in Mexico?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

it's a sad world, after all

Rant warning.  Cantankerous author ahead.

I have turned enough pages in life to know no matter how much planning you do and how good your intentions may be, life simply does not turn out as you planned.

Disneyland is no exception.  I planned this trip as a thank-you present for the fellow who has been sitting my house -- and to celebrate his twenty-first birthday.

Because he has a technical background in sound and camera work, he had been looking forward to seeing Disney's new World of Color show at California Adventure.

During my last two visits to Disneyland, I have saved money on lodging by staying at the Best Western motel across the street from the amusement park.  It was close.  And, the accommodations -- as most Best Westerns are -- was adequate.

But I wanted to do something special on this trip.  I decided we would stay at Disney's newest -- and grandest -- hotel: the Grand Californian.

I am not easily shocked at room prices.  But I must admit when I looked at the room prices on line, I was a bit shocked.  And that was for a standard room.  I gritted my teeth and upgraded to a park view room with concierge service -- nearly doubling the price. 

In some benighted homage to my Scottish past, I unchecked the trip insurance box.  After all, you cannot be too extravagant.  And I noted we would be celebrating a birthday.

I paid my deposit, and a few days later I received a rather nasty email that I had not yet paid the full amount.  So, I sent off the balance.

When we arrived on Wednesday, we were greeted by some of the most cheerful people on earth.  Through all the mirth, you could almost miss the sucking sound of dollars disappearing from your wallet.

The moment we started looking for the room, I knew something was wrong.  We were on the wrong side of the building.  When I opened the blinds to the balcony, the hoped-for park view was an asphalt view.

A quick check at the front desk indicated something had gone wrong.  The reserved room was a standard room with no concierge service, but I was charged for trip insurance.  And no mention of a birthday.

Of course, there were apologies all around, but no park view rooms were available.

I would like to say I accepted life as it was.  After all, here I was in the happiest place on earth and I was letting a little room mix up ruin my day.  And I did.  Even after my house sitter said he was happy with the room.  After all, it was Disneyland he wanted to see. 

It did not matter that we were paying almost four times as much as we would at the Best Western -- and were still staying in the equivalent of a Best Western room.

I eventually recovered from my own disappointment.  World of Color turned out to be quite nice.  Nice enough I watched it two nights in a row.  And we have had at least one decent meal.

But all things tend to be ruined by repetition.  I may have had my Disney fix for this life -- or, at least, this decade.

I am looking forward to a day of roller coasters at Magic Mountain on Sunday, and to learn something at Warner Brothers Studio on Monday.

Even a rant cannot go on that long.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

out of routine

In Mexico, I would start every morning with a bowl of cereal, a banana, and a steady diet of my favorite blogs.

While enjoying the morning sun in my garden, I would read up on what was going on in the various states of Mexico -- and add my comments to the conversations.  It was fun.  And as regular as the phases of the moon.

That memory got me to thinking about life here in Oregon.  Instead of reading the blogs at my leisure, I now feel rushed to get through them at the end of the day.  And I do not comment as much as I once did.

The primary cause is too obvious to even mention.  But I will.  Returning to work means my time is no longer my own.  I am selling it to my employer.  And I get a good bargain out of it.

And then there are the other demands on my time.  Because I am going to be here only for a limited amount of time, I have been booked for most evenings and weekends since I came north.

What was recreation in Mexico has almost turned into a task.  Like most tasks, it slips down my list of interests.  There is simply something about the rushed life style north of the border that turns joy into drudgery.  As if a mad alchemist had been turned loose amongst us.

But there will be a change in my work routine for the next week.  I am heading to southern California to experience Disneyland, Magic Mountain, and Warner Brothers Studios.  None of that lends itself to blog-reading.

But as my buddy Calypso says: STAY TUNED.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

drained and dirty

News from Melaque.  The laguna has been drained.

Periodically, the dunes between the ocean and the laguna are breached to allow the lake water to flow out into the sea. The water.  The water hyacinths.  The sea lettuce.  And assorted bits of trash.

A friend informed me yesterday that the water in the laguna was drained, and our little inlet is bereft of water.  But there is still plenty of vegetation to be cleaned out.  The only problem now is working in the mud.  And it is a lot more difficult to work in that than in the croc-infested water.

There is no word on the young croc.  But they are resilient, and there is still plenty of water in the deeper part of the laguna.

I wish I had some photographs for you.  But, if you want photographs, my good friend Sparks has some for you.  What washes out of the laguna ends up on the beaches of Melaque.  Sparks has some great clean-up photographs.

Seven weeks from now, I will be able to give you my first hand observations.  It does not take long for the laguna to fill up -- and the water hyacinths to return.

Friday, September 10, 2010

line dancing in salem

A nation of bureaucrats.

I have heard that refrain from several of my expatriate friends in Mexico.  Inevitably, the accusation is followed with a tale of woe involving long lines -- or bribery -- or illogical requirements -- or all of the above.

The cliche ranks right up there with sombreros and snoozing campesinos.

Of course, there is a smattering of truth.  Mexico loves paper.  And it loves giving jobs to people who believe that stamping and signing are the host and wine of good government.  I have been amazed at the effect that a blurred stamp on a piece of paper can have on a Mexican citizen.  Whether it is an FM3 or a letter of residency.

Even though a lot of governmental operations in Mexico appear to be inefficient, once you know the process, it is no more complicated than the samba.  Complex, but not complicated.

All of that came to mind today while I was sitting in line to get a small card from my national government.

I once had a Social Security card.  I remember my mother driving me into Portland to the federal building to get a Social Security number.  Unlike American children today, who cannot leave the womb without being registered into the Social Security system, I did not get a number until I was in the fifth grade.

It was my first job.  Pulling weeds for the Oak Grove branch of First State Bank.  But I had to have a Social Security number.  This was no under-the-table employment.  I was a working man who would early learn about the joy of working hard and having governments withhold part of my pay.

I remember having the card into my early college days.  Whenever I started a new job, I had to pull it out and put the number on some form or other.  No need to memorize it.  I needed to use it only every other year or so.

Then I entered federal service where my identification number was my Social Security number.  I memorized it because it went onto some form every week.  Having memorized the number, I thought I would no longer need the card.

Fast forward forty years.  All of a sudden, everyone wants proof that I was born in the United States.  And one of the few approved documents is a Social Security card.

I tried getting a new one through the mail.  No dice.  The cards are the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone -- or some religious rite.  They reacted as if I had ordered holy water through the mail.

So, during my lunch hour, I walked down to the local Social Security office.  I knew it was not going to be a quick trip when I saw a waiting room filled with enough people to fill a First Class bus to Guadalajara. 

I took my number and sat down.  At least, I remembered to bring along my Kindle.  For some reason, I took great comfort in reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's dealings with Nazi Germany while I waited for the line to clear.  I arrived at 11:27 AM.  My number was called at 12:28 PM.

A friend of mine recently argued condescension is the currency of bureaucracy.  My experience with Oregon DMV earlier this year would be proof of that.  But not my experience with the Social Security clerk today.

Other than having to swear that everything I said would meet Plato's definition of Truth, the process was simple.  In 9 minutes, I was done.  In two weeks, I should have a replacement for my long-lost card.

What I have learned is that there is no need to rail against the system -- whether in Mexico or in Salem.  The system is what the system will be.  In this instance, it afforded me an opportunity to work on my patience while reading a darn good book.

Patience is one of those virtues I often hear extolled by expatriates.  You can't survive without it, they say.

And they are right.  But life is not to be endured.  It is to be relished. 

And a Kindle in hand is relish enough for me these days.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

bandits need not apply

Crime in Mexico is in the news again.

Before you say: "Here we go again with hysterical stories of how dangerous Mexico is!"  Just listen up a minute.  Sometimes, the news is good.
Most of us who live in Mexico have a completely different perception of how dangerous the place is than do our friends and family.  I received two letters this week from friends who made that very point.

A classmate from law school, who lives in Honolulu, has been concerned about my safety in Mexico since I moved south.  But now he has an alternative life style for me:

I am very concerned about your personal safety as the drug cartels seem to be extending their waves of killings and violence further south from the U.S./Mexican Border.  Can you arm yourself when you go to Mexico. What about retiring to Arizona or New Mexico or Nevada?

Ironically, a friend in Nevada (Lovelock, to be specific -- you have to love the name) sent me similar sentiments:

I assume you have seen the news about car bombs and politicians hiring prisoners as assassins in Mexico.  Tell me again why you want to live there.

I understand the sentiments.  I hear it almost every week from my colleagues at lunch.  They are content to believe the horror stories they hear on CNN are a daily occurrence in every Mexican village.

But those of us who live in Mexico know they are just that. Sentiments.

There are real crime problems in Mexico.  Most of it related to the war between the government and the drug lords -- not to mention the war the drug lords have going with one another.  But that violence is mainly clustered around the border with the United States.  And, even then, most of the dead are involved, to some degree, in the drug trade.

But in most of our villages, violence tends to be be more personal -- and almost universally involves a love triangle that has imploded like a black hole.  Love killings are always second cousins to the St. Valentine's Day massacre.  Not pretty.

Now there are numbers to support those of us who refuse to join the Chicken Little Brigade.

Mexico’s homicide rate is 14 per 100,000 inhabitants.  That is three times as high as the homicide rate in the United States.  But that is not saying much.

Twenty large American cities have homicide rates higher than that.    A couple 4 times higher.  Ironically, Brazil, Mexico's Latin American power rival, has a homicide almost twice as high as Mexico's.  And I do not hear anyone being advised to stay away from Rio.

But most areas of Mexico are as peaceful as Canada -- safer than some urban areas of Canada.  Including most of Mexico's resorts.  And including my small fishing village by the sea.

The morally disturbing drug war would keep me out of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Durango.  But I am certain there are peaceful areas there, as well.  But not for me.

Crime is not an issue for me in Mexico.  When I return, I will be as cautious as I am in Salem.

There are real things to enjoy in life.  Being afraid of bogeyman criminals is not one of them.


Monday, September 06, 2010

the garden of good and evil

Labor Day.

America's answer to the Euro-centric red May Day.

The unofficial start of political campaigns -- as if they ever stopped.

The last day before the kiddos head back to school -- the unofficial end of summer.

None of that really interested me this year.  I am not a laborite -- red or otherwise.  I long ago gave up any interest in politics.  And the lack of children in my household makes any gleeful thoughts of back-to-school rather churlish -- if not merely mad.

Instead, I celebrated my unpaid day away from work with -- work.  Yard work, to be more precise.

I have a lawn service that does a very good job of taking care of my lawn.  But there are always those pesky borders where weeds invade with impunity.

The border beds have gone untended for the full year I was in Mexico -- and for most of the past few months while I was hobbled inside.  They are not a pretty sight.

Thistles.  Blackberries.  Dandelions.  Violets.  Oxalis.  Some old foes.  Some new ones.

I should have started the war in the spring.  But that is the common complaint of every ancient general.  Most of the weeds have already gone to seed.  And the next generation is just waiting for me to leave.

A rational mind would decide to wait until next spring.  Not me.  It was Labor Day -- and there was labor to be expended.

Armed with my orange-handled trowel and my favorite pair of shears, I hacked my way through more jungle than Henry Stanley encountered in his search for Livingston.  Most of the battles were hand-to-stem -- with row after row of weeds falling to what passed for obsessive tenacity.

I eventually stopped when the recycle barrel was full.  In a less green time, I would have lit a fire and taken on another patch of weedy land.  But we live in a kinder and gentler time -- where our neighbors are spared the white smoke of smoldering weeds.

I plopped the barrel back in place on the concrete pad next to my house.  And I quickly discovered why I had been stung while pulling the ivy on the fence in that area. 

The rumble of the wheeled barrel sent up a small swarm of Western yellow jackets.  They had managed to dig a tunnel in the dirt abutting the pad -- giving them a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired cantilevered concrete roof.

But they were not happy I was playing Santa Claus on their roof.  When the flight died down, I stuffed the garden hose down the hole and tried flooding them out.  It seemed another green solution.  But it was just as unsuccessful.

If the nest was somewhere on the property away from activity, I would leave them alone.  But their presence is an inconvenient truth that must come to, what a friend of mine termed, "an Irish, not an American ending."

Tomorrow I will seek chemical assistance -- stand-off wasp spray.  Until then, I will allow a short period of detente

As for me, the Labor Day is over.  Tomorrow I will return to my short-term job.

But, at least, my borders are now in better shape than some national ones.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

birds of a feather

A guest post today from my mother -- in Bend.  A bit of avian poetry.

Tonight, I have a blue jay -- or is it a California jay? -- eating in the back yard.  I have three bird feeders hanging on the fence. The jay eats on the ground. 

At about this time of evening the quail come and they too are ground eaters. In the morning and evening the smaller birds fly in for breakfast and dinner. 

The other evening I looked out and there were over thirty back birds on the ground. There were more in the air -- just arriving.  I walked outside and they all flew away, squawking their heads off.

I was out in the yard this afternoon pulling weeds when they flew over.  I interpreted their chatter to be: "Keep going.  She is outside."

They kept on flying.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

into the books

Big news.

My Kindle arrived yesterday.  I ordered it when Amazon cut the prices on its latest generation of electronic readers.  Back in late July.

Every new product has a certain marketing point -- when enough buyers are willing to buy it.  Most consumers are conservative.  They take a Missouri attitude until the product sells enough copies to become part of the landscape.

I was one of the waiters on Kindles.  Usually, I buy each new electronic contraption when it hits the market.  But when the Kindle came out, I was heading to Mexico, and the last thing I needed was another expensive electronic device that would simply corrode in the tropical humidity.

The lack of a good book source in my village convinced me the Kindle would be perfect for me.

But there was the price.  At $400 (USD), it was a bit expensive to simply use for the year I anticipated it would last in the Mexican weather.

That changed in July.  Amazon issued  new generation of readers -- and reduced the price to under $200.  It was now worth the risk.

Apparently, a lot of other people thought the same thing.  Amazon ran out of its supply in a matter of days.  And it still has not caught up with the backlog of orders.

I decided to buy the Kindle rather than an iPad for two reasons.  The first is rational.  I wanted the best reader I could find.  The iPad screen is backlit, and cannot easily be read in the sunlight.  The Kindle can.  And we have a bit of sunshine in Mexico.  The Kindle easily won that competition.

The second reason is more personal.  My niece threatened to kill me if I bought an iPad.  She is not fond of Apple products.

There are a lot of books that can be loaded onto the Kindle free.  I started with Anna Karenina (because I stole a quote from Tolstoy in my post about my family) and Alice in Wonderland (simply because I like Carroll's word play -- something that was sorely missing from Tim Burton's recent film).  They were a joy to read.

Wednesday night I purchased two newer books.  A novel (Freedom) by Jonathan Franzen (that received a very good review in the current edition of The Economist) and a widely-praised biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas).  I will attempt to leave both unread until I get south -- even though it is tempting to start reading them now.

But there will be other books.  Even though I can buy additional books while I am in Mexico (and have them delivered to my Kindle while I walk the streets of Melaque), I would like to buy more volumes (it is going to be hard to come up with new words for electronic books) before I head south.

I had no doubt I could use a Kindle.  Now that I have it, I intend to use it to its full advantage.  I can even get The Economist delivered directly to my reader on the day it is printed.  That will be worth the price of the reader itself.  No more three week old magazines to read.  Well, at least not that magazine.

So, there it is.  I told you it was big news.  Not as big as getting married or something like that.

But, for a book-deprived reader in Mexico, it will be a great tool.

I can hear a hammock calling me now.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

blowin' in the wind

I miss the change of seasons in Mexico.

I have probably said that about a hundred times this past year.  Of course, if you have lived in Mexico, you know the statement is false.  Mexico has seasons.  Even in my tropical niche.  They just feel different.

Of course, what I mean is I miss the wide variations in temperature I grew up with in Oregon.

I was thinking about that on Tuesday evening as I sat in the hot tub reading.  The last two days have not been typical August days.  Overcast skies.  Some clearing.  Cooler temperatures.  And yesterday -- rain.

On my ride to work with a colleague, we talked about how summer seems to be ending about a month too soon.  Even Septembers in Oregon can be summery.  But not this year.  Even a few of the trees are starting to show fall colors.  Just highlights right now.  Like an aging beauty who needs a touch of color to liven up her do.

What caught my attention in the hot tub was the breeze.  It had been slight all day.  But, it switched from breeze to wind in seconds.  And from a different direction.  If I had been on a sail boat, the canvas would have filled and snapped.  An omen that change was in the air.

And change there is.  But I will hold off on that until tomorrow.

For now, I will simply note, like everything else in life, the seasons are changing.