Thursday, June 30, 2011

open a new window

I have been making ready for my month-long sojourn to the Mexican highlands -- where kilts are as rare as bagpipes.

And, of course, whenever I try to slip back into a schedule in this timeless land, the plan does not survive its “to do” stage.

I re-learned that lesson first with laundry.  For some reason, my laundress has not opened her business for the last two weeks.  So, I decided to revert to a do it myself project.  Of course, that is when the rains hit.  I have a washing machine at the house, but no dryer.  Line drying and monsoons are not a good mix.

I set off in the rain to find an alternate laundry and did.  On that drive, I put the electric windows in the truck up and down with no problem.  After dropping my clothes off, my right front window would not go up.  And the passengers windows would not go down.

Windows stuck up in the rain are not a problem.  But an open window was simply an invitation to both the rain and any light-fingered shoppers that might stray by.

On Tuesday morning, I headed off to an automotive electrical shop recommended by my land lady.  Closed.  Cerrado.  Not there.  Maybe he was vacationing with my laundress. 

As a last ditch effort, I decided to stop at the mechanic who has replaced my windows.  If he could not do the work maybe he could refer me to some one else.

Now, I have taken enough cars, toasters, and televisions to repair shops to know that the most embarrassing circumstance is for the repairman to simply flip the offending switch and everything works fine.  I have been there more than my share.

So, I tried the obvious steps to isolate the problem.  No fuse issues.  No exposed loose wires.  And I tried pressing the toggle switch with varying degrees of pressure.  Nothing.  The window was as immovable as a Coldstream Guard in front of Buckingham Palace.

I stopped at the shop.  Told the owner my problem.  He speaks great English -- having worked in a Corvallis body shop for over a dozen years.  And demonstrated how the switch would not work.

He said he had a rudimentary understanding of electrical windows, and agreed to give it a shot.  The first thing he did was try the switch.  And, of course, it opened wider than the mouth of the great fish that consumed Jonah.

He gave me the look I have seen many a time.  And I gave the Mexican salute.

For now, I am not going to worry about it.  The electrical system in my truck is deteriorating faster than the transmission.  In addition to having issues with three windows, my dome light and the moon roof are not working properly.  An electrical overhaul will be due when I return.

But, for now, the Non-electrifying Escape and I are planning to launch on Friday. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

howard platt has died

My friend, Howard Platt, died in a hospital in Prince Rupert about midnight on Monday.

A number of you know him through his comments on this blog.  But you know him best for the bird photographs he would submit and his encyclopedic knowledge of those fascinating feathered creatures.

Howard is one of the reasons I moved to Melaque.  He was a frequent contributor to the local message board, always willing to share his best birding spots in the area.

As luck would have it, he moved to Manzanillo while I was moving to Melaque.  For the years I have been here, we tried to set up times to go birding.  But circumstances would always get in the way.

But I would see him at various art functions, fundraisers, or in Walmart.  He was always ready to share his very English wit and his take on things local or international.

I learned quickly that he is the type of man for which the term "gentleman" was coined.  He was always respectful of his wife, Ewa, and treated everyone with the type of civility that is not often seen in public.

Just before he went north to Canada this year, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.  The treatments in Colima were going quite well.  But he contracted a cold in British Columbia that quickly led to his death. 

Howard and Ewa celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary in that hospital room, in Ewa's words -- "an ocean view room with bald eagles flying by, ravens being buzzed by crows, and swallows hunting for bugs."  Howard loved his birds, but he loved Ewa even more.

While Howard was on the road, we arranged to set up our long-delayed birding trip.  Both of us knew that it might never occur.  But he was both an optimist and a realist.  Two traits for I came to respect in him.

I will miss that birding trip, Howard.  And I will miss you.  But I will never miss the part of you that has changed me for the better.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

shelling in the rain

It took its time getting here, but it is officially the rainy season.

Even though it did not quite rise to Wagnerian proportions, the rain arrived Sunday night accompanied with some thunder and a few lightening effects.  More Les Misérables than Götterdämmerung.

But I could hear the rain falling -- even above the hum of my sleep-inducing floor fan.  It sounded as if I had left the shower running full blast.

When I got up on Monday morning, the garden looked renewed.  The plants that had started to droop in the summer heat were revived.

My neighbors were strolling along the laguna.  The best thing about the summer rains is how the air seems to be immediately cooled.  The temperature was 81 degrees and the humidity was high.  But the air felt cool.  Cool enough that each walker wore a jacket.


But I discovered I was not alone on the patio.  As I sat down, what looked like a large stone took off at quite a pace toward the shrubbery.  So, I grabbed it and picked it up.

Being picked up was not what it had in mind as a good time.  Its feet started windmilling to good effect -- the claws managing to take a bit of flesh.

I am not certain what it was.  I suspect a tortoise.  But I know Gary Denness can let us know.  He may have left his turtles in Mexico, but his knowledge travels well.

I put it down, and off it scurried in a very non-tortoise fashion.  Just as I returned to follow Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin through another game of world poker, nature decided it was time for a rain encore.  Not one of the piddly, puddly showers we have had over the past two weeks.  More like Iguazu Falls.


When the rains come, I like to drive around town to see how quickly the streets fill with water.  This drive revealed why we do not refer to our street pavers as cobblestones.  They are called river rock.

From now until October or so, the rains will return to give us a bit of relief from the summer heat and humidity.  Temporary relief.  By the afternoon, the sun had returned to perform its alchemy of turning cool air into tropical damp.

This Friday I will see whether rains in San Miguel are better or worse than the June rains of Melaque. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

getting squeezed below the border

When I was a lad, my father nicknamed me “The Grape.”

My disposition made me a sucker for every hard luck story and con man who came down Snake Oil Alley.

I suppose I still am.  Strike that.  I am.  No suppose about it.

And I can do it to myself.  As I did this past week.

Any of you who have been reading this blog for any time will know that I have certain eccentricities.  One of them being that I -- generally -- do not like foods that being with the letter “c.”

That includes “candy.”  I do not have a very well-developed sweet tooth.

But there is one big exception -- Smarties.  Those little discs of what appear to be compacted Pixie Stix.  Or Kool-Aid.  I am not certain there is any difference. 

But my tongue loves the combination of tart and sweet in those fruity white, yellow, pink, orange, purple, and green tablets.  They are one of the memories of my childhood in Powers.  My own little Rosebuds.

So, you can imagine my excitement when I saw a bag of candy in Walmart.  Little discs wrapped in clear cellophane.  And clearly labeled as “tangy candy.”  And that name -- “Aciditas.”  If they were not Smarties, they were their first cousins.

I grabbed my treasure and headed home.

No dream lasts for long.  And this one did not last past the Walmark parking lot.  I tore the bag open and unwrapped one of the cellophane packs.  There they were.  Just like Smarties.  Same shape.  Same feel.  Almost the same smell.

But reality kicked in just as the first tablet hit my tongue.  There was no tang.  Just sugar.  And no semblance of a fruity taste -- artificial or not. 

Worst of all was the consistency.  One crunch turns Smarties into its constituent Kool-Aid.  Not Aciditas.  They are harder than that lump candy grandmothers serve to their charges.  The type of candy that coagulates into one giant clump.  The stuff that gives meaning to "Hard Candy Christmas.”

The best thing about living in Mexico is that when I make these purchase errors, someone will gladly take the mistake off of my hands.  In this case it was the neighbor children.  They had none of my qualms about eating the stuff.  And I had no qualms about contributing to one of the world's highest rates of diabetes.

So, Dad.  I may not have mentioned you on Father’s Day.  But your legacy is sound. 

I am still “The Grape.” 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

showering alone


I like the word.  I love the smell.

That distinctive perfume that dirt and concrete emit after the first hint of rain.

I miss it down here.  Our rains usually descend on us with the subtly of Lord Byron’s Assyrian hordes -- a metaphor I can no longer recall without hearing Ogden Nash’s warning to simile-besotted writers.  Advice I obviously do not take to heart.

Because I live in the tropics, our rains tend to be tropical.  Torrents.  Deluges.  Niagara Falls without the barrel.

The petrichor does not rise,  I suspect it is there.  Buried beneath the Noah-like waters that are left behind by our summer rains.

But there are exceptions.  And this year’s weather is certainly one.  By now, the grey jungle should be building its canopy.  We have had only two brief rain encounters.  And the jungle sits out there -- unclad and sulking.

Then last evening something very unusual happened.  A shower.  A spring shower that must have got lost on its way from the Pacific Northwest.

Franklin Roosevelt and I were sitting on the patio.  He was negotiating with the Japanese in November 1941.  And I was flipping pages to see what would happen next.  I don’t want to ruin it for you, but the negotiations did not go well.

Just before the sun set, everything went quiet.  The wind becalmed.  The roosters put a truce on their declarations of territorial supremacy.  And the feisty, cinnamon-colored hummingbird stopped chiding whoever it is he bosses about every afternoon.

And then it started.  A drop here.  A drop there.  As if Chac had decided to show his feminine side by using a watering tin instead of a bucket.

I put down my book and did what everyone around here does when it starts raining -- stood in its refreshing stream.  It felt good.

But nowhere near as good as that fresh rain scent that holds the promise of a fresh start.

That the past can simply remove its clammy hand.  There are good things to be lived.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

a sparrow in the bushes

Edith Piaf must be hiding somewhere around here.  She of La Vie en rose fame.

For the past three nights, I have been treated to one of those mysterious light tricks just before the sun sets. 

My garden walls and many of the flowers usually fall safely in the orange range of the color wheel.  But each evening around 8, something unusual happens.  The walls,  The flowers.  The trees.  The air itself.  All turn pink.

And not one of your lame pink lady, pink Cadillac pinks.  This pink is ethereal, but it is strong enough to seep into everything in the back yard.  As if a Ginger Rogers negligee’s soul had escaped into the ether.

I notice it most in my little kingdom because of its enclosed space.  Where pink calls unto pink.

But a walk around the laguna last night disclosed that the pink world at dusk is a universal phenomenon.  If Melaque were the universe. 

I suspect it is nothing more than a reflection of the sunset.  That is what my scientist friends would say.  Mere light refraction.  Nothing to get excited about.

But I am not a scientist.  And though also not a poet, I fall closer to that edge of this division of world views.

All I know is that it is beautiful.  And maybe, just maybe, this is one of the gifts that comes from our tropical heat.

Pink clouds and dreams that The Little Sparrow may have had it just right:

Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be
La vie en rose.

Note: If you would like to hear a bit of Edith in her prime, you can find her here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

being frank

I have been unfaithful.

To my Kindle.

You have heard me wax eloquent -- at least, at length --about my electronic reader since I bought it.  How I find reading on it far more convenient than a hardbound book.  How I can get my old hometown newspaper delivered each morning no matter where I am in the world.  How I can carry a full library with me on a trip and never have to worry about heft.

It was not always thus.  I brought down a stack of books when I moved to Mexico two years ago.

When I arrived, I started tearing through them.  Realizing I could not find a bookstore anywhere near this beach, I started rationing them.

Then came the Kindle.  And the remnant sat on my reading table gathering dust while I lavished all of my attention and praise on my new-found love from Amazon.

For some reason earlier this month, I looked at the stack.  Probably in the same way that mothers in nursing homes leaf through the birthday cards they once received from their children.

I picked up the largest of the lot -- laughing to myself that I once had to deal with the logistics of books that size.

Then I made the mistake of opening it up.  Reading one page after the other.  Getting a tactile joy out of feeling the texture of high quality paper on my fingertips.

The next thing I knew, I was three chapters deep in H.W. Brands’s Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  I was a little bit surprised at myself when I bought the biography.  Roosevelt is not a natural topic for a fellow with a libertarian bent.

But I had enjoyed Brands’s interesting and even-handed approach in Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.  Anyone who can handle the prickly topic of Jackson without causing eyes to roll, while opening those eyes to a new perspective, is a biographer worth reading.

The book is nearly a 1000 pages long.  I am about half way though it.  And half way is not enough to pass judgment.  But it is interesting enough that I want to finish it before I leave for San Miguel.

If I can’t finish it before I leave, I will take FDR with me.  From what I hear, he would fit right in to that colonial town in the highlands.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

cruisin’ the hood

When Captain Stubing and Julie McCoy start dissing Mexico, you know the world is just not quite right.

The headline was not new: “Mexico still not safe says cruise line.”  After all, Royal Caribbean pulled all of its ships off of the Pacific Mexico circuit last year – for reasons never adequately explained.  But everyone knew why.

This year it is Princess Cruise Lines – the Love Boat line itself – saying nasty things about the strip of Mexico I call home.  It is almost as if Mary Poppins showed up to tell us she is not practically perfect in every way.

According to Princess, the parts of Mexico that are not safe are Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta.  "As the safety and security of our passengers and crew is our highest priority, and based on the continued violence in these areas, we've made the decision to cancel our calls to Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán."  No punches pulled there.

I am not certain what to make of it.  Cruises are not the standard by which adventure should be measured.

Most of you know I enjoy a good cruise now and then.  But I am convinced that people who restrict themselves to cruising do so for a very good reason.  They are not adventurers.  They like the idea of their house following them around on their travels and having the ability to be herded from place to place with others of their own kind when they are in port.

They are certainly more adventurous than their neighbors who do not venture out of their homelands.  But  de Gama and Cabot they are not.

That does not make the Princess cancellation any easier for the cancelled ports.  After all, herds spend dollars.

When I was in Puerto Vallarta earlier in the month, the absence of cruise ships was apparent.  Where there was once a sea of faces that easily could have been in Calgary, there were now half-empty parking lots.

The irony is that both ports have spent the last year in attempting to reduce theft crimes.  Of course, no identify theft ring breakup is going to remove the image of decapitated bodies a thousand miles away.  It is almost as if Princess announced that it would no longer stop in Astoria because of the high crime rate in Chicago.

Nancy of countdown to méxico recently announced she is part of a project called “México Today.”  In her words, the “program is about generating positive, interesting, and informative pieces about México and using their website as well as social media (Facebook & Twitter) to share the México we know and love.”

I wish the group well.  Mazatlán is her home.  She has a right to take Princess’s cop-out personally.  Maybe someone should start by telling Hilary Clinton to knock it off with those hysteria-induced travel advisories.

As for me, I am going to be heading to San Miguel de Allende in just over a week to celebrate a different life style for a month.  No matter what Gopher and his gang have to say.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

not even zasu pitts

Have you ever felt stood up?  And by someone who was going to add a little zest to your life?

I do.

I was supposed to have a date with Beatriz on Tuesday afternoon.  And I do not mean the type of Beatriz who would chat on – at length – about her creation Peter, or the Dutch queen who would let me know my favorite suite at Brown’s was named after her grandmother – before being renovated.  The hotel.  Not her grandmother

The Beatriz I had in mind was the blustery hurricane that was supposed to rival Lear on the heath – with score by Richard Wagner.  It didn’t happen.

If you need the numbers, here is what my land lady had to report.

These are the stats from our Davis Weather Station on the beach in Villa Obregón, as of 1:00pm Tuesday:

Total precipitation from the storm: .40 inch
Total precipitation since midnight: .28 inch
Highest wind gust on Monday: 31mph
Highest wind gust on Tuesday: 23 mph
Currently not raining, wind 4 mph, temp 80 F, barometer steady at 29.75.

.40 inches of rain?  23 mph for a high gust of wind?

I have experienced more excitement listening to a sales presentation by a life insurance salesman.

So, no power outage.  No loss of internet.  No flying lawn chairs.  No coconut palms crashing onto the Shiftless Escape.

But there is that half inch of rain.  And it is a small down payment on our late rainy season.  When I got up this morning, the swallows were out in full force on the laguna.  I am assuming there must have been a large hatch of insects.  Mainly mosquitoes, if my patio is any indicator.

Even so, I am a bit wistful.  We could have made a great couple.

Maybe – next time.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

not so much gale storm as zasu pitts

It has begun.

Well, something has.  Beatriz is not yet here.  No sailboats have flown by the house on there way to dry dock at the hardware store.

But we have had winds.  More than breezes.  Nice gusts of wind.  Almost all day on Monday.

And then the rain.  Not a lot.  Not like what we receive at the height of the rainy season when I feel as if I live on a canal in Venice.  Just a brief steady downpour.  But not what we are still expecting.  A bit like Mike Huckabee warming up for the Grateful Dead.

I was going to put off preparing for any storm that may come our way until at least Tuesday morning.  But the wind and sprinkles were fair warning to get it done now.

I tracked down the water truck guy and bought a 4 liter bottle of water.  Then I ventured to the Pemex station to fill my tank.  Usually, a few drops of rain and we are without electricity for anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days.  No electricity, no pumps to pump gasoline.  And then I straightened up a few items outside that might develop unknown aerodynamic skills.

Tuesday morning (storm day), I will stop by the local store and buy a bag of ice.  After all, when the electricity ceases to run down the wires to my house, the refrigerator will stop cooling.  And I will not want to open the door unless it is necessary.  So my sandwich materials will penguin peacefully in the ice chest.

And the last thing for Monday – while I still have internet – is to put up this post.  Giving the impression I am in contact.  When I may or may not be.

But I assure you I will not be doing what these boys were doing on Monday evening.  Trying to take advantage of the challenge of the storm.

Monday, June 20, 2011

out of the blue

A little bit of rain cleans the air.  And the trees, apparently.

I have a large mango tree in the back yard.  For the past month it has been showering mangoes and leaves in my back yard.  I am accustomed to the sound of soft bits of flesh smashing on the pavers.

Just around dusk, I heard a large splat.  Something akin to a load of wet laundry being dropped from a red and blue hot air balloon.

We have had a bit of rain and wind during the day.  The type of weather that starts loosening up things not tightly secured.

I went out to see what was up – or, rather – down.  And this is what I found.

At first, I thought an alien had fallen out of a space ship.  Occam’s Razor was never one of my first principles.

Then I recognized it – or I thought I did.  It was one of the squirrel nests – sans squirrel.  Or, at least I hoped so.  But what it was not without was a bunch of very nasty little black bees who had apparently set up cohabitation with the squirrel.  And they were more than satisfied to take their anger out on me.

I let matters lie until my land lady and a friend stopped by to batten down the hatches of the upstairs unit.  I related my tale of the fallen black bees.  We took a closer look and discovered the bees were doing their best to both fix their storm-damaged and under-insured home.

Rather than wait until daylight, I grabbed a garbage bag and we rolled the lot into it.  Out to the garbage bin it went.

It will be interesting to see what else falls out of the sky in the next day or two.

blowing hot

Like almost everyone in Mexico, I have been complaining about our lack of rain.

Well, I think I am about to shut my big yap.  Rain is on the way.  Along with wind.  A lot of wind.

One of my friends in Oregon, Ron, sends me each storm warning for Pacific Mexico.  (I suspect it is a gentle hint that regular lunches in Wilsonville are less blustery than summer weather in Mexico.)  His most recent warning came on Sunday afternoon -- just as I was drafting this post.

Tropical Storm Beatriz is currently moving up the coast of Mexico gathering a head of steam as she waddles west-northwest.  It is the "north" in that advisory that causes some of us to have a bit of concern. 

Because even heading west-northwest will bring Beatriz for tea here on Christmas Bay around tea time on Tuesday.  And, if she develops the temper that the weathermen are predicting, she very well could be breaking tea cups -- as Hurricane Beatriz.

I should point out that we had a couple of hurricanes that were supposed to freight train Melaque two years ago.  They missed.  Unfortunately, in missing us, both hurricanes went on to knock the stuffing out of Baja.

We shall see whether our guest will bring us the blessing of rain or the gusts of minor destruction.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

lounging with the tiki

One of the things I enjoy most about Mexico is its celebration of the individual.

If you want to express yourself, Mexican society generally lets you get away with things that Nordic culture would declare beyond the pale.  In one sense, it is my own private libertarian refuge.

Now and then, something comes along down here that challenges my own acceptance of that concept, though.

When I lived on the beach, there was an ancient beach hut just two lots from where I was staying.  A small brick shack with a palm frond roof.  It was representative of the shacks that once lined the beach. 

Most are now gone.  Replaced with the type of houses that would be indistinguishable from any California beach.  Houses that blare the owner’s self-importance.

The beach shack had some nightmare memories for me.  A young couple lived there that treated one another badly, but they treated their baby much worse.  I won’t even mention how low on the totem pole their German Shepherd puppy was.  Every time I walked by, I was treated to some new horror.

But they are gone.  And so is the shack.

Apparently a woman from north of the border bought the lot.  I thought she would attempt to incorporate the shack as part of her building project.  A friend of mine did that to great effect.

But that was not to be.  She tore down the little brick shack with the thatched roof, and is building what appears to be -- a larger brick shack with a thatched roof.

Now, this is Mexico, and people can build whatever they darn well please on their land.  But I am curious what advantage came from tearing down something with character to replace it with what looks like a cross between the Disney Jungle Ride and the Tiki Lounge in Seattle.

But there is one advantage.  As you can tell from the photographs, it is a small place on a narrow lot – tucked between two much larger houses.  Nothing about this revamped beach shack will ever shout anything but humility.

And it is an individual take.  In that, it fits with Mexico.

I just purchased a new  book for my Kindle: Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans by Jorge G. Castañeda.  According to the review I read, Castañeda, a former foreign minister, sees three traits of the Mexican character getting in the way of the nation’s future: an individualist streak, a discomfort with confrontation, and a suspicion of foreigners.

It is the individualism trait that fascinates me the most.  I celebrate it; Castañeda seems to denigrate it.

As I read the book, I will share more.

In my individual way.  

Saturday, June 18, 2011

the game is afoot

There is a thief amongst us.

About a month ago I bought a bag of dog food that I would mete out to some of the skinny dogs I would see in rural areas.  It was not much, but it looked to be the best meal that some of them had had in some time.

When the rear window of my truck was broken, I unloaded several items to get them out of the way of the window repairmen.  The bag of dog food along with my sleeping bag and snorkel gear.

Thursday afternoon I noticed the dog food bag had been tampered with.  My thought was a stray cat had probably got into it.  Even though I was a bit surprised because it had a seal strip – and cats are not well-known for opening sealed packages.  Eat through them – yes.  But not open them.

Friday morning I found the bag half way across the patio.  Fully open.  And empty.  Some creature had a good night of eating.

I decided to throw the bag away and put my sleeping bag and snorkel gear back in the truck.  That was when I had my own Special Agent Gibbs moment from NCIS.  If I had been a crime scene investigator, the first thing I would have looked for would have been fingerprints.

And there they were.  On my sleeping bag.  I may as well have had a photograph of the culprit.

Well, I do have a photograph.  Not one of mine.  But here is one of his kin.


It is a coatimundi.  A white-nosed coatimundi to be more accurate.  Or, according to my Mexican neighbors, a tejón – a badger – which it is not.  But it is better than what one of the alcoholic expatriates in town thinks they are.  He insists they are baboons.

What they are is a cousin to the raccoon.  Not only do they bear some resemblance to raccoons, they also can get into exactly the same mischief as the raccoons in my Salem neighborhood.  Filching dog food being very close to the top of the list.

I would really like to see one.  Of course, that would mean staying up most of the night.  Like vampires and cats, coatimundi in this area are primarily creatures of the night.

But I will do almost anything to please my readers.  Almost.

Friday, June 17, 2011

budding banana babes

My blogger pal Calypso commented the other day in Yes We Have Bananas that – yes, he had bananas.  Growing like weeds.  And popping out the suggestive yellow fruit as if they were rabbits.

I responded like a wounded child.

I have banana plants in the back yard.  But I had not seen banana one for well over a year.  I decided my banana had chosen to live the slightly tragic life of childless parents.  Or, parent.  Since all bananas are sterile clones.

My plants must have heard my distress.  This week as I was walking through the garden with the gardener, pointing out the damage done by one pest or another, I noticed a new flower on the banana family tree – and a bunch of children.

I love photographing the flower at this stage.  Great textures, shapes, and colors.  The light could certainly be better.

I assisted my maid in harvesting last year’s crop.  After tasting one of the bananas, I decided to forgo my ownership rights.  I am not certain what variety my plants produce, but they are not particularly pleasant-tasting.  My maid loves them.

When this crop comes in, off they will go to my maid’s kitchen.  Where they will meet a utilitarian end.

As for me, I ought to start looking around for a plant that will produce the smaller, fruitier bananas.  Those I like.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

dining with the gods

Wherever I have lived, weather has been a guest at the table.  Calling for attention in one guise or other.

In Oregon, most of the year, it was like a nagging child.  There, but easy to ignore.  The same with Texas, Colorado, California, Greece, and England.  A subtle presence.

Summer weather in Melaque is not subtle.  The fact that the local Indians gave the fiercest characteristics to their weather gods is no coincidence.  Weather here sits in your parlor on a pile of skulls while eating the neighbor children for sport.  Moloch is a shirker in comparison.

I need to remind myself from time to time that I did not move to Mexico for the weather.  And this is one of those times.  If I was that concerned about weather, I would be sitting in my Salem hot tub right now.

But I merely have to tolerate the weather here.  The one relief we have from the pizza oven heat is its dancing partner – rain.  Rain and heat tend to waltz through the summer – like Fred and Ginger, performing well and complementing each other’s steps.

Unfortunately, only half of the dance act has shown up.  And in a guise that smacks more of summer than late spring.

As it turns out, I was happy to have a few more days rain-free.  At least, until I could accomplish one chore.

I told you about our church fire last April (one plate of mustard seeds at table five).  The board decided to build a new palapa on a lot closer to the main highway.

The building will not start until later in the year.  But there were some things that could be done before the rains set in.  Cleaning debris.  Cutting brush.  Leveling the lot.  And purchasing local bricks for the floor of the palapa.

The bricks raised the rain question.  They are made of local clay.  And even though they will be subjected to rain after they are in place, while they are stacked, they run the risk of growing mold during the rainy season if they are left uncovered.  If they get moldy, they will not properly set in mortar.

We all see the solution.  Cover the bricks.

On Monday, our summer pastor and I grabbed two tarps and managed to wrangle them into position.  I tried tarping the bricks on my own during the prior week, but the job really did require two people to do it right.  Once again, proving Solomon's wisdom in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.

Fortunately, we did not have to worry about the falling down part.

I will keep you posted as the building project begins.  The palapa should make a perfect place to worship.  Somewhere away from those nasty local weather gods.

But I am now ready for the rain.  Bring it on.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

hands across the table

I am starting to feel part of my neighborhood.

On Tuesday afternoon while I was walking back from the beach, I noticed a Mexican barbecue grill on the sidewalk in from of La Rana, my neighborhood restaurant.  The grill they use to prepare their barbecued pork ribs.

I stuck my head in the kitchen simply to say hello.  Before I could launch into my small talk, the wife of the owner and their daughter excitedly invited me (in a torrent of Spanish) to the owner’s birthday party that afternoon.  At 3.  Or 4.  Or around there.

Of course, I was pleased.  So, I headed back to the house and started getting ready for my Mexican social event of the month.

Because they were so flexible on the time, I didn’t want to show up at 3 and show my NOB infatuation with the clock.  Instead, I waited until 4 and walked over.

To my surprise, I was obviously late.  Everyone was sitting at a long table.  From the look of their plates, they had finished eating long before I arrived.

But my hosts grabbed me, gave me a great seat in front of the fan, and brought me a heaping plate of sausage, steak, and grilled onion.  The tortillas, salad, guacamole, and beans were on the table.

Then I committed my second faux pas.  I have eaten in plenty of homes throughout the world.  One of the first rules of a good guest is to take a look at what other people are doing – and follow their example.  I didn’t do that.

Instead, I looked at the table, found no fork or knife, and asked my host for utensils.  He didn’t bat an eye.  Off he went.  After all, I have been a good customer – and I always have a knife and fork at my plate.

When he returned, I started eating.  While chatting with people at the table, I noticed they kept looking at my hands.  By that point, some of the other guests were having a second plate of grilled meat.

And then I saw it.  No one else was using utensils.  They were using their hands to eat.  By that point I had finished eating.  I quietly apologized to my host.  Who graciously said it was fine.  But my utensils quickly became a part of the table conversation.

Once again, I wish I could have spoken better Spanish.  But I held my own with a chef, a hotel owner, and other assorted middle class family members.  An 8-year old girl even asked me to help her with her English.  Her father is coming back from The States in a month, and she wanted to impress him with what she had learned.

The experience was a lot like having Thanksgiving with another family.  Everything was pleasant enough.  But as a non-family member, it was often hard to keep up with the family tales.  Even though some of them were hilarious – one including a burro and a bull.

I stayed for three hours – there never being a seemingly good time to bid adios.  When one group of relatives got up to go, I took it as my cue to exit, as well.

A year ago, I am not certain I would have attended – knowing that English would not be a conversation option.  But I am glad I did.  The owners asked me back to show them my photographs of my cruise.

And that I will do – soon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

missing some cards

In my pre-teen years, I loved the card game Concentration.

A deck of cards was spread out on a table face down.  Each player was allowed to turn over two cards in hopes of finding a pair.  If there was no match, both cards were replaced on the table – face down.  The idea was to remember where the cards were as they were revealed one by one.  It was a great memory game.  Thus – Concentration.

I often play a similar game here in Mexico – trying to match circumstances with a correlating cause.  But I suspect the game is often being played without a full deck.

ATMs and shopping provide perfect examples.

In my little village of Melaque, I find it hard to spend 100 pesos (less than $10 US) in any store.  A 200 peso note will send the owner’s young son into the street to get change – from other vendors, the bank, or an unwitting stranger minding his own business.

When I drive to Manzanillo on my weekly mail run, I usually stop at Walmart, Comercial Mexicana, or Soriana – often, all three.  It is almost impossible to get out of each store without leaving one or two $500 peso notes behind.  Change is never an issue.

The pesos I use in each place come from the same source – an ATM, whether in Manzanillo or Melaque.  But I have noticed something odd.

In Melaque, the ATM spits out a pad of 500 peso notes.  In Manzanillo, I get a wad of 100 and 200 peso notes.  I do not need the smaller bills in Manzanillo, and I cannot use the larger bills in Melaque.

I should note that right after I get my 500 peso notes from the machine in Melaque, I march into the Banamex branch, give the cashier the 500 peso notes, and walk away with the same bills I get out of a Manzanillo machine.

I have asked the bank why we cannot cut out the middle step.  If the ATM dispensed smaller bills, I would not need to come inside.  The response?  “But then we would not have the pleasure of these conversations.”  It sounded far less condescending in Spanish.

So, I do what I often do in Mexico.  I improvise.  I take my Melaque notes to Manzanillo, and save my Manzanillo change for Melaque.

If the cards you want are not on the table, simply add a few of your own.

Monday, June 13, 2011

unwanted poems

Billy Collins accompanies me on my trips to the mirador these days.

The view up there is exactly the place to write poetry.  Quiet.  Stunning view.  High and lifted up.  Nature on the wing.

If not to write poetry, then to read it.  And that is why Billy Collins comes along with me in my Kindle.  I have been reading his most recent collection of poems (Ballistics) over the past few months.  A poem at a time as it should be read.

My hands have not yet lost the muscle memory of holding a 1000 page biography.  When books that size are reduced to the size of a Kindle, I feel vaguely cheated of an old endeavor.  The medium does not seem to match the subject.

But the Kindle is perfect as a poetry reader.  It is about the same size as a book of poetry.  And its screen serves up the bits of concentrated thought that is poetry in easily-digested pieces.

Whenever I read Collins, I almost immediately sit down and start writing poems.  Admittedly, they are too Collinsesque to be anything more than derivative.  I could call them compliments, but they verge on theft in the noon day sun.

I get tempted every now and then to publish one or two here.  But I know better.  Poetry is death in blogs.  And I am not certain why.

Well, I know why for most poems.  Because they are painfully bad.  The best amateurs tend to write poems that would make a 13-year old girl’s diary sound insightful.

But there is something more.  Even the good poetry – the stuff of eternal values concerning the human condition that helps us see our own lives in a new light – sends most of us running for cover.

A lot of that reaction can be placed at the feet of high school teachers who sucked the joy out of literature and made it a task.

I was lucky to have an English teacher, Mrs. Metz, who loved word play and humor, and gleefully directed us to each little Shakespearean pun or Ogden Nash joke – teaching us first fun, and then leading us to the great wonders that could be ours simply by opening Milton or Frost or even that old humbug Whiman.

My poems are not good enough to share.  But from time to time, I run across something that strikes a chord with me.

Billy Collins once pointed out poems (or literature in general) is all about one topic: death.  Even when the poet is celebrating life itself.

I thought about that when I read “New Year’s Day” – a perfect example of how poetry can lightly lead us into the ultimate experience of our corporeal lives.  I was originally going to provide excerpts.  But it is a whole -- and deserves to be read that way.

New Year’s Day

Everyone has two birthdays
according to the English essayist Charles Lamb,
the day you were born and New Year’s Day—

a droll observation to mull over
as I wait for the tea water to boil in a kitchen
that is being transformed by the morning light
into one of those brilliant rooms of Matisse.

“No one ever regarded the First of January
with indifference,” writes Lamb,
for unlike Groundhog Day or the feast of the Annunciation,

New Year’s marks nothing but the pure passage of time,
I realized, as I lowered a tin diving bell
of tea leaves into a little ocean of roiling water.

I like to regard my own birthday
as the joyous anniversary of my existence,
probably because I was, and remain
to this day in late December, an only child.

And as an only child—
a tea-sipping, toast-nibbling only child
in a bright, colorful room—
I would welcome an extra birthday,
one more opportunity to stop what we are doing
for a moment and celebrate my presence here on earth.

And would it not also be a small consolation
to us all for having to face a death-day, too,
an X drawn through a number
in a square on some kitchen calendar of the future,

the day when each of us is thrown off the train of time
by a burly, heartless conductor
as it roars through the months and years,

party hats, candles, confetti, and horoscopes
billowing up in the turbulent storm of its wake.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

cleaning up

My town is getting a trash lift.

The last few days, my neighbors have been grabbing trash bags and patrolling the streets in gaggles.  The goal?  To pick up the type of stuff that accumulates in the streets, and gives the place a less-than-German look.

Like most things in Mexico, when large groups are involved, the task is fun.  The cleanup includes school kids in uniforms, men and women in service club shirts, and just plain neighbors.

And the laguna is not left out.  Someone has hired a backhoe to come in and scoop out the tangle of vegetation and human trash that has accumulated over – who knows, how long?

The result is evident on the street.  Pile after pile of vegetation and trash is piled on the frontage road.  But it is a small down payment on what needs to be done.  The backhoe has physical limitations.  The bucket can only reach so far.

But just like the other volunteers, some people who live along the laguna have created their own clearance teams.  The photograph at the top of this post shows the result of their work.  They have used two kayaks to pull out even more vegetation than the backhoe.

The day I was there, I would have given the green award to the guy in the front of this kayak.  He was grabbing water hyacinth as soon as it came within his grasp.  I suspect it was almost as good as a piñata to him.

And for those of you who are wondering -- yes, this is the same body of water that harbors the crocodiles that hang out in my back yard.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

many happy returns

Well, at least two happy returns on Friday.

The first was rain.  That which must fall into every life.  The adage wears a pejorative costume.  But that is not always so.

Most of us in Mexico welcome the return of the rain.  Not because it washes memories from the sidewalk of life.  Unless you are Woody Allen.  But because it settles the dust and the temperatures.

Ours arrived on Friday with a bit of a whimper.

Hurricane Adrian is off our coast kicking up a bit of fuss for the maritime set and adding some thrills for the local beach boys who like their waves to verge on limb-mangling.  Usually, hurricanes spawn at least a few thunder claps and lightening bolts.  But today – nada

What we got were periodic showers.  Enough to give some relief to what was a sleepless night.  But not much more than that.

But we did get what we get with almost every rain – no matter whether large or small.  A power outage.  For several hours.

Because I could not do any work on the computer, I decided to try to catch a quick nap.  That didn’t work.  No fan.

However, we did have a few hours of relief from our summer heat and humidity.  I should show my calendar to the weather god – if I could find him.  It is still spring.  We should not be having this weather until late July or so.

But my other happy return was my truck -- as you can see above.  I stopped by the mechanic around 3 on Friday.  He told me on Thursday a replacement window would be on its way from Manzanillo.  When I stopped, the window had arrived, but it was the wrong one.  He now needed to get one from Colima.

That was not a problem.  I was pleased that everything was still chugging along.  Then he told me it should arrive in Melaque later that afternoon.  I was dubious.

To kill some time, I drove over to a hardware store to purchase a tarp to cover a stack of bricks the church will use to build a new palapa later in the year.  When I drove past the shop (no later than an hour had passed), the mechanic waved me over.  He was just opening the shippping box that included my new window.

So, I left the truck there and walked the three blocks home.  He said it would be done in an hour. I gave him two.  When I returned, my truck was ready.

And the cost?  He said the cost of the window was $3,000 (Mx) – about $250 (US).  His labor cost was $100 (Mx) – $8.34 (US).

Now, I suspect my mechanic does what every mechanic does – tries to minimize the appearance of his labor cost by shifting a bit to the parts side of the equation.  But there was not much room here to do a lot of shifting.  I know that auto pats (including glass) are more expensive than up north.

Needless to say, I was pleased that I did not need to leave any appendages behind to redeem my truck.  And there are still six windows that have not yet been broken.

I would say a pretty good days of returns.

Friday, June 10, 2011

pirates in the shops

My friend, Al F., mailed me an article from The Washington Post he thought I would find interesting.  The headline -- "Mexican drug cartels muscle in on lucrative movie and music piracy business."

Now, that is not news for those of us who have been talking about the drug lord involvement in copying and selling DVDs and CDs.  The Economist has been running similar warnings for the past three years.

But this story was a bit different.  The Mexican police conducted a raid on the largest counterfeit DVD and CD operation they have yet encountered.  They walked away with 12 tons of movie discs.  They also confiscated 1000 DVD burners.

Anyone who has visited a local market in Mexico -- or walked along the streets of any major Mexican city -- knows how common pirated movies and music are.  They are almost everywhere.  And they cost next to nothing -- compared to legal copies.

And almost everyone is now aware that the vast majority of the contraband copies are made by the drug operations and the profits go back to drug bosses to help finance illegal drug sales.  They are brazen enough to stamp some of the copies with a stallion or a butterfly -- depending on which drug operation is involved.

They are also master marketers.  I walked through Melaque on Wednesday and saw a copy of the current Pirates of the Caribbean in the flea market and a copy of Water for Elephants in a souvenir shop.  Both films are still in the theaters in Mexico.  Both are of uncertain parentage.

The pirating has become so bad that legitimate distributors have generally stopped trying to sell legal copies in Latin America.  What is the point?  It is Gresham's Law in cinematic clothing.

I really do not have a moral horse to ride on this issue.  If people want to buy from drug lords, I have no objection -- just as long as they are willing to answer the underlying moral issues.

And one of those issues is this.  If they are willing to put dollars in a drug lord's pocket for a bit of entertainment, would they also be willing to support the legalization of drugs in The States and Canada?  Perhaps putting that rebellion to a good purpose that could help reduce the number of drug deaths on both sides of the border.

Just asking.

Note:  If you would like a darkly amusing take on the drug wars, take a look at The Interview.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

dropping the giant

There are days when everything is practically perfect – including me.

Then there are days like today.

Our nights have been getting warmer and more humid as the summer sets in.  That makes sleeping a bit challenging – especially for an aging former Oregonian who considers the proper sleeping weather to be about 50 (degrees, not years).

For whatever reason, I could not sleep past 5 this morning.  So, I got up and started my day.  Just as I was getting my morning reading done, I felt tired.  Real tired.

When you are retired, there are no voices that nag if you fall asleep you are going to waste the best part of the day.  Frankly, I think sleeping is a grand way to properly spend that currency.  And I did.  For five more hours.

That did not seem to be a bad start for the day.  But my computer did not agree.  I have my entire computer support system (you do not want to know how many wires that is) plugged into a very small gauge extension cord.  Well, let’s say, I had it plugged into that extension cord.

When I originally sat up the system in its current location, I knew the cord could not handle the electrical load.  It was temporary.  And it has remained that way for eight months.  Until today.

I was talking with a friend on Skype and knew something was not right.  Just as my voice faded on his end, I saw what was wrong.  Wisps of smoke and sparks were coming from the extension connection.  I caught it just in time before the rest of the system was affected.

I drove around town looking for a thicker extension cord.  None are to be  found.  At the moment, I have everything in another “temporary” set-up.

While I was drafting a series of blogs (on an entirely different topic), I heard my front gate bell.  It was my neighbor – the owner of La Rana.  I invited him in.  But it was obvious he was not there to bring tidings of great joy.

To cut to the point – I lost another window in the truck while it was parked on the street.  This time, the rather complicated rear window.

But the culprits were not thieves.  It was a little boy with a rock.  A David who mistook my Escape for Goliath.

All of the neighbors were there fully expecting, I suspect, to see an angry truck owner.  The boy was in tears.  (Having been a boy, I know that penitence is the best defense -- and tears are worth, at least, an additional 10 points.)

I looked at the window and told his mother I would get it replaced.  She wants me to hold her son responsible.  The scene ended in him hugging me.

The cost is far more than an 8-year old can absorb.  And, for me, it is simply foregoing – well, probably nothing.  It will be repaired, and just like the other repaired window, I will give it no further thought.

But I will talk with the boy when the window is repaired.  I am going to forgive him, but I want him to learn that kindness needs to now move beyond me to him.  It will be his duty to share the same grace with those he encounters.

So, it was not a bad day, after all.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

things that go bump in the night

Tuesday night was a bad night for predators.

No crocodiles.  No ants.  Only a few termites. 

Hubris lulled me into the Canutean fallacy -- that I really could control the tide of nature.

That, of course, is usually when nature decides to have her way with us.  As I walked through the back yard toward the house, I noticed an eight-legged shape on the screen door.  And a large shape, at that.

"`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if spider or devil! -"  Thinking for a moment that a bit of Poe might lift the mood. 

It didn't.  The shape merely perched on the screen -- not even bothering with a "Nevermore."  Nor did I expect it.

But a bit of light cleared up any sense of dread.


It was a crab.  A land crab.

The season is upon us, and I barely noticed.  But it will soon be hard to ignore.

There will be land crabs on and under the car.  In the bathroom.  In the bedroom.  And certainly all over the yard.  Their scuttle in the night will soon sound like legions of cockroaches.

They are quite harmless -- even though they put on an air of fortitude with their Jack Dempsey fighting stances. 

Unless you step on them with your bare feet.  Their cracked shells are sharp and nasty.  And when they die, they stink.  Fortunately, nature's little sanitary squads clean them up quickly.

But, here it is.  My first robin of the crab summer.

There will be many more happy returns.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

prickly dessert

I just looked back at my last few posts.  A casual reader would assume I am a food obsessive.  And a quick look at my girth might confirm the assumption.

I’m not.  Or, I don’t think I am.  I am merely starting to get back into a normal meal rhythm.

For the past year, I have not been cooking for myself on a regular basis.  Eating, yes.  Cooking, no.

The six months I was in Oregon, I ate almost every meal either at the company cafeteria or in a restaurant.  When I returned to Mexico, I kept up the same habit.  I ate at least two meals a day at local places to help keep the tourist economy rolling.

But when I returned from my cruise, I discovered I would need to change my eating plans.  Most of the places where I ate are either closed until next November or have reduced their days of operation.  And thus my hunt for ham and cherries and other bits of exotica to spruce up my own cooking.

Some of that exotica is close to home.  At home, in fact.

There are several fruit trees in my back yard.  Limes.  Bananas.  Mandarin oranges.  Sour oranges.  Fruits I have known most of my life.

But there is one that I have been waiting for almost a year to taste.  A guanábana.  One of Mexico's gifts to the rest of the tropical world. 

It is an odd tree.  Spindly with huge fruit.  As if Twiggy had elected to sport a Mae West look.

During the past month, I have watched two guanábana fruits weigh down a single limb – almost to the breaking point.  Yesterday, the largest was on the ground.  In a single day, it had gone from unripe hard to as soft as a full diaper.

I broke it in half and gave a portion to my land lady.  Inside is a white pulp filled with an incredibly fragrant nectar (somewhere between apple and banana – think Juicy Fruit gum).

I pulled out the pulp of my portion and stored it in the refrigerator.  I grab a piece now and then.  It is simply too taste-explosive to eat a lot at a time.  But it is now one of my favorites.

The other large guanábana fruit is now under a daily food watch.