I am certain she has others, but this particular peeve gets pet status in her house -- people who walk down the middle of the street in Melaque or Barra de Navidad. Usually, northern tourists.
There is no denying that it happens. During this Christmas season, out villages have been packed with people seeking the surf and sand of the Costalegre. And it has been a double bonus for our local merchants.
Beginning in November, northerners (primarily Canadians) start their trek south for their extended stays. By mid-December, it is a steady flow of migration.
Melaque and Barra have also long been a holday destination for Mexicans. On weekends, summer vacation, semana santa, school vacation, and, of course, the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year's day.
The Mexican vacation trade has noticeably increased during the past two or three years. When I moved here, Mexico's economy was mired in one of those economic flus that plague Mexico whenever The States get a cold. It was a tough times for the local merchants.
Our beach towns have long been magnets for people who come for day trips or short-term stays by bus. And there have been plenty of buses this year filled with large families accompanied by coolers and bags of groceries.
There is also a newer holiday crowd. The Mexican middle class. Many of them, who live most of the year in Mexico City or Guadalajara, also own homes here. They have been coming for years. They certainly are not new to the area.
But I have met a different set. Middle class families who once spent their vacations in Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta, and who want something less crowded. I talked to a couple families who are reconsidering their stays here because our coast is getting too crowded for them.
And crowds there are. I thought Christmas was busy. I had lunch today at Papa Gallo's on the beach in San Patricio. If the beach was not packed, it was certainly well-populated. When I returned for dinner, the highway was bumper-to-bumper with cars and buses leaving town.
I thought I would easily find a parking place. I was wrong. While I was gone, more buses and SUVs had disgorged their occupants onto the streets.
And that brings us back to Elke and her pet peeve.
For some reason, visitors seem to think our streets are pedestrian malls. They are not. In fact, there is an incredible amount of traffic that squeezes its way through our narrow lanes. Lanes made narrower by the increase in double-parking. And often made impassable by milling pedestrians.
But there are reasons why there are now people walking in the streets. The first being the most obvious -- there are more people than the sidewalks can bear. Roaming family bands turn into not-so-mobile topes.
The crowds tie into a second factor. Our sidewalks are customarily littered with debris that would be unexpected on northern sidewalks. Shops set up merchandise that causes potential customers to stop and look at what is on offer.
Motorcycles, bicycles, and even the random car are parked on the pavement damming up pedestrian progress.
And, then, there are the hotels and family homes with a living room's-worth of furniture dragged onto the sidewalk to create the semblance of a drawing room on the public pathway.
People do what is natural. They take the easy detour into the street. Where they are greeted by a honking Audi.
So, I understand why people are in the street now. But the habit will continue after the Christmas-New Year crowd heads back to the Mexican highlands. And most of the remaining offenders will have homes north of the Rio Bravo.
Here is my suggestion. Next week, give Elke a break. During most of the year, our sidewalks are perfectly adequate for walking. It is true that walkers need to be vigilant for potholes and drop-offs below and awnings above. But we are certainly up to paying heed to our surroundings.
As most of you know, I try to walk 15 miles each day. And most of that is on sidewalks. It can be done.
On this very important day of the Latino calendar, Last Adventure, Inc. announced today in Manzanillo that it is launching a special series of one-night cruises from Mexico's largest commercial port.
The company's vice-president for public relations, Dr. Roberto Ignacio Pérez (who likes to be known by his initials RIP, similar to the Mexican president) explained that the cruises are designed primarily for tourists who feel as if they have lived full lives and want one last adventure on their way out.
The company tried a pilot project called The Voyage to Nowhere series. Dr. RIP pointed out that the name was dropped after receiving a torrent of complaints. Instead, the cruises have been re-branded as the Youth in Asia cruises."The name has the advantage of being both ironic and a rather elegant pun. You do not see either very much in my line of business."
When asked if it might be called a cruise to nowhere, Dr. RIP responded: "We like to think of it as life's ultimate experience. Or, as Shakespeare would say, a voyage to the undiscovered country."
Last Adventure's fleet currently consists of one ship, the Ángel de la muerte, a gently-converted World War II hospital ship. Guests can swim in the Ophelia swimming pool, drink at the Jim Jones bar, and have a final supper in the Socrates dining room.
All of the ship's accommodations are suites ranging from the Marc Antony and Cleopatra Suite to the Romeo and Juliet Suite to the Sylvia Plath Suite (for solo travelers). The Thelma and Louise climbing wall is open to those who are inclined toward alternative recreation.
Dr. RIP continued: "We are fully aware of the onus placed on us by offering this unique product. It will be our guests' final experience before they reach the other side. At midnight, all of the passengers will assemble on the upper decks to sing 'Nearer My God to Thee' in honor of those who have gone before.
"They will then retire to their suites where our staff of doctors will assist them in doing whatever it is that happens there. You can understand my reluctance to go into too much detail.
"Not that there is anything illegal going on here. After all, what happens at sea stays at sea. We asked an associate justice of the Canadian Supreme Court to look at our business plan. He wondered why the provinces didn't adopt something similar.
"But, I do need to add one caveat. We will not book any passengers from Mexico or any other proto-Aristotlean society with their Platonic moral schemes. Our passengers need to be from post-post-modern countries that do not get wrapped around the axle with moral issues."
When asked who was the ideal demographic for the cruise, Dr. RIP furrowed his brow. "This is the strangest thing. We thought couples over the age of 65 would jump at the opportunity. Instead, most of our cruises are purchased by women with husbands over 70. But they only purchase it for him."
One of the first purchasers in line verified Dr. RIP's observation. She didn't want to use her real name. We will call her Lizzie.
She said she was buying the cruise for her husband who was standing patiently at the door holding her shopping bags. "I am doing it for him. He is a mass of ill-mannered protoplasm. Besides, it's cheaper than the mafia."
The Ángel de la muerte sets sail tonight at 6. The manifest is exclusively older men from Canada and The States. As they boarded, they looked a bit confused. One said: "I have no idea where I am going, but my wife said I would enjoy myself -- and that would make her very happy." Could it be better said on this special day?
Last year, I swore it would never happen again. And it has happened.
Several years ago -- If i really tried, I could give you an exact number, but, for the purpose of our tale "several" will do.
So, several years ago, our English-speaking church (Costalegre Community Church) started a series of cultural awareness classes in January and February. The first year err had a group discussion revolving around Sarah Lanier's Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures.
The lessons in her book encouraged the church board to set up an annual series of lectures centered on helping northerners better understand the Mexican culture that surrounds us every day.
We have heard about the Mexican medical system. Local lore from amateur historians. The political system from politicians. And discussions on immigration, volcanoes, and ecology. Spanish language. Plus much more.
For three years, I presented lectures on various aspects of Mexican history. A quick survey. A discussion of the formation of the Mestizo Myth. The centrifugal forces affecting both the Mexican nation and state. All complete with props and costume changes. It has given me an opportunity to put some of my undergraduate Latin American studies to good purpose.
Presenting has been enjoyable. But I have had greater joy in listening to the other presentations. In those several years, I have learned a lot about my neighbors.
Last year I promised my family I would not do another presentation. To prepare for the lecture, I spent over 100 hours putting together at least six drafts and countless rehearsals. For two full weeks, I was so engrossed with the project that I developed the charm of J.M.W. Turner. So, I resolved last year was my farewell performance.
And that resolution had all the strength of a tower of aspic. It took just one request this week, and I said "yes." I think I know why.
Thirty years as a trial and appellate attorney honed certain skills. I can argue with conviction on any position -- and then switch sides without missing a beat. It was a skill I learned at my grandfather's dinner table.
That is the positive spin on what motivates me. At my core, I am a ham. As is every trial and appellate attorney. We are show horses who feel purposeless without an occasional show.
It turns out that playing the big room at the Oregon Supreme Court is no more satisfying than talking with a congregated group of tourists and expatriates under our church palapa. So, here I am again. Getting ready to go into confinement for two weeks while I prepare my lecture.
And what will it be this year? My topic is "who is that guy in your pocket? mexican currency and history."
If you would like to attend, I will be speaking at 5 PM on 10 January in the Costalegre Community Church. Of course, even if you do not attend, that is the time and place.
It will be good to see some of you again and to meet others for the first time.
I first encountered it when I was in grade school in Powers. I was maybe six or seven.
It was a reaction to what was seen as a new contraction of "Christmas" to "Xmas." Some people are always on the lookout for anything that will offend them. What H.L. Mencken referred to as "puritanism" -- "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." And most often the offense taken has little basis in reality.
You see, some of the congregants in our little Open Bible church believed that atheists (most likely egged on by vegetarians and Alger Hiss) were so offended by the word "Christ" (the Greek word for "Messiah") that they wanted to X him out of our lives.
It turns out the fear was horribly misplaced. "Xmas" is actually sacred, not blasphemous. The "X" represents the Greek letter "chi" -- the first letter in "Christ" in Greek -- and has been used for centuries as a symbol for Christianity. Similar to those aluminum fish adorning the fenders of American Hondas.
I thought of that cultural storm in a teapot during my Thanksgiving visit to Bend. In the Costco parking lot, I saw a little blue Kia with a "Keep Christ in Christmas" bumper sticker. Complete with a manger and a star shining above it.
I shook my head. Not because of the "Xmas" dispute of my youth, but because keeping Christ confined to Christmas is exactly one of the maladies of modern Christianity in America.
Let me explain. One of the funnier scenes in Talledega Nights is Ricky Bobby's insistence to offer grace by asking the Baby Jesus to answer his prayers.
But that is exactly what a lot of us Christians do. We like the image of the baby in the manager. We might even be impressed that through his son, the world can be reconciled with God. But we often just leave that baby in there in the straw. At least, in our actions.
There is something comforting that we can sing carols about that helpless little baby. He will coo and cry, but baby Jesus makes no demands on us. As adults, we are the ones in charge.
No bothersome requests for us to love God with all your being, and our neighbor as ourselves. Or to feed the hungry. To give drink to the thirsty. To welcome strangers. To clothe the naked. To visit the sick and those in prison.
That was the adult Jesus who exhorted us to act in ways that would show our love to one another -- just as God has shown his love to us. And had he stayed in that manger, had Christ been nothing more than a Christmas story, we would not now have the light he has given us.
So, on this Christmas morning, that is my suggestion. Let's get away from the manger and start sharing that grace we have been given. It does not need to be showy. In fact, it should not be showy. True grace to our fellow humans should be as natural as the darkness it seeks to replace.
And that does not apply to only my fellow Christians. The life lessons Jesus taught are available to all. And the world would be a far better place if we simply tried a lot harder to appeal to the better side of our nature.
To you and your families, I offer shalom and salam.
I may as well don the hair shirt of Scrooge and The Grinch.
Because I can hear you sharpening the darts of your bon mots all the way to my patio.
It is not that I dislike Christmas; I just do not like it. There are a lot of theological and social reasons. And none of them would be interesting in the slightest to you.
But there is one aspect of Christmas that I enjoy every year. For some reason, people seem to be much more sociable this time of year. And it is always pleasant to join small groups of friends and acquaintances -- to hear their stories.
Then, there is the food. The art of socializing seems to revolve around good food. Or, at least, food. So, as a person who loves well-prepared food, I face this time of year with a bit of dread.
That dread can be summed up in one word. Turkey.
I am not certain why so many people think Christmas dinner is improved by making one of the drabbest-tasting meats the center of attention. Maybe it is its dramatic size. Something Freud would undoubtedly find amusing.
But a crown roast of lamb or a full prime rib roast -- even a bone-in ham -- would be as dramatic. Or the traditional European goose.
My family banished turkey from the holiday table (any holiday table) decades ago having concluded that no matter how it is prepared, it is always just a step away from being a Swanson TV dinner. It just takes more time to prepare.
So, I am a little surprised to see how ubiquitous it is. Even here. Northern tourists and expatriates will gather almost exclusively around the carcass of a recently-deceased fowl. And they will enjoy it.
Well, I guess they will. Otherwise, why would they flock to the various venues that continue this odd culinary tradition.
Or maybe they will be there for the same reason I will be. Not for the food, but to build relationships within the community. To show that we actually do have a better side to ourselves. That we can be the person we wish we could be all year long. And I suppose that is exactly the Christmas spirit we often find so difficult to describe.
In the interim, Christmas came early for me. The blessed DHL delivery man brought me a package from Amazon. Some gifts from me to me. Two DVDs (Mr. Turner and All About Eve) and three cookbooks to feed my foodie Jones (Pam Anderson's revised classic How to Cook without a Book, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's food-as-science The Food Lab, and -- with a resounding recommendation from my friend Jennifer Rose -- Urvashi Pitre's Indian Instant Pot Cookbook).
To relieve my Christmas food angst, I decided to try Pitre's guidelines for chicken vindaloo. The Portuguese had a strong colonial influence on western India's cuisine. (We too often forget that it was not only Britain that ruled the Raj.) Since I will be in Goa in a couple of months, I thought I would whip up some Lisbon-inspired chicken.
God must have quick-started the cornucopia for me today. I managed to grab the last piece of ginger at the grocery.
But I was even luckier. I found fresh Brussels sprouts and a horseradish root. I will bake them with some garlic and stone-ground mustard. It will be a new experiment for me. I have tried something similar with potatoes for holiday meals. But this will be a new way to serve up one of my favorite vegetables.
I will then combine it all with a simple salad of thinly-sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion in rice vinegar with tarragon, basil, oregano, thyme, and black pepper.
I had considered a fusion touch of adding serrano peppers to the chicken vindaloo, but I wanted to keep the ingredients as Indian as possible. Now that I write that sentence, I realize how silly the notion is. Serrano peppers are not just Mexican, they are also part of Indian cuisine.
Instead, I remembered what Tarla Dalal once said. Spicing up Indian food can be done using fresh chiles, but the best method is to increase the amount of cayenne or rely on one of India's numerous chile powders.
And that is exactly what I am experimenting with at the moment. My version of chicken vindaloo is heavy on cayenne -- and one of my favorite chile powders. Bhut jolokia. Or ghost pepper as most of us know it. The same ingredient used by Indian police to disperse rioters.
The chicken is marinating. The Brussels sprouts are about to be slipped into the oven. And the tomato salad is awaiting in the refrigerator.
So, I hope those of you who find pleasure in turkey have a very nice meal. And even if you think of turkey as I do, that you will have plenty of company to amuse you and to whom you can tell fascinating lies.
I will undoubtedly say it again, but I wish each of you a blessed Christmas -- and may your new year be filled with joy and contentment that will carry tou through to another turkey dinner next year.
Not surprisingly, most of those trees are favored for their blossoms.
My polling is certainly not scientific, but the most popular seems to be the jacaranda with its indigo flowers. When they are in bloom, Mexico City looks as if the sky has taken up residence in the trees.
But the local favorite here on the Pacific coast is probably the bright yellow primavera. Every year, I wax bit poetic about the groves between here and Cihuatlan.
When I flew into the Manzanillo airport last Saturday, I noticed that the vegetation on the hills has started to fade from its summer jungle green to its customary springtime gray. With one exception.
Almost everywhere were large blobs of rosy pink blossoms. Darker than cherry blossoms, but not as red as flamboyan flowers. During the last ten years I have flown into the airport, I do not think I have noticed them.
My friend Lou, who picked me up, told me he had been talking about those pinkish trees with his Mexican neighbors. They claim that the blossoms are so thick this year because of the odd rain patterns. But that did not answer what type of tree they were.
Lou helped out. He pointed out that one was blooming beside the highway just east of Barra de Navidad. And it was.
It is an amapa -- one of the few trees around here that was not imported from elsewhere. It is as American as the potato or the chili, and can be found throughout America from northern Mexico to southern Argentina.
I have heard some people refer to it as a pink primavera. The primavera and the amapa are genetically related. But, in one of those twists that Mother Nature loves, the primavera is not native to Mexico. Its home is Brazil. All of the primavera grown locally (even those wild groves) were lugged here through human agency.
Living in Mexico has given me an entirely new set of trivia to remember. I had researched the amapa several years ago. But it took seeing them from the air to pull it out of that dark corner in my memory closet where I store such matters as the capital of Burkina Faso and the third stanza of the national anthem.
Having flung open that closet door, I might as well share them with you.
And I have.
Unfortunately, like most flowering trees, the blossoming season for the amapa is over. The tree beside the road had only a few blooms remaining this morning.
Just another reminder how brief, fleeting -- and beautiful -- life is.
A lot of visitors complain about our Mexican topes. Those mounds of concrete on the street that are designed to slow down speedsters. Up north, you probably call them speed bumps.
Even though they are designed to slow down drivers, motorcycle riders, who are the prime speed demons, are undeterred by them -- simply driving around the end.
If you are not fond of these "sleeping policemen," the street to my house will not be one of your favorites. Nueva España is the main path through the business district of my part of town. And it is a busy street.
I suppose that is why at every intersection, there is a tope. If you are not driving a motorcycle, the average speed on Nueva España must not be much more that 8 miles per hour. On some days, I walk faster than the traffic flows.
If I have counted correctly, there are almost twenty topes on the street. And even though they are regularly distributed at each street corner, some people forget they are there. Chiropractors and muffler shop owners can put their children through college with the revenue from drivers who hit reality a bit too hard.
Now and then, the county (or some agency) coughs up enough pesos to paint the topes to warn divers of the obvious hump in the road. The last coat was applied in July (the sunburned zebra). Within a month, the paint had faded.
Today the painters were out once again. But this operation was quite different. Only a small portion of the tope had been painted. But the two guys who had been painting had now blocked off one of the street's two lanes and were asking each passing driver to drop coins in a plastic cup. "For more paint" was the plea.
I have seen this type of operation before in Mexico. Volunteers come out to perform some form of community service and ask for recompense from passersby. The last time I saw it was on Highway 200 on the south side of Puerto Vallarta. Potholes had made the road almost impassable. Neighbors came out with a few rudimentary tools filling in the holes -- and asking for donations.
Is it legitimate? I guess it depends what you mean by the term. Certainly, the young men are performing a service and they are asking for remuneration from those of us who use their handiwork. Similar to restaurant musicians. Adam Smith would recognize the process.
There is even a primitive honesty about the exchange. A separate group was painting the traffic circle around the dancing billfish at Barra de Navidad's entry. One guy asked if I would put money in the cup for his beer. I am always a sucker for base truth.
After all, it is Christmas. If the garbage men get a propina de navidad, why not these volunteers. After all, it is something for something.
And there is no harm to the street. By the time Candlemas rolls around, the street will once again be virginal. Just waiting for its next tarting up.
Whether or not Benjamin Franklin was the first to say it, it is still true. "Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves."
And it is certainly true in Mexico right now.
When the Bank of Mexico issued the new version of the 500-peso note (the one featuring Benito Juarez), it also announced it would be withdrawing the Juarez 20-peso note from circulation (bienveidos benito -- y adios). The withdrawal process started last August. A Mexican merchant friends says it usually takes a full year or more for the Bank to hoover up all of the old notes.
The Bank will not be issuing a new 20-peso note. When the current notes are fully withdrawn, the smallest denomination note will be the Morelos 50-peso note. (The new version of the 50-peso note will be issued in 2022.)
The 20-peso note has been the utility player for the Mexican peso. It is the mainstay for making change.
Realizing that a change gap will be created when the notes are withdrawn, the Bank has promised to place additional 20-peso coins in circulation.
If you did not know such an exotic creature existed, you are not alone. Probably because the 20-peso note is more convenient, 20-peso coins are not often seen -- which may disprove Gresham's Law. In the ten years I have lived here, I have received only three in change. Until today.
The Escape needed to be fed this afternoon. Filling its tank usually costs me about 1000 pesos -- less a bit of change. And that was true today. $958 (Mx) to be exact.
Usually, my 42-peso change would be something like two 20-peso notes and a 2-peso coin. Or, more usually, a 20-peso note, 2 10-peso coins, and a 2-peso coin. (The attendants are very clever in maximizing their propina opportunities of receiving the traditional 10-peso tip.)
But, not today. I received a 2-peso coin, and three large shiny brass coins. I thought the attendant had shorted me 10 pesos. She hadn't. Before I could say anything, I noticed one of the brass coins was larger than the other. It was a 20-peso coin. My first in probably two years.
I am writing today not to tell you about this fascinating tale of commercial intercourse at the gas pump, but to pass along a reminder.
At first glance, I thought I had three 10-peso coins in my hand. But the 10 and 20 coins are somewhat easy to distinguish. The 20 is larger and has a different face.
Having said that, I know I have accidentally spent a 20-peso coin in the past as if it were a 10. They are deceptively close. I occasionally have the same problem with the 2 and 1 coins, as well.
So, that is my hint for the day. If you put it to good use (and if Ben Franklin is as I wise as I believe him to be), you will soon be buying that villa in Tuscany that you have been eyeing for all these years.
We fall into the first type out of ignorance because we lack information before we act.
The second type is far more perverse. We act with full knowledge that what we are about to do will almost certainly qualify us as a nominee for this year's Darwin Awards.
Yesterday was a type two stupid day for me.
I was putting away the last few items from my trips north and south over the past month when it occurred to me that I was in a time bind. I had worn a set of clothes on the cruise that now required dry cleaning. The only dry cleaner around here is in Manzanillo.
I do not have very many items in my closet that require dry cleaning. So, I do not regularly take clothes to Manzanillo. Instead, I usually make a pile and wait until it is large enough to justify the trip.
Then, it hit me. I could not wait. I needed the clothes for Christmas dinner. And, even though my head still thinks this is mid-November, the dinner is just a week away. That meant a drive to Manzanillo at a time when our coastal highway is best avoided.
Let me explain. The road between my house and Manzanillo is the main north-south arterial on Mexico's Pacific coast. It serves the same purpose as I-5 in California. Now, imagine that purpose squeezed onto a rural two-lane California road. There you have it. Mexico Highway 200.
The highway is usually busy with farm equipment, buses, trucks, tourists, horses, burros. That is on a normal day. But these are not normal days.
School has just let out for Christmas break. One of the joys of Mexican families is spending time at the beach during Christmas. So, Highway 200 is now clogged with cars bringing the recreation-minded to our little holiday-magnet.
It usually takes me about 35 minutes to drive from my house to the La Comer parking lot in Manzanillo. Yesterday, it took an hour and 10 minutes.
On a normal day, I pass most of the traffic on our 2-lane highway. Yesterday, I was stuck behind a convoy of at least 20 vehicles (I could not see the front of the line to get an accurate count). There was no passing to be found because the line of traffic heading north was just as long.
I had originally planned on buying a few grocery items while I had access to the big box stores. But I changed my mind when I saw the checkout lines at Walmart. With most of the cashier lines open, the file of shopping carts backed up into the clothing section blocking easy passage.
Instead, I simply dropped off my dry cleaning and returned home at the same plodding pace as when I drove down.
You probably see where this is going. If I need my clothes for a Wednesday dinner, and I dropped them off only yesterday, isn't there one step I still need to accomplish?
Yes, there is. And it is not a pretty answer.
The dry cleaner is busy with other people who also have holiday emergencies. The earliest I can get my clothes back is 5:30 on Friday afternoon. The Friday of the weekend everyone who is not already in Melaque will be gathering the brood and packing them into the sleigh to grandma's house.
It is fortunate that I was just subjected to Los Angeles traffic jams. On Friday, I will be grateful that I only have to deal with Christmas-in-Manzanillo traffic and not the La Brea tar pits, instead.
In truth, I do not mind the crowds. Even though my people do not celebrate Christmas, I like the energy the Mexican tourists generate in town. I especially like the income they generate for our little villages by the sea. Without them spending their time and money here on weekends and during semana santa, summer vacations, and, yes, Christmas, Melaque and Barra de Navidad would be hard pressed to survive.
All of that reminded me of one of those silly Christmas songs that once paid the piper on Broadway. So, here is a thought for this Christmas season.
"For we need a little music, Need a little laughter, Need a little singing Ringing through the rafter, And we need a little snappy 'Happy ever after,' Need a little Christmas now."
Before she was putting murderers in prison, Angela Lansbury was slicing up Jerry Herman's lyrics at the Winter Garden Theater. If I am handing out gifts, why not give you the whole thing?
Every time I open my message boards, I discover some sort of Mexidrama that seems to be designed solely to frighten tourists or expatriates.
You know the genre. "AMLO is going to ask the Supreme Court to hold the statute unconstitutional that allows foreigners to own property in the 'restricted zone,' and we will all lose our property." [Pull out Bic. Light hair. Repeat until the evil thoughts stop.]
In fact, I did hear that one last week. But the reality is a bit skewed. It had nothing to do with AMLO, and I know the source of the rumor. I doubt there are such things as true rumors. But that one is false.
But I did hear an AMLO rumor yesterday that is partially factual, and designed to create hysteria amongst anyone who has ever employed domestic help in Mexico. Here is how it goes.
The Mexican Supreme Court has issued an injunction ordering the Mexican Social Security system (IMSS) to amend its rules to include domestic workers. Almost all employees in Mexico are required to enroll their workers in the social security system -- a unified program that provides health care, disability payments, and a minimal pension. In northern terms, it is as if employer-provided health care, workers' compensation, and social security were all rolled into one package.
Until now, domestic workers were excluded from the program. Housekeepers. Maids. Cooks. They were all outside the protection of the IMSS program.
No longer. The Supreme Court declared the exclusion to be unconstitutional and ordered IMSS to create a pilot program to be implemented early in 2019 to cover domestic workers.
Considering all that the program provides, its costs is minimal -- about 2.6% of the worker's total compensation. Paid by the employer.
But, before you run off to your accountant to discover how much you are going to owe, you should take a deep breath and wait. There are still too many questions left unanswered. And those answers will have to wait until the rules are issued.
Here are some.
Will all domestic workers be covered? Or will the system apply to only full-time employees?
Will they apply to what have been traditional "independent contractors?" Like the pool guy who stops by three times a week.
Will payments be retroactive for current and former employees? Or solely prospective?
No one yet knows because there are no rules.
When the rules are issued, I recommend that anyone who hires help to take a close look at how they will apply to your situation.
It is true that plenty of local businesses flout the law right now. And they often do it to their cost. Disgruntled workers have won settlements that have been quite costly to employers. In one case, a judgment caused a restaurant to shut down permanently.
Like most agencies, IMSS is facing a fiscal crisis. So, it is looking for non-complying employers to help fill its coffers.
There is a second part to this story. AMLO has floated an idea to double the Mexican minimum wage. His economic advisers will undoubtedly talk him into a lower figure to avoid the inevitable destruction of entry-level jobs. But the minimum wage is going up.
All of this is good news for Mexican workers. At least, those who will not lose their positions because of cost increases. For most northerners, the cost of domestic help will still be a bargain.
So, here is my advice. Calm down and wait for the rules to be issued. Then, talk to your accountant, and do the right thing by the people who help make your life in Mexico more pleasant.
Here is another reminder, I am certain you have all paid your staff their annual aguinaldo. If not, you are late. Do it today. I think I hear the horses pawing the ground.
I may be turning into one of those old men who wants to do do nothing more in life than to sit home and order the dogs around.
At least, that is how I felt when I walked into the courtyard of my house on Saturday afternoon.
There was something comforting in returning home after being gone for a month. But it was more than returning to the cosseting familiarity of routine.
The first thing I noticed was the list of chores that faced me. Weeds that need pulling in the street in feint of the house. Vines to be trimmed. Meals to be cooked. Miles to be walked. Books, magazines, and newspapers to be read. They all gave me a certain sense of -- well, not really satisfaction; maybe purpose.
I guess that is it. I come from a family whose unofficial motto is laborare est orare -- to work is to pray.
The idea is not original with us, of course. The very essence of western philosophy is that work provides purpose to our lives. Aristotle may have said it earlier, but Stephen Hawkings, as he almost always did, summed it up simply: "Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it."
Rather than slipping into an old man attitude (even though my age qualifies me for the adjective), I suspect what I felt when I arrived home was a rekindling of that force that has driven me all of my life. I have work to do. I have purpose. I feel better.
Having work to do and having a purpose is extremely easy to lose on a cruise. Passengers are as pampered as white South Africans under apartheid.
Everything is provided. Once you pay your money, all you need do is shuffle from the breakfast buffet to the progressive trivia game to the dining room for lunch to your freshly-made up cabin for a nap to the Italian specialty restaurant for dinner and then off to the evening's entertainment.
I should apologize for making cruises sound like something out of a bad rest home horror tale. They are not. Otherwise, I would not have taken the 40-some cruise I have since 1975.
But there was something a bit numb-minding on this cruise through the Panama Canal. And I am not certain why. Even though I am going to give you a lot of reasons.
I have always enjoyed several aspects of cruising. The most important is visiting countries where I have never set foot or re-visiting some favorites. This cruise was no exception.
The Panama Canal was just as thrilling as the first time I saw it in 2000. Cartagena was new to me and its colonial city charm was a pleasure to visit. Nicaragua and Guatemala offered up challenging volcano hikes.
I also had three of the most interesting traveling companions I could have asked for. And I had time during the day to get in my exercise and reading.
There was no reason I should have not given this cruise high marks. Unfortunately, I let circumstances get in the way.
After a really frustrating day dealing with the unusually-crowded facilities and trying to navigate around my fellow passengers who seemed to have been repeatedly stunned with tasers, Roy, Nancy, Sophie, and I sat down for a re-cap of the day.
Roy and I were withering in our criticism. Nancy and Sophie concurred until Nancy observed: "We are criticizing the exact things people mention when they say they refuse to cruise. Are we cruised out?"
It was a good question. And I still do not have an answer for it. But, I have two cruises on my calendar (northern Australia to Singapore this spring and a 2020 Singapore-Thailand-Sri Lanka- India-Oman-Dubai cruise) to which I am looking forward.
There were a couple of special circumstances that made the Panama Canal cruise difficult.
First was cost. Low cost. Bargain basement clearance cost.
Panama Canal cruises are usually very expensive. But Norwegian charged only about half of what a similar cruise would cost. Frankly, that is one reason I was on the ship. I am not a son of Adam Smith without reason.
The second derives from the first. As a result of the low cost, the cabins were sold out. That meant that all of the ship's facilities were crammed.
The third may also derive from the first. You get what you pay for. By not paying for much, I should not have expected much.
Food is the perfect example. As cruise lines have cut costs, the quality of food on cruises has slowly declined. I am accustomed to that.
But the food on this cruise was egregiously bad. At times, it was difficult to find anything that I could eat with my new lifestyle. And, when I did, it was bad. Even my backstop cuisine -- Indian. Even it was regularly inedible.
The fourth circumstance was the most disappointing. Cruise lines are famous for the efficiency of their staff. For some reason, on this cruise, almost the entire staff was switched out in Fort Lauderdale. Most of them had not previously served on a cruise ship.
The result was a disaster. And I felt sorry for them. Most knew little of their duties. When presented with a question, the response was almost universally unhelpful. There was seldom any attempt to find a resolution of issues.
That is the company's doing. Too few staff are hired. And, when they are, they are obviously not given sufficient training to do their duties. My steward skipped cleaning my cabin twice on the excuse that it did not need cleaning because I was so organized.
In the end, it was fine. But it was a symptom of a company that has lost its way.
So, I sit on my terrace this brisk Monday morning with a pot of rose green tea, my newspaper, and a book, chatting with you good people who have stopped by.
When you head off to your day, I am going to indulge in my morning walk and then come back and start on my house chores. After all, this is about purpose, not sinking into an old man attitude -- even though I suspect it is the same thing.
Yesterday afternoon, I transitioned back into a more pleasant life by making something as simple as a soup. A Thai chicken red curry soup. With a big twist of fusion.
Chicken, red curry paste (several years ago, I would have doubted it would be possible to obtain high quality red curry paste in Mexico), onion, garlic (lots), ginger, fish sauce, a dash of soy, a sweet sake-chicken broth blend, lemongrass, and, of course, 3 serranos and 2 habaneros. I would have added cilantro, but I had none readily available.
It turned out better than I expected. I may add some rice vinegar or more fresh lime when I eat another bowl for lunch today.
So, yes, it is morning again in Mexico. And I am enjoying being at home -- with a purpose.
"A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser."
If you have loitered around these parts, you have read that quotation. It is from Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out -- a fascinating tale about murder and deception. Mainly deception. Of the self-induced variety.
Every writer is guilty of Kirn's sin. In the re-telling of tales, we have a tendency to re-write our experiences. Often, because the re-write is far more interesting. Someone once asked Anne Lamott if her stories really happened. She replied something like this: "They may not be factual, but they are true."
I am currently in Los Angeles waiting for my flight to Manzanillo. But there is an incident that happened on the cruise that has been eating away at my soul since it happened. I could re-write the facts because I do not come out well in the end. But I won't.
Here is what happened.
Every cruise ship has a resident company of dancers and singers. All of them are young. Some are just breaking into show business. They usually perform music that their audiences will recognize. Seldom are any of the performances edgy.
On this cruise, one of their production shows was based around the conceit that the old hotels in Las Vegas still held the ghosts of performances past. It is not the worst concept I have heard to string together a lot of otherwise disparate songs and personalities. Elvis. Elton John. And, of course, the Rat Pack of Frank, Dean, and Sammy.
It was during the Rat Pack sequence that disaster struck. And it was not that the callow twenty-something performers had no idea how to convey a homage, let alone an impression.
All three Rat Packers were vaudeville stereotypes. Frank cool and aloof. Dean a drunk.
It was the Sammy Davis, Jr. character who really jangled. He was played by a young black man who gamely sang one of Davis's signature songs -- "The Candy Man." Accompanied by the girl dancers who were dressed as various candy boxes.
So far, so good. But, everything went off track when he came to the bridge. You recall it: "Now you talk about your childhood wishes/ You can even eat the dishes." At that point, he would turn to Miss Sweet Tart with a Bennie Hill leer and attempt to grab her as if he were Harvey Weinstein. All to the coy giggle of the dancer.
The image was beyond disconcerting. It combined the worst aspects of racial stereotypes and minstrel shows. Even though the scene was obviously designed to portray mores of a different era, putting it on a contemporary stage was simply offensive. If the entertainment industry wants to pretend that it has changed its ways on sexual harassment, this was hardly the mechanism to do it.
And the offensiveness of the racial stereotype was enhanced when in the next breath, the show credited Sammy Davis Jr.'s bravery in prevailing against Las Vegas racism by being the first African-American entertainer to walk through the front door of a casino. Everyone applauded. Mainly, they applauded themselves for their own moral superiority.
But no one, including me, raised one objection to the vileness in the performance they had just witnessed. They applauded the Candy Man number. No one walked out. No one shouted: "Stop it! Just stop it!."
And I have no idea why I didn't. I saw the problem while I was watching the performance. But I did nothing.
I am perfectly capable of exercising my moral dudgeon in public. In the summer of 1976 I attended a performance of the Folies Bergère in Paris. I knew exactly what it was. Las Vegas showgirls tarted up as classy -- as only European hypocrisy can do.
About two-thirds of the way into the show, the showgirls appeared on stage dressed as topless brides -- gliding along to the strains of Schubert's "Ave Maria." Something broke inside me.
I am not Catholic; "Ave Maria" holds no spiritual significance for me. But it does for others. The song was not in the number to somehow honor the religiosity of some French citizens. I doubt the drunk Japanese businessmen in the front row saw anything but bare breasts. The combination was pure sacrilege.
Now, I am not in favor of censoring art because it offends my principles. Sometimes, that is the very purpose of art. But I do not need to approve of it, either.
My friend Bud Johnson and I looked at one another, rose as one, and booed repeatedly as we exited the theater. Only to find a man beating a young boy with a studded belt about a block from the theater. We intervened and called the police. It was a full night of moral adventure.
I fondly remember that night in Paris. Probably because I exercised my rights as a moral agent. And I will equally remember that night in the ship theater where I showed moral cowardice.
"Racism" has become one of those terms that is overused in conversation. But there really is racism around us. And the show was a clear example. Mixed with the "humor" of sexual harassment, it was something I should not have ignored when it happened.
So, here is my pledge to myself. When I encounter similar events in the future, I will not let them go unremarked. I will have my say.
And I hope we will all do the same. Racial relationships have made great strides since the 1960s (as I noted when I discovered the Fort Lauderdale wade-ins on this trip: are you waterloo or peterloo?). But there is still a long journey in front of us.
Not the type you have dancing through your head like the sugar plum fairy.
I am not inclined to become a headline that usually involves some young Canadian or American trying to match machismo with a local drug dealer who runs down the tourist in the street and shoots him in a drug deal gone by. That is not my style.
Those stories are almost a cliché -- and inevitable where young (and some old) foreigners show up trying to prove the axiom that there are no rules in Mexico. Well, there are. And dabbling in illicit drugs is a good way to discover that the myth that Mexicans do not own guns is just plain wrong. The type of drug culture I am talking about is the one we geriatrics inhabit.
On this trip north, the difference between the Mexican and the American drug markets hit me up the side of my head as if I had been raised by Huck Finn's father.
While I was in Oregon, I ran out of my test strips. In Mexico, I would go to the pharmacy shelf, choose what I wanted, and pay for it. It could not be simpler. Just like buying a papaya.
Not so, in Oregon. I stopped at the pharmacy in Fred Meyer (a La Comer-style store). There was almost nothing on the shelves. Everything appeared to be behind the counter like a general goods store in 1880 Boise.
I asked the young man at the counter if he had the correct brand for my tester. I expected a "yes" or a "no" reply.
Instead, he asked: "Do you have a prescription?"
Puzzled, I responded: "No. Why would I need a prescription for test strips. Are they a controlled substance?"
He did not know. I assume he was relatively new at the job. He asked a supervisor and returned.
"No, they are not a scheduled item." He continued smugly, "But I cannot charge your insurance company without a doctor's prescription."
"Really?," came my incredulous response. But I then remembered I was not there to debate health care with him. "That's OK. I am going to pay cash."
It was his turn to look astounded. "Wait here a second, I have to check if you can do that." And away he went to talk with his supervisor.
I could see them chatting and pointing. The supervisor called someone on his mobile. I started wondering if the clerk had misunderstood me to say that I had a gun and I wanted everything in the cash register. Of course, he would have had to ask his supervisor.
About four minutes later, he returned and informed me, with a smile that mirrored his self-categorized Amazon-style of customer service, that, indeed, I could pay cash for my purchase.
When he rang it up, I knew I was no longer in Mexico. What costs me about $700 (Mx) (about $35 (US)) totaled $283 (US) at Fred Meyer.
But I did get what I needed for the trip.
It would have been interesting to wait for Cabo San Lucas for that transaction, but I could not wait that long.
This town at the tip of Baja California has a reputation for medical tourism. Purchasing drugs without a prescription and others without FDA certification is a boom market. If I had not known that from my reading, it would have been evident from the assortment of drug stores on tap.
We tendered to shore in the ship's life boats. Where I stood when I first put foot on the dock, I could count seven drug stores. Viagra seems to be a growing item.
I had run out of one of my Mexican medications. All I needed was a strip of ten to get me back to Barra de Navidad. The clerk first offered me a large bottle of tablets -- the same size I buy in Barra. I told her I didn't need that much, but I was curious how much it cost.
When I told her I do not use dollars, she did the extremely easy math for me. 1,600 pesos.
I did not want to re-live my Fred Meyer experience. So, I rejected the offer with no further explanation. The same bottle costs me 450 pesos just down the street from my house.
Instead, I bought a strip of ten tablets for quite a large markup.
The drugstores were filled with mainly American tourists. Having grabbed my prize, I talked to a couple of ladies who told me they fly down regularly from Minnesota for the sun and cheap prescription drugs.
I had no way to compare, but I wondered if their "good deal" was just relative. That they could have saved far more by not buying drugs in Cabo San Lucas with its semi-southern California prices.
Let me try to disarm a discussion point before it rolls out in the comments section. I do not think what I experienced is the much-touted "gringo tax" that visitors see as a form of racism practiced against them.
Tourists may be charged a premium price, but it is a price based on ability to pay, not on race. The free market is based on prices that a willing buyer and a willing seller agree upon. Based on my information, I rejected the price. If the women from Minnesota think they are getting a deal, they are willing buyers happy with what they have saved compared with northern prices.
We forget that "the tourist price" is also often charged to visitors from big Mexican cities. A fact that irritates and compliments Chilangos. Irritates because it costs money. Compliments because the buyer thinks the seller sees a person successful in Mexican society. Climbing the greasy pole costs pesos.
And, now and then, I get the financial benefit of doubt. When we went to see the cliff divers in Acapulco, the other three members of our group were charged $7 (US) for admission. It certainly was not a huge amount of money.
When I showed up, I ordered one ticket. In Spanish. The vendor asked me where I lived. When I told him Barra de Navidad, he pulled out another stack of tickets. I didn't pay attention to what he said the price was.
I gave him a 200-peso note and expected a bit of change. Instead, he handed several notes back to me. The amount stamped on the ticket was 40 pesos. I got to see the show for the bargain price of about $2 (US) -- less than one-third what my friends paid.
Why? Because I look Mexican? I say I do; but I don't. Because I was so excited about the show? I wasn't. Because I live in Mexico? Maybe.
There may be another reason. Remember what my waiter friend asked me: "Why do Canadians dress like poor people?" That may be it. I was wearing Melaque pauper that day. He may have felt I needed alms to get through the day.
Of course, the $5 I saved was easily eaten by the queen of drug inflation who sold me my tablets today. Sometimes, when we see life in that perspective, we can tone down the hubris. At least, a bit.
We are now at sea. One more sea day. A night in Los Angeles. And I will be home in my bed Saturday evening.
Getting ready for my next winter jaunt.
I think to Zacatecas -- if nothing else comes up first.
So, that was Acapulco. Three visits. Each resulting in ambivalence.
I have no such feelings about Guatemala and Nicaragua. They were great days.
This was my first trip to Nicaragua. During the nasty days of the Somoza dictatorship, I was in my going-to-law-school and making-a-living phases. I took no vacations back then. If I had, I would not have been interested in enriching the Somoza coffers.
In 1979 the even-nastier Sandinistas ousted the Somoza family and imported their own brand of Cuban-inspired communism to Nicaragua under the benighted fist of Daniel Ortega. Nicaragua had a brief democratic respite. But Ortega returned to power, this time re-invented as a fascist dictator (the leap was not large).
The people he once purported to represent have now risen against him – just as the Venezuelans have risen against his bosom buddy and fellow socialist, Nicolas Maduro.
Dictators. Mobs in the streets. Teetering authoritarianism. What better time could there be to visit Nicaragua to see what the Sandinistas had wrought.
Don’t get your hopes too high. Other than a lot of defaced posters of Ortega and his vice-president (who also happens to be his wife and Evita-like successor), there was no hint of political turmoil in the area we visited. On our excursion, three policeman accompanied us. To offer-security, they said. In a dictatorship it is always questionable whether the safety of guests is being assured or political contact is being monitored.
But I was not in Nicaragua to preach the gospel of freedom. I was there to climb a volcano.
When I signed up for the cruise, I was concerned that the ship activities would cut into my exercise time. So, I looked for the most active shore excursions I could find.
That is how I ended up on the summit of Cerro Negro in Nicaragua -- an active volcano. The name almost made me decide not to choose it. "Black Hill" does not really have the ring of challenge like, say, Mont Blanc. However, at its base, it looked challenging enough.
Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, first appearing in 1850. There are now 5 cones associated with it.
Its older siblings form an impressive chain of ash-spewing volcanoes. The presence of active volcanoes was a factor American engineers used to choose Panama over Nicaragua to construct the Panama Canal – even though the Nicaragua option may have required less excavation.
Anyone who has visited Newberry Crater outside of Bend, Oregon will be forgiven for confusing it with Cerro Negro. They are both about the same height (2500 feet) and are part of a larger string of volcanoes. As it turns out, though they are separated by thousands of miles, they are part of the same Ring of Fire that girdles the Pacific.
The ascent was just like any hike up the side of a volcano. Lots of loose rock and big steps. And the relentless feeling that each step takes far more exertion than the distance climbed.
No one can imagining saying it while they are climbing, but we all love indulging in the cliché that the effort was worth it. For once a cliché actually has the scent of truth. The view at the top was spectacular. Not only of the multi-hued crater in the original cone, but it is possible to see from the Pacific to the Atlantic (or Caribbean, if you are so inclined).
Almost every volcano I have climbed has a final stage I like to call post-panorama depression. After you get up, you need to get down. And getting down is seldom physically demanding or exhilarating.
This descent was different. It has to rank as one of the most thrilling times I have had since I gave up skiing.
Because the volcano is young, it has not yet recovered from its frequent eruptions. The cone is simply layers of volcanic ash.
There are two ways to descend. You can dress up like a Minion, and ride a toboggan at full speed. That was the option I wanted, but I had failed to tap my safe for money before I left the ship. I was a pauper on the slopes.
That left the only other option -- hoofing it. Rather than hiking down the way we came up, we headed down the same steep slope that the toboggans use. If you have ever tried to walk down a ski slope in powder snow, you know the challenge.
Our guide suggested shuffling down sideways. But, as soon as I discovered the snow metaphor, I had a better idea (one that the guide had suggested). Instead of shuffling sideways, I pointed my feet downhill and started a slow run that quickly built in speed. It was like skiing without skis.
The fact that there were large rocks buried in the ash and that some of the ash had solidified like ice on powder made the analogy complete. My Adrenalin high for the day was pegged somewhere past 15.
The next day we stopped in Guatemala, a country I had visited earlier this year.
Guatemala has managed to escape experimentation with the communism the Nicaraguans once found alluring. But its governmental history is just as sketchy and authoritarian. In an attempt to put down a Cuban-sponsored rebellion through the 1990s, a series of governments committed terrible atrocities, particularly amongst its Maya citizens.
My parents had a fondness for Guatemala through missionary visits in the 1980s. I must have inherited some of it.
I was surprised earlier this year that I had waited so long to visit. Our stop on this cruise was brief. So, I signed up for a second volcano hike. This time to Pacaya, one of Guatemala's three active volcanoes.
And active it was. We were miles away when we first spotted its ash plume.
The ascent was far steeper and longer than Cerro Negro. Realizing that tourists often trod off to more than they can handle, local villagers have followed the call of the free market by offering horses to those who try and just cannot hike the trail. For a price, of course. $30 (US) for the ride up.
Pacaya put on quite a show for us. Not only ash, but loud booms that made the cohetes northerners love to hate sound like a pilot light being lit. And when we got to the top, we were treated to rivers of lava streaming out of the cone. What fascinated me most was the sound the lava made as it cooled and solidified. Similar to the sound the ocean waves make when ebbing over pebble beaches.
Because Pacaya is ancient (being part of a caldera that is at least 300,000 years old), it does not have a fresh ash field for "skiing." Nor did we climb to the top of the active cone.
But, our viewpoint was close enough for danger. On a recent visit, our guide was nearly hit by a boulder the size of a car that the volcano had coughed up. We had to be entertained by the far more mundane practice of cooking marshmallows using heat from the volcanic rock under our feet.
At one point, I wondered why I had booked two excursions in a row that sounded similar. As it turned out, the only thing they had in common is that they were both great exercise -- and a lot of fun.
For people who believe cruises are for couch potatoes looking for their next buffet meal, I will invite you along on one of my next shore excursions.
Where we were greeted by a Mexican band playing Christmas carols in the spirit of Salvation Army bands around the world.
We strolled along the bay that once drew the rich and famous to its glamorous beaches.
Had a snack in a little tourist restaurant.
Looked at beaches that should have been filled with tourists. (Bargain alert. Hotel rooms that once commanded $400 a night are on offer for $40.)
Walked around the fort that protected the annual Manila galleon on its trip from the Far East with goods destined for Madrid. (This is the loop, of course, that was closed by Spanish explorers who sailed from Barra de Navidad in 1564.)
Watched the famous cliff divers.
Wandered into the Nuestra Señora de la Soledad cathedral, where preparations were underway for the 12 December feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- arguably Mexico's most important holiday.
Witnessed three groups in procession to the cathedral to celebrate the days leading up to her feast day. Complete with cohetes -- the skyrockets that northerners believe have been designed for religious processions just to bedevil them.
Tonight somewhere around 2 AM, we will be passing by the House with No Name in Barra de Navidad. I will not see it again until Saturday.
My girlfriend in law school loved chiding me with a Latin phrase she had picked up in high school -- omnis similitudo claudicat.
Literally, "every analogy limps." Or, as medieval legal scholars had it: "all comparisons are invalid in some way."
It is one of those adages that has the additional virtue of being true. But, having warned you, I am warming up one in the bull pen.
If our three stops in Central America were a baseball game, I would have grounded out -- followed by two home runs.
The news coverage of the recent caravans to the United States from Central America has perpetuated the confusion that the people of the six nations of Central American are "Mexican." For once, ignorance contains a grain of historical truth.
With the exception of Panama (which was part of Colombia until the United States assisted rebels in gaining their independence in 1903), the rest of Central America was part of Mexico during the Spanish empire. More accurately, they were part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. An administrative unit that even included The Philippines.
When Mexico and Central America broke away from Spain, Mexico retained its role as sovereign over the area that is now Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua. and Costa Rica. That arrangement lasted for just one year.
The Central American republics decided they did not need Mexico treating them the way Spain did. So, they formed the Federal Republic of Central America -- taking a portion of Mexico with them. That arrangement lasted for only twenty years, leaving Central America in its current balkanized state.
We visited three of those countries on this cruise.
It had been eighteen years since I last visited Costa Rica. I had fond memories of spending a day on a river nature cruise filling my camera with shots of monkeys, snakes, a woman flailing in the river after the guide told her not to stand up in the boat, crocodiles, and more birds than Audubon himself could have shot.
That may be the reason I signed up for a nature hike and boat cruise. The hike sounded interesting because it is a bit difficult completing my walks on port days. We tend to stand in line a lot.
I chose badly. The boat portion of the trip was not bad. But I could have seen the same birds and crocodiles in my neighborhood. And often do. To be fair, the rest of the people on the trip were enthralled at the sight of each black vulture.
"The rest of the people on the trip" is what made the hike portion less than pleasant. And it was not their fault.
The nature walk (Skyway Tour Villa Lapas Rain Forest) was badly-conceived and poorly-executed. The "rain forest" was a small hillside that could have been in someone's backyard. Or, at least, at a friend's farm in Barra de Navidad.
Because there were several small ravines on the trail, the owners built three"skyways." The name was dressing mutton as lamb. The "suspension bridges" were about as thrilling as an elevated gangway in a Wisconsin cheese factory.
But none of that would have mattered if the stroll had not been such a disaster for half of the group. There were 39 of us strung single file along the trail. I was near the rear. Every few feet we would stop and stand as if we were waiting in line at the ship's cafeteria.
None of the people around me could hear a thing. We could not see the guide. When we started moving, people would look randomly in the direction the person before them did. Just like one of those freeway accidents where nothing is there.
I did get to see this amazing bit of nature for my $150. A millipede. I know that only from my own experience. I certainly did not hear it from the guide.
And that was a pity. He knew his stuff -- a fact the Left Behinds discovered when we finally could hear him on the boat tour. The hike would have been a success with about 5 or 6 people. Instead, the tour company (Asuaire) decided to cram too many people on the trail. I assume to maximize their revenue stream. After all, they were not going to see us again.
When those of us in back told the guide we had missed his entire commentary, a rather officious woman told us to stop ruining the tour for the others -- the people who could hear apparently found the tour to fill an empty place in their souls. Effectively, the tour company had created a social experiment between Haves and Have Nots.
I did enjoy seeing Costa Rica again. It is a beautiful country. And I might even use the services of Asuaire Tours if I return on my own. I do know I will never take one of its tours again if my next visit is on a cruise ship.
So, there is my first limping analogy. The ground out.
Tomorrow, we are in Acapulco. I will continue my Central America tales on the coming sea days.
Spoiler alert. Nicaragua and Guatemala hit the ball into the bleachers. But those of you who can count already know that.
They give me an opportunity to exercise, read, and communicate with you about my day. I can actually fit in everything I need to do . Just like at home.
Port days are another story. Getting on and off the ship and then spending a few concentrated hours in a new place eats up the full day. They are the opposite of efficient sea days.
We have three port days in a row. Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Corinto, Nicaragua. And Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.
Today was Costa Rica and a nature walk that spun off the rails. I will tell you more about it after my other two shore excursions in Central America (volcano hikes in Nicaragua and Guatemala). I am hoping that a combined essay may be a bit more positive than how I feel this evening.
But all of that can wait for another two or three days.
Until then, I will try to find the wheat amongst the chaff. Or, failing that, give you a good tale.
I first saw it in Mrs. Dix's sixth grade class. What twelve-year-old boy could avoid the allure? A steam shovel. Teddy Roosevelt. And the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal was not new to me -- even then. I had been introduced to it in the mid-1950s through the Flags of the Word trading cards I collected. But our sixth-grade history textbook pulled together all of the historical threads for the first time. That passage through the 40 miles of the Panama isthmus took on a new allure for me.
The notion of building a canal through Panama was not a new one. In the 1500s, when Spain ruled that part of the new world, Charles V looked at a map and saw an easy way to transport silver from Peru to Madrid. Just build a canal through the isthmus.
Nothing came of the idea. But the Spanish did establish a rudimentary road system for pack mule to convoy goods across Panama to the Caribbean and on to Cartagena and Spain.
Several canal plans were floated in the 1800s, but nothing came of them until gold was discovered in California in 1848. Transporting gold from California to the east coast was treacherous -- especially when shipped around the horn of South America.
The United States obtained a concession from Colombia to build a railroad across Panama (Panama then being a province of Colombia) in 1855. Essentially, it was the same idea as Charles V's mule train road, but this time with trains.
And that inspired a lot of plans for a ship canal. Finally, in 1881, the Frenchman who had built the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, began construction on a sea-level canal. He believed that what worked in Egypt would work in Panama.
It didn't. He ran out of money -- and Yellow Fever killed thousands of his workers. When he shut down the operation in 1889, only a few miles of canal had been dug. Some of it can still be seen.
Then, Teddy Roosevelt, who had recently inherited the presidency, stepped in. When the Colombian Senate failed to ratify a treaty giving rights to the United States to build and operate a canal, Roosevelt agreed to support Panamanian rebels who had periodically fought for independence from Colombia.
With American help, the Panamanians had their independence on 3 November 1903. Three days later, Roosevelt had his treaty with Panama -- and construction was under way. Linguist and US Senator S.I. Hayakawa said it best: "We stole it fair and square."
The treaty would be a thorn in American-Panamanian relations until the United States agreed to return sovereignty of the canal zone to Panama in 1979. The two countries jointly ran the canal for 20 years. It is now Panama's sovereign territory.
After 10 years of construction and the deaths of almost 6000 workers from disease and accidents, the canal was opened in 1914 under the control of the United States. The late Senator John McCain was born in the Canal Zone while his father was stationed there.
The canal was an immediate commercial success. It was far cheaper to put cargo on a ship once and go through the canal than to use the connecting railroad system. And it was certainly cheaper than being forced to go around South America. Our ship paid a toll of a half million dollars and considered it a bargain.
The canal also had a military purpose. Because the canal opened in 1914 (during the onset of World War One), the United States, who only recently had become a two-ocean military power) could now move its fleet easily between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Teddy loved that. His Great White Fleet had mobility.
This was my second cruise through the canal. The first was in 2000 with my cousin Dennis.
What struck me most on both trips is how little the operation has changed in the hundred years the canal has been in operation. De Lesseps wanted to use the Chagres River as the foundation for his sea-level canal. He discovered how unworkable that was when the river flooded.
The American engineers took a different tack. They decided to dam the Chagres and form one of the world's largest man-made lakes -- right in the middle of Panama. Locks would elevate ships into the lake and then lower them on the other side. All of that is still in operation.
The weakest link in the operation is Lake Gatun -- the reservoir for the water that runs the entire system. A dearth or excess of rain could jeopardize the canal. A natural or terrorist disaster that released the lake's water could also destroy a large portion of Panama City on the Pacific side of the canal -- and put the canal out of operation for years.
The only big change has been the expansion of parallel locks to allow larger ships to transit the canal. Those locks have been in operation since 2016.
But the whole operation looked quite similar to what Dennis and I witnessed in 2000. I suspect if Teddy himself were to return to Panama today, he would recognize the same canal operation he could see through a mirror darkly sitting in the seat of that steam shovel.