Tuesday, January 31, 2012


One of the joys of Mexican electricity is the opportunity to meet it up close and personal.

I am not talking about the usual Gordian knot of power lines seen on many Mexican electrical poles -- even though they would make an interesting post.

What I am talking about is the almost universal lack of grounding in Mexican electrical systems.  Now, I know that sentence is not scientifically accurate.  After all, electrical current is always grounded at one point.  And that point, in an Mexican home, is likely to be you.

It certainly has been me recently.

I have a computer station in my living room where all of my computer gear is hooked up to one extension cord that runs through both a surge protector, and a combined voltage regulator and battery backup.

It looks quite impressive.  Maybe a bit too many bare cords for the feminine eye.  But it appeals to my testosterone-driven sense of technology

But like most apparently impressive systems, it is an illusion.  Because the electrical system to my house has no built-in grounding, touching any metal part on my computer table will give me a bigger jolt than Newt Gingrich endorsing Barak Obama.

And I have discovered the same problem with my new notebook computer.  Having taken to my sick bed, I brought it along for a bit of diversion.   A few moments ago, I stood up while holding it.  A radio falling into a bath tub could not have given me a larger jolt.

Well, I suppose it could have.  But the distinction was academic while it was happening.  Apparently, my bed was not a very good electrical conductor. But the moment my foot hit the tile floor, resistance was no longer futile.

The problem is hardly exclusive to Mexico.  I remember when I was growing up, there was at least one table or floor lamp that offered a shocking experience when turning it off and on.

But I am certain that the random electricity running through my computer systems cannot be good for them.  And my constant nomination to be the next Reddy Kilowatt is probably doing nothing for me, either.

There are some things about Mexico I am happy to keep impersonal.

Monday, January 30, 2012

turn your life -- and cough

This cold is really frustrating. 

Usually Nyquil will do the trick and knock me out to stay in bed and allow my body to take the time it needs to fight off the virus.

But Nyquil has not come to my aid with this cold.  I tossed and turned most of last night, and each turn resulted in another racking cough.  And you do not want to know any more about productivity.

So, this morning, I drove to my doctor to discover I am one of many people with the same condition in town.  She wrote a prescription for two drugs.  But, before I left, she wanted to check my blood pressure.

I thought that was the least of my worries.  But the readings were 110 over 95.  She did not like that.  Too close together.

As all good doctors do, she then checked my pulse.  I drew to a pair with my systolic reading.  Usually, it never gets higher than 80.

She grabbed my prescriptions, removed one of the drugs, and told me to come back tomorrow.

And I will.

There is nothing to be alarmed about.  I will stop taking the Nyquil and take the one drug she gave.  I already feel a bit better after taking a short nap.

But it is a rather awkward time to have guests in the house.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

the cold front sets in

I am feeling a bit puny today, as my dear old pappy used to say.

Actually, I am not certain he said any such thing.  But that is how I am feeling.

A head cold, I suspect.  Stuffy sinuses.  A bit of fever.  And a cough just one notch down from tuberculosis patient.  What doctors call unproductive coughs.  Better known to we lay people as the sound equivalent of dry heaves.

When I went to Oregon in early December, I took a variety of the cold with me and suffered a couple of weeks with it.  Having won, or at least placed in, each annual hubris award, I was smug at the possibility of returning to Melaque during the cold season and walking through the hackers with the certainty of The Inoculated.

Of course, my pride was better than my science.  Catching the flu immunizes you from the same strain.  Colds, like love, are forever.

And so mine is.  I have resorted to nuclear warfare: Nyquil during the daylight hours.  That made church a bit of a nod this morning.  And that is too bad because it was a great service. 

But I am now in my bed.  Drinking hot liquids.  And hoping that this will all pass before I climb on that airplane to San Francisco on Friday.

Until then, feeling puny will have to do.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

food on the sand

A visitor is in town.

And when visitors come to Melaque, one of the first things I do is toss them in the truck, and we head out over the hills to La Manzanilla.  For beach, crocodiles, and good food.

On each trip, I think the Shiftless Escape is going to lie down and tell me: “No more.”  But, just as it did last summer with multiple trips to the Mexican highlands, it kept on ticking.

I suppose I like going to La Manzanilla to offer my visitors some context to the tale of how I managed to end up living in Melaque.  After all, it was La Manzanilla’s real estate page that drew me to the area.  To see a house that still has not sold.

So, that was stop number one.  I wandered through the hills on the outskirts of the village to show my visitor the houses I looked at -- and why I choose not to buy.
Ejido land.  Difficult transfers.  Not to mention months of rain where the road up the hill looks more like a stream than an avenue.

But there is no denying that the view in La Manzanilla is one of the best on the Mexico Pacific coast.  I suspect I would have rented there, rather than buying, if it had not been for the difficulty of getting gasoline and groceries. 

And money.  There is neither a bank nor an ATM in La Manzanilla.  It is as if someone designed the perfect place for people to visit for a two week vacation without being bothered by the daily needs of life.
Having completed the grand tour of homes and majestic vistas portion of the trip, we headed down the hill to the mangrove swamp to see what was once La Manzanilla’s greatest attraction -- its crocodiles.

When I first visited La Manzanilla, the area had suffered a rain storm large enough to take the swamp right up to the tables of the beach restaurants.  And along with the swamp came the crocodiles.  One of my favorite photographs from that trip was a large crocodile sunning himself near a table with a Louisiana Heron within dining reach -- of the crocodile.
The loss of a series of Gringo dogs to canine-chowing crocodiles roaming the streets near the swamp caused the ejido fathers to construct a fence, an observation tower, and a rickety suspension bridge right out of a Tarzan movie -- complete with hungry crocodiles awaiting a misstep. 

The local worthies knew there was an opportunity to separate tourists from their pesos by offering a wild adventure on the cheap.

Unfortunately, in the process, the crocodiles  have become dependent on food from people.  A recipe that can lead to crocodiles confusing the provider with the provision.

And, just like humans beings who become accustomed to someone else’s labor, they have become lethargic, and worse: uninteresting.  With the exception of the occasional fight over a good sunning spot, the site is about as wild as a Presbyterian potluck.

Not to be outdone  by the crocodiles, we decided to enjoy the good life by stopping by Lora Loka, my favorite Mexico spot for chicken enchiladas with salsa verde.
As always, the food was delicious.  But that is only one measure of a beach restaurant.  The day was about as good as a Mexican beach day can be.

Warm, not hot, temperatures.  A slight breeze.  Moderate humidity.  And plenty of people enjoying a day at the beach -- including what appeared to be a waifish French fashion model with her own security guard.

Say what you will about La Manzanilla, as often as I visit it, there is always something that makes the day just a little bit better.

And that is certainly worth sharing with a visitor.

Friday, January 27, 2012

chewing the tropical scenery

Mexpatriate has hit the big time.

Of, at least, the small pond variety.

Last week, my pastor, Ron, and his wife, Nancy stopped by my table at a local restaurant -- to welcome me back to Melaque.  Nancy asked if I was aware that one of my posts had been quoted in the regional English-language newspaper.

I hadn't.  During blog staff cuts, the first to go are always the publicists.  I see The Guadaljara Reporter when I am in town, but I had missed the 6 January 2012 edition with its headline: "
Melaque expats shocked by murder of Canadian."

The story, of course was about the death of Robin Wood -- a loss we discussed in death in the family

The newspaper recited the now-familiar facts of Mr. Wood's tragic death.  And then noted that many foreign residents had been frightened by it.

That is where Mexpatriate comes in.  The story continued:
In one well-written blog – steveinmexico.blogspot.com – Steve Cotton of Villa Obregon noted that many people posted comments saying they were evacuating Melaque because of the incident.
Cotton, however, won’t be one of them.  “I hope the murderers are caught. I hope justice is done.  But leaving Melaque will not accomplish any of those ends,” he writes defiantly. “I am not leaving. In fact, I will soon be flying back home to Melaque in a few days. And I intend to bring as many people as I can.”
OK.  I confess I am a sucker for praise.  The "well-written" compliment and hyphen homage were enough to make my day.

From the people I have talked to in the last two weeks, their attitude seems to be every bit as "defiant" as my own.  And here I was thinking I was simply plucky.

As far as I am concerned, the article is better than a golden globe award.  (But, then, what isn't?)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

heroes, idols, and mortals

Pancho Villa.

His name is emblematic of recent Mexican history. To Mexicans, he is an unblemished hero of the Revolution.  To Americans, he is a precursor of Osama bin Ladin terrorism.

Like most men, the truth of his life hides in the shadows -- somewhere between the public extremes.  But the truth died with him as a martyr to The Cause in a fusillade of assassin bullets.

Our group ended its tour in Chihuahua on Wednesday afternoon -- a city of almost one million people, and the capital of the state of Chihuahua.

Our only lengthy stop (and that was for only a half hour) was the house Pancho Villa gave to his only legal wife.  (He had 24 of the not-so-legal variety.)

She lived there from the 1920s until her death in the 1980s.  Having no heirs, she left the house to the state.

It is now a museum to Pancho Villa’s life.  Or, at least, the life that the state chooses to portray.  The early years of banditry are given short shrift.  But we do get to see some of his more-admired life in detail. 

As a local Chihuahua patron before the Revolution.  As an organizing political and military force in the Revolution.  As a brilliant general fighting Porfirio Diaz and then his former friends in the Revolution.  As a wily fox avoiding “Black Jack” Pershing’s attempt to punish Villa’s destruction of Columbus, New Mexico.  And as a retired hero awaiting his death at the hands of a president he helped put in power.

There are photographs.  Lots of them -- with bilingual labels.  And enough uniforms, cannons, saddles, pistols, and swords to titillate the 12-year old boy in all of us.

All of them telling a tale of what happened around the man, but revealing very little of who he was.  But that is the concurrent strength and weakness of hagiography.

The most poignant exhibit is the car Pancho Villa was driving when he was assassinated by presidential agents.  Governments may have no idea on how to do almost anything well, but they know how to use their monopoly on violence. 

Leaving nothing to chance, the group of assassins shot Villa sixteen times.  Reuniting him with his Revolution friends and enemies who had died at the hands of assassins.  And were thus rescued from a balanced view of their lives.

The museum is well worth a half day visit.  It is a good opportunity to learn some details about the Revolution.  From a certain point of view.

With day fading, we stopped for fifteen minutes at the Chihuahua Governmental Palace to see one of the most sacred places in secular Mexico.  The site where the Spanish executed Miguel Hidalgo -- the putative father of the Mexican War of Independence.

The building is one of those ornate Porfirio-era piles of stone that are more stunning than beautiful.  In its courtyard, the powers-that-be have designated a corner room as a shrine on the alleged spot where Hidalgo was shot.

It may be my cynicism, but these secular altars have the contrived feel of their religious cousins -- such as the Church of the Nativity.  They commemorate real events, but the exact spot always seems a bit too convenient in their location.

The lower level of the courtyard is adorned with one of those monumental murals that are characteristically Mexican.  Historical in scope and socialist in tone.  One of the corners is anchored with the portraits of Juarez, Lincoln, and Bolivar -- a combination that is far more political than historical.
As most of you know, I love murals.  This one is rather mediocre in its artistic value, but it would be well worth a day’s study.  Once again, if I ever come back this way.

And I should plan on a return trip.  This tour was designed merely to be a sampler of some of the attractions in northern Mexico.  It met its goal.  Mex-eco Tours did a great job of putting it together.

Take a look at their web site.  If you live in or visit the Melaque area, they have some great offerings.

And, now, to plan for China.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I discovered what happened to The Village People.

At least, I think I have.  In Creel.  But it appears four of them are now dressing as cowboys.

This sculpture group (constructed of discarded mechanical parts) is a grace note in an otherwise-dull railroad town.

As you know from yesterday’s post, we arrived in Creel in the afternoon.  And we were quick to discover that the town does not have much to offer the weary tourist.

The plaza has a rather plain new church and a slightly more ornate old church.  But both were locked tight.

The plaza does have a saving grace.  It hosts the quintet of car part musicians at the top of this post.  Other than that, Creel would look at home in almost any John Ford western.  With the exception of the well-paved and heavily-carred streets.

We stayed at the Best Western in town.  Do not be fooled by the brand name.  The complex is made up of a series of comfortable cabins -- all of them equipped with gas stoves.  "Charming" is a cliche.  These cabins are functional and homey.

And, as some readers of this blog warned me, the stoves were a blessing.  This part of Mexico can get chilly in the winter.

The low this morning was 18 degrees.  (In Fahrenheit, the preferred temperature measurement on these pages).  My sweater was put to good use.  I have to confess, though, the chill felt refreshing.  Even though I felt sorry for the Tarahumara women and children who stopped by to sell their wares.

After breakfast, we climbed aboard the bus to visit a Mennonite community.  The first stop was an outlet to buy the local cheese.  Even though the cheese is excellent for cooking, it is not to my taste as an eating cheese.

The second stop was more interesting: the Mennonite Community Museum.  The community has done a good job of recreating the agricultural and home life of the original Mennonite immigrants (who left Canada as conscientious objectors) during the First World War.

I have seen some of the implements in operation when I was young in southern Oregon.  But, by the time I showed up, most of them were antiques treasured by my great aunts.  And I am a sucker for machinery that bears a striking resemblance to living creatures.

The road between the Mennonite communities and Chihuahua is a combination of flat plain fringed by rolling hills.  Cattle.  Apples.  Baseball.  They are all there.

And the view was plain enough to allow the odd traveler to contemplate his place in this world.  One of the luxuries of travel when the scenery is not constantly clamoring for attention.

Being forced out of a routine not only opens our eyes to new places, but gives us an opportunity to think about who we are.  And I have been through several of those moments on this trip.

What I have concluded matters little. 

But I can tell you I will not be dunning cowboy gear to join the metal quintet of Creel. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

shadow and light

This is the way to start a day.  Any day.

The sun rising over Copper Canyon.  Watching the morning light play over the canyon walls was worth the price of this trip.  I could have stayed in our hotel for a week -- just to indulge in photography.  I have always wanted to be Monet at Rouen.

This was another travel day with various stops along the way.  But our first choice of travel was a change of pace.  A cable car that takes gawking tourists from the canyon rim on a 1.8 mile cable to a platform about 6600 feet lower.

The views, of course, are amazing.  Being suspended over the canyon helps tourists to realize just how magnificent this site is.  What took Nature millions of years to dig, we take in within an hour or two and are on our way.

Of course, this is what I would have preferred.

The combination of ziplines at Copper Canyon is the longest and fastest in Mexico.  Those superlatives were enough to tweak my adrenalin and quiet my better sense.  Unfortunately, we did not have time to complete a full run and make it to Creel on time.  So, there was no sense in starting.

Maybe next trip.

I did get to put some of my adrenalin to good use, though.  On each tour, the guide climbs out onto balancing rock that rests at the end of a narrow cliff shelf.  He then rocks back and forth to the applause of the tour group.

Well, I had to have a piece of that.  I wandered out onto the shelf, but I did not climb up on the balancing rock because of the wind gusts.  (I do have some sense.) 

But it was a thrill.  What you cannot see is that the three of us are standing inches away from a precipitous drop of thousands of feet.

My adrenaline having been sufficiently burned, our group climbed into two vans for a trip to Creel.

Along the way we stopped at a lake, an eighteenth century mission church (Mision San Ignacio), and two rock formations (Valley of the Mushrooms and Valley of the Frogs).  At each stopped we were greeted by Tarahumara women and children selling hand-made crafts.

Yesterday, Kathe suggested a lunch place in Creel.  I love birria.  She said there was a small restaurant one block from the train station.  Our guide recommended the same place.

And a good suggestion it was.  The name of the place is El Tungar.  Two young women serve up every imaginable dish that a working Mexican might enjoy.  Some I have never heard of.

Tonight we will rest in Creel.  Then we are off to the Mennonite Camp in the morning with an overnight stay In Chihuahua.

For some reason, I suspect my sunrise in Creel will not match the one I watched this morning. 

But isn’t that just a theme and variation on life in general?

Monday, January 23, 2012


This is Copper Canyon.

As you know from my last post, there are nine canyons that make up the Copper Canyon system.  But this is the canyon that lent its name to the entire system.

In this canyon’s depths, the ore-obsessed Spanish thought they had discovered the very navel of copper deposits.  But they had merely discovered lichen-covered cliffs.  And lots of very rugged -- and beautiful country.

But that is how today’s journey ends  I need to get us back to the top of the day.

It started in the little mountain village of Cerocahui with a tour of a boarding school for Tarahumara girls.  A charitable Catholic school that also serves village boys and girls.

I must confess that I am rather sensitive to these tours.  Where tourists traipse through operating institutions flashing cameras in children’s faces.  But that may simply be my dislike of having cameras pointed at me -- and watching tourist activity at the Indian school in Pinal Villa.

Our guide, Francisco, who is well-versed in Mexican history and anthropology, presented a very thorough lecture on the history of the Tarahumara people.  How they were once a town-dwelling people before the Apache chased them into the canyons.  Where most of them now live in isolated houses in the mountains and carry on their unique mixture of tradition and Christianity.

I should mention that our night in the Hotel Mision in Cerocahui was pleasant, but cold.  But, with a fire in the room, it could have been a comfortable 40 degrees outside.

A quick van drive to the train station and we were off on a short two-hour ride to Divisadero -- with a quick stop to a little on-train shopping.

In Divisadero, we booked into the 5-star Posada Barrancas Mirador.  The photograph at the top of the post is from my hotel room.  Every room has a similar view.

And I suppose the hotel thinks that visitors should be looking at the view rather than the internet.  That may explain why internet service costs $100 (Mx) an hour and is available only in the lobby.

After we got settled in, we walked down a cliff trail behind the hotel to a small Tarahumara settlement that looked like the Indian equivalent of Jamestown.  Created culture for tourists interested in souvenirs.

The hotel runs an incredible zipline.  I was prepared to sign up to test my left ankle’s fortitude, but we will not have enough time tomorrow to fit it into the schedule.  Too bad.  It would be fun to slip on the line once more.

For those in our tour group who are not neurotic bloggers, the evening was spent socializing, dining, and listening to an adequate guitarist.  But what else does one do when the sun goes down on the scenery?

Today is the end of the train and canyons.  But there are still three days of adventure ahead: Creel, Mennonite Camps, and Chihuahua.

And I hope more ubiquitous and available internet.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

likin’ the lichen

[We did not have internet at the hotel in Cerocahui.  This should have been Sunday night’s post.]

When we greybeards start reminiscing about the golden age of transportation, we often forget a salient detail  Travel was slower black then .

But that may be lone of the reason we undertake journeys.  To rediscover the bit of our lives we have bartered for a bowl of multi-tasking porridge.

We discussed the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico yesterday --
– the rail service that runs along one of the canyons that makes up the Copper Canyon system.

Copper Canyon (or Barranca del Cobre in Spanish) is a misnomer in two senses.

First, it is not one canyon.   There are about nine canyons carved by six rivers, converging into a single river -- Rio Fuerte.  Mexicans love to point out that the canyon system covers more territory than the Grand Canyon.

The second misnomer is the tem “copper.”  There are plenty of ores in these mountains, but no copper.  And the name does not come from the occasional reddish stone in the canyons.

Instead, think patina.  The greenish growth that covers many a copper-roof.  When the Spanish first came to the canyons, they thought they saw copper ore exposed on the cliffs.

They were wrong.  What they saw was lichen.  But the name stuck long after the Spanish discovered their error.  After all, Lichen Canyon sounds like something out of a Disney animated film.

But that has nothing to do with the leisurely pace I discussed at te top of this post.  Our train ride did, though. 


The first class carriage on the Copper Canyon run is just that -- first class.  But the speed was slow.  Just as trains once were.  Even in the dry desert that would have felt at home outside of Tucson, there was plenty of time to see everything.  And to enjoy it.

But the slow speed became a true asset once we entered Chihuahua state -- where the canyon system begins.

The rail line follows the Septentrion River up the Septentrion Canyon.  At its deepest, the canyon is 5250 feet deep.  Part of the fun of the trip is the number of bridges, tunnels, and switchbacks  the Mexican engineers used to defeat the canyon’s barriers while allowing the passengers to enjoy views where the next is more spectacular than the last.

We left the train at Bachuichivo and took a long bus drive (the drive was long, not the bus) to our hotel (Mision) in the mountain village of Cerocahui.

After checking in, we got back on the bus for another hour drive over steep mountain roads that could have qualified as log truck roads in Oregon.  Most of us were wondering what could be worth the tedious drive through scrub pine woods.

But the destination was worth the trip -- and more.  We came around a tight corner, and this was what we saw.


Urique Canyon.  The deepest Canyon in the Copper Canyon system and in Mexico.  Deeper than the Grand Canyon.

But the photograph above is not the deepest part of the canyon.  This is.


It is too bad we did not have ore time to enjoy the subtleties of the view.  Like too many group trips, this was a long ride followed by a brief photo opportunity. 

Had I been traveling alone, I most likely would have stayed two days at the Hotel Mision. getting up early enough to watch the light play over the canyon as the day progressed.

But “what ifs” are for another day.  Now, it is time to get to bed to head to get ready for another train ride.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

bus, airplane, and bus

Today is what we tourists call a travel day.

And a travel day it was.

Up at 3:30 AM to catch a chartered ETN bus (one of Mexico's premier services) in Melaque.  A five hour drive to Guadalajara where we caught a one and a half hour flight to Culiacan.  And then onto a tourist-style bus for a three hour drive to Los Mochis.

The Los Mochis stop was for lunch.  At 4 PM.  And  we were then off for another hour or two bus ride to El Fuerte.

The adventurous traveler should enjoy journeys no matter how mundane.  But I must have missed the merit badge for that skill.  The day was merely something to be endured.  As a Catholic friend on the trip said: “Endured as we must endure life as a Christian.”

I read something similar about the local Tarahumara Indians.  Their religion teaches that good deeds are a moral end in themselves.  To improve life on earth without regard to an afterlife.  Funny.  I thought that was also Christ's teaching.

But I am wandering.  We are now in our 5-star hotel (Posada del Hidalgo) in El Fuerte.  A few of us walked around the town this evening and rehashed a bit of Mexican history -- in this farming country that is now experiencing its ninth year of drought.  With no Joseph on the horizon.

Tomorrow, we will board the train that will take us up Copper Canyon.

The railroad we will travel still bears some of the historical burden that often weighs down Mexican progress.  Railroad men in The United States and Mexico planned an intricate web of rail lines that would carry goods between the Pacific and Gulf coasts.

The Copper Canyon rail line was part of that web.  Construction began in the 1860s.  But internal wars and other Mexican priorities slowed construction until it stopped in 1906 -- partly due to the opening of the Panama Canal.  Construction eventually resumed in 1949 and the line was completed in 1961. 

It had a short-lived career, like much of  Mexican rail, until it was relegated to the task of hauling tourists trough one of the Mexico’s most spectacular sights.

A ride I am looking forward to -- tomorrow.

Friday, January 20, 2012

launch minus one

I am on my way to pick up my laundry for the tour to Copper Canyon.  The last item in my task-oriented two days before we head to northern Mexico.

There are plenty of tales about Mexican banks fouling up balances.  And I suspect I may have incorporated far too many of those concerns into my own thinking.

Last night I transferred funds from The Sates to my Mexican bank.  When I stopped by the bank this morning, I was prepared to discover the funds were not yet available.  But they were.

So, I punched out a wad of pesos from the ATM and wandered over to the tour office to pay the balance for the trip.

Once I have my laundry in hand, I will toss a couple of clothing items into my carry-on bag (as a dress rehearsal for the China trip) -- and be ready for my 3 AM call tomorrow.  To catch a bus to Guadalajara and then an air flight to El Fuerte.

At some point, I will be back with you.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

lonely swinger

I stepped into my garden this morning and discovered a new hammock.  A veritable Joseph’s coat stretched between two trees.

As inviting as it looked, I forewent its somnolent tranquility for a list of tasks that would have pleased any neurotic still clutching his leather-bound Day-Timer.

I leave for Copper Canyon early on Saturday morning.  And I mean early.  So early I won’t be able to find a rooster stirring.

But I have a list of things that must (or should) be done before I head to northern Mexico with my friends-not-yet-met tour group.  So, early on Thursday, I mounted my steed and set forth to seek Dulcinea.

  • Early last week, I tried to transfer dollars to pesos from my bank account up north.  The transfer was rejected.  So, I waited until today to go talk to my local branch bank manager to get the correct transfer codes.  By the end of the day, the pesos were supposedly in my account.  I have not yet checked with my bank.
  • I needed the pesos to pay for my trip to Copper Canyon.  I had enough to pay about 60% before my stash ran out.  I will check with the bank tomorrow to settle up the balance.
  • My other urgent payment was for my postal box.  With $300 (Mx), I bought the right to use my little piece of postal Mexico.  And I collected six weeks worth of letters, bills, magazines, newspapers, and Christmas cards (an anachronistic experience in its own right.)
  • Manzanillo was the next stop.  My former mail service had received some mail after I closed out my box.  The mail turned out to be two advertisements from my credit union and a calendar from my cruise consultant.  I have to admit it was nice to talk with the new owner.  I have now known him for three years.  I miss catching up on Manzanillo news with him.
  • One of the things I wanted to buy before I left Oregon was a Bluetooth mouse for my new notebook.  But I forgot to buy one before I left.  I find most laptop mouse pads to be far too skittish for my rather brutish typing style.  Office Depot had just what I needed.  Anyone who thinks Mexico is technologically backward has not been shopping in electronic stores lately.
  • My next stop was playing the ATM.  My first try ended up with the machine thinking and spinning for about three minutes before it denied my transaction.  Not a hopeful sign.  I tried again and pesos started flowing.  Not as many as I would have received in November, but more than I would have received in July.

Not bad for a day in Mexico.  I accomplished almost everything I needed to do.  Now all I need to do on Friday is visit the ATM for traveling money, check with the bank that my pesos were really transferred, and pay the balance on my trip.

At times, I feel as if I have a place in Melaque merely to get things done for my next trip.

Colorful hammock or not.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

yoknapatawpha county comes to oregon

No one had ever called her beautiful -- or even pretty.

Except maybe her father.  But fathers are required to see what the world cannot see.  And, in her case, the world didn’t.

She was right out of a Faulkner novel.  In her 40s, but looking as if Social Security retirement checks had blessed her checking account for years.

Looking uncomfortable, she joined the middle class crowd on the HUT shuttle to the Portland Airport.  They were not her crowd.  As far as she was concerned, they were all part of the Jay Gatsby set.

She had built a cushion of weight and words to protect herself from their judgment.  And they then judged her for both.

Three in the morning is a time for bus silence.  Even the electronic crowd snoozes at that time of the morning.

But not her.  She had boarded the bus with a boyfriend.  Both of them trailing a scent cloud of cat urine.  The telltale sign of veteran methamphetamine users.

And that may have explained the constant flow of words.  Like a silk worm building its defensive cocoon.

For some reason, people who seem to be unable to control their urge to speak also seem to have volume issues.  What we often call drunk deafness.

The bus had barely pulled out of the hotel when she started her soliloquy to her almost unconscious boyfriend.  The trip was too long for her.  Her feet hurt.  Her sister did not understand her.  And countless other topics that her unwilling audience on the bus could not understand because of her tendency to squawk out syllables.

At her most tragic, she took out her mobile telephone, activated the GPS, and then carried on a conversation with it.  The GPS bested her.

Her little drama ended in tears at the airport when she could not find her shooooooe --– pronounced as if she had turned herself into a Patriot missile.

As irritating as she was, I started thinking about what had brought her to this place.  Nature had not imbued her with natural beauty.  And she had then created a personality to avoid any other hurt.

She was one of God’s creatures -- a member of the human race -- deserving of  respect.  But I suspect she found the world to be a dangerous place.  Not a place to be enjoyed.

And that thought saddened me.  Here I am on my way back to Mexico -- fully looking forward to my time there as another moment to be enjoyed to its fullest.

For that, I am thankful this morning.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

day zero

Every trip comes to an end.

Even trips that last weeks longer than originally scheduled.

And that is the case with this journey north.  I originally planned to stay just long enough to pick up a couple of books for a friend and my China visa.  I had both of them before Christmas.

But I decided to spend more time with family and friends.  And to hunt out some good food.  The relationships were great.  The food?  Not so much.  Even though the scales say otherwise.

Tomorrow I will be on an airplane headed back to Manzanillo.  But, before I go, there is the inevitable packing.

Usually, that takes me no more than 15 minutes.  Today it is taking a bit longer.  Simply because I acquired a few more items than I planned to take back to Mexico.

The biggest purchase was my Z series Sony notebook.  The notebook is small.  But its sheet battery, docking station, and two power adapters take up a lot of space.  And they should present great targets for the TSA people in Portland.  I can feel performance art in the offing.

I am also taking back some warm clothes for my Copper Canyon and Red China trips.  Clothes that will have absolutely no utility in Melaque.

Then there are the usual arrays of printer cartridges, pudding packages, shampoo, spice drops, and assorted dry goods that I either cannot buy in Manzanillo -- or that are expensive.

This afternoon some people stopped by the house to take a look at it -- as a potential purchase.  Here’s hoping.

Now I just need to wait until 2:30 tomorrow morning when I climb aboard the shuttle to Portland -- and I will be back in Melaque in the afternoon.

Ready to start my next two trips.

Monday, January 16, 2012

a prophet in the morning

Odd weekend this.

Mother Nature decided on Saturday night to remind me that Oregon is not Melaque.  For two days, she has sprinkled snow on Salem.  Not the kind of snow that the good folks of Buffalo know.  This was a mere dusting of confectioner's sugar.  As if we lived inside a bundt cake.

The kind of snow that makes the hot tub feel like a hot spring in the Cascades, rather than a mere good investment.

When it snows in western Oregon, traffic disappears.  They may be good rain drivers, but snow seems to paralyze Willamette Valley drivers.

My house is on one of Salem's major streets.  Usually, I wake up in the morning to an olio of traffic noise and pedestrian commuter chatter.  Weekends are a bit quieter, but I expected the symphony of commerce to resume on Monday.

It hasn't.  Very few cars.  The sound of the morning Amtrak passing through.  No state workers hustling by on the sidewalk.

Then it hit me.  It is 16 January.  Martin Luther King Day.  (And my friend Daurel Colony's birthday.  Happy birthday, Daurel.)

Like most American holidays (and I suspect most world holidays) established to honor people whose principles we strive to imitate, Martin  Luther King Day has simply become another three-day holiday for people to sleep in or to lure shoppers into stores for sales.

But sitting here in bed, I started considering what we have done to the good Dr. King.  Like most heroes, we have slipped him through the myth machine stripping him of his humanity -- or, at least, the flaws that make all of us human.

What we have left is an icon that various politicians trot out for their own use.  As if a prophet has no value other than as a prop in a political French farce.

Nothing symbolizes that better than the controversy over one of the inscriptions on the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC.  A memorial that was dedicated just this last year.

You undoubtedly know the details, but they deserve repeating.

Two months before he was assassinated, Dr. King delivered a sermon at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.  Some people had referred to him as a drum major of the civil rights movement.  Like most people, he was subject to self-aggrandizement.  But, in that sermon, he took a course more in line with the teachings of the God he served.

"If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness.  And all of the other shallow things will not matter."

A very powerful statement.

But the memorial architect had limited space on the memorial.  In a desire to include a portion of the sermon that Dr. King thought summed up his life, the architect edited the quotation to: "I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness."

You don't need to be a writer to realize the truncated version does violence to the original.  The very tone changes.

But isn't that what we have done to Dr. King's dream?  To create a country where race does not matter?

Before I start sounding like an ego-bloated New York Times editor (and I may be 60-some years too late for that), I will simply suggest we might be a whole lot better off trying to live our lives as individuals rather than sinking into the politics of groups.

Now I need to get out of bed and get on with my day.  Maybe living up to a few of the principles we honor in American society. 

Even if only in the breach.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

the tin lady

I wanted to do something special for my birthday.

Not that it is one of those big birthdays.  Unless celebrating prime numbers is a secret American tradition.

So, special it was going to be.  And it was.

I headed north to the Cinetopia (the theater with the great projection and sound I wrote about in tinker, tailor, soldier, bore) to see The Iron Lady.  Meryl Streep’s uncanny portrayal of Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher is admired by a lot of people.  Even those who were not particularly fond of some (or all) of her policies.

That is why it is easy for everyone to enjoy this film.  It is not about policy.  In fact, it is often very difficult, based on this film, to figure out why this middle class woman was able to successfully navigate the reefs of grandee politics in the Conservative Party.

One reason, of course, is that she stood for something -- and the Conservative elite stood for very little.  Or as one wag put it in the 1970s: the Socialists stood for everything and the Tories stood for nothing.

Any screenwriter who attempts to reduce a political life to the confines of a film is faced with a very real problem.  How do you find the subject’s center?  Where is its bottom?  And how do you tell the tale in two hours?

It appeared that Abi Morgan had found that center in a little monologue put into Lady Thatcher’s mouth when her doctor tells her he understands how she feels about giving away her dead husband’s possessions.

People don’t ‘think’ any more.  They ‘feel’. ‘How are you feeling?’  ‘Oh I don’t feel comfortable with that.’  ‘Oh, I’m so sorry but we, the group were feeling...’

D’you know, one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than thoughts and ideas.

Now thoughts and ideas. That interests me.

The problem is there are no ideas in the film at all.  Just feelings.  It is as if Meryl Streep stopped by to give an acting workshop on how to portray an ambitious woman.  In the same vein as Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth II in The Queen.

And it is obvious the screenwriter simply gave up on trying to find the center of her subject.  Much in the same way that Edmund Morris gave up on trying to write a straight biography of Ronald Reagan.  Morris invented a fictional character (himself) to act as narrator.

Abi Morgan wanders down a similar path by allowing the long-dead Denis, Lady Thatcher’s husband, to act as an hallucinatory Greek chorus to carry along the narrative.  The fact that the ghost bears almost no psychological relationship to the real Denis Thatcher does not matter.  He is a convenient device to mouth the screenwriter’s thoughts.

But he doesn’t.  There is no explanation of why the British people entrusted their nation to  the Iron Lady -- or why her party eventually played Brutus to her Caesar.  Well, other than the fact that their feelings were hurt.

But Meryl Streep can really act. As can the male British cast of male actors that surround her.

Like Churchill, who was chucked out by the British voters at the end of World War Two, Margaret Thatcher was jettisoned by the grandees on the very night she was celebrating the end of the Cold War.

Of course, this film tells us little about that.  Instead, we get the vaguest of outlines on what was one of the most interesting political periods in British history.

It is a film worth seeing. But you will leave with the feeling that there must be something else to the woman portrayed.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

tossing my pills

I hate my rants.

My usual rule is that if I do not have the semblance of an answer to the complaints I raise, I should just keep my mouth (or pen) shut.  It is one reason I do not blog much about politics.

But I cannot help myself when it comes to American medicine.

Within a few days of arriving in Oregon, I ran out of my blood pressure medicine.  In Melaque, I would have simply walked to the pharmacy with my empty prescription box, and the pharmacist would have sold me a refill.

Not so in The States.  I thought I might have had one refill on my last prescription.  I did.  But it was over a year old.  And the doctor’s office would not authorize it without setting an appointment to see a doctor.

So I did.  A few days later, I stopped by the doctor’s office at the appointed time.  She took my blood pressure and wrote out a new prescription.  I paid $140 for 5 minutes of her time -- and I was on my way.

Let me stop right there.  That was $140 in legal tender American dollars.

For those of you who see American medical bills on a regular basis, $140 may not sound like much.  But I was astounded.

This is what happens in Melaque.  When I need to see my doctor, I walk over to her office.  No appointment required.  She will sit and chat with me about all sorts of topics for about half an hour.  She will then take my blood pressure and we will laugh about the effects of Mexican food and how good life is.

When I leave, I give her $200 (Mx) -- about $14.60 (US).  And, if I need to see her again on the same topic, there is no additional charge.

I really do not understand it.  What has happened to increase the cost of medical care in The States?  I know everybody has an opinion --– depending on their respective ideologies.  But we are not talking about expensive treatment here.  This was a visit to renew a prescription.

I have read article after article trying to explain health care costs.  But they make no more sense to me than the equally baffling outrageous increase in college tuition.

But none of the articles even come close to explaining to me why my Mexican doctor, who lives in a nice home a block from the beach, can perform the same medical procedures for me while donating a large portion of her time to the local Indian school, and then charge me only $14.60.

I guess I don’t need to understand.  I just need to enjoy the benefit of low medical costs while I am in Mexico. 

Where even cremation is cheaper than it is in Oregon.

Friday, January 13, 2012

tinker, tailor, soldier, bore

My return to Mexico is at hand.  Five days.  That seems soon to me.

Before I leave, I am trying to shoehorn as many movies as I can into my schedule.  On Wednesday night it was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy -- based on John Le Carré’s 1974 novel.

Anyone who knows  Le Carré’s novels will immediately see the problem of bringing a Cold War thriller about Soviet infiltration of MI6 to the screen in 2012.  For most filmgoers, the plot seems no more immediate than the Tudor succession.

But a stale plot line is not the greatest hurdle in translating what was a good read to the screen.  Le Carré’s novels are like chess matches.  Intricate.  Cerebral.  Inevitable.

There are no explosions.  Or car chases.  Only the most subtle of gun play.  All quite British.

But they are far more suited for legitimate theater than the cinema.  Like all thrillers, the enjoyment is trying to figure out where the plot is going before the author tells us explicitly.  And what we will learn about the human condition on the trip.

And that is one of Le Carré’s weaknesses.  He is still peddling his moral relativism to whoever will listen to him.  The west is no more moral than the Soviets.  Or the Iranians.  Or the [fill in whatever nation you like].  The same type of world weariness that led British aristocrats and American Ivy Leaguers to sign up on the KGB payroll.

That is not to say that the film is not worth seeing.  The cast is filled with some of Britain’s best actors: John Hurt, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Kathy Burke.

Watching Oldman bring George Smiley to life is worth the price of admission.  Like a chess master, he compartmentalizes professional shame and cuckoldry with a slight tic.

But more than anything, the film is boring.  Piecing together the plot is every bit as easy as figuring out an Agatha Christie thriller (at least those where she did not withhold all of the clues until the inevitable parlor scene).

And admiring the acting can only go so far with Le Carré repeatedly serenading us with his “We all deserve to die” aria.

What made the experience a pleasure was the theater we chose.  Cinetopia in Beaverton.  A local attorney had a dream of building a multi-plex theater with high quality sound and the type of special experience people recall from the golden era of movie theaters.

And it works.  The theaters range from giant auditoriums to small movie parlors with sofas and club chairs.

But the true quality is in the sound systems.  I have never heard such natural sound in a movie house.  Once I thought I heard water running behind me.  It was merely a strategically placed speaker reproducing well-engineered sound. 

Plus the films are digitally projected in amazing high definition.  Tied together, the full experience was better than IMAX.

So good that we are planning to make a return visit on Saturday to see The Iron Lady.  That should just about wring the Cold War out of me before I head off to Melaque.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

dogging the bus

Yesterday I signed off with sounded like a toss-off line: “So, back on the shuttle bus I will go.  And wish that it could be half as nice as a first class Mexican bus.”

Yesterday morning while I waited for the shuttle bus to take me back to Salem, my mother entertained my brother and me with her Mexican bus ride story.  It was the late 1960s.  She had headed south with my father and her cousin, Rachel.

I will not go into the details.  Suffice it to say, she rode one of the chicken buses that now seems to be stuck in the American psyche whenever the term?  Mexican bus” comes up.

Well, my shuttle bus was not a “chicken bus,” as you can see from the photograph at the top of the blog.  The Valley Retriever runs from Newport through Salem to Bend -- and then back in the same day.

Greyhound once provided regional bus service in Oregon.  No more.  The market responded to fill that void in the form of shuttle services.

The Valley Retriever's equipment is the type of shuttle you often find in an airport parking lot.  Twenty-two fixed seats that are adequate for the three-hour trip from Bend to Salem.  Tough I suspect they get mighty hard on the final leg to Newport.

But they certainly are not what you receive on the premier bus lines in Mexico.  Seats that rival first class airline seats.  Food.  Toilet.  And the inevitable movies playing on the overhead television monitors.

I must confess that I have never set foot on one of those buses.  But I really need to give them a try.  If I can only get over my need to have a car at my ultimate destination.

I guess,though, that will be a story for another day.  Perhaps when I return to Mexico in just under a week.

But I bet the Mexican bus will not have this type of cool logo.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

my mountain kin

For the past four days, I have been in Bend visiting my mother, my brother, his wife, and their daughter.

I really like my family.  They are clever, witty, caring, and just a joy to be around.  It makes me wonder why I do not spend more time with them.

If things had gone just a bit differently, I would have spent a lot of time with them.  My brother has lived in the Bend area for several decades.  My mother bought a house and moved to Bend just as I was getting ready to retire.

You may recall that my entire family was planning on heading south to Mexico at one point.  But those plans did not quite work out for the rest of my family.

If I had not committed myself to retiring in Mexico, I most likely would have ended up in Bend with the rest of the family.  The winters are a bit cool for me.  I actually came within hours of putting deposit money down on a new house when my mother bought hers.

Instead, I headed south, and they stayed here.

I would have come over to Bend earlier on this trip, but my brother was in Virginia until early January, and I wanted a chance for all of us to get together.

And get together we did.  On Sunday I caught a shuttle bus over the Cascades and spent three days in true Cotton fashion celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays (inducing mine) at a series of Bend restaurants.  To meet and not eat is to not be a Cotton.

My brother and I spent most of our time trying to transfer information from my old laptop to my new notebook. And then to get my telephone to synchronize with the notebook.  It still has one glitch, but I will survive.

Other than that, we watched movies and basketball games, talked politics, and caught up on local folklore.

I wish I could have spent more time with them, but I still have several projects to complete in Salem before I head Souths again -- probably on 18 January.

So, back on the shuttle bus I will go.  And wish that it could be half as nice as a first class Mexican bus.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

polling the public

There are all sorts of political polls in the American newspapers these days.  And this blog has not sponsored a poll of any sort since acquiring its "mexpatriate" moniker a year ago.

So, in the spirit of the season, I offer the year's first mexpatriate poll.

The page has a new design.   But, depending on your browser, you may be getting a completely different experience. 

If you are using Internet Explorer, you will most likely see a green, white, and red banner flash on the screen, to be replaced by.

If you are using Chrome or Firefox, you will see the banner I originally intended to show.

I concluded there was a problem when several comments referred to the simple look of the banner.  Even though the background is new, it is not that much different than the banner it replaced.

There appears to be no way to remedy the issue with Internet Explorer.  It simply will not show the background.  Rather than merely nuking it, let me ask your opinion.  Which would you prefer?

  • Let diversity reign.  Readers can choose their own view by choosing the appropriate browser.
  • Fix it.  Let everyone share in the simplicity of black and white journalism.

The poll is to the right.  You have until Thursday to register an opinion.

Until then, the world will simply roll along.

Note:  Not surprisingly, 89% of the readers who voted in the poll chose to leave the banner as it is.  That is what I was incllined to do.  At some point, the banner will be revised.  It is inevitable.