Friday, September 30, 2011

that’s a wrap

I feel a bit more Mexican today.

When I moved down here, I was concerned about my magazine subscriptions.  I may be a big internet user, but I love my magazines.  Especially, my news and commentary magazines.

The usual suspects told me never to use the Mexican mail system.  It simply does not work.  Of course, they were the same people who told me it was unsafe to drive in Mexico.

So, off I went to Manzanillo to set up a mailbox with Mailboxes, Etc.  It was a bit like dating.  I paid a lot of money and got late deliveries.  It took two to three weeks for my magazines to get to me.

After two and a half years of this semi-dysfunctional relationship, I decided enough was enough.  Two friends in the highlands convinced me, through their testimonials, that the Mexican postal system was better than its American counterpart.

In June, I rented a Mexican post office box in Melaque -- and dutifully sent off change of address forms to the three magazines I receive regularly.  (One of my favorites arrives on my Kindle.)

And then I waited.  No magazines in June.  None in July.  None in August.  I was beginning to wonder if the change was a good idea.

But I knew the address was correct because a friend in Nevada and another in Hawaii sent letters that arrived within two weeks of mailing.

Then just as I was ready to have everything sent to the Manzanillo box, a miracle occurred.  On the same day, my National Geographic and American Spectator showed up.  And not late.  They were both the September editions.

Since today is the last day of the month, I drove down to Manzanillo and turned my key over to what was formerly known as Mailboxes, Etc.  I am happy to report they were sad to see me go.  But it is a service I no longer require.

For some reason, The Economist has not yet made it to the Mexican box, but I am certain it will.  And, if not, not. 

I need to get out more often and see the world rather than just read about it.  That will also make me feel more Mexican.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

coco -- but not chanel

Yesterday I got a hair cut.

Today the coconut palms in my garden got one of their own.

In the past I have written about the amazing men (and they always are men in our little community) who trim the palms and harvest the coconuts.  It is usually a two-man job.  One scampers up the palm trunk and cuts old fronds and coconut bunches while the other lowers the harvest with a rope.

It is fascinating to watch.  But I have posted photographs of that work.  What I have nor talked about is the result of all that labor.

If you look at the photograph at the top of this post, my coconut palm is on the left, my neighbor’s palm is on the right.  The biggest difference is the mature coconuts missing from my tree.  Those left are too small to harvest.  But my neighbor's should be harvested.  Instead, they have been bombarding walkers on the andador.

You can get a better perspective of how large the coconuts are in this photograph. 

Those of us raised north of the border are accustomed to coconuts being the bocce ball-sized brown interiors of the coconut.  My cousins in Hawaii would occasionally mail one to us in Oregon.

But there is a large green husk surrounding the interior.  And it is that husk that gave the coconut its ability to send its progeny throughout the Pacific.

The coconut is not native to Mexico.  The Spanish brought it to Mexico with Filipino workers to set up plantations.

The majority opinion is that the coconut palm developed in southeast Asia.  From there, it spread to the south Pacific islands.  The green husk makes the coconut buoyant enough to float, as well as being impermeable to salt water.

When the coconut beaches itself, the husk will deteriorate, and a tree will sprout from the inner seed.  If you want a coconut palm for your garden, you can buy a sprouting shell from plenty of local vendors.  Or you can try starting your own.

The question is whether you want one in your garden.  They are beautiful specimen trees.  But they provide little shade and produce plenty of problems.  Such as skull-cracking falling coconuts.

During the last coconut cleanup, the fellers failed to ask me to move my truck.  As a result, I now have two permanent dents in my truck-top carrier.  It is easy to extrapolate the effect on an unwary pedestrian’s cranium.

For all of their inconveniences, there is no doubt that the coconut is a versatile fruit.  My gardener decapitated one with his machete and drank the milk out of the nut.  He then cracked it in half to share the meat with the workers.

I demurred.  After all, it is a “c” food.  Coconut is one of those food dislikes I inherited from my Dad.

For  me, though, the coconut palms in the garden are one of the best symbols of my tropical retirement.  They came from The Philippines; I came from Oregon.  And we coexist in my little piece of Gilligan's Island.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

hair today, hair tomorrow

Four months between haircuts is too long.  And so was my hair.

I say that as if it is a rule.  And a rule I have periodically disregarded in my Mexican retirement.

The last time I was in a barber chair was in Reno last May -- on my way from Rome to Melaque.  During my trip to the highlands, I considered meeting a new barber in either San Miguel or Pátzcuaro.

But I didn’t.  And I know why.

The cutter-cuttee relationship is personal.  As personal as choosing a doctor or minister.  A barber chair is not just a place to shed excess fur.  It is a camp fire where stories, jokes, and lies are shared with abandon.

In the two and a half years I have been in Melaque, I have had my hair cut by four or five barbers.  Men.  Women.  Young.  Old.  Competent.  Shearingly dreadful.

But my favorite has been Miguel Angel Brambila,  I cannot remember how long ago it was when I first walked through his door.  But I remember the circumstances.

My hair was in its shaggy dog stage.  Probably three months since I had last had it cut.  I desperately needed a bit more air circulation around my ears in the Melaque humidity.

I was walking through the covered market populated with plastic chair restaurants, vegetable vendors, fish mongers, butchers, and an internet café.  But there was something new.  A barber shop.

Well, not just a barber shop.  A “beauty salon and barber shop.”  Named Elegance.  With a fuchsia façade.

Let me share a small prejudice with you.  I avoid unisex hair cutter establishments.  They all seem to have the same ambiance. 

Smart colors.  Walls covered with shampoo posters of models who look as if they long to return to Tokyo and Stockholm.  Not the type of place where you can meet a barber philosopher who is willing to tend the camp fire with you.

Well, I was wrong.  Miguel turned out to be a great barber.  Not only could he cut hair, he was quite a raconteur.  I suspect he could have gone several rounds with Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin Round Table.

I returned today to get my long overdue haircut.  And my even more overdue dose of barber wit.  With his self-taught English and my mistaught Spanish, we had quite a good time.

The nice thing about hair is that it continues to grow.  That guarantees me a return visit -- I hope before another four months.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

1871 paris

I have been playing the role of a hermit lately.

Since I returned from the highlands, I have generally been holed up in my house.  For two reasons.

The first is the weather.  I keep forgetting that September can be the most brutal month here on the Pacific coast.  And this September qualifies.

The combination of the heat and the humidity limits outdoor activities.  Venturing forth from the house after 11 is a bit like spending a balmy afternoon on Venus.

Of course, I could always take the air conditioned truck -- if it were not for the fact that the street that forms the border between San Patricio (where the business district is) and Villa Obregon (my village) has morphed from a road to a barrier.

The street is being torn up to improve it.  (And, yes, I hear a Vietnam echo in that sentence.)  But the going is slow.

The first day I returned to Melaque, I dropped off some clothes at the laundry and drove merrily down one of the town’s nicer streets.  Until I encountered the barricade at the top of this post. 

For a moment I thought my Francophilia had spirited me away to the Paris Commune.  But it was just a barricade to keep me off of the newly graded street.

I am not certain when the construction began.  But the stated completion date was supposed to coincide with the return of the white-legged snow birds.

That is not going to happen.  At least not for the whole street.  When I walked to town this morning, the crews were laying the pavers for the portion of the street that gets most of the beach traffic. 

If they open that portion by November, most of the traffic will be able to flow between the two villages.  If not, it is going to be an interesting traffic jam.

But the rest of the street -- the portion up by the bars and whorehouses -- is going to have to wait until the rainy season is over and the water table starts to subside.  At the moment, it looks a bit like Venice.

I am glad I got out today.  I have some good news from the post office.  But that will wait for another day.

At least, my hermit stage is at an end.

Monday, September 26, 2011

$500 on black

Do you like playing the ponies?  Favor a nice game of Three-card Monte?

Then, step right up to your local Mexican ATM.

Not because there is a chance you will lose all your money (though there is that possibility at any ATM).  If you are exchanging American dollars for Mexican pesos, you will always be a winner.  At least, this past week.

Currencies fluctuate.  I will not pretend to know all the reasons why.  Even though I know a few.  But it is not important to know any of them for this post.

In recent years, if you went into the bank to buy pesos with dollars, you could have received as few as 10 or as many as 15.  That is a 50% difference.  (Well, going up it is.  Going down, it is a 33% decrease.  But we do not need a lesson in arithmetic, thank you very much.)

And it can happen quickly.  During this past week the peso slipped by 7% against the dollar.  But that is headline stuff.  Here is what it means practically.

When I first came down to Melaque, I could buy 6000 pesos and stay within my $500(US) limit.  Sometime around the beginning of this year, I noticed I could only get about 5900 pesos.  Then 5700 pesos.  Until in mid-summer, I could get no more than 5600.

Then it happened.  On the 20th of this month, the exchange rate moved far enough in favor the dollar that I could get 6000 pesos for about $458 (US).  And on the 24th for $435.

It is almost enough to make me want to empty my dollar accounts to buy enough pesos for the rest of the year.  Almost. 

But the currency exchange rate is just like the stock market.  The peso may continue to fall. 

Now, that is not good for Mexico.  Market analysts have predicted that Mexico will fail to meet its 4% growth rate for this year.  If that happens, Mexico may need loans denominated in dollars.  That will put inflationary pressures on the peso.

I have been asked several times how much it costs to live in Mexico.  We will skip over the rest of my usually-sage advice to get to the one point I never fail to mention.  People who retire to Mexico usually have a fixed stream of revenue.  That is the nature of retirement.  Any budget has to take into account the historical swings in the exchange rate.

And I usually provide a chart like this.  Those peaks and valleys make budgeting difficult.

If most people are like me, we tend to simply spend more when the exchange rate is favorable and then start cutting back on tortillas when inflation and the exchange rate take a dive in the opposite direction.

My bottom line?

This is all very interesting, but I am going to be out there doing my part to keep the Mexican economy chugging along.  Because even if Mexico has to be satisfied with a growth rate of 5% this year, it will probably be 3% higher than the rate north across the border.

And that is probably a very good bet.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

shake, rattle, and roll

Earthquakes are not new to me.

Most people do not think of Oregon as earthquake country.  It is.  It sits on the same ring of fire that circles the Pacific coast from Japan to California.

Admittedly, I have never experienced a Japan-style quake.  But I have had my share of tremors.

So, I should not have been surprised last Wednesday night when I felt a jolt while talking on Skype with a friend in Oregon.  And that is all that it was.  A jolt.  As if the floor had moved underneath my chair.

But it was noticeable enough I told my friend: “I think we just had an earthquake here.”

And we had.  I asked the members of the local message board if they had felt anything, and I got my answer with a referral to the Mexican Servicio Sismologico Nacional.  It is a great site.  You can find information about every earthquake in Mexico.

Here were the results of my search for September.  (You may need to click on it to read the details.)

We have had six earthquakes this month.  All of them small.  The one I felt was only a 4.1.  I completely missed the next one -- six hours later -- at 3.9.  But I would have been in bed.

We have had several noticeable tremors since I moved to Melaque.  When I was staying at the house on the beach, I missed most of them because the waves pounding against the shore would create enough shaking that earthquakes were impossible to notice.

But Melaque has not always been fortunate enough to experience these minor tremors.  Almost exactly sixteen years ago on October 9, 1995, Melaque experienced an 8.0 earthquake. 

Even though the epicenter was in the mountains east of Manzanillo, the earthquake was strong in enough in Melaque to cause a visible wave across the ground and to spawn a small tsunami.  You can read more about it on TomZap.

Last April a friend of Billie’s wrote to ask about the Hotel Casa Grande -- Melaque's crown jewel.  Well, crown jewel before October 1995.  It tumbled apart in the quake.  That is it at the top of the post.

But the photograph is not from 1995.  It is how the hotel looks today.

Not unlike the property title fight that enlivened Tenicatita a year ago (and for the prior thirty years), a dispute still rages over who owns the hotel land.

The location would be great for a new hotel.  But that is not going to happen until all of the parties can agree on who owns what -- or until the courts intervene.  And that is not going to happen soon.

So, the hotel sits there like our own enigmatic Olmec ruin.  Summing up far too well how Mexico can wear its tragic history as a burden rather than an opportunity.

Perhaps, we just need to wait for the next big earthquake to act as a physical -- and perhaps, social -- leveler.

Friday, September 23, 2011

violent delights have violent ends

“Are you coming back – now?”

I have heard the refrain several times before from friends and relatives.  Usually following revelations of new drug gang atrocities -- or another of my crocodile stories.

So, I am waiting for the email and telephone calls.  Today’s headline was: “Another 11 bodies found in Mexico port.”

The port is Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico.  Two days before, 35 bodies were dumped there.

And the details surrounding the corpses are terrible.  There is no silk purse hiding in this sow’s ear.

Bound.  Tortured.  Seminude.  From everything I have heard, no decapitations were involved.  Apparently, for the executioners, the quality of mercy is not strained.

The scenario should sound familiar to those of you who know your history from the American Roaring 20s.  This is the type of mayhem one gang would commit against another gang over territory rights to the manufacture and distribution of alcohol.

And that is what is happening in Mexico.  President Calderon’s war on drugs is a lost cause.  But it has done one thing.  It has turned drug lords against one another.

The word is that the recently-departed in Veracruz were members of The Zetas, a gang made up of former Mexican Army special forces.  They have been accused of targeting and killing non-political civilians.

Hiding behind the guise of the morally-enraged patriot, a leader of a rival drug gang, who was already in a turf battle with The Zetas, is reportedly behind the killings.  It was a twofer. For civic pride and more criminal control.

So, am I going home because two local gangs are doing their best to re-enact Romeo and Juliet -- without the lovers and the snappy prose?  Nope.

But I do wish someone would realize that it is next to insane to continue trying to enforce a prohibition policy.  It didn’t work in the 20s; and it is not working now.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

bats for agave

There is a coming out party in my back yard.

Not that type.  The debutante type.

There are two rather benign agave plants against the east wall.  I say benign because they are not the serrated leaf, limb-amputating variety. 

Instead, their leaves are defended only by a venom-charged needle leaf tip.  A tip that can hurt like a wasp sting for the unwary ant hunter.

But that is it.  Otherwise, it is merely a beautiful broad-leafed specimen plant.  Nice, but not showy.

Until this past month.  The homely plant has turned into Cinderella.  Throwing up a flower spike with row after row of gaudy yellow flowers.

But, unlike Cinderella, there is no happily ever after with Prince Charming.  Once the flowers have attracted the necessary number of pollinators and the seeds are set, the spike will wither and the plant will die.

Those flowers are also the basis for a bit of botanist wars.  Scientists seem to be attracted to controversy like night moths to the agave flower.

Even though the leaves look as if the agave could be a cactus, it isn’t.  Agave (like maize, tomatoes, and chilies) are a native of Mexico.  Because of the shape of the flowers, some botanists put it in the lily family. 

That group is now in the minority -- even though I can certainly see how they arrived at their conclusion.  Take a look at the flower buds.  They look like miniature day lilies.


If you go on a tequila tour, you will undoubtedly hear the guide tell a tale about the blue agave (the source of tequila) being a lily.  He will then winkingly warn the men not to go home and dig up their wives’ gardens.  (A joke that falls into the category of guides who think they are far more witty than their material.)

In modern classification, it now sits in the same table as asparagus and hyacinths.

How it is classified is not as interesting to me as the activity that takes place around the flowers.  Bees and flies during the day.  A few.

But the activity increases at night.  Two nights ago, while on ant patrol, I used my flashlight to look at the spike.  There were a couple of moths on the flowers.

I then saw a form swoosh through the beam.  A bird?  At this time of night? 

I kept the beam in place, and it returned -- with a companion,  As soon as my eyes adjusted, I identified two bats.  At first, I thought they were after the moths.  But, as I watched, I could see they were feeding on the nectar of the flowers.

Unfortunately, they were far too shy -- and fast -- to put up with any camera action.  So, I did not bother.  After all, they have a job to do – and the agave flowers do not stay around for long.

Before too long, the whole plant will be gone.  Those of us who live in this area can see their sere corpses along the sea cliffs.

But, for as long as it lasts, I am going to take a few moments each evening to watch the bats and the agave waltz through their life cycle.

After all, it is an end that faces us all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

harvey the croc

I suppose there is someone somewhere who does not like Jimmie Stewart.

If so, I never met him.

As good as he was in his movies, Stewart was an amazing presence on stage.  As if your neighbor had stopped by with insights from Chekhov.

The kind of actor you could invite to dinner at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand after a performance, and not feel like a fool for doing so.

At least, you could in 1975.  It was the last time I saw him on stage.  At the Prince of Wales in London.  In Harvey, of course.  Along with his pooka friend -- imaginary or not.

I thought of him -- and Harvey -- this morning during one of my backyard nature outings.  Before I drove to Manzanillo for the day, I wanted to see if I could spot any of the crocodiles now that the laguna is filling up, and our little inlet is coming back to life.  My landlady told me she had seen the small crocodile sunning on the bank last week.

So, I walked out my gate and across the andador (the walkway beside the laguna).  Nothing.  Well, a couple of birds, but no crocodiles.  But something seemed odd.  I could hear no chickens.  No dogs.  No birds.

Disappointed, I turned to head back through the gate.  And then I saw it.  First, just a quick movement out of the corner of my eye.  Enough to stop me in place.

The small crocodile was not in the laguna.  It was on the andador.  No more than 50 feet from me.

My movement had obviously startled it while it was eating -- something.  Something dark that already smelled of death.  Whatever it was snacking on, it was not going to share.

It grabbed its meal, literally flipped around, and dashed down the bank.  All of that took no more than 3 seconds.  If that.

Imagine the speed of an iguana.  Now, imagine the iguana is six feet long.

It was a rush.  Almost as good as skydiving.  And, yes, I know.  It was potentially dangerous.  But that was why it was a rush.  No one gets an adrenalin rush out of OSHA-approved pursuits.  And I am not going to see a sight like that in San Miguel.

While I was opening the gate (back at the start of this tale), I almost went back inside to get my camera.  But, I didn’t.  After all, I have all sorts of photographs of the inlet -- with and without crocodiles.

And if I had taken my camera, everything happened so fast that I would not have got my camera up before the crocodile was gone.

Instead, you get the Harvey version of my crocodile on the anador.  Can’t you see him right there?

Jimmy Stewart would have appreciated it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I never sang for my father

And that is good -- because I do not have a voice that would enhance terms of endearment.

But I didn’t have to.

He was one of those fathers who thought the sun rose for the benefit of his two boys.  And I hope we reciprocated.  He was one of the strongest positive influences in my life.

From him I learned that failure is a possibility and should always be accepted as an opportunity to learn something new from life.  That everyone deserves an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.  That work without joy is a form of slavery.

All of them important.  But he did not teach me how to fix things around the house.  If it had an engine, he always had the correct tool and knowledge.  But if it was in the house, we usually called my Uncle Frank.

Uncle Frank knew more about electricity than Thomas Edison.  Or so I thought.  He was brave enough to tackle switch box replacements or light fixture installations without throwing breakers.  Because he knew what to touch.  And what not to touch.

I thought of Dad and Uncle Frank recently when the light switch in my kitchen went to Reddy Kilowatt heaven (even though I have often imagine Reddy running quite a different afterlife establishment).

Those of you who do not live in Mexico probably have not encountered Mexican light switches.  That is one at the top of this post.

The toggle switch has a vague European look.  For style, I have always liked them.  The problem is inside.  The little springs and plastic that control the toggle mechanism are badly engineered.  They do not last long.  They end up on Mexican walls because they are inexpensive.

I called my land lady to check on which breakers to throw for the kitchen.  Instead, she volunteered to come over to help with the task.

I was fully prepared to replace the switch.  But, I must admit I was happy to have her show up.  I felt as if we were reenacting another episode of Uncle Frank tames the wires.

The house I am in was built by a Canadian who owned a ship yard.  Because he knew his electrical stuff, he brought down several NOB light switches to replace the Mexican switches that would inevitably die.

We found one of the imported switches, and went to work.

Whenever you open anything electrical in Mexico, you can never be certain what you will find.  But you can almost be certain what you will not find -- ground wires.

When we opened the switch, we found a wire in and a wire out – and an additional white wire.  A ground wire, it wasn’t.  And because our space was now limited with the larger switch we were about to install, we let it go free.  Until one of us said: “Could that be to the kitchen fan?”

And it was.  So, out came the switch, on went the additional wire on the hot side, and the plate was back on.

Well, it was almost that easy.  Of course, there was a bit of plaster to knock out.  Some suspended switch acrobatics to get the screws to hold in place without losing the switch in the old hole.  And a bit of jiggling here and jiggling there.

Uncle Frank would not have approved.  His German sense of order would have propelled him to re-plaster the hole to make a snug fit.

But some times good enough is just that.  Good enough.  And it worked.

So there you are, Dad.  One of my songs for you.

Not to mention a light switch that works through the agency of my own hands.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

the inevitability of life

Good writing should grab you with the first sentence.

And that sentence is a perfect example of bad writing.  It does not impel you forward to learn more.  In a word, it is not inevitable.

Here is what good writing looks like.

”This is a story about a man named Harold Crick . . . and his wristwatch.

”Harold Crick was a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations, and remarkably few words.”

In two sentences we know a lot about our main character -- and we want to know more.  Not to mention wondering how those adjectives can be concurrently redundant and expansive with their nouns.

The lines are from a script.  Stranger Than Fiction.  By Zach Helm.

It is a 2006 film.  I must have missed it while it was in the theaters.  Or I purposely avoided it.  It stars Will Farrell.  And I have never been a fan.  A little Talladega Nights goes a long way with me.

I have been watching quite a few older films this week on Netflix.  Proving my theory that the service in Mexico certainly is not yet ready for prime time.

I jumped over Stranger Than Fiction several times when I saw Farrell’s name.  Then I noticed both Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman are main characters.

From those first lines, I was hooked.  Emma Thompson is the narrator – because she is writing a book that just happens to be the life of Will Farrell’s character, Harold Crick, who she is planning to kill.  As a fictional character.

It is a simple conceit.  It gives the screenwriter a presence in his script through the voice of the blocked writer acting as narrator who controls the life of a fictional character who is a real person.  Well, a real person being portrayed by an actor in a novel that does not exist other than as a screenplay.

You can tell why I like it.  The postmodern self-consciousness of the characters lets the bigger issues play on the surface.  The responsibility of artists for what they create.  The limitations on the art we produce – and the lives we live.  And that noun that continues to show up in all good art – inevitability.

Last week I read a portion of an interview with Stephen Sondheim.  He related a lesson he had been taught by Leonard Bernstein.  All art must be creative and individual to be good.  But if music is not inevitable, it will seem contrived and self-important.  And not very good.

Stranger Than Fiction came at just the right time for me.

Since returning to Melaque, I have felt as if I am in a writing well.  Not blocked.  Just dissociated from my posts.  Maybe it is the humidity and the heat.  Maybe I am just being a bit too contemplative with a few pending changes in my life.

Whatever it is, I have not been a joyful scribe.  But I may have found a bit of focus.

Zach Helm, in the voice of his narrator closed his script with:

”Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies.

”And, fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin . . . Or a kind and loving gesture . . . Or a subtle encouragement . . . Or a loving embrace . . . Or an offer of comfort.

”Not to mention, hospital gurneys . . . And nose plugs . . . And uneaten Danish . . . And soft-spoken secrets . . . And Fender Stratocasters . . .

”And maybe, the occasional piece of fiction.”

Some things come at the right time.  They are inevitable.

Friday, September 16, 2011

stormed at with shot and shell

I skipped last night’s Independence Day celebration.

Across Mexico, citizens gathered in their town squares to hear a local politician re-enact Father Miguel Hidalgo’s call to exterminate the Spanish.

That was 201 years ago.  But it is easy to imagine the local crowd marching down the street and give the Bourbon king a bloody snout.

Melaque is no exception.  I have attended a couple of the celebrations.  But not last night.  I could hear rumblings in the distant that a storm was on its way.

And quite a storm it has been.  As if the forces of history mock the local reenactment of the Independence celebration.

Mexico did not get its independence on that night in 1810.  There would be over a decade of slaughter.  Rifles.  Cannons.  Beheadings.  The cries of bereaved widows and new orphans.

Through the night and the early morning, nature put on its own passion play of power.  Sturm und drang on steroids.

When thunderstorms come to the Mexican coast, they are not your sissy flashes of light with an occasional clap of noise.

Lightning here is pure Broadway.  Each flash illuminates an otherwise ebony sky.  Lighting the night from horizon to horizon.

And, depending on how close the flash is, the inevitable china-rattling boom soon follows.  Accompanied now and then with sharper cracks.  As if riflemen were advancing under an artillery barrage.

This is not your Washington Irving nine-pins thunder.  It is nature in its rawest form using human bodies as timpanis to echo its power and rage.

Mexico often wears its history as a burden.  The breach with Spain amplified what Jorge Castañeda Gutman has called Mexico’s fear of The Other.

But nature cares nothing for such political talk.  That is a human invention.  It is content merely to remind us that we mortals may believe we are in charge of events, but we need reminding that our celebrations do not even show up on nature’s calendar.

And after a night of commotion, the storm has passed.  Leaving the roosters to welcome a dawn as peaceful as life should be in Mexico.

Thursday, September 15, 2011



If I have one enemy here in Melaque, it is ants.

Not just any ants.  Leaf cutter ants.

But you know that.  I have written about them several times.

When I returned from Pátzcuaro, I discovered that the summer rains had sent the ants into a feeding frenzy.  The list of stripped bushes was long.  Bougainvillea.  Hibiscus.  Coffee.  They had even launched attacks on my flamboyant, lime, and sour orange trees.

Their nests were easy to spot.  They had built mini-volcanoes throughout the garden to keep out the rainwater.  But the best clue was the long line of frantic leaf-carrying ants that crisscrossed the garden each night.

Along with the usual queen ant who would fall victim to my Dow-oriented ways.  That is one at the top of the post.  She made the mistake of visiting my reading table on her way to (or from) a rendezvous with her DNA-sharing beau.

I knew that the ants did not eat the leaves they cut -- even though they are very choosy about which leaves to take back to their nests.  For good reason.  They use the leaves to cultivate a fungus they feed to their young.  For the ants, that fungus is what determines whether the ant colony thrives or expires.

As often as I have heard about the fungus, I have never seen it.  Not surprisingly.  The farming usually takes place deep under ground.

Today that changed.  I was following a line of ants to their nest.  To get to the opening, I had to move several flower pots out of the way.  When I moved the first pot, I discovered it was filled with ants.  They had used it as an artificial mound.

But not just any mound -- a farming mound.  It was like uncovering a myrmecoid Archer Daniels Midland field.  Instead of corn; it was fungus.

A quick spray of Raid calmed down the ant frenzy.  And gave me a chance to look at the ant truffles.  The cultivated result of turning my garden into a 1945 Dresden.

I apologize for the lack of focus.  But you can see the structure.  As light as a dust bunny.  But obviously a fungus.

While I was trying to get a better focus on the fungus, I pulled back a bit, and caught this.  The ant’s handiwork and the pot rim added its own bit of whimsy.  Just as I found it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

pulling the chain

Let’s see.  Where was I now?

Ah, yes.  I was telling you about a few of things that had changed at the beach.  Such as, the unusual damage the streets have suffered with the summer rains.  (patton is my co-pilot

I should stop and take a photograph.  They are now back to their pre-graded condition.

But not right now.  I have another topic.  My laguna.  And it was really changed when I came back.  That is it at the top of the post.  You might notice that something is missing.  Water.  Other than a few puddles.

About a week before I returned to Melaque, the powers that be decided the water level of the laguna was getting a bit too high.  If left untended, the water will rise high enough to breach the beach sand dunes, and the water level will go down.

But if nature ends up relieving her problems in her own way, a lot of people would be flooded out of their homes.  Including a certain blog writer.  And he would prefer to keep his computer out of the water.

To avoid that result, the municipal authorities hire a cat driver to plow through the dunes and let the water flow.


But it is not just water that comes out.  You may recall that we have an ongoing battle with the water lettuce and water hyacinth.  And because it floats, it will swoosh right out to sea like the contents of a flushed toilet.

Well, not quite out to sea.  Out to sea and then back up on the Melaque beach.

I was not here when the vegetation was at its height, but here is a photograph taken two weeks later at one of my favorite eateries.  The owner told me the vegetation was up to his chest the day it was released.  Along with snakes, crabs, spiders, dead fresh water fish, and the odd crocodile that all went along on this community amusement ride.

The beach businesses were a bit displeased that all of this happened on a weekend while they were trying to make an honest peso off of the Guadalajara tourists.

Once the water went down, the beach breach started healing itself.  Sand is like that.  And the laguna began to fill up again.


This is a photograph of how much water has returned.  Our abundance of rain this summer will undoubtedly have the water level back up to spot where the crocodiles can return to our inlet and rest in the sun.

But that means I also have some work to do.  The flow was not strong enough to pull out our floating vegetation.  So, I need to pull out my grappling hook and start clearing the pond.

At least, that did not change while I was gone.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

one day in november

It could be the title of a spy thriller -- or a bodice ripper.

But it is neither.

It is time for the Latin American Bloggers Group to reassemble.  This time for one day.  Saturday, 5 November 2011.

For those of you who have not been to Mérida, it will be a good opportunity to visit the “Paris of Mexico” -- as it so modestly labels itself.

Last year we had excellent facilities at the Tecnología Turística Total -- where I took great pleasure in doing a bit of on-the-spot reporting.

You may recall that I thought last year’s event was very helpful.  I did a bit of experimenting with ideas I learned from fellow bloggers -- and have retained most of them.  The ideas, that is.

As always, there will be discussions on how to improve our blogs and how to resolve problems with our respective blog applications.

But, best of all, there will be time to learn more about the people who write these prose love notes to an audience we barely know.

If you write a Latin American blog, come on over.  If you don’t, start one.  Dive on in.  The water is fine.

The conference has its own blog page and email address.

Monday, September 12, 2011

opening day at the home theater

Today was N-Day.

Netflix came to Mexico, and I signed up early this morning.

No one can say I do not sacrifice for the community.  I spent the day testing connections and selections.  From my vantage, the service gets a good solid C.

Let’s start with some givens.  I like movies.  New movies.  Old movies.  Black and white.  Color.  For a movie service to meet my needs, its selection has to have a good variety.

When I was in The States last year, I subscribed to Netflix.  At the time, it was best known for its DVD rental service.  But it had also started a streaming service that met the needs of people like me who have immediate gratification issues.  I have no desire to wait for DVDs to show up in my mail box.

The problem in The States was that the streaming inventory was rather sparse.  Not surprisingly for a company that made its name in DVD rentals.

So, the first thing I looked at with the Mexico service was the selection list.  In general, it is a yawn.  Most of the offerings are the type of films that were the mainstay of cable movie channels like Showtime.  Films starring post-teen television stars.

But that did not deter me.  Every video store has shelves of the same movies.  Somewhere there must be a colony of James Van Der Beek fans.

When I announced Netflix was coming, Jonna said she was interested only in finding a good source for television shows.  I am certain she will be disappointed.

The television offerings are rather lame.  Nothing current.  Nothing cutting edge.  Unless you live in a time warp where Grey’s Anatomy or Law and Order are considered to be au courant.

My biggest disappointment was the lack of a category for Recent Releases.  In The States, films show up on Netflix right after their theater runs have closed.

But not on the Mexican service.  That may have been a move to mollify the intellectual property right lawyers.  But it does undercut the value.

What you will find, are some classic films like Chinatown, Harold and Maude, Reservoir Dogs, Das Boot, Clear and Present Danger, and The Pink Panther (the original, not the atrocious Steve Martin release).

Here is the best news.  I had no trouble with the streaming.  The movies played without hesitation.  And there are even a few offerings in high definition.

But even the good films offer the a quirk that will keep you wondering who is in charge of the operation.  The film languages.

I despise dubbed films.  If a film is made in French, I want to hear the voices in French while I read the subtitles.  If the film is dubbed into English, all of the pacing and timing disappears.

Netflix seems to have no philosophy on the point.  Of the movies I watched, all were originally filmed in English.  Two allowed the viewer to choose both the film’s language and the subtitle language.  In addition to English, the subtitles are offered in Spanish and Portuguese -- after all this is a Latin America service.

But one movie (a Gus Van Sant piece) was dubbed terribly in Spanish with no subtitles.  And another movie was in English with Spanish subtitles embedded in the film -- subtitles that must have been designed for the hard of seeing because they blocked out almost half of the screen in large block yellow letters.  Considering the quality of the movie, that was a blessing.

Netflix is offering new subscribers free service for one month.  I am not new, so I am paying the monthly fee.

I am going to give it a try for a month or two.  If the inventory does not increase, I am going to fall back on the 400-some DVDs I brought down with me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

going greek in melaque

I am accustomed to doing without some foods I could once buy up north.

For the most part.

But not entirely.

The serpent tends to come upon me when I spy what I think is a northern treasure.  On Friday I was in Soriana (a large Mexican grocery chain) to pick up a few items.  They have several small displays with foods from other countries.  Imported delicacies.  Such as, Chex Mix.  You get the idea.  I was not expecting much.

On the Italian display I caught a glimpse of something black and oblong in a jar.  My hope meter pegged.  Could it be?  Kalamata olives?

And it was.  A small jar for a small fortune.  But I wanted them to make one of my favorite summer meals -- Greek salad.

Knowing that I was being a bit addled merely to look, I wandered over to the cheese case to see if any feta was available.  If not, I was willing to settle for fresh goat cheese.

But like some loaves and fishes tale, there it was.  Feta.  Packed in brine.  Real feta.  The fact that it was made in Denmark did not deflate my hopes.

With some local tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers -- and a jar of green Spanish olives (you know the type: stuffed with a bit of pimento) to augment the Kalamatas, I was on my way home.  And I knew it was a good day when I found a real lemon at my local grocer for the mint dressing.

The result is at the top of the post.  Now, I will admit without heirloom tomatoes, English cucumbers, Walla Walla sweet onions, and my favorite South African peppers, it is not quite the same salad I enjoyed in Salem.

But, that is the point, isn’t it?  It isn’t the same salad. 

It is a good salad.  And quite refreshing on these hot, humid summer afternoons.  A nice glass of water.  A few crackers.  A bowl of new Greek salad.  What more could I ask?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

dog days of summer

I do not believe in omens.  Just another bit of superstition as far as I am concerned.

Well, almost.

I came close to falling into the augury trap during my highlands trek.  While driving around Lake Zirahuén, I had the feeling it was going to be my next stop in this Mexican adventure.

It wasn’t the mountains -- or the forests -- or the azure lake itself.  Even though all of those were factors.

It was dogs.  Well, a type of dog.  Golden retrievers.  I saw two of them on my drive around the lake.  If relatives of Professor Jiggs could thrive there, so could I.

Of course, that simply disinterred The Dog Question.  Am I about ready for another golden retriever?

And I knew that answer.  It was easy.  If I had a golden retriever during the past two months, I would not have been spending time in San Miguel or Pátzcuaro.  Traveling with a big dog in Mexico is difficult.  Very difficult.

When I get another dog, that will be an omen certain that I have decided to garage the Escape and put down some roots.  But not today.

Instead, today (or yesterday) I became the keeper of a dog.  A house guest dog.

Tamara is one of those medium-sized bat-eared beaglish dogs that are quite common in Mexico.  Her Aztec roots may not be strong, but they are there.

She belonged to a family from Guadalajara who left her behind at the beach.  She has been in foster care for a bit.  On Friday, she was spayed, and needed to stay someplace where she would not be bothered by other animals.

My landlady knew who to ask.  I still have not divested myself of most of Jiggs’s dog paraphernalia.  So, Tamara showed up for a stay at the Professor Jiggs Spa.  Eating out of his bowls and enjoying a yard he never saw.


She moves on to her permanent home tomorrow.  And she will be ready.  I took her on a short walk around the laguna this afternoon.  Any after-effects of the anesthetic is gone.  She wants to get out there and strut her dog stuff.

And when she goes, I will stow the Jiggs kit until I decide it is time to rejoin the dog class once again.  Maybe at Lake Zirahuén.

Friday, September 09, 2011

putting it together

OK.  This is not consistent with the theme I promised yesterday -- changes on the beach -- but it is about change for the better.

As a result of my failure to ensure my truck was locked in San Miguel, I ended up losing several items.  Most I had already replaced -- or decided to do without.  Who needs a thermal sleeping bag in Mexico, any way?

But there were two items that needed attention.  The antenna for my Escape and the top portion of the bracket that holds the truck’s battery in place.

The antenna was easy.  It was in stock when I stopped at the dealer last Friday.  I handed over 370 pesos and the parts guy installed it with a handy little wrench (accessories included).

Not that it much mattered.  I use the radio primarily as a CD player.  But I now have the power to not listen to the equivalent of Mexican country-western music.  We do not get a wide variety of stations here.  Searches for Mostly Mozart go unrequited.

The battery bracket was far more important.  When I bought my new battery in San Miguel, the shop sold me a bracket that the mechanic described as “good enough.” 

You can see what “good enough” means.  It was far too long.  And instead of being straight, it was bent in two levels.  And obviously not for my flat top battery.

As a result, it would rock back and forth loosening the screws.  If I had not checked it now and then, it could have loosened enough to pull away from one of the battery cables.  Hardly disastrous.  But it was annoying.

So, this morning I stopped at the Ford dealer to retrieve my prize for 200 pesos.  When I got home, I pulled out my wrenches and did a bit of  switching.  I now have a battery that will stay in place.  Until the next time I forget to lock the truck.

And why am I telling you this?  Probably because I have heard a long line of sad tales about bringing vehicles south of the border.  The usual anecdotes center around parts never being available and costing the equivalent of a week stay at the Mayo Clinic.

That may  have been true once.  Since NAFTA came into effect and after Mexico joined WTO, automobile parts flow across the Mexican borders like American retirees.  And once the duties were reduced, the costs for parts came down dramatically.

As would be expected in a society where the middle class makes up 40 to 60% of the population -- and where that middle class purchases the same middle class vehicles that are familiar north of the border.

I am glad I no longer drive my red BMW convertible.  I would probably have a different tale to tell about parts. 

But I would undoubtedly have some far more interesting stories to tell about life.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

patton is my co-pilot

I have now been back in Melaque for a full week following my tour amongst the highland clans in San Miguel and Pátzcuaro. 

A bit of reflection may be in order.

The beach is about as constant as the moon.  It has its phases.  But they are predictable.

So, I was a bit surprised to see a few of the changes when I came back.  Such as the roads.

Melaque’s roads (“street” would be far too high-falutin’ for the paths on which we drive in my area of town), under the best circumstances, are passable.  Passable to the extent that John Ford could have used them in his westerns without a good deal of set dressing.

Very few are paved.  Most are just sand with a few rocks thrown in for a bit of sophisticated décor.

It is the sand sections that present the summer problem.  Because summer means lots of rain.  Sand, rain, and vehicles are a great mix if your goal is potholes.

I returned to Melaque on the departing edge of a tropical storm.  The main road that leads from the highway to my house is usually a bit rough in the summer.  It is primarily stone with about a 200 foot section of sand.

When I returned last Thursday it appeared that the Wehrmacht was setting up defenses against a belated attack by George Patton.  The buses, trucks, and cars had churned up the sand into potholes deep enough for the edges to bang against my truck frame.

200 feet.  Five minutes to cross.

I wanted to get a photograph to send to the Pentagon for future war planning.  But, when I returned on Tuesday, the grader had already created the impression of a passable road. 

It looks as if a Cessna 150 could do touch and goes on the surface. 

If you wait long enough in Mexico, things change.  Sometimes for the better.

In this case, the potholes were filled with sand -- just waiting for the next rain to reprise our little bit of Third Army history.

But the rain brought some other changes, as well.  And we will get to them with some better photographs.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

when the magic goes out of the jack

About three years ago, while I was making plans for my move to Mexico, my brother convinced me to buy MagicJack to make “free” calls through my computer to any number in The States and Canada.

He was a true believer.


I remember leaving a party at my boss’s Portland condominium.  While walking along the streets, my mobile telephone rang.  It was my brother.  The clarity of the call convinced me he was calling from Bend.

He wasn’t.  He was calling from Japan.  Using his MagicJack.  I became a true believer.

The little USB device I plug into the side of my computer has been one of my best purchases.  I am not much of a telephone person.  After five minutes I am usually ready to get off.  But it has kept me in touch with family and friends.

Until today.  While attempting to set up a conference call with my broker, the USB decided to do its South Carolina impression by seceding into two parts.

That is it at the top of the post.  If you look closely at the smaller piece, you will see something that looks like dirt.  It isn’t.  It is pitted corrosion.  I can only imagine what the electrical parts inside of the device look like.

As much as I like MagicJack’s product, their service department is a bit primitive.  It is cutting edge as far as technology goes.  But it is primitive in its customer service.

I discovered I could get a replacement USB for about $20.  But the FAQ section did not inform me how that could be done.

With a bit more digging, I discovered MagicJack uses a “chat” method to answer such questions.  I will spare you the details.  After 45 minutes of typing and waiting for my “service representative” to respond, I thought I was done.  (Italian customs agents could learn some new techniques from this process.)

When the confirmation email arrived, I discovered that the shipping address I had clearly described as needing all of the lines I had provided was stripped of all numbers.

For a moment I thought how convenient it would be to merely drive down to the nearest Best Buy and purchase a new device.  But Mexico is teaching me patience.  I am certain if I just wait it will arrive without any problem.

But, just in case, I found a workaround.  MagicJack has a new service called MagicTalk that does not require a USB device.  I will use it until my replacement arrives.

And the magic will return to my calls.  Unless San Miguel is a vortex that sucks the magic out of the rest of Mexico.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

photoless tuesday

When I left for Manzanillo this morning, I thought I would be telling you a tale this afternoon about how all the parts to my Escape have been restored.

Instead, I will tell you another tale.  And not an exclusively Mexican tale.

Even though the battery bracket was supposed to appear mirable dictu at the Ford dealership today, it did not turn out that way.  I was there; it was not. 

Of course, I received the usual apologies for my inconvenience (I had none because I had to be in Manzanillo today in any event) and an assurance that it would be there in the morning.

I will wait until Friday and make a day of it in Manzanillo.  There are a couple of films I would like to see at the fabled Cinepolis and its eight screens.  And Friday is a traditional movie day.  Not that I am a traditional guy.

In an attempt to make my venture today a little more fulfilling, I drove around the peninsula where Manzanillo’s expensive hotels flock together.  Not only was the view spectacular, I saw two signs that set off my irony alarm.  The alarm that reflexively makes me grab my camera.

I grabbed -- but no camera.  Not in my back pack.  Not on the truck seat.  Not on the floor.

My first instinct was that I had left the truck unlocked and the camera had joined the long parade of possessions that have now been redistributed Robin Hood style.  But that made no sense.  Nothing else was missing.

Then it hit me.  I probably left it on the back seat of Lou and Wynn’s truck when we went to Sunday dinner.  And so I did.

That means no ironic photographs.  No great sunny bay vistas.  Nothing -- except the same sign that annoys me when I see it in public buildings.

Tomorrow I will retrieve the camera.  And maybe we can then have some discussions about the realities of living on the beach.

Monday, September 05, 2011

coming soon to a computer in your neighborhood

Blogs should never be shills.

It’s a rule.

OK.  A rule I just made up.  And now I will break it.

One of the things I have missed in Mexico is access to a good movie source.  Of course, there are the pirated DVDs in the local markets.  But I have already discussed why I do not buy those.

During the early part of the year, I had heard rumors that Netflix was going to start offering services in Mexico.  That was good news for me.  During my six-month sojourn to The States last year, I subscribed to Netflix.  Its streaming video offerings were a bit limited.  But they were high quality versions of some very good films.

But promised services here in Mexico often remain merely promises -- awaiting some future date for delivery. 

But not this time.

This month Netflix is starting its services in Latin America.  Brazil already has the service.  On Wednesday service starts for Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.    Later in the week, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, and Chile come on line.

And then on Monday of next week -- drum roll, please -- Mexico (along with Central America and the Caribbean) will be potential Netflix customers.  If I have read the announcement correctly, the subscription will be $99 (Mx) a month -- about what I paid in The States.

I will sign up – if only to test the one limitation I think I will have in Melaque.  My internet speed here is rather slow.  Even though I have the highest speed service that the rather antiquated telephone lines will allow, I have trouble with internet calls and video streaming now and then. 

But there is a work-around for that, as well.  I will simply have to plan ahead and download the movies in full before I watch them.

So, next Monday, I will pull out my credit card and set up another monthly billing.  And we will see whether Netflix can fill my film jonesing.

Friday, September 02, 2011

beached on the internet

“There are still things I would like to do, but I want to be on the road by 6 AM to get back to Melaque.”

I was telling a friend my well-laid plans about leaving the highlands in the early morning to get back to Manzanillo to pick up mail and buy parts for the Escape.

”Steve, you know none of that is going to happen.  This is Mexico,” said she.

Smugness and hubris are always paid in cold coin.  In this case, through the instrument of the laundress.  When I stopped by the laundry on Wednesday evening at 8 to pick up clean sheets and towels for the condominium, I was told, with great sorrow and ceremony, that the laundry would not be ready until Thursday morning.

And that is why I was on the road to Melaque at 11, instead of 6.  I could have fit in a trip to Costco by driving to Morelia and catching the toll roads all the way to the beach.

But I decided to see a bit more of the village country around Lake Pátzcuaro by driving around the east end of the lake and up through Zacapu.  I now have a long list of places to revisit when I return.

I made rather good time – as drivers can on the toll roads.  The posted limit is the equivalent to 66 to 70 miles per hour.  I was doing 80.  And I was passed by about three-quarters of the cars.  It is almost like Germany in Mexico.

Of course, I did not get to Manzanillo in time to do any of my chores.  And it was just as well.  When I got back to the duplex I discovered my modem had taken French leave.  Or, more accurately, it had crossed over to the other side.  Probably, another storm victim.

With the assistance of my land lady, I arranged to pick up a new one in Manzanillo this morning.  And a fruitful day it was.  A new modem.  A stack of mail (even though my magazines have now gone missing for four months).  $150 worth of good food (including a package of cherries).  And a new antenna for the Escape.

The only thing I could not get today was a bracket for the Escape’s battery.  But it is supposed to arrive on Tuesday.  All things in time.

Not bad for my first day back at the coast.

My modem is up and running.  But I think I will take a break from writing for the weekend.  I want to sort through my notes and photographs for the past two months to see if there are some tidbits I have left unserved.

And we can then resume our sojourn on Mexico’s coast.  It has been a busy two months.