Saturday, March 31, 2018

holy saturday at the beach

Semana santa is not just about beaches and beer.

It seems silly to even say it. But Holy Week is the time the Christian world celebrates Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his crucifixion on Good Friday and ends with his triumphant resurrection on Easter Sunday.

And, even though I have not written about any of them, our streets have been filled with processions -- the most dramatic being on Good Friday with a DeMillean recreation of the stations of the cross in our streets, including a crucifixion.

In my protestant tradition, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is just that. A Saturday. At best, a day to get ready for Easter Sunday.

But, not in my little fishing village by the sea. It is Good Saturday. The day the Catholic Church assigns to Mary in her manifestation as Our Lady of Solitude where she mourns for the death of her son. I ran into the procession honoring her in Barra de Navidad on my morning bicycle ride. I particularly like the shadows -- including the impromptu cross.

Considering what the gospels have to say about that Saturday two millennia ago, it should be called the Day of the Cowering Disciples, who were holed up until Mary Magdalene brought them shocking news on Sunday morning.

However, this was also a special day for the only woman now in my house -- my sister-in-law, Christy. It was her birthday.

I am still without a car. Christy said she would be fine just staying at home. We have a prime rib to cook up in her honor. But we did not have all of the fixings.

So, we hit on plan B. We would take a taxi to Melaque, have lunch at our favorite Japanese restaurant (Kai Murasaki -- with their inimitable lime ice cream sandwiches), and then walk over to Hawaii to buy what we needed for Christy's prime rib birthday bash dinner tomorrow.

Now, whenever I write a sentence like that, the next one is usually: "That is not what happened." But, today that is exactly what happened.

Despite the Easter crowds, we easily caught a cab. And, even though the restaurant was closed on our last two visits, it had just opened as we arrived. And we had a great lunch.

Accompanied by a floor show. Two chickens -- a rooster and his hen -- worked their way under each table looking for the orts of diners. 

Health inspectors up north would never have allowed such a thing. But, the three of us were amused. After all, I once had a pet bantam hen named Susan. That is another story, though.

So, we will celebrate part two of Christy's birthday tomorrow with extra rare prime rib. The other half of the roast that we cooked for my mother;s birthday was just as good as the roast we had last year. We have air aged this one even longer.

Tomorrow is Easter. The churches will be filled with both regular attendees and those who stop by for their semi-annual top up.

I hope to see you there. No matter which group you are in. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

playas y pesos

There are two signs that Semana Santa is in full swing in our area of Mexico.

The first is almost a tautology. Semana Santa is in full swing when our local beaches do a rather convincing impersonation of Chinese holiday spots. You know the drill. Where strands of sand disappear under the crush of semi-nude bodies.

The second is a bit more esoteric. But it is every bit as emblematic as the first robin of Spring. The ATMs are almost perpetually empty.

It seems as if the arrival of the holiday revelers has been a bit slow this year, but they are finally arriving. And our beaches are taking on the festive air of revelers while our streets sink into some of the worst aspects of Manhattan.

But the ATMs are always a great barometer. Part of the problem is the dearth of infrastructure. Banamex has one ATM in Barra de Navidad and two others at the bank in San Patricio. There is an ATM at Intercam in San Patricio that does not recognize my debit card. And another at the army base just outside of Melaque where I can never find a parking spot.

My experience is with the Banamex machines. And they have been consistently under stress for the last week.

Our ATM in Barra de Navidad runs out of cash on a regular basis -- even when tourists are not besieging the town. I have become so accustomed to seeing "Disculpe" displayed on the screen that I thought Banamex had changed ts name.

And, even though both Banamex ATMs at the bank were operating yesterday, I (along with a group of other dissatisfied customers) could not get either machine to cough up a few pesos to get me through the week.

That was bad planning on my part. The monthly payment for the staff has hit in the middle of this weekend. I was also faced with a large number of financial requests from friends.

So, here I am. Without a car. With $200 (Mx) in my wallet, and about $6,000 (Mx) of obligations to pay on Saturday.

This is when I am glad I have a bank account with Banamex. If I cannot get the ATM to disgorge at the bank tomorrow, I can take my passport and my account card inside to drain a bit out of my savings to tide me over. In something of a modified Willie Sutton adage. Because it is there.

Despite the occasional inconvenience, Semana Santa is one of my favorite times of the year. Where else can you find such a large group of people devoted to pursuing a singular goal? Having a good time.

And that is plenty evidence for me that I made the correct choice in retiring in this fascinating country.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

musical chairs

"I don't pretend to be a man of the people. But I do try to be a man for the people."

I chuckled today thinking about those words of Senator Gracchus from Gladiator with their seductive Kennedyesque parallelisms hiding their vacuity.

And why would I be mulling over third rate dialog from a second rate film? They came to me while I was on a public bus from Barra de Navidad to Melaque for an ATM raid.

We are without a car for a couple of days. My Escape is in surgery at the Manzanillo Ford dealership (a place reasonable people avoid), and we returned the Sentra this morning that Darrel rented for our Tequila journey. That left us carless for the first time in our nine years of living here. It felt a bit odd.

If I had been alone, I would have walked the eight-mile round trip. But I wasn't. And because the Semana Santa traffic 
has begun in earnest, we were a bit reluctant to ride our bicycles on Highway 200.

Darrel and Christy have ridden our local buses on this and past visits. I have not. I have not been in one since 2007.

It is not that I have anything against buses. The ride is always blog fodder: as it was today. I am just not patient enough to wait for one to arrive. I usually have enough appointments scheduled in each day to make bus-riding an unaffordable luxury.

But I gave in and joined Darrel on his ATM quest. And I am glad I did.

In my daily routine, I do not encounter many northerners. They are becoming a rarer breed as the month goes on. Most of the part-timers have pulled up stakes and headed home. But not all of them.

The seats on the bus we caught were full once we got on. They tend to get that way during Holy Week. Tourists and residents get packed in together.

On the trip to Melaque, most of the riders were Mexican. But there were a few northerners packed in the back. It almost looked like a negative of 1950s Selma. And we were about to experience a similar cultural clash.

An older Mexican lady got on at the next stop. There were no seats for her. I started to get up to give her mine, but a middle-aged Mexican gave her his.

Sitting across the aisle from me were four northerners. Tank-topped and tatted. When they saw the lady, they scrunched back in their seats in that self-absorbed manner that clearly communicates: "Don't even ask me to help you."

I started to offer the standing man my seat. But, before I could, a young Mexican beat me to the punch. He declined saying that his was the next stop.

It was interesting to watch a culture where traditional manners are given something more than lip service. There is still a social hierarchy here that is honored in practice. Men defer to women. The young defer to their elders.

On the trip back to Barra, the bus was just as full. We were standing when another northerner in a tank top stumbled aboard the bus reeking of some sort of alcohol. At the next stop, he pushed an older Mexican woman out of the way to dash to a seat.

And then something interesting happened. A group of older northerners boarded the bus at our traveling market. Even though they were on in years, no one offered them a seat.

I had to ask myself whether we northerners have completely forgotten how social hierarchies work in our benighted belief that there are no differences between men and woman or between the young and elderly. Whether chivalry is just another word in the dictionary for something that requires no commitment. And that we pay the price here in Mexico for not showing what my mother would call "simple good manners."

I don't know. What I do know is my Mexican friends carefully watch our manners -- and often comment on them. Including one of my favorites. A waiter asked me: "Why do you Canadians dress like poor people?"

Manners on the bus is not a hard one to remember. The rules are exactly the same as the ones we learned from our mothers when we were four.

"Share everything."

Ronald Reagan once said: "There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right."

Even on a bus.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

taking the citizenship test

Well-placed sources tell me this is question number 234 on the Mexican citizenship test. I will translate it into English for your convenience.

"You are in a hurry. But you need a bottle of mineral water. So, you stop at your local Kiosko.

"There are two cashiers. Seven people are waiting in one line, each holding one or two items. There are only two people in the other line, each looking at his telephone and holding a piece of paper.

"Which line do you join?

"A) The line of two people.

"B) The line of seven people.

"C) It doesn't matter; you are going to be late either way.

"D) Who cares?"

The cynic in me would pick either C or D. But, I know the correct answer from experience based on personal field studies.

The temptation is always to join the shorter line. After all, two people with no merchandise in their hands at a convenience store has to result in quicker transactions than a line of seven people -- all burdened with goodies.

But it is a trick question. There is no certainty, but the seven people will be processed and out of the store before the first guy in the other line is done.

And why is that? Because this is a convenience store, more than goods are sold there. Convenience is. And one of the conveniences in Mexico is the ability to make a myriad of payments at the equivalent of a 7-11 counter. (Or an actual 7-11 counter. The stores are prevalent is certain parts of Mexico.)

Land line telephone bills. Electricity bills. Wiring and receiving money. Additional time for a cell phone. And all matter of other transactions that once were handled by pharmacies in the 50s up north.

There is a high probability the two guys standing in line are buying telephone time. That is why they have their telephones in their hands. For some reason, the purchase of cell minutes can vary from a few seconds to a couple of minutes.

But that is only half of the clues in the citizenship question. The other is the piece of paper each holds. It is undoubtedly a list of telephone numbers of family and friends who have asked the intrepid buyer to purchase minutes for them. Those transactions always take a long time. It is like adding an additional seven people in line.

Based on a perfectly unscientific analysis, the seven customers will complete their purchase in 1 minute and 13 seconds. Total. The second of the two cell time buyers will still be at the cashier when the stopwatch creeps past the 5 minute mark.

The answer is B.

The Mexican citizenship test is replete with such cultural questions. And the best way to get the answers correct is to get out there and experience the mysteries of the culture we call Mexico.

While you are in there, could you buy me a package of those Bimbo cinnamon rolls? The ones with the topping.


Monday, March 26, 2018

the road not taken

I would like to tell you a tale about how the shaft tomb culture of western Mexico evolved into one of the least known major cultures in Mesoamerica.

How that culture reached its peak in the Formative period (about 200 AD) at Los Guachimontones. And how the civilization simply disappeared in the Classic period (around 900 AD) leaving behind circular mounds that only hint at its complexity.

I would like to tell you that having visited the site (as I told you we would last week), but I can't. Because we didn't.

We got an early start on our day last Friday. Our plan was simple. We would leave Tequila and head east then south then west to Los Guachimontones. Both Darrel and I had programmed the route into Google maps on our telephones. The route was a bit convoluted, but we knew where we had to go. 

As we were driving along the cuota (Highway 15D), both of our telephones recalculated the route. There is a relatively new bypass that connects Highway 15D to Highway 54D heading south to Colima.

The bypass has two virtues. It is new enough to have the feel of an autobahn with very little traffic. Best of all, it completely skirts Guadalajara and its suburbs.

So, we followed the advice of the competent-sounding woman in the telephone. We should have looked at full route she was suggesting before we made the turn.

Being new, the bypass has no exits. None. Early on, we passed over the top of the highway that would have taken take us directly to 
Los Guachimontones. But the bypass would not free us from its grasp until we were just south of Guadalajara. Then, the suggested route ran us through the heart of Guadalajara -- on the Friday before Semana Santa.

For those of you who do not know, Semana Santa (Holy Week; the week before Easter) is one of the big, if not the the biggest, holiday in Mexico. To those of us who live in beach communities, it seems as if all of Mexico shuts down to spend the week in the sybaritic pleasures of beach life. Darrel had no desire to drive through that type of traffic. I concurred.

So, after the three of us conferred, 
Los Guachimontones lost out on this trip. The concern about traffic was the deciding factor.

It turned out that we based our decision on faulty intelligence. Just as the allied forces found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we found no Semana Santa traffic on our trip to Barra de Navidad. In fact, we almost had the cuota to ourselves.

While we were in Tequila, our distillery guide and the clerk at our hotel both remarked how small the crowds have been leading up to Semana Santa. The distillery guide particularly noted the dearth of northern tourists.

Barra and Melaque looked almost normal. There were a few more tourists on the Barra malecon. But not many.

I talked with a couple of merchants who said they were a bit concerned that the early visitors did not seem to be here. One said more people would arrive on Monday. Another said Wednesday.

They need to be optimistic. The revenue they raise during Semana Santa goes a long way toward rounding out annual revenue. For many of them, it is the equivalent of Black Friday in The States.

Personally, I have no income dog in the fight. But I have always liked seeing our town fill up with people. It brings new life to the place. The beaches throb with bodies in and out of the water. As if a human grunion run had descended on us, but with less spawning. After all, this is Mexico, not Florida.

Los Guachimontones is still on my visit list. Darrel and Christy would like to go before they return to Oregon. And I would like to add a stop at the shaft tombs in Tampumacchay just outside of Colima -- another site that has been on my tour list for almost ten years. They seem to be a natural combination.

So, stay tuned, as my late blogger pal John Calypso used to say. We will get there eventually.

After all, life in Mexico is not a destination to be reached. If it were, I would probably take the wrong tour.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

cashing in on agave

Today was our day to learn about the details of distilling tequila. Darrel and I thought it would be helpful to develop some transferable skills for the next inevitable economic collapse.

I suspect the genes are already there. The Cotton genes can be traced back to the 1700s in the hills of North Carolina and Virginia. We would not have to dig too deep to find a little anti-revenuer in our DNA.

The big dog of tequila is right here in town. Don Cuervo is both the oldest and largest producer of tequila. And its distillery is right down the street from our hotel.

I have no truck with tequila. Or with any alcohol, for that matter. But I do enjoy seeing experts at work in any field.

Let me get this out of the way first. Touring the Don Cuervo distillery is a bit like sauntering through any other mass market beverage manufacturer. Glenfiddich. Budweiser. Heineken. Moet & Chandon. Smirnoff.

And, even though the distillery we toured, La Rojeña, produces nothing but premium tequila, once you have seen one process elsewhere, you pretty much know the others.

There are plenty of articles on the internet that can far better describe the details of the distillation process. So, I will let you read about them there.

How tequila is produced solely from the heart of the blue agave. How the heart of the agave (the pineapple) is roasted for hours before its juice is extracted. How the juice is then distilled twice and then allowed to age in steel tanks or charred barrels until it is ready to be bottled. That the resulting drink cannot be labeled as "tequila" unless it is produced in Jalisco or in a limited number of municipalities in four other Mexican states.

I am not going to tell you all that. But this article will.

Our tour group was small. Seven of us. The other four were from Vancouver. (The one in Canada; not the one in Washington.) Two of them were professional bartenders on a quest to polish up their patter with customers in that ever-elusive attempt to maximize tips.

Our guide, Leo, did a very good job of slathering on numbers and giving us an impression of just how well-honed the distillation process is. He was also an expert about taking seriously the silliest of questions. Like "where are the fields where the agave is grown." The answer was actually quite a bit more complex than I anticipated.

For the other six in our group, the highlight was the tasting of four premium tequilas. And the presentation was just as pretentious as any bourgeois wine-tasting class I have attended.

Swirling for body. Sniffing for exotica in the bouquet. Clearing the palate with bread and the nose with coffee beans. Associating the nose with cinnamon and lime and the tongue with baked agave. Deep inhale, washing the tequila through the mouth, deep exhale.

Leo pointed out there are many ways to drink tequila. Like right out of the bottle when a love is lost. But these were sipping tequilas. Not lovelorn swill. The final one, the most highly-aged, was even served in a brandy snifter.


I paid for the tasting because I wanted to see the process. But there are few things more uncomfortable in life than being the sober person in a room while the rest are slowly losing their senses. That was not pleasant.

But I would gladly recommend the tour. It is educational enough that its patina of pretention can be easily dismissed.

Due to a very odd incident, I spent the rest of the day in bed. Whatever it was, I am fine now. 
Some wag would undoubtedly say that I did not drink too much. But I said it before you could.
And tomorrow, what are we going to do? I don't know. There is an archaeological site at Los Guachimontones that I have wanted to see since I moved gto Mexico.

There is no better time than now to see it. Who knows when we will pass this way again -- you, dear readers, and I. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

tequila without the tequila

Tequila. I have avoided it for ten years.

The town, that is. The drink has never interested me. And I suspect that is why I have never steeled myself to drive the four hours into the highlands to visit it. But Darrel and Christy convinced me to join them on a visit while my Escape is in the Ford hospital for the remainder of this week.

There is an old saying that we find what we are looking for. And it is true when it is; but it is not when it is not.

One reason I avoided the town is its reputation as being the crown prince of tourist traps. And there is a lot of that. Starting with the little boys that dart into your car's path while entering town to present you with the card of the world's best ever guide of distilleries.

But the evidence that the town is designed primarily to suck lots of pesos out of tourist pockets is legion:

There is the schmaltzy tour bus in the shape of a guitar.

Tourists posed before the large doors of the church. Posed by me, in this instance.

Or posed in front of the Don Cuervo crow.

You can buy expensive tequila.

More expensive Bustamante sculptures.

And even more expensive Pineda Covalin scarves.

Or walk down streets that are just one degree short of being a Disney reproduction of what an upper middle class Mexican street should look like.

I was in danger of slipping into a cynical coma (I think it was Oscar Wilde who said a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything -- and the value of nothing), when I fell into one of those Mexican moments that gives meaning to the label Magical Pueblo.

We had heard that there was a mural in the courtyard of the government building that should not be missed. When we walked in, a film crew was moving furniture around in front of the mural.

Contemporary furniture. Furniture that very well might fit in a Barragan style house in Barra de Navidad.

I chatted with the designer. And he just may be able to help me finish the living spaces of my house. At least, the library.

That, of course, did not change the fact that even though Tequila is a vaguely charming colonial town, it is a one trick pony. This is the capital of tequila production. And the symbols of that industry surrounds visitors.

There are agave-inspired street grills.

Abstract agave forms on fences.

Even the benches wear the brand of the source of tequila, like some odd Medeval cult.

Considering the amount of tequila being gulped on the street, I suspect several revelers wondered if they should have had that last drink when they ran into this swarm of becostumed children. Dumbo dreamed in fewer colors.

And, thanks to the Don Cuevos ticket office, I can pass on one of my favorite sentences in pun-ish Spanish. "Necesito una taquilla para ver el tequila."

Tomorrow, we are going to put that joke to the test by visiting a distillery or two. Even though I have no love for tequila, I am interested in seeing anything done well by an expert.

We will see what happens.

Monday, March 19, 2018

to beer or not to beer

Lent is an odd season in my little corner of Mexico. We are not smack dab in the middle of it.

The 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter that constitute Lent are very important to Mexican Catholics. Theologically, 

the real aim of Lent is, above all else, to prepare men for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ. The better the preparation the more effective the celebration will be. One can effectively relive the mystery only with purified mind and heart. The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification by weaning men from sin and selfishness through self-denial and prayer, by creating in them the desire to do God’s will and to make His kingdom come by making it come first of all in their hearts.
 If the goal is to wean "men from sin and selfishness," Lent in our little village has a lot of competition.

Yesterday, I stopped by our local Kiosko to pay my electricity bill ($116 (US); not bad for two months of a house filled with family wielding electronic artillery). The first thing I noticed was about twenty people standing in a loose interpretation of a queue where there are usually only one or two waiting customers.

The second thing that caught my eye were the castles of Corona stacked against each of the walls. Just Corona. But lots of it.

I thought it strange. After all, the feast of San Patricio was the previous night capping off nearly two weeks of holy debauchery. Our streets and highways were clogged with buses and cars that should have been taking people home, rather than dropping them off post-festivities. And it was a week too early for semana santa -- Easter week.

Then it hit me. Monday was going to be a federal holiday -- Benito Juarez's birthday. Tourists were stacking their time at the beach. San Patricio plus Juarez's birthday plus Easter week. It is almost as if all eight planets had aligned in their paths around the sun.

Today is not really Juarez's birthday. He was born on 21 March. In 1806. As Omar reminds me.

But, Mexico, like The States, has decided that voters like having their holidays on Mondays. All the better to lump them together with the weekend. The result, of course, is that citizens are far more interested in the time off instead of the man they are supposedly honoring.

And, in the case of Juarez, at least, that is a pity.

Far too many people mistakenly think that Juarez is the father of his country; its George Washington. He isn't.  That honor probably belongs to that scalawag Agustin de Iturbide. And the less said about him in this context, the better. (Though, I do confess, I have a soft spot in my head for him.)

Juarez's name and image are ubiquitous in Mexico. On the 20 peso note. Street names. Schools. Cities. Parks filled with his diminutive form.

And for good reason. Even though he was not Mexico's first president, he is its most memorable from Independence up until the rise of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. OK. Maybe that scoundrel Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is almost as memorable.

But people remember Juarez for the good he did. He helped to put Mexico on a road of national identity. He is probably better known as the Lincoln of Mexico. And, in that sense, he is the father of his country. The very symbol of Mexican nationalism and the protector against foreign invaders.

He came to power during one of Mexico's interminable civil wars. This one the War of Reform, and then resisted and survived the French invasion that put the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexican throne.

Even though many of his reforms were revolutionary, he was not a revolutionary. He was a wily politician with Liberal (in the Mexican sense of the word) instincts.

Those instincts allowed him to strip the Catholic Church of both its revenue-producing property, as well as its churches and convents. He then used that land as a resource for Mexico's first land reform program. A program that eventually left the poor in a worse state. (But that is another story.)

He is the only full-blooded Indian who has served in the presidency. But he did not define himself by his blood.

In that sense, he was a classical liberal. He believed that if he had made his way up the slippery pole, other poor Mexicans could do that same. All they needed was a fair opportunity to advance. That was the intellectual basis of stripping the church of its financial and political power and for his land reforms.

He was also a ruthless politician. He had to be to survive in the political and social environment in which he operated. A lawyer, he played games with the Mexican Constitution. Ruling by decree for a period as an effective dictator and then running for re-election in violation of constitution term limits. Lincoln was accused of the first, as well.

He had the honor of dying in bed -- even though it was a close call. An insurgency had risen against him led by a man whose name would be as familiar in Mexican history as his own -- Porfirio Diaz.

But it is not Porfirio Diaz who we honor. It is Juarez. He is the only Mexican whose birthday is honored by federal holiday.

Flawed? Certainly. He was a human. There is a tendency these days to push historical figures from their pedestals for holding opinions that we now find reprehensible. In the process, we make ourselves feel better with our moral masturbation. But we also lose a lot of the realization of what it is to be human.

So, I am taking off my hat to Benito Juarez today. After all, I used several of his portraits to pay for my electricity.

As for all of that beer? It is still on the wall. Others are welcome to it.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

i am a camera

I have a new camera.

Before those of you who had nominated candidates in The Great Camera Sing-off get too excited, I did not buy a Sony a9 or a Sony a7 iii (the nearest equivalent to my late lamented Sony a6) or even a Sony RX10 IV. In fact, it is not even a Sony.

The winner is a Samsung. The just released (as of yesterday) Samsung Galaxy S9+.

If you think it is just a telephone, it is not. The camera is an improvement over my Samsung Galaxy S8+ (whose screen died an untimely death in a fall from my nightstand two nights ago).

The Samsung has dual 12 MP cameras on the back and a single 8 MP camera on the front. Because I am not a selfie guy (said quickly, the reverse would be true), the front camera does not interest me. It is that dual back camera that is tempting me to rely solely on the telephone camera for shooting, and forget about a stand-alone camera.That will put an end to the lens or no lens debate.

Samsung cameras have long had a tendency to slightly wash out colors in sunlight. But that is easy to correct with the camera's settings. I like fiddling around with them because they offer a great opportunity to take control of what you shoot. (The same reason lots of computer enthusiasts prefer PCs over Apples.)

Where the camera shines is at night. It has an impressive 1.5 aperture to capture low-light subjects. Even capturing almost-true colors.

I have not yet experimented with the telephoto lens. But I will.

For the next week or so, I will use the Samsung for the photographs that accompany my essays. Then, I will decide if I need a separate camera. After all, I have a wedding in April that will require high-quality shots.

Until then, it's time to go shoot some essays. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

wednesday in the river with kaitlyn

Roll Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, and The Last Crusade into a barrel of monkeys, and you will come close to the day we spent yesterday.

It was Kaitlyn's last full day in town. So, we needed to do something special. The choice was easy.

Last year, Ray Calhoun, the owner of The Only Tours, took Darrel, Christy, and me on one of his standard tours.

"Standard" is misleading. In this case, it means one of his advertised tours. But, standard it was not (city slickers duding it up).

The vote was unanimous. We would reprise our adventure. Both Omar and Kaitlyn are motorcyclists, and were looking forward to using their skills on the ATVs.

For outdoor enthusiasts, there is plenty to see in our area. It is an agricultural society. Dirt roads run Kansas straight through fields and orchards of pineapple, papaya, bananas, coconuts, watermelon, truck crops, mangoes, and a few not-so-easily identified crops. And cattle. Plenty of cattle.

The dirt roads are great for bicycles. They are even better for ATVs.

But we did not stick to roads. The major portion of the trip is on an almost dry river bed northeast of Barra de Navidad. And it is perfect driving for ATVs. Lots of sand. Open spaces. 
And amazingly little dust to interfere with bird-sighting.

That is, if you let your attention be diverted from the adrenalin-churning ride up the river. Mine is a motorcycle family. And there are very few things in life that can toss hormones into the body furnace more effectively than a revving engine sliding through sand.

Our ultimate goal was to reach a fall line where the river squeezes into an extremely narrow channel. Narrow enough that we had to abandon the vehicles and clamor over rocks that could have fallen out of Tolkien's imagination.

And, just like Petra, as we turned a corner, the small (but spectacular) waterfall revealed itself. Along with a precariously-lodged boulder acting as a roof over the cascade to add to the Hollywood effect.

This is Christy's favorite spot. On both visits, she said she would be content to spend the rest of the day there. But that was not to be. After all, having made it to our watery Henneth Annun, we still had to return home.

Ray always puts on a good tour. But Kaitlyn and Omar added an element of youth, of style, of playfulness that we missed on our last trip. The fact that we were all drenched from the waist down was proof that we had not had a staid drive in the country.

Kaitlyn flies away today. We will miss her. But I am certain she will return for a reprise.

Like an Agatha Christie novel, we are now down to four. My advise is that no one leave the library on his own. 

Unless they are going for another ATV ride.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

eating through mexico

No visitor to our little pocket of Mexico is spared the mandatory march through the crocodile refuge in La Manzanilla.

When I lived on the laguna in Villa Obregon, leaving home was not required to snuggle up to one of life's most fascinating creations. All you needed to do was to wait until nightfall, grab a flashlight and a camera, and step out my back gate. There were usually one or two good-sized crocodiles lurking just a few feet from my back door.

No more. Now, if I want to show off a collection of American crocodiles, I need to pile visitors into my Escape for a short drive to La Manzanilla. And I do like showing them off.

The crocodiles at La Manzanilla live in a protected reserve. That was not always so. When I first moved down here, the crocodiles freely roamed the beaches and streets around their mangrove home.

But the presence of crocodiles attracted tourists. And that was a volatile mix. Several lap dogs suffered the consequences. So, the local authorities decided to round up the crocodiles, fence them in their own area, and charge an admission fee. It was a perfect mix.

Over the years, the ability to see the crocodiles and the other inhabitants of the mangrove wetland has been improved with the installation of a boardwalk, observation towers, and two suspension bridges right of The Temple of Doom. Disney could learn from this refuge about creating the thrill of true danger.

Of course, what we go to see are the crocodiles. They are not really in their natural setting. Regular feedings cause them to congregate near the chicken table.

But most people would never get to see these magnificent beasts if the refuge did not exist. Their existence was once threatened through hunting and loss of environment. Even though they are still listed as "vulnerable," they have made a steady recovery in Mexico. Mexican efforts to keep the mangrove wetlands undeveloped has been their best survival technique.

And it has provided tourists with a taste of what life is like in the mangroves.

We took our cue from the crocodiles and indulged in our own predatory behavior by driving a couple of miles furthrer north along Tenacatita Bay to one of our favorite haunts -- Chantli Mare, a boutique hotel that offers a great lunch and opportunities for walks on flat beaches.

Of course, it is also one of our favorite stops to play Mexican train -- a version of dominoes that is almost addictive. It certainly stirs up the competitive hormones in our family.

George M Cohan, the perfect showman, always played the sad scene against a happy background. We had one of those, as well, at Chantli Mare.

Most of the guests had left their tables to crowd around a lump at the tide line on the beach. It turned out to be a turtle. A badly injured turtle who looked as if her final hour was near.

She was a reminder, that in this world of joy, tragedy is always present. She probably did not know she was dying. Only that she no longer had the strength to swim in the open water. And her time, like our own, would soon be over.

Maybe that is why we flock to see the crocodiles. They carry the potential of danger. And we cling to our rickety boardwalk hoping that today is not the day we will end up as part of a crocioile's bouillabaisse.

Let me add a coda. We are in the midst of celebrating the feast day of the local patron saint -- San Patricio. That means fireworks. More particularly, the spectacle of the castillo with its spinning wheels and shooting projectiles.

Even though the best castillo will be on Saturday, we stopped by to watch the ritual of young men braving the scars of fireworks. In the video, I particularly like the father in the blue shirt teaching his son how to jump the fire.

No crocodiles are included.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

outing the family

"Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me."

And so he did. Emily had it right.

Yesterday was the day to show off Manzanillo to my niece Kaitlyn. For the past week, we have been familying around Barra de Navidad and Melaque. But Mom flew north on Sunday. So, we are now down to five members.

Our goal was the iguana sanctuary. We had all (with the exception of Omar) been there last year. The place was fascinating enough to call for an encore.

That is, if we could get there. The drive is not long, but it means driving through old town Manzanillo -- with its streets and traffic that would be right at home in a Zeffirelli recreation of medieval Padua.

We were almost there when I took a wrong turn. Not to worry, I would just loop around on a one-lane side street and get back on the main road.

But God had different plans for us. This hearse was parked in the middle of the residential street blocking any forward progress.

There was nothing to do but wait. And consider the meaningless emptiness of existence known as life. (For some reason, to me, hearses are always far more evocative of Kierkegaard than Dickinson.) After all, why was the hearse there? Where was the guest of honor? Would there be noshes at the reception following the funeral?

I only managed to get up to "worldly worry always seeks to lead a human being into the small-minded unrest of comparisons, away from the lofty calmness of simple thoughts" when the driver of the hearse appeared (sans casket or corpse) to pull forward just far enough to let us pass.

It was an auspicious overture to our day. After all, our first stop was one of those cores of human kindness. I wrote about it last year (st. francis of iguana).

Forty years ago, Ramon Medina Archundia decided to open a sanctuary for the iguana in the Manzanillo area. Iguana can live in lots of environments. But, in urban areas, they are subject to sudden death syndrome -- from cars, humans, and other animals. They often star in a rather stringy stew.

To give them a fighting chance, Ramon started taking them in as if he were the embodiment of an Emma Lazarus poem. The injured. The hunted. The healthy. All were welcome.

Four decades later, he has a sanctuary that houses up to 600 iguana. That is the number bandied about by the employees. And last year, it was quite credible.

Not so much this year. There were noticeably fewer dinosaur stand-ins this year. But those that were there were still the subject of the program's on-going educational program that the animals are worthy in their own right to be honored. Kant would approve.

The site is also home to several birds, raccoons, wild boars, and other animals. Some visitors to the sanctuary have written on social media hows the sight of the caged animals reduced them to tears -- followed by the usual "someone other than me should do something about it."

I understand the sentiment. The cages are not ideal. But most of the animals were brought there in an injured state. Several of the birds would be unable to fly if released. Like most things in life, there are hard choices that cannot be resolved by Disney reductionism.

But our day was not over. We stopped at La Marina (a department store in Manzanillo) to get some clothes for Omar. Because we thought one of our favorite eateries (Monster Burger) would not open for another two hours, we bought some game credits for Kaitlyn and Omar, and let them loose on the shopping center arcade.

Darrel, Christy, and I enjoyed the show. Both Omar and Kaitlyn are about as competitive as people can be without turning into one of those skating freaks who seem to lose all contact with reality.

I have probably said it several times now, but having my family with me in Mexico changes me -- and often for the better.

Probably not as much as death. But close. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

sentimental irony

“The tone of your writing certainly has changed since you moved down here.”

So Darrel announced on our walk to the Barra de Navidad ATM (a mission that, as it has on so many occasions, resulted in a dry hole). We had been discussing the possibility of having dinner at Lora Loka’s in La Manzanilla. He loves her baked shrimp enchiladas with salsa verde.

In anticipation, he had searched my blog for references to her restaurant and found one of my first posts after moving to Mexico. The families of two other fellow bloggers were in La Manzanilla and wanted to know if we could all get together for an informal blogger conference. I thought it was a great idea (having just had dinner with two other bloggers in Guaymas).

I suggested Lora’s because I knew her from my stay in La Manzanilla in 2007. It was all going perfectly.

Until the Mexican government declared a health crisis due to the swine flu. People were prohibited from gathering in large groups. Theaters were closed. Shopping malls were closed. And, most importantly for our group, restaurants were closed.

I had not yet been exposed to the ingenuity of Mexicans. A blogger who lived in La Manzanilla talked with Lora. The next thing I knew, we were dining as a group -- on the beach.

She had complied with the closure. We were not in the restaurant.

Darrel pointed out that the more cynical Steve of today would have led with that hook. Instead, I did not even mention it. If I recall correctly, I was still concerned Lora might get in trouble, and I did not want to be the vessel of retribution. I now know the likelihood of that happening was about as likely as Donald Trump signing a rational order on free trade.

But, he said, there was more. Back then, I wrote like a wide-eyed, slack-jawed visitor from Chippewa Falls. Everything was new. And amazing. And enthralling. I write about a place that could exist only in the mind of someone new to an area. There was a good reason for that. I was.

And now, I asked. What is my tone now?

”Ironic with an overlay of world-weariness,” he responded.

”Do you mean sophisticated and mature?”

“Nope. I already told you. Ironic with an overlay of world-weariness.”

I am content with that. Even though it does make me sound a lot like Doctor Ottensclag in Grand Hotel. It could be worse.

And I think he is only half correct. There is no doubt that I love an ironic tone. And my writing often sounds as if I am typing through long sighs.

But I still have that sense of adventure that animated my writing style nine years ago. I still wake up every morning not knowing how I am going to get through the day. And I still search for experiences in which I have never dabbled.

Today is one of those days. Mexpatriate welcomed a new cast member this morning: my niece, Kaitlyn. She will be with us for about a week. She will be a good mix to our older set.

Her arrival presented a minor problem. All of my bedrooms are full. To make room for her, I decamped to the hotel just down the street from my house for the duration. 

While I was in bed last night, I started musing about adventure. The next thing I knew, Nancy Walker was singing in my ear from Do Re Mi. One of those older musicals that had a plot, believable characters, and a heavy slathering of philosophical musing.

While I sit by the hotel pool, I will let you chuckle at a woman trying to justify her rather frustrating life with a husband who cannot find satisfaction in the moment.

I may have a love for irony, but I am also a sucker for sentiment.