Wednesday, October 30, 2019

when is halloween like the house of paper?

I do not have a dog in a lot of fights. Sometimes, I do not even have a guppy in the fight.

At this time of year, gringo conversations are filled with lamentations and ash-tossing over the concern that transplanting the northern tradition of Halloween is going to obliterate the Mexican celebration of day/night of the dead. Some Mexicans have the same concern.

From an intellectual standpoint, the dispute is rather odd. Halloween itself, as we know it in America and Canada, has deep roots in Europe. But it was not until the 1920s in the United States that the dressing up in costumes and shaking down the neighbors in a trick-or-treat scam really started.

Of course, it is now one of the most expensive holidays in The States. For some social communities, the day is even bigger than Christmas -- with parties that will put Roman bacchanals to shame.

The history of day/night of the dead in Mexico is just as convoluted. The initial regional traditions were tamed by the Catholic church -- to the extent that certain religious symbols were required in all altars. The Mexican government further morphed the celebration in the 1960s by turning a regional celebration into a national holiday -- even for regions that had never celebrated it.

So. two hybrid cultural events periodically slip into this grudge match.

I usually avoid the topic. Not because I do not find it interesting, but because I think I know how this story ends.

This year I was pushed out of my smug neutrality. A couple of weeks ago, Omar asked me to buy him a Halloween costume. That surprised me. He has always been very active in his school's project to build altars in the local square. When the topic of Halloween has come up, he dismissed the northern invader with a sneer.

He needed the costume for a Halloween party with friends last Saturday. I suspect the party had roots in Hollywood movies.

There are plenty of Halloween costumes in the local stores and in Manzanillo. Unsurprisingly, most of them are based on characters from Hollywood comic book movies or Disney. When Omar showed me a photograph of what he wanted, I assumed that it was just another DC Comics character who had evaded my attention in my youth. (I think most of you know my brother and I were not allowed to read comic books.)

But I was wrong. The costume is based on a cultural icon, but not from the movies. Television is the culprit.

Netflix has purchased a Spanish-produced television services entitled La casa de papel -- the house of paper. It is a far-more alluring title than the humdrum English re-christening -- Money Heist.

I had never heard of the series. As far as I know, I have read nothing about it. And that surprises me because it is good. Very good.

The story line is simple. Eight criminals with various skills are gathered into a gang by the mastermind of the operation. The Professor. The goal is to take hostages and control the Spanish mint where the gang will print one billion worth of euros.

On paper, that looks like a flimsy structure for a heist story. But, the writers of this series have put together such an intricate and convoluted plot founded on character development, they were able to eke out two seasons of Spanish television. Even when the plot begins to sound unbelievable, it moves on quickly to the next point.

The character development is the key. Quite subtly, the viewer is manipulated into seeing the kidnappers as heroes (or, at least, antiheroes) much in the same way that viewers of Breaking Hard found themselves rooting for Walter White to succeed. Any show that can make us take out our Kantian moral imperatives for a little airing is one to watch.

As much as I like the series, I certainly will not recommend it for everyone. Some people will reject the good criminal-bad cop setup. They will simply not be able to get past that hurdle.

Then, there is the sex and language. The gang was required to abide by several simple rules. The first was "no personal relationships." Even before the heist begins, the inter-personal relationships begin with more sex than a fraternity kegger.

I must admit, for the most part, the sex is not gratuitous. The series is Spanish, and relationships drive the action.  But, if naked young (and middle-aged) bodies offend you, you might prefer to watch something else.

For me, the language is the hardest obstacle to staying focused on the plot. Sure, the criminals and the cops are a hard-driven lot. But they sound like a bunch of eight-year-old boys who have just discovered the "f" and "c" words and need to prove to everyone that their intellectual development is handicapped.

I had a Mexican friend watch an episode with me. He reacted the same way as I did. He was unconvinced that anyone would talk like that. Interestingly, he could not understand most of the Castilian Spanish, and relied on the English subtitles.

But, those are quibbles. At least the first two seasons are worth watching.

Oh, and Omar's Halloween costume? It never arrived. And it is still not here today.

For him, Halloween has come and gone. For me, it simply will not happen.

That sentence may disclose my little secret. I do have a dog in the fight.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

live by the card, die by the card

Technology is one of those double-edged swords. Especially, when finances are involved.

At some point in the 1990s, my life became almost cashless in Oregon. First, it was checks. Then everything switched to credit cards. Dining out. Clothing. Gasoline. Even groceries.

All of that changed when I moved to Mexico in 2009. Our little villages by the sea were in a different financial time zone. Credit cards were the rule in Guadalajara and Mexico City just as they were in the other two-thirds of North America. But, here, notes and coins were the medium of exchange.

Because my current income is denominated in American currency, I had to have some way to turn those digital dollars in The States into hard pesos in my pocket in Mexico. Initially, that was easy. Based on some sage blog advice from Felipe in Pátzcuaro, I sat up at account with Banamex in Los Angeles. At the tap of "enter" on my computer, I could transfer up to $9,999 (US) into my account in San Patricio.

Then came the Obama administration with its ill-conceived FATCA. In an attempt to corner offshore billionaires and cash-laden drug lords, The States set up an enforcement regime that resulted almost solely in collateral damage to every-day expatriates.

Banamex decided not to play the let-me-control-you game. It got so ridiculous that the local Banamex cashiers were required to ask foreigners the purpose of the money being withdrawn. My stock answer was always the same. "For guns and drugs." Sergio would smile and write nothing down. It was just a silly game.

That left me looking for alternatives. Felipe went cold turkey -- closing down all of his northern accounts and electronically depositing his checks in his new Mexican accounts.That option was not available to me (for reasons we do not need to discuss). Instead, I decided to rely solely on my northern debit cards as "open sesame" tools for our ATMS.

That left me at the mercy of our local banking system. We have a limited number of ATMs here. Banamex has two in San Patricio and one in Barra de Navidad. There is also one at the army base and another at Intercam. However, when we have system-wide failures (and they do happen far too frequently), the lot shuts down.

I thought I had solved that particular problem by opening an Intercam account earlier this year. In a tip of the hat to The Old Ways, I can write a check on my northern account and deposit it in a peso account with Intercam. If its ATM is not working, I can go to the counter and withdraw as much as my account will afford.

That was the theory. I discovered this week that no plan is foolproof.

On Monday, I drove Omar to Manzanillo to purchase a replacement telephone. His Samsung had died in a freak accident. Because I intended to pay cash, I stopped at Banamex. Neither machine was working. The  army ATM was not working. The Intercam ATM was not working. That was a rather good sign that the system was down. And it was too early in the morning to get cash from the tellers at Banamex or Intercam.

So, we drove to Manzanillo. I tried the ATM in La Comer. It rejected both of my northern debit cards.

I was not worried. I had my credit card. I used it at Sam's Club and then at 
Telcel (for a purchase ten times as much as the Sam's Club tab) -- with no problem.
Then the problems set in. I received an email from my northern bank that my debit cards were frozen because I had withdrawn amounts that exceeded my daily limit.

I talked to the fraud desk. Even though he admitted I had withdrawn nothing from my accounts, the code said I had. He said he would take it up with his supervisor and get back with me.

Then I tried to order a protector for Omar's new telephone on Amazon.Mx. My bank rejected payment. I tried again. Rejected.

Back to the telephone I went. Yesterday a very nice woman told me that was call was sufficient to reactivate my card. But she was wrong. Last night I tried ordering the same protector from -- thinking there was some connection to using the card in Mexico. Rejected.

So, I put on my calm Mexico-inherited voice and called again. Henry, on the fraud desk, put my patience to the test when he started off by saying all this was for my protection, not theirs. That, of course was a lie -- as it turned out.

My card was frozen because the cost of the protector (about $9 (US)) was far too low compared with the average of my purchases from Amazon in the past. In other words, my behavior was aberrant -- for me.

I started discussing the concept of irony with him, but my heart was not in it. I simply thanked him.

Are my debit cards and credit cards working now? I have no idea. I guess I could purchase a Ferrarri from Amazon and see if my "aberrant behavior" trips any alarms.

We are living in an era where we may need to re-learn the virtues of a cash society. The news tells of intentional electricity blackouts in northern California. Without electricity, digital financial transactions are the proverbial tree falling in an unpopulated forest.

Coffee cans of cash in the back yard may be the answer. If only I had a back yard.        

Monday, October 28, 2019

a community without ken

It is tempting to call the blogging community a granfalloon.

You know the word. One of Kurt Vonnegut's cleverly-invented words for a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is meaningless. Princeton class of 1956, for example.

But the group of writers who periodically post their thoughts on blog pages are not a granfalloon. In a real sense, they are a community.

I had no idea blogs existed until I started researching the possibility of immigrating to another country for retirement. Once I settled on Mexico, I discovered about ten writers who regularly provided their readers with practical tips on living in the land of Octavio Paz. Early on, I had set my hopes on living in Pátzcuaro.

On the Road to Pátzcuaro became one of my favorites. The author, Ken Kushnir (or "Tancho" as we readers knew him), owned a house on a sizable piece of property just outside of Pátzcuaro. And, as the title says, it was on the same road as a house that interested me.

Ken grew up in San Francisco. He regaled us with his tales of a far more innocent time in Babylon-on-the-Bay. Trips to record stores. The helpful owner of an electronic supply store who taught him the intricacies of communication. And his eventual leap into television news and the owner of a radio communication business.

It is funny how some tales affect us for the rest of our lives. I recall him telling me that whenever he drove somewhere unfamiliar, he would scan the hills to spot communication towers and he would then use his in-bred skill to locate its sister tower. I now find myself doing the same thing -- without the in-bred skill, of course.

I never did buy that house on the road to Pátzcuaro. But I have driven into the mountains periodically to visit with fellow bloggers in Michoacán. Todd and Shannon. Jennifer. Felipe. Don Cuevas. Even though we tried to set up meetings, Ken and I never were able to make our schedules match.

And, now, we never will. Ken had not posted on his blog for over a year. I knew in writing to him that he had other concerns. We all stop blogging for a lot of reasons.

Then the email came. It was not a surprise. Jennifer informed me he had died earlier in the month.

Blogs are funny things. When I started reading them around 2007, they were new and interesting. But, like everything else in life, they change.

With the exception of a handful, the blogs I read now did not exist ten years ago. Some writers get bored. Some die. Some simply move on. Others switch to other social media. Since I have started posting my essays on Facebook, almost all of the comments are posted there. It has changed the tenor of the comments discussion.

Even with all of those changes, Ken kept regaling us with stories of his youth and tales of running a forested ranch in the hills above Pátzcuaro. I will miss him. We will miss him.

Because we are a community.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

packing it all in

Back in the 1990s, we used to joke that shoppers were prohibited from leaving Costco until they had spent $100. That tariff has probably risen to $200 these days.

I have been a loyal Costco shopper since the 1980s. My Scottish blood is warmed by the thought of buying both the exotic and the mundane in bulk for near-wholesale prices.

Going cold turkey on Costco was one of the costs of moving to Mexico. The nearest Costco to my house in Barra de Navidad is four hours away -- in Puerto Vallarta or Guadalajara. That is just too far to drive for packages of 48-rolls of toilet paper.

Several years ago, I was offered partial relief. A Sam's Club opened in Manzanillo. Now, even though Sam's Club is based on the same concept as Costco, it is not Costco. The products are limited. And it simply does not catch my imagination.

Imagination or not, about every two months, I venture southeast to Manzanillo to stalk the aisles of Sam Walton's discount warehouse. The need is always the same. Cleaning materials.

Owning this glass-walled house is like owning a small hotel. Dora and I go through gallons of cleaning material every month just to keep the place operating. Clorox. Windex. Fabulosa. Pledge.

Occasionally, I buy small bottles from my local mom-no-pop grocery store. But the size of the house empties the small bottles in a week or so. What is then needed is a trip to Sam's Club. Omar and I did that yesterday.

I needed to drive to Manzanillo to buy my son a new telephone. His had met an untimely end due to a freak accident. Since we would be in Manzanillo, I decided to add Sam's Club to the trip.

We bagged the usual game. Toilet paper. Paper towels. Lots of cleaning material. Italian sausage. A truffle-infused Spanish cheese. Feta. Mouthwash. Toothbrushes. Deodorant. In total, a rather boring haul.

Other than the satisfaction of warehouse-shopping, the only thing that reminded me of Costco was the total price of our goods -- $3,188.69 (Mx), about $167 (US). And I used my credit card. Something I almost never do here.

I have no idea why I feel compelled to write this sentence, but I was the only apparent foreigner in the store yesterday. Everyone else was Mexican. That is not an unusual experience.

My pal, Alex, over at Hawaii is a marketing genius. When he brings back produce from Guadalajara for his store, he regularly stops at Costco to purchase items for his shelves. He even takes requests. So, I guess I do get to shop at Costco -- right here in San Patricio.

I am about to try a Costco service that is new to me -- online purchases. I need a new television and Costco offers exactly what I need. Rather than driving to Guadalajara and trying to fit the box into my SUV, I can order online and have it delivered to my house. Just like Amazon.

If I will not go to Costco, it can come to me. 

Saturday, October 26, 2019

why "plastic, paper, or cotton" may be the wrong question

Three bags of plastic bottles were dropped on my corner as if they were triplet foundlings -- almost three weeks ago (bag 'em, danno).

They are still there. The garbage men refuse to take them. It is just another symptom of how China's refusal to buy western garbage is affecting our lives here.

Last night I was preparing for our Sunday Bible discussion. We have been studying Jesus's parables this summer.

Sunday's reading is from Matthew 11:16-19 and Luke 7:31-35. It is the same parable.

Jesus uses a children's street song about conundrums to illustrate how people are fickle about their faith. The people criticized John the Baptist for having a demon because he fasted and did not drink alcohol. They then criticized Jesus for "eating freely and drinking wine."

Anne Lamott once wrote: "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." It is a universal human trait.

We do it with religion. We do it with the food we eat. We do it with politics. We discover The One True Way, and we then attempt to impose our newly-minted god on those around us.

How we try to minimize our impact on the environment is a perfect example.

Plastic pollution is a real problem. I have friends who are True Believers in the Church of No Plastic, Please. (Those in the church who drop the comma are considered orthodox. Those who drop the "Please" are ultra-orthodox.) If anything plastic approaches them, they take a moral stance as if Jack the Ripper had just offered them a lift.

That is fine. We need to do what we can to break the cycle of plastic pollution. But it helps now and then to put things into perspective.

Yesterday I received a Youtube link to a BBC presentation on the history of plastic bags. Like almost everything from the BBC, it is well-written and well-presented without the usual hand-me-that-Bic-I-just-washed-my-hair-in-gasoline hysteria.

I still remember when grocery stores that offered plastic bags were considered to be progressive because they were saving trees from the ignominious fate of being turned into grocery bags. It was a helpful reminder that eco-fads sometimes get it wrong.

Rather than taking the punch out of the report, I will let you watch it for yourself. The presenter has some very practical tips of how to respond when we are offered the choice of bags made of plastic, paper, or cotton. She then offers a very English solution.

Friday, October 25, 2019

the hills are alive

For Katherine Hepburn, in The Lake,* calla lilies had oracular powers.

In these parts, it is the Mexican Rosewood. Whenever the surrounding hills look as if piles of snow have accumulated in our tropical greenery, it is an omen of two events: the migration south of northern visitors and day/night of the dead.

Of course, it is not snow --as welcome as that occurrence would be. They are the white flowers of the Mexican rosewood. Or barcino as it is known locally.

The barcinos start blooming in October, just as the Canadian feet start hitting the Manzanillo tarmac. Those sandal-clad feet constitute the first ranks of the long-term northern visitors. People who will stay for seven or six months, and who are happy to trade the snow of the barcinos for the white stuff clogging their northern homes.

They will be followed by waves of visitors with shorter stays in mind, until the flow peaks in critical mass in January and February. It will then start ebbing.

Even with only the early arrivals, it is possible to discern a shift in the social cycles. Grocery shelves are being re-stocked. Seasonal restaurants are opening. Hotel staff are practicing their English.

During half of the year, this area is a Mexican tourist destination with a feel of its own. In the winter, the place is simply -- different. Only Christmas and semana santa bring back the Mexican aura in spades.

The second event is day/night of the dead. To a certain extent, the Mexican Department of Education's declaration in the 1960s to turn a regional rite into a national cultural event did not fully take root in our area -- or other areas of Mexico.

Some areas of the country had a long tradition of celebrating an annual conversation with dead relatives. (Up north, we call that Thanksgiving dinner.) Oaxaca and Pátzcuaro, for instance (choosing my mask).

The tradition was certainly not that strong in this area. There is some activity in local cemeteries, but most altars are built in the privacy of homes.

A couple of years ago, Hank told us that when marigolds, the traditional flower in the Mexican highlands for decorating graves, were difficult to buy here, people would pick the barcino blossoms for graves. The substitution made sense. Not only was it practical (because the barcino are in bloom this time of year), but it was better-suited to the purpose of the flowers -- to allow the departed soul to find its way through a familiar scent. What could have been more familiar than a local bloom? Otherwise, grandpa may have ended up sniffing marigolds in Tzintzuntzan.

Miss Hepburn, we can dispense with your calla lilies and stick with our barcinos. After all, they are serving us well this time of year in announcing the arrival of the quick and the dead, as the Apostles' Creed would have it.

Bienvenidos to you both.  

* -- That was the play where Dorothy Parker famously characterized Hepburn's acting as "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."

Thursday, October 24, 2019

time is running out

It is morning in Mexico.

The daily 8 o'clock symphony is in full swing. The call and response of fighting cocks. The rumble of buses and whine of motorcycles taking people to their jobs. The owl-like voice of the turtledove.

This Sunday, all of that will change. The cocks, the buses, the motorcycles, the birds -- they will all carry on as usual. But the curtain call will be at 7 AM.

It is time for us to fall  back to standard time. Nature will not give a turtledove hoot. It keeps its own counsel on time. While we humans, with our penchant for quantification, try to eke out more daylight from our day, nature just keeps chugging along.

And because no one has worked out an international standard on how to apply the rules of daylight saving time, there are inevitable glitches during the clock shift. Canada and The States switch three weeks earlier in the spring and one week later in the fall than does Mexico. That leaves a four-week gap when air flights are forced to alter their apparent departure and arrival times.

Of course, there are portions of all three countries that do not play the daylight saving game. So, if you are flying from Saskatoon to Cancun or from Tucson to Hermosillo, you do not have to worry about any of this because they do not play this chronological three-card monte game.

To avoid all this switching back and forth, some politicians have proposed switching to daylight saving time for the entire year. (If that sounds as if it indulges in a bit of Carrollian logic when the obvious answer would be to stay on "standard" time, I am with you.) Eleven countries -- among them such international standard-setters as Namibia, Belarus, and Uzbekistan -- have opted for eternal daylight saving time. Russia, the United Kingdom, and Ireland tried it, but didn't like it.

I am rather agnostic on the topic. As a writer, I like all the hub-bub. What would I write about this time of year if the switching went away?

Living in Mexico may warp my view. We have plenty of daylight all year, and I can choose when I want to use it on my own without the assistance of a clock. If I had to make a choice, I would most likely opt for leaving standard time in place for the full year. I am the type of guy who has worn the same style of shoes for thirty years.

In the end, it will not make much difference to me. If those fighting cocks can live by their own time and ignore the clock, so can I.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

when does it stop being paradise?

My friend Al lives just outside of San Miguel de Allende.

I originally met him through his blog, Life at Rancho Santa Clara. A retired newspaperman, he wields a word-thrifty pen in his writings of ranch life in the highlands of Mexico. Whenever I am in San Miguel, I arrange at least one dinner with him and Stew.

Most expatriates here periodically ponder whether Mexico is their final destination. Part of that is due to the fact that they are not immigrants. As expatriates, they still retain emotional ties to the Old Country,* often referring to it as "home."

Last Monday, Al published one of his best essays I have read on that topic (When is it time to leave San Miguel?). Al and Stew have had their shares of adventures on their ranch -- including a land dispute that has been every bit as dramatic as There will be Blood. Even though, No Country for Old Men may be more appropriate.

Al has been telegraphing his concerns for about a year. I knew the details of the land dispute, and its monumental frustrations, but it seemed as if the concerns went deeper. They do.

In Monday's post, he pulled no punches. One of Al's personal virtues is his jeweler's eye for the truth.

He listed the factors that are driving him to consider leaving Mexico. Availability of  health care. Crowds and traffic. Stress. Personal safety. Cartel activity. Murders.

Nothing on that list would surprise anyone who lives in Mexico. They are the same concerns that people here (visitors and residents) on the coast discuss -- or ignore. We have an additional problem: inadequate infrastructure to support the current population, let alone the building boom that is now underway in our villages.

Now and then, I hear a visitor refer to this stretch of the Pacific as "paradise." It isn't.

Our villages are faced with exactly the same problems Al puts on his list. It does not make the place a bad place to live. The fact that I have chosen Barra de Navidad as my final home is evidence that I do not think of the place as being sucked down the drain. But, to call the place "paradise" minimizes the daily struggles that my neighbors face.

Some of you know Hank through his comments here. He is an American who has lived in the Barra area for three decades. He married a Mexican woman and raised his children here. He has now moved away. One reason for that move was that he does not like how Barra has changed. In particular, he does not like how foreigners have completely changed the tone of an area he once loved.

I do not know if Hank ever described Barra as "paradise." I know he would not describe it that way now. For better or worse, Barra is certainly not what it was thirty years ago. I doubt any place on earth is.

Al has decided to stay in San Miguel. His reasoning is simple. He and Stew have built a nice home for themselves on their ranch. They lead a good life there. Because he is a realist, he has weighed out what Mexico has added to his life against the vague miasma of doom. For him, hope has prevailed.

But, let's hear that from Al.

Yet, even though I speak Spanish, and we both have invested a lot money and energy in Mexico, Mexico remains a beautiful but foreign land to us. We don't cry "Viva Mexico!" at sunrise every day, or profess to know the intricacies of this country's culture or, far less, its politics. Mexico remains a flawed beauty where we are lucky to live.
"Mexico remains a flawed beauty where we are lucky to live." I like that.

I like it because it sums up my own thoughts on why I have decided to put down my permanent roots here and to call it home.

And that is a far better appellation than "paradise."

* -- The term is Jennifer Rose's, and I have unabashedly stolen it for my own selfish purposes. It is a gem. Why bother stealing dross?

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

is that a corn or flour tortilla

No. I have not re-christened these pages as Mexcookriate.

The editorial policy here is to avoid writing two consecutive essays on the same general topic. But not today. Yesterday I told you what had become of Gary's kumquats (stirring my kumquats). Today I will tell you a tale of Omar's tortilla.

I do not recall when I first tasted tortilla española, one of Spain's classic dishes. I suspect it was at a bay-side restaurant in Sausalito in 1973. What I do remember is that the egg-onion-potato dish quickly became one of my favorites.

The classic version is good. But its strength is in its versatility. I have seen and tasted some interesting combinations at restaurants around the world. Tortilla española is Spain's hash.

Alex at Hawaii purchased several Costco hams for Canadian Thanksgiving. Papa Gallo's had purchased some for its celebratory dinner. I was impressed enough with the taste, I bought one for myself.

I did not have tortilla española in mind when I purchased the ham. But when Omar saw it, he immediately saw the possibility of a good slice of potato-egg pie. All I needed was the potatoes and a bit of imagination. There were certainly enough ingredients in the refrigerator and the pantry to come up with something creative.

Potatoes, like all root vegetables, are a bit problematic for cooks in these parts. They are all subject to root weevils or other boring creatures. Potatoes have the additional weakness of trying to grow in soil that is replete with the same blight that sent the bearer of Irish surnames to The States.

Because of that, I usually buy at least a third more potatoes than I think I will need. Cutting around brown spots inevitably results in a good deal of waste.

This dish is best with wide, thin-sliced potatoes. They form the foundation for the other ingredients --similar to the crust in a quiche. At least, that is the way I like them.

The potatoes in the market here are starch-intensive. To cut the surface starch, I soak the slices in salted water, and then dry them thoroughly. Damp foods never brown properly.

The classic recipe cooks potato and onion together, and the egg mixture is added later. My process is a bit different.

I cook the potatoes in butter and olive oil until they are seconds away from browning. I then set them aside to cook what will be the "pie" filling.

Yesterday, I rummaged around until I found what seemed like a complementary combination of vegetables for the filling. Onion, of course. Ginger. Tomato. Serrano chili. Garlic. And a couple of oyster mushrooms I had purchased to make soup. Plus the ham.

I sautéed the combination until it was just starting to get tender, and set it aside while I arranged the potatoes in the bottom of a large pan to form a crust. I then poured the vegetable mixture over that.

About nine years ago, I was in Barcelona waiting to board a ship for a cruise to France, Italy, Malta, Tunisia, Greece, and Croatia. It seemed as if half of the tourists in the world were on the Ramblas that day. There was more squeezing through crowds than rambling.

In all of that mayhem, I ran into an acquaintance from university. Andy and I had not seen one another for almost forty years. Even though time had had its way with both of us, we recognized one another -- after that momentary I-should-know-him-but-from-where pause.

We both had some time, so we decided to stop at a tapas bar and catch up on our lives. Andy took a look at the tortilla menu and said: "Arugula. That sounds interesting for a tortilla." We both ordered a slice by its menu number.

What arrived at our table did not contain a hint of green. There were potatoes and onion and egg, as expected, but no visible vegetables. The taste was stunningly good. Whatever was in the tortilla, it had a taste reminiscent of a combination of salmon and squid.

The waiter spoke perfect English, as do most waiters in Barcelona. We asked him what was in the tortilla. "Baby eel," he said, "just as you ordered. Angula"

My misadventure with Andy popped up from my memory bank while I was looking through the refrigerator. By coincidence (or maybe it was the memory trigger), I had purchased a bag of arugula when I was at Hawaii the day before. I decided to add a thick layer over the top of the vegetable mixture.

There were extra potatoes. So, I created a partial crust on top of the arugula.

What holds the whole concoction together is the egg mixture. Yesterday, it was a dozen eggs whisked together with a generous measure of tarragon. Herbs and eggs are a natural combination. However, for me, other than marjoram, there is no better herb to add to eggs than tarragon. I poured the egg mixture over the contents of my skillet.

A classic tortilla is cooked in a skillet until done on the bottom. It is then flipped to cook the top. That method would not work with what I had constructed. It was too large and the ingredients too loose to withstand flipping.

Instead, I covered the pan with a lid to let the heat baste the top layer. The trick with this cooking method is to watch how the egg on top cooks to avoid burning or overcooking the potato crust.

Every tortilla I cook is different from any of the others I have cooked. Variety is what attracts me to the dish.

And the outcome? Omar thought it was one of my best tortilla efforts. (Not all of them have been successful for his tongue.) He said he really liked the spinach in it. He had never heard of "arugula."

At least, it was not angula. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

stirring my kumquats

Priscilla was kind to us (priscilla of the ocean).

The tropical storm that was spawned offshore of Manzanillo gave us a respite. At least, here on the Costalegre.

The National Hurricane Center had predicted Priscilla would make land east of Manzanillo. And it did that. But it was not as wide as had been predicted.

As a result, we were spared its wind and rain. That is just as well. The last couple of days of soft rain have saturated our soil. And the storm did bring rain to people living east of us. The Marabasco River at Cihuatlán, just ten miles to our east, was once again at flood stage.

For us, that was good news. But there were undoubtedly plenty of people in the state of Colima who were not as dry as we were yesterday.

And that brings me to the topic I wanted to write about yesterday. Cooking with kumquats.

Last week, my friend Gary gave me a bag of kumquats (kumquat may). I anticipate this time of year for Gary's harvest. I have not found kumquats in any store in this area.

They are a versatile fruit. As a tangy fresh snack or as the foundation for any dish that reacts well to the addition of citrus.

In the past, Gary's kumquats have primarily graced traditional chicken stir-fry. But I wanted to do something different. Something I have never cooked before.

I started with a trip to my butcher. I needed about a kilo of meat. We discussed what I was trying to do. I had a notion that I wanted to combine the tartness of the kumquats with Moroccan spices. Lamb would have been a perfect choice. But it is simply not available in the village.

Pork is. And I love Mexican pork. It tastes like pork once did north of the border. Lomo (loin strip) would be an obvious choice. I could roast it. But he only had a short piece. I bought it and a large piece of leg. Because the pieces have different consistencies, roasting was not a good option. I had another idea.

I had brought home a bag full of fresh vegetables to use in another dish. I decided to use them instead with the pork.

The vegetables and the two pieces of meat dictated my choice of cooking medium. The pork would cook at the same rate if sliced thin enough and then cooked at high heat. My wok was about to be pressed into service.

Stir-frying would also give me an opportunity to be creative with the marinade. Most Moroccan meat is cooked with fruit. The kumquats would serve that purpose. Omar is not fond of sweet fruit in his food. So, the classic apricots, dates, and prunes would not be included.

Food from the Maghreb rely on a balance of spices to create a distinctive northwest Africa taste. Coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger. I combined them with some fresh bone broth, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and just a dash of sake, to feed my fusion tendencies.

When I tasted it, it was good, but the umami needed to be rounded out. Because turmeric is such a strong flavor, I decided to use that as my target. Even though I had several chilies in my vegetable combination, the marinade needed a bit more zing. The obvious choice was wasabi combined with honey. That was exactly what the marinade needed.

I let the pork marinade while I prepared the vegetables. In the past, I have seeded my kumquats. I did not do that this time. Instead, I cut them into rounds. The larger seeds fell out naturally. The smaller seeds would go unnoticed (and they did).

Once the preparation was done, the cooking process was relatively quick. That is the nature of stir-fry. I cooked the pork first until it was just browned and removed it from the wok. The vegetables were then added based on their density. Carrots then onions then chilies, until the vegetables were done.

The last step is always the trickiest with pork. The line between tender and tough is a matter of seconds. It is even trickier to avoid overheating the pork when adding the marinade (now thickened with xanthan gum) to create the sauce for the dish. As I learned from Linda Chan decades ago (stirring the pot), excellent stir-fry is an art form.

The result was superb. I can say that because when Omar tried it he declared it to be perhaps the best dish I had cooked during his two years here. Having a young Mexican extol the virtues of a Moroccan-Japanese-Mexican fusion stir-fry is testimony enough for me.

I now need to talk Gary out of some more kumquats. I have this idea for a Ukrainian-Indian-Colombian chicken dish. That is, after I make the tortilla I have been promising Omar. The potatoes, ham, onion, and eggs are just waiting to meet some new companions.

Maybe kumquats.


Sunday, October 20, 2019

priscilla of the ocean

I had a cooking tale to relate this morning. But Tlaloc had different plans.

A weather formation has been sitting off of our coast for the past week. It appeared it was going to be as unorganized as a Sunday School picnic. Days of rain, but nothing more.

Last night it changed. It jumped from a disturbance to a tropical storm. Priscilla by name.

Because the storm is so close, we will see its results today. Probably early this afternoon. The winds are foretasted in the 40 MPH range, and there will undoubtedly be rain.

These late season storms are not uncommon here. Four years ago, hurricane Patricia rumbled over us during the last week of October.

For now, I am off to church. When I come home, I will sit inside and watch the storm while eating the dish I was going to tell you about.

There is always the possibility we will be without power for a brief period. If so, we will talk next when we can.

Note -- It appears the storm is giving us a miss. It has decreased to a depression and is passing to the east of us.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

there be giants

Some children see shapes in clouds.
Some like hiding in laundry hampers and pretending it is a robot named Nevets.

Some are both. Like me.

One of the downsides of an overactive imagination is once it it starts rolling, there is no stopping it. Take take rock pictured above.

It is part of a series of rocks that create a boating hazard at the mouth of our bay. That is how a sailor sees them. Landlubbers tend to seem more fantastical shapes.

A couple of years ago, my friend Joyce and I were sitting at Papa Gallo's looking out at the ocean. I mentioned that The Rhinoceros always fascinated me with its head and horn. She looked at me as if the horn I had just admired was growing out of my forehead.

"Rhinoceros? It is a giant," she corrected.

And that is the power of suggestion. Until then, I had never seen a giant on the verge of the bay. The rock has always been The Rhinoceros. Maybe I was in a Salvador Dali stage when I first saw it.

But it no longer matters. All I can see is a giant -- as clear as day. We have all had that same experience when looking at the classic optical illusion that can be either a beautiful young woman or my much-older cousin Sam in drag. Once you concentrate on one, the other disappears.

But a giant it is. A sleeping giant. Maybe the one that Admiral Yamamoto apocryphally worried about.

There it is. His head. His hair. His chest. His legs. His knees. His feet. And I will let you take it from there.

As for me, I am momentarily stuffing my imagination into that long-ago-abandoned laundry hamper. Nevets needs to run some calculations.

Friday, October 18, 2019

slugging it out

Most things here in the tropics come in bonanza sizes.

The cute philodendron on your grandmother's hall table in Dubuque has cousins here in Mexico whose leaves could serve as Lane Bryant caftans. And, of course, there are the jumbo-sized insects auditioning for the next re-make of THEM!

But not everything is big. When guests from out east would visit me in Oregon, I would inevitably take them for a hike in one of our mountain forests. All would be well until we would encounter our first banana slug -- aptly named both for size and color. A high portion of my visitors would retreat to the cozy arms of Starbucks for fear they might encounter some other ghastly wild creature.

Banana slugs were only one variety of slug that punctuated my life in the Pacific Northwest -- or Northwet as a wag friend of mine insists on calling the area. None of them are what I would call petite.

I was not aware that slugs existed in Mexico until I moved into the house with no name. Now and then, I would see something that looked as if I might have been processed through the alimentary canal of a small mammal. Perhaps, an opossum.

But I was wrong. Closer examination revealed it was a rather non-descript slug. It had all of the same operating parts of its brethern shell-less mollusks. But it was tiny compared to the slugs I have known. Maybe the slugs here are small due to our tropical heat -- and the natural tendency of slugs toward desiccation.

Until this week, I had seen only three or four in the house in the past five years. That changed this week with our rains. I counted eleven this morning. Nine were dead. Two were headed in that direction.

Maybe it was mating season. Even though slugs are hermaphroditic, they reproduce sexually. Mendel would be proud that they have chosen to share genes rather than merely cloning themselves.

Whatever the reason, they have come on like a plague, and I assume they will recede in the same way.

And the moral of this essay? I really do not have one.

Other than to share one of those nature moments that brightens my life in Mexico.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

bag 'em, danno

Yesterday the thought of several days of impending rain impelled me to do yard work I had been putting off for two weeks.

My patio is not a garden. I probably have fewer plants there than most people have in their front yards. Four planters with vines and flowers -- and two palm trees. It looks low-maintenance. It isn't.

With the summer rain and heat, everything grows faster than understudies for Audrey II. The palm trees are the worst offenders with their semi-monthly flower stems and the frequent death of fronds. Like most things in life, if they are left untended, the task multiplies.

I just chuckled at that sentence. While I was picking up my cuttings in the heat yesterday, I realized I was verging on crossing that border that all good gardeners avoid. I started believing I was in control of the plants.

It is true that we have absolute control of our life choices as moral agents, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe we control much else. Good gardeners learn that quickly. They tend their gardens; they do not control them. And they learn from them.

Last year I was talking with my blogger pal Al in San Miguel de Allende. His church group was discussing the travails brought on by age and death. My experience is that most gardeners have a rather healthy attitude about both age and death. They daily deal with the cycles of life and know that even the most beautiful of flowers has a compost destiny -- and to nurture the next generation of the garden.

My toil under the sun resulted in two garbage bags of palm flowers and fronds along with assorted vines and leaves. When the bags were full, I toted them to the street corner where the neighbors leave their garbage for our multiple pickups during the week.

My bags were not alone. Last week, someone dropped off three large bags of plastic bottles. I know not of their provenance. I doubt anyone in the neighborhood had collected that many bottles. Maybe they did, but, with the closure of our local recycling center, there was no place to leave them -- other than on the street corner (taking the cycling out of recycle).

The garbage men have been by at least three times since the plastic bottle bags appeared. They will not take them. Or they have not.

Today would have been a great day for doing my landscaping. The rain is soft enough that it would not hinder my work. And the temperature is verging on chilly.

If I still lived in Oregon, I would go for a bicycle ride. But the conditions of our streets here right now are not conducive to cycling.

Instead, I will bag up the bottles I have been accumulating for the past three weeks and take them to a recycling spot in Melaque. On the way, I will buy a fresh slab of pork leg to put my kumquats to good use (kumquat may).

It will be a good afternoon to watch a movie (or to read The Economist) while digging into a bowl of Moroccan-inspired pork kumquat rice.

While remembering that Voltaire was correct (at least, in this instance) that we must cultivate our own garden.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

a lena horne day

OK. I know my cultural references are about as arcane as Joe Biden's.

Probably because I am about his age. I doubt I would have given a thought to a fellow geezer mentioning the therapeutic value of vinyl records. Well, maybe the therapeutic part would have struck me as just a bit too touchy-feely. (And, no, I am not going to take advantage of that line, either.)

For those of you under the age of 70, Lena Horne was a singer with the sultriest of voices who made a name for herself with the Arlen-Koehler classic "Stormy Weather."

I could have saved you all the extrapolation trouble by simply naming the essay "here we go again."

Most of our summer had been relatively dry until September. In an effort to remind us that hubris is a dish best served wet, Tlaloc sent us a minor hurricane and a tropical depression that flooded the local areas that seem to flood in any heavy rain.

We may have another on the way. At least, we will have rain on the way.

For the past week, we have watched a disturbance form off the Pacific of Guatemala. Storms take some time to develop. The odds that it would develop into at least a tropical depression were 90% yesterday. Then, it started moving north with the name Seventeen.

This morning it crossed onto land in southern Mexico. Having lost its heat source in the Pacific, its cyclone potential plummeted to 40%.

But it is bringing wind and rain. Lots of rain.

It appears the storm will spend itself amongst the Mexican deep southern states. But we are certainly not out of the allegorical woods.

All of that activity down south has impacted other weather currents. According to the weather reports, we will be receiving several days of rain as an indirect consequence of Seventeen. Starting this evening and continuing through Friday or Sunday. (On Monday, the house painting begins. I suspect there may be some rain holds before it is done.)

Without Seventeen to deliver the rain here, ours will probably be the usual summer rain. Temporarily flooded streets. Overflowing sewers. And a welcome reduction in temperature. We can hope it will not be worse.

I noticed yesterday that the hills surrounding Melaque are beginning to show that summer is fading. But that is for another essay. Maybe while I am housebound in the rain.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

margaret mead, call your office

Our little expatriate community could use the services of an anthropologist.

Margaret Mead. Or Claude Lévi-Strauss. If they were not so nconveniently dead.

Calling our foreign community "expatriate" skews the category. We usually think of expatriates as being people who live full-time outside of their home country (with the implication they will one day leave). The type of artists who sat around Paris tables smoking bad cigarettes and worse poetry.

Immigrants are expatriates who live full-time outside of their country and plan to stay where they are. We have both categories here. Despite the title of this blog, I am an immigrant. Now that I am rooted, I have no plans to live anywhere else. Visit? Yes. Live?  No.

The categories then get a little trickier. The vast majority of the foreign community shows up here in the winter. Some stay a few days. Most stay for five or six months.

Words like "tourists" and "visitors" have a pejorative patina in these parts. Calling sometime a "visitor" can easily lead to an invitation to step outside to settle the matter. Let's just call that category "non-expatriates." I realize it is a rather ugly word, similar to the "non-Hispanic white" so beloved of the American census folks. But this discussion requires a bit of peace-making.

Even though the foreign community is made up of people from Asia, Europe, and Britain (my Brexit stance may be showing), most of us are either from Canada or The States. I did a quick survey of Mexican businessmen who service foreigners. Their best guess is the Canadian-American split in the winter is about 80-20. That feels about right to me.

Immigrants around the world pack up their culture with them when they move to another country. Language. Food. Holidays. What they knew in the old country, they try to replicate in their new home. But after a generation or two, the old dies out as children and grandchildren assimilate into the culture around them. One of my favorites, the Hanukkah bush, is but an example.

I thought of that last night when I joined a group of Canadian friends to celebrate their Thanksgiving at Papa Gallo's. With the exception of  the tropical heat and humidity (and the obvious background of the Mexican Pacific), it would have been easy to imagine the group had assembled in Edmonton.

There were Canadian flags galore. Red and white table decorations. Plates filled with turkey, dressing, Brussels sprouts, sweet potato, mashed potato, and cranberry relish. We could have been first-generation Italians celebrating Ferragosto in East Harlem.

No turkey for me, please.
And it is at this point we could use the services of Margaret or Claude.

Because most of our foreign community will not be here long enough to create new generations, the social rites of the old country will remain carved in granite. Canada Day. The Fourth of July. Remembrance Day. Two Thanksgivings. Celebrations that have no parallels in Mexican culture. Because those holidays get repeated, they endure amongst us as appropriate customs. Even though they seem incredibly out of place in Mexico.

Anthropologists talk about the tension between assimilation and diversity, but they will also readily admit they categories are not contradictory. Only politicians seem to be comfortable treating them as immutable categories.

Immigrants eventually assimilate into their new culture while retaining some of their own traditions that are adopted by their new culture. Mexico is a perfect example of a culture that retains its own traditions while readily sponging up aspects of other cultures. The mixture of Night of the Dead and Halloween was probably inevitable.

The unease I feel at northern functions is exactly the same feeling I get when I hear foreigners complaining about barking dogs, crowing fighting cocks, cohetes, and garbage. (I have to raise my hand to that last one.) It is not the complaints that annoy. It is the oft-stated rational: "This would not happen at home." That desire to make everything like home (but with heat and the ocean) is what riles many of our Mexican neighbors. And they are right to feel that way.

If we were to be honest with ourselves, there is a word for that phenomenon. Colonialism.

It is too bad the term carries so much political baggage because it is an almost-perfect descriptor of how many of us approach our lives in Mexico. Foreign enclaves created to cater to northerners for six months out of the year -- where familiar food is served, there is no need to learn Spanish, and northern holidays can be celebrated as if they had sprung from local soil.

Do not get me wrong. That is not necessarily a criticism. If it were I would be a hypocrite because I indulge in the fruits of colonialism as much as the next northerner. And I celebrate some of those holidays knowing the manner in which we celebrate them may not only be in violation of Mexican law, but is probably offensive to Mexicans over-hearing the practice of our public rites.

But the Mexicans are not alone at taking offense at outside cultures. I hear Canadians complaining about Sikhs in their country. Or Americans eating tacos and whinging about Mexican flags at political protests.

We cannot live our lives by constantly modifying everything we do for fear of being criticized. (It only empowers bullies like the political correctness crowd. Take a look at Katherine Timpf's "Defiant Dave Chappelle" in the current edition of National Review.)

But we can be cognizant of the effect our lives have on our neighbors. Sometimes, speaking softly and carrying a branch is a far more alluring way to live our lives.

Margaret might put it: a little less Kipling, and a bit more Gandhi.

Monday, October 14, 2019

kumquat may

Philip Yancey and I share common backgrounds.

Sharing may be too bold. But, at least, they rhyme.

When he was young, growing up in rural Georgia, his family attended a pentecostal church -- a denomination noted for its outward signs of righteousness. To show their devotion to God, his family would read nothing in the newspaper on Sunday except the sports page. They thought they were true sabbath-obeyers -- until they discovered their neighbors did not read anything in the newspaper on Sunday. Their righteousness was replaced with a sense of relative sinfulness.

You do not need to be pentecostal to feel the sting of that story. We all have a tendency to get on our moral high horses about almost every human endeavor. Religion. Politics. Employment. Even where we buy our food.

My essay on the progress of our new Bodega Aurrerá in Jaluco (bodega aurrerá on the horizon) caused an avalanche of comments on the Facebook version of Mexpatriate, ranging from "only buy local" to "mind your own business." Neither of those bumper sticker positions had anything to do with the theme of the essay. But that is often the case with comments. And, as is always the case, when people indulge in rhetorical reductionism, misunderstandings occur as often as at a family picnic.

I ran into one of the "only buy local" cohort on my walk in Melaque. I told her I was a little confused by the phrase. How local must something be before she will buy it? Her answer was that it had to be made or grown in the community.

The restriction was a bit more restrictive than I had imagined. When I asked her if she ever buys anything made somewhere other than Melaque, she chuckled and confessed that most of what she buys was not made locally, but she thinks the idea is a good one. I could feel Philip Yancey smiling somewhere.

I suspect she would approve of my recent acquisition pictured above. Even though kumquats are not a native Mexican fruit (they hail from south Asia), they are grown here for people with a taste for exotica. These came from the garden of my American-Canadian friend Gary.

I guess that is about "buying local" as one can get. Other than the fact the kumquats are a gift. And a very special one.

My taste in fruit is limited. If it is sweet, I will pass it by. If it is tart, it will show up in my cooking. And these kumquats will.

Kumquats combine well with a lot of meats and vegetables. Pork, of course. Kumquats are a great substitute for sour oranges. And with chicken and several serranos and habaneros, they form the perfect foundation for a vegetable stir fry. But my favorite use is to simply pop them in my mouth.

One day we will have a serious discussion here about "buying local" and the economic consequences (positive and negative -- there are both) on the local economy. But today is a day to talk about local treats like kumquats -- and what we are going to have for dinner.

Not tonight, though. Tonight is Canadian Thanksgiving, and I will be joining my further-north expatriates in one of my least favorite meals -- turkey. (In truth, I may just skip eating; instead, I will enjoy the conversation.)

And tomorrow we just may discuss the issues of assimilation, separation, and colonialism that surrounds the celebration of these non-Mexican customs. That should be fun.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

bodega aurrerá on the horizon

Any good journalist will tell his readers the who, what, where, and when of a story.

This story will not do that. The best I can do is to share some photographs and observations -- like a distant grandfather thumbing through his wallet.

Just over a year ago, rumors began that Bodega Aurrerá (a Mexican discount store) was building an outlet on the highway in Jaluco where a hill once stood (where there never was a hill). It started as speculation by a group of old men at breakfast. But, within a month, the news was verified by a local figure whose information is usually true, if not factual.

I drive or walk by the building site almost every day when I am in town. Like any new construction, it plods along on a steady pace until you realize: "Wow! They are almost done." Then you realize it is one of those false thrills.

It is true that the outer shell of the building is almost finished. It is easy now to imagine what the place will look like.

The front will not face the highway. And it will have a parking lot just as adequate as the Bodega Aurrerá in Cihuatlán -- currently the closest store in the chain. Which is another way of saying, it will be too tight.

It may be a matter of perspective, but the facility looks tiny to me. That may be caused by the absence of context provided by surrounding buildings. But, if it is smaller than the usual store, so is its market in our area.

That would be consistent with the chain's philosophy. The first store opened in Mexico City in 1958. Since then, its corporate group has diversified into other areas -- such as restaurants. With NAFTA on the horizon in 1991, Aurrerá created a joint venture with Walmart that led to Walmart buying a majority holding in the group in 1997.

Even though Walmart has added some of its marketing expertise to Aurrerá, the stores have retained their orientation to marketing to the Mexican middle class. There are now almost 400 Bodega Aurrerá stores in the country.

And this will be one.

Like most new construction around here, there is no sign advertising what the building will be and when it will be open. I asked two of the workers if they knew when the building would be completed. They did not know.

One of them must have been asked that question before because he asked if I was looking forward to the McDonald's that would be inside. It was a good joke. For some reason, the suggestion of a McDonald's seems to drive northerners into armed camps of animosity.

I suspect this store will have a similar effect. When its construction was announced last year on Facebook, the well-rehearsed arguments involving anything Walmart were tumbriled out and slipped under Doctor Guillotin's blade.

Most of the Mexicans I have talked with either don't care about the arrival of Bodega Aurrerá or they are looking forward to it. Admittedly, that is a very small sampling. We will see how it works out. People will either shop there -- or they won't.

Before that, though, the building needs to be completed.

I will keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

dengue as jaws

You would think that Jalisco has had an outbreak of ebola.

The internet is alive with all kinds of chatter about the "dengue epidemic" that has hit our home state of Jalisco.

The governor, Enrique Alfaro Ramírez, the unfortunate author of the "dengue epidemic label, has been accusing his political opposition of telling lies and the press of printing fake news. The opposition claims the governor has failed to appropriately implement an anti-vector spraying program, and people are dying as a direct result.

But you probably could have guessed that scenario already. Just substitute the names for personalities in your home country, and you have heard it all before.

One unfortunate spin-off of the political dispute is that the facts are quickly getting muddied. There are four strains of dengue fever. Mexico has all four. But the mildest forms are what we usually hear about in our area.

What everyone agrees on is that the numbers of serious cases of dengue have increased. People have died of the most severe strain. But there is confusion as to how many. 2. 3. 13. All have been bandied about by the press and government agencies.

There is no dispute that this year is a record year for reported cases of dengue in Jalisco -- the vast majority in or around Guadalajara. By some reports, the number of reported cases is higher than the last three years combined.

It is time for a little less hysteria and a bit more rationality. Dengue is a problem. But it is not as if the house is burning down. There are steps people can take to avoid being infected.

There is only one way to catch dengue -- to be bitten by an Aedes aegypti mosquito that has bitten another human who carries the dengue virus in his bloodstream. No bite. No infection.

Knowing your enemy is important. The Aedes aegypti has some very distinct habits. Unlike many mosquitoes, it is active all day, but primarily in the morning and evening. The female has developed an interesting feeding habit. Her primary human target is the human ankle. She is also easy to identify -- larger than marsh mosquitoes with white markings on their knees.

Like all mosquitoes, they breed in still water. Emptying pots of water is a wise choice. But they often breed in pools that form where palm fronds join their stems. Spraying is often the only option.

The Aedes aegypti has a very limited range. She will spend her life within about 400 meters of her birthplace. Unfortunately, there are enough pools of standing water here in the summer, that our villages are all within range of the mosquito.
If killing the mosquito at birth does not work, there are steps all of us can take to avoid infection. The list is standard:
  • Wear long, loose fitting, light-colored clothing (so you can see your enemy), covering as much of the body as you can. Mosquitoes easily can bite through tight clothing like jeans.
  • When outdoors, apply insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin and always follow instructions on the label. I use the highest level of DEET I can find -- and that means bringing it with me from up north. The highest DEET I have found here is 25%. It is better than nothing. Be wary of "natural" applications. Mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide and alcohol expelled through the skin. If a "natural" remedy cannot mask both, you will still be open to an infection-injecting bite.
  • Mosquito coils can help protect from mosquitoes when outside.
  • Place mosquito-proof mesh on doors and windows. And be certain they seal. Mosquitoes have an uncanny method of smelling your target scent. They are also great hitchhikers on clothing.
  • If you notice mosquitoes in your bedroom, use Raid or some other insecticide.
  • Some people go so far as to cover their sleeping areas with mosquito nets. That seems to be overkill to me. But it is their comfort level, not mine.
One final word. If you start experiencing the classic signs of dengue fever (fever, fatigue, headaches, joint pain, nausea), see your doctor immediately. A quick blood test will verify whether or not you have dengue.

I do not know this for certain, but I suspect some of the people who have died this year may have let the disease progress without seeking medical help. The doctors here know the disease. Rely upon them.

Dengue is not new to our area. Its presence here has preceded any of our visits -- and it will remain here after we are all dead. Most of you probably already take these precautions on your visits here. The only thing that has changed is that the incidence of infection has increased. That does not change the fact that the old defenses are still the best defenses.

Several readers have contacted me to ask if they should return to the area this season. I have given each of them the same answer: Why wouldn't you? You have always protected yourself from mosquitoes in the past. That is all you need to do this year.

Come back and enjoy our villages. You have nothing to lose but your worries.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

storming through the intersection

Everyone seems to notice the havoc in big things that storms wreak.

Toppled trees. Drowned plantations. Roofless houses.

But it is often the small changes that live on. Sometimes noticed. Sometimes not.

Signs are a good example. Almost all of the free-standing signs passing along helpful hints of better living were humpty-dumptied in the hurricane. What Lorena did not take, Narda did.

But it was not only billboards. Highway directional signs fell like Persians at Thermopylae. Do you know the way to San Jose became more than just an irritating song title. Along with the highway signs went the traffic control signs.

It has taken me weeks to notice, but if you look at the photograph at the top of this essay, something is missing. This is the intersection where the road to Barra de Navidad enters Highway 200 -- the major north-south highway on Mexico's Pacific coast. Usually, there is a stop sign at the tip of that point on the right-hand side of the photograph.

We do not have many stop signs in these parts. They are not really needed. Drivers are quite intelligent enough to decide when it is safe to enter a stream of traffic.

I would venture to say the presence of the sign, rather than the wont of its absence, has been a major contributing cause of several accidents at that corner. Inevitably, the collision is between a local driver and a tourist (Mexican or northern, usually northern).

Local drivers treated the stop sign as if it were a yield sign. At best. A driver would approach the intersection and quickly clear left and right. If there was an opening (or the semblance of a opening), the driver would rush through onto the highway without slowing.

That is the local custom. But, people who do not live here do not know that. They see a stop sign and do what they believe is logical. They stop. Often to their cost.

I know a guy from Ontario who did exactly that. Saw the sign and came to a full stop. The driver behind him lived here. He was clearing left and right as he approached the intersection, not even considering the outlandish possibility that the driver in front of him was going to stop his SUV.

The rear-end collision was bad enough that the police stopped to investigate -- and insurance agents were called to the scene. It is for this very reason drivers pay for insurance. Without an agent, the police may impound both vehicles until a satisfactory settlement is reached.

In this case, the guy from Ontario was quite smug. He was in the right, and his agent would argue his case.

The smugness disappeared when his agent informed him he was responsible for the damage to both vehicles because the accident was excluded by the terms of the policy.

The insurance was conditioned on the premise that the driver did not break the law. It was true that he had obeyed a posted sign, but he had neglected to comply with local custom -- a concept that was included in "complying with all laws."

The guy from Ontario ended up paying 4000 pesos to the man who rear-ended him -- and immediately cancelled his insurance policy. As he put it: "That explains why it was dirt cheap."

Now, I do not know how true that story is. I heard it from the morally-indignant Canadian. My insurance background makes me wonder if the agent was pulling something on him -- or if he might have misunderstood what the agent said.

Most automobile insurance policies in Mexico include a clause that coverage applies only if the vehicle itself complies with all laws. The classic example is where a person with a permanent visa drives a non-taxed vehicle. But I have never heard of an exclusion clause for traffic law infractions -- let alone slipping the surly bonds of mores and customs. What would be the point of an extremely limited policy like that?

Lenora may have helped decide that inter-cultural friction. With the stop sign gone, visitors may avoid the temptation to throw out the anchor -- unless circumstances dictate. Both the motorcycle and the car in the photographed barreled right through the intersection without a moment of pause.

It is nice to be treated as a thinking adult. Now and then.