Wednesday, December 31, 2014

coasting through michoacán

Last night I rested in the bosom of Lázaro Cárdenas.

No, not the long-dead Mexican president with a leftward list.  Instead, we stayed in the troubled port city in Michoacán named in his honor.

During my six years in Mexico, I have made recurring visits to the state of Michoacán -- without once noticing any of the parade of horribles that clouds the minds of the American state department.  According to the august clerks of John Kerry, a visitor to Michoacán should expect the following.

Defer non-essential travel to the state of Michoacán except the cities of Morelia and Lázaro Cardenas and the area north of federal toll road 15D, where you should exercise caution.  U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling by land in Michoacán except on federal toll road 15D during daylight hours.  Flying into Morelia and Lázaro Cardenas is the recommended method of travel.  Attacks on Mexican government officials, law enforcement and military personnel, and other incidents of organized crime-related violence, have occurred throughout Michoacán.  Armed members of some self-defense groups maintain roadblocks and, although not considered hostile to foreigners or tourists, are suspicious of outsiders and should be considered volatile and unpredictable.  Some self-defense groups in Michoacán are reputed to be linked to organized crime.
It is such nanny-state hand-wringing that causes my friends and family to ask me if I have gone mad to spend time driving through the state with Dan and Patty.  (Dan and Patty have faced the same looks of incredulity.)

Let me be frank.  There is crime in Michoacán.  Some of it quite atrocious.  No one wants to get caught in gang fire cross-fire.  Just as no one wants to get in the way of police and criminal shoot-outs in Chicago or Toronto.  But the most dangerous encounter we had was a herd of cattle blocking the sole north-south Pacific highway.

It turned out our drive from Barra de Navidad to Lázaro Cárdenas yesterday was quite uneventful -- as far as gang warfare was concerned.  On the six-hour trip, we encountered only one military checkpoint.  And, though we were concerned about holiday traffic this week, we only ran into a few congested spots.

What was eventful was the journey itself.

I have never driven farther south in Pacific Mexico than Tecoman -- where the tollway turns north toward Colima.  Yesterday, we did not join the Guanajuato-bound masses.  Instead, we turned southeast.  Initially, across a broad, fertile plain bowled in by the foothills of the Sierra Madre.  And then up into the hills themselves.

Bad writers resort to comparisons when their creative skills atrophy.  Try as I may, I could not avoid comparing the northern half of our drive to the beaches I knew in Oregon.  Dramatic heads.  Long stretches of sands viewed from the heights of hills.  Broad swathes of sea blue broken by arcs of white surf.

That combination gave way to the type of beaches a visitor can find on the central California coast.  Lower hills covered with a carpet of golden grass meeting an ocean less dramatic, but every bit as beautiful.  I almost expected to run into William Randolph Hearst on his way to San Simeon.

Our day was spent driving.  The distance was hardly a marathon.  And each mile was rewarded with new sights.  Had we not set Lázaro Cárdenas as our goal, we may have stayed at one of the beach palapa camping areas along the way.  Or, better yet, one of the many hotels.

As it turned out, we found a very good deal online for accommodations in Lázaro Cárdenas -- Hotel Quinta Antigua.  It is comfortable enough that we may spend another night here.  To rest up, to go to the beach at Playa Azul, and to celebrate the arrival of 2015.

Patty already has us shopping for the required dozen grapes.  If there is a tradition, we intend to indulge in it.  I do draw the line, though, at red and yellow underwear.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

alan shepard goes to colima

I feel like a Mercury astronaut.

Dan, Patty, and I have just returned from an overnight shakedown cruise to Colima, which I had visited, and Comala, which I had not.  Based on that outing, we are now set to head south.

But it was more than just a shakedown.  Going a few miles east from the beach, tropical Mexico turns into colonial Mexico.  Or, at least, the transition to colonial Mexico.

Not much remains of colonial Mexico in Colima.  But, the signs on the surviving colonial structures, remind the reader that Cortés was there in the 1530s -- mere years after pulling down the Aztecs.  Obviously, he built none of the structures,  but they were soon put in place by his successors in the Spanish empire.

For those of us from the beach, Colima is a different world.  Just a bit exotic.  Even though, what is there can be seen in a short stay.

Dan and Patty loved the place.  Colima was still dressed in its Christmas finery with gaudy street decorations (the type of geegaws that Babs tells me would never be erected in San Miguel de Allende).

The town square, in front of our hotel, was surrounded by former and current government buildings.  A visitor can easily imagine being in royal Mexico.  Admittedly, a bit on the cheap.

But Colima does not warrant a long stay.  Knowing that, we decided to make a trip to the village of Comala.  Everybody who has told me about the place has bragged about it.  The recurring word has always been “quaint.”

”Quaint” is one of those words that raises my analytical defenses.  It is right up there with “family farm”  A term that inevitably clouds fiscal and social policy with the gauze of nostalgia.  Think France.  Japan.  The United States.  Or, even, Mexico.

Well, quaint it is.  Comala, that is.  A village that could be confused with countless of its cousins throughout the highlands.  Pocket-sized town square.  An indifferently-decorated church.  And lots of restaurants.

We ended up in one of the restaurants watching the Christmas-New Year tourist mob pass by our table.  What ended up on the table was a series of tantalizing botanos with more food than I eat regularly at a full meal.  That did not stop us from having our lunch.

Despite what we anticipated (a bill based on tourist prices), the cost ran about $12 (US) for one of the best afternoons we have yet spent in Mexico.  I can’t think of a single establishment in Melaque where I could have eaten anything as good as what we ate for the price we were charged.

Yesterday, we abandoned the semblance of urbanity to head out into the rural hinterlands of Colima – starting with the  Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo museum.

Let me make a confession.  I had never heard Rangel, a regular contributor to UNESCO Christmas cards.  After seeing his paintings, I am not certain I have missed much.

There is no doubt that he was a skilled painter.  His technique and composition are well-executed;. the details in his figures are perfect.  The museum provides magnifying glasses to appreciate just how fine his brush points are.  All three of us were duly impressed.

It is his subject matter I find lacking.  Adult characters re-figured as children.  Far too sentimental  and representational for my taste.  They fall just short of being the doe-eyed waifs of Margaret Keane.

Rangel’s property was filled with all sorts of buried Indian artifacts -- artifacts that were uncovered during a period when people believed they had no value.  (There was a period when Mexican liberals idealized the Indian myth, but despised the presence of actual Indians.)  Those artifacts are now housed in a small wing of the museum.

The Indians in western Mexico were not monumental builders.  Their legacy is shaft tombs filled with ceramics.  In the area of the Rangel property, the tombs cover a wide time range -- from 500 BC to 600 AD. 

What I have always found fascinating about the shaft tomb culture is its obvious humanity.  There is a full case of ceramic figurines showing Down's syndrome, dwarfism, a hunchback (in aristocratic wear, doing his Richard III impresson), and a hair-lip.  Not your usual subjects of honor.

Because we do not know much about them, anthropologists have simply made up a lot of stuff.  The Maya were once crowned by anthropologists as the "Athenians of the New World."  It appears the shaft tomb culture has been granted that honor, since we have discovered the Maya were as blood-thirsty as the Aztec.

"The refinement and originality of these pieces are a reflection of the spiritual values, respect and love for life and nature."  So says one gushing plaque.  Just before coming to this display of rather bewildered warriors.

At least, the displays are far more telling than the attached commentaries.  Something a wag might say of my own efforts.

Having completed our shakedown, we headed down the mountains to Barra de Navidad to assess what we needed to add to our kit for our longer trip south.  Fortunately, we will not need much.

Already I am feeling the frustration of writing essays while traveling.  In our two days around Colima, I have noted at least seven corollary topics I would like to write about.  But most of those will need to await my return to Barra de Navidad.  For those inevitable slow news days.

Alan Shepard stands down.  John Glenn climbs into the capsule.


Monday, December 29, 2014

beauty and the beach

I love crowds of people.

And there is nothing much better than the joy of Christmas crowds on Mexican beaches.  Even though most local revenue in our village comes from agriculture, tourism is important -- with Mexican tourism provide the muscle and bones of that sector.

We get quite a few Mexican tourists on each weekend.  But the true assault is at semana santa (the two weeks around Easter), the six-week summer school vacation, and, of course, the multi-week family extravaganza around Christmas.

On Saturday, we decided to drive over to La Manzanilla -- one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  And, usually, one of the most serene.

Not on Saturday.  That was evident on the way into town.  There were enough buses parked along the highway to transport everyone in his twenties who had ever pirated a movie.

And there were no parking places in town.  I usually park in front of Lora Loka, with an easy access to the beach.  We ended up parking in the south forty.

There was no doubt why all of those vehicles were in town when our boots hit the beach.  You have probably seen photographs of Chinese beaches during busy holidays.  La Manzanilla was in the nascent stages of spawning a beach flash mob.

What was most surprising is the crowds were there even though the sun was not.  The day was warm, but the sky was a bit drab with cloud cover.  A study of slate and silver.

I told Dan and Patty that I was a bit apologetic for slowing down our departure for southern Mexico.  I thought we were spending far too much time in the local area.  They graciously reminded me that they had never seen this part of Mexico -- all of it was new to them.

After a lazy day on the beach and a great plate of Ada's pollo jamaica at La Rana, I agreed they were correct.  They are here to see Mexico and have fun.  And we certainly did both.

By the time you read this, we should be touring Colima and Comala.  From there, who knows where we will head.  But you are certainly welcome to come along.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

the conquered and the conqueror are one

I need a better editor.

Several of you have acted as my post-publication editors.  Pointing out obvious gaffes I should have caught before hitting the "publish" button.

I am talking about a pre-publication editor.  Someone who can look at my essays and ask: "Can this one wait?  Something may happen to challenge your conclusions."

Well, it has happened again.  If you recall, at the start of this month, I pontificated in riding with cortés that Mexico would never celebrate the arrival of the Spanish, under Hernán Cortés, even though their arrival was a major event in making Mexico what it is today.

Yesterday morning's newpaper proved me wrong.  There it was on the front page of La Cebolla Mexicana:  "President Appoints Commission to Honor Cortés."

"President Enrique Peña Nieto announced on Friday that he was creating a commission to develop a celebration of the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico.  He has charged the commission to create appropriate ceremonies to honor the Spanish, especially their leader, Hernán Cortés.

"'Too many small things divide us today.  But we are one people.  We share the same blood.  And part of that blood came to Mexico with the Spanish.

"'We were once two different people.  Hernán Cortés and Malinche, together started the process of Mestizaje.  Through their son, Martín, we are one people.  A new people.  A proud people.  We are Mexico.

"'For those who seek to divide us, through foreign influences and divisive politics, let me remind them who we are.  We are sons and daughters of Aztec warriors and Spanish lords.  We are strong.  We are one.'"

"The commission will consist of members from each of the political parties, and descendants of both Cortés and Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor.  The noted Mexican historian, Lucas Ignacio Alamán y Escalada, will act as the commission's historical adviser. 

Alamán noted: 'The first task will be to determine which dates to celebrate.  Unlike the dates for Mexico's declaration of independence and the start of the revolution, there is no consensus on which day should be used as the target date.'"

So, there you have it.  I thought it couldn't happen.  But it is. 

After all, on a day like this, everything is possible.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

let my people know

Felipe, over at The Unseen Moon, treated us to a further peek into who he is by telling us about his people.

I was about to sit down to fill in that side of my life for all of you, when who should show up at my door but one of my own people: my cousin, Dan.  In the flesh.  Well, in his truck from Florida, accompanied by his wife, Patty.

Before they even entered the portal of my new house, he handed me a packet of photographs of -- my people.  At least, the people on my mother's side of the family.

I do not see a date on this particular photograph, but our youngest cousin, Robin, is perched on the arm of our grandmother's sofa -- looking a bit like Bernadette Peters or a kewpie doll, but that is redundant.  My guess would be 1955.

And there we all are -- with the exception of Dan's mother, my aunt, Berneice, who is playing Diane Arbus on our side of the camera.  You have probably already spotted me over there on the moderate right in the front row.  The giggly kid with an early book that would join a multitude of others in front of his face.

The giggles appear to be occasioned by my cousin Dan, over on the left, who is undoubtedly breaking up over something he has just pulled on his older sister Marsha sitting next to him.

I may get around to sharing some tales of this rather interesting lot.  But not today.

Today I will simply tell you how the three of us have been hitting it off.  Because Dan was one year older than I am, he was my boy guide during my youth.  He had always done whatever it was a year before I was to do it.  There was good reason why he developed that smile that would cover a multitude of sins.

I have seen Dan only infrequently over the years, and I have never had an opportunity to spend much time with Patty.  We decided to jump into the deep end of the social pool to catch up on lost time.  Literally. 

We shared Christmas dinner with the Moodies.  I know that Wynn loves snorkeling.  So, I suggested we don our fins and masks to search out the elusive reef fish of Cuastecomates yesterday.

Dan, Patty, and Wynn had a great time snorkeling while Steve sat on the beach doing his Achilles-in-his-tent impression due to a leaky face mask.  But what is there to complain about while sitting on a beach in Mexico on a beautiful winter day?  I am certain many a northerner stuck in snow would have gladly traded places with me.

I have even enjoyed showing my relatives the joy and variety of our local restaurants.  Breakfast at Lety's in Jalusco.  Lunch at Rooster's in San Patricio.  And dinner at Bésame Mucho in Barra de Navidad.

Today we will get serous about deciding when our road trip will begin.  What I have neglected to tell you -- until now -- is that Patty was born Colombian.  It will be great to have someone fully conversant in Spanish as we head off to parts of the country where English is as superfluous as knowing whether the fish knife is set to the left or right of the dinner knife.  (My people would be quite unaware of the answer to that question.)

But there are still plenty of places I want them to see before we trade our shorts for sweaters and long pants.  Maybe I can even convince them that Mexico is a great place to retire.

It certainly has worked for me.

Friday, December 26, 2014

bursting into christmas

My Mexican neighbors certainly know how to celebrate Christmas.

I thought everything was going to be quite calm on Christmas Eve.  You know, silent night, holy night, and all that jazz.

And it was.  Up until midnight.  Then the fireworks and fire crackers began.  After about an hour and a half of that, the music started.  Loud enough to lift me horizontally out of my bed like some Looney Tunes character.

The fire crackers vied with the music for attention -- until the fire crackers ran out.  That is when someone decided the music should be drunk loud.  And when the firearms should be unleashed.  Hand guns.  Rifles.  Automatic rifles.  I suspect more lead was shot into the air in my neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning than was fired off in the suburbs of Damascus.

It was obvious everyone was having a good time.  According to the evidence I found on my stoop this morning, someone was having a good -- and high -- time.

I am going to assume that most of you are naive about a certain strata of society.  Let me tell you what you are looking at.  That is a hypodermic needle with its wrapper, and the cover of some rolling papers.

My first impression was that a thrifty diabetic needed an insulin injection in front of my house while rolling his own cigarettes.  It's possible.

But it probably didn't.  I suspect we are looking at the detritus of a quick meth hit topped off by a few Mary Jane puffs.  After all, it was Christmas Day.  (Maybe my Massachusetts Puritan ancestors knew what they were doing when they banned the celebration of Christmas.)

Yesterday was a pivot point in my week.  I moved from being a single occupant of my house to being a host to my cousin, Dan, and his wife, Patty.  They arrived safely in the afternoon after a long road trip from Florida.

This morning I will take them to breakfast with my artist pal Ed, and we will then go snorkeling with my friends Lou and Wynn, and their house guest Irene.

Probably at dinner tonight, Dan, Patty, and I will sit down and start charting the start of our travels in Mexico for the next few weeks.  They have already got the drop on me by driving through northern Mexico.

If all goes well with the internet, you will all be invited to accompany us.  So, pull out your maps and start imagining where you would like to go in southern Mexico.  We may be of a similar mind.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

this little light

The Christmas season brings news of all sorts.

We always hope that will be good.  After all, it is the season of ultimate good when many of us celebrate the birth of Jesus.

But the news can mixed.  Such as, an email I received from a close friend here in Barra de Navidad yesterday morning.

I got the word this morning that my older sister had passed away after many years of living with dementia, blindness, immobility, diapering, and other struggles.  She was only 73 but is now at peace with her Lord.
The email caused an odd mixture of responses -- or non-responses -- in me.  I just did not know how I should feel about the news.

After all, the news itself was mixed.  My friend always evidences a strong Christian faith.  That element was there.  But there was an element of sympathy for his sister.  That her long struggle was over.

A lot of my secular friends get hung up on "quality of life" issues -- especially at the end of life.  Several have told me that they would prefer to be shot rather than suffer through long bouts of medical intervention.

I understand their argument.  I suspect that my distaste for the medical profession while I am healthy will not somehow morph into a love affair when the catheters, hypodermics, and pharmaceuticals enter from stage left.

Where I part company from them is their underlying philosophy of positivism.  Or, rather, their rather tortured application of positivism.

You undoubtedly recall what positivism is from your high school philosophy class.  Positivism purports to be science-oriented.  It believes that received wisdom cannot exist.  The only valid knowledge is knowledge derived from  mathematical and logical treatments of experiences that can be experienced by human senses.  In short, what we learn through the scientific method is the only knowable truth.

Positivism was the driving philosophy behind a lot of the progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century, and pitted the hard sciences against the humanities.

You have undoubtedly met people who think they understand the underpinnings of positivism.  They purport to argue that they will believe nothing unless they experience themselves or until science tells them it is true.

The refusal to believe in the existence of God (
or even in the possibility of God's existence) is a central tenet for positivists.  When confronted by a supporter of the humanities to explain a father's love for his child or the beauty of a butterfly, the positivist will slip back into the blinders of science. 

"I will believe there is a God when science tells me there is one."  Even though that postulate is false on its face.  The scientific method does not pretend to answer metaphysical questions.  Modern positivism makes the same mistake the social Darwinists made.  You cannot prove a postulate using the wrong tools.

So, why I am rattling on about philosophy on Christmas?  Because it is a perfect day for us to realize that all of life cannot be defined by mathematics and logic.  They are beautiful tools for understanding a portion of the creation in which we live.

But there is far more than that to life and its enjoyment.  There is poetry.  And music.  And walks in the rain savoring the petrichor as its rises from the pavement.

Science can tell us only so much.  And then we reach out in faith to a far broader understanding of life.  Knowing full well that we can only glimpse a bit of this world's underlying truths -- with each glimpse fortifying our faith.

I thought of that tonight at our Christmas Eve candlelight service.  At the close, a candle in the front row was lit.  That candle lit two more.  Those two, two more.  Until all of our candles were aflame.

Our pastor pointed out that one candle lighting another did not diminish the flame of the first.  What could be a better lesson for this day?  A baby was born two millennia ago.  That flame lit the faith of others. 

And that is what we celebrate on this day.  A faith that teaches us to love our God with all of our being and to prove that we rest in that love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

When I read my friend's email, that is the faith that shone through to me.  And it was faith enough for me to rest in on this glorious day.

I trust that your day will be blessed in a similar way.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

it's the ripple, not the sea

There is no such thing as too much information.

As a son of the Enlightenment, I once believed that.  No more.

I guess I should explain.  It is like hearing a Democrat say his favorite president is George W. Bush.

I love information.  I am one of those guys who cannot sit down anywhere without something to read.  My Kindle, with its connection to my newspaper and magazines, goes where I go.  When I stop moving, its cover flips open.

That has been true since I was in grade school.  Back then it was books.  I would even read while walking to the highway to catch the bus.  One of my neighbors was convinced I was going to walk off into the ditch by accident.

The arrival of the electronic age has been like heroin to an addict.  Being able to find information by merely tapping my laptop or computer has settled many a trivia challenge.  And added to the data bank for future challenges.

My love affair with information has been unsullied.  Well, at least, until Sunday.

I needed to make a withdrawal from our local Banamex ATM.  Because my American bank is no longer Banamex USA, any withdrawal incurs a service charge. 

That has been true since I moved down in 2009.  A $5 service fee.  It seems a lot for simply allowing me to have my own money.  But that is the way it will continue to be as long as I choose to use that same bank.  (And, yes, I am aware of the Charles Schwab accounts, thank you very much.)

Wen I returned home, I made some entries in Quicken that evening.  My bank has a very informative web connection to my account.  I checked my account to determine how much had been deducted from my checking account.  And there it was -- in the "pending transactions" file.  Just waiting for the first banking day to post.

I then started to enter the usual $5 service fee in Quicken.  But it wasn't a $5 fee.  It was a $75 fee.  And it was described as a "wire transfer fee."

Diverse scenarios went shooting through my head.  The worst was that my account had been hacked and my funds were being incrementally wired to North Korea to produce a film where the pudgy Supreme Leader lobs a nuclear weapon into the men's room of the White House.  (I told you my scenarios were diverse.)

But that did not seem very likely.  I had the pesos in my wallet from the transaction.  It was more likely that something got crossed up in the entry of the fee.

That has happened to me before.  But with my credit card.  Usually, on one of my trips where a hotel or cruise line per-authorizes my card.  An entry (usually between $2,000 and $3,500) will appear as "pending."  But nothing will actually be charged to my credit card until I check out.

Even though I know that, it makes me a bit uneasy to see charges on the card that I know I have not made.  About as uneasy as the $75 fee made me feel.

My uneasiness is now assuaged.  On the bank's web site, both amounts have posted, and the offending $75 has been amputated to the usual $5.  All I needed was a bit of patience.

But it appears I have once again indulged in hyperbole in crafting the hook for an essay.  In actuality, I still believe there is no such thing as too much information.

I just need to be able to discern the difference between information and knowledge.

And, bridging that gulf, grasshopper, is to snatch the pebble from the master's hand.  To know it is the ripple, not the sea.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

world without end

Well, maybe not the "world," but, here in Mexico, it seems like Christmas without end.

John Calypso reminded us yesterday in a comment that Mexican Christmas celebrations seem to go on and on and on.  Unlike the northern custom, where weeks of hectic activity result in one night of anti-climactic release, Mexicans start early and celebrate often.

The season of cohetes startling street dogs and aging gringos begins at the start of December leading up to the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on 12 December.  The feast has nothing in particular to do with Christmas -- other than the fact that Mary gets a starring role in both productions.

But it is a big day in the country when everyone celebrates Mexico's patron saint.  Well, not everyone.

In my area of Mexico, tradition has only a light hold on the general population.  The faithful celebrate.  But the large contingent of non-Catholic Christians (and that population is proportionately high here) and what I might call Catholic-Lites simply do not bother.

However, everyone in town for the first two weeks of December knows that something big is going on.

On 16 December, the traditional Christmas customs kick off.  Starting with the posadas.  There are supposed to be nine nights of these.  My experience is that only a few are performed.

The idea is to have children re-enact Mary and Joseph looking for an inn in Bethlehem.  They stop and sing at houses where they are refused entry in song.  A little like Godspell -- without the catchy tunes.

They are finally admitted to a house where a grand party is held.  It is not quite what the Bible says.  But not even the Good Book is going to get in the way of a good party.

Santa has made big inroads here on the coast.  That is not universal in Mexico.  Because of the strength of the Santa cult in our villages, many children expect their presents on 25 December.

The traditional day for gift giving, though, is 6 January -- el dia de los reyes, or the Day of the Three Kings.  What we would call the three wise men.  In this instance, the Mexicans have a better understanding of the original source material.  After all, the wise men were the gift givers.  Santa doesn't show up until Revelation.

By the way, if you counted the days between 25 December and 6 January, you now have a good start on discovering the roots of the Twelve Days of Christmas and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

And here's a tasty tidbit.  Mexicans not only get gifts on the Day of the Three Kings, they also get a slice of cake called rosca de reyes -- or, not so originally, Three Kings Cake.  Some lucky person will find the figure of baby Jesus in their slice.  Along with the honor of getting a trip to the dentist to repair a cracked tooth, the recipient becomes the baby's godparent for the coming year, and must cook up a special enchilada dinner for everyone present.

The dinner is served on 2 February.  On Candelmas.  That is the day Catholics celebrate Joseph and Mary presenting the infant Jesus at the Temple.

So, there you have it.  John Calypso is correct.  The Christmas season here can be exhausting.  But it also provided me with some text to accompany the photographs of Sunday night's Christmas parade.

These events bring out my small town roots.  And nothing will do it more than a local parade.  Even when it looks as if more people are in the parade than those watching it.

This one started at my house and wound its way into the center of Barra de Navidad.  A walk I try to make each morning.

Was it fancy?  Nope?  The whole thing looked improvised.  And much of it was.

But that is not the value of these events.  Walking along with the participants caused me to smile and laugh.  And there can be little in life better than that.

When I arrived at the square, I was surprised to find it newly-decorated for the evening.  That stylized Christmas tree would have looked great in my courtyard.

I can only hope that each of you have been experiencing an elongated Christmas every bit as enjoyable as mine.

Monday, December 22, 2014

no chestnuts, but plenty of bells

Yesterday evening kicked off the Christmas season here in Barra de Navidad.

That is a bit of a lie.  Like everywhere else in Christendom, where the birth of Jesus is being celebrated, the glitter that obfuscates that purpose started long ago.  Even here on the beach.

Things changed yesterday.  You know Mexicans are treating an event seriously when a parade or procession snakes its way through town -- with people attired in costumes that would get them banned from an international air flight.

That is what happened here.  We held our Christmas parade -- starting from my house and ending up in the town square.

I knew Christmas was approaching when our sole street decoration was suspended across the main road in my part of town.  You heard me correct.  Just one.  In places like San Miguel de Allende, the streets are festooned with similar decorations.  We tend to be a bit more subdued.

I suspect a Christian, popping in for a visit from Kyrgyzstan or some such place, would immediately recognize the symbolism.  Bells.  Ribbons.  Red and green.

There is nothing particularly Christian about any of those alone.  But, together, they spell a message that transcends cultures.

I will tell you more about the parade.  Probably tomorrow.  But it is well past midnight -- and my bed calls.

I doubt these bells will wake me in the morning.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

adding intelligence to the tax net

My pal Al French sent me tantalizing news late last week.

When I was a criminal defense attorney in Gladstone and Oregon City, Al was a prosecutor with the Clackamas County District Attorney's office.  We crossed swords on several occasions in the courtroom.

In our private lives, we became friends -- sharing roots in coastal southern Oregon and finding common political ground.  Al was the guy who introduced me to The American Spectator.

But his news was not from crew at The American Spectator.  This time it was The Wall Street Journal.  "U.S. Expats Find hope in Senate Finance Tax-Reform Proposal."

Any headline that contains the words "Expats" and "tax reform" is bound to get my attention.  Especially after this very odd year of collapsing personal financial links with my Mexican bank accounts (warning -- rant ahead).

It turns out the stir has been caused by a report from the Republican staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.  As long as the Republicans were a minority in the Senate, no one much cared what showed up in their committee reports.  Come January, all of that changes.  And what were once merely wisps in the wind are starting to be taken a bit more seriously.

This is the source for all of the ripples in the water of the expatriate communities around the world.

The first factual statement is just that.  A fact.  But it is at the crux of not only this summer's collapse of electronic fund transfers from The States to Mexico, but also for a number of other issues brewing in the future.  As Elijah discovered, a cloud the size of a man's fist on the horizon can soon turn into a cyclone.

The fact?  It is right there on page 282 of the report: "The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that imposes citizenship-based taxation.  In other words, the United States taxes its citizens on their worldwide income even if the citizen resides outside the United States and has no connection to the United States other than citizenship."

That oddity in the American taxation system -- an oddity that has long been decried by many economists and tax reformers -- leads to all sorts of mischief.  Such as, the American belief that it can bludgeon foreign banks into disclosing otherwise private information in compliance with this bit of arcane policy.

The report goes on to support a test "to determine at what point a U.S. citizen is considered a nonresident of the United States and then at what point the U.S. citizen is considered to be a resident again."

Worrying about that test seems to be the type of thing lawyers fixate on.  There is a much broader question.  Why should any nation seek to tax revenue generated outside of its borders?

Let's take a simple example.  If I were to turn my house into a bed and breakfast, there are several things I must do.  The first thing would be to have my head examined.

But let's skip past my mental hygiene for a moment.  As a permanent resident of Mexico, I am authorized to earn income here.  But I must also comply with Mexican law.

That means getting all of the necessary business licenses and assorted paraphernalia of running a business -- like setting up an electronic account with the tax authorities to report my income and expenses.  During the past year, Mexico has established a rather sophisticated system that requires reports from Mexican businesses frequently enough that revenue streams will be simple to track.

When I pay all of my Mexican taxes, why should I also be required to report my income and pay taxes on the same income up north?  It is true that tax credits are allowed for foreign taxes paid.  But why should Uncle Sam bother his graying old head over what I do in Mexico?

There is one inconvenient truth here.  Quite a few expatriates and tourists in Mexico make income "under the table."  That is what we call it when our friends are involved.  If it is a millionaire, we somehow turn the same action into "tax fraud."

Whatever we call it, income earned in Mexico should be taxed here.  The Mexican authorities certainly believe that -- and have started enforcement programs.  Income earned in The States should be taxed there.

As pleased as I was to hear the news, I had to tell Al I did not have a rooster in that fight.  I am not going to indulge in any activity that will produce income outside of the American borders.  Quite the reverse.  As a homeowner, I now hemorrhage revenue.

The rest of my income is generated through retirement accounts that are taxed at the source back in the land of lessened opportunity.  The government gets its cut before I see a penny of my own money.

Even though the reform will not directly affect me, it sounds like a great idea to me -- along with a slough of other reforms -- such as abolishing most (if not all) deductions and flattening out the tax rates.

And, if by some miracle, this small reform of taxing only revenue generated within the border of The States should pass, Congress could then repeal the foreign bank reporting requirements that have killed the ability of American expatriates to transfer funds electronically between their bank accounts.

Mind you, I am not holding my breath.  But It would be nice to stop living and ding by the ATM debit card.